Category Archives: Church

Custom survived: Brent Harvest Home, Somerset

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As cars thunder by on the busy M5 or more closely slope by as hereabouts its notoriously poor traffic, the little village of East Brent at the end of August celebrates the harvest. In most villages across the country Harvest festivals reign supreme as the communities big if rather sombre thanksgiving a contrast to often debauched Harvest celebrations of yore…East Brent’s harvest home, one of a small group of traditional celebrations you could say sits between the two…how close to the second depending on how much alcohol is in the summer puddings!

Feast for the eyes

East Brent is also the oldest surviving Harvest Home, having been started in 1857 by the then archdeacon George Denison, then  held on the 3rd of September as a holiday for workers. He described as:

“in 1857 my Churchwarden, Mr. John Higgs, a constant communicant and near and dear friend, came to me to suggest having every year a harvest home at East Brent. I entered into the proposal immediately and heartily. It had long appeared to me that we wanted recognised holidays for the working-men, women and children; and here was a step in that direction, specially recommended by one of its leading features, that it was not only a holiday for all classes alike, but a holiday which all classes kept and enjoyed, in close contact with one another. The proposal was generally welcomed as soon as made, and we held our first harvest home Sept. 3rd, 1857. At that time there was, I believe, northing of the kind in this part of England. The East Brent harvest home has become a Somerset institution; and although it has long ceased to retain all its original character in respect of gathering together here many chief people on the harvest home day who came to see what we were about, and whether it would be good to follow suit at home, it has retained, and more than retained, it has increased all its original popularity; and I am enabled to say, having watched everyone of them from year to year – with rare intervals every year has had its harvest home, beginning with 1857 – that each one has been an improvement upon its predecessor. The original scheme has in all its substance remained intact. Alterations have come in matters of details. I have read and heard of, and have seen other schemes of harvest home arrangement; but of no one which was, I think, so good as our own.”

An attendee described it thus:

“How they poured in, one after another, an endless string. Huge joints of meat decked with flowers, large banners on the walls, and plum puddings by the dozen. How the meat went, and then the puddings. And so the dinner was over. Waistcoats strained, then sweat poured down, the cider was quaffed, and they were happy!”

This was the men’s celebration, the women had a separate one. An account states:

“The ladies had their meal the following day and it was very different. The next evening the school-room was again filled, but this time it was by the poor women to partake of tea, when bread and butter, cake, ham, tea, and other good things were soon made use of in a truly interesting manner.”

This first Harvest Home attracted 300 for dinner and 500 for tea, but soon over the years the celebration lengthened to four days and attracted 6000 people. However over the years it has lost the days, the formality of man and women separate dinning and in a way its true function. Few people directly work on the land and so this is celebration of agriculture rather than a thanksgiving feast!

The Weston Mercury recalled that in 1859:

“ a capacious tent erected in the grounds adjoining the Vicarage, was decorated with appropriate designs, mottoes and emblems, which included: ‘Long life to our worthy Vicar and to his benevolent Lady;’’G. Reed, Esq., Lord of the Manor of East Brent, and Burnham’s Benefactor;’ and ‘G.Reed, Esq., the friend of the Poor.’  The large company included the Bishop of the Diocese, Members of Parliament, the principal parishioners, and clergy and gentry for the neighbourhood. The rich plum puddings and the immense loaf, for which East Brent harvest home has always been famous, figured in the menu.”

More of those plum puddings in a moment!

Feastive fun!

Over the years it has lost it’s purpose in thanking the workers during the harvest and has become more of a celebration to agriculture and various village activies Muriel Walker in her Old Somerset customs describes the scene in 1984 regarding what needed to be done before the great day:

“after some months of planning the villagers start a busy work on the Monday with s waiters meeting, there are luncheon tickets to deal with as the repast is no longer free. Later in three week enormous ivy ropes are made the menfolk having gathered the required ivy) to go the entire length of the marquee in which the meals are served. Hoops and banners are hung around and still later in the high table is decorated with corn and flowers. The president who happens to be the vicar has he privilege of having his chair decorated as well.

On the day itself, the women turn up as early as before seven o’clock in the morning to lay the tables, make salads and do other preparatory work.

Following a procession, led by the band, and a church service, the main meal is eaten. The men, kit seems, still do the meat carving. Afternoon teas follow in due course with sports, fancy dress and a tug o war.”

She noted that the remaining food was auctioned the following day, although now it is done in the afternoon.

 Harvest Bestival

In the 150th anniversary booklet,  Rita Thomas (nee Poole), stated:

“I heard the talk but couldn’t imagine what a Harvest Home was like; but anything happening in a village in 1957 had to be worth a try. My first job was to sell centenary programmes at 6d each. This meant a half day off work, which was great! I got more involved as the years went by, doing all sorts of jobs, laying tables, washing china, trimming ivy ropes, flowers for the high table, making hoops and banners. For example:- ‘many hands make light work’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘make hay while the sun shines’, ‘the best in the west’, ‘1973 the year of the tree’ and many others.

We try to keep the event as traditional as possible but have also streamlined some jobs to make use of modern ways to save time. It is still a traditional feast day which starts with a church service at St Mary’s followed by lunch in the marquee which includes the procession of 90 Christmas puddings, a 120lb cheddar cheese and a 6′ x 2′ harvest loaf. The ladies carry the puddings to the marquee from the village hall and the men carry the bread and cheese.”

Oh and them Puddings before the feast officially begins. Waiting by the marquee you see a joyous procession of puddings! Yes those puddings that culturally appear restricted to Christmas but you would like to have them at other times well here you can and why not. They glint held high by their makes – only women I note pity as I can do a mean pudding too! The harvest loaf carried proudly on the shoulders of six male bearers is similarly an impressive piece of culinary art and finally the cheeses – not all Cheddar one would note but I think some Stinking Bishop was there too!

The account continues:

“The lunch is followed by the toast to ‘agriculture and kindred industries’ proposed by a guest speaker and someone else replies. A second toast is made to ‘the visitors and helpers’ and a response to this. The prizes for decorated hoops and baskets are then awarded followed by an auction of any surplus food. During the afternoon, tea is served, and there is a fancy dress competition followed by sports, so quite a busy day. In the evening we have various bands, a disco, licensed bar, funfair etc.”

Little has changed. Today tickets are £18 and it starts at noon, a religious service is held at 12.30 for 15 minutes and then luncheon is had. Tea is served from 4.30 followed by free children’s entertainment and sports for all. The bar closes at 8.45 so it is not a late one but it certainly is a packed one.  Although this is very much a local event with access to the marquee ticket only one can still experience the festive nature of the day when this tiny Somerset village keeps up its proud tradition and thanks is given as a great feast is undertaken!

 

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Custom revived: Marhamchurch Revel, Cornwall

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One minute I was sitting on the beach at Bude, sun was shining, waves crashing and the next minute I had realized in about 15 minutes Marhamchurch’s unique revel was about to begin. Fortunately, it is only 6 or so minutes away…but a world away from the seaside delights of Bude.

Here having taken various revivals is the Marhamchurch Revel, a local feast with decidedly curious additions. Here the quiet village celebrates their native said who is said to formed a cell on the location of the church and whose feast day was conveniently perhaps close to the ancient pagan celebration of the harvest, Lughnasadh!

A revel-ation

The revel has its origins in the medieval period, and possibly beyond, and records in the Cornish Record Office show that it was a rowdy and drunken affair and after many concerns over the behaviour of those who attended it died out.

It is recorded however that:

“On the 12th of August 1912 the Marhamchurch Revel was revived in a quiet style in the garden of Col. English’s house, Elm Cottage”.

This revival looked at one point to have died out before it started! During the first world war, the revel was only remembered by local children taking flowers to the church for the saint.

It took until 1931 for the revival to be established with more vigour again. This time taking a decidedly Lammas flavour being associated with the first harvest of August.

I arrived just as the main street was being lined with onlookers and further down the street I could see a procession moving in the general direction. This consisted of flower girls, dances, St Morwenna, a marshal and a page boy. Boys boys carried green boughs said to represent the first harvest in the early part of August. There was even a stiltwalker with a puppet monkey very traditional!

Standing on a platform was the character of Father time, wrapped in a dark hooded clock and wearing a grey beard like a waylaid Santa, it is a role undertaken in upmost secrecy. He carries a hourglass and scythe – possibly borrowed from the grim reaper and reputed stands on the site of that original saintly shrine.  That was rather spoilt by someone in the crowd shouting out ‘That’s Dave isnt it”…fortunately I didn’t know of Dave was!

Once the Queen stands on the podium Father time proclaimed raising the crown above the girl’s head:

“Now look! That this is all be seen, I here do crown thee, of this year, the Queen!”

The crowning of the Queen is said to represent the Christianization of a pagan deity but to my mind it was just like any other May queen!…but then again what’s she? I particularly enjoyed the impact our safety conscious world had had on the ceremony – the crown was a riding helmet – great idea but it did not exactly fit well on the new Queen’s head!

Go about our Revels.

There is much formality in this custom. The Queen most be selected by the pupils of the local Church of England school, thus be a native of the village. The blue clock by tradition is passed from Queen to Queen and the Queen most always wear white! One can hearing those early 20th planners setting the ideas out to make it as Merry England as possible.

After the ceremony the Queen on her horse leads the visitors to the Revel field a small patch of ground behind the houses. Here we were able to experience the typical fair of such a feast – dog show, bouncy castle, coconut shy and plate throwing and breaking and some local kids were certainly good at that! Added to the fun around the village scarecrows and a fancy dress party. All good fun. Marchamchurch is rightfully proud of its revel and come rain or shine a great welcome will be received there.

Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

Image result for "st helen's well" lancashire

The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

Custom contrived: Brinsley Coffin Walk

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Many remote hamlets and small villages before the 1800s had no church and so it was not unusual to see a group of men winding their way through paths carved into the landscape carrying a loft a coffin. These coffin or funeral paths can be seen preserved in the place names and folklore across the country. They lay remembered but used say for recreational walkers adopted into the public footpath system. Brinsley in Nottinghamshire had one from its Chapel of Ease to the older medieval church of Greasley some three miles away. But whereas the others are unused, Brinsley for one day of year remembers the toil of its pallbearers in its annual Coffin Walk

Putting the fun in funeral?

The customs started some 14 years ago as an interesting way to remember Brinsley’s local history and celebrate its patronal day, St. James, as a consequence the custom is held on the Saturday nearest 25th July. What might sound a solemn affair is not and intend it wasn’t back in the 1800s when the parties would stop for a rest on specific resting stones on the route and drink to the memory of the occupant. It is said they could often turn up too late to the church for the funeral and find it locked up and vicar at home! Although now a more sober affair the walk was not solemn either but a good chance for local people to get some exercise and have a chat away from the hustle and bustle of daily life…albeit following a coffin! The website said wear lilac – but as the only lilac I had was a 70s disco shirt and fuzzy minion wig I thought that might be taking it too far!

Dying to find out more

I’d discovered the custom by accident searching for another event for my forthcoming book on Nottinghamshire customs and ceremonies – unfortunately the week after it had happened.

I woke up on the allotted Saturday and looked outside, the premise for a three mile walk-starting at 9.30 – did not seem promising as outside it was raining and raining heavily! Then around half seven the clouds appeared to disappear and so I thought I’d risk it. Turning up just before the 9.30 walk off at the church I came across a small group of local people and members of the local funeral directors Gillotts and Steve Soult Ltd, coffin makers who may not equally had been looking forward to the walk through the rain. The weather had certainly put off the attendees, the year previous there was 28, this year around 7. After a brief blessing by the church warden and a group photo the curious cortege was on its way…without  a drop of rain!

The custom started when local historian, Stan Smith, researched the route of the funeral procession and thought it would be an interesting exercise to walk it. The first walks included a small doll’s house coffin with its doll. In an article in Nottinghamshire Post Stan Smith noted:

“Believe it or not it came from a dolls house catalogue!….It’s about four inches long and there’s even a body in a shroud inside it if you look closely enough. We really can call it a coffin walk now that we’ve got a coffin!”

Then local coffin maker Steve Soult offered to make a bespoke one. An altogether more authentic if heavier option. This coffin being a fine piece of workmanship having ‘Brinsley Coffin Walk’ on the side and the village’s famous headstocks, relics of its mining heritage, splendidly carved on the other side. Leading the coffin was the funeral director wearing a splendid period suit and top hat and lilac flower.

The year previously had been a sad event for it remembered also its founder local historian Stan Smith Yet despite the thought that the custom may end with him, a not uncommon occurrence with revived or contrived customs, it has continued – and I am sure he’d be happy to know that.

Walk of death?

Of we went out of the church and along the road to the bemusement of drivers who must have thought ‘there appear to be going the wrong way the church is behind them!’, then across the road and into the fields. The first gate was a fairly easy affair but after a while it appeared how arduous a task this would be. At one stile, the pallbearers had to propel the coffin akin to a basketball player through the narrow gap, gingerly guiding it through a narrow gap in the hedge. It didn’t rain but the evidence was there to see and feel, a flooded pathway resulted in the coffin being carried along a thin ledge under a railway arch! At one point the carriers zoomed off into the distance to overcome the only incline we had surprisingly in the journey. Finally, we were in sight of Greasley church where tea and biscuits awaited. The walk again garnered pace and the pallbearers naturally sweaty and worn out awaited those much-needed refreshments! A tiring exercise but think what it would have been like with a body inside! At the church, a sort service was given with a suitable walk based hymn sung and we gathered around the Rev John Hides who was the first joint vicar of the two parishes which finally in 1869 Brinsley was allowed to bury its own dead. All in all a great little unique tradition attended by friendly and helpful individuals…a great walk albeit a bit unusual but recommended!

Custom demised: Crabbing the Parson, Clent, Worcestershire

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A.M Protheroe and T. E. Jones in their Scraps of English folklore X in Folklore record in the Worcestershire village of Clent:

“The strange annual custom of ” crabbing the parson ” was followed on ” Wake Sunday ” at St. Kenelm’s, the wake being held on the first Sunday after July 28th, or St. Kenelm’s Day. The custom was discontinued more than a hundred years ago, and in the St. Kenelm’s of to-day seems to be quite forgotten.”

John Noake in his 1848 The Rambler in Worcestershire, or, Stray Notes on Churches and Congregations relates comically that:

“The last clergyman but one who was subjected to this process was a somewhat eccentric gentleman named Lee. He had been chaplain to a man-of-war, and was a jovial old fellow in his way, who could enter into the spirit of the thing. My informant well recollects the worthy divine, after partaking of dinner at the solitary house near the church, quietly quitting the table when the time for performing the service drew nigh, reconnoitering the angles of the building, and each “buttress and coign of vantage” behind which it was reasonable to suppose the enemy would be posted, and watching for a favourable opportunity, he would start forth at his best walking pace (he scorned to run) to reach the church. Around him, thick and fast, fell from ready hands a shower of crabs, not a few telling with fearful emphasis on his burly person, amid the intense merriment of the rustic assailants; but the distance is small; he reaches the old porch, and the storm is over.”

However, not always did the vicar join in the fun as Noake continues:

“Another informant, a man of Clent, states that he has seen the late incumbent, the Rev. John Todd, frequently run the gauntlet, and that on one occasion there were two sacks of crabs, each containing at least three bushels, emptied in the church field, besides large store of other missiles provided by other parties; and it also appears that some of the more wanton not unfrequently threw sticks, stakes, &c., which probably led to the suppression of the practice.”

Sadly, the author is probably correct and like many customs which tread the line between violence and fun it did disappear, but why did it exist. Noake again gives a reason:

“The custom of crabbing the parson is said to have arisen on this wise. ‘Long, long ago,’ an incumbent of Frankley, to which St. Kenelm’s was attached, was accustomed, through horrid, deep-rutted, miry roads, occasionally to wend his way to the sequestered depository of the remains of the murdered Saint King, to perform divine service. It was his wont to carry creature comforts with him, which he discussed at a lone farmhouse near the scene of his pastoral duties. On one occasion, whether the pastor’s wallet was badly furnished, or his stomach more than usually keen, tradition sayeth not, but having eat up his own provision, he was tempted (after he had donned his sacerdotal habit, and in the absence of the good dame) to pry into the secrets of a huge pot in which was simmering the savoury dinner the lady had provided for her household; among the rest, dumplings formed no inconsiderable portion of the contents; whether they were Norfolk or apple dumplings is not mentioned, but the story runs that our parson poached sundry of them, hissing hot, from the cauldron, and hearing the footsteps of his hostess, he, with great dexterity, deposited them in the ample sleeves of his surplice; she, however, was wide awake to her loss, and closely following the parson to the church, by her presence prevented him from disposing of them, and to avoid her accusation (‘a guilty conscience needs no accuser’) he forthwith entered the reading desk and began to read the service, John Clerk beneath making the responses. Ere long a dumpling slips out of the parson’s sleeve, and falls plump on sleek John’s head; he looks up with astonishment, but having ascertained that his reverence is not labouring under the effects of an emetic (‘vomits’ they called them in those days), John took the matter in good part, and proceeded with the service; by and bye, however, John’s pate receives a second visitation, to which he, with upturned eyes and ready tongue, responded, ‘Two can play at that, master!’ and suiting the action to the word, he forthwith began pelting the parson with crabs, a store of which he had gathered, intending to take them home in his pocket to foment the sprained leg of his jade of a horse; and so well did the clerk play his part that the parson soon decamped, amid the jeers of the old dame, and the laughter of the few persons who were in attendance; and in commemoration of this event (so saith the legend), ‘crabbing the parson’ has been practised on the wake Sunday from that time till a very recent period.”

Perhaps, but one cannot feel they may be a connection between the church’s association with the martyred king and perhaps it was done as a type of atonement or originally a scape goat was used transferring to the parson over time. We may never really know but rest assured the vicar is safe on the 28th July every year….unless one of us lies in wait!

 

 

Custom survived: Arundel’s Corpus Christi Carpet of Flowers

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Sitting high above the town of Arundel forming a skyline with its equally impressive neighbouring Castle, is the Catholic Cathedral. The site is impressive enough but go inside around the date of Corpus Christi and you will see a unique spectacle. A carpet that leads between the aisles towards the High Altar, the oldest such carpet in Britain.

Swept over the carpet

Corpus Christi Carpets of flowers are often outside displays and ca be found across Catholic southern countries such as Spain and Italy. The most famous carpet of flowers is in the town of Genzano near Rome and it is said that Duke Henry saw this whilst on holiday close by. So impressed was he that he decided to encourage the custom at Arundel in 1877. Originally these flowers were picked from the Duke’s garden being picked on the morning of the feast by his estate workers. Nowadays, the demand to see the flowers has resulted in it being lad earlier in the week to allow more visitors to see it. Indeed the visitors swell the Cathedral during the days and it is full with people leaning over pews to get a greater look or contorting, bending and standing in curious ways to get the best photo.

Do tread on the carpet

The reason for the carpet is like other carpets to be walked over. To the lay person’s eyes this seems a terrible thing to do the hours. Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) is a Catholic feast day which celebrates the ritual of the Eucharist on the eighth Thursday after Easter. As a feast it was lately adopted in the Christian faith in the 13th century and did not survive into the Reformation, returning to England with the Catholic faith. In the ceremony, the importance of the Sacred Host representing the body is emphasised by the use of a carpet of finery. Despite shocked faces it is intended they walk on it – despite taking two days to lay!

Carpet bagging

The custom looked in peril when in the mid-1950s, the Norfolk Estate begun to reduce its ground staff, but the headteacher of Tortington Park Girls School offered to supply flowers. Her school gardeners and some pupils would then help lay the carpet. However, when in 1969 the school closed the carpet again seemed in peril! Fortunately, in 1970 the Cathedral stepped in and since ladies from the parish obtain the flowers from nurseries, supplemented by donations from local people’s gardens.

Each year the carpet boasts a different design often taken from the focus the church is given by the Papal authority. However notable special events are recorded such as the celebration in 1990, the silver jubilee of the formation of a new diocese of Arundel and Brighton back in 1965 and 150th anniversary of Saint Bernadette’s apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes.

Laying the carpet

The flowers have their stems removed so they can lie flush to the ground, are sorted in colours and shades. An evergreen foliage background is used. Originally the carpet was 98 foot long going right up to the altar but now it has lost five feet to enable visitors to walk around the carpet.

The designs are lined out in chalk on a black paper and templates are used to outline the more intricate shapes used and maintain the symmetry as the flowers are laid.

Flowery procession

Of course, it is not just the carpet but the full celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a festival of prayer, sacrament, song, procession as well as the flowers.

The climax being the solemn High Mass. When I attended this mass, the Cathedral was full with no space hardly to sit. Those non-Catholics rather lost in ritual awaited for the moment. Then at the end of this mass that the Blessed sacrament is carried down and over the carpet by the Bishop. It’s a shame they have to walk on it could be overheard from behind but after all that was the reason for it.

The procession then makes its way outside where a special canopy awaits. For many years this processional canopy was that presented by Henry XVth Duke of Norfolk and was first used in 1883. Now a more modern but no less splendid one is used. Beneath this canopy the Host in its golden monstrance is carried.

This procession is led by a cross bearer followed by a banner of the Sacred Heart. This is followed by girls dressed in white carrying posies and then boys carrying sprays of flowers and wearing sashes. Once the petal strewers walked backwards in respect and reverence now the girls do, often those who have had their first Holy Communion.

All along the route speakers are affixed to the walls and the voices of the priest back in the cathedral can be heard as they continue the mass, everyone is the town is enveloped in the ceremony.

In the procession banners are proudly carried which show Blessed sacrament, Mary Mother of Jesus and depict saints associated with the church as well as local parish organisations. Amongst them Knights of the order of chivalry and of the Papal order of Gregory XVI. These include the Order of the Knights of Malta wearing black cloaks with white Maltese crosses who walk nearest the sacrament, the Knights of St Gregory in green, and the Knights of Holy Sepulchre white caped with red Jerusalem cross. Once the procession has travelled down the street it enters the castle and around the gardens to assembly in the quadrangle of the castle. Here there is the continuation of the Mass, here the people gathered are blessed by the sacred host. After the Benediction the congregation leave the castle and process back to the cathedral. Back at the cathedral a second Benediction is celebrated with the Sacred Host is transferred to the Cathedral’s finest monstrance, a wedding gift to Henry Duke of Norfolk in 1904 and apparently every Catholic contributed 1d to its purchase. The mass is long, longer than some could cope with and many had disappeared after the castle benediction – the carpet now looking a little worse after its second trampling – it’ll soon be swept away for next year!

Custom Survived: William Hubbard Graveside Easter Singing, Market Harborough, Leicestershire

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An Easter Custom. — On each recurring Easter Eve, in pursuance of a custom which has continued for more than a century (and which, as a fund was left for the purpose, will continue for centuries to come), the church choir of Market Harborough visit the ‘God’s Acre’ of St. Mary’s, and sing at midnight the beautiful Easter hymn over the grave of Mr. Hubbard, the founder of the chantry of that name.”

The History of Market- Harborough in Leicestershire and its vicinity by William Harrod (1808)

On the outskirts of Market Harborough is a ghostly shell of a church twixt between an industrial site, the railway station and the urban sprawl. Surrounded by a few graves it is a mysterious place. There are many such derelict churches open to the elements slowly decaying, unvisited all bar the curious- this one is an exception though for despite being a ruin once year on the evening before Easter Sunday this desolate place is warmed by the sounds of heavenly voices in a custom which has been done for over 200 years.

Willed to sing

The originator of this unique bequest was William Hubbard, a gardener and more importantly churchwarden. When he died in 1786, aged 63 his will stipulated:

“at the decease of his wife to the Singers of Harborough for the time being for ever the sum of One Guinea yearly on condition of their finding over his grave every Easter eve the EASTER HYMN the said guinea to be paid out of the rent of a house now in the tenure of Mr Clark painter &c In cafe the singers should neglect complying with the donor’s desire the said legacy is to be applied to purchasing shoes for widows.”

Sadly those local widows have shoeless because without fail the congregation of the more substantial St. Dionysius church dutifully come here every Easter Saturday to sing since 1807, presumably the death date of his widow. That guinea has gone a long way! I am not sure whether it pays for anything now but in 1957 a rent charge was still being taken.

Sing when you’re winning!

When I first came to experience this custom, it was a balmy Easter Saturday in 1996, 7th of April. The churchyard was quiet, mysterious and unloved. I located the grey slate gravestone of William Hubbard and waited.

Soon a small choir appeared. Arched around the grave the vicar, curate and choir made a fine sight in themselves but when the hymns were sung it was magical.

1996

2016 – Spot the difference!

Obviously it is a short service. It started with Chorus novae Jerusalem

“Ye choirs of new Jerusalem, your sweetest notes employ, the Paschal victory to hymn in strains of holy joy. For Judah’s Lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead. Devouring depths of hell their prey at his command restore; his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. Triumphant in his glory now to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven. While we, his soldiers, praise our King, his mercy we implore, within his palace bright to bring and keep us evermore. All glory to the Father be, all glory to the Son, all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee, while endless ages run.”

Then a reading is given in 2016, the Gospel for Easter was Matthew 27 a very adapt piece about Jesus’s burial:

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

The Guard at the Tomb: The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

The Easter Hymn was sung

“Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! our triumphant holy day, Alleluia! who did once upon the cross, Alleluia! suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia! Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia! unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia! who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia! sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia! But the pains which he endured, Alleluia! our salvation have procured, Alleluia! now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia! where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!”

Then an Easter Collect and Prayer finishing with a sung grace

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Eighteen years later passing this way I came to again experience it. However, my sources were incorrect and I’d missed it by an hour! Finally, again in 2016 I came again, on a most appalling Easter evening. Dark clouds were building up and the wind howled through the ghost of the church. After a while I was beginning to think my sources had been incorrect, had the weather put them off…no soon more and more people arrived. The first thing I noticed is how much the congregation had grown since 1996; despite the awful weather it was clear that this custom was still a popular one…and even the dreadful rain was not going to stop the custom. In 1984, so Brian Shuel in his Traditional Customs of Britain was informed by the vicar:

“in really nasty weather, such as the previous year when it was snowing, they have been known to do it themselves”

It did not stop them, nor did it in 1876 as a local newspaper reports:

“Easter Eve – The old custom to sing the Easter hymn over Mr. Hubbard’s grave, in St. Mary’s burial ground, was carried out again on Saturday last, at 8.30, by the church choir. To get to the grave yard this year there was something very unusual. The waters, from the rapid melting of the snow which had fallen on the two preceding days, were out, near the Toll-gate and Gas works, but this obstruction was bravely encountered by about thirty of the choir, besides a few others. Many more who intended to go, declined, when they got to the end of the walk, not liking to got through the flood, and returned again to the town. One gentleman was kindly carried over the flood by a young man named Toomes. This little incident amused the choir boys and one of them was overheard to whisper, ‘I wish he’d drop him.’ We understand this is the 70th year that the above custom has been carried out.”

The only shame was that the weather had prevented the congregation wearing their traditional choral attire. Yet in a way it made the custom seem even more bizarre.

Before the Reformation, sung songs and prayers were common from chapels to great Cathedrals, but although these Chantry chapels survive the bequests have long gone, siphoned off to support schools such as Thomas Burton’s in Loughborough or incorporated into general funds. What is of course unusual with Hubbard is that this is a post-Reformation one. Little did he also know that he think that when he made the bequest that the church would fall into disuse and ruin. Yet this is part of the curious nature of the custom, despite the church and the possible temptation of removing the grave to somewhere more convenient the custom continues.

All in all, Hubbard’s bequest is without doubt one of the countries, a beautiful uplifting tribute to a man long forgotten but still remembered!