The cautionary tale of the girl who ate all the pies, a ruthless king and a terrifying imp – Weird Suffolk gives you the county’s equivalent to Rumpelstiltskin

If the story we are about to tell sounds strangely familiar, it’s because it is – Suffolk’s own version of Rumpelstitskin, however, is far more terrifying. In the Grimm brothers’ story, Rumpelstiltskin is a little man with a big temper, while in the local version, Tom Tit Tot is a “hideous brownie”, a black imp with a long tail who strikes a similar bargain to his German cousin. Said to be linked to Stowmarket, the tale is about a greedy girl who ate all the pies and whose mother, inadvertently got her into bother with the king of the land.

The story is one of many attributed to ‘the name of the supernatural helper’ stories which all share a similar arc, that of a strange creature that takes on a task for a price and makes a deal that can only be broken with guesswork. Contributed to The Ipswich Journal on January 15 1878 by Anna Walter-Thomas, who recreated it in full Suffolk dialect, it had been told to her by her nurse when she was a child in the 1850s. It goes a little something like this.

A woman baked five pies, but over-baked their crusts so that they were too hard to eat – she asked her daughter to place the pies on a shelf while the crusts softened, but the girl was greedy and ate them up. When the woman found out what the girl had done, she was furious and vented her spleen in a ditty she composed as she sat at her spinning wheel: “My darter ha’ ate five pies today...” Little did she realise, however, that the king was walking past and hearing her song but not the words, he stopped and asked her what she’d been singing.

Ashamed, she lied, telling him she’d been singing that her daughter had spun five skeins that day. Impressed, the king made the woman an offer: he would marry the girl and for 11 months of the year she’d live a wonderful life – the drawback? That for the last month, the girl would need to spin five skeins daily, or… the king would kill her. Keen to offload the girl and assuming he would forget the wager after a year, the woman agreed and the pair married, and for the first 11 months the marriage was wonderful. And then the 12th month arrived.

The girl thought her husband had forgotten but on the last day of the 11th month he took her into a room where there was a spinning wheel and a stool and told her that the next day she would be shut in with food, water and flax. If there weren’t five skeins by the end of the next day, her head would be chopped off. The girl, of course, had no idea how to spin and began to cry and cry in the kitchen, imagining her terrible death the next evening. All of a sudden, she heard a knock, low down on the door – when she opened it, she saw a strange creature, black with a long, twirly tail. It asked her why she was crying, she explained and the creature offered to do her work for her, secretly, so she could dupe the king. In return, the girl would have to agree to be his…unless she could guess his name within a month. The behaviour of men in Suffolk’s fairytales does, it have to be said, leave a lot to be desired.

Each night the imp gave the girl her five skeins and three attempts to guess his name: each night she guessed his name, each time incorrectly to the creature’s glee. On the night before the last day, when she guessed incorrectly, he looked at her “…with eyes like a coal of fire and said ‘woman, there’s only tomorrow night and then you’ll be mine!” before flying away. The king, as he collected his skeins, decided to grace his wife with his presence for supper and told her a strange story about what he’d seen in the woods: he’d seen an imp, at a spinning wheel, working flax and singing a song.

“Nimmy, nimmy not, my name’s Tom Tit Tot…”

You can guess the rest. The woman was saved from a life with a malicious imp and instead lived out her days with a king who thought nothing of forcing his wife into slave labour with a threat of death over her head – so, not the best of happy endings, all things considered.