Category Archives: Cheshire

Custom contrived: Apple Day

Standard

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!

Advertisements

Custom demised: Clementing and catterning

Standard

Cattern and Clemen, be here be here! Some of your apples and some of your beer!”

It is unusual to find two days which become tied together in folklore and belief – obviously there are the obvious Christian festivals, but for a long time St Clement’s Day – 23rd November and St Katherine’s Day – the 25th of November became unified as a season for mainly children to beg. Often this was for fruit and nuts and was once down in churchyards associated with the saints. Henry the VIIIth banned the practice in churchyards…yet outside it could continue.

Plot in his History of Staffordshire 1686 notes:

“a Pot is marked against the 23rd November, the Feast of St. Clement, from the ancient custom of going about that night to beg drink to make merry with.”

An 1914 article in by Charlotte Burne in Folklore called Souling, clementing and catterning – three November customs of the western Midlands emphasizes the wide range of begging chants for this custom:

“Clemeny, Clemeny, year by year, Some of your apples and some of your beer I. Up with the ladder and down with the can ! Give me red apples and I’ll be gone !”

Or “Dame come down and deal your dole ! And the Lord have mercy on your soul! “

Or “We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door, But we are neighbours’ children whom you have seen before.”

Or “The master and the missis are sitting by the fire, While we poor children are a-trudging in the mire. The lanes arevery dirty, our shoes are very thin, We’ve got a little pocket to put a penny in! “

Or “Roll, roll ! Gentleman butler, fill the bowl! If you fill it of the best, God will send your soul to rest ! If you fill it of the small You shall have no rest at all!”

Or

“If you fill it from the well God will send your soul to Hell!”

The range of chants is interesting and it is clear that some overlapping with souling, itself only 22 days earlier is evident. Indeed, the distribution geographically shows overlap. The custom was particularly strong in the midlands – Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire. Indeed it was in Staffordshire that the last clementing custom existed. It is thought that the employment of nail and chain makers in the industrialised areas may have caused the frequency of the celebration of St. Clement being considered the patron saint of blacksmiths.

Indeed, it is Staffordshire-Shropshire boarders where we see record of the last surviving Clementing. Unsurprisingly it is a school. The Stourbridge Express of 27th November 1965 reported:

“that over 60 children at Enville School celebrated the Feast of St Clement in the traditional manner on Thursday. The feast which symbolised the gathering of the apple crop, was revived by the headmistress Miss Steward in 1961. The children marched to Enville Hall where they sung the Clemeny Song, they then received an apple each. Afterwards the butler, Mr Longbottom showered the children with hot pennies.”

These pennies were placed on a heated shovel and tossed into the air. It was a self-conscious effort for the owner of the hall obviously with an eye for the quaint but perhaps one which was doomed to disappear as the estate changed. Indeed in correspondence with Mrs Sandy Haynes, archivist to the Enville Estates she believed the custom continued until the 1970s when the school was closed..certainly it was still listed in some early 80s folk custom books such as Bernard Schofield’s 1981 Events in Britain who adds:

“St Clement’s Day Ceremony Enville. A procession of children from the local school proceeds to Enville Hall where the Clemeny-song of the district is sung. They are given an apple apiece and then scramble for hot pennies.”

However it was probably extinct by then. Recently I have read of a revival of sorts by the teams behind the Hastings Bonfire, although this time there are no begging children and probably few apples!

Custom survived: Mischief or Mischevious Night

Standard

Trick no Treat?

I remember sitting at home watching TV in early November, when suddenly it kept flicking over. Was I sitting on the remote? No. Was there something wrong with the TV? No! I opened the curtains and outside there was a young boy holding a TV remote. This was my introduction to mischief night, perhaps the most controversial of custom. Being a Southern I had never heard of it…we’re too soft for this sort of thing, it was a very northern thing. Opie and Opie’s (1959) map shows the strongest area being in Middlesborough and Leeds and these areas still are!

A night to remember!

The answer differs depending where you are. The majority of cases, it is the night before Guy Fawkes Night although in other parts of the county the name referred to the 31st October,  5th itself or even in many cases 30th April. Opie and Opie (1959) note of this custom:

“From coast to coast across northern England the eve of Guy Fawkes Day has become ‘Mischief Night’, a night of humour and hooliganism affecting most of Yorkshire, and parts of Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. On this night children are half under the impression that lawlessness is permissible. Householders’ front doors are repeatedly assaulted with bogus calls, their gates removed, their dustbin lids hoisted up lamp posts, their window panes daubed with paint, their doorknobs coated with treacle or tied ‘sneck to sneck’, their evening newspapers (projecting from letter boxes) exchanged, their milk bottles placed so that they will be tripped over, their house-numbers unscrewed and fixed on to other houses, their windows tapped their backyards turned upside down and possibly ransacked for tomorrow’s bonfires, their drainpipes stuffed with paper and set alight, and their porchlight bulbs considered legitimate targets for catapults. Both villages and in great industrial cities youngsters bent on mischief roam the streets in happy warfare with the adult world.”                                                                                           

The origins of the custom are unclear, it may arise from the Lawless hours of the 1700s it is first mentioned in 1830s as a name but this again was the 30th April.  This argument over the date continues with some claiming the 30th October and others, the majority, claiming the 4th November, of course this may be due to the change in the calendars. However, other customs around this time year had an element of trouble making by farm hands so it may be older. Indeed, it appears to have largely died out in the 1950s. A typical report noted in Sutton’s Lincolnshire Calendar reported from Tattershall in 1920s:

“We tied a button to a piece of cotton and attched it to someone’s wiondow. They kept coming out to see who was knocking on the window. Another thing we did was to tie two door knobs together across the street, that caused a laugh”

From Lincoln 1950

“A firework through a letter box…its not just just kids of today that misbehave, it went on in my day too.”

Indeed a correspondent recording the 1960s stated:

“We were living on the Ermine Estate in 1960 and some fool blew off a manhole cover ….he tied a bundle of bangers together and set them off under a manhole cover; it bloew into the air but luckily no-one was hurt!”

The forms of mischief varied from the amusing:

“We used to write on car winscreens with my mothers lipstick FOR SALE. Also leave a letter for the milkman in an empty bottle ordering 24 pints of milk, great fun, no harm done. “

To:

“We used to egg and flour stuff (and people), flood people’s gardens…One year we wrapped up some chaps conifers with toilet role and set fire to them…We ran off singing the tune to chariots of Fire. It was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done!!!”

To the usual

“I would always get egged and floured by the local boys on miggy night and once had my skirt stolen and thrown up into a tree!”

Responses were not great. Another account states:

Once when we were kids, instead of knock-a-door run we tied a blokes door handle to a lamp post so he couldn’t get out before we knocked on the door and ran away, We thought it was funny but the bloke went mad and snapped his door in half to get out and I still feel terribly guilty to this day”

A night to forget!

It appears by the 1970s-80s the custom had died out in a number of places but not apparently in Yorkshire:

“Oh yes I remember those days well – A long row of terraced houses in Grimethorpe – we tied all the door handles with washing line and smeared dog muck on door steps and then one of us would run up the street knocking on the doors while the gang would be in the middle of the street shouting at those who tried to open their doors to chase us. When they cut the line they would have the dog muck on their slippers to tread back into their houses – and of course we would run off to egg peoples windows, cut TV aerials, swap garden gates, tie tin cans to cats tails (not nice – regret that one). It’s funny tho I now like in Doncaster and it don’t seem to be much of a thing here but I bet it’s still going strong in Barnsley.”

Penetrators thought that:

“When I was a kid I actually thought it was legal – ‘coppers can’t arrest you on miggy night’ That was the folklore….”

But local people did not and still do not think that and as noted in a Worksop police report in 2003:

“Angry residents and police have condemned ‘mischievous night’ yobs who damaged their homes. The vandals caused damage estimated at thousands of pounds during a Tuesday night wrecking spree. Up to 16 garden walls and gateposts were knocked over by the youngsters who targeted properties on and around the Water meadows area of Worksop. The gang knocked over a 30ft long section of wall in Mr Jennings’ front garden: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I looked out of the window shortly before eight and it was fine. Then my wife looked out of the bedroom window about half an hour later, it had been knocked over.” Mr Jennings was busy re-building the wall yesterday, but said that he knew of many other properties that had been affected, including his next door neighbour who had part of a wall knocked over and a tree in the front garden damaged. He also said another pensioner had some wheelbarrows stolen during the evening’s activities. Neighbour Mike Clarkson was helping Mr Jennings rebuild the wall. He knows all too well about the damage caused. His garden wall was knocked over last year. Police confirmed they had received six similar reports of vandalism on Water meadows, Robinson Drive and Dunstan Close.”            

It’s understandable when a Leeds perpetrator notes:

“The worst thing I ever did on this annual night of shame was to place a rather special smelly delivery in a post box, when it should have been in a toilet. Poor postman.”

Indeed, much of the activity of the mischief makers is seen a wanton vandalism and yobbish behaviour. The Worksop Guardian notes:                             

‘They should give them the birch. This isn’t mischief it’s vandalism,’ said Geoff Jennings whose home came under attack…..‘There are 16 that have been affected to a lesser or greater extent than my house,’ he said. ‘It’s wanton vandalism which is going to cost a fortune to fix, never mind the stress it’s causing us…..We’ve had people trick or treating which was quite innocent, but this kind of damage is no joke..’

An account at Skegby notes some of the activities which they stated giving the origin of the custom, to “Plan our mischievous deeds, just as Guy Fawkes and his conspirators did long ago” and may explain its popularity in Yorkshire where Fawkes was born and traditionally the 5th was not generally celebrated.

Mischief Night - getty

Gate hangs well! Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Picture Post/Alex Dellow

“We decided to tie door handles together at a terraced house on crown street. We must have been heard giggling and whispering by the occupant, because as we knocked on the doors, a hand grabbed the back of my coat collar and I was shaken and released. We took to our heels and as if our tails were on fire, the man’s voice ringing in our ears…needless to say the two us never played that trick again……Another trick was the bull roar, we would stuff paper up the drain pipes and light the paper and run away. The draught used the paper to make a terrific roaring noise as it burnt in the pipe…..We also went window tapping. This entailed creeping into a garden with a pin tied on the end of the thread of a bobbin of cotton and then tying a bobbin of cotton and then tying a button further down the thread. The ideas was to stick the pin into the wooden window frame run out the thread, so that the button was near the glass and feed out the remainder of the thread, as we went to hide behind the garden fence or wall, we would pull on the thread and the button would tap on the window. If the occupant of the house came out to look what was going on , we would huddle silently until they went in and then we would crack up with giggles of laughter”                                                                                          

The police notes:

‘Mischievous night is OK if the young people involved are supervised by adults,” said Sgt Jenny Antill. “But these kind of incidents are not in good humour. They are quite simply acts of criminal damage. We will take action against people responsible.’

Certainly, a report by Nottinghamshire police of Carlton, Langold and Blyth reports:

 “Your Local Beat Team is also pleased to report that three of the potentially worst nights of the year for ASB, namely Halloween, Mischievous Night and Bonfire Night, were very quiet in the Carlton in Lindrick area.”

Interesting a poster on the Sheffield Forum under the controversial title ‘Are all Estate dwellers Estate Scum?’:

“I was bought up on a council estate in the 1960s / 70s in Nottinghamshire – in a place called Warsop, near Mansfield. There were ‘bad uns’ and the neighbouring streets had a reputation, but there did seem to be more limits of behaviour – you might get a bin set on fire on Mischief night, but that would be it in terms of arson. Possibly because the community was quite well knit and if you DID torch someone’s car you might not live to see the following morning.”

Mischief Night is perhaps one of those most unusual of surviving traditional customs. In our rather ‘youth-phobic’ culture and obsession with anti-social behaviour one which is likely to die out, hopefully, though if the pranks are toned down, the tradition could return to the light hearted attitude the victims had back in the 1950s!

Custom demised: Shaking St Peter’s Chains

Standard

Congleton Wakes held on the 12th August was associated with a certainly unusual and probably unique custom called St Peter’s Bells or Chains. The Monthly Packet noted:

“On the Wake Sunday, from time immemorial until several years ago, an extraordinary musical performance aroused the inhabitants from their sleep very early in the morning. The instruments were horse collars hung round with numerous bells of peculiar shape; these collars were placed on men’s shoulders and, walking through the streets of the town, the men shake the collars vigorously and thus cause the bell to emit a loud noise. Formerly, a heavy chain was used; the bells were an innovation introduced a few generations ago.”

As the church was dedicated to St. Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in chains) the custom was doubtlessly pre-Reformation. This view is certainly supported by Coward in his 1903 Picturesque Cheshire notes:

In the town hall…..we may find a curious relic of Congleton, a broad leather belt adorned with big metal bells, which are known as St. Peter’s Chains. At the feast of the church, “St. Peter ad Vincula,” it was customary for the priests to parade in this belt, rattling the chains or chiming the bells, whichever you like to call it.”

Coward (1903) adds that:

“At the Reformation these chains passed into the hands of a family of chimney-sweeps, who for three hundred years held hereditary possession, claiming the right to make a noise with them on the feast day.”

According to Raven’s 1907 The Bells of England this was:

“at midnight on the vigil, girt about with leather belts to which were suspended a number of crotals…….and ended with an address at the Market Cross on the approaching festival and the lessons to be drawn from it.”

 However despite surviving the Reformation its demise was sealed by the very actions of those who had maintained it. For as Coward (1903) he continues:

 “perambulated the town, followed by a noisy crowd, chanting a proclamation which ended in an admonition to the Congletonians to get as drunk as possible during Wakes week.”

 Raven’s 1907 The Bells of England similarly is dismissive noting:

 “these bells, or “chains,” became diverted from their original intention, and the performance became degraded to mere incentive to drunken jollity, rather than to a reverent recollection of the great Apostle.”

 Not only this but there appeared to have arisen an argument between two sides of the family for carrying the chains and as a result some degree of conflict and time in goal. Coward (1903) notes:

 “At last the town clerk wisely settled the dispute by compensating each party with a gift of ten shillings, and at the same time gaining possession of the chains; the trouble was stopped, and now the belt and bells are retained as a curiosity, and the peace of Congleton is no longer upset by drunken rows.”

However, the town has become bereft of its most interesting custom! Fortunately they survive in the town’s museum.

Custom demised: Observing the holy thorn

Standard

can-stock-photo_csp5008913

A thorny subject

Just before Christmas in 2010 vandals inexplicably chopped down the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury and a nation was shocked. Whatever the reason for this destruction it prevented anyone witnessing this tree blooming according to tradition. However, despite this being the most iconic and well known holy thorn, it was only one of a considerable number across the country which originates from the original tree which stood before the Parish church before being cut down by Cromwellian troops in the English civil war, the axe wielder is said to have lost an eye as a result which James Howell of odona’s grove noted:

“He was well serv’d for his blinde Zeale, who going to cut doune an ancient white Hauthorne-tree, which, because she budded before the others, might be an occasion of superstition had some of the prickles flew into his eye and made him Monoculor”

However this tree is not the holy thorn, not even in Glastonbury for its progeny is found in the churchyard and Abbey grounds. Records of other holy thorns occur not surprisingly at West Buckland, Woolmingston and Whitestaunton also in Somerset, Sutton Poyntz Dorset, but also at Houghton Le Spring, Durham, Brickendon, Hertfordshire and Shenley Church End and Quainton, Buckinghamshire. Herefordshire curiously had and has a number of examples. These listed by folklorist Leather included Wormsley, Rowlstone, Dorstone, Colwall, Stoke Edith, King’s Thorn, Tyberton with one at Bredwardine in Herefordshire. Palmer notes Alfrick, Hampton, Newland, Ripple and Tardebigge in Worcestershire.

A blossoming story

Despite being such a well known story, the thorn is only first mentioned in a 1520 work by Richard Pynson Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea where the blooming in winter and spring are first recorded. Indeed, Joseph himself only appears in legend in the 9th century. What is interesting is that the plant, Crataegus monogyna biflora is not a native species. DNA of all known descendents match and experts in Kew have identified it from Levantine Palestine hawthorn…so there may be evidence.
To these trees it was customary for the devout to visit these bushes on Christmas Eve to see them bloom. In the 17th century Bishop Goodman of Gloucester noted:

“The white thorn of Glastonbury which usually blossoms on Christmas and Easter.”

The flowers were thought to bloom exactly on midnight, the hour Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, and then drop off an hour later. For example an account in the East Anglia Miscellany notes a thorn:

“near Parham Hall (Norfolk) is a white thorn bush which blossoms by Christmas Day, and the people of the neighbourhood flock to it in great companies upon Christmas Eve..”

Although the author does note that:

“I had some of the buds just blooming brought to me on Sunday, the 2nd of December, 1734”

But wait a minute this is January’s blog!

Yes and the date of the above account is significant, for only 22 years later it may not have bloomed. Why because in 1752, the calendar changed. Indeed, the blooming of the holy thorns was used by those critical of the date change as evidence that the new calendar was wrong. For when the calendar did change, these disbelievers of the new Calendar, waited to see when the tree would blossom the 25th December or the 6th January? The Gentleman’s magazine reported in 1753 in January:

“A Vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn on Christmas-day, new stile, but to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing,which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, old stile, when it blowed as usual.”

Such begun a January tradition For example on the 7th January 1878, the author Kilvert visited a farm at Dolfach where the blossoming was witnessed by a group of fifteen people and he was given a spray of blossom by the farmer’s daughter. Kilvert notes that he grafted this cutting onto his tree and reported that on the same date the next year it bloomed despite the severe frost. Attendance to see the thorns was still current in Sutton Poyntz Dorset until 1844, Woolmingston Somerset 1898 and Wormsley at least until 1908 when folklorist Ella Mary Leather recorded it in her Folklore of Herefordshire. She also noted one of the reasons for the popularity of the custom and its demise:

“A piece of thorn gathered at this hour brings luck, if kept for the rest of the year. Formerly crowds of people went to see the thorn blossom at this time. I myself went to Wormesely in 1908; about forty people were there, and as it was quite dark and the blossom could only be seen by candle light, it was probably the warmth of the candles which made some of the little white buds seem to expand. The tree had really been in bloom for several days, the season being extremely mild. Mr Powell of Peterchurch told me he could remember that on old Christmas Eve, people came for miles round to Kingstone Grange, where a holy thorn grew in the garden; they were liberally supplied with cake and cider.”

Blooming cheek – an unpopular custom

Leather noted that such rather impromptu perhaps gatherings were not always popular she notes:

“At Cleohanger, years ago a man was very much annoyed at the damage done to his garden by those coming to see the thorn blossom which grew there, so he began to cut it down. But blood flowed from the trunk of the tree and this so alarmed him he left off at once!”
Similarly at Acton Beauchamp, the local farmer so annoyed by the concourse of people who crossed his field to see the flowering, that he destroyed the thorn but so the story says he broke both arm and legs and his farm house burnt down!”

Nipped in the bud

Not always were the crowds able to witness a show. A 100 assembled in 1934 failed to see the Cleohanger thorn bloom. Yet in 1949, it was reported by the Times that the Orcop Thorn at the Stars Little Hill in the village was to be filmed by the BBC put there was nowhere to plug in their lamps! Indeed memory of visiting the thorns is still current if a correspondent to WW2 People’s War website is anything to judge:

“I used to visit my Grandparents over Christmas and there was a thorn tree that used to flower. They had a ladder to pick the bloom..If you picked the flower when it flowered, the next morning it would have died. Young men used to pick the flowers for their girl friends. There were lots of flowers in the tree-it used to be in full bloom. Everyone got excited about it-the adults would be chattering.”

Sadly this thorn was lost in a storm of 1980. However, the third reason for the decline had already had a significant effect. The predations of the pickers which came in coach loads had their impact and weakened it. Of the other holy thorns, I am unclear of what survives or still blooms and it would be useful to do further research. Many other sacred thorns lie forgotten and unheralded. Some have died such as that of Orcop above, Shenley Church End, and Quainton Buckinghamshire and Houghton Le spring (although a cutting survives) others survive such as that of Brickenden, Hertfordshire and Glastonbury of course, but whether they can escape the joint perils of ignorance and vandalism is yet to be seen.

Custom revived: The Warburton Soul Cakers

Standard

There's a fight in the pub

Folk plays are a fascinating pieces of traditional custom and one which is surviving well in the 21st century. One particular strand of this tradition is the Cheshire Souling or Soulcakers. Presently, there are a number of groups which enact this strange ritual usually from 1st November (All Souls Eve) until the 4th November in pubs, inns, houses and sometimes churches in the Cheshire and Lancashire region. Although the Antrobus Soulers may disagree, all of the groups are revivals (this means there has been a break in the last 100 years). The second oldest revival group is that which tour with the Warburton Play.

I decided to track them down in the picturesque town of Knutsford, I had read of their website, a very informative site where I found some of the information for the blog, which gave the name of the first pub in the town. I turned up and enquired behind the bar “Are the Soulcakers arriving tonight”. The “What?” said the manager; she appeared to be blissfully unaware. They planned to do a quiz at 8 when the group arrived. However, her younger colleague did seem to know what I was on about, so 50% was good enough for me! I sat down with my drink and some free sandwiches. Later a couple arrived and the manager pointed over to me, at least this was some support for the fact I had arrived at the correct destination.

What is a Souling Play?

Souling in the strictest form is a custom associated with the souls of the dead’s journey through Purgatory. This would involve the collection of money or the giving of cakes, soul cakes, hence the name soulcakers. To eat such soulcakes would then involve the eating of the sins of those unable to get to heaven. Of course you may ask “but that means the consumer gets the sins!” Yes, but by continuing the tradition ad infinitum there would always be someone eating sins for those just departed. Of course as the custom faded to be replaced largely by Hallowe’en’s trick or treaters, those who were the last to buy the soulcakers must have never left purgatory so heavy the burden of the sins they inherited!! You may of course look scornfully at the custom but this is the origin of the funeral wake.

What’s this got to do with a play?

Good point. It appears at some point to warrant the giving of money or cakes, some bright spark either the receiver or giver thought they wanted something a bit more substantial and so the play was probably born. This may account for the similarity to the Christmas Mummer’s Play, because it’s easier to convert something to write from scratch. Indeed, to the uninitiated there does not appear to be much difference between the Soulers and the Plough Monday play. Indeed, both share a similar plot, both being about death and revival, and share in some cases the same characters: the quack doctor, Beelzebub, and the familiar drag-act, so to speak. However, there are differences, the Sergeant is replaced by King George, the Tom Fool replaced by the Turk and there’s a decent bit of sword play in it…and there’s the Horse.

A horse, a horse….

The horse is a unique feature of the Soulers and one which has created the most interest amongst folklorists. In the present guise, the horse is an old hunt horse befitting its trainer in hunting pink and treated with upmost almost quasi-religious respect, it being hidden from view when not in the play almost as if this might detract from its powers.

Close up of the HorseTaming the Wild Horse!

Perhaps the horse survives in Cheshire plays because of the proximity of the Welsh boarders with their Mari Lwyd horse tradition existed (or vice versa), although of course there are the Poor Old Oss traditions and to some extent Derby Tup traditions surrounding it to the east. Many folklorists have commented that the Horse was an important figure in Celtic paganism, which is significant being that All Souls Day replaced the ancient Samhain. Certainly the horse is no Hobby Horse, but a dark rather sinister creature, a skull on a stick with a black cape beneath hiding is manipulator. In response to key phrases, its mouth opens and closes with a menacing clap! It is interesting to note that there is record in the 1930s that the Warburton horse was buried in the grounds of the pub at the end of the performance. This is referenced once it appears and perhaps this was a ceremonial aspect, rather than an end point, emphasizing the death and resurrection aspect again.

In comes I…

The only one drinking!

Around 8, these plays never seen to be on time, we heard the rowdy chorus of the soulers and soon after in bursts Big Head, much to the amazed and giggled bewilderment of the table nearest the door. The plot was as follows…in comes the Turk who does a bit of boasting, to be challenged by King George, there a fight, Turk dies, in comes his mum (that old standard a bit of drag), calls for the doctor who revives in, in comes Beelzebub who steals a drink from those bewildered beer drinkers and the Horse with its rider.

The revival

There may have been many different local variants of the play perhaps every village had one, but as the 19th century came to close the numbers began to dwindle, the final nail in the coffin being the First and Second World Wars. Indeed the Warburton play was last performed in 1936. However, after only a gap of 42 years, it was revived, thanks to being written down before its demise. The revived play centres around the Saracens Head in Warburton where the play is performed for the first time that year and then after 4 days ends there.

A group called the Bollin Morris revived the play in 1978 and continued to be the preserve of this group until the 1990s, when the group became a mixture of Morris and non-Morris, and then finally in the 2000s the group began unconnected with Bollin Morris. The establishment of set characters for each member of the group appears to have introduced a degree of professionalism and the play was delivered word perfect and with great vigour and enthusiasm despite in some cases the paucity of punters. I was impressed by the fact they took notes and appeared to be organised to get the best performance each time like a real play and this was not some amateur effort.

So if you find yourself next year around Cheshire, I suggest following the Warburton play, it will be enjoyable evening.

Come here oftenThe Doctor deals with the dead TurkThe Doctor deals with the dead Turk (2)

copyright Pixyled publications