Buttermilk Jack and the forgetful Witch

by Frank E Earp

Here is my retelling of a once very popular Nottinghamshire folk-story. I could find no original title for it, so I have given it my own, I think it suits the story line:

In a village close to Nottingham, it doesn’t matter which one, there live a poor widow and her son Jack. The widow kept one small cow which she would milk twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. After the evenings milking, she would take all of the days milk to her dairy where she would make fresh butter and cheese to sell at the great cheese market in Nottingham. To make a little extra money, every day Jack would set-off to Nottingham with the ‘buttermilk’ to sell in the streets and markets of the town. Now, as everyone knows, buttermilk is the milk which is left over after butter has been made. One thing that everyone doesn’t know is that witches are very fond of buttermilk.

With his cry of “Who’ll buy my buttermilk?” Jack was a familiar sight in the town. If you had a few pence, Jack would ladle out the delicious white liquid into your waiting vessel. That is why the good people of Nottingham called him Buttermilk Jack. But not everyone wanted to pay Jack for his milk. There was one old women, a witch, who did her shopping in the town. She often saw Jack and thought how nice it would be to get some of his buttermilk for free.

One day she saw Jack take a short-cut through a deserted alley. ‘Now’s my chance’ she thought. She stopped Jack and demanded that he gave her some of his buttermilk. Jack explained that he and his mother were poor and could not afford to give-away the milk. “Do you see this sack I have on my back?” she said. “If you don’t give me some milk I will put you in it and take you home and eat you for my super”. Jack still refused and so the witch caught hold of Jack and stuffed him in her sack, churn and buttermilk and all. Throwing the sack over her shoulder she set off for home thinking how wonderful her super would be; boiled Jack and a churn of buttermilk.

A little way out of the town gates the witch suddenly remembered that she had left a jar of oil in the alley where she had ceased Jack. The sack was too heavy to carry all the way back, so what was she to do? By the side of the road she saw a group of men cutting a thorny hedge. She put down her sack and asked the men if they would watch it whilst she went back to get the oil. The men agreed and the witch trottered off back to Nottingham. As soon as the witch had gone, Jack called out from the sack for help. How surprised they were to see their friend Buttermilk Jack when one of them cut the rope which tied the neck of the sack. Jack quickly explained what had happened and gave them all some buttermilk from his churn. He then filled the sack with some of the thorny bush the men had cut and they agreed to say nothing to the witch.

When the witch returned, she thanked the men and slung the sack over her shoulder and continued towards home. She had not gone a few yards when the thorns in the sack began to prick her back. The witch called out, “Jack, Jack! Thou doest prick my back”.

Expecting to find Jack, when she reached home, the witch emptied the sack out onto a white sheet she had spread out on the floor. How angry she was when the thorns came tumbling out. The witch vowed that she would have her revenge. The very next morning the witch came upon Jack in the same alley. Once again she threatened Jack that if he did not give her milk she would take him home and eat him. Again Jack refused and the witch stuffed him in her sack Now the witch had gone a little out of the town when she remember that she had left a fresh loaf of bread by the alley where she had captured Jack. But the sack was too heavy to carry all the way back, so what was she to do? By the side of the road she saw a group of men mending the road with stones. She put down her sack and asked the men if they would watch it whilst she went back to get the bread. The men agreed and the witch trottered off back to Nottingham.

As soon as the witch had gone Jack called out from the sack for help. How surprised they were to see their friend Buttermilk Jack when one of them cut the rope which tied the neck of the sack. Jack quickly explained what had happened and gave them all some buttermilk from his churn. He filled the sack with some of the stones the men had been using to mend the road and they agreed to say nothing to the witch. When the witch returned she thanked the men and slung the sack over her shoulder and continued towards home. She had not gone a few yards when the stones in the sack began to crack and bang together. The witch called out, “Jack, Jack! Thy bones do crack”.

Once again, expecting to find Jack, when she reached home, the witch emptied the sack out onto the white sheet she had spread out on the floor. How angry she was when the stones came tumbling out. The witch vowed that she would have her revenge. It seems that in all of these stories, none of the people learn form their mistakes, for the next morning the witch met Jack in the alley. You know what happens next so I need not tell you. This time however, although she had forgotten her potatoes, the witch was determined that she would not stop until she had reached home. When she arrived at her little cottage she put down the sack in the middle of the floor and gave it a little kick to make certain Jack was still inside. Jack gave out a yell and so, reassured, the witch set off back to get her potatoes, making certain she had locked the door after her.

As soon as he found himself alone in the cottage, Jack wriggled and twisted, twisted and wriggled until the rope that tied the neck of the sack became loose and he was free. Jack stood up and looked around him. Surprisingly for a witch the little house was neat and tidy. The curtains were clean, the table was scrubbed and on the dresser was fine Crown Derby china, (the witch had good taste). Quick as a flash Jack had an idea to teach the witch a lesson. He filled the sack with as much of the witch’s best china as he could and retied it. As the witch had forgotten to light a fire in the hearth Jack was able to climb out of the cottage up the chimney and return home, this time without giving any of his milk away.

When she returned home the witch found the sack where she had left it. This time she had him and her mouth watered at the thought of roast Jack and potatoes boiled in buttermilk. Without further thought she emptied the sack out onto the sheet spread over the flagstone floor. Out came the best Crown Derby and smashed to pieces in-front of her eyes.

The angry witch vowed that she would catch Jack and this time she would cook and eat him straight away. But Jack never again went down that alley and the witch soon forgot her vow and most of her shopping too.

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About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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