Poor Billy Wignall. How was he to know that a slice of Manchester Tart would end up summoning the devil?
Billy was the landlord of The Black Bull pub in Mawdesley, Lancashire, in the 1870s. It was a fine and popular public house (indeed, it still is - see below) and Billy had a reputation for keeping a good barrel of ale. In addition, Billy's wife Annie was a fine cook. Her speciality was Manchester Tart (again, see below). Small wonder that it was often difficult to be served a drink in The Black Bull, such was its popularity.
The trouble started one Sunday afternoon in December. Ged Maher and Arthur Swarbrick had been supping in the public bar since they'd left church. And, being unmarried men, they were hungry.
"Give us a slice of Annie's Manchester Tart, owd lad," Arthur says to Billy.
"Aye - that sounds like a grand plan," says Ged,"I think I shall avail you of a slice too, William."
But there's no Manchester Tart left and, this being the Lord's day, there's no way on earth Annie is about to set about making anymore. So Billy has to break the truth to Ged and Arthur - either they share, or one of them has to do without.
What do they do? Why! They start fighting of course. Vicious fighting it is too. And then John Goddard joins in...and Peter Gill...and Victor Alty...even Phillip Ackerley has a go. Pretty soon the whole pub is brawling. Billy's pleading with them to stop, and Annie's on standby with the rolling pin. But nothing seems to calm them down - some say it got so out of hand that Billy had to dig a pit out back to bury the pieces of ear and lips and finger that got lost in action.
But the revellers were unaware that in Mawdesley Hall, just next door, there was a boggart. And boggarts love a ruckus, so this one thinks he might fancy a pint of ale or two when he hears the commotion coming from the Black Bull.
Mr Boggart floats under the door and is shocked at the utter carnage and devastation he sees in front of him. He can't bring himself to make more mischief - it seems wrong somehow, because enough mischief is being made as it is. So what does he do? He takes the poker off the wall and starts flinging it round the place, to split the brawlers up. It works, of course, since to all mortals present, it looks for all the world like the fire iron is flying round the room of its own free will - men cannot see boggarts, you see.
Well, it's said that the devil himself found this whole spectacle very entertaining indeed and from time to time he would have a play about with the poker himself, for his own amusement. It's because of this that locals started to call The Black Bull "The Hell Hob" - a nickname which still exists for the pub today.
NOTE: You can visit The Black Bull and still enjoy a fine pint of ale, although the devil's poker is now bolted to the wall to avoid accidents (find it in the no smoking area). It's on Hall Lane in Mawdesley, Lancashire, which some might know as the Eccleston road. The alleged pit of body parts is under the boules green.
As for Manchester Tart, here's a slightly simplified version of the recipe as found in "Cassell's Dictionary of Cookery" from the 1880s.
Strawberry or apricot jam
1/2 pint milk
Thinly peeled rind of a lemon
2 oz white breadcrumbs
4 oz caster sugar
2 oz butter
4 tablespoons brandy
2 large eggs, separated
Line an 8" tart tin with the pastry. Spread it with the jam, fairly generously.
Place the milk, lemon peel and breadcrumbs in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and extract the lemon peel.
Add about a third of the sugar, the brandy and the egg yolks. Pour this mixture into the tart tin and cook at 180 °C (350°F or Gas mark 4) for thirty minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites and remaining sugar to the stiff peak stage, as if one were making meringues. Spread this mixture smoothly over the tart and bake for a further twenty minutes, until golden brown.
Serve hot or cold, with thick double or clotted cream for preference.