Category Archives: Proverbs

Cheshire Proverbs 6: Tied by the Tooth / Llyffethr wellt

Tied by the Tooth /
Llyffethr wellt

Bridge’s number 324, page 124

Dairy cattle relaxing at 4am on a misty morning in a Churton field in June 2021


Sheep on Craig yr Aderyn in midwest Wales

Bridge explains that this proverb refers to the fact that “sheep and cattle will not break through fences or try to wander if the pasture of the field in which they are grazing is very good.”  He had obviously not run into any pigs, which are extreme escape artists.

Bridge wonders which came first – the English or the Welsh version of the proverb, but both Cheshire and north Wales are prominent areas for the grazing of livestock, so it could have come from either.  Certainly around many areas of the Cheshire Plain the fields are full of rich pasture favoured by cattle, and the Welsh foothills and highlands are much better for sheep that graze on much sparser vegetation.

It sounds very much like the better known proverb in which the route to the male heart is reputed to be via his stomach.

Cattle grazing below Beeston Castle

A similar proverb in Bridge is “Hanged hay never does cattle” (Bridge 159, page 64).  The word “does” in this context derives from doesome, which means “thriving,” and hanged hay for is feed bought from a supplier and will probably be supplied very meanly to the cattle because of the cost, to the detriment to the cattle.

Both proverbs also resemble another of Bridge’s Cheshire proverbs (no. 208 on p.80, and no.159, p.64):  “A doesome child paises its pasture,” meaning that the health and wellbeing of a thriving child is credit to his or her food, and perhaps, by extension, to the care of the parents that provide the food.  The word “paise” comes from late Middle English and means to be “balanced” or “poised,” but in this context it may be a mistaken reading of “praise.”

For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.

For the other proverbs in the series, click on the Cheshire Proverbs label in the right hand margin.

Dairy cows grazing in a field in Churton

Cheshire Proverbs 5: We shall live till we die if the pigs don’t eat us

“We shall live till we die if the pigs don’t eat us”

J.C. Bridge no.382, page 149

J.C. Bridge does not say why this proverb is supposed to be characteristic of Cheshire, and nor is he at all helpful as to its origins and meaning.  One of the puzzles in the proverb is the idea implicit in the phrasing that being eaten by a pig does not necessarily result in instant death. Alternatively, the phrase might be interpreted as suggesting that we will live until we are supposed to die unless the pigs get to us first, suggesting an interruption to the divine plan that would otherwise see us die on a certain date.  How to get nearer to the actual meaning?


Bridge, apparently in an attempt to elucidate the situation, makes the sole comment “We shall live till we die like Tantrabobus” and leaves us to make of that what we may.  I remained unenlightened.  I had no idea what or who a Tantrobobus might be, and the matter is still more than a little opaque.  The word was certainly a late 18th century colloquial term used in the U.S. state of Vermont.  The Only in Arkansas website describes it as follows:

A modern interpretation of the Tantrabobus. Source: Oxford University Press blog

A Tantrabobus, or ‘Haint’ was an evil monster rumored to live inside wells. According to Philip Steele’s book Ozark Tales and Superstitions, children were encouraged to never look inside wells lest the monsters place a spell on them and draw them down into the darkness forever.
[Ozark is an area shared between neighbouring Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma]

This story is echoed in various Arkansas-related websites and books, and was clearly a widespread legend, perhaps dreamed up and disseminated by parents to warn children against the dangers of deep wells.  Painting the ceiling of a house porch blue was supposed to scare off the haint.

Unless the origins of the well-inhabiting monster were in England, it’s difficult to see how it relates to a Cheshire proverb.  A slightly different word, however, does originate in England. “Tantarabobs” was apparently a Devonshire name for the devil, and the Oxford University Press’s blog offers another devil-related version:

Tantrumbobus is a relative of Flibbertigibbet, Hoberdidance, and Obidicut (also known as Haberdicut), the fiends mentioned in King Lear. I wonder whether English dander “to walk around; to talk inherently” and especially Old High German tantaron “to be out of one’s mind” are kin of the British devils, and, if so, whether those devils were also known on the continent.

All very interesting, but I still had no idea why anyone might be eaten by a pig before the date in Death’s personal organizer.

The country of the Gadarenes

Part of Newberry’s 1928 analysis of Seth as a black pig

In ancient Egypt, the pig is associated with Seth, the ambivalent but mainly trouble-making deity, in direct opposition to the good god Osiris, who Seth killed and dismembered, scattering his remains in the Nile (but don’t panic; he was re-assembled and resurrected by the goddess Isis). Following the Egyptian idea of evil and pigs being identified with one another, I had a look around and sure enough, the Christian devil is sometimes equated to a pig.  According to the Open Bible website, there are numerous verses that concern themselves with pigs.  One in particular, in Matthew 8:28-32, tells a story of transmogrification, whereby humans are converted into pigs (English Standard Version):

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.

Fascinating and horrifying, but not an explanation of being eaten, unless “eat” is a metaphor for being transmogrified / transmigrated.  This is what Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) inferred in the late 19th Century.  His longer version of the proverb is “Ah well, we shall live till we die, if the pigs don’t eat us, and then we shall go acorning.”  He writes that the proverb is “a clear survival of the belief in transmigration, for he who is eaten by a pig becomes a pig, and goeth with the swine to eat acorns.” 

The story Jeffries recounts to illustrate this is the nearest I have found to an explanation of the proverb.  He tells the tale of a village elder who had been generous to everyone around him, but had suffered persecution.  He magnanimously ignored the offenses against him, but his rather less forgiving family consoled themselves with this proverb.  I take it from this that the family thought that the perpetrators would suffer some form of retribution roughly comparable to being consumed by pigs and forced to eat acorns. 

In other words, what goes around comes around.

All of that offers some sort of answer about the connection between the Tantrabobus, the pig and the devil, and also gets close to what the proverb may mean, but it doesn’t get us anywhere near to explaining why this proverb was considered by Bridge to have some peculiar connection to Cheshire.  So my final question concerned the role of pig in Cheshire farming through the centuries prior to Bridge’s 1917 book.

Pigs in Cheshire

Generically, because pigs are omnivorous, will eat agricultural and household waste and will happily forage in woodland, and because they have big litters of piglets that can be eaten or sold, they offer a useful complement to the big three livestock breeds: cattle, sheep and goat.  The big three give birth to only one or two infants at a time, and although these too can be eaten or traded, their great value lies in the fact that the females can be milked and used to produce dairy products.  In terms of both meat and dairy, livestock represents storage on the hoof.  If disease hits any of the big three herds, the recovery time can take many, many years.  The big three are therefore curated with great care, whilst pigs, being both easier to feed and producing multiple offspring, are inherently much more disposable.

Men knocking down acorns to feed swine, from the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter, MS. Royal 2 B VII f.81v. Source: British Library via Wikipedia

During the Anglo-Saxon period, the pannage system involved the seasonal driving of pigs into woodland to feed upon acorns, nuts, rhizomes and roots.  In some areas this persisted well into the Medieval period.  Cheshire, once full of rich forests, was ideal pig territory, offering shade, food and shelter, because pigs, in their natural environment, are woodland dwellers.  Although often seen in Britain today in open fields, in their preferred habitat they forage with their leathery snouts for roots and nuts under trees, and they nest in hollowed-out depressions.  They cannot perspire, so they wallow in woodland mud and pools of water to keep cool in the summer.  Sociable creatures, they tend to form communities.

Image from the Hunterian Psalter folio 6r. Gathering acorns for pigs in November. Source: Glasgow University Library

In the later Middle Ages, there is plenty of evidence that pigs were increasingly managed as a resource, making use of their singularly indiscriminating appetites to trim down agricultural stubble, devour household waste (including food leftovers and household rubbish) and the by-products of dairying, and in Cheshire this was particularly related to cheese-making.   Many became enclosed in fields, gardens and even sheds.  A single pig could be kept by even the poorest householder, and the owner of several pigs could generate a good income by selling both piglets and fattened pigs for slaughter.  As late as 1550 it is recorded that pigs still roamed the streets in Chester, and they were probably even more prominent in everyday village life.

In the latter part of the 18th Century, pig keeping was usually an essential part of farming practise, even on farms dedicated to cheese-making.  Geoffrey Scard gives the example of a 25 acre dairy farm majoring on cheese, which had the following holding of livestock in the latter part of the 18th Century:

 9 crossbred Cheshire shorthorns, 2 yearling heifers, 2 heifer calves, 10 pigs and 20 hens.

Pigs were clearly an essential part of the economic profile of the farm.  Scard next gives the example of the much larger 243 acre dairy farm at Cholmondeley in the 19th Century.  The following animals were kept:

2 ponies, 3 carthorses, 51 milking cows, 16 two-year heifers, 17 yearling heifers, 15 heifer calves, 1 bull, 66 Shropshire ewes and lambs, 55 half-breed withers and 100 pigs.

Piglets of the Welsh pig breed. Source: British Pig Association

In simple numbers, pigs dominated, but as a balance to cattle and sheep.  In the late 19th Century, a breed known as the Welsh became popular.  A very pale pink-white, with big lop-ears, it was first mentioned in the 1870s when, according to the British Pig Association, there was a considerable trade in Welsh and Shropshire pigs into Cheshire, specifically for fattening on milk by-products, from cattle (and possibly sheep).  The milk by-products would have had to be disposed of and wasted if not consumed, so it was essentially free to feed pigs who became fatter and more valuable and were handy waste disposal units to boot.  By contrast, the feeding of cattle was expensive, so using milk by-products to feed pigs helped to pay for the upkeep of cattle.

From this we can conclude that the pig had an important role in Cheshire, and that this may account for why Bridge considered the proverb to be peculiarly appropriate in a book of Cheshire proverbs.

All of this is pure speculation, but what an awful lot of fun 🙂

For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.

An index of all posts in the Cheshire Proverbs series can be found on the Heritage page


Books and papers

Bridge, J.C. 1917,  Cheshire Proverbs and Other Sayings and Rhymes Connected with the City an County Palatine of Chester Phillipson and Golder (Chester)

Hamilton, J.  and Thomas, R. 2012.  Pannage, Pulses and Pigs: Isotopic and Zooarchaeological Evidence for Changing Pig Management Practices in Later Medieval England.  Medieval Archaeology 56(1), p.234-259

Jeffries, R. 1948Field and Hedgerow: Being the Last Essays of Richard Jefferies.  Lutterworth Press

Newberry, P.E. 1928. The Pig and the Cult-Animal of Set. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology
Vol. 14, No. 3/4 (Nov., 1928), p.211-225

Scard, G. 1981.  Squire and Tenant:  Rural Life in Cheshire 1760-1900.  Cheshire Community Council


British History Online
Later medieval Chester 1230-1550: Economy and society, 1350-1550

The British Pig Association
The Welsh

Only In
Arkansas Superstitions: The Tantrabobus in Grandpa’s Well by Liz Harrell

Oxford University Press blog
A few bogus etymologies: “tantrum,” “dander,” “dandruff,” and “dunderhead,” along with “getting one’s goat” by Anatoly Liberman

Wordfoolery blog
The history of the word “bogus”


Cheshire Proverbs 4: “When the daughter is stolen, shut the Pepper Gate”

“When the daughter is stolen, shut the Pepper Gate”

J.C. Bridge no.387, page 151

Source: Ballads and Legends of Chester by Egerton Leigh, 1867 (full book available online)

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 detail of the delightful (and useful) Chester 1599 map by Braun & Hogenberg, annotated to show Pepper Street and the gate. Source: Sanderus Antique Maps and Books

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

And here, Rose is swept up onto her lover’s horse, Lochinvar-style, and the couple ride away into the distance.  Rose’s father was distraught:

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.”

Newgate (formerly, in previous guises, Peppergate and Wolfgate) in 1925. Source: The impressive “Chester: A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls” website (the Newgate page)

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.