Monthly Archives: December 2012

Custom survived: The Beeston Carollers

Standard

Beeston Carols (6)A door step challenge

I was only relating how it had been many years since I have heard a group of carol singers at the doorstep. Whilst it is true that carol singing is still a common custom, often done across the advent period, in churches; schools, market squares it is rarely down in the streets and doorsteps, Beeston still upholds the custom. Also whilst many carol services sing the nationwide familiar carols, in some parts of the country the carols are local variants, South Yorkshire being a stronghold.

Yorkshire tradition

Oddly, Beeston a small town now part of the Nottingham conurbation has its own tradition of unique carols said to have been passed down from generation to generation from Yorkshire weavers who settled here in the 1800s. The Beeston Chilwell road Methodist carol choir have continued the tradition since 1870, at first as a male only choir and then after First World War including women.  Despite being part of the so-called Yorkshire carol tradition, recent research has revealed the carols to originate from Leicestershire, Derbyshire as well as Yorkshire. Indeed, one of these carols, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, is the most local being written by William Matthews a Nottingham composer in c.1820. Originally there were probably a number of groups by the 1900s there were apparently two that of the Beeston Methodist and a private group ran by Bill Spray. Furthermore, they would probably only sing on Christmas Eve, done through the night as a Bill Spray recalls in the 1900s from an article on the custom:

They didn’t start to 8 o’clock and they went on to 2 in the morning. I used to go with my father and my brother and sister who were both older. Mother stayed at home and finished off the Christmas baking. Some of the singing was done in the streets, but in the main it was at the big houses, of which there were very many in Beeston at the time. We usually sang at least two carols at every place we visited. After midnight we would probably do no more knocking on doors, but one of our members would go out the next morning to the houses which we hadn’t collected. One feature was that immediately after midnight we always sang Christian’s Awake. We always finished in Beeston square and always sang an anthem. The words were from the Book of Isaah Behold the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son…there were about 20 or 30 of us.”                                                                                                                      

It is interesting that in later years the proclamation of the Gospel was more important than collecting money, today perhaps there has been a reversal, where money is collected for charity. In the days of Bill Spray the money collected was for themselves noting:

“My father and grandfather belonged to a carol choir in Beeston called the Combined Choir and they used to go out mainly to the large houses and they collected for themselves…In those days wages were very, very low. There was no paid holiday. So when Christmas was coming they knew they would lose. They would have a short week for Christmas week. And so they used to go out and collect their poor wages and compensate for the lack of any wage over the Christmas period.”

Interestingly, despite the black out, the carollers continued during World War II although they did make note of the locations of all the air raid shelters. Again as in the World War I, the male section was reduced but older men were utilized to ‘balance the harmonies’.

Beeston Carols (12)

Hark..mine’s a pint!

One of the main fixtures of the carol season is their singing in a local pub, currently the Crown. This may seem an unusual place for a carol service, but despite a few bemused looks and it was only a very few, the idea appeared to be a popular one. I arrived there with one minute to go to the starting time and with a whisper around about the choice of carol, the pub erupted in song. An incredible melodic sound filled the pub as the majority of people there joined in. Fundamental to this performance was the choir master who sat central to the group and like a conductor of a grand orchestra was fully enraptured by the experience and his arms flailed about with great gusto. At the start of each carol, he produced a rough piece of paper with the running order and a harmonica to set the pitch and sending the message around often like a strange code with special words being used for the arrangements. In some cases the names were very cryptic, but the carols would be well known if he tunes not, as I explain below. The group were a mix of different ages and voices. One main said he was a new comer and then related he had been in the group since the 1990s such perhaps is the strength of the choir’s continuity. With some announcements came comments such as Palmer’s Street anthem for popular carols relating the fact that every household would want this to be song down the street. Indeed as mentioned earlier the choir’s main focus is still to travel the streets. I was informed that the singing in pubs was a fairly recent invention, starting only a few years since in another pub, the Hop-pole, as a warmer alternative to the street walks.

Beeston Carols (2)

A local remix

“Although many of the carols of today were sung in the past for example Hark the Herald Angels sing and While Shepherds watched different tunes were used.                            

Nothing is new. Modern popular music often steals older baselines or instrumental tracks, fuse new songs onto them, and make new tracks, others re-arrange popular songs in a remix fashion. This in a way describes many of the well known carols song by the choir. On paper we all know ‘Whilst Shepherds watch’ or ‘Hark the Herald angels’ but in the dulcet voices of the choir local variants were song. Like some obscure Northern soul track, such carols are not called by their well known name but terms such as Liverpool or in this case Cranbrook, named after the Canterbury author of the tune. In the case of ‘While shepherds..”, it is sung more enjoyably, to the tune of the well known ‘Ilkley Moor bar tat’, although it was this popular folk tune which stole the carol’s tune not vice versa. There are at least six versions of this carol by this carol, prompting one listening to comment that’s not the proper tune and miss the unique nature of the custom. Interestingly, of these carols, as the Chilwell Road Methodist website notes, were only transcribed as late as between 1976 and 1980 by a Bert and Andrew Taylor stating, before hand they were learnt by heart from generation to generation:

“In order to preserve for posterity the traditional tunes and harmonies sung by the Choir …, we have now set down rationalised versions.”

What makes such local variants an enjoyable experience is the use of the Gallery style of singing, named after where the songs were song in the church and often thought to be a bit too earthy and rough around the edges for church. In these carols different parts of the choir, particularly the men and women took different sections of the carol to an anthemic result. Immersed in the centre of this wall of sound this made the performances unforgettable.

Keeping them on the streets

The website also notes that by the late 1980s, a regular pattern had been established. The Carol Choir visited local Care and Nursing Homes on Sunday afternoons during December, sang one Saturday lunchtime in Beeston Square or High Road, and then spent three evenings (including Christmas Eve) singing around the streets, covering an area between Wollaton Road, Beeston, and Grove Avenue, Chilwell. I had planned to join the choir again for one of their street walks but sadly the weather and previous engagements prevented me…assuming the choir went out during the horrendous weather! Hopefully another year I’ll manage it. copyright Pixyled publications

Advertisements

Custom revived: The Ripley Guisers

Standard

The east midlands are a very interesting area for folk plays as I have discussed before. What is particularly interesting is the pre-Christmas and post-Christmas divide. In Nottingham-Lincolnshire pre-Christmas mummer’s plays do not appear to exist, such activity being restricted to Plough Monday, but just over the Derbyshire border they do. Is this to do with the east west Dane law divide? One team which bridges that divide between Nottinghamshire (Selston) and Derbyshire (Ripley) is the Hammersmith Play performed by the Ripley Morris or Ripley Guisers, a Hero-Combat style of play.

Once a dying custom

In a strange parallel to the plot of the play, Mummer’s play are a success story custom wise. This is a reverse compared to when George Long, writing in 1930 who states that the joint attractions of the wireless and theatre were too distracting for the younger folk. The author references some locations where mummer’s plays were or at time of writing were once found, but he does not reference Derbyshire. Indeed pick up any nationwide published survey and the only mention of Mummer’s plays is generally the well known Marshfield team and little else. It is true that this team is one of the oldest, other counties have long traditions and revivals. In Derbyshire there appears to be three permanent teams: Glossop, Winster and Ripley.  In the area the name Guizers or often Bull Guisers is used. The term Guiser deriving from disguise and the term is also in currency to describe both the characters of nearby Yorkshire Cakin Neet (descendent of Hallowe’en’s trick or treat) or those characters which appear in Up-Helly–Ah and New Year’s eve in Allendale.  The term bull again is interesting considering my opening statement and suggests a hybrid from the term Plough Bullocks a term used in Notts and Lincs for Plough Monday teams.

Not keeping mum

On Friday night, the team go out for three consecutive Fridays in the last three weeks of December, they were in their home patch of Ripley. The weather was wild, windy and wet, perfect perhaps to cast one’s mind back to times gone. Turning up, I just nipped to the loo, when I heard the sound of a ringing handbell and rushing out, fortunately I was washing my hands at the time, I was confronted by the image of a man covered in a suit of colourful ribbons. He was the introducer, and introduced the characters: King George, Turkish Knight, Beelzebub. The crowd in this bijou pub clearly enjoyed the experience with its various in jokes and comic asides, clearly indicating the team enjoyed ths annual jaunt, the play continues to the customary ressurection. As soon as they appeared, they disappeared and not a drop was drunk going against the view of many the play was just an excuse for drinking!

A local revival

Poor jokes aside..and there was another topical joke about ash trees having a bigger bark that bite..what is pleasing to hear is that unlike some other revivals the play used is very local coming from a village to the north called Hammersmith. Before its revival, it was last performed in 1904, fortunately in 1983, the Ripley Morris Men met Percy Cook, a 91 year, who had performed the play when a young boy. He told them the script with consisted of 5 or 6 characters and two songs. The characters, King George, Beelzebub, The Doctor (or t’Doctor), the Turkish knight and the introducer were familiar characters, but in this play was …a Policeman, who stops the fight at the end! Interestingly, there familiar man in drag is absent and Beelzebub is the blood relation to the Turkish Knight.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There is record that the play was still being performed in the early 70s but whether this was to do with the Ripley Morris men or not is unclear. Interestingly, there are also records of play being played in Riddings and Somercotes, areas where the modern play is toured. That in Somercotes was performed in the early 1940s, Ridding by children into the 1970s. The Morris team was established in 1924, but fell into abeyance in the 1950s to be revived in 1981, so it seems unlikely to have been in this team. The present team, which has had obvious changes in the 30 years had provided 1,100 performances and raised £28,000 for the local hospital which is a considerable feat. The end song was particularly interesting, I have been told that part of it comes from a local playground chant from Hammersmith and part from a music box, and both came from Percy Cook  rather than a fusion of two sections one from the Hammersmith play and the other from Selston where the Guisers also circuit, which I had read elsewhere. It goes

“one stormy night in winter, the snow was falling pretty hard, I went to get some flea powder for the dogs in my backyard. I met a married maiden whose dark eyes were green, and when I noticed her wash her dirty face her hands smelled of ice cream…. You should have seen her eat brown bread, you should have seen her stand on her head. You should have seen her drop down dead in our backyard last night…”

What on earth, the song was about I cannot be sure, but I was told that it was amalgation of the Hammersmith and Selston script and that they team played around until they cound music that matched. It sounded unique, I haven’t heard anything similar and it sounded almost musical hall like. I continued my tour with the team and later arrived at the Marquis of Ormonde. I was not a 100% sure they would be there, so I thought I’d check. No idea was the reply! Looking around I was bemused that this pub thick with parties dinning on their work’s Christmas dinners would soon be subjected to a very strange scene indeed. Sure enough, in came the bell man pushing through the queue for their Christmas carvery was greeted with an odd mixture of humour, a reference to Avatar, confused faces and in some cases indifference, as if that happens every day, there’s no impressing some folks. The team is a very professional and hard working, and were word perfect if one of their characters did miss a cue and arrived early. In places I observed them at, they were very well received, although apparently the week before they were thrown out of one pub on their circuit. All in all it’s great to see this tradition continuing into its 30th year long may they continue but as Long (1930) states:

“if this book, by increasing interest in the subject, encourages more young fellows to give their scanty leisure to learn their parts.”

I too would be glad if the blog did!

thanks to Graham Clarke for the corrections

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom demised: The Kissing Bush or Bunch

Standard

victorian christmas w treeAdvent signed the start of the preparations for Christmas day and still houses across the county and country chose this day to put up the Christmas decorations and the Christmas tree and lights. One tradition which is probably largely forgotten in the county was the making of “The Kissing Bush, Bunch or Bough”. This was according to Whistler in his work on The English Festival (1947) that this was often an alternative in rural England to the tree.  Ditchfield (1901) in his Old English Customs reports:

“The old “kissing bunch” is still hung in some of the old-fashioned cottage houses of Derbyshire and Cornwall – two wooden hoops, one passing through the other, decked  with evergreen, in the centre of which is hung a “crown” of rosy apples and sprig of mistletoe. This is hung from the central beam of the living-room, and underneath it is much kissing and romping. Later on, the carol-singers stand beneath it and sing God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”

Hole (1968) described it as:

“made of two bisecting hoops, the bunch was decorated with holly and ivy, ribbons, baubles, apples, oranges and nuts…mistletoe spray was hung below, slowly revolving in the candle’s draught. A trio of dolls, suggesting the bunch’s pre-Reformation origins also hung from it called ‘Our Saviour’, ‘Mary’ and ‘Joseph’”

A Thomas Ratcliffe, a local antiquarian from Derbyshire  noted in 1906 that:   

“When I was a lad I helped in several successive years to make the kissing bush which always depended from the great beam which ran across the living room and the bunch, or bush, for we used either word, was really an inverted Christmas tree, for it consisted of a round fir tree with the top cut out to the depth of a foot or so and was then hung upside down, the lower branches making it something like a weeping willow as regards shape. The bush ends were decked with springs of holly, well ….bits of coloured paper, bits of glass, little packets of sweets, oranges and apples and anything else which showed colour and gleamed in the fire light and candle light. Then inside the bush, the space made by cutting out the top was put in a box to represent a cradle and in a box a small doll in white swaddling clothes with a short blue petticoat and a red cape. The box was more holly, yew springs and other pieces of evergreen stuff and below all hung down was the best bit of mistletoe that could be got and the kissing bush was complete.”                                                       

In Staffordshire the bunch was hung above five o’clock on Christmas Eve:

“With many a romp and a kiss..and indeed for the next few day or two, kissing was the sole order of things under this bunch, every visitor being kissed and having a kiss. It would appear that now only the mistletoe is put up, perhaps because at Christmas, Mistletoe thought to protect the house from lightning but it was unlucky to bring holly or ivy in rather going against the idea of the kissing bush!”

Humourist Frank Muir notes making a Kissing Bough in his Christmas Customs and Traditions:

“One year my family decided to that a kissing bough might be more fun than the usual tree. Out came the pliers and the wire. Simple craftemenship. As we did not grow either box or rosemary in the garden we chose pagan ivy. This we bound round the wire frame. Next came the seven apples suspended on red ribbons. So far no problems, but where to put it? The hall ceiling was too low to hang a four-foot, round, verdant football. The answer seemed to hang it above the staircase. This entailed climbing a ladder, chiselling the paint out of the joints on the outside of the window overlooking the stairs, and then pushing a five-foot length of wood through the gap between the bottom of the window and the frame. Inside, this piece of wood stuck out over the stairs like a gibbet. Next we threw a some nylon washing line guaranteed breaking-strain of half a ton-essential for our kissing bough-and hauled the mighty structure up into position. With the aid of a step ladder the candles were fixed on. The village shop had run out of little red ones so we had to make do with the leftovers from last year’s power cuts. It really looked rather Christmassy. I sent my wife back up the step ladder to light the candles while I fetched the garden hose from the garage. Then we all stood round and watched the candlelight reflecting off the red apples and the draught from the partly opened window blowing drips of wax on to the dogs. What better way of celebrating Christmas Eve-picking wax out of Afghan hound coats?”

The effort involved in making and suspended made the more convenient single spray of mistletoe more convenient. After all the same activities could be done below it as Ratcliffe again notes:

“In the games of Christmas Eve, the forfeit has to be paid if kissing under the bush, and the kissing couple had to kneel on cushions on either side so as to face each other if kissing was the forfeit to be paid.”

No that sort of custom has never demised!