Monthly Archives: December 2013

Custom survived: Handsworth Sword Dancers

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Handsworth sword dancersBoxing Day…much has been said of it. The most depressing day of the year, after all it’s a whole year until Christmas Day, the turkey sandwiches pile up, broken toys and games you’re already bored of, crushing hangovers and the feeling you’ve over-indulged and don’t forget the sales! Ah yes the sales, a custom in its own right. I try to avoid them…after all you’ve spent so much over Christmas, why spend more? However, one year I convinced my wife to visit the shrine of Northern consumerism Meadowhall…so I could see the Handsworth Sword Dancers.

Cut above the rest

The Handsworth team are one of a select few of surviving long sword dancers. First reported in the late 1800s and despite the name originally they came from Woodhouse. This earliest notice appears to have been made by a local clergyman recanting seeing them dance in the 1870s when he was a boy. It was in 1880 when most of its members were from Handsworth that the move was made.  In 1913, the famous folk dance enthusiast and Morris dancing revivalist Cecil Sharp visited and documented the group and they producing recall how they are one of the few groups which have survived the years since. Fortunately, unlike other teams which fell into abeyance or died out during the wars, being miners they were never called up for the First nor Second World War and unlike other customs it survived unbroken during this period. However, this is not to say the subsequent periods were not problematic, aging members (a common theme), a lack of permanent musicians, were among the reasons why the custom was sporadically kept up in the intervening year.  Yet the team survived and by 1963 they became revitalised and it was then that they decided to formalise their custom. It was decided that rather than go out over the December period the event was firmly fixed to Boxing Day.

Handsworth sword dancers (18)

Strictly sword dancing!

The Handsworth team are sword dancers and although this is allied to Morris dancing there is a lot of difference. Firstly watching the dancers one is struck by the complexity of the dance. Secondly, the intensity and focus of the team and then thirdly the ritualistic nature. A dance can last for 9 minutes and during which the team will snake in and out, under and above their swords, swirl around and about, whilst in some cases doing some nifty footwork. Sharp (1913) described it as:

“This is a high springing, exuberant, running step, the dancers as they bound from one foot to the other freely raising the knee of the free leg. In movements like the ring (run around), and whenever the dancer has a clear space before him, the step is executed as vigorously as possible. At other and less favourable moments in the dance , it is modified and dance more quietly. Occasionally too, the dancers do a kind shuffling step, lazily dragging the free leg on the ground.”

This rather freeform nature has changed over the years and the dance has become more regimented but no less hypnotic in its nature.

I arrived at their dancing arena, which although traditionally was located in front of their parish church, it’s clear that over the intervening years, what may have been a picturesque location has been ruined by the dual carriage way behind to such an effect I wonder what the non –locals hurtling along this carriage way make of the dancers and their large group of bystanders. It was very cold and snow had settled slightly in areas and I was concerned that the ground may have been a bit too slippery…but I was reassured that its gone come what weather.

In come the clowns….and out again!

What is an enjoyable aspect of this team, compared to other similar events is that by attending we can celebrate three customs in one. Firstly there is the dance, there is a small break of some traditional Yorkshire Carols, at the time my first confused exposure to them..why were they singing different words? The other main aspect is the ‘mummer’s play’ this is a major attraction to the custom junkie and it usually rotates between two local plays: the Derby Tup and the Poor Owd Oss as below. When I visited there was a rendition of the Poor Owd Oss and a number of the group were dressed up as horse and riders. Their rendition was interesting and very amusing but didn’t appear to resemble that done elsewhere.

The play appeared to be done a differently dressed group. These I presumed were the clowns. These clowns were a regular feature of the team and their role appears to be to entertain the crowds during the dance, or probably between them, collect money and even get involved in the dance such as the lock. They were revived in the 1970s and were used to start the dance and clear the area with usual clown frivolity. The clowns appear now to be in the interludes, the plays and disappear or revert to dancers during the dancing part.

The striking thing about the Handsworth team is their uniforms which are based on a Hussars and suggest a military origin for the custom which seems likely of course, or otherwise it was done to make the group look more official.  The swords of course are not real swords but long strips of metal attached to a hilt. One wonders whether there did work with real swords.

As drifts of snow flowed across the dancing arena I became bewitched by that ritual rhythm of the custom. The dance frenetic yet fluid, the crowd cheering as it appeared to get more complex, one member jumps over another, in and out swirly around, and then the big cheer as the captain held the interlocked swords in the classic star shape. The team, made of an age from teen to geriatric were remarkable in their suppleness. Indeed, when I visited they had made flyers for new members disclosing that there was 70 years between the oldest and youngest. An account in the South Riding Folk Network News relates

“There are all sorts of reasons why we’re struggling for numbers” says their captain, John Pitts whose father Harry faced with similar problem back in the 1960s “some of the older ones are feeling aches and pains after 40 years of dancing. Several other regular dancers have moved away from Sheffield, two of them to University.”

They’ve survived since it appears. It’s such a shame I don’t live nearer as I fancy giving it a go!

Handsworth sword dancers (10)

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

 

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Custom revived: Poor Owd Oss

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Neigh Neigh!

Was it raining? It appeared that a month’s rain fell on Kimberley that evening as I made myself to an obscure pub in an out of the way part of the town. It was heavy..cold rain which gets in through your coat, under your skin, chills you…what did I expect it was the week before Christmas and there I stood in watching for the arrival of the Owd Oss…in a small typical suburban pub. Perhaps not the most likely one to see an old custom, but with it’s no nonsense decrepit decor, seats with the leather torn exposing their stuffing and mock Tudor woodwork, perhaps the most evocative. Arriving there early, I enquired if I had arrived at the correct place..yes they said they’ll arrive a little later and asked if I’d like a drink. I did a tea please….it was all I could have to warm me and for once a large mug was produced without any form of tutting or eye rolling! It was clearly a local’s pub, although unlike some local ones, it was in no way intimidating, but I did wonder what they would think when the Owd Oss would appear. Then through the rain appeared the team…running to avoid the wet from their car!!

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A kingdom for a horse!

Mayfield (1976) in his Legends of Nottinghamshire records a rendition done in the Mansfield area. Although called a mummer’s play it contains the least amount of dialogue and is mainly sung. The Owd Oss or Old Horse consisting of a painted horse’s skull on a stick which was often set up for it to snap shut.  The play itself describes a worn out horse. A report of the custom notes:

“A group of men would enter a pub or house and after reciting three verses of a prologue, would bring in Owd Oss which consisted of a man draped in a dark cloth with a carved horse’s head fastened to a stick. Rough music invariably followed the blacksmith’s attempt to shoe the horse, while the rest of the company played their parts. Then drinks were called for and the question was put could the Owd Oss manage to drink? The jaws of the horse were so arranged that a bear glass could be inserted and the moment of truth-and achievement- for the player performing the Owd Oss depending on the ability to take his drink without removing a scrap of his gruesome equipment.”       

Horse whispers…

Poor Owd Oss distribution was a north Midlands – Yorkshire one, with the longest continued tradition appearing to be in the 1970s in Dore on the outskirts of Sheffield. It appears to have been common in Nottinghamshire, particularly in Mansfield in the 1870s, but played until 1914, although as noted there is record in 1921 for the children of the village at school party. The local newspaper Mansfield Chad recorded a revival in 1984, but this appears to be a one off. Nothing appears recorded of the custom in the midlands for over 20 years. Then Dave Mooney, member of the Black Pig Morris and one of the Oss’s musicians apparently had the idea to revive it reading a book on folklore and customs in bed once, which noted that the Poor Owd Oss was enacted in Kimberley written by Mason (1902). He at the time was the member of a local Morris team and thought he would do some research. Lo and behold he found a script that was done in Kimberley and so getting a small group of musical friends together resurrected it in 2005. At first the Oss consisted of a papier-mâché skull, then one made of railway sleepers and finally a real horse’s skull. This skull is painted red, has LED eyes and other lights. Unlike the first skull this structure does not open and close its jaw – which is a shame. All skulls are attached to a pole and carried by a man cloaked and wearing a silver death mask. The reviver of this custom was Dave Mooney who informed me that he came across the custom whilst idly reading a book on traditions in bed! That year, after the discovery of the above script recorded by Mason in 1902 and information that is was done in Kimberley, with some musician friends and Morris men revived it. They custom is only undertaken one night, usually the week before Christmas and involves visiting local pubs usually three or four a night, including in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and mainly Kimberley in Nottinghamshire.

Take a horse to water…

It is also tempting to link the custom with the view of Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore in the 7th century Liber Poenitentialis who complained about tribes dressing in animal skins at the Kalends of January (the 1st) stating:

“whoever at the calends of January goeth about as a stag or bull; that is, making a himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, putting on the heads of the beast, whose who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.”

Perhaps the Poor Owd Oss is a survival of this Winter solstice observation with this custom being a continuation of a form of pagan animal worship. However, it could have equally arisen in the Industrial period as a response with something to do with the skulls of pit ponies to raise some money!

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Horse play

With traditional blackened, reddened and whitened faces, alone the musicians and the Introducer shocked some of the pub’s regulars. Then the Introducer began to sing:

“By leave, you gentlemen all,   Your pardon I do crave, For making bold to come, To see what sport you’ll have. There’s more in company, They’re following close behind; They’ve sent us on before, Admittance for to find. These blades they are but young; Never acted here before; They’ll do the best they can, And the best can do no more.”

At this point the Old Oss arrives and the music is started and the introducer starts the main part of the song. As he does so the Oss parades through the crowd causing mischief: The opening verses were song with great vigour and the arrival of the Oss, a real horse’s skull painted red, accompanied by its stirring banjo, trumpet and drum was very impressive. The song goes:

“This is my poor old horse, that has carried me many a mile, Over hedges, over ditches, over high-barred gate and stile; But now he has grown old, and his nature does decay, He’s forced to snap at the shortest grass that grows along the way;”

At the end of each verse the crowd would cry:

“Poor old horse! Poor old horse!”

 The song would those continue:

“His coat it was once of the linsey-woolsey fine, His mane it grew at length, and his body it did shine, His pretty little shoulders that were so plump and round, They’re both worn out and aged; I’m afraid he is not sound; Poor old horse! Poor old horse!

His keep it was once of the best of corn and hay, That ever grew in cornfields, or in the meadows gay; But now into the open fields he is obliged to go, To stand all sorts of weather, either rain, or frost, or snow; Poor old horse! Poor old horse!

His hide unto the tanner I will so freely give; His body to the dogs; I would rather him die than live: So we’ll hang him, whip him, strip him, and a-hunting let him go; He’s neither fit to ride upon, or in the team to draw;
Poor old horse! Poor old horse!”

Then the team got themselves together and off to the next pub. Here there was a bigger crowd and some of them happily joined in with the verses. Then after their third pub…it was into the night, back to the stable for another year.

Stable revival

What I enjoyed about this revival was it was done for the right reasons, for the need to continue something unique to the area. Richmond, Yorkshire has similarly revived theirs, but with its attendance to proper pubs and working men’s locations, there is something earthier and working class about this revival and more in keeping with its origins I feel. The Poor Owd Oss is a Nottinghamshire – Derbyshire tradition and it is great to see that local people recognise this. The Owd Oss is done because it should be done and long may it continue quietly to be enjoyed in the obscure areas of Nottinghamshire.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom demised: Thomasing on St. Thomas’ Day

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This was a common begging custom nationwide, where poorer households would avail themselves upon wealthier houses for simple provisions for the Christmas period and is recorded in most counties it appears in variants of names from Mumping from Mompen (Saxon to beg), Gooding, Corning and Thomasing or Washaeling surprising in Leicestershire. One would have thought these may have been local variants of the name but as Porter (1969) in Cambridgeshire Customs and folklore gives Gooding (Haddenham), Gathering (Doddington) or Mumping (Chatteris) as names all in the same county. Despite an association with St. Thomas the Apostle, there is no early reference. One of the earliest accounts is from an 1870s Hertfordshire notes:

“The women that I knew always called at the same houses and were evidently expected, for they told me that they always got a something at each place of call. One gentleman gave a new sixpence each year to every Thomaser at his house. I asked what they said or did when calling at the houses. Said they: All we ses is o please we’ve cum a Thomasing, remember St. Thomas’s Day.”

In Dorset it was called Christmasing and a note made in Notes and Queries from 1872 records they would ask:

“Please give me something to keep up Christmas or keeping up o’Christmas’

Palmer (2003) in his work on Worcestershire tells us that:

“wives, mothers, and children of all those who worked on the Beckford Estate were expected to call on Mr. King-Ross at Beckford Hall to be given a six penny piece each which was solemnly produced from a leather bag. The recipients, some 40 in number, then went round the back to be given a steaming hot cup of hot coffee and plenty of bread, spread thickly with lovely farm butter.

In Lincolnshire Ethel Rudkin in Lincolnshire folklore records:

“The women of Hemswell used to join together and go around ‘mumping’ to the various houses on St. Thomas’s Day-women who were ashamed to beg – but it was not looked on as begging, but as their due. They were given goods in kind.”

Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar notes that in Connisby in 1914:

“Old women would come mumping and mother would give them homemade cakes, half a cake or a whole one sometimes.. They came very early, I was still in bed, before 7 o’clock. They used to sing ‘Here we come a mumping..”

Whilst commonly old women, particularly widows were central to the custom, the men at the time were probably working, a contributor to Fenland Notes and Queries said:

 “old men and old women and even young women pass from house to house begging for alms.”

.A common rhyme was:

“Bud well, bear well, God send spare well, A bushel of apples to give on St. Thomas’s morning”

In Staffordshire a local author notes:

“In the days of the Georges, when red cloaks were commonly worn by the beldames of every parish, it was a usual sight to see, in the grey light of a December, groups of figures bent and withered, going from door to door, wrapped in these curious garments and hear them piping ‘in a childish treble voice; the following rhyme:

“Well a day, well a day, St Thomas goes too soon away, the yiyr goodinf we do pray, For the good time will not stay, St Thomas grey, the longest night and shortest day, please remember St. Thomas’s Day.”

Palmer (1976) notes in Warwickshire the rhyme would go:

“A Christmas gambol oft can cheer, The Poor man’s heart through the year.”

Another Warwickshire chant went:

“Little Cock Robin sat on a wall, We wish you a merry Christmas, and a great snowfall, apples to eat and nuts to crack, we wish you a merry Christmas, with a rap, tap, tap.”

In Mansfield they said the following:

Hip-Hip hurray, Saint Thomas’ Day Fetch a bit, And leave a bit, Hip-Hip hurray.”                                          

The food varied in Dorset they:

“Receive substantial pieces or ‘hunks or bread and cheese, bread and meat, or small sums of money.”

Some specifically asked for corn and hence the term ‘a-corning’ was used. More often it was used to make frumenty, with it baked and sugar and currants being added, it was then boiled in milk and egg and flour added.  In Worksop, Jackson (1992) notes that gifts of money, foodstuffs, oatmeal, potatoes, pieces of bacon, milk, eggs, currants and cheese were commonly given. Rudkin (1936) notes that in Willoughton, they were always given potatoes and on the Isle of Axholme tea or bread. In East Anglia they often took a spray of holly as a gift of thanks according to Porter (1974). In Staffordshire, gifts of a substantial amount were given a mistletoe sprig instead.

The decline

The decline was in the 1930s it appears, although Palmer notes someone undertaking it in the 1950s. Perhaps this snippet from Sutton (1996) gives an idea of one of the reasons why:

“This old lass went mumping for spuds, the farmer told her to clear off. so she said ‘You might not get a good crop next year’. The funny thing was, he didn’t. Not many were as mean as that.”

An account in the Lincolnshire Magazine from 1932-4 bores:

“Look out of the window facing the road and on the 21st, any time between 7.30 am and 12 noon, you will probably see groups of women apparently eagerly discussing where to call. They will cast dubious looks at some houses, shake their heads at others and finally decide on points of attack, chiefly amongst the old residents. Those residents who favour old customs are usually armed with small change, coppers, or food tickets of small value, such will have as many as seventy or eighty callers.”

Of course this indicated the ultimate reason for the decline, as communities became disparate and less cohesive, the very close knit nature of these villages began to disappear and so the custom began to die out. Sometimes as in Dorset this lead to Thomasers going further afield:

“those only refused the dole who did not belong to the parish.”

Not only that, but as Charlotte Burne notes in Shropshire folklore of 1883:

“It is in fact a custom very likely to be abused and to degenerate into a nuisance; the strongest, who could walk farthest, getting the greater number of doles; several members of a family going to the same house at different times in the day, and thus getting an unfair share.”

Such an action lead to the establishment of doles and Burne notes that in:

“1870, the farmers around Clun determined to put a stop to the begging, and instead of giving to all comers, they agreed to send their contributions of corn to the town hall to be distributed under proper supervision to the deserving poor.”

Nottinghamshire had a large number had a dozen with doles ranging from 3s to £50 for 10 poorest widows and at Worksop Priory in 1884 upwards of two hundred people, mainly widows, received a few shillings each. In the Warwickshire the Rev. John Dobyn left a bequest to ‘aged widows, and parents of large families’ in Beckford and Grafton and they would receive tickets which could be exchanged for food supplies from local tradesmen. At Alfrick, twelve penny loaves were given to each of five poor people under Thomas Markham’s 17th century Will. Some had stipulations, such as Samuel Higgs’s Will for the poor of Farnsfield and the interest given on the 21st December for equal numbers of men and women who could recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments before the vicar. This may have seen hard, but if they could do it they would have the money each year for the rest of their lives. Others provided garments. In Sturton-Le-Steeple, it is noted that the work of the charity worked in 1911:                                                                  

“They received suits ranging from 2s to 10s according to circumstances. The suits of the clothes were arranged who were to have them this Christmas. Finally it was restricted to have six suits to be given to the deserving of the village. The distribution took place in the school at noon. There was, however, very little mumping around the village this year, this old practice is obsolete.”

In Nottinghamshire, Diana Gibson left £50 at Rolleston in 1882 to invest the interest being paid to 10 of the poorest families on St. Thomas’s Day. The dole was worth £21 74p between 1967 and 1972 and it was noted locally such small amounts could be considered demeaning and divisive in a small community as Rolleston and as such it was wound up by 1996, the £450 being used to provide a village seat, with plaque and fine trees. With such movements clearly this was the final coffin in the custom.