A matter of fat

When I was a youngster, my friends and I used to frighten the living daylights out of one another by sharing scary stories passed down from our elders. There’s nothing more certain to keep a child awake at night than the thought of an axe-wielding bogeyman lurking under the bed.

There was a particular favourite my elder siblings would relish telling me as we drove home across the darkening North York Moors after a visit to our grandparents. Did I know that a young couple’s car had broken down on these very moors? While the man went for help, his girlfriend heard on the car radio that a madman had escaped from a local asylum. Soon after, there was a loud banging on the roof of the car. When she got out to investigate, the reason for the banging became clear – the madman was sitting on the roof with her boyfriend’s head in his hands.

It was only as I got older that I learned that this was not a true story at all, but one of countless gruesome urban myths, many of which were versions of the same tale, but localised to terrorise children like me. A variation of this one has a hook-handed serial killer escaping from jail, a car breaking down on a remote moor and two occupants meeting a very sticky end. 

In his column from 27th September 1980, Dad recounts another story, but leaves us to decide whether it is true or not. It is set in Farndale in the middle of the 18th century, and features a brave woman who uses her cunning to protect herself. 

One autumn evening, the woman was sitting by her fire making scrappings from the day’s pig-killing when there was a knock at the door. Upon opening it, she found an old lady asking for shelter who said she was heading to Eskdale but was afraid to cross the moors in the dark. She explained that she would be quite happy to sleep on the ‘squab’ in the kitchen, a wooden bench with a thin mattress on top, a bit like an old-fashioned sofa-bed.

Feeling sorry for the old lady, and quite happy to have company, she agreed, and the two sat by the fireside chatting into the evening. The woman continued with her task of dealing with the pig, and boiled down the fat in the cauldron over the fire. Finally, her tired guest lay down on the squab and fell asleep.

But then, our heroine noticed something strange. Protruding from beneath the old lady’s garments was a pair of very manly boots. Suddenly she began to panic, as she recalled local gossip about a devilish tactic currently being used by gangs of thieves. A gang member would gain entry to your house by disguising himself as an old lady. He would pretend to fall asleep, and wait until you fell asleep too. He would then signal to the rest of the gang who would be waiting in the darkness outside. The thieves would storm the house, stealing anything of value, and injuring or even killing the occupants if they tried to stop them.

The woman knew she had to act fast if she was going to save herself, and her eyes fell upon the cauldron of fat. The ‘sleeping’ man was pretending to snore, his mouth wide open, and by now she was certain he was a robber. She scooped up a ladle of boiling fat and tipped it down his gaping gullet instantly incapacitating him. As he screamed and writhed in agony, she dragged him out of the house and deposited him on the dung heap.

Returning inside, she bolted the doors, locked all the windows and lay in wait for his accomplices. Sure enough, at around midnight she heard a low whistle from outside, which was intended to be a signal for the criminal who now lay lifeless outside. She answered the whistle by declaring that they might like to look for their expired companion on the dung heap, and if they dared to cross her threshold, she would gleefully greet them with the same fate.

The men scarpered in terror, was she never troubled by thieves again.

I don’t keep a cauldron of boiling fat, but in its place is my alarm system which hopefully deters any would-be intruders from troubling me. 

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 25th September and the Gazette & Herald on 23rd September 2020

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