Custom revived: The Hinkley Plough Bullockers

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“The old custom of Plough Monday still prevails Like a great many other popular tales, Plough Bullocks dressed in ribbons, a gaudy show In a long procession shouting as they go—- ‘Higham on the Hill, Stoke in the Vale, Wykin for buttermilk Hinckley for ale!’”

Richard Fowlkes, Elmesthorpe, 1811

A load of ol’ bullockers?

Reviving a custom can be fraught with problems and issues. Claims can be made that its completely made up and bears no relevance to what went before. However Hinckley’s plough bullockers is a test case in how excellent research, forged with enthusiasm and improved by local knowledge coming to the fore as a result of the tradition, can produce a durable and worthy reproduction.

A full account of how the custom was revived is informatively covered by an article called The Hinckley Bullockers by Tony Ashley in The Morris Dancer Volume 5, Number 4 February 2016 who explored whether there were any customs associated with the villages around Hinckley.

In The History and Antiquities of Claybrook in the county of Leicester’ by Rev. A. Macaulay he notes that:

“On Plow [sic] Monday I have taken notice of an annual display of Morris-dancers at Claybrook who came from the neighbouring villages of Sapcote and Sharnford.”

A longer piece was to be found in 1930 ‘The History of Hinckley’ accounting ‘Pastimes and amusements of the people of Hinckley 1800 to 1850’ quoting from Sebastian Evan’s ‘Leicestershire words and Phrases’ which relates:

A number of men or youths (generally six or eight in number) dressed themselves in grotesque fashion – half their number being in female costume and half in male. One of the former as supposed to represent Maid Marion. The men wore top hats and were thoroughly bedecked with ribbons. One of the party portrayed Beelzebub; he carried a cow’s horn, on which he blew, and with it afterwards collected. He also had a tail and wore tight fitting stocks formed of coloured patchwork squares. He had a bell on a spring at his back, fastened to his body by means of a belt round his waist – hence, to the popular minds, the reason for his being called ‘bells e bub’. Sometimes he also carried a large rattle. Another performer impersonated the fool; he always carried the money box and had a bladder with peas in it fastened by a string to the end of a stick. They danced a sort of country dance to the music of a fiddle and hautboy.

This gave the group some considerable information to work with to reconstruct the custom in regards to appearance of the Plough Bullockers. Thus:

“The men dressed in dark clothes with sashes, rosettes, arm ribbons, lallygags and high hats with ribbons. There was even a very authentic Beelzebub in his rag coat and wearing his bell and tail. The one thing missing was a plough. This was simply because the first Tour was very much a case of suck it and see and it was not known if the revival would continue.”

A plough was finally secured from a local museum and then after concerns that it might get damaged as a result of the tour it was decided that the group should buy one. However, it is all very well identifying the custom occurred but no of the accounts really told them what exactly they were doing on Plough Monday in Hinckley? Elsewhere there had been Plough Plays (such as described here), and further north Sword Dancing (Plough Stots or Plough Jags) or Sword Dancing combined with Plough Plays tended to be limited to South Yorkshire (Goathland Plough Stots)There was no evidence this was what was done. There was no evidence it wasn’t however, one would have thought that if it an antiquarian would have described it.

 

What was the evidence? The group were pulling ploughs, covered in raddle (a red face colouring) collecting money from farms and large houses, playing music and dancing with comments like ‘country dance style dances with ad lib stamping and shuffling’, there were no specific descriptions of the dances performed. Ashby (2016) notes that

“In 1986 at the Forest of Dean Family Weekend there was a chance meeting with an elderly gentleman, who at that time was musician to Thaxted Morris. He described his experience of dancing Molly on Plough Monday and this description of events fitted perfectly with the information previously collected. Now it was believed that the dancing referred to in previously collected information was in fact Molly Dancing. References to Molly dancing were located in Folk magazines. Some evidence referred to Molly Dancing extending north into Leicestershire and even to Winster in Derbyshire.”

With this discovery it was decided to adopt Molly dancing into the group’s repertoire Ashby notes that.

“all of the men interested in being involved in the revival were all in full time employment so a decision was made to hold the Plough Monday celebration on the Saturday preceding Plough Monday….. We recruited three musicians, a concertina player and a melodeon player from Anstey Morris and a local fiddler who had seen the articles in the local papers.”

We plough and furrow

These resurrected Plough bullockers are very impressive indeed. Wearing black suits with top hats ribbons of different colours – yellow, reds, blue, they weave in and out of each other. Their pheasant feathers fluttering in the January winds. The raddle looks effective especially against the whites of their eyes and their white beards. There is even a slight menacing effect to them slightly let down by the melodious music and the molly dancing which looked most appropriate in its odd way arms in arms, circling around, normal Morris dancing wouldn’t perhaps, although I did notice a handkerchief appear. I was also impressed that there seamed as many musicians and members dressed up creating an impressive group on the roadside and one that certainly attracted a fair number of curious onlookers.

Ploughed up

Interestingly the revival harvested more information. A Mr Brown a local Sapcote resident and local historian informed the group that during his deceased mother’s childhood, suggesting the late 1890s, she remembered the Bullockers did visit the village, being blacked-up and wearing

“white shirts with cut outs of the plough sewn to the shirts, horse ribbons and rosettes, bells and brasses adorned their legs, arms and shoulders. Molly Dancers accompanied them with country music played on fiddles, such as The Farmer’s Boy etc. The leading fiddler was Punty Garratt and Old Chuter was the Fool who whacked everyone with his pig’s bladder. Their ceremonial plough was known as the White Plough and was pulled around the village by a length of rope encased in leather which was kept from year to year. They met at The Red Lion in the morning, toured the farms, large houses and pubs in the area before returning to The Red Lion where in the evening they dined and then held a “Country Dance”. At this event they danced the dances that had been performed during the day by the men as social dances.”

This news pleased the group as it vindicated their decisions in its resurrection. This is a faithful reconstruction now in its 31st year, as gaudy and vibrant as that described in 1811.

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