Custom revived: The Wild horse of Antrobus and the Soulcakers

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I have previously reported on soulcaking before but the most famous team, the Wild horse of Antrobus. When I first got into calendar customs it was via books like Homer Sykes’ Once a Year and Brian Shuel’s National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs. From the later I was enthralled by what he called the Wild Horse of Antrobus:

“The nine players dress in character. When I saw them back in 1972 King George looked like a bandsman, the Black Prince – mysteriously like an old fashioned police constable, the Quack doctor as normal for the part. Mary was a ‘splendid old woman’ bag to disguise his masculinity. Beelzebub was a dreadful old man with a big black beard. Derry Doubt not only dressed like a schoolboy but very probably was one. The letter in did not appear to be in costume at all. The driver was resplendent in full and immaculate, hunting pink, The Wild Horse , was a man bowed forward from the waist beneath a canvas cover which was attached to a real horse skull. This was painted shiny black and mounted on a pole which the man held. Thus with two black legs, a bulky canvas body, one front leg and ferocious snapping head, a reasonably convincing – if bizarre – horse was achieved.”

Now I had seen the Warburton soulcakers and similar ‘horses’ with them, the Winster Guisers and the Poor Owd Oss, of course, but this the oldest of the revived teams haunted me. So this year I finally decided to get myself organised to see them and they did not disappoint.

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Soul for the caking

For those unfamiliar and who have not read my earlier post on the topic. Soul caking is a custom now largely confined to the North-west of England, in particular in Cheshire. Chris Eyres in a piece on the website http://warrington.westlancsfreemasons.org.uk/soulcaking-revisited explains:

“As far as Soulcaking is concerned, we believe that these rituals will have changed over time and the characters in such ‘plays’ will also have changed to reflect the good and bad omens and heroes of the day. It is also likely that, during the middle ages, in order to curry favour with communities, the Church will have ‘hijacked’ some of these beliefs and Christianised them in some way and added them to the Church calendar. It is clear that such rituals would have been an important part of village life and ones which all villagers would have looked forward to. It is also significant that the play is performed after harvest time. This would have been a time of great celebration within a rural village community. There would also be some concern that the earth would be required to produce crops for the following year. The raising of the dead in the play and the inclusion of a horse are believed to relate to superstitions surrounding fertility.”

There are now around half a dozen souling gangs surviving in Cheshire, they were once much more common.  It seems that many large villages had a gang until the start of the 20th century.  Most of today’s groups have arrived in the folk revival of the 1960s-70s, though Antrobus Soulcakers are claimed to be an uninterrupted tradition since the late 19th century, that is not strictly true as the evidence appears to be that they were revived in the 1930ss after a brief hiatus which could have seen it gone for good. Like many customs it was the First World War put an end to almost all of the Soulcakers but at Comberbach, the old tradition survived into the 1920s, when Major A Boy heard it and published the text in 1929. Following his encouragement several young farmers clubs in the Antrobus area undertook to carry out the performances and the revival begun. The revival was noted by Christina Hole noted that:

“On October 31st 1934, the Comberbach Soulcaking play was broadcast from Frandley House near Northwich, the home of Mr. W. A. Boyd. Mr Boyd

The Comberbach soulcaking play was that undertaken by the Antrobus Soulcakers and so the revival continued.

Popped in…not souled out

Arriving at the venue it was a wet Friday evening. Like many times with such plays one never knows if they came early and missed it. However, soon a minibus loomed into view and out poured not dissimilar to the arrival of tour bus of some famous band; one by one in their curious costumes. They assembled themselves around the front of the pub for their entrance. Quite often with such plays the reception can be variable, but here quite a crowd had assembled awaiting the Soulcakers. The team was much as described by Shuel:

“The dress of the characters is modern King George appearing in Khaki, and the Black Prince in a bandsman’s tunic and a spiked helmet. The characters in this version are the Letter -in, who announced that ‘there’s going to be a dreadful fight’, King George, who in many versions has taken the place of St George, and who, in this case is the slayer, the Black Prince the victim, and Old Woman, his mother and the Quack Doctor who raises the corpse to life. In addition there are dairy doubt and Beelzebub, the Driver and the Wild Horse.”

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Horse play

The main draw of the Antrobus Soulcakers is the Wildhorse. The horse is described as having been bred from Marbury Dun, a famous animal who really existed and is buried at Marbury Hall, not far off.  As Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year notes the play is standard until the end when the Wild horse and his Driver appear:

“In comes Dick and all his men,

He’s come to see you once again,

He was once alive and now he’s dead

He’s nothing but a old horses head,

Stand around Dick and show yourself,

Now ladies and gentlemen just view around,

See whether you’ve seen a better horse on any ground,

He double ribbed sure footed

A splendid horse in any gears

And him if you can

He’s travelled high, he’s travelled low,

He’s travelled through frost and snow,

He’s travelled the land of Ikerty Pikkery.

Where there’s neither land nor city….

The horse was bred in Seven Oaks

The finest horse e’er fed on oats,

He’s won the Derby and the Oaks,

And now pulls an old milk float,

Now I ask you all to open your hearts to buy Dick a newsprung cart,

Not for him to pull, oh dear no! For him,

To ride in. If you don’t believe these words I say ask those outside here They’re better liars than I am.”

Indeed much of the play’s charm and enjoyment came from this wild horse who certainly lived up to his name as he threw itself around the pub to equal amounts of fear and laughter. It was remarkable how a skull, a stick and blanket can have the appearance of something alive. Indeed, one woman found the whole experience a little too weird and was quite scared of it! I myself never stopped laughing as its handler resplendent in his hunting pink pulled and yanked at its chain and tried to keep it under control. The audience were soon getting their phones out to film this curious encounter and it was clear that the team bounced off the rapport in such venues.

There is certainly something otherworldly in the Wildhorse with its black head, gnashing teeth and staring white eye. A good mix of horror and hilarity and may it long entertain the Cheshire pubs.

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