By Alan R Phillips
IT IS generally accepted that hares were a species native to the Island from prehistoric times; the hare was certainly sacred to the ancient British – Boudicca released one before leading her men against the Roman cavalry – and the Island has its own find of a beautiful Romano-British hare brooch from an Anglo-Saxon grave on Bowcombe Down: the body of the hare is divided into three sections, each with a different-coloured enamel – red, blue and green – and the brooch was 300 years old when it entered the grave.
Over time, however, the hare’s star waned and it came to acquire a sinister reputation, featuring in many stories of witchcraft and transformation. The Isle of Wight was no exception regarding such beliefs, and witches were long feared and implicitly believed in. The story survives of an old lady who lived at Hale Common and who was reputed to have turned herself into a hare, and … Squire Thatcher pursued her with his harriers. She only escaped by disappearing through the keyhole of a door! In 1923 Frank Morey reported on a taxidermist’s case containing a white-faced hare which had been shot at Niton in 1795; the hare appeared to have been in the Kirkpatrick family for 128 years. A label attached to the case read: “This curiously marked hare… had been repeatedly coursed, but had always succeeded in beating the greyhounds, and this fact, coupled with her strange appearance, led the Niton people to believe that she was a witch”.
Despite the hare’s antiquity, however, in contrast to rabbits – whose numbers exploded from the medieval period in the coverts and brakes – hares remained comparatively scarce until introduced by the Captain of the Island, Sir Edward Horsey, in 1574, as Sir John Oglander informs us: “Sir Edward procured many from his friends to be brought in alive, and proclaimed that whosoever should bring in a live hare should have a lamb for him: by his care the Island was stored”. Hare hunting grew in popularity and we know that by 1752 John Mitchell of St Cross, Newport, kept a pack of harriers. In 1812 William Jacobs of Chale Farm ran his harriers sixty miles: only five horses were in at the finish. In 1819 two rival packs were in existence: Squire Thatcher of Wacklands of course, and Sir Worsley Holmes of Newport House; then Harvey’s Crockford Harriers started up in 1820. The sport is of course commemorated in the name of the well-known 400-year-old Hare & Hounds public house at Downend.
‘Jack hare’ was the local name for a male hare, and ‘monkey’, unlikely though it may seem, a dialect word for ‘young hare’, which appears in Great monkey lands in Whitwell parish, ‘the land where the young hares are seen’, and local people have often watched them playing in this field. ‘Laa’ signified giving a hare a good start before the dogs: ‘Ghee ‘er good laa’. Farmer Brown, tenant at Dunsbury Farm, Brook, in the early 20th century would sow parsley in with the corn in the spring: hares were partial to the parsley and this would attract them to the fields ready for the coursing in the autumn, after the corn had been cut.
Haslett Farm near Shorwell is the contracted version of a name which was once Hareslade, or ‘the valley frequented by hares’. The name is doubly interesting because it was adopted in the 13th century by Robert Carpenter, who upgraded his family name to Robert of Hareslade and kept a manuscript handbook which is now in the possession of Cambridge University, where it is of considerable interest to medieval scholars.
– Alan R Phillips