Shroppiemon will know this story, I have no doubt, but many of you won’t. It was read as part of a paper to the British Archaeological Association in Shrewsbury in 1860. According to its author, Thomas Wright, it was an example of the way the ‘crafty God Thor’ had become degraded in popular imagination. The story, he said, was known amongst all classes and came in many variations. Charlotte Burne, who recorded this meeting in her Shropshire Folk-Lore in 1883, confirmed that she too had heard the story in many different version. Sometimes the spade full of soil that it features wasn’t to dam up the river but to bury the town. Sometimes the people of Shrewsbury went out to deceive their adversary with old boots and mouldy crusts of bread. And the giant wasn’t always a giant. As one elderly lady put it to Charlotte Burne, ‘Folk generally tell the story of the Devil, but the old ones say it was a giant’.
Burne’s retelling of the story is about a giant. As it's also about Shrewsbury, I'm retelling it here:
Once upon a time there was a wicked old giant in Wales, who for some reason or other had a very great spite against the Mayor of Shrewsbury and all his people, and made up his mind to dam up the Severn and by that means cause such a flood that the town would be drowned.
So off he set, carrying a spadeful of earth, tramping along mile after mile trying to find Shrewsbury. How he missed it, I cannot tell, but he must have gone wrong somewhere, for at last he arrived in Wellington, puffing and blowing under his heavy load, wishing he was at journey’s end.
By-and-by, alone came a cobbler with a sack of old boots and shoes on his back, for he lived in Wellington and went once a fortnight to Shrewsbury to collect his customers’ old boots and shoes to take them home and mend. The giant called out to him. ‘I say,’ he called. ‘How far is it to Shrewsbury?’ ‘Shrewsbury,’ called back the cobbler. ‘What do you want at Shrewsbury?’ ‘Why,’ said the giant, ‘to fill up the Severn with this lump of earth. I’ve an old grudge against the Mayor and the folk at Shrewsbury, and now I mean to drown them out and get rid of them all at once.’
‘My word,’ thought the cobbler. ‘This’ll never do. I can’t afford to lose my customers,’ and he spoke up again. ‘Eh!’ he said, ‘you’ll never get to Shrewsbury, not today, nor tomorrow. Why, look at me. I’m just come from Shrewsbury and I’ve had time to wear out all these old boots and shoes on the road since I started.’ And he showed the giant his sack.
‘Oh!’ said the giant with a great groan, ‘then it really is no use! I’m fairly tired out already, and I can’t carry this load of mine any farther. I shall just drop it here and go back home.’
So the giant dropped the earth on the ground just where he stood, and scraped his boots on his spade and went home to Wales. Nobody ever heard anything of him in Shropshire after that. But where he put down his load there stands the Wrekin to this day. And Shrewsbury still stands too. And the pile of earth where the giant scraped his boots has made Little Ercall by the Wrekin’s side.’