Custom survived: Folkestone’s Blessing the sea and fisheries

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God bless you!

The ceremonies of blessing the sea and fisheries are perhaps one of the best examples of a Christianisation of a pagan ritual. They originated as early man’s way of giving thanks to ensure good harvests for the next year. Yet, it is clear that they are part of the ‘revived’ or rather ‘cleaned’ harvest thanksgiving ceremonies, which have become quite familiar, thanks to this revival or rather adoption by the church perhaps, in the mid-1800s. Found around the country in a number of maritime locations (even in locations where fishing has become a matter of academic history). Kent, being a county surrounded on two sides by sea naturally it has a fair number of these ceremonies. Traditionally they were help around Ascension Day or during the three days of ‘Rogationtide’ (during which beating the bounds ceremonies would also be undertaken), many have moved to either dates nearing Patronal saints (Fishermen saints Peter or James), or when tourists are more frequent!

 

 

 

Folkestone’s ceremony claims to be the oldest continually undertaken still surviving. One of these occurs in the ancient fishing town of Folkestone, being associated with the chapel of St. Peter, dedicated to the town’s fisher folk with fine views of the harbour.

The earliest traceable record is an account in the Folkestone Express of July 8th 1883. However, according to Mr. Fisher of Folkestone St Peter’s Church, this ceremony may have already been of some age then. This is because, the report laments that it was a depressed event with a low tide and sluggish boats. Traditionally it was held in the old fish market. At the time he notes that there must have been 100 boats in the inner harbour. Photographs of the 1920s show a large number of smocks attending. The Folkestone Herald of July Seventh 1906, noted an addition to the traditional service in the form of prayers. It added:

“that it may please Thee to bless the waters of the sea that they may bring forth fish abundantly.. bless and preserve the fishermen of these waters…and lift their minds to heavenly desires.”

Something fishy?

In 1935 was the last year to be held in the old fish market, and since it has been held overlooking the harbour. The parish priest had worked hard to have all the old hovels removed and replaced by the terrace housing which remains to today.

In a press report of 1958, it noted that it was then attended by the Bishop of Dover, the Rt. Rev. L. Meredith, and the Mayor, F. W. Archer as well as other members of the Corporation, Choristers, Scouts, members of the Old Contemptible and the Royal Naval Association and children dressed in traditional fishermen’s clothes.

In this report it was sadly noted that service lacked the gaiety of previous years as the little fisherman’s cottages were not bedecked with flags and nor were the boats in harbour decorated as they were for previous occasions. Furthermore, no fishermen were to be found in the procession. A 67 year old fishermen, Bill Harris who had fished the waters from Folkestone some 50 years, noted that: ‘Things had certainly changed’, he could remember those times when the harbour was full of fully decorated boats and all the houses were flying flags and bunting. He bemoaned that no-one was interested. The then Bishop said that Blessing the Fishermen, fell into two groups those which do it for fun and those who did it for a life’s work. He said that:

” It is those who devote their whole lives to fishing in the sea that we are asking for God’s continued blessing this afternoon.’” 

This blessing attracted television coverage from both the BBC and ITA, and the service was performed by Bishop Noel Hall, formerly Bishop of Vhota Nagpour, India with two Deacons of Honour (Rev. W. H. Bathhurst Vicar of St. Saviours) and Rev. J. Meliss (curate of Folkestone Parish church). The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. H. J. L. Stephens (Vicar of St. Peters).

The lack of fishermen was what doubtless prompted the event to be renamed ‘blessing the sea’ rather than ‘fisheries’ and by doing so saved this the oldest of such blessings. Tony Foxworthy (2008) in Customs in Kent describes it well:

“The evening starts with service in St. Peter’s church. After the service a procession is formed consisting of a local band in the lead followed by the children of St. Peter’s primary school, with the girls carrying small posies of flowers, and the boys carrying a large model of a fishermen’s boat. Following the children comes the church choir then the processional cross, then the clergy and local dignitaries like the Mayor, the Mayoress and local councillors, then the invited guest preacher, usually a local Bishop. The procession winds its way to the harbour where a large crowd has assembled. The fisheries are then blessed by the visiting Bishop, who then leads to a short service and addresses the hundreds of people attending this very picturesque custom.”

 

The custom retains a very colourful and evocative feel especially as the clergy process down from St. Peter’s Church, (usually on the first Sunday after St. Peter’s Day (29th June), at around three o’ clock). Also attending this ceremony, are the Lord Mayor and his barker. After a series of hymns, and readings, the sea is blessed by splashing holy water and shaking incense over the harbour railings.

 

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