The Lambton worm is a popular legend from the North East of England. It takes place around the area of the river Wear near Sunderland.
The story tells of young John Lambton, heir to the Lambton Estate and his encounter with a giant worm (believed to actually be a dragon by some tellers of the story) which terrorised local villages in the surrounding area.
One fine Sunday, young John Lambton decided to skip church to go fishing instead. John came across an old man (or a witch in some versions of the tale) who warned him that no good can ever come from missing church. The sun was bright and the day was warm so John ignored the warning and continued with his fishing but caught nothing until the church service finished.
It was at this moment he cast his line and caught an eel-like creature said to be the size of his thumb (or up to three feet depending upon the version you hear).
It was such a strange looking thing, John believed he had in fact caught the devil himself and threw the creature down a nearby well.
Years go by and John Lambton left to fight in the crusades but the worm continued to grow and grow and the well became poisonous.
The growing worm became so large that it’s said it could wrap itself around Penshaw hill seven times (it is also claimed the hill involved was in fact Worm Hill in Fatfield).
As it outgrew the well the worm terrorised local villages eating sheep from the local flocks and drinking the milk of cows in huge amounts to satisfy its unearthly appetites. This of course was more than a minor inconvenience to local farmers and land owners. Even worse, the evil worm would think nothing of snatching small children which would come to an untimely and no doubt gruesome end.
After seven long years John Lambton returned to his homeland to find the horror he helped create. He decided he must be the one to kill the worm but before he could he came across the old man he met the day he caught the creature. The man warned that after killing the monster he must also kill the first living thing he sees after the event, failure to do this would result in a curse on the next nine generations of his family, a curse that for nine generations no Lambton would die peacefully in their beds.
To prevent the curse John arranged for a dog to be released after the death of the worm which he would signal with a blast from his hunting horn. Unfortunately, after slaying the worm, when the horn was sounded to release the hound John’s father was so overcome with emotion he ran to congratulate his brave son. John saw his father before he saw the hound but could not bring himself to dispatch his beloved father so killed the dog instead.
Unfortunately, killing the dog after seeing his father did nothing to avoid the curse and ensured the Lambton family would not die peacefully in their beds for nine generations.
As an aside, the curse did seem to have some merit in real life. It is claimed at least four of the nine generations of the Lambton family did indeed meet untimely ends:
1st generation: Robert Lambton, drowned at Newrig.
2nd generation : Sir William Lambton, a Colonel of Foot, killed at Marston Moor.
3rd generation : William Lambton, died in battle at Wakefield.
9th generation : Henry Lambton, died in his carriage crossing Lambton Bridge on 26 June 1761.
The story of the Lambton worm was made into a song in 1867 by C.M. Leaumane. It contains several words only found in the North East English dialect.
The song is recounted below with a basic translation of the more obscure words:
Lambton Worm Song
One Sunda morn young Lambton went
A-fishing in the Wear;
An’ catched a fish upon he’s heuk (=caught) (=his hook)
He thowt leuk’t vary queer. (=thought looked very strange)
But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was (=what kind of)
Young Lambton cudden’t tell-
He waddn’t fash te carry’d hyem, (=could not be bothered to carry it home)
So he hoyed it doon a well (=threw it down)
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, (=Be quiet, boys, shut your mouths)
An’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story, (=I’ll tell you all an awful)
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the worm. (=about)
Noo Lambton felt inclined te gan (=to go)
An’ fight i’ foreign wars.
He joined a troop ov Knights that cared
For nowther woonds nor scars, (=neither wounds)
An’ off he went te Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An varry seun forgat aboot (=very soon forgot about)
The queer worm i’ tha well.
But the worm got fat an’ grewed an’ grewed,
An’ grewed an aaful size;
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggly eyes.
An’ when at neets he craaled aboot (=nights) (=crawled around)
Te pick up bits o’ news,
If he felt dry upon the road,
He’d milk a dozen coos. (=cows)
This feorful worm would often feed (=fearful)
On caalves an’ lambs an’ sheep,
An’ swally little bairns alive (=swallow) (=children)
When they laid doon te sleep.
An when he’d eaten aall he cud (=all he could)
An’ he had had he’s fill,
He craaled away an’ lapped he’s tail (=wrapped)
Ten times roond Pensha Hill. (=Penshaw Hill, a local landmark)
The news ov this myest aaful worm (=most awful)
An’ his queer gannins on (=goings-on)
Seun crossed the seas, gat te the ears (=soon) (=got to)
Ov brave an’ bowld Sor John. (=bold)
So hyem he cam an’ catched the beast, (=home he came and caught)
An’ cut ‘im in twe haalves, (=cut him in two-halves)
An’ that seun stopped hes eatin’ bairns
An’ sheep an’ lambs an’ caalves.
So noo ye knaa hoo aall the foaks (=now you know how all the folk)
On byeth sides ov the Wear (=both)
Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep
An leeved i’ mortal feor. (=And lived in mortal fear)
So let’s hev one te brave Sor John (=let’s drink to brave Sir John)
That kept the bairns frae harm, (=from)
Saved coos an’ calves by myekin’ haalves (=making halves)
O’ the famis Lambton Worm. (=famous)
Noo lads, Aa’ll haad me gob, (=I’ll hold my mouth. Stop speaking)
That’s aall Aa knaa aboot the story (=All I known about)
Of Sir John’s clivvor job (=clever)
Wi’ the aaful Lambton Worm.
Here’s a wonderful video of the song which, even today, is sung in many schools around the North East of England:
As one final note, It is worth mentioning that the legend of the worm was a major inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel The Lair of the White Worm.
© Colin Lawson Books