Friday, January 19, 2018

Changing Faces of Britain’s Natives

by Simon J. Cook

Late-Victorian histories of the English began in the woods of Schleswig, before the migration to the British Isles. But around 1900 historians decided that English history proper should begin with the foundation of the modern state in the fourteenth century. What came before was deemed not only barbarous but insufficiently documented. The story of ancient Britain, and of the peoples who settled it, was left to a motley crew of archaeologists, folklorists, philologists and, increasingly, writers of fiction.

Early Britons* 
Elsewhere I've investigated the early twentieth-century search for the ancient English; in this post I track the changing face of Britain’s natives. The picture (right) depicts a sort of ancient ‘close encounters’ moment: native Britons watch the arrival of the Roman fleet of Julius Caesar. This captures the conventional Victorian image of the Romans bringing civilization to a savage island.

Compare the primitive Britons above, barefoot and attired in rude animal skins, with the blond giants below. Although this second picture was published earlier, it embodies a newer historical thinking. These iron-age warriors are still Britons, but they are no longer natives.

Later Britons*

For much of the nineteenth century it was assumed that Britain had been settled for only a few generations before the coming of the Romans. But this view became untenable after 1877 and the publication of Canon William Greenwell’s British Barrows. From his meticulous and extensive archaeological excavations, Greenwell drew the conclusion that prehistoric long barrows were not only older than round barrows, but had been built by a different people.

British Barrorws*
After Greenwell it was generally accepted that the Celtic-speaking Britons, the supposed makers of the round barrows, had intruded upon an earlier population. The result was the rehabilitation of the Britons: no longer the passive victims of history, conquered and pushed aside by more vigorous peoples, the Britons became invading immigrants in their own right – ancient barbarians, maybe, yet virtuous and worthy ancestors for the modern British. In the caption of the second picture above the leading Briton declares: ‘Tell Suetonius that we scorn his mercy and will die as we have lived, free men.’

Who, then, were the newly discovered natives? With precious little archaeological or philological evidence to work with, scholars turned to fairy tales.

In 1900 John Rhys, the first Oxford Professor of Celtic, delivered the presidential address to the Anthropology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His chosen theme was the value of folk tales for the study of the ancient past, and he argued that behind the ‘rabble of divinities and demons’ who disport themselves in Celtic folklore it is possible to discern the succession of peoples who have inhabited the British Isles. Welsh fairy stories, according to Rhys, contained dim memories of the native population encountered by the first Celtic-speaking intruders. The real ‘little people’, he inferred, had been ‘a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition... and living underground’.

by John Buchan*
Rhys’ ideas seem to have sparked the imagination of a couple of young minds. John Buchan went up to Oxford in 1895. His short story ‘No-Man’s-Land’, which appeared in print seven years later, tells the dreadful story of an Oxford scholar of Northern Antiquities (like Rhys perhaps, or one of his students), who holidays in the remote Highlands of Scotland, where he encounters – and is taken captive by – ‘the Hidden People’:

Then suddenly in the hollow trough of mist before me... there appeared a figure. It was little and squat and dark; naked, apparently, but so rough with hair that it wore the appearance of a skin-covering... in its face and eyes there seemed to lurk an elder world of mystery and barbarism, a troll-like life which was too horrible for words.

While captive in their ‘hill refuge’ the Oxford scholar hears harsh words directed at the British invader, bitter curses for the Saxon stranger; and he glimpses ‘a morbid hideous existence’ preserved for centuries by these relics of a nameless past.

Buchan’s natives are the complete antithesis of the modern British subject; a sort of primitive Hyde to the modern Dr. Jekyll. One can perhaps discern a post-WWII twist to this fable in The Inheritors, the 1955 novel by William Golding (who incidentally attended the same Oxford college as Buchan). In Golding’s story the original dwellers of the land have become Neanderthals – a separate species to modern humans. But in contrast to Buchan, Golding represents these natives as a peaceful if queer-thinking folk; it is the human intruders who are violent and frightening.

Buchan’s portrayal of Britain’s ancient folk as radically different to the modern population of the British Isles made for a good story; but it did not reflect an Edwardian scholarly consensus that all newcomers to Britain had interbred with those already settled on the land. Far from being a separate species, scholars believed that much native blood flows through the veins of the inhabitants of modern Britain (the same kind of idea is now put in terms of DNA). An Englishman, a Scotsman, or a Welshmen who meets one of the forgotten little people is quite possibly discovering but a smaller version of himself. And if such encounters have today become rather rare in the fields and hedgerows of Britain, this is a familiar enough experience to many readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s story of 1937, The Hobbit.

Hobbits are a homely depiction of Britain’s natives. Tolkien tells us that they are a ‘little people’, who today ‘have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us’. But once upon a time, ‘long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green’, hobbits were ‘numerous and prosperous’.

Going up to Oxford in 1911, Tolkien as an undergraduate probably attended Rhys’ lectures; later, in a short essay of 1932, we find him engaging carefully with his scholarship. And it seems that Tolkien had read the Professor of Celtic’s 1900 presidential address. At one point in this lecture Rhys discusses certain ‘underground – or partially underground – habitations’ that, he believed, had been home to Britain’s natives. These abodes, he explains:

appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention... But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature.

Bag End entrance*
But if Tolkien first stumbled upon a hobbit hole whilst reading Rhys’ lecture, it seems likely that his imagination drew also upon Buchan’s depiction of Britain’s natives as subhuman trolls. Certainly, John Buchan was one of Tolkien’s favourite authors. Of course, Bilbo’s hole under the hill is snug and comfortable; the encounter with a ‘hideous existence’ within a ‘hill refuge’ described by Buchan finds its counterpart, not at Bag End, but in that cave deep within the Misty Mountains into which had wormed his way, long ages ago, ‘a small slimy creature’ called Gollum.


1) Early Britons - from: Our Island Story. A History of England for Boys and Girls, by H.E. Marshall, illustration by A.S. Forrester (London, 1905).
2) Later Britons - from: Beric the Briton. A Story of the Roman Invasion, by G.A. Henty, illustrator unknown (London, 1893).
3) From: British Barrows. A record of the examination of the sepulchral mounds in various parts of England, by W. Greenwell (Oxford, 1877).
4) From: John Buchan’s The Watcher by the Threshold (London, 1902).
5) Bag End entrance - Photo: Sebastian Stöcker.

This post is an Editor's Choice from the EHFA archives, originally published on September 12, 2016.

Simon J. Cook is an intellectual historian. His award-winning monograph on the political economist Alfred Marshall was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009.

After weary years in various universities Simon is now setting himself up as an independent scholar and, inspired by many authors of English (and other) historical fiction, has made the move to digital self-publishing. His recent essay J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology was published by ‘Rounded Globe’ (his own ebook publishing venture) (Amazon US) (Amazon UK).

Many of Simon’s academic papers are available for free on his page. For further background on the scholarship discussed in this essay see especially: ‘The Making of the English: English History, British Identity, Aryan Villages: 1870-1914’ (published in 2014 in the Journal for the History of Ideas).

Ye Machine, Simon’s website and blog, is updated from time to time.


  1. Love your post, Simon! And the suggestion of where Tolkien got his hobbits makes so much sense. I found that fascinating. Thanks so much! Must check out your essay.

  2. Very interesting. Characteristic of the Victorians to be rather patronising toward earlier peoples! Where I live on the east coast of Scotland we are surrounded by examples of Iron Age 'earth houses'. These have their floors sunk well below ground level and probably had circular thatched roofs above ground. Some scholars believe they were just grain stores, but their sturdy stone walls have endured for a couple of thousand years. I'm sure some of them also served as warm and sheltered homes, out of our east wind!

  3. I have done some study on this very interesting subject myself. I quite like the legends where the 'little dark people' were afraid of iron; this would seem to imply stone or bronze users surviving from earlier times, and living in fear of iron-wielding incomers. Sadly, archaeology tells us a different story. The little dark people were not that little (neolithic man averages around 5ft 6-7, some bronze age men are 6 footers) and there's no evidence of violent Iron Age invasion. Possibly the idea of these 'small' people refer in fact to spirits of the ancient dead, ancestors; hence their association with burial mounds.
    I own an Edwardian book that refers to the neolithic peoples of Britain as Iberians and the early bronze age Beaker people as being proto-celtic; oddly enough, there seems to be some truth in the guess work of this book: much migration into prehistoric Britain was from the Atlantic coast, and Prof Barry Cunliffe believes celtic languages did arrive by at least the bronze age.


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