Custom survived: A visit from Father, Jack or Mother Valentine

Click the image for a great account!

Click the image for a great account!

Multi-channel TV, the World Wide Web, international trade: all these things and other have brought us closer together, allowed us to share ideas and thoughts. Homogenised us and made us all very similar. Yet every now and then one comes across a custom or tradition whose very survival flies in the face of this globalisation. Jack or Father Valentine is one. Why? Because for some inexplicable reason it is largely restricted to two counties: Norfolk and Suffolk, and not only this it is restricted largely to Norwich and Lowestoft?

Normal for Norfolk?

Across the country in Victorian times, Valentine’s Day was an important day in the calendar. I have already described how the giving of cards was revived across the country on another post, but apparently whilst the sending of cards died out, in this obscure part of the country, Valentines was not forgotten.  Porter (1974) in the Folklore of East Anglia notes:

“Norwich is still known for the enthusiasm with which, by the sending of cards and gifts, the inhabitants celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on 14th February. The gifts should, traditionally be delivered in person, and the rat-tatting of door knockers was a familiar Valentines sound. “

However, despite this clearly describing the custom, the name is missing. This name Jack Valentine can metamorphose into Old Father Valentine, or Old Mother Valentine. Descriptions of the custom first arise in the mid 1800s. A lengthy note given by a John Wodderspoon is described in the first series of Notes and Queries:

“ST. VALENTINE IN NORWICH—. The day appropriated to St. Valentine is kept with some peculiarity in the city of Norwich. Although “Valentines,” as generally understood, that is to say billets sent by means of the post, are as numerously employed here as in other places, yet the custom consists not in the transmission of a missive overflowing with hearts and darts, or poetical posies, but in something far more substantial, elegant and costly—to wit, a goodly present of value unrestricted in use or expense. Though this custom is openly adopted among relatives and others whose friendship is reciprocated, yet the secret mode of placing a friend in possession of an offering is followed largely,—and this it is curious to remark, not on the day of the saint, when it might be supposed that the appropriateness of the gift would be duly ratified, the virtue of the season being in full vigour, but on the eve of St. Valentine, when it is fair to presume his charms are not properly matured. The mode adopted among all classes is that of placing the presents on the door-sill of the house of the favoured person, and intimating what is done by a run-a-way knock or ring as the giver pleases.”

 Despite the late recording it is clear from the account that the custom must have been well established as the author continues:

 “So universal is this custom in this ancient city, that it may be stated with truth some thousands of pounds are annually expended in the purchase of Valentine presents. At the time of writing (February 2.) the shops almost generally exhibit displays of articles calculated for the approaching period, unexampled in brilliancy, taste and costliness, and including nearly every item suitable to the drawing room, the parlour, or the boudoir. The local papers contain numerous advertising announcements of “Valentines;” the walls are occupied with printed placards of a similar character, and the city crier, by means of a loud bell and an equally sonorous voice, proclaims the particular advantages in the Valentine department of rival emporiums. All these preparations increase as the avator of St. Valentine approaches. At length the saint and his eve arrives—passes—and the custom, apparently expanding with age, is placed in abeyance until the next year. I am inclined to believe that this mode of keeping St. Valentine is confined to this city and the county of Norfolk.”

 A well written account in Thiselton-dyer’s (1900) British Popular Customs Present and Past reads

“Norfolk. As soon as it is dark, packages may be seen being carried about in a most mysterious way; and as soon as the coast seems clear, the parcel is laid on the doorstep, the bell rung, and the bearer runs away. Inside the house is all on the qui vive, and the moment the bell is heard, all the little folks (and the old ones too, sometimes) rush to the door, and seize the parcel and scrutinize the direction most anxiously, and see whether it is for papa or mamma, or one of the youngsters. The parcels contain presents of all descriptions, from the most magnificent books or desks, to little unhappy squeaking dolls. These presents are always sent anonymously, and nearly always contain a few verses, ending with the distich:

‘If you’ll be mine, 1’11 be thine, And so good morrow, Valentine.’

 The Opies (1959) in the Lore and Language of Schoolchildren note:

 “From Heydon and Stalham in the north-east to Loddon in the south, young children played ‘Jack Valentine’ and knock on the doors or windows of houses and leave little gifts on the doorsteps.”

The Opies (1959) also record rhymes, common at Valentines across the country, but included mention of Mother Valentine, such as Ingoldisthorpe, Norfolk:

 “Good Mother Valentine, God bless the baker!, Who’ll be the giver? I’ll be the taker. The roads are very dirty, My boots are very clean, And I’ve got a pocket, to put a penny in.”

However, this is more common frequently encountered sounding like a begging rhyme once found across the country under the name of ‘valentining’ And Tuttingham near Aylsham reads:

“Good morning, Father Valentine, Trim your hair as I do mine: Two to the fore and two behind, Good morning Father Valentine.”

At Mundham they chant:

“Old Father Valentine, Draw up your window blind; If you wish to hear us sing, come down and let us in.”

Sadly, not living in Norfolk I have failed to witness this custom in person, but a search of the internet clearly reveals it to be alive. Much of what can be gathered about the tradition is from entries to fora and websites, there appears to be no modern literature I am aware of about it. A typical view is that of a Dave Tong who described that:

“We felt as you do at Christmas – both excited and almost sick, waiting for the knock on the door and the present of marbles, plasticine or maybe even gun caps if you were really lucky. A neighbour knocked on our door and later my dad did the same for their family. This was in the 60s and we still carry on the tradition with our own children today. The reason some in Norfolk haven’t heard of it is I think because it came out of Norwich where my parents lived and so has only spread slowly outside the confines of the City.”

 A Leanne Tink notes:

“We used to look forward to Father valentine visiting more than Christmas day!It was always so exciting. I always used to think oh mum has missed him coming again!! I carried on this lovely tradition with all three of my children up until a few years ago and still do get them a small gift.”

 A good account from a Paul Gray noted:

“Coming from Gorleston, near Gt Yarmouth, I can remember the loud ‘knock’ on the front door on Valentine’s evening after dark. There was always a small bag containing sweets and maybe a book, game or model plane to build. This was in the 1960’s. Usually a neighbour was coerced to knock and deliver. My wife and I carried on the tradition in exactly the same way for our twins (Good ol’Reg!)- but as Reg was not as sprightly as he once was, we had to hold the twins back for a few seconds to allow Reg to slip into the shadows. As far as I was told, the custom doesn’t extend the Norwich-Lowestoft-Yarmouth area.”

Bullet for a valentine!

 An Amanda Woodhouse adds:

“Although my brother and I would get some good presents and some bad ones as our parents always said he was ‘naughty’”

With every custom which appears to welcome goodwill, there is always the other darker version. This custom is clearly no exception and the name ‘snatch Valenine’ is used. This concept of a bad presents or mock presents is recorded by Porter (1975) who adds:

“In Lowestoft, and in many places too, the gifts were left on the recipients’ doorsteps and were preceded by ‘mock’ presents such as boxes filled with nothing but paper, a custom which encouraged mischievous boys to leave such offerings as dead herrings and other unsavoury objects.”

Thistleton-Dyer (1900) using Hone’s Everyday Book as his source also notes

“At Swaffham, also, Valentines are sent on this evening. Watching for a convenient opportunity, the door is slyly opened, and the Valentine attached to an apple or an orange, is thrown in; a loud rap at the door immediately follows, and the offender taking to his heels, is off instantly. Those in the house, generally knowing for what purpose the amusing rap was made, commence a search for the juvenile billet-doux: in this manner numbers are disposed of by each youth. By way of teasing the person who attends the door, a white oblong square the size of a letter is usually chalked on the step of the door, and should an attempt be made to pick it up, great amusement is thus afforded to some of the urchins, who are generally watching.”

The Opie’s (1959) note that such pranks were common place amongst their correspondents and quite clever:

“Sometimes the older children take advantage of gift giving and play tricks. They attach a piece of string to a parcel and jerk it away from the doorstep when someone stoops to pick up.”

 Considering the time of year this could be quite unpleasant:

 “they lodge a broom or bucket of water against the door before they knock, so that when the door is opened it falls into the house.”

Love is all around

Although geographically to the Norfolk and north Suffolk, it probably has spread as people have moved away, Australia being probably the furthest! On the website an Elizabeth McManus describes:  

 “I was born in north Norfolk and always had a visit from father valentine, I am in my 50s now and always kept up the custom with my children even though I moved to Wisbech Cambs Now I do it for my grandchildren, in fact they are coming to visit today and the presents are all ready .”

A Tim Williamson also noted:

“Now we’ve bought the tradition to Brighton.”

Another, Angie Porter:

“I now live in Henley-on-Thomas and carry on the tradition for my Grandson but no one here has heard of it.”

It has spread even further afield as correspondent Matthew Benns notes:

Long live Jack Valentine. I remember the terror and excitement of Jack Valentine’s knock as a child in Norfolk so well. Now in Australia the custom has been transported here for my daughters – although with the warmer weather snatch’s repertoire has been expanded to include various other tricks involving buckets of water and the garden hose!”

 Pranks aside, Jack Valentine appears to have now been adopted by a Norwich shopping centre, the Lanes with cleverly staged CCTV footage, the report notes:

“The mythical figure of Jack Valentine has been caught on CCTV wandering around the Norwich Lanes over the last few days. In one of the stills, he’s spotted strolling around Pottergate with an urban fox. For several centuries, Jack was famous for delivering gifts to families on Valentine’s Eve, a tradition which is synonymous to Norwich and Norfolk. One local historian believes he may have returned after hearing of interest from the curators at the Bridewell Museum about his long term absence. Here in the Lanes we are incredibly excited that rumours of his return are true. If anyone else spots Jack on his travels, we urge people to contact us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #JackValentine.”

 With this sort of publicity perhaps the custom will spread. That would not be a bad thing, as I rather like this tradition for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is largely localised and defied the trend for globalisation and secondly, that it is clear that the character is someone that might be known to the recipient those avoiding the Father Christmas conundrum parents have.  So this year, for my resident Norfolk diasporas I made a little visit…and left their young son something or should I say Jack did..spread the word!


CCTV1_low-230x230 Find out when it’s on:

It’s not on Calendar customs yet, but it is always the 13th February or 14th February morning and in the Norwich-North Suffolk region. for some more footage!

One response »

  1. Sorry to upset your boat about st Valentine’s as a norfolk born and bread I can ensure you it has gone wider a field than just norfolk and suffolk as when my daughter was in the army she was stationed in Germany and basrah and further afield. It was fun putting parcel together to go to to hot climates. Now out of the forces she now keeps this tradition up and lives in south wales.

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