The Dorset Ooser

Menacing, mystical mask made to terrify!

From: Dorset Museum

The ooser is part of 18th-19th century Dorset folk culture. The menacing masks were used in traditional midwinter and May Day gatherings. The purpose was either to light-heartedly scare people in village revels, or to humiliate those who were deemed to have behaved immorally.

Half man, half beast

The ooser was designed to glare menacingly. It is mythical or devil-like in appearance – half man and half beast, with its flowing locks, beard and bullock’s horns.  Oosers appear to have a lump in the middle of their forehead, thought to be like a third ‘all-seeing eye’. 

The head was hollow, so the ooser could be worn as a mask. The wearer could open and close the jaws, making it even more terrifying!

The original oosers

There may have been many oosers around Dorset, but no original exists.  There is a record in 1891 of an ooser in the possession of Thomas Cave of Holt Farm in Melbury Osmond. He was said to have used it for scaring children who trespassed on the farm!

This ooser then passed to a relative, doctor Edward Cave. He is said to have taken the ooser when he moved to Crewkerne. But its whereabouts can’t be traced after 1897.

Double trouble at Dorset Museum!

Dorset Museum has two oosers. One is a ceramic model, made in the 1990s by master potter, Guy Sydenham, in his Portland studios.

The other is a wooden replica carved by John Byfleet for the Wessex Morris Men in 1975. It is still used in Morris dancing performances. See photos below.

The jaw on this ooser moves – operated by a string at the back of the head.

Oosers in literature

The 19th century Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, defined the ooser, oose or wurse as ‘a mask…with grim jaws, put on with a cow’s skin to frighten folk.  “Wurse” … is a name of the arch-fiend.’ 

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) refers to oosers in his novels The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Hardy describes a custom known as ‘Skimity Riding’ or ‘Rough Music’, a form of public humiliation for those who were believed to have behaved immorally – and the ooser played a part in this.

Old photo of the original Dorset Ooser mask.
The original Dorset Ooser, formerly in possession of the Cave family.
Photo of the ceramic Dorset ooser made by Guy Sydenham.
Dorset Museum's ceramic ooser made by potter, Guy Sydenham.
Wooden version of the Dorset Ooser by John Byfleet.
Dorset Museum's wooden replica ooser, made by John Byfleet.
Five Morris Men standing with the ooser in Dorset Museum.
Wessex Morris Men with the ooser in Dorset Museum, 2016.
Photo of the wooden Dorset Ooser being carried through the streets by the Wessex Morris Men.
Wessex Morris Men on parade with the ooser in Cerne Abbas, 2017. Photo Mark North.
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