(n.) a perpetually busy person, or someone who always appears busy but isn’t
Spare a thought for Throp’s wife, who popped up on HH this afternoon.
As we explained over on Twitter, a Throp’s wife is a proverbially busy person, or, alternatively, someone who seems busy but never actually achieves anything. The earliest record of that expression dates from 1762, while a later extended version—as thrang as Throp’s wife, when she hanged herself with the dishclout—appeared in the nineteenth century. Both, we can presume, were probably in use locally much earlier than that.
But all of this begs a few of questions. First of all, what is thrang? Well, that’s a regional English word meaning “busy”. (A dishclout, should you also need to know, is a cloth for cleaning dishes.)
Secondly, who was Throp? And, more importantly, why was his wife so busy?
The short answer here is, alas, that we don’t really know. But that doesn’t mean that we’re completely clueless.
Throp is an old metastasized (i.e. reshuffled) version of the surname Thorpe; derived from an Old English word for “village” (as in place names like Scunthorpe and Cleethorpes) Thorpe is classed as a “locational” or toponymic surname, namely one that would have originally been intended to show the birthplace or hometown of the person or family in question.
There aren’t many Throps in the history books to report about, but there is at least one—and her existence makes compelling evidence for who might be at the root of this expression.
In 1621, six women from the village of Timble near Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, were accused of witchcraft by a local man (and a renowned Elizabethan poet and translator) named Edward Fairfax.
Fairfax, who was from one of the county’s most prominent and noble families, believed that two of his young daughters, Hellen and Elizabeth, had fallen under the spell of a coven of six local witches—among them, one Margaret Throp, the wife of a local merchant named Ralph Throp.
The six women were twice brought to the York Assizes to face an array of (largely trumped-up) charges related to witchcraft, and were both times acquitted, thanks in part to the heartfelt testimonies of many local parishioners and the vicar of the nearby village of Fewston. Margaret ultimately escaped prosecution, and got on with the rest of her life in peace. Fairfax, however, was undeterred.
Not wanting to let his accusations lead to nothing, in 1635 he published a major treatise on the entire affair entitled Daemonologica: A Discourse on Witchcraft. In it, he outlined in painstaking detail all the times that his children and the supposed “Timble Witches” had interacted:
On Tuesday, the 10th of September, Elizabeth saw Thorp’s wife, who put her finger in her mouth and so caused her to spit a great deal of blood. From Sunday, the 15th of September, until the end of the month, the children were often in trances, and saw, at several times, Thorp's wife ... On Friday, the 11th of October, Elizabeth in [a] trance saw the black cat ... and Thorp's wife also, who told her they would have the life of one of them before the next assizes.
Edward Fairfax, Daemonologica (c.1635)
The book continues like this for some 200 pages—and throughout it all, just as in this extract, Margaret is somewhat circuitously referred to as “Throp’s wife.”
Was Fairfax’s Daemonologica (and the bizarre accusations outlined in it) enough to establish the expression Throp’s wife in the language? Was her curious behaviour around the time of the 1621 Timble trials enough to associate her permanently with busyness and industriousness? Was the fact that the trials led to an acquittal enough to associated her with achieving little despite great effort? It’s all certainly possible—and without any other evidence forthcoming, it seems likely that Margaret is indeed the “Throp’s wife” that people are proverbially as “thrang” as.