Moonraking, John Chandler


The Yorkshire village of Slaithwaite, in the Colne Valley near Huddersfield, holds each February a moonraking procession, and last year (and again in 2008) a festival. During 2006 their festival website explained that the moonraking legend originated in Slaithwaite and was transferred to the Devizes area of Wiltshire in 1815 when one of the smugglers, Ken Boot, emigrated there from his Yorkshire home.

The claim is easily disproved. Our Local Studies Library holds a copy of the Western County Magazine for the year 1791, which published a letter from a Poulshot farmer headed ‘Wiltshire Moon-Rakers’. The correspondent recounts the moonraking story much as in later versions – local smugglers, retrieving contraband from a watery hiding place, are surprised by excisemen, and to evade arrest feign stupidity by pretending that they are raking out what they mistakenly take to be a cheese, but which in fact is the moon’s reflection. He locates the event to his native Poulshot, and refers to ‘two or three of my countrymen of old’ as the moonrakers – ‘his grandmother declares it to be so’. This wording would seem to take the story back at least a generation before 1791, say to about 1760, and perhaps earlier.

But it would be nice to have a consensus about when and where the confrontation occurred. Besides the Poulshot claim, ponds or streams at Collingbourne Ducis, Tilshead and in the Bishop’s Cannings area are often cited, including the Crammer on Devizes Green (which lay within the parish of Bishop’s Cannings until the 19th century). Altogether Les Reeves, who has published a brief study of such matters, found about twenty claimants in Wiltshire, and nationally there are said to be more than forty. The Tilshead claim (a pond called Ben-Shee between Tilshead and Orcheston) was made in 1933 and referred to a named ancestor of the claimant living only about 100 years earlier – so he cannot be the original moonraker. The Cannings strands of the tradition may simply have arisen because, like Gotham near Nottingham, all local examples of rustic stupidity were ascribed to ‘Cannings volk’.

What seems clear is that moonraking has to do with smuggling, and perhaps it was a local slang term for the ‘gentlemen who passed by’ on this illegal but widely  condoned occupation. If so, it may have arisen from a real incident, or several real incidents, or perhaps it was just an allusion to people who hid and then fished around for contraband in obscure places under cover of darkness. Moonshine and moonlighting have similar illicit connotations. What is certainly true is that the handling and passage of smuggled goods, which were landed on the south coast and then taken ‘up-country’ through rural Wiltshire, was a widespread and lucrative activity during the 18th century. The Rowde man, Robert Trotman, killed by excisemen near Poole while leading a band of smugglers in 1765, is only the best known of many Wiltshire practitioners – and Rowde, it should be noted, is next door to Poulshot.

So what evidence we have points to the Devizes area in the mid 18th century as the most likely origin of the moonrakers story. But the concept of moonraking goes back much further. It is found in France, where les pescalunes were the simpletons of Aurillac in the Auvergne. The old fable of Del gupil e de la lune ( ‘the fox and the moon’) was reworked in the 12th-century by Marie de France (fable 58). It tells of a fox who, seeing the moon’s reflection in a pond and mistaking it for a cheese, set about drinking the pond dry in order to retrieve it – until he burst. The mysterious Marie is generally regarded as the earliest significant woman writer in French, although it is likely that she lived in England. In fact one quite plausible identification is with Marie, abbess of Shaftesbury from 1181-1216, who was of course a major Wiltshire landowner. Perhaps therefore the story of the reflected cheese, like the phases of the moon, is cyclical.