The Suffolk-Essex boarders are a remote place full of delightful small villages many stocked with photogenic old black and white houses and old pubs. Delightful they may be…but Suffolk is a county devoid of many calendar customs. Great Finborough may not be up there with Lavenham, Kersey or Clare but it boasts something none these have…an old tradition. Or is it? Not really..and one may have had some doubts over the authenticity of the story. Really the Race of the Boggmen is the grand-daddy of the ‘devised by blokes down the pub’ so frequently come across these days…
The story behind this unique custom is based on an old country tradition that the sowing season begun on Good Friday. The Good Friday in 1887, a Joseph John Hatton was dismayed by the drunkenness of the team of six men, who were he hired Good Friday, being was so annoyed to find his labourers brawling, that he fired them there and then. But of course he still needed labour. Soon to hear about it was a team of men from nearby village of Haughley who appeared and so Hatton had a problem. Two teams were available, and ready to work, which one was best? There’s only one way to find out….race! The man that came up with this idea was a James Boggis of Oulton who happened to be staying at Boyton Hall. He suggested that if they threw the employment contract into the air, the first team to get the contract over the threshold of the pub in Great Finborough was the winner and got it! Fortunately, the Great Finborough team won..
A bit racy!
The method work and typical when local villages loved rivalry so it was continued as a custom but it appeared to have been forgotten around the First World War, when many agricultural workers went to Flanders and never came back. So it would until a Trevor Waspe doing building repairs found a copy of the contract from 1897. Now one might be a bit suspicious if it wasn’t for the survival of photos of the teams from 1903 in the pub! The contract reading, parts of which were difficult to read:
“The document made on the Holy Easter Monday in the year of Our Lord Eighteen hundred and ninety six in the reign of Our Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria shall thence for and for the ensuing year…some six strong and goodly men…the contract being for the setting of peas, beans, potatoes and others…”
Beneath this are a list of all the winners starting with that James Boggis finishing with a John Roper 1914/5 a sad poignant name for the list perhaps.
Off to a running start
I arrived around half an hour before the big event. The day was filled beforehand with some great little events such as egg and spoon racing and egg throwing…rolling hasn’t got here yet.
The contestants were dressed according to old agricultural tradition and a flagon was being handed around…these contestants were a little ‘tired and emotional’ already. Then around three the landlady of the pub appeared and called the traditionally dressed lads to the green opposite where the organiser explained the rules
“Only the leader can score. Keep to the path”
That was it. The leader was identified by a white cross drawn upon his face. The group were certainly ‘tanked up’ as they cavorted around throwing each other to the ground and practising their tactics. Soon the truck arrived which would carry them to Boyton Farm. I hitched a ride in the pick-up which was had perhaps the strangest load- the racers – rather drunk and noisy.
They arrived noisy at Boyton Farm and the runners poured out of the back of the truck before it had even stopped. In previous years I told that they used to travel in a horse box – imagine your surprise seeing them falling out of that. Once out the organisers, flowers in hand, to placate the elderly lady who owns the farm…after a bit of a debacle last year perhaps…however like all drunk people I wasn’t sure what one of them was doing with the farm’s duckpond would have been appreciated. However, the lady of the farm placated the grouped moved to the start of the path in-line with Great Finborough church. Here the group stood in a semi circle waiting. Haughley on one side, Finborough on the other, for the throw in..although getting a group of inebriated lads in order was difficult, especially as some might not have been from Haughley but it was managed! Hands were shook. The lady of the farm then raised her hand and the contract went into the air, the men reached for it and one grabbed in…then it disappeared into a scrum.
There was much too and fro and throwing at the start with a number of the contestants ending up unceremoniously in the manurey silage…then in a flash one grasped it and they were off. I jumped back in the truck and was quickly back to the pub…not that quickly it appears for as soon as I jumped out and thanked them, the first runner appeared…then another..then another followed by cheers and claps from the crowd. Despite the pub being just around the corner they arrived at the green opposite where an almighty scrum occurred…the contract appearing and disappearing a number of times..
Then quick as a flash, catching me unaware, the leader of the Great Finborough team broke free with the contract and barging past crossed the threshold. It was over..bar for some drunken swaying…a great event despite it’s remarkable shortness – from start to finish the race was only 3.08 to 3.23!….no London Marathon but then people aren’t usually drunk on that and I don’t usually laugh that much on that too..