It is easy to think that calendar customs are all pleasant and light-hearted – dancing around a maypole, processions, quaint customs irrelevant to the modern day or old customs but for the vagaries of our ancestors have vanished and are sorely missed. Every now and then there is a custom which is neither quaint nor do we desire it to be revived. We shouldn’t ignore such customs in our survey or apologise for bring them to notice but relish in the ideas things have changed. Hopefully, yet in this Brexit infused climate this one sadly appears slightly more ‘prescient’ than others.
Maureen Sutton in her excellent 1996 Lincolnshire Calendar records that:
“The presence of foreign workers in the potato picking season inspired a new custom between the wars which might have become established as a regular event if the influx of French workers had continued every year.”
It is interesting that the date, although traditionally a time for picking potatos was also one close to a national celebration, Trafalgar Day. Did it also remember this anniversary? It was a custom which appeared to be fairly widespread across the agricultural areas of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire especially in Holbeach or Wisbeach. Sadly it was also racially motivated as was clear from another correspondent, who records:
“Between the wars we got Frenchmen coming over to work in the summer months, they stayed until the potato harvest was finished. Most of them weren’t popular, they were often p****ed up, you could see them asleep under Sutton Bridge. The day they left to return home was locally known as ‘Kick a Frenchman Day’ the reason being we liked to help them on their way, so we gave them a kick, literally if they were canned up and sleeping it off under a hedge; we were pleased to see the back of them.”
Of course foreign workers still work many agricultural areas, although their attendance is not so seasonal. What is sad to note that attitudes to these obviously necessary supplements to the harvest team were thought of so poorly. One sincerely hopes that this custom does not become revived again in our post EU landscape and that anything which involves ‘kicking’ and ‘frenchman’ only involves balls and friendly team playing! Let’s keep this one unrevived!