Custom revived: Harthill’s Derby Tup

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A surviving custom?

The Derby Tup or Owd Tup of all the traditions that are to be found along the eastern midlands is the most enigmatic and fascinating.

It is possible that in the Harthill area there is an unbroken tradition of Tupping. On the Sheffield Forum a member called Denise relates that:

“We lived in Renishaw, my Brother and his friends use to do the Derby Tup around Mosborough, Renishaw, Eckington, Barlborough etc through the 1970s. They used to borrow my mother’s Shirley Bassey Wig for my wife and came to our house to count up and share out the money (lots of it).”

This is interesting for two reasons. One because it is close to the village visited in Russell’s 1974 Derby Tup film and his Survey of traditional Drama in North–east Derbyshire 1970-78 and secondly, because it overlaps with the Harthill Morris revival which begun in 1974. Furthermore, the local school continue the tradition and indeed may have since the 1970s.

The Tup play differed according to the village and each village had a different type. A competitive element was introduced when groups of young boys would vie to be the first group in a certain pub to give a rendition and obviously earn the biggest pot. According to Derreck another forum member, who relates that this rivalry ended up in fighting.

What’s tup?

The Tup is a curious play half acted and half sung about a large sheep being seen and then slaughtered. The play starts with the following lines:

Here comes me an’ ar owd lass, Short o’ money an’ short o’ brass: Pay for a pint and let us sup, Then we’ll act the Derby ‘Tup’.

The ram then dances around as the following is recited:

“As I was going to Derby, Upon a market day, I met the finest ram, sir, That ever was fed on hay.

(Chorus repeated after every verse) Faily, faily, ready for haily day!

This ram was fat behind, sir, This ram was fat before, This ram was three yards high, sir, Indeed he was, or more!

The wool upon his back, sir, Reached up to the sky, The eagles built their nests there, For I heard the young ‘uns cry.

The wool upon his tail, sir, Was three yards and an ell, Of it they made a rope, sir, To pull the parish bell.

The space between his horns, sir, Was as far as a man could reach, And there they built a pulpit, But no man in it preached.

This ram had four legs to walk on, This ram had four legs to stand, And every leg he had, sir, Stood on an acre of land.

Now the man that fed the ram, sir, He fed him twice a day, And each time that he fed him, He ate a rick of hay.”

A piece of dialogue then is recited and the Tup is killed. He lays on the floor and the butcher with the knife stands over him:

“The man that killed the ram, sir, Was up to his knees in blood, And the lad that held the pail, sir, Was carried away by the flood.

Indeed, sir, it’s the truth, sir, For I never was taught to lie,And if you go to Derby, You may eat a piece of the pie.

And now our song is ended, We have no more to say, So please will you gi’e us a copper or two To see us on our way.”

At which point a collection is made.

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What’s tup with that?

Many of the older Tups were simple structures made from a broom or even a turnip. In Worksop it was common to use a preserved head – a rather gruesome but effective device. Some had moving jars and illuminated eyes. That of the Harthill Tuppers is the latter, a substantial beast covered in wool with glowing ball eyes, an articulated mouth and a very impressive flapping and rolling tongue.

I planned to see the Tuppers at the Phoenix Inn, Ridgeway. After eating a rather fine meal there, I nearly missed the team as they Introducer came bursting in with his bell, fast behind him came the characters-the Farmer, Old Sal, the fool, the butcher and of course the TupCo-incidentally it is to Ridgeway that Ian Russell in his 1974 documentary on the Derby Tup of which more in a moment.

A pagan ramemberance?

Some folklorists suggest that the theme of the story is pre-Christian in origin. It is easy to read into pagan motifs into the story. The enactment around the summer solstice and new year emphasising this even more. Of course the ram image is a very significant figure. The Devil is always portrayed as goat like, but this is a personification of a pagan god. By killing him as the year ends, perhaps his blood is said to fertilise the land and encourage farm beasts to breed, as a sacrifice.

As with similar customs such as the Poor Owd Oss, it is also tempting to link the custom with the view of the Archbishop of  Canterbury, Theodore in the 7th century Liber Poenitentialis . He 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.”

Indeed, evidence for its greater significance was given as the Tup left to be put in the car, a local lady said is this the Tup upon giving it a touch for good luck. It was interesting to see some traditions die hard!

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Tup and down

In 1974, folklorist Ian Russell toured and interviewed Tups around the Ridgeway. His film is a fascinating window into a custom which whilst in good health was perhaps in failing health. How did something which appears to have thrived die out in the intervening 30 years? But the film perhaps illustrates some reasons why the custom had begun to disappear. Let me discuss the reasons

Firstly, what is worth noting that in a scene in a pub, the death of the animal is greeted with boos! The early 70s was a period linked with greater awareness of such issues and as such younger people would have been less inclined to be involved in such a bloody thirsty custom. Interestingly, I think we’ve gone through the period of time which would seem ‘ritual slaughter’ offensive and now again children would enjoy this. A number of children watching the Tup with me were thoroughly enthralled.

We cannot discount apathy. Children today have many other enjoyments and this is evident in the film that many Tuppers may have been going through the motions. The first team shows this by the group of teenagers either not wanted to be filmed or not wanted to do it. However, the other scenes show more enthusiasm. Of course this lack of involvement combines with three other factors. One being increased affluence. Now that is a good thing of course, but children are less likely to find ways to raise their own money if they don’t need to. This combined with ‘Danger-Stranger’ probably sealed the fate of the original run of the custom – many people could not imagine their young children travelling around pubs to collect money and be concerned, rightly so, for their safety. The final important factor is society’s immunisation to begging. Collecting money for one self this way is frowned upon. I long to hear a Morris team or old custom which collects for itself rather than charity! As the prevailing culture was to collect for a worthy cause, other than themselves, this would be a factor to discourage the Tuppers. This is perhaps combined with ‘Charity lives at home’ attitude.

All these appear to have sadly caused the demise of the Derby or Owd Tup tradition as enacted by children, but fortunately this team excellent and energetically uphold the tradition and long may they continue. However one could not help feel that this was a dying tradition – and even from the words of one the main protagonists – they were not always welcome!

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