Monthly Archives: March 2012

Custom survived..the Tichborne Dole


The March posts all have a theme if you can notice it….

On the 25th March each year, the usually sleepy Hampshire village, remembers its heritage and perhaps, at the same time, preserves and underlines the role of the village gentry in the welfare of the village, an aspect largely forgotten as villages become satellite settlements for larger cities! This they do by distributing the Tichborne Dole, one of the most famous and largest distributions surviving in England today. Its survival is perhaps surprising, with many such villages not exactly thronging with obvious ‘poor’, but its survival is as much to do with its peculiar legend as its usefulness of its distribution being flour which although perhaps not as prohibitively expensive, useful nevertheless!

The Crawls!

The origin of the custom dates back to the reign of Henry II. It is said that the manor was owned by a rather uncaring Lord of the Manor, Sir Roger Tichborne. His wife. Lady Mabella, lay on her death bed and asked him if he would set up a bequest and provide income for the poor after her demise. He agreed, but said only wheat from land she could walk around whilst a torch burnt, could be provided knowing perhaps this would rather restrict her bequest. Yet although she was too weak to walk, she did succeed in crawling around a twenty-three acre field, now called ‘The Crawls’ (north of Tichborne Park, beside Alresford road). Probably astonished he did establish a bread dole which continued from that date until 1796.

The curse!

In 1796 it was suspended, as the local magistrate was concerned that the tradition attracted too much itinerant people and the crime associated with strangers in the village. Yet, the suspension did not last long because it is said of a curse laid down by Lady Tichborne, maybe to ensure that future Lord’s were not as cruel as her husband. It is said that if the dole was stopped there would be a generation of seven sons, would be followed by one of seven daughters and the family name would become extinct and the house collapse. It is said that part of the house did collapse in 1803, an indeed, Sir Henry Tichborne, himself a seventh son, in 1821 produced seven daughters! As a consequence the dole was re-established and soon in 1839, a nephew was born, Roger soon followed by a younger brother called Alfred.

However his brother Edward did have a son, Henry, born in 1829 but he died in 1836 aged six years old. At this point, fearing that the curse had come to fruition, the Dole was resumed. Edward became the 9th baronet but had no sons. Another of the seven brothers, James, became the 10th baronet. He had two sons, Roger, who was born in 1829 (before the Dole was resumed) and Alfred, born in 1839 (after the resumption of the Dole). Roger was shipwrecked and lost at sea (1854) and Alfred eventually became the 11th baronet on his father’s death in 1862. Sir Alfred died in 1866 leaving his wife pregnant with a son, Sir Henry Doughty-Tichborne, 12th Bart.

The Tichborne Claimant

Interestingly, the male heir to the estate was lost in 1845 during sea voyage and his brother took the estate. However, this was not the end of the story, for two decades later he re-appeared and claimed the estate. A cause celebre court case begun which proved the man, real name Arthur Orton, to be an imposter!

The dole today

I had the opportunity to witness the dole in 1996 on a grey but dry 25th March, within the last few years the current owners, the Loudons, had recently let out the hall but the family was still present with a Mrs, Hendrie the sole descendent of the Tichborne family. It was a cheerful and strange affair, where all and sundry were invited into the grounds of this usually private estate, although only those from the parish and neighbouring Cheriton and Lane End, where at the halls steps could be found a large wooden box and surrounding it about 40 20 litre bags of flour. Local people assembled in their numbers. They appeared to be clutching plastic and more substantial bags, after a gallon of flour was the allocation, with children half a gallon, so something substantial was needed! The flour was poured into the wooden box, bag by bag. Once it was filled the local Catholic Dean of Winchester blessed the flour and sacred oil sprayed over it and incense wafted over it, in a ceremony probably not dissimilar to that which happened pre-Reformation. After a few words were said over it, a list was read of those who could claim it and Mrs Loudon now wearing her white coat used a bucket to pour into the first claimant’s sack. So it continued until after about half an hour or maybe a bit over, the last gallon of flour was emptied into the last bag and the assembled team of distributed disappeared for a good earned rest no doubt.

And so I am sure it continues because despite the changes of ownership of the estate and usage, a stipulation of the ownership of the house is that the dole continues….a no-one wants to evoke the curse again!

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Customs revived: The Hercules Clay or Bombshell sermon


A real bombshell

This one of the country’s more interesting surviving customs by virtue of its origin is that which takes place on the sunday nearest to the 11th March. Brown’s work of Nottinghamshire (1891) tells the story:

A worthy resident, Hercules Clay, some time Mayor of Newark, resided in a house at the corner of the market-place not far from the Governor’s mansion. For three nights in succession he dreamt that the besiegers had set his place on fire, and he became so impressed with the circumstance that he and his family quitted their abode. They had no sooner done so than a bomb, fired from Beacon Hill, occupied by the Parliamentary forces, and believed to have been aimed at the Governor’s house, fell on the roof of Clay’s dwelling, and, passing through every floor, set the whole building in flames. The tradition is that a spy, blindfolded, and bearing a flag of truce, came from the army on the hill to the Governor’s house, and was able on his return so accurately to describe its situation as to make the shot all but successful. To commemorate his deliverance, Mr. Clay left a sum of money to be distributed in charity (it. is given away annually in penny loaves), and the memorial to him in the parish church testifies in a lengthy and curious inscription to the miraculous nature of his escape: ‘Being thus delivered by a strength greater than that of Hercules, And having been drawn out of the deep Clay, I now inhabit the stars on high.’”       

It is an unusual tradition, although endowed sermons are not rare in England, surviving ones are and certainly the association with the Mayoralty and colourful nature of its legend, its name Bombshell sermon, kept it well known. I am attended the ceremony on warm Sunday 11th, the exact day of the incidence. The delightful parish church of Mary Magdalene rang out at 11 o’clock to call the assembled Mayor, local dignitaries and those in local business to the sermon. They processed with great solemnity from the Town hall next door to Clay’s residence and led by a bible bearer, said to carry Clay’s bible or a replica. As we entered the church, two trays could be seen with bread buns wrapped in cling film, the penny loaves noted above. The vicar welcomed the assembled congregation, with the bible presented at the altar and the readings had a bread theme, the sermon on the mount, being the obvious one….

Born and bread

Whilst on the matter of food, it is worth considering these penny loaves, or now as it seems buns. The provision of penny loaves was established from the profits of the £100 given by Clay. Penny doles were often used to attract attendance to the sermon, (as well perhaps a vestige of the old idea of sin eating lost at the Reformation) gave the day in Newark another name, Penny Loaf day. Reports in the Mercury for March 1828 records that 3654 loaves were given out and it reports understandably with scorn:

“some gentlemen amused themselves by kicking the bread around in the streets.” They noted that they believed that they would “regret the waste if in the future they are hungry”.

Certainly the size of the dole and its misuse had an effect on how it was delivered for in 1832, for the parishioners met that year to discuss the fact the dole ‘cost more than was left for that purpose’ and deemed it necessary to restrict it to 80 poor and needy families by giving 1 shilling loaves. However, this agreement did not appear to have had an impact as in 1833 it is reported:

“On Monday last, being the anniversary of the deliverance of Mr. Clay from Oliver Cromwell’s fury, a sermon was preached in the morning of Newark church and in the afternoon a penny loaf was distributed in the Town Hall to all who chose to accept it by the church warden according to the tenor of the will of Mr. Clay three thousand eight hundred and sixty four loaves were delivered.”    


It appears at some point, the sermon died out to be re-established in 1974 when the current Mayor decided to commemorate again this most famous son. Varying reports suggest that the bread dole disappeared (probably because of the enormous sizes of the doles of the 19th century), or it was replaced by money. Interestingly, in recent years the trend has been reversed and although it is reported in various books that members of the choir receive the loaves (in the Newark advertiser in 2008-2011 particularly), the present ceremony invites local charities to do a presentation and it is to that chosen charity that the loaves are given. In 2012 it was Newark Foyer who provide for the homeless and they took the twenty loaves and deciding to add Bacon to them would give them to anyone who came looking for help at the desks on the following Monday.

So I am sure that Clay would be happy to hear that the needy are once again receiving the dole.

Custom demised: the washing of Molly Grime


One of the country’s most unusual and rather unique custom was the ‘Washing Molly Grime’ which was associated with a well called Newell’s well and an effigy in the parish church The tradition appears to have become confused over the centuries. A full account is recorded by a H. Winn in Notes and Queries (1888-9):

“The church of Glentham was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, a circumstance obviously alluded to by a sculpture in stone of the Virgin supporting the dead Christ in her arms, still to be seen over the porch entrance and placed there by some early representative of the Tourneys of Caenby, who had a mortuary chapel on the north side of Glentham church. The washing of the effigy of the dead Christ every Good Friday, and strewing of his bier with spring flowers previous to a mock entombment, was a special observance here. It was allowed to be done by virgins only, as many desired to take part in the ceremony being permitted to do so in mourning garb. The water for washing the image was carried in procession from Neu-well adjacent. A rent was charged of seven shillings a year was left upon some land at Glentham for the support oif this custom, and was last paid by W. Thorpe, the owner, to seven old maids for the performance of washing the effigy each Good Friday. The custom being known as Molly Grime’s washing led to an erroneous idea that the rent charge was instituted by a spinster of that name, but ‘Molly Grime’ is clearly a corruption of the ‘Malgraen’ i.e Holy Image washing, of an ancient local dialect.”        

          The origin for the well’s name is also confused. Rudkin (1936) notes:

“They reckon it’s called Newell’s well on account of a man named Newell as left money to seven poor widow women..”

However, it is more likely to be simply new well, perhaps deriving its name from ‘eau’, a common word in the county.      When and why the tradition switched from washing the holy image to that supposedly of the Tourney (Lady Anne Tourney a local 14th century land owner) is unclear, but it is possible that the change occurred at the Reformation and that perhaps the money was given to wash both holy image and that of the benefactor and post Reformation only the benefactor washing survived. There is a similar tradition called the ‘Dusters’ in Duffield. The name of the activity clearly survived as Rudkin that:

“ they’d wash a stone coffin-top as in the Church; this ‘ere coffin-top is in the form of a women. ‘Molly Grime’ they calls it.”

Farjeon (1957) records a nursery rhyme about the custom:

Seven old maids, Seven old maids,
once upon a time, Got when they came
Came of Good Friday, Seven new shillings
To wash Molly Grime, In Charity’s name,
The water for washing, God bless the water
Was fetched from Newell, God bless the rhyme
And who Molly was I never heard tell. And God bless the old maids that washed Molly Grime

Sadly  in 1832 the land which paid for this curious custom was sold, and with the land gone, so did the custom…except between 2001 and 2004, a new tradition in imitation of this one arose on Father’s Day. This was a race to the well and back with a balloon filled with water from the well. This goes to show that sometimes a good tradition does not disappear easily..

The theme was wills of course and leaving of money to instigate the custom…