Custom demised: Push Penny at Durham Cathedral, County Durham

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Penny scrambling customs have a tendency to survive and there exist widely across the country usually but not exclusively associated with fairs. Thomas Thistleton-Dyer in his Popular customs notes an example held in Durham. He states that

“Mr. Cuthbert Carlton, of Durham, gives in the Durham Chronicle, of November 29th, 1872, the following account of a curious custom called ” Push Penny.” He says: This custom, which has been discontinued nearly a quarter of a century, is thus referred to in the Derbyshire Times of Saturday last:—

“There is a custom which has been upheld from time immemorial by the Dean and Chapter of Durham on three days in the year—30th of January, 29th of May, and 5th of November, the anniversary of King Charles’ Martyrdom, Royal Oak Day, and Gunpowder Plot, which is known among Durham lads as “push-penny” On these days the Chapter causes twenty shillings in copper to be scrambled for in the college yard by the juveniles, who never fail to be present.’ The practice observed every 29th of May, and 5th of November, was to throw away within the college thirty shillings in penny pieces. Whether the custom dates from time immemorial, it is difficult to say, but the two last dates would seem only to point to the origin of the custom at the end of the seventeenth, or beginning of the eighteenth centuries, to testify the loyalty of the Dean and Chapter to the Throne, and their appreciation of the happy restoration of the ‘ Merry Monarch,’ and the escape of the King and his Parliament on the 6th of November. There was some such custom, however, during the monastic period, when pennies were thrown away to the citizens who were wont to assemble in the vicinity of the Prior’s mansion. At Bishop Auckland the bishop was accustomed to throw away silver pennies at certain times of the year, and it is even a peck of copper was in earlier times scattered broad-cast among the people. The Reformation, however, swept these and many other old customs away, but after the Restoration of Charles II., the Dean and Chapter no doubt considered the 29th of May and the 5th of November ought to be kept as days of rejoicing, and as one means of doing so caused one of their officials to throw a bag full of pennies to the people who met in the college. The duty was entrusted to the senior verger of the cathedral. For many years it was the practice for the children of the Blue Coat Schools to attend Divine service in the cathedral, who were drawn up in rank and file in the nave, for the inspection of the prebends, who minutely examined the new scholastic garments of the Blue Coat scholars. This being done they were ushered into the choir, and at the end of the service a regular pellmell rush was made for the cloister doors, in order to be present at ‘ push-penny.’ The scenes on these occasions were almost beyond description. For a few years the custom thus continued, the attendants at ‘ push-penny ‘ gradually diminishing; for twenty-five years, however, it has been discontinued, nor is it likely to be revived.”

And so, the reporter is correct, it has never been revived. Its extinction considering it existed on a number of separate occasions shows how a custom will die out if someone wants it to!

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