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!!
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.”
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!
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.
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