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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Adkins Writing

Telling the Bees | Stories, Superstitions and Gossip in Newspapers Written for our Ancestors

Black and white photographs in a loose pile on a white cloth beside a candlestick, newspaper, a string of seeds and an ancient book
Ordinary Lives in Times Past | Wix

Reading archived newspapers brings those living at the time of publication to life.

They are a window on the everyday. It is possible that our own ancestors were once engaging with stories and comments that come to light. This blog is a scrapbook of snippets, superstitions and gossip found in British newspapers (archived by Find My Past) from the first half of the twentieth century.

The blog begins with the superstitious custom known as 'telling the bees'. I first came across it during archival research for my immersive performance, We're Just Ghosts in This House. Alongside these snippets are a few random examples of news for entertainment, which caught my eye while scanning the pages.

They can be defined as trivia, yet these reports are a record of prevailing patriarchal attitudes and give insight into preoccupations of the day. They also reveal a readership of ordinary people.

A stylised image. Traces of ivy stems cling to the small birdhouse. Unseen is the queen bumblebee using it as lodgings.
Bird House | M. Adkins

The tradition of 'telling the bees' relates to honeybees, however I was reminded of it last summer when a queen bumblebee took up residence in a birdhouse, fallen from an old ivy thicket in our garden. She prompted me to revisit archived newspapers.

According to the custom, when a beekeeper dies a relative must tell the bees of the death and tie black bows of crepe to each skep or hive. They should gently rap three times with a door key and leave a piece of cake and a glass of wine beside them. If the funeral cortège passes by, a bee expert should turn a hive in remembrance. The consequence of ignoring this tradition is death of the colony.

The sepia photograph shows a woman bent over one skep in a line of four adorned with black crepe bows in a cottage garden
The Illustrated London News, July 8, 1944 | Find My Past Archives


The Penrith Observer

My first snippet is an extract from a letter to the editor of The Penrith Observer in January 1947. It is from a Mr Sandstone who wished to inform the readership that the old notion of 'telling the bees' was still being practised in certain parts of Britain.

His letter explains that in some areas the bees were told of all important events in the beekeeper's family, not just death. For births and marriages hives could be adorned with bright coloured ribbons in contrast to black crepe for mourning.

The reason for the custom is not known, but is supposed to be due to the fact that until recent times bees were regarded as supernatural and to have direct communication with paradise. In some parts it was believed that when the soul left the body at death it assumed the form of a bee; others believed that the bees would fly away in search of their dead master if not told of his death.

Bees should be told politely and in a quiet voice, according to Mr Sandstone. When the hive was rapped with a key during the telling of the death of a master, 'if the bees responded with humming, it meant they would stay and work for their new master.'

There is a tangible connection between this historic reverence of bees and today's ecological concern for their survival.

Westminster Gazette

Several newspapers refer to the folly of ignoring the convention. In October 1907, between reports

A swarm of bees clustered on a honeycomb taken from a hive, held up to sunlight.
Honeycomb | Wix

of a Hungarian riot, an Italian earthquake and slave labour on cocoa plantations, the Westminster Gazette interviewed Mr W. A Cox, an expert on bees.

He knew of a Bedfordshire rector's gardener, who had told him a few days previously that the 'rector's bees had actually died upon his failure to inform them of his master's decease.'

The Daily News

In the enlightened 1920s, The Daily News published letters from readers under the heading, 'Are We Superstitious?' A reader with the signature W.H.R. responded. He described his father, the owner of 'fifteen beehives of good stock in Hertfordshire' as superstitious. When his father died, his mother had asked him to inform the bees. To 'relieve her anxiety' W.H.R said he tapped three times on each hive with a key saying, "The master of the house is dead." Not a hive was lost.

At the same time in the same village, a woman considered to be the best beekeeper in the district owned twenty-six hives. When she died her husband refused to follow the 'heathen custom' and denied her those final wishes. W.H.R claimed that every hive died within six weeks.

In the same issue of The Daily News, a letter was printed from an ex-pharmacist who provided instances of alternative superstitions. She wrote: 'Here in Tipton one meets superstitious people every day.' She recalled an occasion when a child had drowned in the canal and

a loaf of homemade-bread was put over the spot where the child was thought to be, in the belief that this would bring the body to the surface.

A black and white photograph of a miner's face looking directly at the camera
A Miner | Shutterstock

The ex-pharmacist also observed miners still believing that if the first person they saw on their way to work in a morning was a woman, 'bad luck was sure to befall them.' According to her, many had been known to go back home for that day. This superstition chimes with the belief that a woman on board ship would bring disaster. In the mining community of Tipton, it can only be assumed that women were conditioned to own the fear and make themselves scarce on the streets before the morning shift.

The following quote starts the next letter from a reader who signed themselves, Burton:

Three years ago at Christmas time, we were having a little talk together when the conversation turned on superstitions. There was a friend with us who said "Well, in Scotland they don't believe in hanging sheets up to dry four days before Christmas." I said "Why!" and she replied "Oh, well its only superstition of course, but as many sheets as you hang up to dry on Dec. 21, there will be as many deaths during the next year."

Close-up offspring wooden clothes pegs clipped to an empty washing line
Sprung Clothes Pegs | Wix

It seems that the following December Burton disregarded the superstition and 'had 5 sheets hung out 4 days before Christmas and had 5 deaths in nine months.' As a result, Burton 'never again hung out sheets to dry 4 days before Christmas.'

Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian

Another tale of abandoned hives appeared in the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian in July 1929. The custom of telling the bees had travelled across seas with late nineteenth century European migrants. One hundred years ago the rite was still evident in rural parts of the United States of America.

White sculpted bees on a skep with leaves surrounding
Stone Skep |Shutterstock

Under 'Gossip of the Day' a letter was printed from an American reader, which stated that swarms from fourteen hives had departed as they were not informed of the death of their master, Dr. Charles, a chemist and mineralogist.

One of the swarms that disappeared was found buzzing about the flowers on his grave, more than two miles away.

Black and white image of a dog, head raised, open-mouthed
Dog | Wix

Still under the heading 'Gossip of the Day' is a report titled 'Dogs and Suicide.' The reporter begins with an account of 'the dog which committed suicide in the sea at Hastings because its master had moved into a new flat,' and suggests that there were 'several well authenticated cases of dogs having committed suicide.'

They have for instance often starved themselves to death when their owners died, and one dog according to Captain A. H. Trapman who has written a book on dogs, drowned itself from remorse, because its mistress took to loose living when her husband died.

An open bible rests on a stand between two unlit candles on a church altar.
Church Altar | Shutterstock

More jaw-dropping sexism appears in a different issue of the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian published three years earlier in 1926. In a report on 'the decision of the Wesleyan Conference to admit women to the full ministry,' the columnist asks:

But what would St. Paul say about it? Did he not instruct the Corinthians to keep their women silent in the churches - for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. As he said to Timothy: "I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence."

The report acknowledges that Lady Newbold Kay 'complained in the Conference discussion that difficulties had always been placed in the way of women's work for humanity,' and quoted her saying, "I don't know how the Conference dare take upon itself the responsibility hindering them in fulfilling their call." The columnist retorts back with:

The good lady must be still more bewildered in wondering how St Paul dared to say what he did and to come between women and their"rights."'

Accounts of sexism are not unexpected in media of the 1920s, however the casualness of discrimination against women in these and other reports is remarkable; as is the thought of any reader skimming over it without reaction.

Below this report is some health and wellbeing advice under the title, 'Tonic Talks'. Here, the Bishop of London is quoted as having discovered 'six things which chain down and oppress the race.'

These are listed as:

Fear of death, burden of sin, haunting temptation year after year, darkness of doubt, sense of being enslaved by a creed, an extraordinary unexplained melancholy.

Black and white image of a period1920's room - at a table, a young woman sat on a young man's knee in an embrace
The Roaring Twenties | Wix

The reporter then proceeds to give his opinion on the list of 'six things' that the Bishop discovered, paying particular attention to the state of feeling melancholy, in what we now refer to, as the roaring twenties.

They are a black, hoary half-dozen. One or two of them are as old as the race and one or two as modern as we are. One wonders whether the last one would be admitted by everybody in these days of jazz bands and revues and superficial high spirits. Yet the Bishop seems to be right. There is a melancholy about us. One has but to notice the faces of the people we meet in the street any day, almost any time of day, to discover the truth. There is a heavy, haggard feeling about us which declares that joy has fled.
It may because we are nerve tired for we cannot live in a world of telephones, cinemas, motors, aeroplanes and wireless without taking toll of our nerves. If we take holidays they are not restful ones and we become chained to the things we find degrading and devitalising.

Echoes of modern concerns can be heard in this snippet. One hundred years on, and suggestions regarding the effects of modern technology on our psychological wellbeing make comparable news to that, which caused our ancestors to be 'nerve tired.' .

The Pictorial

In September 1933, The Pictorial commented: 'the superstition that bees are able to foresee death has appeared yet again in newspapers.' It featured a poem by Whittier:

Before them, under the garden wall,

Forward and back,

Went dreamily singing the chore-girl small,

Draping each hive with black.

Trembling, I listened: the summer sun

Had the chill of snow.

For I knew she was telling the bees of one

Gone the journey we all must go.

A church bell suspended on a frame in the belfry
Church Bell | Shutterstock

Further down the page is a quaint item about a 'Ghost Bell' named Gabriel Andrew, originally of Avenbury Church, Herefordshire. Apparently it 'tolled of its own accord on the death of the last two Avenbury vicars.' In 1933 it was relocated to St. Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, Blackfriars 'by six men and a crane'. Its history puzzled the London parishioners and apparently left them wondering if Gabriel Andrew would again ring of its own volition.

In contrast with the supernatural bell, The Pictorial included some entertaining science on the same page to engage the reader, under the title, 'Why Men Gas.'

The principal ingredients of the human body are five gases - oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, chlorine and fluorine. There is in a man gas sufficient to fill a gasometer of 3,649 cubic feet! The most important element is oxygen, the bulk of which, if set free, would be equal to a beam of wood one foot square and 1,191 feet (nearly a quarter of a mile) long. Every man's body contains 3,400 cubic feet of hydrogen, sufficient to inflate a balloon which would lift himself and tackle. The nitrogen in the human body is about half an ounce to each pound of body weight, and about twenty times the bulk of the body, and there is sufficient carbon to make 65 gross of lead pencils!

The Sunday Dispatch

Black vintage telephone receiver lying on its side and cord
Vintage Telephone Receiver | Wix

As late as July 1953, the notion of 'telling the bees' is still being discussed in a reader's letter to The Sunday Dispatch. Next to the letters is a section called 'Dispatch Diary' containing this bizarre update:

That BURR-BURR, burr-burr ringing tone on your telephone is to be changed...its frequency will be altered from 133 cycles per second to 400.

Also included is a reveal of the life of three-year-old Princess Anne:

'A white rabbit is in trouble at Buckingham Palace. Princess Anne's favourite toy, which was once a lovely soft woolly affair is now a very bedraggled creature - and always wet. Princess Anne does nothing but wash it - and neither her parents nor the staff can dissuade her. She talks to it incessantly, refuses to be parted from it and washes what is left of its face anything up to 20 times a day. It spends its nights being dried off - only to be washed again as soon as the Princess is up in the morning.'

Trivia concerning the Royal family is clearly nothing new - it was making news seventy years ago.

This July 1953 edition of The Sunday Dispatch contains a quote from a former edition published 150 years previously. It reads:

From the Dispatch of November 13 1803. Our correspondent at Shorn Cliff Camp gives us an account of a most important invention by Major Shrapnell of the artillery. It was that of throwing howitzer shells with musket balls out of 14 pounders to annoy troops approaching the shore in boats. It has the effect of grape shot, and afterwards of a shell and scatters to a great distant. It is the most destructive mode of annoyance ever contrived.

One can only imagine reading the final sentence when it was published in 1953, just eight years after the cessation of World War II, and when many readers would have memories of the First.

A stylised orange poppy with a purple-black centre and a bumble bee flying
Orange Oriental Poppy and Bumble Bee | M. Adkins

Across modern media platforms, today's news continues to entertain with gossip, rumour and superstitions. Topics change, yet fear and suspicion remain. Supernatural activity still makes news. Modern media is awash with popular science and articles on wellbeing. Articles on the royal family are constant.

This modern 'trivia' will be preserved for future generations to trawl and use to imagine their ancestors as they generalise about our interests and everyday lives today. Suddenly, archives feel more like arrow slits than wide open windows.

Returning to the queen bumblebee: mysteriously, our long-lived ivy thicket died after she deserted the bird house. It is a great loss. The ivy was a vast sculpture and provided much shelter and sustenance for many species that inhabit our garden, including a variety of bees. I cannot help wondering if I should have been telling her all there was to tell...

A selection of sepia family portraits overlapping
Family Photographs | Wix


For Images of We're Just Ghost in This House (Performance as Research) see:

References: All obtained through Find My Past

The Westminster Gazette, October 28, 1907. Page 10

The Daily News, Friday, January 22nd, 1926. Page 2

The Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian, Wednesday, July 21, 1926. Page 4

The Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian, Thursday, July 18 1929 Page 8

The Pictorial, Tuesday, September 12, 1933. Page 11

The Illustrated London News, July 8, 1944. Page 54

The Penrith Observer, Tuesday, January 14th, 1947. Page 4

The Sunday Dispatch, November 15 , 1953 Page 2

Links for Margaret Adkins Writing:

Margaret Adkins started writing when her nursing and midwifery career came to an end in 2015. She become a full-time student at the University of Worcester. She gained a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing & English Literature and an MRes in Theatre & Performance. Winner of the inaugural University of Worcester V. Press Prize, her debut poetry pamphlet Mingled Space is published by V. Press (2019)


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