Unpacking the ‘eccentric’ in popular memory: Local characters of old Cardiff.

Disclaimer!: This is not a fully-formed argument, just some thoughts about the ‘eccentric’ in reminiscences of childhood and popular memory. I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

I’ve been reading the ‘Cardiff Borough Records’ – a magisterial five-volume set of miscellany relating to Cardiff from Norman times through until the early twentieth century. It is fascinating. There is everything from court cases to inquests, slander suits to land rents and tithes. For a good Cardiff boy like myself, I find the references to land parcels very interesting in, say, the fourteenth century, which still have echoes in areas and street names to this day. There are, for example, several references to the ‘Weddle’ or “Weddal fields”. Wedal Road is now a busy conduit not far from the University of Wales hospital. But I digress…

One section that stands out for me is the ‘Reminiscences of Old Cardiff’, which contains a brief but fantastic list of ‘eccentric old characters of Cardiff’. These include ‘Pegg the Wash’, an apparently feisty and pugnacious old washerwoman, whose habit was to chase children away from her house with a stick, perhaps peppering her imprecations with a good Welsh oath or two.

“Dammy Sammy” was an apparently well-known schoolmaster, whose sobriquet relates to his colourful choice of language in front of his young charges. A dwarf sweet-seller, known as ‘cough candy’ took advantage of his appearance and, in fact, seems to have augmented it by using his top hat as an advertising hoarding, pasting shop adverts and flyers onto it. The list goes on, but also noteworthy is ‘Hairy Mick’, the lamplighter!

What, though, stands out about these reminiscences? For me, it is the fact that all of these figures involve, or have relevance, for children. They were clearly denizens of a childish world – larger-than-life characters who left an indelible mark on the memory.

Memory, and reminiscence, is an odd thing, especially in terms of using and interpreting these characters in context of, say, social conditions.  How can we separate the ‘truth’ (if such a thing exists) from misty-eyed, if not evocative, depictions of ‘characters’. It is an interesting question. History is full of ‘characters’. If we think of history taught in schools, it is most often done in terms of a cast of individuals (Henry VIII, Hitler et al) and set-piece historical events.

And yet there is a remarkable constant throughout history and human nature, in our ability to identify and remember people who, for one reason or another, were somehow different. I can illustrate this from my own memory. When I was little, there was an unfortunate character who frequented a main street nearby, and who would suddenly leap out and shout at the traffic, sometimes even accompanied by violent gestures and karate actions. A certain mythology built up around him; it was popularly supposed that his wife and children were killed in an accident, thus affecting his mind and causing his behaviour. Whilst it’s certainly possible, it is interesting that no hard evidence really exists; people simply ‘know’.

In his excellent study of the history of folklore in London, Steve Roud makes this important point relating to the endurance of certain types of popular myths – things that are still ongoing today. Aside from more obvious ones such as empty properties gaining a reputation for being haunted, or patches of waste land being attributed to plague pits, he also notes the spread of often baseless rumours, which are then taken as truth. One such is the belief that a certain portion of land or building can never be developed as it was, at some stage, ‘given to the people’. There is one of these on my doorstep; the Caerphilly Miner’s Hospital has long been said by locals to be the property of the people of Caerphilly. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped it from recent closure…and redevelopment! A mythology of the individual, perhaps especially when that individual is located within the context of childhood memory,  fits well into this type of folklore.

How could we interpret characters like ‘Dammy Sammy’? As a medical historian, I am loath to engage in ‘retro-diagnosis’ since it’s obviously possible that he just had a foul mouth! But it’s also plausible that a pathological condition, say Tourette’s syndrome, certainly unknown and undiagnosed at the time, might explain spontaneous expletives. If so, a historian of nineteenth-century attitudes towards such conditions might find a useful case study. In a sense, it is not the character himself, but the reason why (s)he stood out that renders them interesting.

Let’s speculate further. Was ‘Peg the Washerwoman’ simply a bad-tempered old woman? Highly likely. But dementia, or perhaps an underlying psychological or sociopathic condition might explain a fear of strangers and a desire to drive them away. Historians of witchcraft have long highlighted the fact that ‘difference’ was often a crucial deciding factor in suspicions of witchcraft. Old women, especially those at the margins of society, were vulnerable.

The point is that we sometimes need to look beyond the simple description or reminiscence and try and unpack the social context of the ‘other’ in society. That the names of these characters – and their apparent ‘eccentricities’ – have survived or achieved notoriety, whilst many others have not, tells us something of how difference was perceived in past societies.