The Ballad of Minepit Shaw

(notes by Philip Holberton and Donald Mackenzie with addtions from Alastair Wilson and Janice Lingley)


First published in Rewards and Fairies (1910) where it precedes “The Tree of Justice”. It has only a tenuous relationship with the story.

Peter Bellamy’s rendition is to be found here.

The location.

Alastair Wilson writes: Minepit Shaw is a small wood, a bit further east along the Dudwell Valley from Kipling’s house at Bateman’s, lying up the southern side of the valley, overlooking the meadows below, where Kipling set ‘Friendly Brook’ and where Jabez and Jesse are working at the start of that tale.

It is not named on the 1:50,000 OS ‘Landranger’ map of the area (No. 199, Eastbourne and Hastings), but appears as a small green blob at TQ 683 237, hard by the ‘P’ of Platts Farm. (It is, I believe, named on the OS 1:25,000 map.) It is about 11m higher than the valley bottom, and has a small stream running along its west side, down to the Dudwell.

A shaw is a small wood, often referred to incorrectly as a coppice. Kipling used the word in another poem, ‘A Three-Part Song’, v.2:

I’ve buried my heart in a ferny hill,
Twix’ a liddle low shaw an’ a great high gill …

A minepit refers to an old iron-working depression in the ground, where surface mining for iron was carried out in times past. There are place names throughout Sussex that refer to ironworking; and the last working forge in Sussex, which closed in 1923, was at Ashburnham, about five miles (eight km) SSE of Bateman’s (marked on OS map 199 as ‘Ashburnham Forge’)

Poaching also features elsewhere in Kipling’s works: as in the poem ‘Norman and Saxon‘, v. 5.

For a hard-bitten, South-country poacher makes the best man-at-arms you can find.

And in ‘The Land’, referring to ‘old Hobden’;

 He is bailiff, woodman, wheelwright, field-surveyor, engineer,
And if flagrantly a poacher—’tain’t for me to interfere.

The narrative of the poem is magical; that is, until reality strikes the young poachers, and they realise that, rather than the earth opening to swallow them up, they have ‘tumbled into a great old pit, / At the bottom of Minepit Shaw.’ But it might well have been magical; Pook’s Hill lies little more than three miles away to the West South West. [A.J.W.]

Janice Lingley writes: ‘The Tree of Justice’, of course, features a deer hunt, where in the wake of the Conquest the local Saxons were having to act as beaters, excluded from the forest’s resources. The two lads in the ballad are also deer poachers, and the allusion to the ‘Folk of the Hill’, i.e.the fairy folk, provides a link to Puck’s home ground, since the Shaw is, it is hinted, magical like Pook’s Hill. [J.L.]

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1 lines 3-4] Two lads went up by the keepers’ hut/ To steal Lord Pelham’s deer:
See “Hal o’ the Draft” (Puck of Pook’s Hill p. 243 line 13):

“Ride to Sir John Pelham’s,” I said.“He’s the only one that ever stood by me.”
We rode to Brightling, and past Sir John’s lodges, where the keepers would have shot at us for deer-stealers.

[Verse 4 line 2] a man with a green lantern: In the Puck stories, green lanterns are signs of fairies, ‘the People of the Hills’. See the chorus of “Brookland Road”:

Low down-low down!
Where the liddle green lanterns shine…

[Verse 5 line 1] flesh and blood:   a  Biblical phrase found frequently in the New Testament, especially in  the epistles of St Paul  See Matthew 16:17, Corinthians 15:50, Galatians 17:10, Hebrews 2:14, and – in particular – Ephesians 6:12:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness In high places.

To Kipling, the expression signifies  humanity, as opposed to the People of the Hills, the fairies.  The most relevant Biblical quote here is the one from Ephesians, since the fairies are just such disembodied powers as St Paul has in mind, albeit viewed positively by Kipling.. [D.H.]

[Verse 5 line 4] the Folk of the Hill: Puck uses the expression ‘People of the Hills’ for ‘fairies’, because of the sentimental and misleading Victorian associations of the latter word.

See “Weland’s Sword (Puck of Pook’s Hill p. 13 line 24 on):

“Ah, but you’re a fairy” said Dan.
“Have you ever heard me use that word yet?” said Puck quickly.
“No, You talk about “the People of the Hills” but you never say.”

…“Besides, what you call them are made-up things the People of the hills have never heard of—little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair and a wand like a schoolteacher’s cane …”

[Verse 8] Oh, lay your crossbows on the bank/And drop the knives from your hand: Ralph Durand
(p 276) points out that the fairies could not help the poachers while they had iron in their hands. See Rewards and Fairies p. 229.

[Verse 13 line 4] Lewes Gaol: If they had been caught they would have been sent to gaol as poachers.

[Verse 16 line 3] a Pharisee: ‘Pharisee’ means ‘fairy’; the word is formed by the reduplicated plural, characteristic of Sussex dialect.

See “Dymchurch Flit (“Puck of Pook’s Hill” p. 264 line 15): “Pharisees” cried Una. “Fairies? Oh, I see!”