As I get older, things bother me. Not things that have any right to bother me. Irrational things. Inconsequential things. They prey on my mind until somehow I manage to nag some sense into them. I am a yellowbelly (actually yellerbelly if you’re from these parts). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it does not imply cowardice – although, God knows, I can run away with the best of them – it simply means that I come from Lincolnshire and this morning I started to wonder why the good folk of Lincolnshire are so called. I have done my usual diligent research (five minutes on Google), but there are so many possible answers, most of them improbable, some of them mad, that even I, desperate for closure, cannot settle on one that has even a scintilla of common sense about it. They all have such basic flaws in rationale that I began to believe that I could never know the answer, but then I thought, what the heck, I’ll run them all past you and see what you think. At the very least, it can keep you awake as well…
So, the first theory I came across was The Frog Theory. It is said that in the days of undrained fenland, a species of frog (or possibly newt, or eel dependent upon whom you believe) found in the Lincolnshire Fens had a yellow belly. Right, so, for a start, I believe that even I would be able to tell a frog from a newt, yellow belly or no yellow belly. And as for an eel, well, it’s a fish isn’t it? No legs: surely a giveaway. I’m pretty certain that anybody able to get close enough to ascertain that the beastie had a yellow belly would have been able to discern whether what they were looking at was a possible Parisian delicacy, a cockney takeaway or something to stop them building a housing estate. Anyway, I’m sure there were brown bellied frogs, newts, eels and probably all manner of other subaqueous species living in the flooded fenlands at the time. We are not called brownbellies, so I’m ruling that nonsense out.
Then there is the proposition that we are so-called because the Lincolnshire Regiment wore green uniforms with yellow facings. I’m not sure what a ‘facing’ is, but I’m guessing it’s not the belly, so that, too, seems a little dubious. However, I then read that the officers of the Lincolnshire Regiment wore yellow waistcoats during the American War of Independence so that they could be easily seen by their troops – whilst remaining invisible to enemy snipers presumably. Now this all seems much more plausible, until you read that officially Lincolnshire Regiment officers have never worn yellow waistcoats. The troops did, however, have yellow fastenings on their tunics which were called ‘frogs’ (or possibly newts or eels?). Not convincing is it?
Next up, we have whole tranche of theories that concern Lincolnshire farmers. Apparently, being poor, many Lincolnshire farmers subsisted on belly pork, which they left to hang for long periods, whereupon, apparently, it turned yellow. Could be true, but, honestly is that enough for us to be called yellowbellies. A pint of milk left out for long enough goes a most fetching shade of green. I’m guessing quite a lot of fenland farmers did that as well, but we’re not called greenbellies are we? Sorry, no. I’m ruling that one out too, although there is plenty more farming apocrypha to go yet, some of which is, thankfully, more plausible than our association with reasty pig fat. Apparently the backs of farm workers who stripped in the sun turned brown whilst their bellies turned yellow. Yellow? Really? I suggest they might need to see a doctor. I suggest they might need to stop drinking. It is also said that these same workers used opium to counteract the malaria that was rife in the fens at this time. Opium, evidently, turns the belly yellow. OK, I can believe that: it also turns the sky green and the grass blue. It strikes me that, if the entire county workforce was smacked out on opium because of the malaria, we would not be known as yellowbellies. ‘Ghastly shade of yellow all over’ possibly. But not just the belly. It doesn’t add up, does it? More likely, I suppose, is the theory that the farmers got yellow bellies whilst tending and harvesting mustard crops. I can accept that theory, except that they also probably got dungy boots from tending the cows and we’re not known as shittyfeet are we? (Are we?) Other claims are that the sheep grazing in the fields of mustard got yellow bellies and even that farmers smeared yellow paint on the undercarriages of the rams in order to see which ewes had been ‘covered’. Both of these I can accept, but neither of them explains why Lincolnshire people became known as yellowbellies, unless they… No, I won’t even consider that!
Some claim that the mail stagecoaches that ran between Lincoln and London had yellow undersides, whilst others claim that the coach drivers wore yellow waistcoats. In either case, the story goes that upon their arrival, the cheerful cockneys, pausing for a moment from sewing pearly buttons onto their hats and chatting to their old cock linnets, cried out in unison ‘Here come the Lincolnshire Yellowbellies’ before, presumably, singing a song about their old bamboo and stuffing their children up the chimney. In truth, the kind of indifference with which London folk tend to treat northerners would actually, I fear, have led to us being known has ‘What?’, ‘Who?’ or ‘I never even seen ‘em Guv’ rather than yellowbellies. I’m not buying that one.
Now, one rather more credible tale is that of female street market traders who had two pockets in the front of their aprons; one for copper and silver and the other for gold. After a busy day of trading, a merchant may well have a pocket full of gold: a yellow belly. Problem is, nothing actually ties this to Lincolnshire. I’ve seen Eastenders. Surely it’s more likely to be somebody selling fruit and veg down there isn’t it? How likely were Lincolnshire market traders to take sovereigns, when a groat would probably buy enough suppurating pig to see you through to Easter, sufficient opium to render you oblivious to the myriad discomforts associated with malaria and possibly a saffron-hued amphibian for the kids. I’m not sure about this.
So, I am now left with two possible explanations; the first of them the most likely. It would appear that the counties of England were divided into administrative areas known as Wapentakes. One such Wapentake in Lincolnshire was Elloe, known colloquially as Elloe Bellie (Bel being an old Saxon term for low-lying). Now that sounds reasonable doesn’t it? I’m prepared to bet that this is the most likely explanation – although it’s not much fun is it? So, before you have to make my mind up for me, I will leave you with my favourite explanation; implausible on so many levels that it probably requires an elevator. It would appear that a Lincolnshire lady had a canary that died. She replaced it with a yellow-bellied frog in the belief that, being yellow, it would sing like a canary, which she implored it to do, saying ‘Now sing yellow belly’. And it probably would have done too, had it not turned out to be an eel…
Lincolnshire Syndrome: A typical malaise affecting those who live in secluded rural areas such as Lincolnshire, England. Symptoms include lack of urban awareness; an aversity to progress; general social/racial ignorance and crucially the inability to accept that such areas are generally shit. Urban Dictionary