Island retailers are likely to be bracing themselves for a new challenge to their various customer-bases after two reported sightings of 19th-century mountebanks in the Calbourne area yesterday, writes Business, Fishing & Education Correspondent Kelly Sye.
Mountebanks were common in the past, before the advent of the motor car and better road systems, in the days when communities were smaller and more scattered. These itinerant salesmen would travel to visit many remote areas, peddling their various wares.
In those days, when people were more gullible and susceptible and ill-informed in their isolated little villages and hamlets, they were easy prey to the mountebanks, who exploited their vulnerability. Many travelling tradesmen sold people genuine goods and services, such as knife-grinding and liquorice, but the mountebanks would proffer elixirs of life, quack nostrums and dubious clairvoyant readings.
Most people had assumed that mountebanks as a species died out with the coming of the electric light and toilet paper. Now it seems that the mountebanks may be returning to the Isle of Wight, if Mrs Hattie Miliner is to be believed.
"I seen this chap walking 'long the road near Five Houses, when I was comin' home on my bike from visitin' my sisters Hettie an' Lettie what lives at Stonesteps", Mrs Miliner told us. "As I goes by, he hails me down. ''scuse me, Madam', he says, all posh like. 'But could you tell me the way to Calbourne where the thatched cottages be?' Well, I asks him how he knows about the cottages, 'cos no-one is like to know about them who isn't a local, an' this gentleman was a furriner, you could tell by his long coat an' tall hat an' side-whiskeries.
"Well, he tells me such a tale as how he 'as had such trouble 'memberin' the names and directions to places afore he heard about this here drink, called 'Nunkerton's Octopus Oil', an' these 'Huniversal Lozenges' that helps a body get about among the countryside.
"Anyroad, he sells me a bottle of this 'Hoctopus Oil' for nobbit £15, which is half price, an' 'e wishes me a good day. He were ever so polite, not like folk these days who'd as soon knock a body off her bicycle with their bloomin' great pantricknicons as pass the time o' day.
"When I gets 'ome, I show the bottle to Jonty, me 'usband, an' he calls me a stupid moo an' tips the 'Hoctopus Oil' down the sink. Well! We 'aven't spoke since."
Mrs Miliner's claim was later backed up by mole-catcher Ishmael Nunty, who reported that a man in a top hat spoke to him for an hour over a hedge near Mudless Copse on such divers subjects as "they fakers in Hindia what mesmriseses snakes, how the humin mind is bigger on the hinside than the houtside an' that's why hat size is himmaterial, an' how to get girls into bed without 'avin ter wash." Nunty went home that night with a bottle of 'Grampound's Electric Nerve Linctus' and 2 jars of 'Lampwick's Love Lotion'.
Chairman of Rye Board of Trade, Ted Whelkstand, was in defensive mood when we spoke to him on the phone about the sightings. "Look, as yet these are unconfirmed stories and, even if they are true, this is likely to be some charity stunt or rag week ploy by students from the University.
"The notion that 19th century mountebanks are at large on the Isle of Wight, persuading people to buy their remedies is frankly absurd. These mountebanks used to take advantage of simple-minded folk who lived in tiny, backward, isolated, old-fashioned communities. There's no reason why they should succeed here. Besides, they'd be getting on for 200 years old if they were still alive, and people that elderly could never outgun the retail sector on the Isle of Wight.
"My wife assured me it was a student that she bought the 'galvanic belt' and 'Frobisher's Pyretic Saline' from when she was visiting her mother at Gatcombe this afternoon, and I would never dare doubt her veracity."
So the home forces are holding firm for the moment. But is there a genuine threat from an influx of invading mountebanks? No doubt there will be more to come from this story. The Isle of Wight News is the place to find it if there is.