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The Wig in Caving

By N. Harding Esq.
With certain reminders by N. Richards, both residents of the Parish of Weston

During a conversation at Townsend Cottage on Sunday May 15th 2005, Messrs Irwin, Richards and Harding in attendance, the subject of the history of caving wigs was brought up due to the reference in Ye Somerset Life Magazine of Catcott removing his wig while entering the fabled Loxton Cavern. What follows is a brief history of said apparatus in respect to that reference. 

 “Fleas are not lobsters, Dash my wig!”   Butler, Hudibras

Wig:     A shortened form of periwig, from Fr. Perruque. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

In the early days of cave exploration the development of special forms of wig became a staple of any subterranean investigator’s equipment. Limited as that burgeoning kit was; a few candles, muslin bags of boiled sweets, and a sturdy pair of pantaloons, the cave wig became essential dress for the gentleman explorer. 

The Bath wig makers Messrs Absolom and Loftus Racketts of Protozoan Road became the cavers’ emporium of choice. Within its wainscoted boudoirs a voluminous collection of assorted caving paraphernalia could be found, albeit mostly of the false hair variety.

It is known that local cave aficionado Dr Catcott often frequented the shop on his way to swap tales of derring-do with other local men of an exploratory nature in the region’s coffeehouses. Catcott himself preferred the Dorset Fancy for walks but opted for the heavier, indeed sturdier Pentland Thunderer (not to be confused with the whistle of the same name) for subterranean activities. With its thicker inner weave it afforded a certain higher level of protection than the Frobisher Light, a wig often used for inspecting holes in the Mendip region. For at least two generations the Frobisher had been de rigueur in Somerset for men out inspecting cavities, natural or suspiciously man made alike. Its blend of horsehair, weasel and Haart’s Wildebeest allowed the wearer to keep his head warm and reasonably waterproof in a brisk squall. But, as the user’s manual suggested in the most adamant of terms, the wearer should seek shelter at the first opportunity. A side effect of a sudden downpour was to shrink the wig to embarrassing dimensions, forcing the owner, unless he himself was lacking in the hair department into offering the headgear to friends and fellows with less atop. In many respects and at that stage it mirrored the ‘scratch wig’; one whose sole purpose was to cover bald spots.  

A similar side effect could be seen with the ‘Dorset Fancy’, a light summer wig mostly used for those seeking Marsh Fritillaries, and indeed other members of the Lepidoptera family, for their gentlemen’s collections. The wig itself was even issued with its own collecting jar while the hair piece itself, due to its gossamer construction, was delicate enough to be used for catching all kinds of ephemeral insects. But because of its lightness it could easily be forgotten that the wearer was sporting such apparel. As the Hon. Sir Hugh Bending-Slow wrote in his ‘The Wig, It’s Uses, Non Uses and General Abuse of Said Hairpiece Usually in the Manner of Whipping Servants, Book Four’: 

“It beist unseemly for a man to wear his Dorset Fancy for anything other than the most convivial of summer excursions. It beist a moral outrage and devilish invidious behavior if said headular investment be espied on evening occasions.”

It was not uncommon for ladies to swoon and or duels to be fought over such insidious social faux pas, the results of which were that many a cobbled street beyond the doors of inns, taverns and lodges were littered with trampled and crumpled insubstantial head adornments, the fall out, in a manner of speaking, of bellicose activities. The Dorset Fancy thus assisted (some say the sole contributor, see Albert Lamellibranch’s The Revolutionary Wigs of Britain) to the illegal wig trade that was common throughout the period, producing such fabled characters as Dave the Wigger, Headpiece Jack, or Wigboy John, gentlemen of the shadows who would lurk in side alleys until enough battered wigs had collected on the streets. They would then spend the following hours collecting as many of the fallen items as darkness would allow. It was also around this time that Burke and Hair became famous for digging up the corpses of unsuspecting members of the aristocracy and relieving them of their head wear. The recently freed hairpieces were hastily smuggled to the backrooms of numerous rival wig-making facilities so that their intricate weaves could be studied and analysed.  

But it was not until the introduction of the ‘Devon Loafa’ that certain characters interested in underground activities, other than those of a revolutionary nature, realised they could push further into the recesses of dark vaults as a direct result of the sturdy weave of the new kid on the head block. The Loafa had a thicker, more voluminous appearance and had been created by Abraham Snapcock whose shop was situated near the Inns of Court in London. From his premises he had observed that judges and their kind had taken to a peculiar sport, one that ‘took the form of fancy and elaborate gesticulations and head butting’ (Chap 874 of Snapcock’s Diary). He had initially mistaken these peculiar activities as the recognition rituals of a new secret society but having seen heavy wagers laid down on the cobbles he cottoned on to the fact that it was more a series of sporting events and had nothing to do, at least superficially, with the clandestine machinations of some back room anti-Catholic movement.

With an almost limitless number of wigs on sale none were sturdy enough to support such ‘uncivil behaviour’ so Snapcock decided to remedy the situation. After several minutes study he produced the test version of the wig that would eventually evolve into the ‘Thunderer’. At this stage it was simply called ‘Old heavy’ until it was christened the Devon Loafa by an itinerant Vicar from Barnstaple who narrowly escaped death when a weather vane, ‘struck me rudely about the head as if a vagabond were attempting to rummage in my vestments’, and missed braining the man of the cloth by a whisker.  

With caving not a pursuit to be seen in and around the streets of the capital the heavier wigs were adopted by those pursuing criminals. Footpads, cutpurses and those with equally low moral fibre often fell victim to a well-aimed wig launched from the hand of a practiced member of the King’s militia. During the Riot of Idioblastic Street many a miscreant Londoner was brought to book with the use of a ‘fair volley of head pieces thusly followed by explosive detonations of wig powder that besmirched the walls of the parish.’ (Quoted in Lamellibranch’s The Revolutionary Wigs of Britain, chapter 2).

William Eggy-Belch, a gentleman from Wells was a frequent visitor to London and on one such journey fell unceremoniously into Snapcock’s wig merchants after one too many libations in the Gasometer Arms a few doors down from the purveyor of flamboyant head gear. This in itself was a fortuitous happenstance because Eggy-Belch had earlier that day suffered at the hands of some jobbing actors who had ruffled his ‘Boston Hose Pipe’ in a badly executed rendition of Samuel Johnson’s The Metamorphic Aureole.   In need of a new wig Eggy-Belch had somehow found himself in the right place at roughly the right time.  Snapcock ushered his wig boy out into the storeroom to retrieve the latest fashions, one of which being of course, the Devon Loafa. Eggy-Belch took to the item with ‘ unreserved and unashamed gusto!’ He promptly bought eight on the spot.

Returning to Somerset Eggy-Belch handed out five of the wigs to his estate labourers who often complained of thick headaches after long sessions repairing the roof beams of sheds and barns. Headaches due in part to the ‘lack of a well sought ability in these rude mechanicals to avoid falling timbers thus loosed from the rafters of the buildings I had sent them to repair’. (Isaiah Titty, Memoirs of A Somerset Git, 1848).

It was in the Bulbous Whim, a now demolished Inn in Tucker Street, Wells, the site of which is interestingly enough now occupied by a purveyor of caving and camping equipment, that Eggy-Belch fell into derisory conversation with one Dr Catcott who was hobbling around the city after an unceremonious accident caused by a vigorous bout of country dancing in the parlour of his lodgings.  Catcott was abroad in the area investigating various orifices, cavities and caverns in the Mendip Hills for a book he was writing called ‘I Like Holes’. The Bristol Reverend was also having unending trouble with his own wig which as he said ‘ afforded me no comfort in any shape or form, being troublesome and nefarious to the point that I assumed it to be possessed by one of Satan’s noisome imps.’ The Dorset Fancy was soon to be cast aside by the wandering scholar in favour of the Devon Loafa, a welcome gift from Eggy-Belch.

Back in Bristol Catcott had the Loafa further enhanced by his favourite Wig merchants, Jonah Deleterious and Sons, (a site now occupied by a waste bin in Broadmead), who set about tightening up the weave and adding additional layers to the hair to give it extra protection. There was also a retractable thick wire pin on which a candle could be mounted allowing the explorer hands free illumination while the whole hair-piece itself was coated in a velveteen lacquer to keep it from ‘becoming bedecked with ferrous soils and fudgy particulates’. The ochreous wig was now a thing of the past.  The Loafa had become the Thunderer and it would be this overdeveloped wig that would take Catcott into the heart of the Mendips. 

During his descent of Loxton Cavern Catcott had further redesigned the Thunderer to accommodate a team of rescue marmosets, something he had read about in an Austrian Tabloid called ‘Der Richtig Flugel Knauf’ In the article rescuers in the Dachstein had used small primates, sporting a bag of boiled sweets around their necks, to search for lost explorers.  Catcott, ever at the cutting edge of exploring technology opted to utilise this system.  In ‘I Love Holes’ he describes having to remove his enormous wig due to heat and the constant chatter of tiny primates, ‘an irritant beyond the strength and fortitude of mortal ears’.

Other caving wigs of the period: The Utter Bastard, Overblown, The Nonsense, Fatty’s Nuisance, Rowsell’s Scaffold, The Priddy Monster, Dandruff Talus, The Doline, The Beer Soaked Flatulent, The Sump, Johnny Absorbent and the Nasty. 

Ref: Further popular wig names of the period (non caving, all genuine): The Artichoke, bag, barrister’s, bishop’s, brush, buckle, busby, bush (buzz), woodsman’s favourite, chain, chancellor’s, corded, Count Saxe’s mode, the crutch, the cut bob, the Dalmahoy (a bob wig worn by tradesmen), the detached buckle, the drop, the Dutch, the full, the half natural, the Jansenist bob, the Judge’s, the ladder, the long bob, the Louis, the pigeon’s wing, the rhinoceros, the rose, the scratch, the she-dragon, the small back, the spinach seed, the staircase, the Welsh, the wild boar’s back, the wolf’s paw.   

Annual Dinner

Arrangements by Nigel Taylor

1st October 2005

Venue to be announced

200 tickets available at about £22

Two coaches will leave the Belfry at 19.00 hrs

Further details later by circular to all members