Tales of Peg Powler

Liz, Sue, Claire and Carl had a fantastic night out last night. We went to Hash Bar in Darlington to see the latest in the series of brilliant Tracks Hark! music and literary events.

All of the musicians were wonderful, and I particularly enjoyed the mesmerising and haunting voice of Anna Hughes. I was sad that the band Peg Powler had to cancel due to illness as I was really looking forward to hearing them.

The band is named after Peg Powler, a water spirit who inhabits the River Tees and tries to pull in anyone who strays too close to the edge to a watery fate. According to Michael Aislabie Denham, a merchant from Piercebridge who wrote a series of pamphlets on northern English folklore between 1846 and 1859, Peg Powler is “the evil goddess of the Tees” and “The foam or froth which is occasionally seen floating on this river in large masses is called Peg Powler’s Suds, and the finer and less sponge-like froth is known by that of Peg Powler’s Cream.” William Henderson writing in 1879 went on to describe her as “with green tresses and an insatiable desire for human life.” According to Denham, Peg has a sister or a daughter called Nanny Powler who haunts the River Skerne in Darlington.

Glen James Brown in his brilliant 2018 debut novel Ironopolis features Peg Powler, who as well as haunting the River Tees also travels through the plumbing and the sewers of a run-down council estate on the outskirts of Middlesbrough. In the book she is a truly terrifying and malign presence:

The burn, when he finally reaches it, is no longer a burn but a pool – barely – of stagnant water, obscured by thorns and roots.

But the pipe is still there, jutting from the bank. The flimsy-looking and badly rusted grille across its mouth lattices the darkness therein. He turns his ear towards it and listens, his breath coming in white bursts. Corroded beer cans bob in the pool. Shining his torch there, he sees a thin scrim of white liquid on the surface.

‘Hello?’ he says.

The top of her head emerges; black hair against white water.

‘It’s Jim,’ he says. ‘It’s me.’

Slowly, out of less than two feet of water, she rises: rivulets of scum contour her bones, her skin a ghastly green pall, her stomach a concaved twist. Black nipples erect on small breasts and a shadowy patch of pubic hair between wasted, ossified legs. She stands fully upright.

‘Hi Peg,’ he says.

Ironopolis by Glen James Brown, page 118

In an interview just before the book’s publication, Glen James Brown mentioned that no illustrations that he could find of Peg Powler felt right to him until he “found Seated Young Girl (by Austrian artist Egon Schiele, 1910). I couldn’t take my eyes off it; unsettling and magnetic, it was exactly the Peg Powler I’d been looking for. She came alive to me and rapidly became a main character in the novel.”

 Seated Young Girl by Egon Schiele

I felt exactly the same, but for me it was another image that had that impact and became the version of Peg Powler in my head when I saw it for the first time, at the Cornerstone Arts exhibition in the old Marks & Spencer’s store on Northgate in Darlington in 2020 – created by the incredible Darlington artist Brian Lee, entitled The White Witch of Roseberry

The White Witch of Roseberry by Brian Lee

Further Reading:

Peg Powler and Nanny Powler in Michael Aislabie Denham, The Denham Tracts Volume II

Peg Powler in William Henderson, Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders

A Tale of Peg Powler: A North Eastern Myth by Harriet Sams, an OBOD druid who used to live in the north east of England

by Liz

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