Yep, that’s not a typo: the author really is called that. Wirt Sikes was the American ambassador to South Wales and while in residence he decided to research and write about the folk tales of his adopted home. He drew a lot of material from two previous authors, William Howells, who compiled a book called ‘Cambrian Superstitions’ in 1831, and Edmund Jones, who was active in the late 18th century (see my forthcoming article in the next issue of Phenomena Magazine for more on Jones). Sikes also gleaned a lot of material from one T H Thomas, a keen collector of folk tales. Thomas contributed the many attractive illustrations to British Goblins.
My copy is a UK first edition published in 1880 (an American edition was published a year later). The publishers, Sampson Low, put considerable effort into the designs of their books during this period and ‘British Goblins’ boasts a particularly appealing cover: one of Thomas’s illustrations, depicting a man crumbling to dust after returning from a long spell in fairyland, has been engraved on the front in gilt, black and ghostly white. The spine shows another illustration, of a will o’ the wisp, similarly rendered. The cover alone makes the book a joy to own, and Thomas’s illustrations have been widely reproduced. My own writing has largely been devoted to Welsh folklore and this copy of ‘British Goblins’ is one I’m especially fond of in my collection.
But the book isn’t just a pleasing artifact: Sikes has compiled his material with care and it’s packed with information. It’s also a thoroughly good read. ‘British Goblins’ has often been reprinted over the years, so you needn’t fork out for a Victorian copy if you fancy giving it a go.