Category Archives: Berkshire

Custom demised: Visiting Wilcote Lady well on Palm Sunday

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“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”

Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384

My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.

The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:

Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.

The correspondent notes that:

“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”

The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide(2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:

“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”

Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:

“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”

Another correspondent noted:

“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”

Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:

“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”

Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.

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Custom survived: The Christmas Tree

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“Children knew nothing about Santa Claus or about Christmas Trees – those are German innovations which should be left to Germans…instead of the German tree we had the old fashioned English Mistletoe Bough.”

1890 J. S Fletcher A picturesque picture of Yorkshire

Well everyone can have an opinion but clearly J.S Fletcher was wrong…I am sitting composing this in the flickering light of mine, picture below, but on reflection cutting down, dragging in and setting up a tree in one’s house is such an odd tradition – but it is one that 8 million do each year. Indeed, in an odd way, the Christmas Tree is the most religiously neutral of Christmas paraphernalia…and for over a hundred years people have been putting up with the smell of pine and pine needles embedding in the feet, carpet, cracks of the floorboards (delete as appropriate)…the mistletoe bough was relatively simple..

Branching out from Germany

The origin of the Christmas Tree is often attributed to Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort. However, although he may have popularised it he did not introduce it. Its origins did not come as J. S. Fletcher noted came from Germany but from the Medieval region which is now Estonia and Latvia. It really only just gained popularity in Germany when George III’s wife Charlotte introduced a tree at a children’s party in 1800 it what is believed to be the first one. In a way it would be one of the most notable examples of a transcribed custom becoming a native and now surviving custom. Charles Grenville grandson of a duke was staying at Panshanger in Hertfordshire when the wide of the Russian Ambassador Princess Lieven had in 1829:

“got up a little fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three large trees in large pots were put unto a long table covered with pink linen, each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various articles  – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was only for the children, in Germany it extends to persons of all ages.”

Incredibly little has changed since except now the trees tend to be dead rather than living in pots and much larger one would assume. It was evidently popular in the Royal family as Victoria recalls in her journal for 1832 at Christmas Eve that after dinner:

“ we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.”

By the 1840s, the custom had spread to the wealthy middle-class families  followed the fashion. An 1842 newspaper advert for the Times recalls:

“GERMAN CHRISTMAS TREES. The nobility and gentry are respectfully informed that these handsome JUVENILE CHRISTMAS PRESENTS are supplied and elegantly fitted up.”

The 1844 The Christmas Tree: published by Darton and Clark also recorded:

“The ceremony of the Christmas tree, so well known throughout Germany, bids fair to be welcomed among us, with the other festivities of the season, especially now the Queen, within her own little circle, has set the fashion, by introducing it on the Christmas Eve in her own regal palace.”

Cant see the wood from the tree

Setting up a Christmas Tree is a bit of an adventure. Once you’d been around measuring up and looking at examples. And despite the fact they all are basically the same, you still go to several suppliers. Its then packaged up and the first challenge is to get it in the car, all the seats down and its head sticking out of the front passenger window!  Next challenge getting it into the house and manipulated into the drawing room. I managed to get the tree in through the door, after sawing off the base of course to supposedly keep it fresher for longer – it didn’t seem to work. Then it was a case of then inserting the mighty log in the base….now that was a  real challenge as it swayed back and fro. Was it in. Yes. No. Let’s see…oh its fallen…another go and yes finally. Next open it up. Snip snip snip…pong the branches spring out pushing me backwards but fortunately the windows survive.

The undressed tree

Then comes dressing the tree. The first dressings were wax candles – slightly impractical as much as I like to keep to tradition – electric lights are more sensible The first Georgian trees were dressed  with “roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats”. I had a choice of baubles, ornaments, candy canes and my least favourite tinsel and after about what seemed an hour it was dressed…last state the star. I got the ladder but as I got closer I realised a problem. The ladder was tall enough but I could not safely reach the top..so no star!

Firm roots for a custom

By the mid 1840s, adverts were regularly appearing in the Newspapers such as in The Times, 23 December 1844 called it “A new pleasure for Christmas.” By 1847 Prince Albert wrote:

“I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.”

The tradition slowly spread through the aristocracy for example a letter to William Fox Talbot on the 2nd of January from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire recorded:

“Constance is extremely busy preparing the Bohemian  Xmas Tree. It is made from Caroline’s description of those she saw in Germany.”

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The dressed tree

By January 1848,  the custom was well-enough known for The Times to compare the January budget of 1848 with gifts handed out beneath “the Christmas tree”: From this point onwards it appears that the tree spread from the wealthy families to all families and by 1906  The Poor Children’s Yuletide Association. According to the Times had

“sent 71 trees ‘bearing thousands of toys’ to the poorest districts of London.”

And by 1926 it was stated that:

“’Poor families in Lewisham and similar districts are just as particular about the shape of their trees as people in Belgravia…’ ‘Shapely Christmas Trees.”

However, it looked like this establishing custom would be cut down before it fully grew its roots. Again the Times wishing its readers  “A Merry Christmas”: The Times in, 27 December 1918, stated:

“the so-called “Christmas tree” was out of favour. Large stocks of young firs were to be seen at Covent Garden on Christmas Eve, but found few buyers. It was remembered that the ‘Christmas tree’ has enemy associations.”

But fortunately this association was soon forgotten for in 1919 again the Times noted that a charity fair in aid of injured soldiers featured ‘a huge Christmas-tree’ at St. Dunstan’s Christmas Fair. By 1937 British farmers had started to invest money in Christmas Tree Plantations and it has not looked back since. Indeed despite another conflict with Germany the tree did not wain in popularity presumably because its Germanic associations had been largely forgotten. Indeed, in 1947 as the Norwegians remind us it is Norse – not German tradition – a fact they annually remind us every Christmas in Trafalgar square. The 20 metre high towering Norway Spruce which adorns Trafalgar Square has been an annual thanksgiving gift from the Norwegian government as it states each year:

“This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.A tree has been given annually since 1947.”

And after all as we annually gather around our Christmas Tree the message that Norway gives every year is more than reticent…peace to all at Christmas.

Custom demised: Little Coxwell’s Educational Charity

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Henry Edwards in their 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes on the 29th of September the village enacted an unusual custom. He noted that:

“the Rev. David Collier charged certain lands in the hamlet of Little Coxwell with the payment of eight bushels of barley yearly…. for teaching the poor children of this parish to read, write, and cast accounts, for three years, when they were to be succeeded by two others to be taught for the same term, and so on successively for ever, and he empowered the vicar and churchwardens, or the major part of them (the vicar being always one) to nominate the children.”

This was back in 1724 and those these were the times when the poor were rarely educated and as such a benefactor who provided money to enable education would be gratefully received. Edwards notes that:

“The payment has been regularly made, sometimes in kind, but latterly in money estimated at the price of barley, at the Farringdon market, the nearest to the day when the annual payment becomes due. The payment is made, under the direction of the churchwardens, to a schoolmistress for teaching three children to read, and, if girls, to mark also. The number of children was formerly two only, who were further taught to write and cast accounts.”

However by the time of Edwards the charity was already appearing to die out in reference to teaching them to write and cast accounts:

“but this part of their education was discontinued many years ago in consequence of the inadequacy of the fund, and, instead thereof an additional child was sent to be instructed with the others.”

Now education is free and as such the provision of the money has long gone.

Custom demised: Chalvey Stab Monk Ceremony, Berkshire

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Anyone born and bred in the village of Chalvey, now absorbed into the urban sprawl of Slough, is called a ‘stab Monk’. Why? Well the name is associated with a strange legend with an even more bizarre custom which became held annually on Whit Monday usually in June.

Despite some attempts in linking the custom to Roman pagan traditions and parallels can be drawn to Oasby’s Baboon night and the famed monkey hangers of Hartlepool, it appears to be based on a fairly recent story. This story apparently dates from between 1850-1880 and tells how on Sunday an Organ Grinder visited the village to entertain the villagers, especially the children. However, one child teased the monkey and unsurprisingly perhaps he was bitten on the finger. When he rushed home to tell his father, who understandably having been drinking all Sunday the Cape of Good Hope Pub all day quickly responded by storming over to the Organ Grinder and stabbing the monkey to death! To recompense the Organ Grinder, a collection was made, a funeral arranged and a wake organised. It is said that this wake was so popular, providing as it did free beer, that it was repeated the next year!

The next year, a plaster monkey made by a local craftsman and another wake was organised, although the model appears to be something that has come from a pub and one wonders whether it was originally came from the pub and was totally made up. During this one, a person fell into the Chalvey Brook and he was proclaimed the Mayor of Chalvey for that year! This also became a tradition and each year the person who fell into the brook was so proclaimed, in as much a person would be purposely pushed into it. One year it was a policemen watching the procession that was pushed in.

Of course, the popularity of the event was firmly based on alcohol and as such it frequently became notorious. One notable event was when revelers were caught drinking out of hours at the Cape of Good Hope Pub in 1919 during Victory celebrations. The landlord a George Holdway, was summoned to court to explain the situation. He won the case explaining that it was the funeral procession passing the pub which he invited to celebrate the end of the war. He won the case and just paid court costs.

This most bizarre event dragged itself through the early part of the 20th century and photos exist from the 30s and 40s showing robbed and top hat wearing processors, the latest being 1947 but it became less frequent, until it appears to have died out. Although apparently for charitable reasons he can re-appear, he resides in Slough museum for all who are curious to hear about this most unusual and perhaps pointless custom.

The name is preserved locally, in the football team with its logo of a monkey and knife, in the name of a local park the term ‘stab-monk’ used to describe man born and bred in Chalvey, having been pushed or fallen, into the Chalvey Brook

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!

Custom contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!

Custom demised: Eton Ram Hunting, Berkshire

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Schools begin again soon but amongst the curious rituals of the new term, none are as bizarre as that which – now would be done during school holidays – the hunting of a ram on Election Saturday. The College had an ancient claim upon its butcher to provide a ram on the Election Saturday, to be hunted by the scholars. In his 1847 History of Buckinghamshire, Lipscombe notes:

“the animal having been so pressed as to swim across the Thames, it ran into Windsor Market, with the boys after it, and much mischief was caused by this unexpected accident. The health of the scholars had also suffered from the length of the chase, or the heat of the season. The character of the sport was therefore changed about 1740, when the ram was ham-strung, and, after the speech, was knocked on the head with large, twisted clubs.”

An account in the Gentleman’s Magasine of 1731 notes:

“Monday, Aug. 2 was the election at Eton College, when the scholars, according to custom, hunted a ram, by which the Provost and Fellows hold a Manor.”

Eton was not alone with its custom, East Wretham in Norfolk also had a harvest related hunting the ram. John Blomefield in his 1831 History of Norfolk notes:

“When the harvest work was finished by the tenants, they were to have an acre of barley, and a ram let loose in the midst of them; if they caught him, he was their property but if he escaped then the Lord claimed him”.

Surprisingly at a school, this rather cruel act was not unique, for as Henry S. Salt in his Blood Sports at School – The Eton Hare-Hunt notes:

Even in the nineteenth century such sports as bull-baiting, badger-baits, dog-fights, and cat and duck hunts, were “organised for the special edification of the Eton boys.”

However, views on such barbarity were changing even Liscombe noted:

But the barbarity of the amusement caused it to be laid aside at the election in 1747, and the, flesh of the ram was prepared in pasties The dish, however, still continued nominally to grace the Election Monday.”

Salt also notes:

“It is a curious fact that the large majority of Etonians, though nowadays a bit ashamed of the ram-hunt and other sporting pleasantries of a bygone period, do not in the least suspect that their beloved hare-hunt belongs in effect to the same category of amusement. Thus, Sir H. Maxwell Lyte, in his history of the school, referring to the earlier barbarities, remarks that “it is evident that in the time of Elizabeth cruelty to animals was not counted among the sins for which penitents require to be shriven.” But what, it may be asked, of the time of George V.? It is entertaining to find the Eton College Chronicle itself referring to the ram-hunt of the eighteenth century as a ‘brutal custom’; and remarking that Etonians were “only so barbarous.” Once!”

I for one see this as one ancient custom not necessary to revive.