These were said to be seven birds, flying together by night, whose cries forebode disaster. Belief in them was fairly common among seamen and coal-miners in the 19th century, these being risky occupations where whistling was thought to be unlucky. Sometimes the Whistlers were said to be the spirits of the dead, especially those who had themselves been miners or fishermen, returning to warn comrades of danger; when they were heard, one must at once stop work and go home, otherwise lives would be lost. Even those who knew the cries were in fact those of curlews and similar birds still dreaded the sound, and would not work till the next day (Henderson, 1866: 100; Burne, 1883: 231–2; Billson, 1895: 36–8; Wright, 1913: 197). In Leicestershire, the Whistlers were said to be seven colliers who got drunk on a Sunday and agreed to whistle after dark, for a bet; a whirlwind carried them up into the clouds, where they must fly as swifts for ever (Palmer, 1985: 61, 100–1). In Lancashire, some said they were the souls of wandering Jews, similarly doomed. In Worcestershire, and occasionally in Shropshire, it was said that ‘six of them fly about looking for the seventh, and when they find him the world will end’ (Burne, 1883: 232).
Swainson, 1885: 180–1, 200–1;Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 300–1.