Tag Archives: folklore

The Devil’s Darning Needle – Dragonfly names at home and abroad

Guess what?  I’m procrastinating yet again. 🙂 I’m supposed to be finishing off the aquatic insects chapter of my book, but despite being confined to the house because of Covid-19, I’m finding it difficult to settle down to a protracted session of book writing; but a blog post, no problems 🙂

Crimson pepper pod / add two pairs of wings, and look / darting dragonfly  Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

As I have already written about the weird and wonderful names of caddisflies, it seemed appropriate to do a similar exercise for another group of insect associated with the aquatic environment, the Odonata, in particular, the dragonflies. Although individual species of dragonflies have accrued a host of descriptive names in the English language, hawkers, chasers, darters, clubtails, skimmers, to name but a few, globally, names for the group as a whole, show much less imagination.  On the other hand, some of them have very weird translations back into English 🙂   Countries where the language has Germanic roots tend to name them with variations on Dragonfly.  There are, of course, some exceptions; the Danes call them goldsmiths, or possibly jewellers. Countries with a language with Latin roots go for versions based on the Latin for balance or level, libella which in turn is descended from the word libra, which as well as being a scale was a unit of measure. This might seem a bit odd, but in some cultures, the Devil was thought to use dragonflies to weigh or measure people’s souls so this could be how this came about. Perhaps of interest, the Libellulidae (Common Skimmers) are the largest family of Odonata, and was named thus by the French entomologist Jules Rambur (1801-1870), a very obviously Latinised version of the French Libelluele.

Returning to the common names of species, the Danes seem to mainly call their Odonates water nymphs, and like the English, precede that with a colourful description.  For example, Lestes sponsa is the Plain Copper Water Nymph, the Hawkers, on the other hand, are mosaikgoldsmeds which literally translates to mosaic jewellers, but which Google Translate, very helpfully renders as hawker.  I was very disappointed with the French; I expected some wonderfully descriptive and lyrical names.  Agrion blanchâtre, whitish Agrion was a bit of an anti-climax 🙂

Despite their beauty, dragonflies somehow seem to have got a bit of a bad press along the way, and become associated with the Devil, as mentioned earlier about measuring and weighing souls.  They were also reputed to sew up the mouths of naughty children, hence the Devil’s darning needles, and make people blind and deaf; eye-pokers and ear cutters. The claspers being the needles and pokers. One of the common names in Romania is St George’s Horse, which so legend has it, the devil transformed into a giant dragonfly (Mitchell & Lasswell, 2005).  This may also explain the horse references in Croatian and Lithuanian.  For a long and very informative read about the folklore of dragonflies and their names, this is an excellent, if long read. Make sure you check out the Turkish for dragonfly, yusufçuk; it seems to be one of a kind.  I am sure that there must be an explanation somewhere 🙂

 

Bulgarian           vodno konche  vodno = water but konche means of course!

Burmese             နဂါးငွေ့တန် it looks very pretty but when you do retranslate, it gives you Milky Way!

Croatian             vilin konjic – fairy horse

Czech                  vážka

Danish                guldsmed goldsmith?

Dutch                 libel and drakenvlieg

Finnish                sudenkorento    suden can mean wolf

French                libellule

Gaelic                 tairbh nathrach taken separately = bulls snake

German              Libelle and Drachenfliege and der Wasserjungfer (water maid of honour)

Greek                  λιβελούλα  liveloúla

Icelandic            Drekafluga

Irish                    dragan

Italian                 libellula

Latvian               spāre

Lithuanian          laumžirgis depending on where you break the word up you can get laumž meaning fairies or žirgis meaning horse!

Maltese              mazzarell or ibellula

Norwegian         Drage flue but also Øyenstikker eye-poker

Polish                 ważka

Portuguese        libélula but also Cavalo judeu, Jewish horse

Romanian          libelulă

Russia                 strekoza

Slovak                 vážka

Spanish               libélula

Swedish              trollslända  note that  troll is troll or perhaps hobgoblin

Turkish               yusufçuk if you break this up into two words you get Joseph’s dick!

Welsh                 gwas y neidr Adder’s servant

 

Finally, to end with a bit of biology, Odonates use their wings in a unique manner. Other four-winged insects beat them synchronously, but dragonflies can beat the fore and hind pairs independently. This allows three different modes of flight in which the wing pairs beat (1) synchronously, as those of other insects, (2) alternately between the two sets, or (3) synchronously but out of phase with each other. This allows dragonflies and damselflies to display a variety of aerial aerobatics, including hovering, backward flight, and the ability to turn on a midair pivot. No wonder they are such good predators.

 

Reference

Mitchell, F.L. & Lasswell, J.L. (2005) A Dazzle of Dragonflies. Texas A & M University Press.

 

Postscript

I also discovered that Clematis virginiana is, in some parts of the World, called the Devil’s darning needle 🙂

 

 

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From Company Solicitor to Victorian Lunatic Asylum

ALEXANDER WILLIAM DOW LEATHER

 A BIT OF A BLACK SHEEP

1837-1890

One of the things that sticks in my mind from my youth is how relatives of my grandmother’s generation (those born in the 1870s and 1880s) who spoke of my great-great Uncle Alexander William Dow Leather, always in the following breath sighed and uttered the phrase “poor Pritchard”.  This of course made the subject of my great- great Uncle Alec (as he was apparently known) one of great interest to the budding family historian that I then was.

There was not a great deal known about my great-great uncle, at least in our branch of the family.  In fact I was to find out that there was surprisingly little known about him at all.  All we really knew was that he was the eldest son of my great-great grandfather John Wignall Leather (1810-1887).  My great-grandfather John Henry Leather was born in 1842 and was the youngest child of the family, preceded by Walter (1840-1869) and Florence Mary (1838-1886), so we knew that Alec must have been born in about 1836.

Some years later my first cousin once removed, Michael Leather of Knaresborough, supplied me with some additional information.  It transpired that Alec had been a solicitor and had led a somewhat riotous youth, drinking and womanising.  Once, whilst under the influence, he had fallen off his horse into a pond in Askham Richard.  Michael supplied the further information that he had been married twice, first to “poor Pritchard” whom he had deserted, leaving her and their two children in Herfeford where she had relatives.  These two children were Francis Holdsworth and Isabella Gertrude Leather.  Francis Holdsworth Leather became in time Michael’s godfather.  According to Michael, Alec had a second family – Percy, Mabel and Alan.   He also knew that Francis Holdsworth Leather had three children, one of them John Francis, died of influenza shortly after Michael was born in 1918.

The Yorkshire IGI informed me that Alexander William Dow Leather was christened in St Peter’s, Leeds on 24 May 1837.  His names puzzled me for some time, because they were so unfamilial; George, William, John and James were the normal first names at that time for our branch of the family.  I later found out that the family doctor was named Dow.  The 1860 Post Office Directory of the West Riding informed me that Alexander William Dow Leather was a solicitor at 4 Finsbury Park, Leeds.  The 1864 Woollen Districts Directory listed him at 1 Bond Street, Leeds, which was also the business address of his father John Wignall Leather.

I searched the St Catherine’s House Indexes assiduously and found that Alexander William Dow Leather had married Ellen Elizabeth Pritchard at Great Barfield Parish Church, Middlesex on 12 June 1860.  His wife was born in Hereford in 1839 and was described as the daughter of Thomas Pritchard, Gentleman of Park Gate, Essex.  At last I had found “poor Pritchard”, but where Alec had met her I still do not know.  Ellen died in Hereford in 1872, by which time Alec had disappeared from the Leeds Directories.  I continued searching through the indexes and found that his eldest son Francis Holdsworth was born in 1864 in Kensington, and his daughter Isabella in 1862 in Leeds.  She subsequnetly maried the Revd John Swire at Tupsley Parish Church, Hereford in 1882 and died in Wantage in 1891. The youngest child, Alexander Ernest, was born in 1866 and died the following year as a result of a scald, a surprisingly common form of death, even in middle-class families.

Some time later I obtained a copy of John Wignall Leather’s will (made in 1886) and this fuelled my interest in Alec to an even greater extent.  It told me that Alec’s second wife was called Jenny and that she and her children were living in Leeds.  Kelly’s Directory of Leeds 1888 confirmed this, indicating that she lived at 52 Samuel Street.  The Leeds Grammar School records show that her son Percy Alexander Leather attended Leeds Grammar School’s commercial division in the 1880s and that his tuition was paid for by his grandfather John Wignall Leather.  The two codicils to the will excited my interest greatly.  Here was John Wignall in his final illness (the last codicil is witnessed by his surgeon) and yet he took the time to alter his will to make sure that his eldest son Alec would not in any circumstances be allowed any of his money, particularly that left to his daughter-in-law Jenny.  What could Alexander have done or be doing, to have caused this much anxiety to his father?  I was hooked.  I had to find out more about Alec.

What about his second family?  I found his second marriage to Jane (Jenny) Potter, daughter of Edward Potter, Farmer, at the Parish Church of St Margaret West, Essex on 5 April 1873.  This confirmed that Alec was a bit of a gad-about and certainly not a full-time resident of Yorkshire.  At about this stage in my research, the Yorkshire Family Historian published an article I had written about my search for Yorkshire Leathers.  In this article I mentioned the infamous Alec and named his children as given to me by my cousin Michael.  I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from David Burnet of Guiseley who had had, my article drawn to his attention by an Australian cousin.  His great-grandfather had been the solicitor for my great great-great uncle George Henry Leather (1815-1897), and had been responsible for drawing up and administering the terms of his will.  As well as being George Henry’s solicitor he was also his brother-in-law.  David had in his possession a notebook that detailed all the beneficiaries of the will including their addresses up until 1907: a real treasure trove.  I found out that Alec’s youngest son was not called Alan but was in fact Cyril John Cadman Leather.  Armed with this fact I soon found his birth certificate.  He too was born in London, in Greenwich in 1879.  I also located the birth of certificates of more children of the marriage, Percy Alexander born in Camberwell in 1875, Mabel Caroline born in Peckham in 1877 and Violet Bertha born in Lewisham in 1888. Interestingly enough, Alex’s profession moves from being Company Solicitor of the family firm, George Leather & Sons Navigation, to solicitor’s clerk as his family grew and his dwellings moved down-market.   Then I came across Alec’s photograph in an old family album and was stunned to see that his nose was almost identical to mine – I had always thought that my nose was unique!  I was also struck by his resemblance to Del Boy (played by David Jason) in the BBC TV series Only Fools and Horses!

Alexander Wm Dow Leather

I scoured the St Catherine’s House Indexes of deaths and eventually located an entry for an Alexander William Leather in Barnet in 1890.  This seemed promising so I wrote to Somerset House to see if they had a copy of his will.  Wills are a great source of family history, if you are lucky enough to have a family who believed in writing them.  They give much more information about the individual and his family than the death certificate, and are only half the price.  As a solicitor I felt sure that Alec would have made a will, but to my surprise none was registered.  I sent off for the death certificate and found that Alec had died in Friern Barnet Lunatic Asylum, the causes of death being cystitis and disease of the kidneys.  This suggested that he had been an alcoholic and that the riotous living of his youth had caught up with him at last.  It also solved the problem of why his father had been so anxious to ensure that no money came his way.  Interestingly enough the death certificate, although listing him as a solicitor, had no known address for him.  His family had obviously cut all links with him or vice versa.  I wrote to the Greater London Record Office who hold the records for Colney Hatch (as Friern Barnet Lunatic Asylum is more popularly known), but unfortunately the casebooks for the period 1885-1890 are not yet available for public perusal.

Since that appeared to be as far as I could go with Alec I decided to search for his descendants.  I found that his eldest son Francis Holdsworth had married Ella Mary Smith of Weobley in Herefordshire in 1893.  They had three sons, John Francis (1894-1918), Geoffrey Clifford (1897-1901) and Godfrey Clifford (1902-1943).  Francis lived his whole life in Weobley apart from his service in the First World War.  He was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the RASC and was awarded the DSO.  Like his father he was a solicitor.  He died a year after his wife, in 1929.  His wife Ella is famous as the author of Folklore of Herefordshire http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Mary_Leather .  Their youngest son Geoffrey was also a solicitor and, although married, left no direct issue.  That line is thus extinct.  Isabella, the eldest daughter, married the Reverend John Swire in 1882.  They had three children, John (1884-1905), Mercy born 1886 and Nona born 1888.  Isabella died in 1891 and her husband in 1902.  I do not know what became of the daughters.

The second family has proved equally elusive.  I have found the marriages of Percy Alexander, Mabel Caroline, Cyril John Cadman and Violet Bertha.  Percy Alexander, at the time of his marriage to Emma Wilson in Leeds in 1896, is described as a salesman.  I know that in 1907 he was living in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada and later found that he died in Leslieville, Alberta in 1921.  I have also managed to contact his descendants who are now natives of Calgary.  Mabel Caroline married a widower, George Hampton in Knaresborough in 1898 and subsequently moved to Bath and married secondly, Augustus Davies, with whom she had four children.  She died in 1951.  Cyril John Cadman married in Rotherham in 1906 and died in 1931 in Rochford, with no offspring that I have been able to discover.  Violet Bertha married Herbert Colville in 1912 and died in 1957 leaving behind four children.  I know nothing further.  It is interesting to note that – of their marriages, neither Percy nor Mabel listed their father as deceased; presumably they were unaware of his death.

I am always hopeful that one day I will hear something more about this branch of the family and look forward to meeting any long-lost cousins who may turn up.

The great thing about family history is that you are never sure what you are going to find out or whereabouts in the world you have relatives.  This story is also an illustration of how the computerisation of paper records, which is all I had available when I began my research into Alex, has enabled me to add more detail to a story that was rather sparse almost twenty years ago when I first wrote about him in the Yorkshire Family Historian.

Leather, E.M.  (1912)  The Folklore of Herefordshire. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Folk-lore-Herefordshire-Collected-Printed-Sources/dp/0951858904/ref=la_B001KIXX3C_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362929648&sr=1-1

Leather, S.R. (1990)  The Leathers in Yorkshire.  Yorkshire Family Historian 16 (3), 69-72

Leather, S.R. (1994)  Alexander William Dow Leather – black sheep of the family?  Yorkshire Family Historian  20 (4), 99-101

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