Monstrous May, Pagham-verse

#MonstrousMay 2023: Camouflaged


DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT A REAL SUSSEX FOLKTALE, AND REV. J. D. ALLARDYCE NEVER EXISTED. HE IS A CHARACTER BRIEFLY MENTIONED IN THE DAY WE ATE GRANDAD, AND CREDITED WITH OTHER [FICTIONAL] FOLKLORE AND COLLECTED TALES FROM THIS [FICTIONAL] PLACE.

The Dairymaid and the Knuckerhole

Rev. J. D. Allardyce (collected 1899)

Near the village of Piddingdean is a sinkhole, which appears to be bottomless, and fed from some underground spring or stream. It is known locally as the knuckerhole, as within its depths a ‘knucker’ or water serpent, once lived. The etymology of knucker is likely from the Old English nicor, a generic term for any water monster or water sprite, but in this part of the country refers to something like a great lizard or water-dwelling dragon.

There are many stories about the knucker, and one of them was told to me by a venerable lady of the parish, Mrs Allison Bentley, formerly Miss Allison Cooper, some ninety-seven years of age.

This story was related to her by her own maternal grandmother, Mrs Olivera Youngblood, whose surname is no doubt an Anglicised form of Jungbluth, or Jungblut, a Germanic surname that implies a connection with the German Palatines who were known to have fled religious persecution to Great Britain in the early eighteenth-century. There is perhaps an element of this history in the tale told to me – for when considered in light of the fate of many German refugees of this time, perhaps we can view this folktale and its rendition in an allegorical manner that speaks more of human acts of cunning and persecution, alongside the surface meaning of the tale, which is, on the face of things, a simple story of a dragon lurking in a hole.

I have done some independent research, as far as such things can be conducted, into the fates of the Palatines and Huguenots who settled in this part of Sussex, and my annotations are drawn from multiple sources, including notes taken from interviewing older members of the parish on the matter. My findings are set out in a lengthy essay on this topic, which has been printed in the Sussex Agrarian Journal, Vol. II, a publication I am proud to serve as a co-founder and member of the editorial board.


Once many years ago, a knucker lived in the knuckerhole outside of the village of Piddingdean. It was a cunning, large monster, whose home was the silent depths of the pool in Pidding Woods.1

Now at that time there came a great swarm of rats from the ships in the port, and the bravest of the local men went to the pool to wake the knucker up, and get him to leave the water to hunt these vermin and rid the countryside of them.2

Well, a dairymaid felt sorry for the little things, for all they were at the corn and the cattle feed, and into every mischief you could imagine. She managed to gather some of the creatures into the barn, and hide them under baskets and milk pails until the knucker had finished his spannelling3 about the river and woods after the vermin, and much of a mess he made of it too, before he returned to his pool once more.

Her father was not best pleased, but she would not give them up, and soon trained them to do small things around the farm, until they were quite the little helpers. The knucker, however, was not satisfied, and soon came out of his pool again, but this time for cows and horses, and nothing else would do.

It would lie in wait in the ditches, a great long thing it was, all grey and brown from the mud in its pool, to hide its red underbelly and the flashes of red on its topmost scales, draped about in weeds to disguise its snake-like head and vast, savage jaws. It would wait patiently until a cart went by, and then rise from its hiding place all at once, all red and fierce, and down would go the carthouse and the carter too, if he weren’t quick about it, and the cart was dragged to the ditch and left all in a pile of splinters.4

The dairymaid had a brother, as hard-headed as she was soft-hearted, and he took his sister down to the knucker pool to see if the knucker couldn’t be appeased with an offering, since she wouldn’t give up all the vermin the knucker had been promised.

But the dairymaid was sharp and she was quick, and as soon as she spotted the ripples on the pool, she threw in all the cheeses she had hidden in her apron, and the knucker devoured them all instead of the maid. Then she slipped free of her brother’s grip and fled back to the farm to tell their father what had happened.

Well, their father was thundering furious, and declared his son should make it right – he sent him back to the pool with an axe and told him not to come back unless it was with the knucker’s head.

But the knucker had left the pool and was resting in the bushes, all covered over with mud and weeds, so that when the lad came back with his axe, the beast was upon him directly and pulled him into the pool before he could take a swing. He dropped the axe, and the knucker soon drowned and ate him.

The dairymaid waited and waited, but when her brother did not come back, she guessed what must have happened. Her rats helped make more cheese, and pats of butter too, and with their help she soon had a fair feast of dairy to take to the pool. She made a lard cake and other puddings, and put it all in a wheelbarrow, and set out.

By evening, she found the knuckerhole was quiet, and there was only her brother’s axe lying on the ground. She unwrapped all the food, and took up the axe, and hid herself in the bushes with mud and weeds to cover her white pinafore and pretty rosy cheeks. She waited and waited, until the knucker was hungry again, and emerged from the pool to devour all the food she had left for it.

It wasn’t long before the beast had the colly wobbles5 from the cheese and butter and cake – it lay on the ground, red underbelly and all, and couldn’t get up. Up sprang the dairymaid with her axe, and chopped off its head. And Piddingdean and Pidding Woods were never troubled by the knucker again, and the good people thereabouts learned a hard lesson about strange bedfellows, and the dairymaid did make a good match and grow prosperous in her father’s farm, which was never troubled by rats or insects or any other of God’s creatures, for they all loved and respected the dairymaid, and she did live happily ever after.


[1] This was part of the Sauvant estate until 1737, when, upon the marriage of Ursula Sauvant to Edmund Hartley it passed to the Hartley estate.

[2] There was an infestation of rats noted in some almanacs from many years ago, and such things are not uncommon. However, the Huguenots and Palatines were described as a “swarm” in contemporary accounts and newspapers of the day, and the language preserved in the tale makes for a suspicious parallel. The local Hanging Judge, Reginald Knightley, seems to have sentenced a number of German refugees and immigrants to the gallows for charges of theft and poaching, an astounding 48 hangings in a three week period, until the local encampment was cleared and moved on to Wiltshire and further along the Sussex coast.

[3] Spannel, m. To make dirty foot marks about a floor, as a spaniel dog does. See A Dictionary of The Sussex Dialect (1875) for the definition and examples.

[4] I cannot find what this might directly relate to, except an anachronistic memory of the toll bridge, the subject of some complaint in the 1600s. It may also be a reference to a medieval sheriff, known for extortion and corrupt behaviour, who operated as head of a criminal gang in East Sussex in the mid-to-late 1300s. It could also simply be a formulaic part of the tale relating to dragon behaviour, and nothing more.

[5] colly wobbles – stomach ache

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT A REAL SUSSEX FOLKTALE, AND REV. J. D. ALLARDYCE NEVER EXISTED. HE IS A CHARACTER BRIEFLY MENTIONED IN THE DAY WE ATE GRANDAD, AND CREDITED WITH OTHER [FICTIONAL] FOLKLORE AND COLLECTED TALES FROM THIS [FICTIONAL] PLACE.

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