The ‘Maiden Ash’

Written by Louise Ryland-Epton

One of the ways in which village life has changed are the peculiar practices and customs which were previously observed by local people. By the 1980s, it was reported no such traditions were locally practised, it was assumed none had ever been, and ‘Bremhill must have been a most conservative or unimaginative village.’ However, this was very much, not the case.

One local belief, which survived until the late nineteenth century, was faith in the healing power of a ‘Maiden Ash’ tree. Most particularly in the tree’s ability to cure babies and infants of ‘ruptures’, a term used for hernias. In order, for an afflicted child to be cured the trunk of a young Ash tree, that had never been pruned, had to be split in two. At sunrise, the patient was passed through the opening of the truck with their face turned towards the rising sun. The rite needed to be carried out on May 1st, a date associated with the pre-Christian festival of Beltane (although, how far back in Bremhill’s history this tradition went is impossible to ascertain). After the rite took place, the tree was bound back together again to carry on growing to maturity. The fate of the child and the tree were tied, the cure would not work if the tree did not thrive.

One local child to undergo this treatment, I believe, was Henry Head, who was born in 1875. It is difficult to be sure, but given the evidence, I think it likely that Henry suffered from an inguinal hernia. The physical manifestation of the condition, which is now easily treated by surgery, is a bulge to the groin area. His parents tried their best. He was trussed, made to wear a leather strap or belt which would have stopped the hernia protruding and may have relieved his discomfort. They set store by local customs and, hoping to cure Henry, carried him naked on a blanket into local woods and passed him through the split trunk of an Ash, on May 1st, as the sun rose. The tree had been prepared by his father the night before. Unfortunately for Henry, after the rite, the woodland was thinned, and the tree cut down. His cure failed.

There is a sad ending.

Victorian times could be unforgiving to those with a physical or mental ailment or abnormality. Untreated, Henry’s hernia may have grown, and his pain could have increased significantly. This may have contributed to the mental health problems he developed as a young man, and which caused him to be committed to the Wiltshire County Lunatic Asylum, where he died still in his twenties. In his case, faith in the ‘Maiden Ash’ came to nothing.

Notes: The main source for this article is Rev. E. P. Eddrup, 'Notes on some Wiltshire Superstitions', Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine Vol. 22 (1885), whose account I supplemented with the census, parish records and other reading. The information and quotation in the first paragraph come from the parish’s responses to the folk life and local history survey sent out by the WFLS Records committee in the 1980s (see W.S.A., 3071/40/4). I await the opening of WSHC to look up Henry’s admission and treatment records at the asylum.