Monthly Archives: March 2014

Custom survived: Sedgefield Ball Game

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 “The liberal use of sheet leg guards is not merely a precaution but an absolute necessicity, for no sooner does the ball touch the ground than the most indiscriminate kicking begins and on times throughout the game.”

On the head…literally

Like the many of surviving and demised ball games a long history is suggested according to this account in 1889 that it:

“has been played on the Green at least since the twelfth century. It can last for hours and gets rowdy; the object is to ‘allay’ the ball and get it in part of the village defended by the other side.”

The account as gives an interesting reason:

“It is said to have started as a quarrel between Chester-Le-Street apprentices and a retainer at Lumley Castle, the first football being the latter’s head.”

Such an origin, probably confused may hint at earlier pagan origins. As indeed does the most common legend which states that it started in 1246-56 when the church was being built, the game ensuing between the craftsmen were occupied with its building and the local farm workers when the rector threw the ball at noon. Despite all this claimed heritage the earliest mention is in 1802 in the Sporting magazine. Although, a later account by William Parson and William White states that it is an ancient custom and relates the role of the parish clerk who provides the ball providing some evidence for the legend perhaps or origin.

Not a game of two halves

The first explanation may have some grain of truth for over the years the game has been known to have changed and fought in teams. Now it appears to have no teams but two goals were indentified until the 1920 which were for the two opposing teams, town and county. The town goal being a stream running along the boundary to the south and the county a pond a few hundred yards north of the town centre. The location of the goals, the county one being nearest to the town may hint at its age, recalling a pre 1636 date when farm workers would have lived within the town walls for protection.

copyright ball game sedgefieldPost 1920s the rules changed, the county goal was filled in when the blacksmiths nearby became a petrol station. This meant only one goal survived and the game was no longer divided into opposing factions. Now individuals or groups compete making it even more exciting as you do not know who is going to win!

Eye of the ball

It was a bright but cold day, I arrived at noon, no one was there, The church bell rang, a local noticing I was looking a little perplexed, informed me that this was the pancake bell, rang to encourage the locals to prepare them, and no doubt to fill the stomachs of the participants to warm them up and sustain them. An hour later a man appeared carrying a small ball, it was much smaller than the other ‘footballs’ from similar games and soon a scrum surrounded him as he stood over the bull ring in the Green.

DSCF84512As the participants scrummed around, the ball is passed unnoticed in the sea of men through the ball ring. There was a little to-ing and fro-ing awaiting to grasp the ball once it has been passed through the bull ring. One! The crowd jocked into position. Two! The scrum got closer. Three! Up it went and it soon disappeared….then it appeared as one member bravely kicked it across the grass and ran after it. The ball skirted down the main road, chased by three men, under a car and caught the other side. Then back into the centre. Then a tremendous kick into the air and I caught a glimpse as it glided above me…a happy participant then took procession and kicked controllably down the road. He didn’t have it free for long as soon the mass ranks of participants were after him and soon a scrum developed. I wryly observed as nearby life appeared to be continuing as normal as a bus turned up destined to the outside world and an elderly lady boarded just as the scrum surged in the bus’s direction. A small car behind not being so lucky as the passengers got a close view of the participant’s flesh pressed against the window as they waited at the crossing. I was surprised no one thought of passing the ball inside….to pick up later. The intense scrumming and breaking free continues until bizarrely it appeared to stop…where did they go? I checked my watch. It was 2pm and they’d obviously stopped to have a drink in the pub or have some sandwiches.  Just under an hour later and the game apparently appeared as if it hadn’t gone and it became more fevered. As the light begin to fade there was a more determined effort to get the ball to the goal…

After a while I retreated to a delightful team room as the cold had got to me and watched it through a half boarded up window… A mass scrum of dirty, wet and mud strewn bodies came into view, the ball somewhere with in them. Then at 4 the ball is to ‘allay’ to the goal a beck in the south of the village and the back to the centre and through the bull ring three times. Whosoever retrieves the ball from the goal of that team brings it back to the market bull ring and after passing it three times through the ring is declared the champion and allowed to keep the ball

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Of all these street games, this is the best one for the spectator, the ball is often kicked and the village green large enough so as not to feel claustrophobic, although it is difficult due to the ball’s size to work out exactly was in going on, the roars and shouts more than make you aware of its progress as long as it doesn’t disappear!

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs when its on…http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/sedgefield-football/

Copyright Pixyledpublications

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Custom revived: Listening to witches

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Shrove tuesday…is full of customs, mostly pancakes. In this Bedfordshire village they don’t make them but listen for them in perhaps the country’s strangest custom.

Let’s all do the conger

As St. George’s church bell rings, a crocodile of children leave the local primary school and head towards a small hill. The hill called Conger Hill, a 12th century motte and bailey, is said to hold a strange captive. Once there they all kneeled down, on positioned mats or sheets so as not to get their clothes dirty and placed their ears to the ground.

What were they listening to? Doris Jones-Baker (1977) provides the notes. She states in her Folklore of Hertfordshire:

“The best-known maker of Shrove Tuesday Pancakes in Hertfordshire, however was no mortal but the Pancake Witch of Toddington….She fries her yearly batch deep inside Conger Hill.”

She continues to add:

“The Toddington village school bell rings five minutes before noon to give the children time to scurry along to the top of the hill nearby. Here putting their ears to the ground, they listen for the sizzle of the pancakes as they fry in the old witch’s pan.”

And so was written the last account of the custom whilst still undertaken. The origins of the custom are not clear, but it is believed to be at least 150 years old. The earliest account is in 1885 although it does not mention the hill stating:

“Being Shrove Tuesday, according to ancient custom, the children have a half holiday.”

However, it was common to give the children the afternoon off everywhere so it is difficult to judge. Jones-Baker  when she described the custom was recalling a revival or was it made up then by Richard Dillingham the primary school’s headmaster, from the 1940s (according to the Bedfordshire archives) or 1950s which continued until the 1970s (and into the 1990s according to many folk custom books).  And for many years that was that. It was a demised custom. Why perhaps parents moaned about dirty clothes or someone suggested it was a bit too pagan!

However, some customs refuse to die, especially when you have a thriving community and its spirit.  The Toddington Old Boys’ Association decided to revive the custom in 2011 after checking with a former pupil from the 50s that the witch was still there! And she was! So to ensure that the custom was understood the legend was told at the school and now the children are firmly involved.

Witch is it? Witch or not?

Cynics may argue that the sound is the reverb of the church bells vibrating in the ground. Others disagree “I heard the witch cackle” I can hear it…”quiet but evil” but another child would say “It’s just the ground.” I would say it could the M1 hurtling by nearby…a local legend recalls that the Lord of the Castle wanting pancakes imprisoned a witch in the dungeon. Looking around is quite surreal lots of children lying down with their heads buried in the grass, at a brief moment silent and giggling and chatting! My children thought it was all rather weird…but they believed. I think!

Whatever is the truth it’s nice to see the custom revived….and lets hope it continues.

My hard drive is playing up and I cannot access photos, the grainy photo from the following website where I found the majority of the information. Hope they don’t mind. It has a great video as well…

http://www.lutontoday.co.uk/news/local/video-conger-hill-witch-heard-frying-pancakes-on-shrove-tuesday-1-5913751

Find out when it’s on….

its not on Calendar customs yet, but there’s a lot on Shrove Tuesday there

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/shrove-tuesday/

Custom demised: Jack O’ Lent

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jack of lent

“you little Jack-a-Lent, have you been true to us;”

Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor

Aside the obvious Christian observation of the day, Ash Wednesday, is little else noted. However certainly from the Tudor period onwards, and possibly earlier, a curious custom was widespread across the country. For at the beginning of Lent, communities would make a straw figure called Jack O Lent which was paraded through the streets and abused. Often made up of straw and castoff clothes, he would be burnt, shot at, or thrown down a chimney to much merriment and pleasure.

By Tudor and Elizabethan times it was well known, as noted by Shakespeare who quotes it twice, for Falstaff remark later in the Merry Wives states:

“how wit may be made a Jack-a-Lent, when ’tis upon ill employment!”

Beaumont and Fletcher’s A Tamer Tam’d  in 1606-7 state:

“If I forfeit, Make me a Jack o Lent and break my shins, For Boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee.”

And in the Coxcomb 1608-10:

“Come, I’ll lead you in by your Jack a lent hair, go quietly, or I’ll make your crupper crack.”

A Shakespearian actor, Elderton, even recalled the custom in a ballad called Lenton Stuff:

“When Jakke a’ Lent comes justlynge in,
With the hedpeece of a herynge,
And saythe, repent yowe of yower syn,
For shame, syrs, leve yowre swerynge:
And to Palme Sonday doethe he ryde,
With sprots and herryngs by his syde,
And makes an end of Lenton tyde”

Who was Jack?

Generally it is thought that the image was said to be Judas Iscariot, but it may have an older and deeper meaning. Considering the time of year it may be a pagan figure who’s ritual abuse would record the turn of the year, a Winter god who dies when Spring is reborn. Sadly, as Ronald Hutton (1996) in his Stations of the Sun notes there does not appear any pre-Tudor note but its widespread discussion suggests an older origin. What is particularly interesting is the prevalence of the custom in the city of London and indeed he was seen in pageants. Such as pageant of Easter 1553 had him on his death bed, with a priest shriving him of sin and a wife begging a doctor to save his life for a thousand pounds, as a Lord of Misrule, representing the feasting of Easter looked on. Certainly, this is a symbolism that supports the Winter-Spring iconography. When Henrietta Maria made her entry into London, on June 16th 1625, a ballade called ‘Jack of Lent’s Ballad’ was constructed recalling such rich pageantry. Indeed, Jack O Lent figures highly through Jacobean to Restoration times if his numerous literary references are to be believed as a figure of worthlessness and ridicule. In 1611 John Crooke’s Greene’s Tu quoque notes of it

“for if a Boy, that is throwing at his Jack o’ Lent chance it hit me on the shins.”

Ben Jonson, in his 1633 Tale of a Tub, makes light of someone in need of begging by stating:

Thou cam’st but half a thing into the world,

And wast made up of patches, parings, shreds;                                                      

that when last thou wert put out of service, 

Travell’d to Hampstead Heath on an Ash Wednesday 

where thou didst stand six weeks the Jack of Lent, 

For boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee 

To make thee a purse.”

In Francis Quarles Shepherd’s Oracles dating from 1646

“How like a Jack a Lent, He stands for Boys to spend their Shrove-tide throws, Or like a puppit made to frighten crows.”

Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene note in the Old Comedy of Lady Alimony of 1659:

“Throwing cudgels, At Jack a lents or Shrove Cocks”

However, as figure of ridicule and pageantry it appears to disappear, certainly from London, probably as a result of Puritanism’s effect on Lent. However, it appears to survive elsewhere in name and occasionally in physical form until recent times. In Oxfordshire children would cry at least until the 17th century:

“Harings, harings white and red,

Ten a penny Lent’s dead,

Rise dame and give an egg,

Or else a piece of bacon,

One for Peter two for Paul

Three for Jack a Lents all,

Away Lent throw away.”

Elsewhere, mention is made of shying a Jack O Lent at Minehead by Palmer in Folklore of Somerset (1976). Oddly, in one case a permanent Jack O Lent existed. This was at Midsomer Norton, where a church effigy of the Gourney family was the subject of local egg and rock throwing when he ended up in the vicarage garden after the old church was demolished.  Whether in any cases it was paraded as such is unclear.  However, such parades may have been widespread. A mention is made of him in supposedly a similar procession at Worcester according to Chamberlain accounts of 1653. More significantly on Nickanan night in Cornwall and a parade of a Jack O Lent is noted in Polperro Cornwall as late as 1876. Indeed, in Lincolnshire the custom survived until the 1920s, when a Swineshead man in recalls perhaps the last Jack of Lent:

When I was about 15 years old, 70 years ago, they used to make an effigy of Judas from straw and hang it up on Boston market place near the old stocks. The idea was for folks to throw a clod of muck at it for betraying Jesus. If any of it was left at the end of Lent it was torn down or set on fire to: that was to make sure it got finished properly.”

This may not be strictly true of course, as the last although again not perhaps called as such burned away in Liverpool in the incendiary custom of Burning Judas, although Steve Roud (2008) in his The English Year believes this association to be a latter one…probably the Liverpool custom has the same origin but were not related. Perhaps we will never know…

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