Monthly Archives: April 2018

Custom survived: Biddenden’s Chalkhurst Dole

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“There is a vulgar tradition in these parts, that the figures on the cakes represent the donors of this gift, being two women, twins, who were joined together in their bodies, and lived together so till they were between twenty and thirty years of age. But this seems without foundation. The truth seems to be, that it was the gift of two maidens, of the name of Preston ; and that the print of the women on the cakes has taken place only within these fifty years, and was made to represent two poor widows, as the general objects of a charitable benefaction.”

So records Edward Hasted in his History of Kent in 1812, about what is perhaps the most famed of annually distributed doles that of the picturesque Wealden village of Biddenden; which happens every year on Easter Monday. It is a custom which features in virtually every book on calendar customs but why?

Two rectangular cakes, one showing two women apparently conjoined at the shoulder and the other one damaged in such a way that it is not clearly apparent whether the women are conjoined. Each cake has the word "Biddenden" written above the women.

The earliest surviving depiction of Biddenden cakes, 1775. The figures are shown as conjoined, but the names, ages and 1100 date are not shown source Wikipedia Public Domain

Two’s company

T. F. Thistleton-Dyer (1911) in his British popular customs past and present tells us:

“The cakes distributed on this occasion were impressed with the figures of two females side by side, and close together.”! Amongst the country people it was believed that these figures represented two maidens named Preston, who had left the endowments; and they further alleged that the ladies were twins, who were bond in bodily union, that is, joined side to side, as represented on the cakes ; who lived nearly thirty years in this connection, when at length one of them died, necessarily causing the death of the other in a few hours. It is thought by the Biddenden people that the figures on the cakes are meant as a memorial of this natural prodigy, as well as of the charitable disposition of the two ladies.”

Local tradition records that the benefactors of the charity were Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst, the name Preston has never been traced locally, who gave their lands those twenty acres to the poor on their death in 1134. Now there is nothing unusual in sisters joining giving monies this example however is possibly unique – the sisters were conjoined twins – as shown by the biscuit or cake given out. They lived jointly to the age of 34 with one dying and the other giving up her life at the same time.

The custom has changed a little over the years as Hasted again notes that:

“Twenty Acres Of Land, called the Bread and Cheese Lands, lying in five pieces, were given by persons unknown, the yearly rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish. This is yearly done on Easter Sunday in the afternoon, in 600 cakes, each of which have the figures of two women impressed on them, and are given to all such as attend the church; and 270 loaves, weighing three pounds and an half a-piece; to which latter is added one pound and an half of cheese, are given to the parishioners only, at the same time.”

The following account was written 1808 to be provided as a broadside which featured a woodcut of the twins and a brief history of their alleged story was sold outside the church at Easter:

“A Short but Concise account of Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst
who were born joined together by the Hips and Shoulders
In the year of our Lord 1100 at Biddenden in the County of Kent, commonly called
The Biddenden Maids
The reader will observe by the plate of them, that they lived together in the above state Thirty-four years, at the expiration of which time one of them was taken ill and in a short time died; the surviving one was advised to be separated from the body of her deceased Sister by dissection, but she absolutely refused the separation by saying these words—”As we came together we will also go together,”—and in the space of about Six Hours after her Sister’s decease she was taken ill and died also.
By their will they bequeath to the Churchwardens of the Parish of Biddenden and their successors Churchwardens for ever, certain Pieces or Parcels of Land in the Parish of Biddenden, containing Twenty Acres more or less, which now let at 40 Guineas per annum. There are usually made, in commemoration of these wonderful Phenomena of Nature, about 1000 Rolls with their Impression printed on them, and given away to all strangers on Easter Sunday after Divine Service in the Afternoon; also about 500 Quartern Loaves and Cheese in proportion, to all the poor Inhabitants of the said Parish.”

Copies of this account are still distributed. What is interesting as this is the first to make mention of the names of the twins. Did it invent them?

Two’s a crowd

The dole has had many threats put upon it partly as a consequence of its size and fame. In 1656 the Rector, a John Horner, then the rector of the parish, claimed the Bread and Cheese lands as being given to augment his glebe, but the Court of Exchequer did not agree.

Many villages had doles, indeed the majority provided for their poor, so it surprising to record that the dole became increasingly more and more popular. In the late 1700s for those attending the service were given six hundred cakes whilst ironically only two hundred and seventy loaves of three and a half pounds weight each, with a pound and a half of cheese, were given in addition to the parishioners. It was clearly more popular outside of the village. For example the following from Hone’s Everyday Book account of 1830 states that the custom:

“attracted from the adjacent towns and villages by the usage, and the wonderful account of its origin, and the day is spent in rude festivity

By 1872, 538 loaves were being distributed. Indeed as an article in 1992 by Jan Boderson called  The Biddenden Maids: a curious chapter in the history of conjoined twins in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated that these large crowds became problematic and at one occasion an unruly mob had developed that was kept in order by the church wardens using their staffs to keep them back. All this did not impress the church and By 1882 the village’s rector again, this time Rev Giles Hinton had petitioned to abandon the dole stating that:

“even to this time is with much disorder and indecency observed and needs a regulation by His Grace’s authority.”

His Grace, Sancroft Archbishop of Canterbury allowed it to continue minus the free beer! It was also at this time that it moved from the church to outside. Very wise! Even so it is worth observing that even in 1902 as a picture by noted photographer Sir Benjamin Stone showed three severe looking policemen watching the assembled queue. By this time the date had changed and the workhouse its location.

When in 1907, the Chulkhurst Charity was joined with other local charities with similar purposes, to form the Biddenden Consolidated Charity the distribution survived where in other villages such moves removed the ceremony. Even when the charity’s Bread and Cheese Lands were sold for housing the custom survived indeed the profitability of the land provided the opportunity for better provision. As a result not only is bread, cheese and tea provided but cash payments are made at Christmas. Again, the custom survived the 1940s and 1950s food rationing where cocoa replaced the cheese until it resumed in 1951.Finally the closure of the village’s bakery in the 1990s which for generations had provided the bread closed…the dole soldiered on.

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Custom contrived: Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship

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Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoorAs I am writing this blog post on Easter Monday bemoaning the deluge of rain pouring off the house making this one of the worse, weatherwise, Easter Monday I can remember. But then a message pops up that there’s heavy snow in Wakefield….last year I was making my way to the Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship; this year the heavy snow was putting it at risk. However, they are made of tough stuff up north and as they claim nothing has cancelled it in its 55 year history…and indeed it wasn’t!

But where is Gawthorpe? The Sat Nav did not appear to know. But the mass media did find it on this day which draws this small hamlet out of obscurity and into international attention

This was proud coal mining land and carrying coal would have been a common enough occurrence for someone to think it could be turned into a competition. The competition website tells the following story of its creation:

“At the century-old Beehive Inn situated in Gawthorpe the following incident took place one day in 1963. Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ” Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered!” slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out.‘’ Ah’m as fit as thee’’ he told Lewis, ‘’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’’ ( Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal ). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee ( and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand. ” ‘Owd on a minute,’’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’’( The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House )”

So it could be claimed to be the grandfather of the increasingly common ‘customs made up in a pub’ and indeed the pub is pivotal to the custom starting as it does at the Royal Oak strictly speaking in Ossett and ends uphill at the village green where the Maypole resides a not so easy 1012 metres. It is curious that Easter Monday was chosen as it was the traditional time for heaving…not sure if heaving a person or a coal bag would be harder work or not!

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At the coal face

It is indeed hard work. At the start the contestants full of enthusiasm and energy. The contestants laugh and occasionally rib each other as they psych themselves up. This might seem a rather bizarre and comical event but it has become a serious measure of ability and stamina. Firmly, becoming on the list of endurance things to do. Some people even had coaches running along with them shouting words of encouragement! Serious stuff. It certainly was as the gentle slope near the start became steep and steeper. At first the event is attended by a few curious onlookers but as the centre of the village is approach the crowds become greater, each side of the road kept at bay by metal railings, waiting here to see the contestants try to attempt the most crueling part. I waited here and watched as the contestants now covered in black soot, in some cases only the whites of their eyes escaping, huffed and puffed up the hill.

Carry coals to Newcastle

When the custom started this was a proud mining community. Its still now proud and so it should be having two notable traditions for such a small and rather indistinct. However, this is far from a coal community, coal comes from elsewhere, the mine closed and miners long gone into retirement or other jobs. The custom might seem a bit outdated; a bit superfluous! But no it is now a great source of income for local pubs as now the custom attracts people from all across the country and across the world in fact. As Julia Smith in her Fairs, Feasts and Frolics customs and traditions of Yorkshire, 25 years in it had already taken on the air of professionalism:

“The event has changed considerably in its twenty-five years. As news spread, more people became interested and wanted to take part. The competitors are now drawn from a wide area and it has become sport orientated. The local pit has closed and the miners have been replaced by serious athletes who wear regulation running gear and train thoroughly sometimes all year round.”

Now adult racers either carry 50kg men, or 20kg, women (no one’s crying out for equal masses here I notice), and smaller masses for children and veterans. Again Smith was informed that:

“it was not necessary to be big and hefty to take part as not was often fell runners wo did well, wiry types with good strong legs.”

Of course the professionals have not taken over the event, it is clear that some have entered to prove they could do it – they are not going to win, never have a chance of winning….there is some achievement carrying fifty kilos of coal and all the back breaking, dust covering, a hot sweatiness is worth it to say you entered and did it. For some its for charity, some as a personal goal and others on a spur of a moment…how many regret half way through as there’s no dropping a few coals on the way: the bags are sown up! As I watched the runners it was indeed clear they were achieving sometime and the atmosphere from the crowd as they cheered they on was electric. Over two thousand people cheering is nearly enough to get over the fact they are carrying coal on your back!

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Hot coals on snow

As the Huddersfield Daily Enquirer’s Nick Laviguer in a piece called Snow fails to stop famous Gawthorpe Coal Race reported:

There was doubt the spectacle would take place this morning after several inches of snow fell on the course in Ossett, causing the cancellation of the children’s event. But at 11am with the thaw beginning to set in, organisers decided to go ahead and allow the more than 100 competitors to complete the challenge –. Women’s champion, was local teacher Danielle Sidebottom, who has entered numerous times but never won before. In the end, victory was taken by reigning men’s champion Andrew Corrigan of Driffield, who actually improved his time from 2017 by two seconds.”

Who would of thought that an idle discussion in the pub would last over 50 years and become a national icon, that snow will not even stop and as it appears above improve it…well at least they had the hot coals ready to melt it.

Custom demised: Sarah Hill’s Easter encouragement of good behaviour, Wargrave, Berkshire

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Bequests and charities are popular subjects for this blog and every now and then I discover a surviving one which is locally known but nationally not known, unlike the Biddenden dole in this month’s blog posts. Sadly, I’ve discovered one which no longer exists but I did hope it did for the very nature of its regulations. In the small village of Wargrave, in 1822, a Mrs. Sarah Hill left a considerable sum of £400 which produced £12 per annum, to the vicar and churchwardens of Wargrave, and the interest to he applied in a number of curious ways.

Firstly her will will provide £1 at Easter for:

“two labourers of the parish of Wargrave, whose characters should stand the highest for honesty, sobriety, and industry”

Widows or old unmarried women, I have always been concerned that the elderly spinster missed out on many benefactions were also included:

“To six widows of Wargrave, or any old unmarried woman of the same place, whose characters were unimpeachable, the sum of ten shillings each at Easter.”

Servants were included as well:

“£3 a-year to be set apart and applied every four years, to a female servant who had lived the greatest number of years in one place in Wargrave parish, not less than four years, and whose character for honesty, sobriety, and good conduct was undoubted.”

Then finally:

“£3 a year to the National School, and £1 a-year at Easter to be given, in new crown pieces as honorary medals, to two boys and two girls of the National School aforesaid.”

Why, well Hill’s Will makes it quite clear:

“No boy to receive the reward who was undutiful to his parents, or was ever heard to swear, to tell untruths, or known to steal, or break windows, or do any kind of mischief; and no girl was to receive the reward who was not in every respect modest, attentive to business, and well behaved.”

I am sure it would be well received by the few shillings were little recompense for a year of good behaviour no doubt. Finally her Will records:

“And Mrs. Hill sincerely hoped that these donations, however small, might, in some degree answer the intended purpose of encouraging the good and well disposed. The constant attendance at the parish church to be also a requisite recommendation.”

I wonder if they did and now that the money has run out are the local children breaking windows, the girls immodest, the servants never sober and the labourers lazy and dishonest…not to say anything about the widows! I think not, not in leafy Berkshire!