CRAFTS MONTH SPECIAL: Folklore Objects of Fishing & Seafaring

Welcome to the second blog post in our Crafts Month Special – in partnership with the Folklore Museums Network! Throughout the month of August, we shall be featuring charms, amulets and other folklore objects housed in Museum collections, as selected by Dr Peter Hewitt from the Folklore Museums Network database. This week (13/08/22), our theme is Fishes, Fishing and Seafaring – and our featured object is “The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone”…

We now take over from Dr Peter Hewitt, who introduced us to a month of Folklore objects last week with “The Witch’s Plough” – a bizarre artifact from the Museum of Witchcraft harnessing the sorcery of earth and soil. But today, we shall turn towards the sympathethic magic of water and travel towards the sea. More precisely – to Newbiggin-By-The-Sea, in Northumberland, where “The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone” was once found.

Fashioned from a black limestone perforated by a Pholas Dactylus – a burrowing bivalve with the ability to dig through soft rocks like chalk, peat and clay – and a string tied through the resulting orifice, “The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone” alludes to the charms of sought-after holed stones usually found near water bodies and believed to have magical powers. Generally called “hagstones”, other names include: witch stones, dobbie stones or even adder stones – these latter ones believed to have either been bored by the saliva of serpents, or to be calcified dead snakes – but more on adder stones in a couple of weeks…

An amulet like a hagstone would have been hung somewhere inside a building; commonly behind front doors or, for instance, byre-doors in cowsheds, to keep animals from being beguiled by witches or pixies attempting to steal milk – or just kept for overall good luck and protection. Similarly, “The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone” is said to have been nailed behind the cottage door of a man named William Twizel – a last name with various spellings such as Twisel, Twissell, or Twizzell, making it hard to ascertain his existence – although researchers concluded he may have been a fisherman who was born around 1829/1830, and passed away in 1909.

Photo of a stone with a hole and string. A tag attached to the object reads:

"Pebble of black limestone bored by pholas. It was hung as a lucky stone behind the door of William Twizel's cottage at Newbiggin-By-The-Sea, Northumberland.
Photo of “The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone”, courtesy of the Folklore Museums Network.

In the Pitt Rivers Museum catalogue, the item is registered as having been acquired in February 1908, donated by one Miss Humble per Alexander James Montgomerie Bell. Miss Humble is believed to have been a Newbiggin resident and field collector, who had the item before it eventually found its way into the treasure trove of Mr Bell – a teacher and antiquarian with other collected items sold to the Pitt Rivers upon his death.

“The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone” was thought to have been one of many other hagstones decorating this humble fisherman’s cottage, in the hopes of attracting good luck while out at sea. Though it looks like Mr Twizel was not alone is his superstition of keeping a hagstone for sailing matters – as a similar custom was traced back to boatmen from Weymouth (Dorset), discovered in 1894 to be fastening ‘holy-stones’ to their vessels. These seaside stones, punctured by certain creatures as if by magic, would have been perfect symbols of sympathetic powers, keeping sailors protected from the influence of supposed witches seeking to destroy their livelihoods through storm, wreckage or scuttling – thus possibly preventing a seafarer’s worst fear: a hole in their ship. As one fisherman once said:

“Beach pebbles with a natural hole through them [are] holy from having a hole through them, or for being sacred, or both, I know not.” – Weymouth fisherman, 1906.

Being a maritime location of considerable importance for the fishing industry, the superstition must have travelled to Newbiggin-By-The-Sea from Weymouth, ending its journey in the Pitt Rivers Museum and now, our blog!

Join us again next Saturday to explore another Folklore Museum object – this time, related to Jewellery, Blacksmithing & Mining! Until then: ahoy, sailors!
– Superstition Sam 🐾

‘The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone’ is part of the Pitt Rivers Museum online catalogue and can be found here.

Further reading:
Small Blessings, from the Pitt Rivers Amulet Collection.
England: The Other Within, analysing collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Folklore Museums Network is a a Subject Specialist Network (SSN) promoting folklore collections in museums world-wide. Founded in 2020 by Dr Peter Hewitt, the FMN works collaboratively with its members to identify, display and disseminate knowledge about the material folklore collections held in museums across Britain and Ireland. For more information, visit: