The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Toad-Eater of Suffolk, William Utting.

The great East Anglian diarist, John Rous, the incumbent of Santon Downham from 1625 to 1642, wrote about many momentous events, but it was the personal reminiscences that we value.  It is quite suddenly, in the narrative, that we come across his affectionate account of  William Utting, the Toad Eater.
"In October 1629, I having been at Wickham Market, at my cousin Games’s, with my wife and Anthony, in our return, about Kesgrave, between Woodbridge and Ipswich, I fell into the company of one Paine, a shopkeeper in Laxfield, of whom, after much talk about Mr. Skinner and my old acquaintance at Laxfield and Dennington, I inquired of him if William Utting the toad-eater (of whom, see in my first long notebook, covered with redder forrell [a book case], page 43, and in the notes of 1612) did not once keep at Laxfield. He told me yes, and said he had seen him eat a toad, nay two. The man in whose house he kept went to him for his sake, and after salutation, told him that a friend of his would give a groat to see him eat a toad (thus was the way to see it). He accepted the offer, and went and fetched in, from under blocks, 2 toads, and, rubbing of the earth (as in my other book), he swallowed them down. But presently he cast them up into his hands, and after some pause, “Nay,” says he, “I will not lose my groat,” so taking that which came up last (says he), “thou went in first before and shall so do again.” When both then were down, his stomach held them, and he had his groat. This said Paine. See my notebook, what I saw, &c."

 Sadly, we don't have the notes he refers to.  

We no longer have professional Toad Eaters We look at the idea with the same bewilderment as they would on being told that we, in our times, have professional influencers and activists. William Utting was not the only Toad Eater. Fairs would, in the seventeenth century,  seem drab and boring without one. The general public believed at the time that toads were poisonous rather than just revolting to eat, and William would announce that, if enough coins  were thrown at him, he would swallow a toad. The assembled company would, having thrown down their coins, would watch as the Toad Eater then swallowed the toad whole. Depending on his dramatic talents, he would then feign being poisoned, at which point he would be carried off to a concealed spot where he would regurgitate the toad.  There was a twist to this, if a snake-oil salesman was nearby. The salesman would come to the rescue, administer the reviving potion and the toad-eater would miraculously revive. 

The term 'Toad-eater' or 'Toady' came to be attached to any  mountebank’s servant at a fair, on whom all experiments used to be made in public by the quack doctor, his master for swallowing or putting up with insults, as disagreeable to a person of feeling as toads to the stomach.

Long after the novelty of the Toad Eater had gone, the phrase stayed in the language. It came to mean a poor female relation, and humble companion, or reduced gentlewoman, in a great family, the standing butt, on whom all kinds of practical jokes are played off, and all ill humours vented. (from The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose).

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