Monthly Archives: November 2012

Custom survived: Firing the Fenny Poppers



Firing the Fenny Poppers (2)
© Copyright Cameraman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The days before the web

The firing of the Fenny Poppers was the first ceremonial custom I intentionally visited. True, I had come across such events before, the Lord Mayor’s show, Morris dancers (some of my earliest memories which speaks volumes perhaps) and the odd bit of Maypole dancing. But this was different. I had read about it in an old book on customs and was intrigued to find out more. In those days, there was no internet and the first port of call would be the local Tourist misinformation Centre as I call them. I rang up Milton Keynes and unsurprising, as I wasn’t after accommodation or information on theme parks, they were unable to help me! That’s not strictly true they did suggest I contact the church. So with my copy of Crockfords, I rang up….but didn’t get through. I decided to go anyway….if it wasn’t one there were always other things to do around it.

I turned up in the village, now a suburb of that large Milton Keynes and asked. “It happens at the rec”. At first I was confused by this, until the lady directed me to the recreation ground. Here were the poppers, miniature canons, embedded in the leafy soil of that park.

Pocket canons which pack a punch!

364 days a year, these six strange objects, which resemble small beer tankards, hang in that parish church. Then on the 11th they are brushed down, filled with gunpowder and fired! Called ceremonial cannons, it is thought that the originals dated from 1740, but may have indeed been medieval as their instigator collected such items. They unsurprisingly became cracked and deteriorated such that they were re-cast in 1859. It is still remarkable that they are still being used.

These guns were placed upwards and slightly buried, loaded with charges of around an ounce of black gunpowder. Then with twelve foot metal rod with a red-hot end, made so in the church furnace, they were lit gleefully by the church warden and they certainly made a bang. This ceremony happens at noon, 2pm and then 4pm. Originally, the ceremony was at the church by the collateral damage to both it and the Bull it was moved to more open ground.  When I visited, the custom was bereft of any cones and cordoning, only the bellowing of the church warden to look out! It is noted that by tradition the vicar fired the first, and local notable people would do the others, but I cannot remember others doing it.

A blazing memorial

This is a strange celebration associated with Dr. Browne Willis a rather eccentric historian who paid for the building of St. Martin’s church in 1730. This being intentional named after his grandfather a noted neurologist, Thomas who lived on St. Martin’s Lane, London, prayed at St Martin in the Fields in London and even died on 11th November!

Upon his death, he wanted to make sure Martinmass was truely celebrated and so a sermon was established in his honour of his grandfather, a noted neurologist Thomas Willis, an evening meal at The Bull where turkey would always be served and more excitedly, the firing of the fenny poppers as they became known, on that date. Interestingly its celebration is a rare survival for mention November 11th to many people and Remembrance Day will be their answer and indeed many may confuse the firing with that commemoration but they of course would be wrong.

The Firing of the Fenny Poppers is a quintessential British custom, noisy, smelly, enigmatic and to be honest slightly pointless, and all the better for it.

Custom revived: The Warburton Soul Cakers


There's a fight in the pub

Folk plays are a fascinating pieces of traditional custom and one which is surviving well in the 21st century. One particular strand of this tradition is the Cheshire Souling or Soulcakers. Presently, there are a number of groups which enact this strange ritual usually from 1st November (All Souls Eve) until the 4th November in pubs, inns, houses and sometimes churches in the Cheshire and Lancashire region. Although the Antrobus Soulers may disagree, all of the groups are revivals (this means there has been a break in the last 100 years). The second oldest revival group is that which tour with the Warburton Play.

I decided to track them down in the picturesque town of Knutsford, I had read of their website, a very informative site where I found some of the information for the blog, which gave the name of the first pub in the town. I turned up and enquired behind the bar “Are the Soulcakers arriving tonight”. The “What?” said the manager; she appeared to be blissfully unaware. They planned to do a quiz at 8 when the group arrived. However, her younger colleague did seem to know what I was on about, so 50% was good enough for me! I sat down with my drink and some free sandwiches. Later a couple arrived and the manager pointed over to me, at least this was some support for the fact I had arrived at the correct destination.

What is a Souling Play?

Souling in the strictest form is a custom associated with the souls of the dead’s journey through Purgatory. This would involve the collection of money or the giving of cakes, soul cakes, hence the name soulcakers. To eat such soulcakes would then involve the eating of the sins of those unable to get to heaven. Of course you may ask “but that means the consumer gets the sins!” Yes, but by continuing the tradition ad infinitum there would always be someone eating sins for those just departed. Of course as the custom faded to be replaced largely by Hallowe’en’s trick or treaters, those who were the last to buy the soulcakers must have never left purgatory so heavy the burden of the sins they inherited!! You may of course look scornfully at the custom but this is the origin of the funeral wake.

What’s this got to do with a play?

Good point. It appears at some point to warrant the giving of money or cakes, some bright spark either the receiver or giver thought they wanted something a bit more substantial and so the play was probably born. This may account for the similarity to the Christmas Mummer’s Play, because it’s easier to convert something to write from scratch. Indeed, to the uninitiated there does not appear to be much difference between the Soulers and the Plough Monday play. Indeed, both share a similar plot, both being about death and revival, and share in some cases the same characters: the quack doctor, Beelzebub, and the familiar drag-act, so to speak. However, there are differences, the Sergeant is replaced by King George, the Tom Fool replaced by the Turk and there’s a decent bit of sword play in it…and there’s the Horse.

A horse, a horse….

The horse is a unique feature of the Soulers and one which has created the most interest amongst folklorists. In the present guise, the horse is an old hunt horse befitting its trainer in hunting pink and treated with upmost almost quasi-religious respect, it being hidden from view when not in the play almost as if this might detract from its powers.

Close up of the HorseTaming the Wild Horse!

Perhaps the horse survives in Cheshire plays because of the proximity of the Welsh boarders with their Mari Lwyd horse tradition existed (or vice versa), although of course there are the Poor Old Oss traditions and to some extent Derby Tup traditions surrounding it to the east. Many folklorists have commented that the Horse was an important figure in Celtic paganism, which is significant being that All Souls Day replaced the ancient Samhain. Certainly the horse is no Hobby Horse, but a dark rather sinister creature, a skull on a stick with a black cape beneath hiding is manipulator. In response to key phrases, its mouth opens and closes with a menacing clap! It is interesting to note that there is record in the 1930s that the Warburton horse was buried in the grounds of the pub at the end of the performance. This is referenced once it appears and perhaps this was a ceremonial aspect, rather than an end point, emphasizing the death and resurrection aspect again.

In comes I…

The only one drinking!

Around 8, these plays never seen to be on time, we heard the rowdy chorus of the soulers and soon after in bursts Big Head, much to the amazed and giggled bewilderment of the table nearest the door. The plot was as follows…in comes the Turk who does a bit of boasting, to be challenged by King George, there a fight, Turk dies, in comes his mum (that old standard a bit of drag), calls for the doctor who revives in, in comes Beelzebub who steals a drink from those bewildered beer drinkers and the Horse with its rider.

The revival

There may have been many different local variants of the play perhaps every village had one, but as the 19th century came to close the numbers began to dwindle, the final nail in the coffin being the First and Second World Wars. Indeed the Warburton play was last performed in 1936. However, after only a gap of 42 years, it was revived, thanks to being written down before its demise. The revived play centres around the Saracens Head in Warburton where the play is performed for the first time that year and then after 4 days ends there.

A group called the Bollin Morris revived the play in 1978 and continued to be the preserve of this group until the 1990s, when the group became a mixture of Morris and non-Morris, and then finally in the 2000s the group began unconnected with Bollin Morris. The establishment of set characters for each member of the group appears to have introduced a degree of professionalism and the play was delivered word perfect and with great vigour and enthusiasm despite in some cases the paucity of punters. I was impressed by the fact they took notes and appeared to be organised to get the best performance each time like a real play and this was not some amateur effort.

So if you find yourself next year around Cheshire, I suggest following the Warburton play, it will be enjoyable evening.

Come here oftenThe Doctor deals with the dead TurkThe Doctor deals with the dead Turk (2)

copyright Pixyled publications

Customs demised: The Stamford Bull Run


“Come all you bonny boys,

Who love to bait the bonny bull,

Who take delight in noise,

And you shall have your belly-full,

On Stamford’s Town Bull Running Day,

We’ll show you such right gallant play,

You’ll never saw the like, you’ll say,

As you have seen at Stamford.”

Such goes the folk song ‘The Stamford Bullards’ Often when discussing old lost traditions and customs, one can melancholically look upon their demise and cry for a revival; however the Stamford Bull run is doubtlessly an exception.

Like a bull at the gate the origin of the custom

In 1209, William, Earl of Warren  was standing of the castle wall and saw a local butcher enrage a bull by throwing water of it to stop it fighting another in a meadow over a cow. It turned on the butcher and his poor unfortunate dog and chased them into town.  The Earl followed suit, as did a number of local bystanders, local dogs and all and sundry, as the Bull charged down the Main street and was eventually caught. The story being that the impromptu piece of entertainment so amused the earl that he gave the meadow to the town so long as on the anniversary of the date 13th November and bull would be set free to re-enact the strange event…and so it is said to have arisen. The detailed account is given in Bygone Lincolnshire:

“The origin of bull-running dates back to the days of King John, when Englishmen were noted for their coarseness and brutality, rather than for refinement and culture. But we have made great strides since then, and our national character, though partaking happily of the same robustness and thoroughness as of old, has lost much of its cruelty and roughness. In every period of our history there has been a national game or sport which has had much to do with moulding the character of the people.

The sport of bull-running, which, through many generations, was practised with much spirit by our forefathers on St. Brice’s Day, found its origin in a very simple incident. Two bulls were found by some butchers fighting in a field. They did their best to separate them, but in doing so drove the infuriated animals on to the public highway. The beasts at once set off at a furious rate into the town, to the great alarm of the people. The

Earl of Warren, being on horseback and noticing the danger, rode in pursuit of the animals, which, after a most exciting chase, he succeeded in bringing to bay, and they were secured. The effort to catch the bulls proved good sport to the noble huntsman, and so pleased was he that he determined to perpetuate so prolific a source of amusement. He, for this purpose, offered to the town the gift of the meadow in which the fight took place, on condition that a bull should be provided every year for the purpose of being run to bay on St. Brice’s Day. The town of Stamford still holds, we believe, certain common rights in what is known as the “Bull meadow,” though these and the supposed origin of this old custom rest upon no documentary evidence, so far as we have been able to ascertain. Whilst the sport was in its heyday of popularity, wealthy inhabitants left sums of money from time to time to make the necessary provision for carrying out the custom.

A mayor of the town, in 1756, left a sum of money to encourage the practice, and, as appears by the vestry accounts, the churchwardens annually gave money to aid the bull-running. ”

A cock and bull story?

What about Pamplona? Well yes, although Stamford predates this and other Spanish bull running customs, it is unlikely to be even greater in age and the Earl was simply preserving an old pagan custom. Where at the end of the harvest, beasts would be slaughtered, and the date is significant lying close to the old Celtic date of Samhain or now Hallowe’en, as well as laying in the Saxon ‘blood month’ Blotmonarth. The slaughter is emphasized by the fact that the day, St Brice’s Day, commemorated when Ethelred the Unready slaughtered the Danes and as Stamford that side of the Dane law maybe it commemorated that. It does seem coincidental.

The Bull running day….

Started when St Mary’s church bells rang at 10.45 am, this was to announce the closing and boarding of shops and the barricading of the street with carts and wagons.  By 11 am the bull was released to cheers and cagoules of the surrounding crowds, being enraged by a man who would roll towards it in a barrel? It would then run down the main street down into the Welland River where often it would be caught and butchered. Its meat was often sold to the poor and as such the custom by the 1700s was supported as a charity by donations.

Taking the Bull by the horns

It was clear that not all enjoyed the Bull Run. Butcher’s ” Survey of Stamford,” will give a tolerably correct idea of how the sport was conducted : ” During the seventeenth century, the bull was placed overnight in a stable belonging to the alderman, in readiness for the sport. On the morning of St. Brice’s Day proclamation was made by the town bellman to the following effect :

Each person was to shut up his shop door or gate, and none, under pain of imprisonment, were to do any violence to strangers, for the prevention of which the town being a great thoroughfare a guard was appointed for the passing of travellers through the streets without hurt. None were to have any iron upon their bull clubs or other staves with which they pursued the bull. After this proclamation had been made, the bull-running commenced. All the gates were shut ; the bull was turned out of the alderman’s premises, and away he ran, helter skelter, with the men, women, and children, and dogs of the town after him in hot chase, goading him on. Hotter and faster the running became, until at last the poor beast, entirely exhausted, was brought to bay, and despatched with the bull clubs.”It was a barbarous diversion, and it is astonishing that it should have lasted so long. Doubtless its vitality was due largely to the patronage it received from the well-to-do classes. At one period the barbarities connected with this exhibition were most disgusting. All manner of cruelties were perpetrated on the poor creatures to call forth their rage. What is most surprising is that the people of Stamford considered this annual carnival as one of the chief glories of the town, and any attempt at interference was sharply resented.

An eye-witness describes the scene on the occasion of the running as quite appalling to the sensitive mind. Persons of the baser sort flocked in from all the neighbouring villages. Horse- jobbers, hostlers, cads, butchers, pig-jobbers, and men of this class came together in large numbers, and the town was delivered into their hands for the day. Then riot, yelling, shouting, and uproar of the worst kind held absolute sway. At the tolling of the bell, the animal was let loose from the dark shed in which he had been detained for the night. If his ferocity was not equal to the expectations of the mob, he was goaded to greater madness by all the arts which brutal natures could suggest or devise. Not infrequently the poor beast’s flesh was lacerated and spirits poured in. The first object of the billiards, after causing it to tear at a furious rate through the town, was to drive it to the bridge, where it was immediately surrounded and lifted bodily over the parapet and plunged into the river. If they succeeded in accomplishing this before twelve o’clock, they were entitled to another bull. Even young children were taught to admire this riotous proceeding, and permitted to listen to the awful swearing and unclean language so loudly used during the day.”

Many reporters suggest that it was the RSPCA and similar minded people who put an end to this event, and although doubtlessly they had a role, the authorities were already trying to suppress it in 1788, long before such concerns. The result appears to have been the opposite and it became more popular.  The main concern was the rowdy and bawdy characters the event attracted to the town with associated drinking and fighting. This is emphasized by a report of discussing the run of 1835 mentions the bull only in contrast but describes:

“large assemblage of between 200 and 300 persons of the lowest description….halted in front of various houses, particularly those of the inhabitants who were known to be adverse to such cruelties … where loud yells … were set up by the mob”.

In 1839, the government brought in the 5th Dragoon guards to suppress the event: they were unsuccessful directly but increasing presence of troops at the event was the final nail. Every time they appeared the excessive cost was laid at the feet of the ratepayers…soon a petition was signed by the towns folk that said stop sending in the troops and we’ll stop it. And they did. Interestingly, Sutton ‘s Lincolnshire Calendar (1996) notes that despite it being abandoned so long ago people alive still remembered it. A correspondent called E.J.P stated that:

“I’m 89 this year (1996). My father was born in 1862 and died in 1960 aged 98. His father, my grandfather, was taken as a boy to have a day out at the bull-running: sometime in the mid to late 1830s.They were living not far from Peterborough at the time and it was the custom for everyone to go to Stamford for the occasion. The Bull was run right across the town. It was caught, butchered on the spot and then roasted and dished up to the waiting crowd. Being a cold time of year, folk were ready for something warm to eat. It was an exciting thing for folk to watch and many made a day’s outing for the ‘do’.”

Today, on this day, the streets are relatively quiet and perhaps the vibrant and exciting frisson of the day is something that is missed on a cold and wet November day. Perhaps someone could start a run with a mechanical bull?