Candlemas is often associated with charities especially doles. Whilst most of these appear to have died out around 100 years ago, one survived until recently and indeed may soon return. This is Carlow’s Dole. Carlow’s Dole is also one of those customs which is repeatedly referred to it folk custom almanacs and now online lists as a surviving custom – however that is far from the truth. Even Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 school resource British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide state:
“a dozen loaves are still distributed each Candlemas by the rector and churchwardens of St. Mary’s parish church.”
What makes the charity stand out is the nature of bizarre distribution and the origins of its founder.
George Carlow was a member of a religious sect long extinct called the Separate Congregation who’s chief belief was keeping Saturday sacred it seems. Being not accepted for burial in the church or chapel, he therefore was interred in his own private tomb in his garden. As the year’s passed this garden became the property of the Bull Hotel. Arthur Mee (1939) in his Suffolk notes:
“…we come upon the tiny walled garden of the Bull Hotel, the old coaching inn on Market Hill where Tennyson stayed… Through the hotel yard we come to the grave of George Carlow, who owned the inn in 1738, when he died and was buried here. He left the inn a small charity to distribute bread each year to the poor, and the bread is still distributed at his grave.”
The will stipulated that whosoever lived in his house paid for the loaves. As the Bull Hotel’s annex covered this property for many years they took responsibility for the tomb’s upkeep and helped with the charity. Homer Sykes (1975) who chose the custom to feature in his excellent Only Once a Year notes that the hotel had a room called Carlow’s and that those involved would be served sherry by the hotel. Landlord Neville Allen noted in Ben Le Vay’s Eccentric Britain:
“we mark it some years with children coming from one of the local schools to get rolls which we have baked. Of course, they’re not that poor nowadays but it’s very educational.”
The some years is a clue of how the custom appeared to die out but not the full story which I will explain in a moment. What makes this dole so interesting is the tomb of course on which is inscribed:
“Weep for me dear friend no more for I am gone a little before. But by a lite of pity prepare yourself to follow me. Good friends for Jesus sake forbear. To move the dust entombed here. Blessed be he that spares these stones. Cursed be he that moves my bones.”
Now Mr. Carlow being not associated with a church realised he would not be able to display his bequest on a Charity board as many others still do and did, so he also cleverly had the instructions carved also into his tomb:
“Twenty shillings worth of bread to be given on this stone to the poor of the town on the second of February forever.”
These loaves were purchased from the two poorest bakers in the town for the town’s poor, by doing so helping both parts of the community. Interestingly, St. Mary’s Church were charged with organising this distribution being done by the verger and two church wardens.
Interestingly, unlike other customs which clearly don’t pay for themselves, Carlow’s dole was not subsidised. Sykes (1975) notes in 1975:
“At present, since loaves cost more than two pence, only twelve loaves are purchased and distributed…”
Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide also astutely note:
“whereas once 20/- (£1) would have provided the 120 ‘two-penny loaves’ originally intended, today it would buy but one large loaf.”
Interestingly Sykes appears to show the dole being given to elderly people but by Brian Sheul’s (1983) time in the 1980s it was children.
The dole was clearly also an attempt at sin eating where the sins of the incumbent would be passed onto the living. This was done by eating food off the grave. This is still enacted at Butterworth’s Dole at Smithfield’s London and of course is one of the concepts behind the Wake. Of course within recent times of the dole it was more hygienically distributed on a table near the tomb.
As stated Carlow’s dole is often described as being still extant but it sadly has now become lost. Why? The reason is rather pathetic to be honest – and that is not meant to be a criticism of St. Mary’s – but the owners of the land in which the tomb is enclosed. For although it is often noted that the tomb is in the Bull Hotel garden this is no longer true. Houses were built on land adjacent to the Hotel and the tomb was incorporated into one of the house’s private gardens. According to the Rector Canon Kevan McCormack access was prevented by the owner of the land but this appears to have arisen from a dispute regarding who owned the small piece of land, a dispute which had apparently been going on for several years. Promisingly he noted that the previous owners believed that if it was resolved there would be no problem reinstating the tradition. The owners were very gracious to Richie Wisbey who managed to get access and take a recent photo of the grave now overgrown in the garden. Back in 2012 I was told:
“A brief response is that we ceased a few years ago from giving out bread at the tomb, because the owner of the land where the tomb is would not allow us to do it. However, there has now developed a dispute as to who owns this small piece of land and if this is resolved it may be possible to reinstate this next year.”
2013 I was told:
“Sadly this dispute has been going on for several years and we just have to wait.”
2016 and I think we are still waiting. A shame that such a dispute could stop the custom and we hope that it either has now been revived or will be soon.
You will be pleased to know that the custom has been reprised with small loaves distributed by the Canon Kevan McCormak in Carlow’s room at The Bull Hotel on 4th February 2020 to a class of schoolchildren from Woodbridge prep.
That’s great to hear. I was told of its revival and invited but unfortunately unable to attend. Kevan has promised there maybe some photos of the event as well be interested to see them. Lets hope it continues from now on. Thanks for the comment.