Monthly Archives: October 2015

Custom revived: Old Man’s Day, Braughing

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There are many picturesque Hertfordshire villages, but few have many surviving traditions and none have a custom as peculiar and nonsensical as Old Man’s Day. A tour of village churches will reveal the frequency of benefactor and charity boards…and indeed I have catalogued a few in this blog…but whilst doles and gifts are pleasantly quaint and common place..none have survived with such a strange stipulation.

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My Old Man’s a dead man!

Why is it so odd? Well that is due to the legend of the titular benefactor, real name Mathew Wall. The local legend tells that when he died in 1571 it was not the end. For as the pall bearers carried his coffin down Fleece Lane on its way to burial the church, a leaf got in the way. A bearer slipped. Bang. The coffin was dropped. Everyone was apparently aghast in horror…but the level of horror was about to rise. For once the shock of dropping the coffin was got over there was a knock. An audible rap on the coffin. The undead? A zombie? No Matthew had woken up…he was alive! The account does not attest the response of the villagers then but Matthew was released from his coffin alive. Indeed he lived for another 24 years!

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Dying to be remembered

When he did die in 1595, it is said that a thankful Wall then gave money to the village and stipulated that the 2nd of October the event should be remembered. Of course the church would not be reluctant to remember a story of a dead man resurrected! Local people often frightened of premature burial – the diagnosis of comas not being particularly successful back in the 16th century, would be happy to oblige too.

A clean sweep

One of the most curious aspect of the custom, the nonsensical aspect, is the most colourful. As the church bells toll the Death knell – a Will stipulation, children from the local school are prepared. Armed with brooms…they sweep Fleece lane. Now whilst one would expect them to sweep leaves onto the path…they sweep them off. It doesn’t make sense…if someone had done that the day of his ‘funeral’ it would have remained that his funeral…no legend no custom. Did he regret his survival? Did he become a bitter old man? Did he want to be the only one resurrected? Or did some busy-body moan that sweeping leaves onto the path would be problematic and pointless!? As the present enactment arises from the mid-20th century perhaps it was changed then by mistake? Whichever the children relish the job and the path is thoroughly swept and very few see it as an opportunity to play fight..with 50 odd students that’s quite an achievement.

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Death duties

Of course money is involved. Although the sums have changed over time. Wall’s Will is a typical one in many respects and amongst the ‘eighteen pence for the crier of Bishop’s Stortford for announcing on Ascension and Michaelmas Day in the market place that as long as the world shall be endure be it known that the Testator left his Estate to one Matthew Wall.’ records:

One shilling and eight pence each to the vicar and both churchwardens; a small sum of money to 20 virtuous poor children and 10 aged and poor parisoners, that all might bless his memory; two shillings and 10d to the sexton to keep his grave in order and another shilling to ring the bells on October 2nd, the anniversary of his remarkable escape from death; one shilling to a poor man to sweep the path from Wall’s house to the church gate….and finally eight pence to either Matthew or William Wall.”

One can see there have been a few changes over the years. The twenty poor children are clearly the school children…although they don’t get paid (well not exactly) and they replace the poor man to sweep the path – poor men being difficult to define and unlikely to turn up – children are numerous and willing of course. It is interesting that the owner of a house on the main road called Quilters is asked to contribute £1. Why? The house is apparently where Wall lived. However it does not appear to be mentioned in the Will. Perhaps the money goes to pay the vicar who traditionally gets the same money for organising the event. Perhaps the Will contained little money.

Once the lane is sweep, the children gather around Wall’s grave. A simple earth mound, well it was in the 1500s. Here prayers are said and the children sign a song, the words being held up, so they don’t forget. As soon as the song is sung, the church rings a joyous wedding peel. A celebration of his survival. Only one thing remains to thank the children with sweets…surely a modern twist to keep the children on board. Then the children return to the classes or go home accordingly…and Matthew is forgotten for another year. I am sure he would be very pleased to see his tradition has survived where many have been lost – surviving in memory through Reformation, War and Charity commissioners…a clear device considering how many 16th century commoners graves survive today to be seen. Setting up a custom has certainly allowed his name to continue..and with such a curious and comical custom I am sure it will continue.

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Custom contrived: All Souls Service of Homage and Remembrance

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One of the most interesting aspects which results from immigration is the introduction of customs. In some cases these are completely new, such as the colourful Divali, in others they are re-introductions. Parts of Newark’s unique All Souls ceremony is one such re-introduction.

 

On the last Sunday in October (rather than the 1st November – All Souls) the Polish community from Nottinghamshire and beyond congregate at Newark Cemetery to remember the contribution of their ancestors. Indeed, Newark cemetery is testament to the sacrifice that the Polish community gave to the greater good and the ceremony is very moving.

Organised by Newark Town Council on behalf of the Polish Air Force Association, it is a moving remembrance. Why is it here? Newark is one of the largest UK cemetery which contains non-national service graves. The graves are centred around the Polish airmen’s memorial cross associated with the former grave of Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish wartime leader General who was killed in a plane crash in 1943 and could not be buried on home soil. He was repatriated in 1992 however. Around this time the ceremony was instigated I believe.

The custom starts with the slow silent procession behind the priest carrying a cross and current and old military men and women carrying their standards. Heads are held down in deference as the congregation move slowly to the centre of the cemetery.

Here the service collects around the memorial cross. Here local dignitaries such as the Newark Mayor and, and the chairman of Newark and Sherwood District Council, and national figures – the chairman of the Polish Air Force memorial committee, Polish ambassador and Polish Consular Services. All here to give their thanks.

The service is undertaken in both English and Polish, with local Catholic priest Father Krzysztof Kawczynski saying prayers for fallen after which a roll of honour was read. Wreaths were laid at General Sikorski’s former grave. I was struck by the poignancy of the Last Post, whose one-minute’s silence was broken by a soft rain, falling like tears for the fallen.

Of course the service to this point is similar to every other remembrance service. However then the most amazing part of the custom begins; the congregation place candles – some in specially made jars around the monument and the individual graves. With 400 Polish service men buried here the effect is incredible and very thought provoking. Recently other service personnel, fatalities of bombings and war victims of both wars have been remembered resulting in the awe inspiring flick of more than 600 candles as the evening falls.

Why candles? Catholic belief stated that souls were in purgatory and could spend many years there before eventing heaven. Thus of this day prayers of remembrance would be said for those who died on this day. This would help those poor souls to move on. As such on All Souls in Britain, before the Reformation, it was marked by prayers for the dead, visiting graves of the ancestors and the lighting of candles. The Protestants do not believe in purgatory and as such a custom fell out of usage. However, it continued in Catholic countries and as such was brought back into England via many Catholics and in particular in Nottinghamshire the large Polish community and their descendents.

 

Once the service is over, many proud Polish men light flares and sing the National Anthem. For the custom is an opportunity for Polish pride and also affixed to the railings are banners of local Polish football teams and groups.

If ever there is a need to give evidence of the considerable contribution the Polish gave for freedom and democracy, no better illustration can be given than this poignant custom…a small token of our eternal gratitude.

 

 

Custom demised: Weyhill Sheep Fair

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“To Wy and to Wynchestre I wente to the feyre.”

So does Langland record Weyhill Fair, in Piers Plowman, in 1377, the largest and most important livestock fair in the country. One of the features were the establishment of booths to sell produce and so many hops from Farnham were sold that they became known as Farnham row.  Like many great fairs despite an ancient provenance it was like others a charter fair…like others it did attract fringe activities – hiring of labour, a pleasure fair, bull baiting and even mummers and mystery plays.

Ancient fair

Twelve twenty five is the fair’s earliest reference being called Fair of Le We then. However this is not a charter. Indeed, the lack of a charter is perhaps because the fair was very ancient lying as it does on ancient crossroads which crisscrossed tin merchants, gold transporter and even pilgrims from as far as way as Cornwall, Kent and the Continent. Laying also on three parishes and three estates helped it escape the need for a Charter. For when in Andover town folk claimed a right to hold their own fair, by 1559 Royal charter, the fair owners claimed that the rules did not apply to their fair!

Court fair

As it grew into the 19th century the volume of trading grew exponentially. Cheeses from all over Wessex were sold and around 100,000 sheep were sold in one day.  Irish horse traders were accused of putting everyone in danger by showing off ‘charged up and down, and over hurdles’. Lawlessness was a common problem and so large was the fair that by the 16th century it was necessary to set up a Court of Pie Powder. This a common feature of large fairs was a court which provided quick settlement on disputes and could punish lawlessness. Wife selling was a custom associated with many fairs and one immortalised by Thomas Hardy in his 1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge. Renamed Weydon Priors one of his characters, Henchard, sells his wife for five guineas. Wife selling was not unknown in the days before divorce was relatively easy and affordable. An account records that a man called Henry Mears bought Joseph Thomson’s wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog – he was originally asking 50 but the account states both parties were happy. I am not so clear as the wife’s opinion.

The fall of the fair

The 1800s was perhaps the final heyday of the fair. By the end of the 19th century it was in decline. William Cobbett in his Rural rides visited the Fair in 1822. He had been a regular attendee for 40 years previous and found it already depressed:

“The 11th of October is the Sheep Fair. About £300,000 used, some few years ago, to be carried home by the sheep-sellers. Today, less perhaps, than £70,000 and yet the rents of these sheep sellers are, perhaps as high, on average, as they were then. The countenances of the farmers were descriptive of their ruinous state. I never, in all my life, beheld a more mournful scene.”

Reports suggest that despite being still the biggest fair in the South in 1867 each year less and less hops and cheeses were being sold.  Sheep and cattle continued to be trade until just after the Second World War. In 1948 only 1400 sheep were sold – a far drop from the 100,000s. The rapid progress of modernity, better roads, rail and communications meant such large meetings were unnecessary. Although the pleasure fair continued to thrive as in many places. In 1957, the last livestock auction was held and then so few animals were sold that the auctioneers deemed it unprofitable. So the fair stopped and unlike other fairs such as Nottingham Goose fair so did the pleasure fair. The booths were bought by a building company Dunnings Associates using them for storage. They themselves went bankrupt and the buildings fell into disrepair. The site is now a light industry site with the Fairground Craft and Design Centre continuing the name and tradition of selling.