Who is Joan the Wad?
Tinker Bell isn’t the only famous pixie. Another is Joan the Wad, from Cornwall . . . Queen Joan. When I looked into the history of this character, I found a faint remnant of a Cornish tradition. I also found a whole lot of advertising for mass-produced good luck charms. Also a libel case.
A wad is a torch or bundle of straw; Joan the Wad’s name classifies her as a spirit similar to the Will o’ the Wisp, a wandering light which leads people astray. This apparition is often attributed to fairies, and in Cornwall it's "pixie-light" or people are "pixie-led." As James Orchard Halliwell wrote in 1861:
A clergyman, whose veracity is unquestionable, assured me that many of the inhabitants of Paul to this day believe devoutly that the piskies control the mists, and can, when so disposed, cast a thick veil over the traveller. Sometimes the fairies throw a light before his face that completely dazzles him, and leads him backwards and forwards, without allowing him to make any progress in his journey. This is called being pixy-laden; and a man lately going from Newlyn to Paul, as straight a country road as can well be imagined, was thus teased by the fairies, and it was not until he thought of turning his coat inside out that he escaped the effects of their influence.
Another popular term is Jack o' Lantern, today especially associated with Halloween and the souls of the wandering dead. An Irish folktale runs that he's a spirit locked out of both Heaven and Hell, left to wander with a light inside a turnip (or pumpkin). Kit with the Canstick (Candlestick) was another one. As for wads, Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad appeared in the Denham Tracts around the 1850s.
The first recorded mention of Joan the Wad was in an 1855 letter from Thomas Q. Couch, a native of Polperro, a large village in Cornwall. Discussing local traditions of piskies and pisky-leading, Couch mentions that he had heard the following rhyme invoking two piskies by name:
That tickled the maid and made her mad,
Light me home, the weather's bad.
Unlike most will o’ the wisp or pixie-led stories, this implies that these spirits were invoked for guidance. Or perhaps this was a plea to beings which usually led people to ruin. It's unusual to see Jack o' Lantern (or Jack-the-lantern in this case) labeled as a pixie, although as already seen, there is overlap.
The tickling refers to the idea that fairies pinched lazy maids, often hard enough to leave bruises. As in Drayton’s Nymphidia:
“These make our girls their sluttery rue,
By pinching them both black and blue...”
Or Herrick’s Hesperides:
“ Sweep your house; who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe."
After Couch's work was published, a few works listed Joan-the-Wad or Joan in the wad as a fairy name. Joan's most prominent outing was in 1899, when the Cornish Magazine published the poem “Joan o’ the Wad: A Pisky Song” by Nora Hopper. In this poem, Joan torments countryfolk and animals, blights fruit, steals milk, and seduces young men.
So far, so good. But this Joan is not a queen, just a generic will o' the wisp.
Here we come to an entrepreneur named F. T. Nettleinghame, who moved to Cornwall in 1923. He began publishing postcards and several short books, but ran into business trouble, declaring bankruptcy in 1931 and also getting a divorce. This didn't stop him; in March 1932, he registered trademarks for 'Joan the Wad' and 'Jack o' Lantern'. And then he started advertising. He sold small brass charms of Joan the Wad, “Queen of the Lucky Cornish Piskeys." Joan "sees all, hears all, does all" and brings "Wonderful Luck in the way of Health, Wealth and Happiness." "Substitutes are not effective." "No one is allowed to have Joan the Wad unless they have previously possessed the History of the Lucky Cornish Piskey Folk" (a booklet also provided by the business).
Also, the charms had to be dipped in "the Lucky Saints' Well" in Polperro in order to be effective. This was a major part of the business’s mythology. The reality was a little less romantic; the charms were manufactured in Birmingham, then taken to a well in Cornwall where they were put into cages for dipping in bulk.
There were also charms of Jack o’ Lantern, now Joan's consort. And plenty of other merchandise including china plates and pamphlets of pixie stories. People could order by mail from “Joan’s Cottage” in Bodmin, Cornwall. Advertisements ran in magazines, with testimonials from satisfied customers writing in that they had won lotteries, miraculously recovered from illnesses, or married millionaires. Or that they'd lost their charms, were having awful luck and desperately needed new ones. This marketing approach was apparently quite successful. Business boomed to the point where Nettleinghame had a whole chain of shops in Devon and Cornwall.
(We know a little more about business operations because in 1934, a couple of years in, Nettleinghame’s business partner Douglas Sargeant sued a newspaper for libel. One of the various allegations was that he and Nettleinghame asked sweepstakes winners to give credit to Joan the Wad for their success - the sweepstakes in question was actually run by Sargeant.)
Even after Nettleinghame stepped back from the charm business, he was still able to live comfortably and explore other business ventures. Joan and Jack were joined by other characters like "Billy Bucca, Duke Of The Buccas" and "Sam Spriggan, Prince of the Spriggans." Other businesses saw an opportunity to piggyback, and in the 1950s, competitors included “Glama, the oriental charm of luck and love,” Lady Luck, Beppo’s Little Man, and quite a few others. Even today, there are still businesses selling Joan the Wad charms.
Joan the Wad, as a pointy-headed metal figure crouched on a mushroom, became a familiar sight in advertisements for British readers. She may even have made her way into folklore in some fashion. In the 1980s, Cornish gardener Den Tuthill told a story about the Devil invading Cornwall. Jack, King of the Giants, and Joan-the-Wad, Queen of the Piskies, teamed up to trick the Devil with the gift of an enchanted walking stick which forced him to walk away from Cornwall and never return. Considering Joan's history, it seems very appropriate that this story was part of Tuthill's advertising for his own handmade walking sticks under the brand name Kellywyck. (Williams pp. 93-95)
So, Joan the Wad may have once been an obscure name along the lines of Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad, but was reinvented as fairy royalty in a wildly successful marketing campaign. If you’ve heard of the pixies having a Queen Joan, it’s because of F. T. Nettleinghame.
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5/10/2022 03:59:06 pm
This was fun info. I was amused by the mention of 'a clergyman' as the source of all truth on the piskie matter. And the whole lucrative business saga was very interesting to read! It's so cool to see legends built upon and transformed over time.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.