Custom survived: Mummers or Darkie Day in Padstow

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I was staying in Padstow over the 2000-2001 New year once (the real dawning of the Millennium but that’s another story!), after escaping some of the worst sounds of the party being held in a pub in the town I went to bed earlier so that I could greet the new dawn. The next day was a delightful one full of clear skies and promise, I got up early the next day to be greeted by the spectacle of local people with blackened faces playing traditional instruments of drums and accordions and singing with much gusto. A strange sight and one which in recent years has become much in contention beyond Cornwall. I’d written this post back in 2011 and did not post…perhaps I was a bit nervous of doing so…..and its only posted now as I have been ill and did not have time to do another post…..interestingly its more current than ever, what with news reports about banning black faced Morris in Birmingham so its worth examining a new.

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A black mark against the town?

Listening to the songs I became wary of their odd lyrics they appears to be minstrel songs, I admitted although I had been to May day in the town I had never heard of this tradition, it was absent from my books. Clearly local people and tourists enjoyed the spectacle. I thought little more of it and was glad I had witnessed the custom
A few days later driven by an article in the Daily Mail and the Guardian I believe a storm developed over the racist element of the day, with the usual subtext of ignorant yokels (in itself racist of course). Soon prominent black politicians understandably got involved and a media storm ensued this time involving the BBC with comments from the venerable late London MP Bernie Grant:

“I thought the days when white people dressed up as black people were well behind us”

Padstonians insist that this is not the case and deny both description and allegations and indeed as early back as the 1970s the content and conduct was apparently reviewed to avoid offence…although one must remember Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrels were popular at that time!! That said the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary did get involved and saw no reason for arrest. The Padstonians showed obvious concern and renamed it Mummer’s day but the controversy continues.

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Keep mum?

How old the custom is, is difficult to say. It is known that in eastern Cornwall, such get-togethers were common in pubs and private homes in the 19th century but antiquarian interest and indeed national press coverage is lacking, which is surprising considering the acres of footage on the town’s famed May Day. Most reports are local, the Cornish Guardian certainly report it since 1901 as Carol singing. A copy of the Padstow Echo in 1967 notes in a diary entry where 15, 7 to 13 year old children travelled the town visiting the elderly. The three women are thanked for:

“keeping alive the Padstow Darkies by training the young Padstonians with the Darky Songs which have been traditionally sung here, with also the musical accompaniment.”

An online article using local informants recollects their involvement in the 1940s and then into the early 20th century when their parents were involved. On this basis it can be included as a surviving custom if it is a rather secretive one, but possibly a changeable one.

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Not all black and white
The origins of the day are confusing; the blackening of one’s face after all is very common in a wide range of folk customs from mummers to molly dancers. The overall theme being to disguise the face, so that in most cases the employers would not have recognised them, as the majority of the customs, including this one, were begging. This has probably been done for centuries long before English people ever had contact with our African relatives.
Whether confusion occurs is the claim that it stems from the town’s experience with slaves, emphasized by a tradition that slaves were allowed free time in the town and this would have naturally brought they into contact with the natives. This happened elsewhere and did not create a folk custom, which suggests that the Cornish were either more susceptible to the traditions the slaves had or in support of the non-racist origin had greater sympathy, a point I will explore later.
From what can be gathered is that the original tradition was closer to a mummer’s play and perhaps because it was undertaken mainly by children who I argue either had difficulty in remembering lines or else the play had unsuitable themes, someone changed it. Anyone who has children will know it’s easier to get to get them to sing carols than do the nativity!
In simple terms someone seems to fused minstrel songs to an older tradition and because these songs were probably better, more tuneful or memorable, this aspect dominated. This theory is supported by an article by…where one of the correspondents says:

“I believe that the mummers went from house to house performing their play and got fed up with the same old lines and tried out the new at that time Foster music hall songs. This was enjoyed and response probably favourable and the tradition took off in place of the mumming”.

Is it racist?

 

Anyone who’s been to Cornwall will know they can be a bit wary of anyone east of the Tamar, but I don’t think they are racist…indeed they are very friendly, just understandably protection of their traditions. From what I can gather there could be two reasons for the tradition. The simplest is that an adult in the 1920s when the minstrel songs were popular decided to build a repertoire of these songs for the children as they were easier to remember. The other theory is custom was established as albeit a rather ham-fisted attempt to show support for the American black people community or simpler a love of their music. Solidarity for them was often strong in Methodist areas and Cornwall is one of these. An example of this being the strike held in Manchester cotton mills where the pro-slavery confederate army uniforms were being made. Perhaps typically for the British we put our foot in it, and sadly what is seen as once support has naturally become offensive. A parody rather than show parity by dressing up – but again as blacking up is a common motif for begging is that a coincidence? Interestingly now the name is changed, perhaps the one thing which would stop the racist accusations would be to stop blackening their faces, costume aside which is although is claimed minstrel based is common to many folk groups. It was a sensible compromise. Now that this is done, would anyone really be offended after all we’ve all been singing Beyoncé and Michael Jackson songs and not been called racist..have we?

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Custom contrived: Grenoside Traipse

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“The team would go for many miles on foot to perform for the local gentry, calling at all the public houses on the way. Even if they arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning, they still insisted on their white trousers being washed and pressed for the next day’s outing.”

Harrington Housely 1973 after 51 years of dancing!

Grenoside Sword Dancers are the other surviving Sheffield team, its earliest reference being in 1750. Sheffield was a stronghold of the custom which appears to have arisen as a means to make money for workers in the city’s cutlery industry who were often layed off over Christmas when the companies did their stock taking. This was a means to raise so much needed cash.

Walk this way

Like Wentworth Boxing Day is the famed outing for the Grenoside Sword Dancers, but this is a fairly recent invention for many years the main outing was the traipse – a walking tour of nearby houses. An account of the team visiting one of these houses is recorded in visitation is made by Lady Tweedsmuir of Wortley Hall in her The Lilac and the Rose:

“Before I leave the subject of Wortley, I would like to recall a strange little episode. We children were told that mummers were coming one evening to sing and dance. What that meant we had of course no idea, but we were allowed to sit up later than usual when they came, and that in itself gave us keen pleasure. We assembled in a room with a stone floor. In came a party of men dressed entrancingly in short coats with bright coloured patterns on them, and long dark trousers. Their leader wore a large rabbit-skin cap with a small rabbit’s head in front.

The songs and dances were charming, and the men’s faces interesting and serious. These mummers were the real thing, and their dances were not inscribed on any printed page, but had come down to them from their forebears. Harry Gust, who was married to our cousin, Nina Welby, was there, and he took down songs and stories from one of the mummers. The man was surprised and reluctant, but eventually told him in scraps and fragments something of his own and his friends’ mumming activities.       One of the songs began pleasantly with,

Tantiro Tantiro, the drums they do beat, The trumpets they do sound upon call, Methinks music’s here, some bold captain’s near, March on, my brave soldiers, away!

I remember now Harry Gust’s face alight with interest as he talked to the captain of the mummers. He wrote an article about them in the Pall Mall Gazette, which he was then editing for Waldorf Astor. I do not know if it interested people. It should have, because it was brilliantly written, but the cult of English folk lore had not dawned then on the horizon of the intelligentsia.

I remember in a childish way being interested in the mummers, realising dimly that they came from an alien world, quite different to the ordered and staid mode of life in that staid and orderly household of Wortley Hall, and that they represented something historical, rough, and elemental.”

A large area, well beyond the Parish would be covered on foot. The intention that between Christmas Eve and the end of January, all of the large manor houses and stately homes, like Wortley Hall would be visited, entertained and money would be given. Indeed the largess was considerable an article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895 notes each team member could accrue 30 to 35 shillings over the period (which would be a staggering £530 in modern money). One notable visit to Wentworth Woodhouse managed to collect a staggering £25 at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party – around  a £1000 worth today!!.

After the Great War, the length and duration of the walking tours were less ambitious year by year until in 1937 the outing was restricted to a Boxing Day tour of the large houses of the Parish Whitley Hall, Greno Lodge, Chapeltown Club and the house of a Dr Moles at Ecclesfield, now the Boxing Day event is associated with only one pub – the Harrow! Then after 57 years a walking tour returned in a way, a custom more contrived to give an idea than a true revival – and it’s not surprising considering the distances! On the 8th of January 1994. A much shorter tour around the Parish’s pubs and some private houses but a homage to those great walks of yore.

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At the sharp end

I first found them finishing a set at the ….well they were getting in their cars – not really a walking tour after all I thought. A bit of a shame but then again the members were not spring chickens!! At Stone house farm despite the remote location attracted quite a crowd of curious onlookers all enraptured and perhaps hypnotised by the ins and outs of the dance. Indeed, there was something quite evocative and magical watching and hearing the dancers, especially when their clogs tapped on the stone floor. Douglas Kennedy in his 1949 England’s Dancers records a scene that has little changed:

“…the dance is performed by six men wearing clogs and carrying straight swords. Associated with it is a certain amount of dialogue and a song ‘calling on’ the dancers, sung by the leader, who brandishes a curved sabre and wears a cap of rabbit’s skin, with the head of the animal set in front. The dancers tie the ‘lock’ at the beginning of their performance, the leader (or Captain as he is called) kneels down in the centre, and afterwards the ‘Lock’ has been placed around his neck the swords are drawn. His cap of skin is knocked off in the process and rolls on the ground, looking like a decapitated head.”

Interesting unlike 1949’s observation where:

“the captain himself does not fall down to become the centre of a dramatic resurrection but just slips away from the dance, which continues its course.”

Now a special sheet is laid and the captain comically falls dead and lays in a foetus position as if dead…although his resurrection still does not occur!

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What does the dance mean? One of the commonest explanations is that it has a pagan origin, a celebration of the turning year as this evocative account below recalls:

“The Captain sings a song of bravery and love and the dance proceeds with his symbolic beheading and death. The main part of the dance then starts and immediately the Captain revives and “rises from the dead” to lead the dancers in reviving the spirit of the New Year. The six dancers weave intricate patterns with their swords and equally complicated rhythms with their steel-shod clogs. The dance reaches its climax as the fiddler increases the tempo of the dance whilst the dancers perform a rolling figure. The dancers finally form a tight circle and perform a fervent tattoo on the floor before raising their swords, pointing upwards to the sky and, one hopes, a mid-winter sun.”

However convenient this would be the evidence is difficult to find. But do we need a reason?

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At the farm I finally met up with fellow folklorist Richard Bradley, we walked back to the Harrow to see the final dance talking of folk customs. As we arrived at the pub the Sword dancers began to arrive – they looked up as the drizzle became to form and become heavier – not sure if we’ll be doing it inside or out one remarked. We retreated inside for a cup of tea, at the other end of the bar the Sword dancers too rested…however we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice that the dancers had gone. Rushing outside we just saw them finish their dance! Oh dear!

 

 

Custom demised: Weyhill Sheep Fair

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“To Wy and to Wynchestre I wente to the feyre.”

So does Langland record Weyhill Fair, in Piers Plowman, in 1377, the largest and most important livestock fair in the country. One of the features were the establishment of booths to sell produce and so many hops from Farnham were sold that they became known as Farnham row.  Like many great fairs despite an ancient provenance it was like others a charter fair…like others it did attract fringe activities – hiring of labour, a pleasure fair, bull baiting and even mummers and mystery plays.

Ancient fair

Twelve twenty five is the fair’s earliest reference being called Fair of Le We then. However this is not a charter. Indeed, the lack of a charter is perhaps because the fair was very ancient lying as it does on ancient crossroads which crisscrossed tin merchants, gold transporter and even pilgrims from as far as way as Cornwall, Kent and the Continent. Laying also on three parishes and three estates helped it escape the need for a Charter. For when in Andover town folk claimed a right to hold their own fair, by 1559 Royal charter, the fair owners claimed that the rules did not apply to their fair!

Court fair

As it grew into the 19th century the volume of trading grew exponentially. Cheeses from all over Wessex were sold and around 100,000 sheep were sold in one day.  Irish horse traders were accused of putting everyone in danger by showing off ‘charged up and down, and over hurdles’. Lawlessness was a common problem and so large was the fair that by the 16th century it was necessary to set up a Court of Pie Powder. This a common feature of large fairs was a court which provided quick settlement on disputes and could punish lawlessness. Wife selling was a custom associated with many fairs and one immortalised by Thomas Hardy in his 1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge. Renamed Weydon Priors one of his characters, Henchard, sells his wife for five guineas. Wife selling was not unknown in the days before divorce was relatively easy and affordable. An account records that a man called Henry Mears bought Joseph Thomson’s wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog – he was originally asking 50 but the account states both parties were happy. I am not so clear as the wife’s opinion.

The fall of the fair

The 1800s was perhaps the final heyday of the fair. By the end of the 19th century it was in decline. William Cobbett in his Rural rides visited the Fair in 1822. He had been a regular attendee for 40 years previous and found it already depressed:

“The 11th of October is the Sheep Fair. About £300,000 used, some few years ago, to be carried home by the sheep-sellers. Today, less perhaps, than £70,000 and yet the rents of these sheep sellers are, perhaps as high, on average, as they were then. The countenances of the farmers were descriptive of their ruinous state. I never, in all my life, beheld a more mournful scene.”

Reports suggest that despite being still the biggest fair in the South in 1867 each year less and less hops and cheeses were being sold.  Sheep and cattle continued to be trade until just after the Second World War. In 1948 only 1400 sheep were sold – a far drop from the 100,000s. The rapid progress of modernity, better roads, rail and communications meant such large meetings were unnecessary. Although the pleasure fair continued to thrive as in many places. In 1957, the last livestock auction was held and then so few animals were sold that the auctioneers deemed it unprofitable. So the fair stopped and unlike other fairs such as Nottingham Goose fair so did the pleasure fair. The booths were bought by a building company Dunnings Associates using them for storage. They themselves went bankrupt and the buildings fell into disrepair. The site is now a light industry site with the Fairground Craft and Design Centre continuing the name and tradition of selling.

Custom revived: The Winster Guisers

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“December 26th. — This evening we had several sets of children ‘guising,’ dressed up in all sorts of queer ways, and singing one thing or other. The ‘Hobby Horse’ came too. Five men — one as a devil, one as a woman, one as an old woman with a besom, one with the Hobby Horse, and one as something or other else. We had them in the kitchen and gave them money.

December 27th. — Troops of children ‘guising’ again. We gave something to each lot. In the evening the Winster ‘Snap Dragon’ and ‘Hobby Horse’ conjoined came to us — ten men, one as Snap Dragon, two with Hobby Horses, two devils, etc., etc. We had them in the kitchen and gave them money.

Llewellynn Jewitt diary from 1867

Anyone who has been following this blog or occasionally visits will know I do enjoy a Mummer’s Play or Folk Play…I could fill the blog with accounts and some years I might experience 20-30 or so from across the country and over the seasons. Previous posts being testament such as the Soulcakers, Nottinghamshire Plough Monday plays and Ripley Guisers..but there are many more of course. One such tradition, a stable mate geographically with Ripley is that of the Winster Guisers, is worth exploring. Why? This is because the group, although a 1980 revival, is based on a curious photo from around 1870 and are rather bizarrely and frighteningly attired.

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Keeping mum on the origin

Some authorities have argued that as Winster has a Morris tradition that the photo is of a Morris troup. Let us look at the evidence on both sides. Firstly, the season, the lack of leaves on the vine in the background suggests winter – the season of mainly mumming not Morris. However, two characters have musical instruments suggesting that the group are dancing yet music does appear in such folk plays for example the Poor Old Horse. This is particularly significant drawing reference to this as the tradition was a Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire-Yorkshire one and the photo may capture a rendition. However, the evidence against this are the other characters – particularly those on what appear to be hobby horses, something more apparent in Morris. However, surely these characters are soldiers riding their horses. Some authorities such as ….state that they do not appear to be in combat, but surely it is not difficult to consider they might jousting with their horses being the objects of conflict? The brooms held by the other characters are more difficult. Broom dancing does exist in Morris but it appears restricted to Molly dancing an eastern tradition of East Anglia and Lincolnshire. Alternatively and more likely these are the sweepers off commonly seen in renditions of the Derby Tup, again a locally prevalent folk play. The final evidence in favour are again those costumes – there is no uniformity, a facet commonly seen in Morris and they are disguised.  The wearing of masks of course is unknown in Morris who would use other forms such as blackening to disguise their features. This does not exclude the possibility but surely the wearing of masks would be an encumbrance for a dancer? It appears all pretty conclusive I feel, and perhaps doubts have only crept in as a result of Winster’s rather odd Morris hangers on – a witch, clown and sergeant – but could these have come from the mummers and not evidence of the other arrangement? Whatever the truth this evocative photo was used as the basis for the modern team but of course a photo does not provide a script.  I enquired about this and the team asked older members of the community who suggested the characters and snippets of the play.

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The team have very faithfully resurrected the costumes from the photograph – the two protagonists wearing military jackets with white trousers. Their heads being wrapped in a white cloth with a clown like imaginary painted upon it. The other characters have been resurrected – the besom carrying one and the doctor.  The script coming from a Cheshire souling play the most likely candidate but no one other than an expert of folk plays would notice of course.

Truly Dis-Guised

I turned up late for the first performance at Matlock..their schedule said 8.45, they started at 8.15…early for mummers is virtually unheard of it was probably a typo. At least this gave me time to settle in at their next venue and get a prime location.

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Soon the play started to a very receptive audience, many of whom had turned up to see it (it is good to advertise). In came the Introducer:

I open the door and I enter in

Your favour I shall win

Here I stand, sit or fall

I’ll do my best to please you all.

A room to enter in

Come raise up the fire, for in this room tonight, there’s going to be a dreadful fight,

So much a fight in this house, we’ll make the rafters ring

If you don’t please the words I say..step in St George, clear the way…”

Then in came the main protagonists Saint George followed by the Black Prince of Paradise both riding curious hobby horses. In came a rather rapid St George on his unusual hobby horse:

“I am St George, noble champion bold,

And was with this sword I will fight crimes again

It was I who fought that fiery dragon and brought him slaughter

For my valour I won fair sheila the King of Egypt’s daughter.

I’ve travelled the world, round and round, is not a man to equal me never have I found,

Shall meet the man that dare stand in front of me and I’ll cut him down with sword in hand

Black Prince: I am Black Prince of Paradise, born of high renowned,

And with this sword I soon fix thy loafty courage down,

In Black Morocco I am King and before this night old,

I’ll see thee lie dead upon this floor and make thy blood run cold

St George: What that thy sayeth

What I say I mean

Stand back thy black Morrocan dog or I’ll drive sword thy die

Cut thy body in four parts and make your button’s fly

I cast thy cut my body in four parts and make your button fly,

My head is made of brass, Me body is made of steel

My arms and legs are knuckle bone and challenge the to feel

Black Prince: Pull out thy purse and beg

St George: Pull out thy sword and fight!

The satisfaction I shall have before I thou goes away tonight.”

Horsing about?

What is unusual about the team shown in the photo are the small hobby horses which these protagonists ride between their legs geld by a cord around the rider’s neck. These appear to be like wooden rocking horse having a flat curved neck with small head and snapping jaws are about two feet long with a cylindrical body. The question being are these the snap dragons or the hobby horses described by Llewellynn Jewitt? Folklorist Cecil Sharp noted that a real horses head snap dragon was being used in 1908 however confusingly the Winster Morris in 1966 state they never had a hobby horse but did have a ceremony where a horse skull would be buried each year and dug up. That is a tradition which survives at Antrobus soul caking  – more of about this skull later.

Dying for a pint

King of Egypt enters similarly disguised in cloth with an Arabic hat: “I am the King of Egypt as proud doth I appear, I’ve come to seek the young black prince who is my son and heir.Where the man who doeth sway is and precious blood he spill?Who is the man upon this ground my only son did kill?”

St George: I did him slay was I who did him kill and on this ground his precious blood did spill. He challenged me to fight with him, did he, before I be a coward, I fight until I die

King of Egypt: St George, St George what have you done, you’ve gone and killed me only son.

My only son, my only heir, how can you leave him bleeding there?

This part then leads to the traditional entrance of a female character, usually a man in drag, but unusually and especially for this year…an actual women:

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Looks like there’s been some fighting in ‘ere , looks like we need a doctor

Is there a doctor who can cure this man of his deadly wounds?

King of Egypt: I’ll give you five pounds for a doctor

Doctor: There’s no five pound doctor.

King of Egypt: I’ll give you 10 pounds for a doctor

Doctor: In comes I who’s never late, With my big head and little wit, my big heads so big and my wits so small, I’ll endeavour to please you all, man of noble vein, no more than thee or any other man

I cames the to be a doctor?

Doctor: By my travels

Why how far hast you travelled?

Doctor: I’ve travelled up and down the country in this manner or that, I’ve travelled from the fireside to the bedside, from the bedside to me grandmother’s cupboard side, got many a lump of mouldy cheesey pie crust that has made me such a fine upstanding figure of man as I am.

Is that all?”

 No I’ve been to Italy, Spitaly, France, Germany and Spain and I come back to the insert pub name again,

What have you seen on your travels?

Two dead men fighting, two blind me seen fair play, two men acting arms pick them up and carrying them away and two dumb men shouted horray horray.

What canst you cure?

I can cure The ip, the pip, the stitch, the patsy and the gout, the pains within and pains out

There be nineteen Devils in a man’s skull I cast 21 of them out.

What else canst you cure?

I can cure a horse of the gout

How does you do that then?

Cut it off and kick it about!

Can you cure hotels?

I can cure horse of the piles

How does you do that?

Flick some salt on its arse and ride it for miles

Is that all your can cure?

No in this bag I’ve got all manner of things, crutches for lame ducks, and spectacles for blind bumblebees, splints for grasshoppers with broken legs and many other useful things

Any chance of curing this man then doctor?

I, I got some medicine. three sips from this bottle, go down his thittle-throttle, If not entirely slain, rise up and fight again.”

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What is clear perhaps from these doctor incidences is that in such communities the doctor was always a questionable character or that one of the least worthy men in the troup played him! After resurrecting the Black Prince he decides to fight St George again but is stopped and the starts the long sequence of begging. One of the most amusing being Little Johnny Jack, played by one of the tallest of the group, who delivered his lines with great emphasis and who had a collection of dolls stuck to his  back:

In comes I little Johnny Jack, it’s my wife and my family I got on my back, now my family is large and I’ve had a little fall, so a little please will help us all. Out of twelve children I’ve got but five, all the rest they’re starving alive, some in workhouse and some down mine, I’ll bring them all with me when I come here next year. Now Christmas comes but once a year, but when it comes it brings good cheer. There’s turkey and taters, and mince pies and no one likes this sort of thing more than these guisers and in. So ladies and gentlemen, sit there at your ease, but you’ll have to give a little to these guisers if you please. And if you don’t give enough to these lads and so then I’ll go back to the beginning and do it all over again.”

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The last line getting the best roar of the whole performance. Johnny Jack was joined by Beelzebub a traditional more threatening character and Little Devil Doubt who threatened:

“In comes in Little Devily doubt and If you don’t give me your money I’ll sweep you all out. It’s your money I want, it’s your money I crave and if you don’t give me your money I’ll sweep you to your grave. If you don’t believe the words I say..step in Old Horse and clear the way.”

This horse was the icing on this rather gruesome cake. A real horses skull, painted black with red circle eyes and controlling it unseen beneath a black sheet it’s handler…it moved on all fours with an eerie quick slow fashion like a horse out of control, or rather like a more benevolent Emu of Rod Hull fame!. He’s rider again eliciting sympathy:

In comes our old horse to bring you good cheer, Merry Christmas and Happy New year..he was a fine horse and now he’s dead, all is left is this poor old horses head, Cause he’s old with wrapped a blanket around him to keep him from the cold. Now he’s come to your house to see you, I pray I look around, a fine horse as ever there’s been

He’s got a Head as handsome as any Derby winner, But nose fine and noble, like a piece of Worcester China, Got an Eye like a hawk and a neck like a swan, ears less as keen they can hear the bells in Pomy church even when not ringing, he’s got a row of teeth big and bright, like new tombstones…a champion horse very well bred..travelled far, he’s been to Buxton and once as far as Elton.

King and Queen once rode behind him and bought him a neat coat but no only pulls an old milk float…When he was born his mother fell dead on spoonfuls of honey he was nursed and fed. Once he danced to many a tune, now he only has one leg and with this leg he has to beg..some coppers and some beer…he’ll dance you a gallop if you come next year.”

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The team sung us a Merry Christmas and the very appreciative audience, one of the best for a mummer’s play, dug deep for charity! Reflecting on a very amusing performance, one could understand the popularity of such plays then when there was an element of surprise in both the characterisation and dress perhaps in the days when many did not see regular performance.  The fights which must have been common place in pubs – they still are – easily got the attention. That combined with patriotic tendencies underlining it was a good one to elicit sympathy and support in the days when everyone appeared to be an enemy the other side of the channel! Furthermore, the plays gave the working classes the opportunity to ridicule the figures of authority as well…the language in some cases may seem a little odd and obscure, but the plays still have the power to make audiences laugh and of course dig deep. Winster Guisers, with its bizarre and scary costumes, unique hobby horse and eerie horse is something the town of Winster should be very proud of. Catch it if you can.

Spot the difference!

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Custom contrived: The Bankside Twelfth Night Wassail

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Wassailing appears to be all the rage in folk circles with revivals occurring all over. I had planned to discuss another custom for January, but after travelling back from Australia for Christmas and as I was in London, I decided to see this event and became so entranced by it that I felt I needed to extol its virtues.

Appropriately for someone coming from overseas, Bankside is a sort a microcosm of the modern day Britain. Old terraces share their boundaries with a resurrected Elizabethan Theatre, The Globe, whilst the shell of a monstrous power station holds a bizarre collection of art nearby. All lay along a mighty river. Quintessentially Britain in a nutshell. So it seems appropriate to establish a folk custom here which distils a number into one event!

Roaring success!

Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe was apparently the inspiration for this enterprise. A group, The Lions Part, being a spin of the Original Shakespeare Company based at the Globe, established the event in 1994 and it has gone from strength to strength since. For many there, this may be the first and only encounter with British folk customs and so the Lions Part have a large responsibility placed upon their shoulders. I did feel considering the enormous numbers watching the Mummer’s play, that someone should have been leafleting for mummers play countrywide…Like this? Why not try a Plough Monday play?

Despite the contrived nature of the custom, this is a custom which works…many because of the enthusiasm and professionalism of the performers but also because it is a curious amalgam of great British customs…a Green Man, Wassailing, Mummer’s Play, Molly dancing, Father Christmas, Twelfth Night cakes and the Lord and Lady of Misrule and even a tree dressing. Nothing was missed to make this smorgasbord of customs.

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A Holly Man for all seasons

The arrival of the Holly Man despite the modern panorama before us still has an ancient evocative appeal. Rowed by an old Thames Cutter, his image comes closer to view. To a number of people watching on the embankment, this must have been a very bizarre sight and not one they thought they may have encountered as they checked out Tate Modern! On the steps awaited Beelzebub carrying two flaming torches, a stag and a white bear (based on the Polar bear of the medieval Tower).

The Holly Man is a fine if possibly rather uncomfortable sight! Impressively covered head to toe in a variety of holly, ivy and yew, his face painted green with tendrils and leaves applied overall very otherworldly. Potentially the Holly Man looks very scary indeed but fortunately David Ridley who play him, spends a lot of time smiling.

The Holly Man is a curious character in folklore, identified by Robert Graves in The White Goddess as the Holly King who represented one half of the year being at his strongest at the Midwinter period and weakest naturally at Midsummer, when the Oak King ruled.  Whilst as an archetype it is an obvious model, there is no evidence that such a figure existed in England, although he is clearly popular with Neopagans.

And it Wassail from him and Wassail from me!

“Wassail” cried the crowd in unison! They had been here before I feel. Holding a wooden bowl filled with alcohol a scrib sheet was unfurled for the crowd and the first Wassail was read:

“Blow wind. Blow boat well, Ride well on the tide, Every beam and every sail, Bear the crew bravely home each sailing day.”

The group then moved through the massed crowds like rock stars at a concert to the steps of the Globe theatre. Here the doctor unfurled the second sheet and the crowd shouted:

“Blow wind. Globe bear well, Spring well in playing, Every lath and timber, Bear the tongues of poets, Next New Year’s summer.”

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The group then moved with their swarming crowd to an arena nearby for their mummer’s play. The characters of this play ranged from those still in circulation in the ‘modern’ mummers – St. George, Turkish Knight, Father Christmas, Beelzebub and the Doctor. To this they added Prudence, Gill Finney, Cleverlegs and Twelfth Bake, some of which have an authentic Elizabethan flavour.

The play, which was certainly longer than your average Mummer’s performance had all the usual ingredients, conflict between St. George and Turkish Knight, his death and resurrection at the hand of the Doctor with various add on scenes. The play was without doubt the slickest and best mummer’s play I had seen. That is no slight upon the many extremely enjoyable amateur performances, but of course, when professionals are involved like the theatre the result can be excellent. The best performance was by Justin Brett who played Beelzebub, he easily embodied the mischief and devilish nature of the character….very much like a court jester, and indeed he reminded me of Timothy Claypole of BBC TV classic show Rentaghost.  He was very amusing and played the crowd excellently during a section where he cried out for topics from 2013 to create rhymes…although I worried I had gone through a time worm hole when someone shouted ‘Olympics’. Certainly amongst the topics such as flooding, a rhyme about the death of Margaret Thatcher was well pitched to the clientele of Southwark and ‘arty’ establishment who were not exactly big supporters of the Iron Lady…it engendered the biggest laughs let us say!

Mind you Peas and Beans

After the Mummer’s play, cakes are distributed for the crowning of the King Bean and Queen Pea. Twelfth Night is an event that now has only become synonymous with taking the decorations down, (see a forthcoming February post for comment on this), but from medieval times to early 1800s it was a time to celebrate often with feasts and fun. Often the day would be associated with a Lord of Misrule character that would overturn the usual master and servant relationship. As time went on, many of the traditions associated with it died out…the cake lasting the longest before being brought back to Christmas Day itself. Yet despite its apparent demise it is interesting to see that you can’t keep an old custom down!

Cakes were duly given out…although I was missed…and the Holly Man held their twig crowns awaiting the discovery of the King and Queen. Poet Herrick noted the “King of the Bean” in the 17th century:

“Now, now the mirth comes,
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also,
Must revel as queen in the court here. Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not,
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here, Which known, let us make,
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here.”

 This custom appears to have been popular in Tudor times having been imported from France or Spain, the finder of the bean would be the King and the pea the Queen As a custom it died out in the 1700s I believe and so again it was great to see the group revive it. However, this year there was some problem finding the pea I believe, someone must have swallowed it unbeknownst and so someone volunteered to be the King Bean. So the King and Queen, both women. After this we travelled to the George Inn, Southwark. The curious assemble of onlookers, now becoming entranced by the whole spectacle gladly held hands and made their way to the watering hole in a giant unbroken daisy chain. Once at the pub, the Holly Man with his Bean and Pea royalty read their third Wassail.

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“Wassail to this old building, Long may she stand, Every barrel and every brew, Cheer the company bravely, Every drinking day!”

Here a miniature tree was also wassailed

“Here’s to this little apple tree, Long may it bear fruit, Every barrel, every brew, Cheer the company bravely, every drinking day.”

The group promised storytelling and dancing. I stayed for the dancing, Molly dancing from East Anglia, just to collect the folk collage.

What is curious is that the Bankside Twelfth Night, despite its twenty year vintage has soon become a focus for modern pagans. Like a modern day fertility symbol, there appeared to be no shortage of young women wishing to pose with the Holly Man, again underlining our need in this modern world for a fertility symbol. Perhaps for many here the surrealist day they might experience…especially for me with my day starting with a cup of tea with Noel Gallagher sitting beside me in Tate Modern. Rock stars. Modern Art. Holly Man…it’s difficult to work out what is more surreal!

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Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/bankside-twelth-night-celebrations/

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom revived: Lambley’s Cowslip Sunday

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Outside Nottinghamshire and perhaps outside the Nottingham area, Lambley’s Cowslip Sunday or simply Lambley Sunday, the first Sunday in May, is not very well known. This was an interesting custom which was an unusual may day custom fixed on Sunday, usually a day frowned upon for such frivolities, which appeared to be a mass flower pick with associated side attractions. For on this date local people and visitors from neighbouring Nottingham and nearby villages (several thousand in the early 20th century) would visit the Dumbles where Dover Beck flowed and picked cowslips. This rather innocent if ultimately destructive custom soon became associated with festivities and commerce. Stalls would be established in the main street selling refreshments and local pubs would sell beer causing unfortunately associated drunkenness and violence. In 1866 local newspapers complained about the day desecrating the Sabbath and moves were afoot to move the day. A brief undated cutting in Nottingham Central Library reads:

“Cowslip Sunday. About dinner time and during the early afternoon yesterday a large number of cyclists and pedestrians could have been seen returning into Nottingham carrying either bunches of cowslips or small branches of blossom taken from the hedgerows. Many of the pedestrians were boys, and it seemed in one sense, a pity that better use was not made of what must have cost them many a mile of trudging. Some of the youths left their little burdens of cowslips and wild violets scattered on the road.”  

In a booklet ‘Lambley Sunday’ a picturesque May Day festival, local historian Stapleton provides the best account of the custom and I have quoted it at length. He notes that in his youth:

“commencing not later than 4 a.m., the lashing of straining brake-horses, pulling densely-packed loads of holiday humanity, the braying of a never ending series of bugle horns, the beat of many iron hooves rattling over the granite roads and the heavy chaff and laughter of habitually thirsty throats made up a Sabbath bedlam that surely would be tolerated in the streets of no other great English city”

Stapleton was confused why especially after a heavy night drinking on the Saturday were people not recovering on the Sunday but rather walking or travelling to this small village the day after…he was never able to get a reply other than its Lambley or Cowslip Sunday and as such this was reason enough as we have seen with many of these customs the reason having long gone before the ceasing of the tradition. Stapleton gives a colourful account of his own pilgrimage:

“Eight o’clock and a wet morning! It was the uncompromising sort of weather when the lazy town-dwelle, having glanced out of the window, debates whether it be not the wiser plan to spend a few more hours in bed…”

Giving himself that lie-in he promised himself, he begun at 11 am:

“Bereft by the discouraging climatic conditions of expected companionship, and tire dof awaiting a change in that never came, I set out alone …..via Mapperley Park for Nottinghamites May Sunday Mecca duly equipped with overcoat and umbrella. The wind and rain drove consistently and horizontally from the right or eastern side…”

Clearly the weather had put many off and he states that :

“Cowslip Sunday was a comparative failure that year, but ardent youths were not to be denied. In nearly every green field they were to be found, trampling the saturated grass in search of floral treasures…..they boasted neither umbrellas nor overcoats, but did not seem to mind the wet very much. En route they were buoyed up by anticipations of floral wealth, and on returning there was all the swelling pride of conquest and spoils.”

Even by the 1800s when Stapleton was describing his experiences, the custom was in decline

“There is little to distinguish this from another Sunday. Yet the people of Mapperley tell of a time, not so many years ago either, when the conveyances stopping at the local licensing houses stretched fifty yards or more the excursionists…sat on the opposite side of the road eating bread and cheese and no children were allowed out of doors.”

Stapleton notes that he

“met the first three returning ‘Cowslippers’…they were somewhat more than fully-grown men, but they were not proof against the all-powerful fascination of the occasion. One of them had five bunches of cowslips in his hand, and the second was whimsically adorned with a like number dangling in a string from his top button hole..”

Cowslip wine

Was available again at the event although made in Oxfordshire, in the early form of the tradition this was one of the main reasons for collecting cowslips, especially it appears by children! Stapleton talks of how cowslip wine was made:

“Pluck off all the little yellow heads place in a vessel in the oven, add water, and stew until you have a good, strong infusion. Then decant into old medicine bottles and add as much sugar and milk as your mother will give you or as much as you can steal, among the lot and it is ready for use at once, whether it be hot or cold.”

Is the custom unique? What is its origin?

There appears to have been an industrial background behind the tradition and it Sileby in Leicestershire, where in May children of the area were ‘employed’ to collect cowslips in an annual harvest where children were given time off school. The custom appears to have died out in the 1920s. Several ideas have been put forward for the custom occurring on Sunday. One being that this was a Wake Sunday or Patronal day but the wake week was in Whitsun. Another that it is a vestige of commoners rights to unenclosed areas of Thorneywood chase which covered Lambley and Gedling. Clearly it is more probably associated with May Day.

The decline

By the 1920s the tradition had all but died out. This was due to a number of factors: the ploughing up of some of the dumbles, probably the weather and the police discouraging the tradition due to its rowdy nature. Of this a report in the Nottinghamshire Guardian notes:

“if we judge, from the manners and customs of a great part of them and their acts and language, we should conclude that the class has not improved since their last annual visit. The police had much trouble in keeping decent order in the village. …The great cry is why cannot another day in the week be devoted to this much-desired ramble, if all are so anxious that it should be continued, so that all might enjoy the pleasure more freely without desecrating the Sabbath.”

Certainly the very action of picking the flowers could not have been favourable to their survival as the urban population enlarged. Certainly the weather and inconsistency of growth could have contributed to the downfall as a correspondent in Nottinghamshire Guardian of May 11th noted:

“This much-talked of day, annually held on the first Sunday in May, was duly celebrated. The weather for some time previous had been cold and wet with frosty nights; consequently vegetation had not made so much progress as usual at this season of the year so that the cowslips and other spring flowers were not quite so properly matured..”

The revival

Certainly with this reputation this quiet village may not have been in favour of a true revival and as such Cowslip Sunday is perhaps radically different from that 100 years ago and all the better for it. Gone are the hoards of pickers and the dawn pilgrimage, the rowdy drinking and indeed perhaps the cowslips! Although some have made it into the garlands carried.

It was 2010 when Lambley Parish council who in 2010 resurrected the tradition, albeit a little more organised and lending itself more to May day, which probably the original focus was. A report in 2010 for the BBC reports:

“The residents of a Nottinghamshire village are reviving a forgotten rural folk tradition. …..  On Sunday, 2 May 2010, the celebrations return with folk tales, live performance and a ceilidh.   Playwright and Lambley resident David Longford has researched Cowslip Sunday, traditionally held on the first Sunday in May, for a play being performed on the day.”

David Longford notes in the article:

“Now Lambley’s recently established Cowslip Sunday now consists of a procession though the village, attended by a giant called Cowslip Jack. Afterwards there is a free open air rustic play telling the history of Lambley and end in a ceilidh. Cowslip wine will be available again. 

Lambley Jack and his procession

Cowslip Jack was retired in 2012.The procession is lead by a Lambley Jack, a top hat wearing broom carrying urchin, who figures in the play. The name is a local one for someone who is cheeky or impudent, legendarily associated with the burning down of Nottingham castle. However, no such Jack or John is named in the assizes which followed.

This procession with a neatly sown Cowslip banner  and accompanied with a hotch-potch of characters: an accordionist, antlered ‘fawns’, an elf, fairies carrying garlands with spring flowers around them, some peasant girls and a dandy. They process around the village with an amusing short cut through the church, perhaps to remind the church of the sacrilegious nature of such a Sunday celebration! As they went along they cried Cowslip Sunday and called out the letters of Cowslip! Once they returned the most interesting part of the custom begins

The play-Lambley Jack and the Golden Stocking Frame

The play is a one off each year, described on the programme as:

“rustic rough-hewn style and knockabout hour it can easily be described as ‘a Panto for springtime’. Therefore in keeping with the style of this kind of performance your cheers vocal appreciation and friendly banter are well throughout. In other words join in.”

This year, as noted, the giant, whose head sat by the village hall, was sadly absent as the story centred around the tradition of William Lee and the stocking frame, a local invention for neighbouring Calverton cleverly interwoven with the classic Rumplestiltskin (or as they said in the a Play-the English version Tom Tit). The story was framed by the Cowslip Fairs and fawns, referencing the activities which went on in days of old, collecting cowslips and making cowslip balls (thrown of course). There was a great Pantomime dame with some great banter with the crowd, some very professional turns from some of the younger members of the parish. There were of course some very obvious in-jokes based nationally, a Dragon’s Den inspired chat between Lee, Elizabeth I and the King of France and their sponsorship of the said stocking frame, or some locally based of  inter-village rivalry. All in all it was an excellent play taking some of the best features of traditional approaches such as Panto and Mummers and throwing in some modern comedy….going to show that Nottinghamshire can provide some of the best of amateur theatricals.

The organisers of Cowslip Sunday appear determined to keep the custom alive, and it is interesting to note they have avoiding the obvious fall back May event staple-The Morris dancer. Hopefully they can in the cash strapped days ahead but with large numbers of people coming to the village , who otherwise would pass straight through, with spending cash, it should survive; after all where were they in 2009? I heartily recommend a visit especially as they are few customs on this day.

Customs revived: Nottinghamshire plough Monday plays

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Folk plays are an interesting area for folklorists. They appear to instil within them traditions and actions from a dark distance part that has been a good source for academics to discover their meanings and origin.

Once it appeared in the early-mid 20th century that they would be a thing of the past as everywhere it appeared they were dying out. However, nothing could be further from the truth at the start of the 21st century as they appear to be in rude health, with at least six renditions across Nottinghamshire over the week of Plough Monday in 2012 by five different groups.

Playing around

I spent the second week of the new year experiencing three different Plough Monday plays in the area and I have detailed my thoughts on them as well as rough copies of the plays as according to traditionally recorded scripts(The scripts are copied from the excellent Mastermummers website in which far more information can be found)

All three plays are versions of what are called Recruiting sergeant play and follow a common theme. Generally a character called Tom Fool is the first in and introduces the play sometimes as in the case of the Calverton play to the sound of a fiddle or a drum. Then the scene moves to a discussion between the recruiting sergeant, a farmer’s man and a ‘female’ character (dressed in drag and called Lady bright and gay). In this scene the farmer leaves his sweet heart to join the army and so spurned the ‘female’ character marries the fool and often a dance ensues. In the next scene in comes another ‘female’ character (again in drag and this time called Dame Jane) who then argues with the Fool that he has a baby with her out of wedlock. They too and fro until Beelzebub turns up and has an altercation with Dame Jane to which she falls down to the ground dead. A doctor is called (usually the fool who is happy to see the character dead…less alimony, offers more money for the doctor to go away) who through various quackery brings the character back to life. A song basically wishing everyone good health and wealth is sung as a plea to then extract money from the audience. Traditionally this money was ‘begged’ after all being plough men they weren’t very busy in the winter, but now days goes to charity or beer money!

The Calverton Plough Play

The final play I watched was in the rather busy environs of the Admiral Rodney in Calverton. The Calverton Play enacted by the CRAPPPs since 1978 is the oldest of the revival plays with only a 20 year or so gap. It was excellently performed and the 13 piece team clearly enjoyed their roles. Their script followed the Cropwell play script with again some adlibs and for those that got involved in watching were thoroughly entertained. Sadly I was unable to follow the team as they went of their three night 19 venue tour but clearly they took their responsibility with great enjoyment and with it so does the often confused onlookers.

The script in 2012

I have transcripted the script of the Calverton Play as heard in the Admiral Rodney. It gives an idea of the nature of all the plays, although variations exist between them and later posts will have more details on these.

Tom Fool: In comes I, Bold Tom Good evening ladies, gentlemen all. We have just come to taste your beer and ale. That the tell me is so ripe and so mellow. Good evening Ladies and gentlemen all

CROWD: Good evening

Tom Fool:. Good evening Ladies and gentlemen all

CROWD: Good evening

Tom Fool:. Plough Monday has just past which makes Tom Fool so bold as to call. But don’t take all I have to say, there’s plenty of more lads and lassies on the way. Some can dance, some can sing. So by your leave they shall come in Okum, Pokum, France and Spain, the Recruiting Sergeant just the same

Recruiting Sergeant: In comes I the Recruiting Sergeant. I have arrived here now. I have orders from the King. Enlist all jolly men that follow horses, cart, waggon or plough, Tinkers, tailors, peddlers, nailers. All the more to my advance. The more I hear the fiddle play. The better I can dance.

TOM FOOL and RECRUITING SERGEANT DANCE

Tom Fool: What, can you dance? I can either dance, sing or say. If you can either dance, sing or say. I shall swiftly march away.

Farmer’s man: Knock knock, in come I, that lost my mate, dripping tears are down my face. Try again. Pity my condition

CROWD: Ahh!

Farmer’s man: Aside: Come on we do this every bloody year! I say pity my condition and you give me a bit more sympathy that that… Pity my condition

CROWD: Ahh!

Farmer’s man: That’s sympathy. For I declare for a false young girl and I am in despair.

Lady: Behold the lady bright and gay. Good fortune and sweet charms.

Farmer’s man: Surely I have been tricked and broke PUSHES LADY TO THE GROUND THEN GETS UP

Lady: How scornfully I have been thrown from true love’s arms. He says as I won’t to him wed with him. He’ll let me understand. He will list all for a soldier. And go off t some foreign land.

Recruiting Sergeant: Come all you lads that have a mind for listening. List and do not be afraid. You shall have all kinds of liquors. Likewise kiss this fair pretty maid. If you’re not afraid and go with me you’ll go for we shall make a gallant show. Are you free hearted

Farmer’s Man: I am free hearted?

Others: Of he’s free hearted..

Recruiting Sergeant: Are you willing?

Farmer’s man: I am willing!

Recruiting Sergeant: In your hat I place a ribbon and in your hand a shilling.

Lady: No don’t take that shilling!

Farmer’s Man: Thank your sergeant for your offer before I stay longer…ASIDE where’s he gone! Oi! You’ve got my ribbon! If I stay longer I may fair worse, and dash you’re old wig (to Lady) ASIDE: Oh no my god it’s Paul Howard. If I stay long for this brown and saucy lady-boy

Lady: ASIDE Four years at Radar!

Lady: since my love has listed and entered volunteers. I neither mean to sigh for him or yet to shed one tear. CRIES. Aside to Tom Fool: come on!

Tom Fool: Do thou love me my pretty fair maid?

Lady: Oh Yes Tommy, to my sorrow

Tom Fool: And when shall be our wedding day

Lady: Tomorrow lad tomorrow

[All Four] And we’ll shake hands and we’ll make banns. And we’ll get wed tomorrow.

Threshing Blade: In come I old Threshing Blade. As all you people know. My old dad learnt me this trade some 90 years ago. I thrashed this part of the country and thrash that part too! And I will thrash you, Tommy lad, before I go

ASIDE: Cherry Tree drinker!

Sanky Benny: In come I. I can plough, sow, reap or go and I hope you masters will bestow all you can afford in my hopper-o. But not only that for I am Sanky Benny

ALL: Sanky .

Sanky Benny: And I have one and half yard of black and white tape that I will seeelllll you (to Tom Fool) for a penny

Tom Fool: Oh Sanky my old lad me old marrow. Now what have we got in the old line, anything soft and…hang on they’re sticking DRAWING UP SOME UNDERWEAR ON A STRING

ASIDE: That’s rude

Tom Fool: It’s only rude if someone’s in ‘em!These are hankies

Farmer’s man: In comes I, the Farmer’s Man,
Don’t you see my capping hand?
I go forth and plough the master’s land,
And turn it upside down.
How I straight I go from end to end.
I scarcely make a baulk or bend;
And to my horses I attend
As they go marching round the end.
Hov-ve, gee, wo! {cracks his whip.}

Dame Jane: In comes I, old Dame Jane, With a neck as long as a crane ; Dib-dab over the meadow. Once I was a blooming maid, Now I am a downright old widow. Long time I have sought thee, And now I have caught thee. Tommy, take the child.

Tom Fool: Jane!it’s none of mine. Who told you bring it here?

Dame Jane: Well the overseer of the parish told me to bring it to the biggest fool I could find, and I think you be him,for its eyes, nose, cheeks and chin, is as much like you as ever it can grin.

Tom Fool: Is it a boy or a girl?

Dame Jane: It is a girl.

Tom Fool: Ah ha well mine is all boys. Take it and swear it to the village pump, old rag-bag.

{Enter Beelzebub.}

Beelzebub: In comes I, Beelzebub, On my shoulder I carry my club,In my hand a wet leather frying pan ;Don’t you think I’m a funny old man? Is there any old woman that can stand afore me?

Dame Jane: I fear I can. My head is made of iron,My body made of steel,
My hands and feet of knuckle-bone,I think nobody can make me feel.Crack one

Beelzebub: If your head is made of iron,Your body made of steel,
Your hands and feet of knuckle-bone,I think I can make me feel, old girl! {knocks Dame Jane down.}

ASIDE: It’s like the cherry tree

Tom Fool: Oh, Beelzey! oh, Beelzey! what hast thou done? Thou hast kilt the old woman and limted [lamed] her son. Five pounds for a doctor, Ten to stop away, Fifteen to come in. {Enter Doctor.}

Doctor: I’m not coming in for less!

Tom Fool :You the doctor?

Doctor: Yes, me the doctor!

Tom Fool : How came you to be the doctor?

Doctor: By my travels.

Tom Fool: Where have you travelled?

Doctor: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales; back again to doctor old England ;
fireside, bedside, by my old grandmother’s cupboard-side, where I have had many a pound of pork pie in my time. Makes me so stout and my face to shine

Tom Fool: Very impressive but what diseases can you cure?

Doctor: Ah ha I can cure the ipsy-pipsy, palsy, and the gout,
Aches within, aches without,
Draw a leg, set a tooth,
And almost raise the dead to life again.

Tom Fool: Oh You do seem a very clever young man,
Perhaps then you should try your skill.

Doctor: Eh Right then

Doctor: Thank you, kind sir, and so I will. But first I must a feel  of the young lady’s pulse Her pulse beats exceeding fast ;
nineteen times to the tick of my watch once.
She is in a very low way; she will not get a deal lower without there is a hole dug for her.

Tom Fool: It’s his only joke.

Doctor: Give some of my whiff whaff and a tap on the head with my tiff taff. And one of my pills. Would you like to take one madam. Big round white one She’s to take one in the morning, one in the evening and swallow the box at dinner time. This will do her the power of good, cleanse her bones and clean her blood. But wait she is not dead

ALL: Not dead

No merely in a trance

ALL: Merely in a trance

So raise her up and let her dance; If she can’t dance we can sing,
So raise her up and let’s begin.

All dance a country dance, and sing various solo songs; then all sing together -}

[All]

ALL: Good Master and good Mistress, As you sit round your fire, Remember us poor plough boys, That plough through mud and mire. The mire has been so very deep, We travel far and near, We thank you for a Christmas box,
And a pint of your best beer

Bleasby Plough Play

The Rattlejag Morris organised an excellent series of events associated with a Plough Sunday blessing at Morton church. Sadly I missed this part of the custom but arrived in time to see the celebrations at Bleasby where a number of sword dancers, clog dancers and even a rhythm band assembled in this pleasantly mellow Sunday afternoon. The play enacted by Rattlejag Morris was performed in the street outside the Waggon and Horses pub. It was based on the Farnsfield play with an introducer, who had been drafted in from the Sword dancers and had to read much of it from a script (however it did not detract from the spectacle). It is worth noting that the character wore a jersey based on that once preserved in Nottingham costume museum.

Tollerton Plough Play

Tollerton’s Plough Play was last performed in 1952 and it was not until 2002 that it was restored. The basic script for what is called the Tollerton Play is as follows, with characters, the fool, recruiting sergeant, farmer’s man, lady, Dame Jane, Belezebub, Doctor and nurse (who was the prompt)  It differs by having an introducer who quietens the crowd and was an obvious good idea in noisy pubs. However, here I felt was the best atmosphere and the closest perhaps to that which would have accompanied that when done in the dark distant past. Although the pub was packed, everyone was there to see the play! The script was resonant of local in-jokes including a comment on a fire which burnt one of the character’s barn leaving one chicken (a plastic chicken in the play) and the Lady’s attempt to grab any man ‘he’ could for maximum embarrassment.

Ploughing a familiar furrow – What are these plays about?

Obviously at one time all these plays would have had the same characters and script and it is possible that the script became separated from the actions in the Puritan when they may have forgotten the words but remembered the mime of it probably adding verses to it at a later date. Some antiquarians saw that the play with its scene of death and resurrection had clear pagan overtones and represented the triumph of spring over winter, although why the recruiting aspect is in it is unclear. More recently this view has been discarded due to lack of evidence. It is possible that the original ‘play’ was simply the death of Beelzebub and his resurrection as this does rather sit as a discrete scene within the scene of the fool and his mistress and recruitment. Perhaps these last two were later cemented onto it to add familiarity and bawdy humour perhaps post Commonwealth, the recruiting section aping the Civil War and the bawdiness as a relief from the puritan’s restriction of it. However this is mere supposition..in the end we may never really know…

Image and text copyright Pixyled publications