In his Memoranda for 2nd March 1664, whilst living at Coley Hall, Reverend Oliver Heywood wrote: “There is also a strange noise in the air heard of many in these parts this winter, called Gabriel-Ratches (sic) by this country-people, the noise is as if a great number of whelps were barking and howling, and ‘tis observed that if any see them the persons that see them die shortly after, they are never heard but before a great death or dearth.” Heywood is keen to point out, however, “Though I never heard them”.
The phenomenon known variously as the Gabble Ratchets or the Gabriel Hounds was not unique to the lower Calder valley. It was notorious throughout England, although primarily concentrated and surviving longest in the northern counties. The tradition was still familiar to the Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth in 1807. One of his sonnets from that year contains the lines “For overhead are sweeping the Gabriel Hounds / Doomed with the imperious lord, the flying hart / To chase forever on aerial grounds”.
Given the geographical range of the belief, the exact nature of the Gabble Ratchets varied somewhat. In his Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England of 1879, folklorist William Henderson described them as “monstrous human-headed dogs, who traverse the air, and are often heard although seldom seen.” However, Henderson goes on to add “In the neighbourhood of Leeds the phenomenon is… held to be the souls of unbaptised children doomed to flit restlessly around their parents home”.
In all traditions, they were thought to portend death or disaster. As spectral hounds, they were believed to be hunting the souls of the newly dead. Indeed, the term “Ratchets” may be derived from the Old English word “ræcc”, meaning a dog that hunts by scent. “Gabble” is probably just an onomatopoeic representation of the noise they made. One source from Sheffield informed Henderson that “the sound was exactly like the questing of a dozen beagles on the foot of a race, but not so loud and highly suggestive of ideas of the supernatural”.
It is thought the Gabble Ratchets may be derived from the Celtic Cŵn Annwn (Hounds of the Underworld), mentioned by the Sixth Century Welsh poet, Taliesin. The Cŵn Annwn were similarly imagined as a pack of spectral hounds, led by a black horned figure. Equally, there are correspondences with the Germanic myth of the Wild Hunt, who followed in the wake of the god Woden. The Wild Hunt was also known in some parts of southern England, where it was led by Herne the Hunter or even the Devil himself.
Belief in the Gabble Ratchets was dismissed by learned authorities as long ago as 1686. For instance, Robert Plot, first Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, believed their infamous cacophony to be nothing more than the cries of migrating geese. An ornithologist writing to Notes & Queries almost two centuries later concurred, identifying them as “bean-geese, coming southwards in large flocks on the approach of winter from Scandinavia. They choose dark nights for their migration and utter a loud and peculiar cry”.