Ever wondered how kettles got their whistle? It’s probably not one of life’s deepest searching questions but none the less about 20 years ago if you wanted a hot cup of tea then it was pretty important. In fact in this modern age when kettles just simply ‘click’ we seem to have lost that certain anticipation when kettles whistled shrilly to announce to all within earshot that the water was hot enough for a brew. Logically thinking one might suppose that the whistling kettle was invented by some boffin locked away in a dusty laboratory but speak to the folks in the Chagford area and you may get a surprise. According to a story in an old Doige’s Annual the whistling kettle was not a result of the inventor’s mind but by the magic of the Old Crockern.
The days when the only way to boil a kettle was to place it on a trivet were the same times as when the piskies ruled Dartmoor and all the folk were under no illusion as to their existence. The other fact that humans were well aware of was that every piskie had a hoard of treasure hidden away in their little homes which were usually in some rocky crevice among the granite clitters that spew down from the tors. Now, the piskies knew that the moorfolk knew of their wealth and went to great lengths never to be seen going in or coming out of their dwellings, that way their gold, tin and gems would be safe from sticky fingers. The problem arose during the daytime when the piskies were out digging deep in the earth for the ‘colour’, as the gold and tin was called, or on the full moon nights when they held their revels. For it was at these times that the little homes of the little folk were left as empty as a cider barrel at a harvest home. Unlike their human neighbours they could not keep a guard dog because if it was a full sized one it would probably eat them and the piskie dogs were too small to scare away any thieves.
This serious matter was brought up at one of the piskie council meetings that were regularly held on Pew Tor. It arose after an old piskie had his life savings (which totalled 247 years) stolen from his home whilst he was mining deep down in the old Wheal Fortune. For hours the little folk argued as to how best solve the problems with suggestions that ranged from cutting all the human’s hands off to storing all their wealth in one big huge box deep down in the bowels of Dartmoor. The first option was ruled out because it meant that if the humans had no hands they couldn’t leave the bowls of cream at night for the piskies. The last idea was really a non-starter because the little folk trusted each other only marginally more than the moor folk. Finally the king in exasperation sent one of his ministers to see Old Crockern the spirit of Dartmoor whom they had known for hundreds of years. It was agreed that the council would meet again in one week to see what worldly advice Old Crockern had sent from his home on Crockern Tor. The week passed swiftly and on the eve of the quarter moon the piskies assembled on Pew Tor to hear the news. As the little folk waited for the council to convene they chattered and chirruped excitedly as to the possible outcome when eventually a loud thud on the top table announced that parliament was in session. An old wizened piskie with a green wart on his nose stood up, cleared his throat and proudly lifted up a shiny kettle made from what appeared to be gold and silver. The throng fell silent, probably because all there mouths were opened wide as a barn door, little eyes bulged in amazement and eventually jeers and chuckles erupted from around the granite chamber. One piskie yelled out that Crockern had lost his marbles whilst another considered that he was having a laugh, a young impish piskie even dared to suggest that the old spirit of the moor had been at the blackberry brandy. When a modicum of silence finally descended the old counsellor with the green wart calmly explained that this was a magic kettle and if simply placed on the trivet it would quietly steam away and how Crockern’s magic ensured there was always water in it so it would never boil dry. However, if a human should come within 13 feet of it then the kettle would immediately come to the boil and an ear piercing whistle would blast out of the spout and as the kettle would never run out of water it would whistle for ever if need be. This would firstly frighten the thieving human away and secondly the whistle would let the piskies know a human was in their house. So in a way it could be thought of as something akin to the modern day burglar alarm except it was powered by steam as opposed to electricity. The assembly fell silent and slowly little heads began to nod with approval as the idea grew on them. The old councillor with the green wart explained that if ever any of the piskies should hear a shrill whistle then they should hurry to the house where it was coming from and send the thief packing. Again this was very similar to the community watch scheme that is so popular today. With this news the piskies were pleased, so much so that the king ordered crates of blackberry brandy and heather blossom cake to be brought out and a good night was had by all.
Within 7 days every piskie home had a gold and silver kettle steaming upon a trivet over its hearth and within 13 days the first kettle had whistled and the little folk had sent the would-be thief packing with a bar iron wrapped around his head. Within 14 days these events had spread around the moorland inns and the moor folk’s curiosity was growing as to what a whistling kettle looked like. But after seeing the huge bandage wrapped around the would-be thief’s head nobody wanted to take the matter any further. That is until the story reached the ears of Squinty Peplar who was an old, retired tinner who lived in a small cott the other side of Teigncombe. Now there are a couple of things you should know about the old miner, firstly he was called ‘Squinty’ because in old age his eyesight was failing fast which meant he had to squint closely at everything. Secondly being a miner of some 40 years he had met the piskies on many occasions whilst down the mines and so they held no fear for him. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, Squinty Peplar also had a deep passion for scalding hot tea, some say he would drink China dry given half the chance. The only problem was that as his eyesight was so poor he could never see when the kettle had boiled, add to this his siatics which troubled him terribly and you can see why he didn’t want to keep getting up and down from his chair. This resulted in him either drinking cold tea which he detested or the kettle boiling dry and him having to have a jug of cider instead. But once he heard this story he saw the answer to his problems; providing he sat exactly 13 feet away from the kettle it would keep coming to the boil and whistle when it was steaming hot which would mean he could always have a scalding hot cup of tea without a wasted journey to the trivet.
Now after 40 years spent down the mines old Squinty knew where a few of the piskies lived and on the night of the next full moon he paid them a visit. As the old miner knew too well a full moon meant a piskie revel and every piskie loved a good revel which meant the little house would be empty. Once he had scrabbled painfully into the little kitchen he could see a gold and silver kettle boiling on the trivet, with a surprisingly quick snatch he grabbed the kettle and stuffed it in an old sack he had brought to muffle the sound. Then he hauled himself out of the tiny room and shambled back to his little cott where he placed the kettle on his own trivet. Having done that he sat down in his old chair and eagerly awaited the whistle, fortunately the old miner only had to wait 26 seconds to hear the kettle whistle and soon he was at down enjoying a piping hot mug of tea. The next few days saw streams of visitors shown his new acquisition who all naturally wanted to know where the whistling kettle came from. I would imagine that they all knew deep down where it came from but they were all too afraid to take the matter any further. Squinty’s whistling kettle became the talk of the town as well as every town and village on the moor and everyone agreed that they would all love such a kettle whilst at the same time thinking quietly to themselves that there was no way they were going thieving from the piskies – the consequences were too dire.
It so happened that a journeyman who travelled in pots and pans got to hear the story of the whistling kettle and he also realised the demand for such a thing would mean a huge profit. He also knew that there was no way he could steal enough of the kettles from the piskies so one night he sat down with quill and paper and applied his mind to the problem. The next morning saw him bleary eyed surrounded by balls of scrumpled up paper, blunt quills and stalactites of melted candle wax, in his hand was a design of a kettle with the squeaker from a fox caller shoved down the end. It did not take long for the prototype to be made and squeaking away on his trivet, the only problem was the sound, it was nothing like a whistle and quite frankly would soon get on one’s nerves. Over the next few days the squeaker was adapted and slowly the squeaking changed to a melodic whistle which began to trill when the water in the kettle was steaming hot. The following week his pony’s crook was laden with whistling kettles and a month later the journeyman had sold his design to a kettle maker in Plymouth which made him very rich man indeed. Three months later every combe and valley on the moor echoed to the sound of whistling kettles which sadly had the piskies running around like demented banshees – needless to say they had to come up with another form of burglar alarm but we won’t go into that here.
So, that is how the kettle got its whistle and in future if you’re asked who invented the whistling kettle you can say with great authority – Old Crockern came up with the idea and Squinty Peplar stole it from the piskies.