Monthly Archives: March 2013

Custom revived: Old Bolingbroke Candle Auction

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Flaming popular

The tools for the auction“It was pleasant to see how backward men are a first to bid; and yet, when the candle was going out, how they brawl.”

So wrote Pepys of an auction in 1662. Auction by candle and pin was very popular in the mid 17th century, often over land for grazing and those given as bequests for charitable purposes. The basic procedure being the inserting of pin into the lit candle and then the bids continuing until the said pin fell.

Waxing and waning

Eleven candle auctions survive in England, some more famed than others. In Old Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire, a piece of land called Poor Folk’s Close a six acre site in the parish was auctioned for providing a money for the poor on the 21st December, St Thomas Day, noted for Thomasing, so no doubt it was established to prevent begging! Henry Brown in the book, Sold Reminiscences of a Lincolnshire Auctioneer noted:

“One can imagine the frantic flurry of bids as he final point approached and the pin perhaps began to sway a little. I imagine there must have been many arguments as to who exactly had the last bid as the pin fell. As always the auctioneer’s decision was final.”

This original auction appears to have died out in 1920s. The present form dates from the 1937, in celebration of the silver jubilee of George V, when a will of the Ramsden, gave land to pay for the upkeep of the village hall was knowingly established to revive and maintain the custom.
The will stipulating:

“Let the grazing of the field annually by the ancient custom and method peculiar to Old Bolingbroke, known as the Candlestick auction. The pin shall be inserted in the side of a lighted candle not more than one inch from the top and the person who is the highest bidder when the pin drops out shall be the purchaser of the grazing for the year.”

The holder had grazing rights for sheep only, although two horses could be grazed there as well but no poultry. The grazing commennced from the 1st April to 31st October, with half the hammer price being paid at the auction and half at the termination in October. The holder is responsible for the upkeep of the fencing and weed removal but the materials would be paid for by the council. Interestingly, a percentage of the profit would go to support any student in the parish who may need monetary help for the studies. The custom was for many years continued at the Ramsden Hall in the village, but seeing the rent contract for a number of years, moved it to Horncastle to join an equally old, or infact older, summer graving auction.

Candle in the wind

The day of the auction was very cold and a harsh wind was blowing on and off fortunately the auction was to be held in the warmer surrounds of the Black Swan, Horncastle, one of many inns in this delightful town, a few minutes before the start. I was met by the rather bucolic and friendly figure of George Bell, the auctioneer. Soon the room began to fill up with the world weary local farming community. A sea of green Barber jackets could be seen nestling in the pub surrounds awaiting the start of the auction. What was clear that this was a community coming together over the auction, Mr. Bell being very familiar with a large number of attendees.

Lighting the candleInserting the pin

At 1.30 sharp the auctioneer banged his gavel, and outlined the procedure. The candle was the light set up in ornate candlestick and diligently, over some discussion over what pin to use, a pin was inserted and the bidding begun…the eyes of he auctioneer flitting across the room as he repeated feverishly the bids, 20, 20, 22…the weather worn focused farmer faces breaking occasionally in the humour of the situation as it appeared the pin was not moving…after 7 minutes or so, it was decided to go to another lot. Asking of anyone else was about to bid – the room was silent at £32. Just as the bidding on this ended and another lot was to be read the pin began to rock and just when no one was looking it fell. The bidder got it for £32 an acre, a bargain as in 2011 it reached £322 and in 2008, the first year the auction moved to Horncastle it raised an enormous £980. Understandably, with the cold harsh wintry weather outside, with snow on the ground, thoughts of summer grazing was perhaps not formost for some. The auction was a window displaying how hard it has been of late for these farmers – wet summers, compounded with snow into spring – have meant it has difficult for many of these communities and not surprisingly perhaps the price of a small field in Bolingbroke was less than it had been.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Old Bollingbroke Candle Auction (35)Has it gone?..it has!

Custom survived: Mary Mallatratt’s Dole

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Good Friday is traditionally a time for giving doles and a number are noted around the country. One tradition which is still maintained, although little known, and not even recorded in any countrywide volume on customs, is Mary Mallatratt’s Dole.

The Buns make their journey

A sad memorial

The dole was established in 1894 in Mary’s will, and is said that dole established to remember Mary’s child who died as an infant of brain damage aged 7 months in 1876, although this is not explicitly stated. Certainly the Mansfield and North Notts Advertiser (1931) stated that even before Mary’s death it was customary to give free buns out at Easter to children at the Blue Boar Inn, so clearly Mary wanted to see this custom being perpetuated in perpetuity. After the death of her son, Mary became increasingly involved with the affairs of the meeting house and so after her death it was not surprising that she gave monies for school books for the Meeting House, money for a stained glass window and the bequest of £100 to the trustees of the Meeting house to provide buns annually.  It appears to have survived an attempt to amalgamation with similar charities and the two world wars when it ceased to be given out and is consists of ‘hot cross buns’ given to children as they go about their business on Good Friday.

The Buns await

A Bun fight!

As Alan Mallatratt (2003) notes in his article for the Nottinghamshire Historian on the custom (he himself being a descendent) each year the distribution grew in size. The largest distribution being in 1912 when a local coal strike happened and 2000 buns were distributed! (And it still was not enough!) The Mansfield reporter noted:

“The magic of the Good Friday Bun drew a crowd of over a couple of thousand of Mansfield’s poor children to the Old Meeting House on Friday morning. For the past 14 or 15 years in accordance with a bequest it has been the custom to distribute buns in the grounds of this place of worship, the number usually being given usually 1200. This year in consequence of the coal strike, some additional funds were obtained from private sources, and the number of buns increased to 2000. The distribution is a popular annual event and on the Friday morning children began to gather as early as seven o’clock, three hours before the specified time in Rooth Street. By 10 o’clock a long queue of youngsters from babies of 2 and 3 years of age in the arms of big brothers and sisters, to boys and girls of 10 and 12 years old, stretched the whole length of the street and overflowed into Rosemary Street. It was a miserable morning-the first one known to be wet in the distribution-but the children stood patiently in the long line and at 10 o’clock when the big doors opened, two thousand shrill voices cheered. Police officers let them in by batches and the little ones filed past the table, each received a bun from either Mr. J.H. White, Mr. Birks or Mr. Roper or one of the several ladies who took part in the distribution. So great was the number of applicants that the supply ran short, and about 200 were disappointed.”

So popular was the custom that it created its own tradition. For local tradition records to earn a bun you had to complete a circuit –out of the gates of Stockwell gate, right to Rosemary Street, along and right into Rooth Street, through the meeting house main gates and into the hall.

Some children partakeA curious resident

Have a tea-cake and eat it!

Unlike similar charities, the Mallatratt Trustees missed the opportunity during the last war to commute the buns for cash and although the original gift no longer covers the expense the Chapel Trustees subsidise the distribution, it does continue. Times have changed and the size of the distribution is not as daunting. The Guardian Journal in 1973 noted that only 73 turned up to collect 200 buns (which appeared to the children to be a good ratio no doubt) which was down on the previous year and the author of the piece suggested this was due to demolition of housing in the area. It notes that:

“First in line was 13 year old Christopher Simpson, Richard Street, Mansfield who arrived at 8.50 am 10 minutes before the gates opened. In the past children where queuing up as early as 7.30 to get the buns.”         

In 1994 they were joined by the decedents of the Mallatratts, and to celebrate the 100 anniversary of the distribution an exhibition on the history of the custom was established, and perhaps indicating how cultural views have changed Rev Michael Joyce:

 “Now days it’s pretty hard work trying to get children to accept them”

Despite the decline, the Old Meeting house still distributes their dole, but no one lines up for it now. The distribution time has changed to now 10.30 am and rarely is it distributed in the Meeting House itself unless the weather dictates it.  It is now presented on a trolley outside. For many years it was rolled down to the high street, Stockwell Gate, below but in 2013 it was taken across the street to outside ASDA.

Last few!

The size of the dole has also changed from 200 to three dozen. Even since my first visit in the early 2000s, the focus has changed slightly. Then I watched the members of the Unitarian church attempt to give out their dole, much to the bemusement and sometimes mistrust of the local children and scepticism of parents perhaps. Now, they had out their buns still free of charge to all takers, although children are still their aim, but subsequently the distribution disappears quicker. Of course I made sure I had the last one! Hopefully since it is now recorded on their website more interest in the custom may be generated and individuals like me may attend to see the continuation of this curious and little known custom.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

All gone!

Custom demised: Burning Judas

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“Judas is short of a penny for breakfast”

Such was the begging cry of children on Good Friday morning in a unique custom. Oddly, in one city and in one small area of that city, the urban areas surrounding the dock area of that city, was one of the county’s most fascinating and incendiary customs. As Carole Sexton in her 1992 book ‘Confessions of a Judas Burner’, notes:

“Mrs Lympany who lived in Lothian Street recalls her two elder sisters going out at 4am around 1914 carrying a burning torch and running through the streets shouting ‘Burn Judas’.” Children would parade the Judas as they ran through the streets asking for contributions with the cry of ‘A penny for Judas’s breakfast.’ The Judas would then be burnt on a local waste ground.”

This was a local event mainly for local children and had features which combined the older ‘Jack O’Lent’ and the more recent Guy Fawkes and as such it was not popular with the authorities. Indeed, most of the reports recall its suppressing, such as this from the Glasgow Herald on the April 2nd 1931:

The Burning of Judas –Police stop old Liverpool Custom

The observance of the annual burning of Judas, a custom in the south-end of Liverpool, was frustrated yesterday by the police, No one knows the origin of this old custom. In times gone by adults took part in the ceremony, but in recent years it has been observed or attempted to be observed, only by the youngsters of the district. Much in the spirit of Guy Fawkes Night, they make effigies of Judas out of old clothes stuffed with straw, and in the early hours of Good Friday morning parade the streets, make bonfires and burn the effigies in the streets. In the early hours of yesterday morning before the children got up, the police searched backyards and entries, and confiscated over a score of Judas effigies and material for bonfires. Some children did later attempt to burn several effigies, but as they had been left out all night in the rain, they failed to blaze and the police coming along seized these and removed them to the destructor.”

The origins of the custom appear to underline the international nature of the city and the importance of its port for it can be found still in existence in Spain, Portugal and particularly Latin America where the video clip below hails from and understandably was picked up by the Roman Catholic community around the docks in the south end of the city around the 1800s.

Interestingly, the beating of Judas was also involved. This would need a pig’s bladder obtained from the butcher, inflated and then tied to a stick.   It is a well remembered and thought of custom of which the locals were naturally reluctant to let go. A report from 1954 records:

“It is comic to see a policeman with two or more Judases under his arm striding off the Bridewell and 30 or 40 children crowding after him crying Judas!”

Putting the fire out

According to notes on the Liverpool History website, Toxteth St was supposedly the last focus of the custom. On this website a Brenda Robson records:

“We were brought up in the tenements in the Dingle, and every year on Maundy Thursday the boys from the blocks would go around and collect wood for the ‘bommy’  they would stay up all night protecting their hoard, and on Good Friday, the fire would be lit with an effigy of Judas onto the fire. We used to sit on the steps watching the fire, eating hot cross buns. Happy memories”

A Stan Cotter who lived on Homer Street

“I am 74. I lived in Stopford street in Dingle. On Judas day we burnt wood we collected days or weeks before. Just after the War there were lots of bombed houses we played in and in the debies (bombed sites). Also wood was rationed and had to be applied for and stated why it was wanted. So sometimes we pinched some from peoples back yard going down back entries. The streets had cobbles fixed together with tar which we collected and put on end of stick to which we put matches and throw so that they went bang. We also put burning ember into tin cans hung by wire we wurled them round and threw at other gangs. On Judas day we got up early and went around the street showing “e are john” and other names of gang members to get them up. The cops tried to stop us and chased us on their bikes. They could not catch us and we taunter them to get them to chase us. After the fire the street floor was well burnt The practice ended when the corp sent police and fire engines’ think It finally ended when Hutchinson Methodist hall hire buses and took the kids out for the day . I remember going to church ground in Penyffod north wales where we were given cakes and lemonade. I think it was 1951 the practice ended.”

It lived longer than that. Although a search on Good Friday morning by Brian Shuel failed in the early 1980s, it is thought that the last burning was in 1970-1 by an Alan Rietdyk on waste ground between Prophet Street and Northumberland Street.  With the the disappearance of his relative Guy and the demonization of youths, it is unlikely that this unusual custom will ever be revived!