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Incidents from Tilebury's History

Dr Harriet Longstepp

1 July

The Pied Piper-ess of Tilebury.

All the recent sightings of snakes in the village and the fact people have been talking about whether they are dangerous and why no-one has been able to do anything about them made me think of an interesting incident I heard about involving other vermin which were chased out of the village.

This time it wasn't snakes, otherwise I would have called this article the Saint Patricia of Tilebury, after the incident when St Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland, which incidentally is a religious service I think we need right now, but I imagine Reverend Everett would not be up to, but millipedes.

It's quite odd nowadays to think about a plague of millipedes, but that is definitely the word used by the only chronicler we have who was writing in Latin but also drew a few hand-drawings so we can be in no doubt. Apparently they were about two inches long, red like flame and could deliver quite a bite which was poisonous and would produce a small boil or pustule on the skin of the victim.

Well okay - so what. Well there were millions of them, crawling all over the agricultural supplies and the vegetables laid down for winter and they were spoiling them. Anyone who went near might be bitten a thousand times or ten thousand times and then they would be very ill and one person even died.

The odd thing about the story was that the villagers seemed less angry about the plague of biting creepy crawlies than about the fact that they were all within the loop of the river which confined the limits of the old village. Apparently the millipedes would not cross it (even the bridges) out into the fields - which may not be so surprising - but also the villagers had the view that the river was supposed to protect them from 'evil' things so these millipedes should by right have been kept outside.

Well the day was saved by a lady known in the records only as 'Tall' Paddock which was what she was called because by the standards of the day she was very tall. History does not relate her actual height but they said she was taller than any man anyone knew except the lord of the manor Sir Godfrey Bullen, which unfortunately does not narrow down the time period too much because Godfrey was a common name in the Bullen family and there were at least eleven of them.

Anyway apparently Tall Paddock offered to lead the millipedes out of the village on condition that some old land behind the church which contained a number of burial stones was confirmed to belong to her family. Apparently there was some legal wrangle with the church about it being church land but not consecrated land.

When the villagers finally agreed - they didn't much like Tall Paddock by the sounds of it - probably because, for a woman, she was a bit intimidating - she lit a torch at night by striking a spark off the market square cobbles at a place where there were some old scorch marks and holding the torch to the ground all the millipedes were said to have gathered around it.

Then she carried the torch out of town over the old stone bridge into the woods and all the millipedes were attracked to its glowing flame and followed it (and her).

It must have been the weirdest procession ever to pass over that bridge. Maybe someone could make an even odder one by trying the same trick with our current snake problem.

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