“The most exciting Christmas custom was that of the Poor Old Horse which perambulated the town from one public house to another.”
William Wise 1888
It is not very often that a revisit a custom – but the Poor Owd Oss, Old Hoss or T’Owld ‘Oss of Richmond is different enough from its southern stablemate to have a separate account – and it is also not often you come across a custom which the great legend of traditional ceremonies, customs and British culture Mr. Homer Sykes, has not attended and photographed – in conversation with him he said he hadn’t heard of it and thought ‘why have I not done that one’. So I thought I would use this post to describe my experiences with the Poor Owd Oss and the history I have gleaned of it.
Take a horse to Richmond
Richmond is a delightful old market town nestled in equally picturesque Swaledale. A place that deserves many customs – it had at least three customs which are unique to the town – the poor Owd Oss being the most curious and certainly entertaining. A town nestling in both racing and hunting territory it is therefore not surprising to see a horse based custom. One which in itself regals in the hunting pink and crops of its attendants.
The words for the song were possibly first recorded academically by Robert Bell’s 1857 Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, under the title The Mummers’ Song; or The Poor Old Horse, As sung by the Mummers in the Neighbourhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas who adds:
“‘The rustic actor who sings the following song is dressed as an old horse, and at the end of every verse the jaws are snapped in chorus.”
The song sung is as follows although not all verses were sung dependent on the time the group wanted to spend in the place!:
So at each location, the group discuss ‘first three?’, ‘last two?’ In reference to what verses they recite. It is said that there were once 20 verses but the six verses above make sense, it would be difficult to see how any more verses would add anything.
During the song the ‘horse’ performs a number of actions. He even ‘nuzzles up to the huntsmen gallops and leaps, over hedges, over ditches, over valleys, gates and stiles’ and chomps on the ‘best of corn and hay’ and then forced to nibble the short grass and he is turned out to winter. In the winter he trembles with cold until he is finally beaten down by all the attendants with their whips and dies when he is neither fit to ride upon nor any teams to draw’. However, after he falls he is up again in the death and revival seen in all ‘mummer’s plays’
In the past it was accompanied by a fiddle, fife and drum, with a number of attendants, two of which were huntsmen, who carried long whips which they cracked throughout the song. In those days all of the T’owld ‘Oss party blacked their faces, which of course is the best way to disguise oneself.’
This is seen in a photo from around the turn of the century. Not so now and he does not appear to have been so since modern times. Now these attendants were in a well-dressed – possibly the best dressed – uniform as noted of hunting pink and top hats, these being adorned with holly and mistletoe.
I attended on their annual outing in and out of shops, cafes, banks and hairdressers in the town but days before they had done a prestigious circuit of villages and surrounding towns, going as far east as Malton. On the night of Christmas eve they extend their travels into the larger houses of the district being the guest of Aske Hall’s the Duke of Zetland. I was impressed by their routine but what is noticeable that unlike virtually all over such teams they do not collect for charity, indeed there is no evidence of any money collected. I enquired of this, one of the attendants explained that ‘Charity is a very personal thing and they did not feel it was right to impose a charity on people.’ They said they made it clear that any money given went to maintaining the costumes and ‘horse’ which do need to dry cleaned, tidied up and re-upholstered on occasions which is expensive.
Was is also interesting is that the group is not made of off duty Morris, as nearly all over ‘mummers’ are. Indeed, one too issue over the name ‘mummer’ although from an academic viewpoint this is what such customs would be called. Nor are the group, folk singers or folkies in general. No the team were local people who wanted to keep the custom going.
Horse has bolted?
When I turned up I thought I had missed it as a stream of people left the Town Hall and one of two of his attendants separated from the party and only partly dressed stood around drinking outside. Inside the town hall, the group were being feted by the town’s mayor with copious amounts of whisky after having entertained children and their parents in a show. Had they been around and this was their finally? I asked one of the company ‘what time do you start again?’ hopefully.
Julia Smith (1989) in Fairs, Feasts and Frolics states:
“My original informant remembered how she had been frightened when she came upon the ‘horse’ prancing through the streets when she was a child. She thought it had been connected with one family, and she was right, as I discovered when I found Mr Bill Ward. It was Bill Ward’s maternal grandfather Edward Peirse went out with the horse in the late nineteenth century and various members of the family have been involved with it over the 100 years.”
Although Julia Smith (1989) states that:
“the custom has never died out completely’
Though as she herself was told by Mr Ward ‘the horse may have remained stabled for short periods of time’. The Second World War was one period of rest and as Julia Smith states:
“After the second world war, when Mr Ward first became involved, he and his cousin visited a horse slaughterer to obtain a house’s skull which was boiled for them. They fitted the skull with eyes of black glass, painstakingly chipped from the bottle of old wine bottled and rounded on the inside. The skull was wired together so that the jaws could be opened and closed, while the inside of the mouth was lined with red plush velvet. The whole skull was covered with material to represent the skin….the horse…was adorned with artificial Christmas roses and poinsettias”
Horsing around again
Following the Old Oss for the day it was evident it was a welcome sight. We entered a barbers, where one of the team explained it to the hairdresser, into a packed Costa Coffee where the horse attempted to steal sandwiches and drink coffees, interacting with young children with a mixture of fear and confusion. We travelled down to the Old Station where a large crowd were entertained and terrorised. Some appeared to find it a little strange and odd! Perhaps the oddest was in Barclay’s Bank. Here the team were rewarded with mince pies and wine by the bank manager – you don’t get that with internet banking.
Back from the knacker’s yard!
However, this is not exactly accurate as a house or pub visiting custom it appears to have died out shortly after the second world war, in the 1950s. The reason given is the impact of TV. When the teams visited the houses with the Horse, they felt they had been intruding and that people were more interested in the TV. As a result I was informed that the head was buried for a long period in Mr Ward’s back garden.
It was not until the early 80s I believe that a local man interested in the custom, called Mick Sheenan, asked Mr Ward if he could revive the custom. No one appeared very clear on the date but I wonder if Julia Smith’s not being aware of it suggests close to the publication date of her book? It is mentioned in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem:
“From the week before Christmas, pubs and parties around Richmond, North Yorkshire are the main targets of the Richmond Poor Horse players. These mummers perform and sing the Poor Old Horse which describes a horse’s life and death. One man, dressed in garish mock-horse guise – complete with decorated horse skull – mimes the appropriate action.”
The horse is looked upon a bringer of luck and fertility and indeed as the group moved around people rushed up to engage with the horse, rub its head. However, the visitations have not always been popular and as is experienced by many teams visiting pubs you can find you are not as popular as you thought. In one visit a drunken squady thought it would fun to show it who was tough and headbutted it – the result blood and a broken nose. In another the horse was worse for wear when after accidentally hitting someone at a bar, it was repeated pummelled so much that they had to drag the horse out of the fight!
How old is the custom? Bell was emphatic stating that the:
The ‘old horse’ is probably of Scandinavian origin,– a reminiscence of Odin’s Sleipnor
Quentin Cooper and Paul Sulivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem state:
“The creature dies, and then rises again; at which point you realise that you have strayed into totem-beast-as-Celtic-god territory.”
Whilst that is possible that the ‘horse’ remembers something ancient, it is more probable that the song is more contemporaneous to Bell’s time. Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year places the custom between 1840 and the middle of the 20th century. The death and rebirth is always cited by folklorists as evidence of the ancient origins tied to the dying of the sun at winter and indeed the song does have a similarity to the seasons. However, one can argue so does all life and thus it could be a pure coincidence. I have argued that it was done during winter for pure financial reasons people were in greater need and others such as the landed gentry more generous. Were they trying to remind us of how poor they were with their dead horse? Is it possible that the custom was a simple house visiting custom as like the Mari Lwyd, a welsh horse, in which a team decided to add a song perhaps when it translated across to England? Or are the Mari Lwyd and poor old oss a coincidence? The financial impact of which meant an increase in popularity and the spread of the song. The limit of the song to Yorkshire, north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire suggests that it had slowly spread from a point of creation – likely to be Yorkshire – and had not fully spread when it had begun dying out as Roud notes in the mid 20th century. However does it really matter? For some the custom harks back to our old pagan times some like it for the weirdness.
Richmond’s T’owd Oss ended up for the last time on Christmas Eve in the pub where he was beaten to death for the final time that year…but he’ll be back next year no doubt!