Monthly Archives: April 2012

Custom survived: The Hungerford Hocktide

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Hungerford Hocktide was one of those well known colourful customs which has always been on my to do list and despite living in both Bristol and London (Hungerford is mid way between the two) I never managed it, mainly because it falls on a weekday, a Tuesday two weeks after Easter Monday….so this year I thought I would.

Calling all commoners to the court.

Turning up in the morning, I thought that I had made a mistake picking this time to visit, the wind howled down the street taking with it a sharp and penetrating rain which looked like it may in for the day making the observation of the Tuttimen’s progress less than pleasurable and certainly not very photogenic. Yet in these unpleasant conditions quite a throng of observers had assembled, the usual press and TV crews, this year one being the team behind Ade in Britain with its host, comedian Ade Edmondson As the bell of the Town Hall struck 8 am, the Bell Man and the Horn blower, this year a lady, arrived on its balcony and blew the horn to call all the commoners to the court. She disappeared back into the building, but this was not the end of the duties for the Bell man, who surging against the wet terrain and started his perambulation of the town to visit key locations to call for the commoners to enter the court. These commoners, one should add are being those who live in the main street of the town and in Sandford Fee, a one point a separate hamlet but now indistinguishable from the main town and own houses in these areas. For Hungerford is unique in both retaining this ancient privilege of owning the common, fishery rights, various properties such as the John O Gaunt Inn and their own Town Hall, unique in the country. Returning to the Bell man this year being a sort of last minute replacement after the sad death of the iconic figure of Mr. Tubbs who not only had continued the tradition for 50 years was at his death thought to be last in a long line of bell man in his family…until his nephew offered to take on the role for 2013.

The ancient court

At 9 o’clock those appointed Tuttimen (and before you ask women have and can do it I believe) waiting across the road in the Three Swans cross to join the tutti girls, a group of school girls specially released for the day with their chaperone, whose roll is to give out sweets and balloons to small children. Their original role apparently was to give out ale and so I would presume they were a bit older than they are now…Once crossing the road, they are met by the Town’s constable (the equivalent of the Mayor) who then after being given their flower bedecked poles topped by an orange and joined by the orange giver, they are told to go about their business and their first stop was the shop across the town hall, where followed by Ade Edmondson and film crew they squeezed into the shop and claimed their first kisses of the day.. These tutti men or tithing men, whose role was to collect a tithe from all commoners, but this  now consists of a kiss, which may also link to the binding custom. They are accompanied by another top hated character the Orange giver. His role is probably the most recent of the associated characters on this day, oranges of course were not available in the 14th century, and probably dates from William of Orange (who is said to have heard he has King in Hungerford).

Meanwhile….

The ancient court begins, and I returned back to the town hall to witness it. Perhaps the most sombre of the day’s events but of course the whole reason for the day, this consists of reading those entitled to claim rights to the common, the fishery and use of the facilities covered by the then now charity. The court consisted of a series of readings of the frankpledge, those commoners not present being fined with the bell man calling here and slamming a penny coin on the table in symbolism of this now it would appear unenforceable fine. During the meeting an importance decision was the election of new officers to this court: the constable (returned), Portreeve (rent-collector), baliff (market toll collector), water bailiffs, ale tasters (traditionally last year’s Tuttimen), common overseers, keepers of the common coffer and blacksmith. These people, who despite in some cases a considerable amount of hard work and effort such as clearing the common and being involved in legal disputes, are not paid. These officers put forward the week before at what is called the Macaroni supper and were elected in the meeting with the end man and middle man being asked to stand forth and concur.. However, despite this possible frivolity that such an ancient court could have, there is after-all a real Mayor in the town, the reading and discussion of the counts brought to observer the importance of this court and its relevance in discussion of the issues of running a fishery, the lease of the pub, ensuring the common was functioning and that the town hall was a suitable venue….clearly the cost of a new kitchen being a bit of a bone of contention!

The Tutti men go about your business

To return to the Tuttimen, I had missed the staged climbing of the ladder to receive a kiss from a commoner, in this case the wife of one of the Tuttimen. Of course by this stage they were a long way off finishing. Every house is visited on the day which does not finish until 9 pm, but is punctuality by good hospitality at each house or business (when they were in that is!). I found generally people were very welcoming to this tradition and indeed some organised parties when the Tuttimen arrived. Surprisingly in some cases people appeared a little unaware of the custom, the occupier of the Indian restaurant was most bemused…although the fish and chip shop was very pleased to see them with most welcoming with some gratis chips although the couple eating there did appear rather non-plused! . Of course at each house, the Tuttimen and their orange given filled their tankards….with a mixture of alcohol and this continued all day…

The Hocktide luncheon

Sadly I was a bit too disorganised to get a ticket for this event and so investigated the possibility of viewing it from the balcony which I was told that would be alright. However, I felt immensely privileged, when I was informed  that there may be the possibility of a ticket. The meal was excellent and the company was superb. The meal begun again with a minute’s silence for the passing of the noted bellman, and then with an excellent amusing grace by the colourful vicar (more of him later) and was then punctuated by toasts namely to their founder the Duke of Lancaster (or the Queen as most of us know her as!).Other notable sections the ale tasters proclamation concerning the quality of the ale be fine and the presentation of the Plantagenet punch with its recipe known only to a few and clearly the descendent of a loving cup or wassail ceremony with the sharing of the drink. The constable introduced in amusing fashion his top table, the vicar introduced as being in the dictionary between vibrator and vice. He then distributed then as an unexpected extra gift, a silver coin minted especially for the Jubilee. The meal formally ended with a talk by Lady Carnarvon, whose nearby Highclere Castle is associated now with the hit TV show Downtown Abbey. She spoke of the similarities with the problems of visitors and TV crews……after the meal came the

Shoeing the colts

Colts is referred to in other Court leets and in particular during beating of the bounds and other hocktide events (such as Reach fair now moved to Mayday), but as far as I am away this shoeing is a unique custom here in Hungerford. Certainly most bizarre element of the whole day and certainly the most enjoyable. The manor’s blacksmith dons his leather apron and with hammer, horse shoes and nails shoes the colts or those who had never been to the luncheon before, which this year was a sizable list of names, including me, and shows that interest in the traditions in the town continues through new comers and the younger people… Women faired okay and most were offered a chair to sit down on and then raising their leg, the blacksmith tapped the shoe into their shoes until they quietly called out ‘punch’ but the men! This was when the excitement begun. It was traditional to fight or try to run away and such grappling, grabbing, half nelson’s and sitting on were all in the process, the later mainly done by the larger than life character of the vicar again! I watched some of the members of my table be dragged before the blacksmith I was rather daunted when told by one of the Tuttimen, that when he was done the previous day the vicar was so enthusiastic that he upended him and he banged his head on the floor and was concussed being taken to see the doctor! But the moment came, and realising that I needed my fee money rushed across to the cash machine and caught up in a terrible rain storm!!!! You’re not going are you because we’ll find you they said…..Soon, I was grabbed on one side by the vicar and struggled for all my worth kicking and was turned upside down with my feet flailing in the air at which point the vicar jumped on my chest and I was laying on the floor…with the sound of the horse shoe into my foot I shouted punch although it was difficult to remember to say this as I was laughing so much.

Anchovies on toast and back with the Tuttimen

After the luncheon it was back over to the Three Swans where the traditional anchovies on toast was made available, perhaps in celebration of the fishery rights of the manor…and still the Tuttimen and orange giver went on their business….it finally became a delightful evening and the sun was glinting down the high street, I bumped into the Tuttimen again who appeared to be now rather staggering and working towards the need of a wheel barrow, offered by the lady who owned the house I was invited into with them.

What is hocktide about?

Hocktide is believed to get its name from the Saxon word ‘hock’ meaning ‘in debt’ and is believed to date from the reign of Etherlread in 1002 after a victory against the Danes or the death of Harthacnut in 1042. As neither were associated with the week after Easter, the first November and second June, it appears confusing why these are suggested. Furthermore, these are secular events and it does appear to have been associated with raising money for the church in many places. In many places roads were closed off by ropes and fines levied. There is a clear link between this and Easter heaving or lifting and perhaps the two customs were linked in the past and as Hocktide died out, the custom was transferred to Easter. In Hungerford this was granted by John of Gaunt in 1364 within whose vast Duchy of Lancaster estates the town lays. He gave a horn, now only used on special occasions, an ancient hunting horn. This is now replaced by a 1634 edition which still has the inscription “John a Gaun did give and grant the Riall of Fishing to Hungerford town from Eldren Stub to Irish Stil, excepting som several Mill Pound (ponds)” All in all, in all my encounters with ceremonies and traditions I never come across a more friendly and welcoming place than Hungerford. Everyone welcomed me in and offered me nibbles and drinks at their houses and made me feel very welcome. I am sure I will return to Hungerford and hopefully on Hocktide now that I am no longer a colt to be shoed..

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Customs demised: Watching the sun dance on Easter Sunday

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Across the country it was traditional to get on Easter day or Sunday and see the sun dance in celebration of Christ’s resurrection from Polperro to Derbyshire, where at Castleton, locals would climb to a prominent hill to see it. Addy (1895) in his Traditional household tales notes:

“On Easter Sunday people at Castleton, in Derbyshire, used  to climb the hill on which the castle is built, at six o’clock in the morning, to see the sun rise. On this day the sun is said to dance for joy at his rising.”

In Dartmoor and Exmoor, in Devon and Somerset, there was said to be the Lamb and flag in the disc. Girls used to take smoked glass to see the sun. In Somerset Dunkery Beacon and Will’s neck were climbed and often an idea of the that it could be used to forecast the weather for the coming year Indeed Maureen Sutton (1995) in her Lincolnshire Calendar who notes that belief in the tradition was still current in the 1920s and 30s in the county and. She notes of Swineshead in the 1920s:

“Old Bert used to get up real early on Easter Day morning before the sun got up. He’ put a huge earthenware jar out and fill it up to the brim with water…when the sun rose, the reflection was shown on the jar and it made the sun dance on the water. If the water rippled it meant there was going to be enough water to last through the summer. If tyhe sun moved slowly across the water, it meant a dry summer”

In Worksop, Nottinghamshire, a correspondent in a local newspaper, a man called Thomas Ratcliffe, notes that a stream was a location:

“When I was a child this talk used to impress me very much and I persuaded my mother to take me to a spot about half a mile away, where a small stream widening out in a ford used by farmers and others. The spot was often visited on Easter Morning for the purpose of seeing the sun dance which it was sire to do if it were sunny and a soft wind rippled the surface. The sun did dance on the particular day”

Or perhaps, as the Reverend Parish notes of the tradition in Sussex:

“nobody is ever seen it because the devil is so cunning that he always puts a hill in the way to hide it”

This is echoed in The Lincolnshire magazine 1932-4 vol 1 which stated that:

“I have often heard of the sun dancing on Easter Day, but never met with anyone who had really seen it”

Although, the article goes on to report someone who had, describing it as:

“It kep on th’ dance for nigh on half an hour, dancing and turnin round all the time..There were cogwheels all round it an; it kep dartin’ out-dartin out light it did. It was most like that thing in the menagic lanten as keeps turnin round.”

It was probably due to eye strain following gazing at the sun’s disc. This activity is suggested by Addy (1895) in Derbyshire who says:

“On the Wednesday before Easter Sunday a Derbyshire man said, ” I think the sun will hardly be able to contain himself till Sunday.” In  Derbyshire they  say that the sun spins round when he sets on Easter Sunday, and people go out to see this spinning.”

Thomas Ratcliffe notes again and hints at the growing rational explanations of the event:

“I still remember the kindly lesson given me on that occasion, low I was told that the wind and water together by causing ripples made the sun to seemingly dance upon the surface of the ford.”

Perhaps this combined with the rarity of seeing it, possible ocular damage and a growing rationality lead to its demise. When the custom was no longer observed is unclear….Perhaps some people still make their quiet pilgrimage to their nearest hill or pool to see the sun’s joyous celebration of the resurrection.

Custom revived: Easter heaving at Greenwich

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Easter Monday was a bit of a wash out this year. There was a constant drizzle in the air and with that in mind I decided to investigate a custom which would at least allow some shelter. My research revealed that for the last 20 or so years in Greenwich, London, the ancient custom of heaving or lifting had been revived by the local Morris side, The Blackheath Morris.

The origins.

The origins of the custom are like most a little obscure. Despite what the leaflet given out by the Blackheath team which states that it is a pagan ritual liked to ‘Eostre’s Throne of Spring, most folklorists link it to the idea of symbolising Christ’s resurrection and such it was frowned upon by the church. Certainly in 1834, in Oswestry, Shropshire, Joseph Whitehead a Wesleyan minister considered it to be a relic of popery and apparently travelled ‘a mile round part of the town in a circuitous path’ to escape it’ Despite this it appears to be well received by some. A Thomas Loggan writing in 1799 noted:

“I was sitting alone last Easter Tuesday, at Breakfast, at the Talbot at Shrewsbury, when I was surprised by the entrance of the female servants of the house handing in an arm-chair, lined with white and decorated with ribbons and favours of different colours. I asked them what they wanted. The answer was, they came to heave me ; it was custom of the place on that morning; and they hoped I would take a seat in their chair. It was impossible not to comply with the request very modestly made, and to a set of nymphs in their best apparel, and several of them under twenty. I wished to see all the ceremony, and seated myself accordingly. The group then lifted me and from the ground, turned the chair about and I had the felicity of a salute from each. I told them I supposed there was a fee due upon the occasion and was answered with the affirmative; and having satisfied the damsels in this respect, they withdrew to heave others.”

This appears to be a common place to encounter heaving, the maids in hotels would often do heaving as a trick on unwary male travellers or servant girls in private houses to lift their masters. In Vale Royal, Cheshire it is recorded in the account book of the manor that Charles Cholmondeley notes that she ‘gave for lifting me at Easter 2s and 6d’. Clearly the Loggan was delighted by the sexual tension of the activity, and understandably this was another reason for its attraction and dislike. For some like Richard Godson, MP , it was according to Palmer (2005) in his folklore of Worcestershire, good political ploy. Perhaps like modern MPs now kiss babies, in 1834 it was heaving! He was heaved by women at 47 different public houses and given 2160 kissed! For others it was a inconvenience Burne (1883) in her Shropshire Folklore states:

“Not many years ago, young women in the colliery district found it necessary to stay indoors on Easter Monday.”

She notes that in the 1870s it was reported

“a maid servant of the vicar of Ketley…was incautiously sent to the post office on Easter Monday and was so beset of heaving parties in the street that her master…was obliged to go out and rescue her from their hands.”

Yet at Hartlebury, Worcestershire farmer’s wives believed if their maidservants were lifted no crockery would be broken that year.

The ceremony

The custom differed across the country. In Chester, it was common to rope off the street (see Hungerford Hocktide post) and demand any a fee or else be lifted. A letter from 1771 quoted by Simpson (1975) in Folklore of the Welsh Border states ‘a number of females stand at all gates of the city’. She also notes that it was accompanied with an Easter hymn and was a private affair, the chair similar to that at Greenwich being covered with greenery, ribbons and flowers. In Herefordshire and Shropshire they would sprinkle the women’s feet with water using a bunch of flowers as the sprinkler. Raven (1978) in his work on Folklore of Staffordshire notes that between 9 and noon bands of women and men roved the streets of the towns and villages looking for victims. Like at Greenwich they were lifted three times and they had to kiss or pay a forfeit of silver. He notes that some were chaired, some bodily lifted by others and others taken hold of the arms and legs and flung aloft as in the playground bumps Palmer (1976) in his work on Warwickshire folklore notes:

“On Monday the men heaved the woman that is took them up lengthwise in their arms, as a mother would her baby, and kissed them. All were served alike – the buxom, the slender, the comely, the plain, the saucy and the shy.”

Palmer quoting a Birmingham observed states that the woman’ s day, Easter Tuesday, was the most amusing:

“Many a time have I passed along the streets inhabited by the lower orders of people, and seen parties of jolly matrons assembled around tables on which stood a foaming tankard of ale. There they say in all the pride of absolute sovereignty, and woe the luckless man that dared to invade their prerogatives! As sure as he was seen he was pursued  as sure as he was pursued he was taken- and as sure as he was taken he was heaved and kissed, and compelled to pay sixpence for leave and license to depart.”

The Greenwich Lifting

I don’t know the history of lifting in Greenwich although tumbling was a similar custom undertaken in the park, of which more will be elaborated in future posts perhaps. As noted this revival has been done since the 1990s, although despite this it was completely unknown to the Tourist Information or indeed the pubs and inns supposedly the team where dancing outside of, and I did think not finding them in their designated locations at the correct times suggested kindly by their bagman that the rain had curtailed their activity. Yet despite the rain the Blackheath Morris did arrive with their flower decorated chair or perhaps throne. A chair not too dissimilar to that carried in those earlier cases. Interestingly, some modern folklore had become associated with this case…Someone sat in the chair as it rested between being used, but quickly vacated it!  This was upon being told that there was a link to fertility! The Morris team was a male team of course of varying ages and it was nice to note some younger men in their side. Indeed, for once, one could be witness perhaps the unusual association of Morris men with young (and dare I say attractive) women attracted by the bizarreness and cheeky nature of the custom. After a traditional dances whether with handkerchiefs or poles, the chair was brought to the front of the team and then a women was then invited into it. Then after a countdown with at least six men around her lifted into the air. This was done three times in all and at the end all the Morris men lined up to claim their kiss….at least twice or thrice for some of them, all introduced as Arthur (insert comical punning reference afterwards…brain/loaf etc). At one point a random member of the public seamlessly inserted himself into the row to steal a kiss. No fees were paid by the ladies below Indeed the smiles and laughs after the event from the women heaved certainly underlines the Blackheath Morris’s belief that ‘to be lifted was to be voted a creature of great pulchritude and desirability.

So what about the women lifting the men of Greenwich?

As noted the tradition on Easter Tuesday, of the women would lifting the man…perhaps a slightly more arduous task considering the average mass of a Victorian man is not done at Greenwich! Why? I was informed that the Blackheath side attempted to invite their lady counterparts to revive this part of the custom but found.

The demise and revival

Many people wanted to avoid heaving but the result could be drastic as noted in the 16th century:

“the tuesday after ester hollydays ij yo’nge men od Slop whose names were Esmonde Reynolds and Robert Clarke were smoothered under the castell hill hiding themselves from mayds the hill falling thereof upon them.”

Which seemed quick a drastic way to avoid heaving although the author does not state whether the men lived or not! Raven (1978) hints the reasons for the decline in his work on Folklore of Staffordshire that:

“the custom was particularly vigorous in the early part of the nineteenth century when the excitable, unkempt, vociferous and sometimes drunken band of heavers became the subject of adverse comment from the press and officialdom”

The tradition continued until the 1880s in the urban areas of Birmingham and later in villages such as Avon Dassett, and appears to have lingered on the longest in Cheshire and Kidderminster dying out in 1900. In Herefordshire the custom died out in 1869 having ‘ degenerated with wickedness’ and it would be probable that this was due to the drunkenness of these gangs brought them into direct conflict with the police and as such it was stamped out or else as Burne suggested the women staying indoors, to avoid the ‘wickedness’…. So it is nice to see it revived: a simple but significant Easter custom. Long may the Blackheath continue this revived tradition and one hopes that it spreads and is revived elsewhere…certainly it would appeal to many being a custom associated with a great deal of joy and enthusiasm. I hope to establish a private revival next year!