Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Tylor's Onion: a curious case of bewitched onions from Somerset

Chris Wingfield,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

1917.53.776 Onion stuck with pins, used in sympathetic magic

1917.53.776 Onion stuck with pins, used in sympathetic magic

Rockwell Green graveyard overlooking Barley Mow pub, where Tylor is buried

Rockwell Green graveyard overlooking Barley Mow pub, where Tylor is buried

Tylor's Grave in Rockwell Green

Tylor's Grave in Rockwell Green

An onion is preserved in the Pitt Rivers Museum, where it has been since it was donated in 1917. [Pitt Rivers Museum number:1917.53.776] It is no ordinary onion though - attached to a label with a name on it, pricked with pins and secured on an iron wire for hanging, it is exhibited as an example of sympathetic magic - doing harm to someone by harming something that is like them. This long period of exhibition only accounts for two-thirds of the time since the onion was discovered in 1872. In the forty five years before the onion came to the museum, it had a colourful history in which the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor features strongly. In a strange twist of fate, though the onion has been in Oxford since Tylor's death, Tylor himself was buried in Rockwell Green where the onion was discovered, in a grave that overlooks the pub where the onion was found.


At the international Folk-lore Congress at London in 1891 (footnote 1) , Tylor exhibited a number of "Charms and Amulets" including an "Onion stuck with pins, bearing on a label the name of John Milton, a shoemaker in Rockwell Green." The story of the onion's discovery in Rockwell Green as given by Tylor in 1891 is as follows:

"In a low cottage ale-house there, certain men were sitting round the fire of logs on the hearth, during the open hours of a Sunday afternoon, drinking, when there was a gust of wind; something rustled and rattled in the wide old chimney, and a number of objects rolled into the room. The men who were there knew perfectly what they were, caught them up, and carried them off. I became possessed of four of them, but three have disappeared mysteriously. One which has gone had on it the name of a brother magistrate of mine, whom the wizard, who was the alehouse-keeper, held in particular hatred as being a strong advocate of temperance, and therefore likely to interfere with his malpractices, and whom apparently he designed to get rid of by stabbing and roasting an onion representing him. My friend, apparently, was never the worse, but when next year his wife had an attack of the fever, there was shaking of heads among the wise."

From a letter written by Tylor at the time (footnote 2) of the discovery to his uncle we can fill out a few more of the details. The discovery seems to have taken place on 14 April 1872, and the pub in question was the Barley Mow in Rockwell Green, just outside Wellington in Somerset [image of pub and pub sign] . Tylor also mentions the bits of iron wire that were pushed through the onions to hang them up in the smoke, and these can still be seen in the surviving example.

The Local Reaction

Barley Mow pub sign, Rockwell Green, Somerset.

Barley Mow pub sign, Rockwell Green, Somerset.

Barley Mow, Rockwell Green, 2007

Barley Mow, Rockwell Green, 2007

What we know about how people reacted to this discovery comes largely from what Tylor says in his letter, as perhaps surprisingly, the incident doesn't seem to have been reported in the local newspaper. Tylor says that there was a "considerable sensation in the village it being well known among the cottagers that to stick pins into objects identified with persons, and to hang them to dry up a chimney is a way of working harm by magical sympathy to the person who is thus pricked & dried up in effigy." Nevertheless such actions were hardly approved of, and the general reaction must have been a very negative one. Tylor notes that "King James would have certainly burnt him but, even now there is a lurking belief in the hamlet that it may be an effective means of bewitching, & if any accident happens within a few weeks to any of the persons who had their names on the onions, I should not wonder if their friends took physical means of retaliation." Tylor noted that "The strength of feeling disclosed by this spiteful act is not a pleasant subject to dwell on" but for him as someone interested in describing the evolution of religion the incident took on another dimension. He stated at the time of the discovery that "the thing is most interesting to me as showing how the state of mind which is that of a Red Indian or Kafir may be found, still at our very door step." For Tylor this example of contemporary sorcery within walking distance of where he lived was crucial evidence of what he called "the psychic unity of mankind" since it made similar practices in other parts of the world slightly less alien.

Tylor's Acquisition of the Onions as Evidence

The onions became for Tylor a crucial item of evidence to support his theories, and therefore something that could be shown and demonstrated as evidence. Tylor states that when he heard about what was going on he sent for some of the men who brought three of the onions with them "one of which had Joseph's name on it." This was Joseph Hoyland Fox, the magistrate referred to by Tylor in his account. He then states that he "secured two of them, having to say something next week in a lecture in London about magic arts, I intend showing them there as proof how the old sorcery of the darkest ages still lingers in England." Crucial for Tylor is the fact that the onions were only discovered by accident, which he suggests proves the authenticity of the affair but also that this suggests a clear case of bewitching with a belief in its effectiveness, rather than as a means of intimidation. A previous discovery of animal hearts stuck with pins had demonstrated that such practices had been practised until fairly recently in the neighbourhood of Wellington, but Tylor wrote that "this was the first time of my having ocular proof of such things being still done in England."

The "Wizard" Landlord

According to Tylor's letter to his uncle, not only was the publican thought to be the agent, but he was a seventh son and thought in the village of Rockwell Green to have mysterious powers. By examining reports on applications for licensing in the years running up to the date of the discovery of the onions it is possible to find out a little more about the Barley Mow and its landlord. In September 1869, when Samuel Porter, the landlord of the Barley Mow applied for a licence as a Beer House, under the terms of the recently introduced Wine and Beerhouse Act 1869, there was an objection "because the applicant allowed improper characters to assemble there." A witness, Joseph Holly, who worked nearby declared that he had seen improper characters there at all times of the day. According to the landlord's wife however, Joseph Holly was "worse than any of them before he turned teetotaller." It was also suggested that the two houses close by had been let to "girls of bad character" one of the conditions for declining a licence under the new act. It was suggested that a licence might not be granted as there were already enough in Rockwell Green, but in the end Porter got away with a warning "that all improper conduct would be noted down, so when they came for a licence next year, if the house had not been conducted properly they would certainly be refused." His subsequent applications in 1870 and 1871 seem to have gone through without any problems, but it is clear that the new licensing regulations made Porter's life more difficult as a landlord.

Joseph Hoyland Fox and the Temperance Crusade

Although Tylor mentions the difficulties the landlord may have had with his "brother magistrate," Joseph Hoyland Fox was not among the magistrates who reviewed Porter's application in 1869. Indeed he was not appointed a magistrate until March 1871, shortly before the onions were discovered. However this does not mean that he hadn't already had an effect on Porter's business at the Barley Mow. According to Tylor's letter of 1872 "The house is a low one and Joseph has wished to buy it up or put a stop to the licence, which... accounts for the man's anger against him, vented in this proceeding which is not the less ugly for being really harmless." Joseph Hoyland Fox (1833-1915) was a cousin of Tylor's wife Anna, a Quaker and had carried on the running of the Wellington Temperance Society which his father had founded (Fox 1981, 20) . In 1869 Fox presided over the opening of a Temperance Hall in Rockwell Green itself, with a Coffee Room that was frequented by twenty to thirty people each evening. The local newspaper reported that the Hall was "an institution required at such a place as Rockwell Green," and "believed it will do a great deal of good to the persons who reside there," but no doubt its presence in such close proximity to the Barley Mow was a cause of resentment to Samuel Porter, particularly if increasing numbers of his regular customers "took the pledge."

Who was John Milton?

While we know that Joseph Hoyland Fox was one of the people whose names appeared on an onion, and we can see that his promotion of temperance in the neighbourhood would have caused problems for a pub landlord, it is unclear what he had against John Milton, whose name is written on the tag on the only surviving onion. We do know a little about Milton as he was occasionally called before the magistrates of Wellington.

Milton first appeared before the court on April 29th 1869 when he was charged with deserting his three children. They had been left at the Wellington workhouse in November 1866, when it had been believed that Milton had gone to Australia. He had been found and arrested in Cardiff where he was working as a shoemaker. Milton promised that he would take his children from the workhouse and leave them with his sister in Wiveliscombe until he could look after them and so escaped being charged. By September 1869 when Milton was again called before the magistrate, two of his children had been placed back in the workhouse because he hadn't paid the woman who was looking after them. He is described as a labourer of Rockwell Green, and the report makes it clear that he was earning money through working in the brickworks as well as assisting with the harvest. Milton was sentenced to a month of hard labour in gaol. By February 1871, Milton, now described as a brickmaker, was once again called before the magistrates for neglecting his children and was again sentenced to a month of hard labour.

Milton's repeated failure to pay for the upkeep of his children and the implication that he wasn't able to hold down a job suggests that he may have been spending his earnings on drink. Did John Milton run up large debts with the landlord, or did he cause offence in some other way? He was certainly in Rockwell Green by 1869, which puts him in the right place at the right time to be a target of the magic onions, but it is unclear why.

The Mysteriously Disappearing Onions

In the account Tylor gave at the International Folk-lore Congress in 1891, he makes a reference to three of the four onions he possessed mysteriously disappearing. Through a reading of Tylor's letter and notebooks of 1872, it is possible to fill in a little more of the story behind this statement. A letter written to Tylor on 5 September from John Lubbock, a pioneer early archaeologist, states "I forwarded the Onions to you when we left London about three weeks ago, so I hope you will find them all safe at home. I took them out regularly to dry." The next letter from Lubbock written on 11 September states "I am very sorry the onions are missing, but hope that, as you suggest, they may have gone to the wrong Wellington." A series of letters to the Post Office follows, with a note to Tylor on 3 October stating that no trace of the package can be found. Finally a letter from Lubbock on 6 November, following his return from holiday, ends the correspondence "My dear Tylor, I cannot tell you how vexed I am about the Onions. They were done up in the tin box in which they came & directed to you, as I believe with the full address.

Seeking Spiritual Guidance

It seems that Tylor was not content with letters of enquiries by Lubbock to the General Post Office in London. The diary relating to his investigations of Spiritualists in London in the autumn of 1872 shows that on both November 5 and 15 he asked the spiritualists he was visiting about the location of his onions. On November 5 1872 at Serjeant Cox's, 36 Russell Square Tylor notes that "In answer to my question about the loss of the bewitched onions "an Indian spirit child Sunshine" said "me sees dey not lost, you get them back in two or three days, before you goes away." (Would it had come to pass[!]) When asked who has them she said she saw a tall dark big man [with] dark hair [,] moustache and beard, [&] she saw coloured dress, like [a] servant's uniform." On November 15 Tylor went to consult Miss Hudson according to whom "As for the lost onions in the canister, my friend was fond of curiosities and pleasant [,] and I didn't like to press a quarrel with him, but he has them still[;] and the way is to get some friend to inveigle him into showing them." This tactic obviously hadn't worked by 1891, but in those 19 years Tylor had managed to get hold of another onion - that which is still in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

What Does Tylor's Onion Tell us Today?

Does the exhibition of an onion that is over 135 years say the same things to us as it did to Tylor and his contemporaries in the late nineteenth century? Certainly the presence of an object like this from England shows that a belief in the effectiveness of magic is not confined to people in far off places, and that it was still present into the late nineteenth century - a key point Tylor was keen to make.

However the onion also tells us quite a lot about the world in which he lived and what he thought he was doing. The importance for Tylor of seeking reliable evidence for his theories suggests something of his scientific approach. The discovery of the onions, their acquisition by Tylor and their exhibition in London demonstrates how Tylor moved between Wellington in Somerset and academic circles in London, maintaining a key role in both worlds.

Moving beyond Tylor, the onion and its discovery offers us a fascinating glimpse into the life of a small town of six thousand people in the 1870s. We can see how the town was dominated by a mill-owning Quaker family, the Foxs, and that this domination extended beyond employment into the magistrates courts and the temperance hall. We can also see how their world, the world to which Tylor belonged, intersected with the lives of more ordinary people like Samuel Porter, the landlord and John Milton, the shoe and brick maker.

As a fragment or remnant of Tylor's life, his onion leads us back into the middle of that life and all its complexities far more effectively than his official memorial, the gravestone up on the hill overlooking Rockwell Green.

Footnote Acknowledgements

1. I would like to express my gratitude to Oliver Douglas for pointing me towards the report on the Second International Folklore Congress, 1891.

2. I would also like to acknowledge the transcription of the 1872 letter of Tylor's about the onions, owned by Sarah Smith née Fox and transcribed by Megan Price.

Further Reading

Fox, H. (1981). Quaker Broadcloth: The Story of Joseph and Mariana Fox and the cousinry at Wellington . Buckfastleigh, Devon.

Jacobs, J. and A. Nutt, Eds. (1892). The International Folklore Congress 1891: Papers and Transactions. London, David Nutt.

Stocking, J., George W. (1971). "Animism in Theory and Practice: E. B. Tylor's Unpublished 'Notes on "Spiritualism" ' " Man, New Series 6 (1): 88-104.