Customs demised: White and Black Ram Nights

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June was traditionally the time of year when Sussex’s sheep were rounded up and sheared and as such considering the hard work involved each day for a three week period, much relief was given by a party called the Black Ram Night when a number of drinking customs and songs dominated. Before this at a local pub would be White Ram Night where those involved with the shearing, which often involved a wide range of people and in particular those good with their hands such as tailors, where organised by someone appointed as the Captain and had appointees such as the Tar Boy. During the meeting the list of farms was given out by the Captain whose also read out the fines that would be given out for poor shearing or losing control of the sheep. On the day, a contemporary report records:

“On the morning of the day fixed for the shearing, a gang of men, 12 to 20 in number according to the size of the flock, accompanied by the “tar boy,” made their appearance under the command of a Captain and Lieutenant, who were distinguished by gold bands on their hats. The tar boy’s duties, which were rather important, were to walk about among the shearers with a tin pot filled with tar, with which his clothes and face were generally well smeared. After a sheep was shorn, before it was released, it was examined by the shearer, and if he detected any abrasion he called “Tar Boy,” and was answered “Coming Sir,” and the boy then applied some tar with his finger which prevented any worry from flies or infection to the wound. A barrister of high standing told me that in his quite young days his great ambition was to be a tar boy.”

The work appears to have been quite strenuous as the report adds:

“During the day these men, who were supposed to shear about 30 to 40 sheep each, were liberally supplied at intervals with mild beer and with a meal in the middle of the day, and after the sheep were shorn the men had more food, followed by more potent ale. The sheep-shearing song was then sung, and the evening was spent in singing, drinking and smoking long clay pipes, their “Yards of Clay.””

At such parties and the Black Ram Night the Sheep shearing song would be sung:

“Come all my jolly boys and we’ll together go, Abroad with our Captain, to shear the lamb and ewe, All in the merry month of June, of all times in the year, It always comes in season the ewes and lambs to shear; And there we must work hard, boys, until our backs do ache, And our master, he will bring us beer whenever we do lack.  Our master he comes round to see his work done well, He says, “Boys, shear them close, for there is but little wool!” “O yes, Master,” then we reply, “we’ll do it well if we can,” When our Captain calls, “Shear close, boys,” to each and every man; And at some places still we have this story all day long, “Shear them well and close, boys,” and this is all their song.  And then our noble Captain doth unto our master say, “Come, let us have one bucket of your good ale I pray”; He turns unto our Captain, and makes him this reply, “You shall have the best of beer, I promise, presently,” Then out with the bucket pretty Betsy she doth come, And Master says, “Maid, mind and see that every man have some.”  This is some of our pastime as we the sheep do shear, And though we are such merry boys, we work hard I declare; And when ’tis night and we are done, our master is more free, And fills us well with good strong beer. And pipes and tobaccee; And so we sit and drink and smoke and sing and roar, Till we become more merry far than we had been before.  When all our work is done, and all our sheep are shorn, Then home with our Captain, to drink the ale that’s strong; ‘Tis a barrel then of hum-cup, which we call the “black ram.” And we do sit and swagger, and think that we are men, And yet before ’tis night, I’ll stand you half -a-crown, That if you haven’t especial care this ram will knock you down.”

It ended with

“Here’s a health to all sheep-shearers, good fellows every one,

“Here’s a health unto our Captain, and now our song is done.”

Perhaps the most famed drinking song or custom was “turning the cup over”  It is described as follows:

“At the head of the table one of the men occupied the position of chairman; in front of him stood a pail, clean as wooden staves and iron hoops could be made by human labour. At his right sat four or five men who led the singing; grave as judges were they; indeed, the appearance of the whole assembly was one of the greatest solemnity, except for a moment or two when some unlucky wight failed to ‘ turn the cup over,’ and was compelled to undergo the penalty in that case made and provided. This done, all went on as solemnly as before. The ceremony, if I may call it so, was this:—

“The leader, or chairman, standing behind the pail with a tall horn cup in his hand, filled it with beer from the pail. The man next to him on the left stood up, and holding a hat with both hands by the brim, crown upwards, received the cup from the chairman, on the crown of the hat, not touching it with either hand. He then lifted the cup to his lips by raising the hat, and slowly drank off the contents. As soon as he began to drink the chorus struck up this chant:

“I’ve bin to Plymouth, and I’ve bin to Dover, I have bin rambling, boys, all the wurld over. Over and over and over and over, Drink up yur liquor and turn your cup over; Over and over and over and over, The liquor’s drink’d up and the cup is turned over.”

The man drinking was expected to time his draught so as to empty his cup at the end of the fourth line of the chant; he was then to return the hat to the perpendicular, still holding the hat by the brim, then to throw the cup into the air, and, reversing the hat, to catch the cup in it as it fell. If he failed to perform this part of the operation, the fellow workmen, who were closely watching him, made an important alteration in the last line of their chant, which in that case ran thus:—

The liquor’s drink’d up and the cup aint turned over.

“The cup was then refilled and the unfortunate drinker was compelled to go through the same ceremony again. Every one at the table took the cup and ‘ turned it over’ in succession, the chief shepherd keeping the pail constantly supplied with beer. The parlour guests were of course invited to turn the cup over with the guests of the kitchen, who went through the ordeal with more or less of success. For my own part, I confess that I failed to catch the cup in the hat at the first trial, and had to try again; the chairman, however, mercifully gave me only a small quantity of beer the second time.”

Interestingly the reported of this account states:

“This custom of ‘turning the cup over,’ with its accompanying chant, was rather amusing at first, but, after hearing it, as I did on the occasion I have described, for at least four hours without intermission, it became at last rather tiresome. I could not get the tune out of my head for a long time after—indeed, I have not got rid of it yet.”

It has been many years since the jollities of Black Ram Night has filled the air of pubs such as the Shepherd and Dog in Fulking, the tradition like many falling foul of mechanisation and modern farming practices.

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