Archive for the ‘History from Below’ Category



February 15, 2014

While we were reflecting on the frustrating, ‘people-pleasing’ behaviour of others, my wife remembered an expression her mother had for people who presented a false, insincere bonhomie: she called them Grinnygogs. Beyond being a description of the hollow insincerity of those who smile to your face, I was intrigued by the history and meaning that must be concealed behind such an archaic-sounding phrase. A subterranean, lexically-prompted, association for me was with T.C. Lethbridge’s ‘slightly’ fanciful book, Gogmagog: the Buried Gods (1957, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul). In this endlessly fascinating book Lethbridge describes how he ‘rediscovered’ long-lost hill figures cut into the turf on the slopes of Wandlebury hillfort, in the Gogmagog Hills of Cambridgeshire. Nothing to do with grinnygogs, though (besides, the cowled goddess-figure upon a white horse doesn’t appear to be smiling anyway…).

Image (60)

Magog must normally be regarded as ‘the old woman’ of folklore. Like the Cailleach, her name survives on rounded hills in England (Lethbridge 1957: 164).

There must be some folk history to it, as evidenced by ‘The Grinnigogs’, the name of a group of Yorkshire-based entertainers who perform mediaeval, Tudor and Victorian music. The word is also integral to the title of a children’s book, published in 1981 and turned into a television drama in 1983: ‘The Witches and the Grinnygog is an intelligent story of mediaeval witchcraft crossing into the modern world (as a survival of pre-Christian traditions), folklore, ghosts and time-slips’, as this review describes it. It all sounds pertinent to the general drift of this blog…


In truth, I’d never heard of this book by Dorothy Edwards, nor of its television adaptation, filmed in Bishops Waltham and Titchfield, Hampshire – places not more than ten miles from where I live. I doubt if my late mother-in-law – born and brought up in Kent, with Brighton ancestry via her dad – picked up the word from a children’s programme either.

But, wait! Here it is… on page 136 of a pdf of The Dictionary of the Kentish Dialect (Kent Archaeological Society 2008):


n. Perhaps someone with a grinning, stupid face. “You stand there just like a grinnygog.” – Plumstead, West Kent L.R.A.G. Notes on ‘A Dictionary of Kentish Dialect & Provincialisms’ (c.1977).

Well, that sums it up pretty nicely!


Jack Straw’s Castle: Recovering a Festive Social Geography

January 26, 2014


Jack Straw’s Castle, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, was said to be the highest pub in London.  It was probably named after one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, who addressed rebels on Hampstead Heath from a hay wagon known as “Jack Straw’s Castle”. (From here).


Jack Straw’s Castle, 1903

This public house – rebuilt after bomb damage in WWII – has now been ‘sympathetically converted’, under the guidance of English Heritage, to private luxury housing. This process is called ‘Maximising value‘… A further step in the enclosure of the commons.


So it’s now:

A Landmark Development of Luxury Apartments, 2 Penthouses & 4 Houses in the prime of Hampstead, overlooking the Heath.

The braying arrogance of this statement, as today’s privileged appropriate what was once public space, is epitomised by the flashy sports car zipping sleekly across the front of the ex-pub.


The words of another rebel leader of 1381, John Ball, come to mind. They are quoted on the title page of the novel, A Dream of John Ball, by William Morris (1888).

A festive social geography

The place of Jack Straw’s Castle in an archaic social geography revolving around popular festivity is emphasised in an article by Morris Cluse in issue 77 of The Ley Hunter, edited by Paul Devereux:

In The Green Roads of England R Hippisley Cox mentions Jack Straws Castle on Kingsettle Hill (bordered by Kings Wood Warren) whence a track leads to Whitesheet Castle (2 miles NW from Mere). This Jack Straws Castle was an ancient great gathering place and a road goes SW to Cadbury. King Alfred mustered there before attacking the Danes.

Cox also pointed out that there is a public house named Jack Straws Castle on what might be termed the top of Hampstead Heath. He understood that there were some earthworks in the vicinity… It happens that the building overlooks the ‘Vale of Health’ upon which traditionally has been and still is held the August Bank Holiday Fair attended by Londoners from remote times (Ed. It also stands next to Whitestone Pond).

Cluse goes on to mention yet another Jack Straw’s Castle he found in a different part of north London:

at the top of Highbury Hill was a respectable public house called ‘Highbury Barn’. I recollect that my grandmother with a twinkle in her eye, had referred to lively goings on at Highbury Barn in her youth. Rocques map showed what looks like a square of earthworks with rounder corners at Highbury Barn. Sir Montague Sharpe in his book Middlesex in British, Roman and Saxon Times (Methuen 1932) mentioned that 5 small rectangular entrenchments were visible in Middlesex which had been threwn up by Count Theodosius in AD 368… There was one at Barnsbury… What really surprised me however was that over the area now covered by Highbury Fields (but possibly alluding to the entrenchments) was written ‘Jack Straws Castle’. So here was another place of merry public gathering. At Highbury Corner up to at least 1916, public meetings were held, sometimes 4 or 5 simultaneously in the roadway on Sunday mornings. Free Trade, Tariff Reform, Socialism and Religion were all expounded.

All in all, yet another incitement to a utopian hope for some kind of festive revival beyond the current, value-driven repression of public sociability.

Skaters dance to a band, on Whitestone Pond, Hampstead Heath, 1933

Skaters dance to a band on Whitestone Pond, Hampstead Heath, 1933


* Cluse, M. 1977. ‘Who was the Man of Straw?’ The Ley Hunter 77, pp 20-21.


ANARCHIVE FREEING UP THE HOBGOB: A new safe house in London

October 3, 2013


A very important new project, ‘in honour of the lost commons of popular memory’, is now open in London. The MayDay Rooms – dedicated to the retrieval and reanimation of ‘histories from below’ – is located at 88 Fleet Street:

  • MayDay Rooms is a safe house for vulnerable archives and historical material linked to social movements, experimental culture, and marginalised figures and groups. A site for gathering, holding, and animating documents and idioms of dissent which continue to offer a critically productive and emancipatory relation to the turbulent present. It is geographically located in Central London, but linked in collaboration, inspiration and practice with an international gathering of common and concurrent initiatives.

    The manifesto can be found here:


    The White Hart, Drury Lane. Home of the Communist Club in 1846.