“When the daughter is stolen, shut the Pepper Gate”
J.C. Bridge no.387, page 151
This proverb refers specifically to Pepper Street in Chester. Pepper Gate was presumably located exactly where Newgate was built, along the line of the Roman walls.
Bridge devotes three and a half pages to the proverb, and there is a complete account of one version of the story in Egerton Leigh’s Ballads and Legends of Cheshire. As Bridge says, the proverb is a local (and more amusing) version of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. In this case, it was a girl rather than a horse. There are two versions of the story, one that claims that she was actually stolen (i.e. kidnapped) and the other that she engineered her own departure through the gate. In the latter context, the word “stolen” perhaps refers to her lover’s persuasions, convincing her to leave her home and run away with him. Bridge gives the latter version first:
A daughter of a certain Mayor of Chester was playing at ball – Nausicaa like – with other maidens one fine summer’s day in Pepper Street. The Gate of the street was shut, but there was a small postern open, and through this the maid threw the ball – no doubt by design though it seemed at the time by accident. She ran through the postern to get it, and found herself in the arms of her lover who was waiting. he threw her on his horse, rode off with her and married her. Hence the Gate was afterwards kept entirely shut. [Bridge, pages 151-152]
A postern is a secondary door or gate to the side of a much larger one, common in castle and church architecture. Bridge’s reference to Nausicaa refers to a young woman in Homer’s Odyssey. The daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia is playing ball with her handmaidens whilst waiting for laundry to dry at the water’s edge, unaware that Odysseus has been shipwrecked on their island. A ball landing in the water wakens Odysseus and although the handmaidens flee in fear, Nausicaa stands her ground. However, unlike our Pepper Street girl, she never gets together with Odysseus, although there was obviously a lot of meaningful eye-contact going on.
A thirteenth century story , quoted by Canon Morris, bears a resemblance to the proverb, but involves the daughter being taken by a young man, rather than her running away to him: “A younge man in the somer season toke a Mayres daughter and bere hur out of Pepur strete as she was playnge at the baule amongst other maydens and youd wyth her awaye and after he maryed the same mayde.”
The identity of the Mayor, the girl and her lover take up much of Bridge’s text. Again quoting Canon Morris, Bridge repeats a similar story relating to the 1570s in which the father was in fact an alderman, Rauff Aldersey, the daughter Ellen Aldersey and the lover Rauff Jaman, a draper, to whom she was married “by an unlawful minister.” Both of the men accused of “enticing and stealing away” were said to have been punished with fines. In both the 13th and 16th Century versions the gate was closed completely at first following this offense, and then, apparently following objections, was open during the day but closed at night. In Morris’s version the gate is described as “Wolfe-gate or New-gate.” All three names for the gate are recorded.
Looking around for more on this proverb, I found an online version of the book Ballads and Legends of Cheshire by Egerton Leigh, 1867, which you can download here. In this version, rhyming and hugely entertaining, the girl is called Rose. The full story is five small pages long in Leigh’s book. The opening lines of the tale are shown right, which gives an excellent flavour of it. I love the bit about girls being prone, at a certain age, to exchanging their dolls for a man with a beard. A superb insight into teenagers of every era. The ballad goes on to describe her as a very beautiful young woman:
Her long curling tresses, though dark as the night,
When kissed by the sunbeam shone golden with light.
Her eyes of that sort, should she once glance at you,
You’d forever to all peace of mind wish adieu
Her lover was no less attractive:
He was not the man for whom fair maids might say
That most disagreeable of short words Nay.
Young, noble and handsome and devil-may-care
With the brain to conceive and brave heart to dare
Amongst men a lion; with ladies a lamb;
A look that said, laughing, ‘Refuse me who can!’
According to the ballad, Rose’s father was seriously unimpressed by her suitor’s lack of wealth and was prejudiced against the match, hence the requirement for the ball-game elopement:
Backwards and forwards bounds the ball,
Pursued by nymphs it leaps the wall ;
Through Pepper Gate in crowds they run ;
Back to the street the ball is flung ;
Hotter and hotter grows the fun
Bad news flies fast, and Chester’s mayor
At once began his locks to tear,
Bustled for nothing here and there.
Swore his daughter he’d ne’er forgive;
Vowed her lover should never live !
Declared his wealth he’d leave the poor,
Nor Rose should never cross his door.
The Pepper Gate is blamed by Rose’s father, the mayor, for Rose’s departure, and measures are accordingly taken:
The case is put; it seemed quite clear
That the mayor’s daughter (Rosy dear)
Could not through Pepper Gate have run
Had not the bars been left undone.
They pass a law to close the gate
Through which the wild Rose sought her mate.
The residents of Chester, however, know that this measure is redundant, because Rose has already gone, never to return. It is done anyway, but is derided by the towns-folk:
The townsmen smile : say they, “What for,
“when steed is gone, close stable door ?
When stolen the daughter, all too late
It is to close the Pepper Gate.
In all of the different versions, the girl, whether Ellen or Rose, is long gone, and it’s a bit late to slam shut the gate through which she vanished.
The ballad describes Rose’s lover as Welsh. Bridge also considers “the original Chester ‘Lochinvar’ ” to be Welsh, basing his suggestion on a Welsh proverb “Gurru, gurru, gurru i’ Caer I briodi merch y Maer” (Trotting, trotting, trotting to Chester to marry the Mayor’s daughter.”
Proverbs are time-twisted and tangled, but the themes that emerge from the spaghetti become well-honed and much-tested forms of vernacular wisdom, and are always worth some pondering. The bolting daughter has not survived in common parlance, but the bolting horse has become a shorthand for (for example) buying a burglar alarm only after the thief has stolen the family jewels. Such phrases have become so embedded into language that only the first half of the proverb is usually needed to make the required point. The phrase “shutting the stable door” is nowadays quite sufficient for anyone to know that something was done too late to prevent an undesirable outcome, be it a daughter eloping, a horse bolting, or the family heirlooms being whisked away for nefarious profit.
For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.