Category Archives: Civic

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Dr Johnson’s Birthday commemoration

Standard

The picturesque city of Lichfield could win a prize for the most traditional calendar customs and ceremonies a number of which I have detailed in this blog. One of these is an annual celebration of their most famous son, the poet, essayist, lexicographer and all around scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson. The man who gave the world the first real dictionary A Dictionary of the English Language.

Born in 1709 it too nearly 200 years for the city to formally recognise him however when in 1903 the Lichfield City Council first started their September birthday celebrations. A society was founded in 1910 the year after the bi-century of the author’s birth which was remembered with a big celebration.

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

In 1909 it was reported in Lichfield Mercury that;

“From Wednesday , Sept . 15 , to Sunday , Sept . 19 , 1909 , Lichfield gave itself up with great enthusiasm and éclat to the celebration of the two – hundredth anniversary of the birth of its most illustrious citizen , Dr . Samuel Johnson . 

For months before the preparations had been going on , and they culminated in great and brilliant gatherings which will without doubt be historic in the annals of the ancient and loyal City”. 

The order of the day has not changed much over the years:

12  Noon .  Great gathering of citizens in the Market  square , when the Children of the schools of the City will assemble to take part in the celebra tion .

Tableaux illustrative of the genius of Dr . Johnson will be placed in prominent positions in the Market square , representing  Literature ,   Poetry ,   and the  Drama . 

Address by the Sheriff .

Presentation of silver and bronze medals to the scholars of the respective schools in the City . The medals will be awarded for proficiency in the English language , English history and biography , general knowledge , and good conduct . 

Two hymns of Joseph Addison , the famous essayist , son of Lancelot Addison , Dean of Lichfield , and one of the eminent scholars of Lichfield Grammar School , will be sung on the occasion .

4 p . m . to 6 p . m . – Reception by the Mayor and Mayoress in the Guildhall . ”

7 30 p . m . – The Anniversary Johnson Supper , at the George Hotel . Speaker , Mr . W . Pett Ridge .

A man may be so much of everything that he is nothing of anything.

However, despite the big celebration for the 220th anniversary the Mayor of Lichfield stated that:

‘He was a great a man, and he was still a great man today: but there were so many who knew so little about the greatness of their fellow citizen.”

And it goes on to state that not many people knew of him. However, one cannot say that now as the town on Saturday morning was buzzing with people in the town perhaps encouraged by the free birthday cake available in the Birthplace museum. As noted in the 300th anniversary the events were:

On Friday September 18, Dr Johnson’s birthday, there will be a spectacular light and sound show in the Market Place, with live performances suitable for all the family.

The celebrations continue on Saturday with a ceremony in Market Square with live music, followed by cake at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. A special book fair will also take place at Wade Street Church Hall on Saturday in honour of Dr Johnson’s love of books.”

When I arrived the Mayor and various other dignitaries and a group of local children assembled around the statue of Johnson on his plinth where a metal step ladder was also placed.

The assembled group of children begun to sing and the Mayor and guest of honour came forward to a podium and drew the audience to the importance of the great man and came forward with a wreath which was placed on the moment. Then the city celebrated with some local bands and of course…some Morris dancers.

Custom demised: Letting the Lammas Letts, Chelsea, Middlesex

Standard

Many villages had specific areas which could be grazed on at specific times. In Sports, Pastimes, and Customs of London, 1847 Craddock et al it is recorded that:

“In the parish of St. Luke, Chelsea, were formerly ” The Letts,” Lammas land, for ages appurtenant to the manor of Chelsea, The lord of the manor possessed the right of letting the land on lease for the spring and summer quarters, beginning with March and ending in August, and the inhabitants at large enjoyed the privilege of turning in their cattle from August till February, being the autumn and winter quarters.”

The grazing time was more specific the 2004 Victoria County History of Middlesex chapter 12 V.C.H noting:

“The freeholders and tenants of the manor of Chelsea had the right to graze the open arable fields with any stock except temporary sheep flocks between Lammas day (1 August) and Candlemas (2 February).”

The V.C.H note that:

“Lammas rights became a source of conflict between landowners and parishioners by the late 16th century with the gradual enclosure of parts of the open fields, particularly Westfield.”

Over the years access was curtailed and people were prevented from grazing for example a 50 acre in Westfield belonging to the earl of Lincoln was lost when he inclosed it c. 1607. However, by 1619 Lincoln’s successor, Sir Arthur Gorges, made the land available again. V.C.H recorded that:

“The commoners maintained that the close had formerly had one side left open until the earl had inclosed it; after a suit in 1612 he had left a gate into the close open for the exercise of common rights, but the gate was kept closed after the earl’s death (in 1616).”

A report was made for the Privy Council in 1631 after complaints about inclosure in Chelsea. V.C.H records:

“In Eastfield an inclosure near Stonebridge had been reversed, and c. 20 a. of Sir William Blake’s estate had been inclosed and partially hedged, but was still laid open at Lammas. The meadow in the detached part of Kensington by the Thames which was ditched and banked had also usually been commoned at Lammas over the bank. In Westfield, however, inclosures seem to have become permanent. The five acres on which Richard Stocke’s house and garden had been built by 1619, and 14 a. adjoining it behind the houses at Little Chelsea was inclosed, with another 31 a. in Westfield belonging to Lady Elizabeth Gorges, probably including the grounds of Stanley House, and 3 a. meadow of Lady Elizabeth’s in the open field had also been ditched and common rights prevented.   Prior to that Lady Elizabeth and her daughter Lady Lane had been allowed to inclose 4 acres in return for a payment to the parish poor.”

John Timbs in the 1856 Things Not Generally Known Popular Errors Explained & Illustrated records:

“This state of appropriation continued till the year 1825 or 1826, when the directors of the Kensington Canal Company took possession of them for their own use immediately upon the completion of the canal ; they have detained them ever since, and have let them successively to several persons, and received rent for the same. The Chelsea Lammas lands had hitherto been opened on the 12th of August, being the first of the month according to the old style.”

There appeared to be a custom like approach to the openings as:

“The graziers, butchers, and others with their cattle, used formerly to assemble in the lane leading to ” The Letts,” on the eve of Lammas, and when the clock had struck twelve they entered the meadow.”

The Victoria County History V.C.H of Middlesex notes that:

“Lammas rights presumably became less of an issue as Chelsea’s agriculture changed, but even in 1834 the parish officers and inhabitants repossessed the Lots meadow after the bankruptcy of the Kensington Canal Company on the grounds that it was Lammas lands on which they had a right to put their cattle, with Lord Cadogan having the right to let it for the other six months.”

Lots Road Pub and Dining Room, Chelsea, SW10 | A posh gastro… | Flickr

However, finally the Lammas rights of common grazing were abolished on the “Lots” and thus according to V.C.H:

“the The Lots meadow was still called Lammas land in the Chelsea Improvement Act of 1845, when it was owned by Lord Cadogan, the West London Railway, the Kensington Canal Company, and Chelsea parishioners.”

Now it is remembered by Lots Lane but the chances of grazing in this high end real estate is virtually zero.

 

Custom survived: St Bartholomew’s Founder’s Day and Bun Race, Sandwich Kent

Standard

Sandwich is a town where you would expect there to be many traditions. One of the Cinque ports, many traditions have arisen from its long association with sea. In a small chapel and its associated almshouse community is one of the most enjoyable.

Legend has it that on the 24th August 1217 the town received a considerable amount of money from a sea battle held off the coast. This they used to build St Bartholomew’s Chapel and a hospital for sixteen men and women to inhabit. It would probably have been envisioned as a place of refuge for pilgrims latterly as it is today becoming an almshouse for the elderly.

Sandwich did not forget this great sea battle’s bounty and it appears that St Bartholomew’s Day became a day of importance in the town with the Mayor and civic dignitaries processing to the chapel for a special patronal founder’s day service – a founder’s day with a difference.

A prickly decision

One of the roles of the service is the selection of a new Master for the coming year. This is called pricking out. During this process a list of all those living in the almshouse – called brothers and sisters – is laid out and a silver bodkin  is used to run over the names and selects the person who will be in charge for the next twelve months. However the role of the Master is fairly mundane being a sort of care taker!

Typically you might say for August, the weather was wet and horrible. I arrived to watch a rather soggy civic procession arrive at the chapel to meet the brothers and sisters within. I slipped into the chapel, just about finding some room, to see the pricking out ceremony and hear the oath which went:

“I – (insert name) will me as I ought to be true and faithful unto the hospital and all things shall do, to my best of my power, for the most weal, proper and commodate of the same hospital and at the end of the year, a true and just account shall make all of things, wherewith I shall have to do belonging to the hospital for this year following.”

Not a bun fight!

After the ceremony as Charles Kightly records in his 1986 Ceremonies and customs of Britain:

“The ceremonies then conclude in livelier fashion, with local children racing around the chapel for a reward of a currant bun a piece.”

Outside there were a fair number of parents and young children waiting the race – the chapel could never have accommodated all of them and I wondered how the race had arisen. Did it arise as a way to encourage a well behaved congregation or to encourage more attendees? Both struck me as odd as it was clear that the service had a rather private feel about it and large numbers of children may have equally ruined the atmosphere I would imagine!

The dampness and drizzle did not put the participants. They lived up in the designated place beside the chapel. As it began to rain, the Mayor blew a whistle and the kids were off

The mayor protected by an umbrella gave out the buns to an out of breadth congregation of grateful children of many sizes. Many covered in mud and soggy! The adults who attended were given a hard paste biscuit with the hospital’s seal and the date 1190 – it did not look as nice as the bun! It was over as soon as it started and the crowd dispersed for another year.

How did the Bun race originate? The bun race is an interesting custom. A bit like those no winners or losers sports day everyone gets a prize! Everyone gets a bun! Why a race? Perhaps the custom arose as a dole for wayfarers and as these slowly disappeared some one came up with the idea of a race. The race symbolising the race to Canterbury’s St Thomas’s shrine. When it arose is not clear either and I have been unable to find it out. Kightly suggests it can only be less than a hundred years old – but that was in 1986 – with 34 years elapsed I imagine it qualifies now!

Custom contrived: Broadstairs’ Dicken’s festival, Kent

Standard

Broadstairs is one of those old fashioned genteel seaside towns, with picturesque views across the beach one can just imagine genteel Victorian ladies and gentlemen promenading along the road overlooking the bay. Well one does not have to imagine it come June time and one can see them!

What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens one great Victorian writer stayed in 1837 when he was 21 after the fame of Pickwick Papers, lodging at 12 High Street. After writing this he purchased a house, now part of the Royal Albion Hotel, where he finished Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens clearly loved the place he stayed at Lawn House where he wrote part of Barnaby Rudge and then finally Fort House. Here he wrote three works ‘David Copperfield’, ’The Haunted Man’ and ‘American notes’. He visited Broadstairs for many holidays finally writing ‘Our English Watering Place’ his homage to the town in August 1852.

Great expectations

With such an affection shown for the town it was not surprising that there was a great proud and love for the writer such that in 1937 a Broadstairs Dicken’s Fellowship was formed. Gladys Waterer, the resident of Dicken’s House then had the idea of celebrating the 100th anniversary of his first arrival in the town. This consisted on putting an production of David Copperfield which was advertised via people dressed in Victorian dress. Such was the Dicken’s festival born. It has continued with the exception of the World Wars and the Coronavirus ever since with some Victorian themes added to it. The fun includes readings, a Dickensian cricket match, a Victorian bathing party, and vaudeville acts.

Christopher Trent in his 1966 Festivals and events in Britain records:

“The centre piece of the week’s celebration is the performance of a play adapted from one of the novelist’s works. In Miss Waterer’s own words: ‘The festival is unique that it is the only Dicken’s festival in Europe. It is a completely local effort. The whole town joins in. In 1936 we put on the first Dickens play. After the war I wrote Christmas Carol and that was really the start’ It was a very good start.”

Of course other Dicken’s festivals have developed over the years such as Rochester, doubtlessly based on Broadstairs’ success

Trent continues:

“For many years a different play was staged each year. In 1964 the wheel turned full circle and a Christmas carol was staged again. In 1965 Our Mutual friend. The players are members of the Broadstairs Dickens Players’ society.”

The plays take up a considerable amount of dedication as he continues:

“the adaptation and rehearsals take on average nearly eight months. The result is the modest Festival Theatre is always satisfying, throwing a new and original light on the novelist, who is still one of the favourite writers of hundreds of thousands of people, young and old.”

What begun as a play developed into fringe entertainments doubtlessly in some cases there to advertise the play, became more and more and more and more imaginative. Trent noted that:

“Gradually the scope of the festival has been extended, though the play remains the most important part. Bleak House and Dickens House are open to the public throughout the week. There is Dickensian garden party in the grounds of Bleak House, with prizes offered for the best costumes. There are concerts of Victorian music, talks on Dickens and his work and a Victorian exhibition. A festival dance s organized in the grand ballroom, and the proof of Miss Waterer’s assertion that the whole town joins in is well illustrated by the number of  shops and the number of people, especially shopkeepers, who wear Dickensian costume in spite the difficulty in modern times of moving about in crinolines! A stage coach on he front is a sign that the festival is in progress. It is a replica of a coach in which many of Dickens’ characters travelled, and in which he must have made many of his journeys to Broadstairs.”

Dolby and son and son and daughter and grand children!

In 2017 it celebrated its 80th anniversary and the press said locally:

“Expect top hats, bonnets and billowing dresses as the community gathers for events including the grand parade, Dickensian picnic and beach party. Other activities includes a traditional Victorian country fair and theatre production of Dombey and Son – the author’s novel follows the fortunes of a shipping firm, whose owner is frustrated at not having a son to follow him in the job, and initially rejects his daughter’s love, eventually becoming reconciled with her before his death.”

Over the 82 years the theatre productions were still a focus on the event. However, back in 1994 I arrived to see two of its more custom like events – the Victorian bathing and the Grand parade.

The former was bizarre as if I had been sent back in time only the camera and the boats on the horizon reminded me I was back in the 20th century as there on the beach ready to dive in a collection of people dressed head to toe in Victorian bathers. Although this was June the water did not look that inviting and warm and a head to toe ensemble might not be too bad an idea. They all rushed to the water to have a paddle and the obligatory photo and some slipped away. Other rushed headlong and dived in.

The parade was a much more spectacular affair and it was clear that a lot of effort had been put in by those involved. Fronted by Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble with his ‘comforting’ arms around him with a pipers band. Behind them every character Dicken’s fertile imagination had concocted appeared to be there for David Copperfield to Pickwick. A great entertainment could be had trying to name the characters and some had really gone to town even affecting their characteristics. There were a few non-dressed entrants like the Brownies as well which rather broke the illusion. Each carried banners and shields. One of the most impressive was the stilt walking ghost from Christmas carol! But of course the most were in Victorian day wear and one could even hear the sound of crinoline!

Custom survived: Helston’s Furry Dance, Cornwall

Standard

“To attempt the Furry Dance without, for instance, passing in and out of the houses would be to lose part of the charm and novelty…. in other towns the so-called Furry Dance is but a travesty, which usually consists of a few straggling couples performing all sorts of grotesque figures…. If other towns and villages attempt the dance as an attraction, visitors should be informed that the traditional dance belongs to Helston, where alone it is correctly danced. ….it is an insult to Helston to compare the travesties of modern dancing performed to the old air with the real “Helston Furry.”

Cornishman, Thursday 26th July 1934

Many people in the 1970s may remember Terry Wogan singing on Top of The Tops – the Floral dance. For some unknown reason this one-hit wonder caught the zeitgeist with its catchy tune straight out of nowhere, but for folklorists and people down in the Cornish town of Helston – it was not so little known. It was based on the annual May time celebration that is the Furry Dance.

Hel of a stone!

Why does Helston dance on this day? The story is that many years again a fiery dragon appeared and dropped a large stone on an area known as Angel Yard. Over a hundred years ago it was broken up and people thought it might result in calamity. It didn’t and they are said to have celebrated their survival by dancing in and out of each other’s houses. In Feasts and

“A legend says this day was set apart to commemorate a fight between the devil and St. Michael, in which the first was defeated. The name Helston has been fancifully derived from a large block of granite which until 1783 was to be seen in the yard of the Angel hotel, the principal inn of the place. This was the stone that sealed Hell’s mouth, and the devil was carrying it when met by St. Michael. Why he should have burdened himself with such a “large pebble” (as Cornish miners call all stones) is quite unknown. The fight and overthrow are figured on the town-seal.”

Utter rubbish of course!

More likely that this was an ancient patronal festival, May the 8th being St Michael of whom the Parish church is named, feast day especially significant that it is started by the bell ringing of that church. A theory expounded by others and suggested by Henry Jenny in the Western Morning News of May 11th 1931:

“It is quite probable that the Helston `Furry` observances are a survival of a pre-Christian Celtic custom transferred, or fixed on, to the patronal feast”.

Of course there is no evidence of any pre-Christian origin either but it clearly is very old. The dance by going in and out of houses resembles many mainland European dances such as the labyrinthian dances of the tarantula and this area may have been brought over by traders and sailors.

Furry about

The custom though has little changed in 200 years, an account from Royal Cornwall Gazette May 1802 gives a typical description and suggests at this point a great age perhaps:

“Our Flora-day seems to have lost none of its attractions. The first hour of the morning was ushered in with drums, fifes and fiddles. Various parties proceeded to the country, where they ravished the gardens and hedges of their sweets, decorated themselves in the spoils, passed a few hours in junketing, and then returned to the town, faddying it thro’ the streets. About ten o’clock, the Volunteers, commanded by Major Johns, proceeded through the Downs, where after going through various evolutions, they returned, and fired three vollies in the Coinage-hall-street. The town now began to fill with visitants in their holiday cloaths; who with the town’s people, faddied at intervals thro’ the streets, and regaled themselves with their friends till evening.”

Faddying is a local term for dancing from country to town by the way! Little had changed it seems a hundred and 50 odd years as Folk Life and Traditions by E. F. Coote Lake in Folklore notes that in 1959 except the clock missed a beat:

“No 7 a.m. Clock Stroke for Furry Dance: But Helston band gave the signal From The Western Morning News, May 9, 1959 Helston’s town clock missed a beat yesterday, and made the Furry Dance late. The band was poised in the street ready to lead off the first dance of the day. The dancers stood in double file in the Corn Exchange, with the Mayor, Mr F. E. Strike, on the steps. All waited for the town clock to strike, for the rule is that the dances must start on the stroke of the clock but it did not strike. The M.C. looked at his watch and looked at the clock, and as time went by it became apparent that the town clock was not going to strike. Instead, a signal was given to the band. The first stroke of the big bass drum called out the time-honoured Furry Dance tune, and once more Helstonians went tripping and twirling along the streets and in and out of the houses, in the first of a series of dances that went on throughout the day, winding a thread of gaiety in ‘the quaint old Cornish.”

However, if ever there was a custom which was ultra-organised it was the Furry dance and I am sure the lack of the bell was a big embarrassment!

In a hurry for the furry!

Arriving early – but not that early as I missed the church peal and the early dances but just in time for the first Hal an Tow – the streets were still relatively quiet and gave me the time to admire the splendour of the doorways dressed in huge boughs and bouquets of spring flowers. The sun shone brightly upon them and they filled the streets with rich aromas. What was incredible was the array on show and the imagination (and competitive streaks) on show. It is noted by Cornish Feasts in 1886’s Folklore:

The week before Flora-day is in Helston devoted to the ‘spring- clean,’  and every house is made ‘as bright as a new pin,’ and the gardens stripped of their flowers to coming into the town.”

Understandably the Furry dance attracts large numbers of curious onlookers so finding a good place can be challenge however I positioned myself beneath the clock tower of the guildhall and awaiting. From here one could see down the street and beyond. Soon the bells run and the music could be heard distantly and then could be seen the promenade dancers in a sea of white at first and then black and pastel colours. First we saw the young children all dressed in white like first communion celebrants, their footsteps weaving in and out, the concentration showing on their face. Then came the adults looking for all the world like we had walked in upon an 18th century debutant’s ball or a garden party at the Palace. These were old hands and this showed in their skill, the dancing was balletic and hypnotic in equal measure.

I ducked away from the busy concourse to see the dancers down a quiet street nearby with no crowds and here I watched how the door opened a local house and the all danced in and the after some time inside begun to dance outside. The band all the time playing their tune.

The sun was shining – well just – and the flowers, top hats and ball dresses looked splendid. Helston Furry dance perhaps the smartest of all may day events and not a Morris in sight!

 

Custom revived: Richmond Poor Owd Oss

Standard

“The most exciting Christmas custom was that of the Poor Old Horse which perambulated the town from one public house to another.”

William Wise 1888

It is not very often that a revisit a custom – but the Poor Owd Oss, Old Hoss or T’Owld ‘Oss of Richmond is different enough from its southern stablemate to have a separate account – and it is also not often you come across a custom which the great legend of traditional ceremonies, customs and British culture Mr. Homer Sykes, has not attended and photographed – in conversation with him he said he hadn’t heard of it and thought ‘why have I not done that one’. So I thought I would use this post to describe my experiences with the Poor Owd Oss and the history I have gleaned of it.

Take a horse to Richmond

Richmond is a delightful old market town nestled in equally picturesque Swaledale. A place that deserves many customs – it had at least three customs which are unique to the town – the poor Owd Oss being the most curious and certainly entertaining. A town nestling in both racing and hunting territory it is therefore not surprising to see a horse based custom. One which in itself regals in the hunting pink and crops of its attendants.

The words for the song were possibly first recorded academically by Robert Bell’s  1857 Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, under the title The Mummers’ Song; or The Poor Old Horse, As sung by the Mummers in the Neighbourhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas who adds:

“‘The rustic actor who sings the following song is dressed as an old horse, and at the end of every verse the jaws are snapped in chorus.”

The song sung is as follows although not all verses were sung dependent on the time the group wanted to spend in the place!:

You gentlemen and sportsmen,
And men of courage bold,
All you that’s got a good horse,
Take care of him when he is old;
Then put him in your stable,
And keep him there so warm;
Give him good corn and hay,
Pray let him take no harm.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

Once I had my clothing
Of linsey-woolsey fine,
My tail and mane of length,
And my body it did shine;
But now I’m growing old,
And my nature does decay,
My master frowns upon me,
These words I heard him say,
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

These pretty little shoulders,
That once were plump and round,
They are decayed and rotten,
I’m afraid they are not sound.
Likewise these little nimble legs,
That have run many miles,
Over hedges, over ditches,
Over valleys, gates, and stiles.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

 I used to be kept
On the best corn and hay
That in fields could be grown,
Or in any meadows gay;
But now, alas! it’s not so,
There’s no such food at all!
I’m forced to nip the short grass
That grows beneath your wall.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

I used to be kept up,All in a stable warm,
To keep my tender body
From any cold or harm;
But now I’m turned out
In the open fields to go,
To face all kinds of weather,
The wind, cold, frost, and snow.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

 

My hide unto the huntsman
So freely I would give,
My body to the hounds,
For I’d rather die than live:
So shoot him, whip him, strip him,
To the huntsman let him go;
For he’s neither fit to ride upon,
Nor in any team to draw.
Poor old horse! you must die!

So at each location, the group discuss ‘first three?’, ‘last two?’ In reference to what verses they recite. It is said that there were once 20 verses but the six verses above make sense, it would be difficult to see how any more verses would add anything.

During the song the ‘horse’ performs a number of actions. He even ‘nuzzles up to the huntsmen gallops and leaps, over hedges, over ditches, over valleys, gates and stiles’ and chomps on the ‘best of corn and hay’ and then forced to nibble the short grass and he is turned out to winter. In the winter he trembles with cold until he is finally beaten down by all the attendants with their whips and dies when he is neither fit to ride upon nor any teams to draw’. However, after he falls he is up again in the death and revival seen in all ‘mummer’s plays’

In the past it was accompanied by a fiddle, fife and drum, with a number of attendants, two of which were huntsmen, who carried long whips which they cracked throughout the song. In those days all of the T’owld ‘Oss party blacked their faces, which of course is the best way to disguise oneself.’

This is seen in a photo from around the turn of the century. Not so now and he does not appear to have been so since modern times. Now these attendants were in a well-dressed – possibly the best dressed – uniform as noted of hunting pink and top hats, these being adorned with holly and mistletoe.

I attended on their annual outing in and out of shops, cafes, banks and hairdressers in the town but days before they had done a prestigious circuit of villages and surrounding towns, going as far east as Malton. On the night of Christmas eve they extend their travels into the larger houses of the district being the guest of Aske Hall’s the Duke of Zetland. I was impressed by their routine but what is noticeable that unlike virtually all over such teams they do not collect for charity, indeed there is no evidence of any money collected. I enquired of this, one of the attendants explained that ‘Charity is a very personal thing and they did not feel it was right to impose a charity on people.’ They said they made it clear that any money given went to maintaining the costumes and ‘horse’ which do need to dry cleaned, tidied up and re-upholstered on occasions which is expensive.

Was is also interesting is that the group is not made of off duty Morris, as nearly all over ‘mummers’ are. Indeed, one too issue over the name ‘mummer’ although from an academic viewpoint this is what such customs would be called. Nor are the group, folk singers or folkies in general. No the team were local people who wanted to keep the custom going.

Horse has bolted?

When I turned up I thought I had missed it as a stream of people left the Town Hall and one of two of his attendants separated from the party and only partly dressed stood around drinking outside. Inside the town hall, the group were being feted by the town’s mayor with copious amounts of whisky after having entertained children and their parents in a show. Had they been around and this was their finally? I asked one of the company ‘what time do you start again?’ hopefully.

Julia Smith (1989) in Fairs, Feasts and Frolics states:

“My original informant remembered how she had been frightened when she came upon the ‘horse’ prancing through the streets when she was a child. She thought it had been connected with one family, and she was right, as I discovered when I found Mr Bill Ward. It was Bill Ward’s maternal grandfather Edward Peirse went out with the horse in the late nineteenth century and various members of the family have been involved with it over the 100 years.”

Although Julia Smith (1989) states that:

“the custom has never died out completely’

Image may contain: 5 people, people standingThough as she herself was told by Mr Ward ‘the horse may have remained stabled for short periods of time’. The Second World War was one period of rest and as Julia Smith states:

“After the second world war, when Mr Ward first became involved, he and his cousin visited a horse slaughterer to obtain a house’s skull which was boiled for them. They fitted the skull with eyes of black glass, painstakingly chipped from the bottle of old wine bottled and rounded on the inside. The skull was wired together so that the jaws could be opened and closed, while the inside of the mouth was lined with red plush velvet. The whole skull was covered with material to represent the skin….the horse…was adorned with artificial Christmas roses and poinsettias”

Horsing around again

Following the Old Oss for the day it was evident it was a welcome sight. We entered a barbers, where one of the team explained it to the hairdresser, into a packed Costa Coffee where the horse attempted to steal sandwiches and drink coffees, interacting with young children with a mixture of fear and confusion. We travelled down to the Old Station where a large crowd were entertained and terrorised. Some appeared to find it a little strange and odd! Perhaps the oddest was in Barclay’s Bank.  Here the team were rewarded with mince pies and wine by the bank manager – you don’t get that with internet banking.

Image may contain: shoes and outdoor

Back from the knacker’s yard!

However, this is not exactly accurate as a house or pub visiting custom it appears to have died out shortly after the second world war, in the 1950s. The reason given is the impact of TV. When the teams visited the houses with the Horse, they felt they had been intruding and that people were more interested in the TV. As a result I was informed that the head was buried for a long period in Mr Ward’s back garden.

It was not until the early 80s I believe that a local man interested in the custom, called Mick Sheenan, asked Mr Ward if he could revive the custom. No one appeared very clear on the date but I wonder if Julia Smith’s not being aware of it suggests close to the publication date of her book? It is mentioned in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem:

From the week before Christmas, pubs and parties around Richmond, North Yorkshire are the main targets of the Richmond Poor Horse players. These mummers perform and sing the Poor Old Horse which describes a horse’s life and death. One man, dressed in garish mock-horse guise – complete with decorated horse skull – mimes the appropriate action.”

The horse is looked upon a bringer of luck and fertility and indeed as the group moved around people rushed up to engage with the horse, rub its head. However, the visitations have not always been popular and as is experienced by many teams visiting pubs you can find you are not as popular as you thought. In one visit a drunken squady thought it would fun to show it who was tough and headbutted it – the result blood and a broken nose. In another the horse was worse for wear when after accidentally hitting someone at a bar, it was repeated pummelled so much that they had to drag the horse out of the fight!

Horse whispers?

How old is the custom? Bell was emphatic stating that the:

The ‘old horse’ is probably of Scandinavian origin,– a reminiscence of Odin’s Sleipnor

Quentin Cooper and Paul Sulivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem state:

“The creature dies, and then rises again; at which point you realise that you have strayed into totem-beast-as-Celtic-god territory.”

Whilst that is possible that the ‘horse’ remembers something ancient, it is more probable that the song is more contemporaneous to Bell’s time. Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year places the custom between 1840 and the middle of the 20th century. The death and rebirth is always cited by folklorists as evidence of the ancient origins tied to the dying of the sun at winter and indeed the song does have a similarity to the seasons. However, one can argue so does all life and thus it could be a pure coincidence. I have argued that it was done during winter for pure financial reasons people were in greater need and others such as the landed gentry more generous. Were they trying to remind us of how poor they were with their dead horse? Is it possible that the custom was a simple house visiting custom as like the Mari Lwyd, a welsh horse, in which a team decided to add a song perhaps when it translated across to England? Or are the Mari Lwyd and poor old oss a coincidence? The financial impact of which meant an increase in popularity and the spread of the song. The limit of the song to Yorkshire, north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire suggests that it had slowly spread from a point of creation – likely to be Yorkshire – and had not fully spread when it had begun dying out as Roud notes in the mid 20th century. However does it really matter? For some the custom harks back to our old pagan times some like it for the weirdness.

Richmond’s T’owd Oss ended up for the last time on Christmas Eve in the pub where he was beaten to death for the final time that year…but he’ll be back next year no doubt!

Image may contain: 10 people, people smiling, people standing

Custom demised: Rochford Lawless Court, Essex

Standard

Image result for Rochford lawless court

 

Now largely forgotten is a curious legal custom which persisted until the late 1800s in Essex. Personal recollections of which are given by Courtney Kenny (1905) in the article The Lawless Court of Essex in the Columbia Law Review Vol. 5, No. 7 notes:

“It was in 1878 that, on October 5th (the Tuesday following Old Michaelmas-day), I went down from London to witness the Lawless Court. The railroad could only take me as far as Southend, a watering place at the mouth of the Thames in the south-eastern corner of Essex. But even there I found, as the evening drew on, that some mysterious excitement was abroad. There seemed a gradual disappearance of the male inhabitants of the town between the ages of fifteen and fifty; the streets grew silent, and the public houses became deserted. I caught a stray youth whom an unenterprising disposition or a maternal injunction had detained at home, and asked him the reason of this sudden emigration. ‘It is Cockcrowing Night’ he replied. And in every village and hamlet throughout the Hundred of Rochford that watchword had been passing from boy to boy all day long–” It is Cockcrowing night.”

What was this court? Morant in his 1768 History of Essex states that at King’s-hill, about half a mile northeast of Rochford Church, in the yard of a house once belonging to Crips, Gent,, and afterwards to Robert Hackshaw, of London, merchant, and to Mr. John Buckle. Here the tenants kneel, and do their homage. The time is the Wednesday morning next after Michaelmas Day, upon the first cock-crowing, without any kind of light but such as the heavens will afford.

Why was it called whispering court?

Apparently those who appeared at the court

“all such as are bound to appear with as low a voice as possible, giving no notice, when he that gives not an answer is deeply amerced. They are all to whisper to each other ; nor have they any pen and ink, but supply that office with a coal ; and he that owes suit and service thereto, and appears not, forfeits to the lord double his rent every hour he is absent. A tenant of this manor forfeited not long ago his land for non-attendance, but was restored to it, the lord only taking a fine. The Court is called Lawless because held at an unlawful or lawless hour.”

Pivotal to this was a post called the Whispering post quadrilateral in section, five feet in height and topped with a conical carving representing a candles flame. Here the orderly line was formed about the post as the lighted torch was put out. Here the scroll and announced:

“’Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!, all manner of persons that do owe suit and service to this Court now to be holden in and for the Manor of Kings Hill in the Hundred of Rochford draw near and give your attendance and perform your several suits and services according to the custom of the said Manor. God Save The King’”

The origins of the custom

Kenny (1908) notes that:

“Hundreds of years since, so their tradition ran, there had dwelt at Rayleigh a sturdy baron, who was Lord of the Manor of King’s Hill. One autumn night as he lay in bed he was disturbed from his slumbers by the premature and pertinacious crowing of a barn-door cock. He rose and sallied out; and, as he walked through the chill air, he overheard whispers. He listened, and to his amazement found that he was listening to a party of the vassals of his manor, arranging the details of a plan to murder him. I suppose he strode back to the manor house, and summoned Jack and Giles and Roger and all the other knaves and varlets of the household to his assistance. But whether he was thus backed by aid, or whether he was single-handed, matters little, for anyhow (so says the story) he interrupted the conspirators, convicted them of their treason, and made them tremble for their lives and their lands. Then, of his clemency, the puissant lord consented to a compromise. The crime should be pardoned, the forfeiture should be waived, the homage and fealty of the penitent rebels should be again accepted. But, to secure the perpetual remembrance of their crime, they and their heirs were forever to hold the restored lands by a shameful service.”

As a result as he continues:

“Year after year as the anniversary of the detected plot returned-the Wednesday following Old Michaelmas Day, i. e., following October 1st -the tenants of this Manor of King’s Hill should assemble, as soon as the midnight of Tuesday was past, in the open air, with no light but such as the sky might give, on the spot where their traitorous ancestors whispered over their plans. There the lord’s steward should whisper out the roll of their names with as low a voice as possible; and the tenant that answered not when his name was whispered should forfeit to the lord double his rent for every hour he was absent. The steward should have no ink and pen to record his minutes; the blackened end of a piece of burned wood must suffice to make all the entries on the roll of this court of shame. Nor must these assembled sons of traitors venture to depart when the business of the court was done. They were to linger on the hill through the cold night, until the bird of warning who defeated their fathers’ crime should give them leave to go.

From midnight, then, to the first cockcrow, must they wait upon the King’s Hill; at the crowing of the cock they were to be free to depart. And in this manner, for unknown centuries, was the court duly held. In something of this manner was it held even when I saw it.”

However as in these cases:

“The court indeed had long lost all forensic importance. For centuries past, no prosecutions and no litigation had taken place in it. Perhaps, indeed, no prosecutions ever had; for its title, ‘Curia Sine Lege’ has been conjecturally explained as ‘ the court without a leet-day.’ And it had ceased to do conveyancing work; no demesne lands or copyhold lands were controlled by it. It had become a mere settling-day for the payment of quit-rents and suit fines. Next, something had come to be conceded to the degeneracy of modern manners. Down to the earlier part of the eighteenth century the fine for non-attendance was still inflicted. But before I8oo the tenants had come to have more fear of late hours and autumn damps than of manorial penalties. So they became accustomed to pay their dues in the morning at the steward’s comfortable office; and to leave King’s Hill and its chilly starlight to the juveniles and the antiquaries. Moreover, even in the matter of the star light an innovation grew to be allowed; and a goodly supply of torches was not only permitted, but actually provided for the suitors. And in the point of cockcrowing, a perfect revolution gradually came about. First of all, a legal fiction was introduced for shortening the proceedings; a stout lunged Rochfordian being bribed to play the part of a cock, and crow lustily as soon as the business of the court was over; so as to save the suitors from having to w three hours for the notes of the veritable chanticleer, and having to incur meanwhile imminent perils of colds and coughs, ‘catarrhs and agues, and joint-racking rheums.’ Next, the paid expert was dispensed with; and the cock crowing was done on the voluntary system. And I found that, without any stimulus from manorial compulsion or manorial pay, the youth of Rochford accepted with spontaneous enthusiasm the steward’s slightest hint that the time had come for their services, and would go on crowing as long and as loud as could be desired by the deafest ten ant or the sleepiest baron. Yet, even with these maimed rites, the court would not have survived till near the end of the nineteenth century, had it not been for one further venerable and admirable usage, of which no mention is made by any of the reverend antiquaries who have described the use and wont of the Manor of King’s Hill. The lords of that ilk had for many a long year had a good old custom,-like fine old English gentlemen of the most olden time,-of spending all the profits of the manor in providing a good supper for the attendants at this Lawless Court. So year by year, when Cockcrowing Night had come, the lord called in all his antiquarian-minded neighbours. And there, in Rochford, at the good old hostelry of the King’s Head, they would sit and sup; as their forefathers had sat and supped.”

Kenny continues to note

“A good supper i’ faith it was, when I sat down at it in the year 1878. It was held in the traditional room, with the steward of the manor presiding in the traditional chair, over the traditional joint and the traditional apple-pie, and ultimately, with the most traditional of ladles, dispensing the traditional bowl of punch, compiled from a traditional receipt of preterhuman cunningness. A jovial supper it was; as we ate up and drank up, at our feudal seigneur’s bidding, all the proceeds of his quit-rents, and chief rents, and fee farm rents, and fines of suit, and profits of rendre and prendre.”

But this curious mix of ancient pointless custom, feast and legal duty did not last beyond Kenny’s description. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century saw the ending of The Whispering Court, and despite a mock revival by the local history society, which I believe no longer enact it, and all is left today is the house, a private dwelling and in the grounds the whispering post.

Custom revived: Luddenden’s Mock Mayor

Standard

Nestling in deep valleys with its stone buildings and winding streets, Luddenden looks like a place where traditions survive and indeed on the second Saturday in September crowds assemble to see a wide range of weird and wonderful events from bale, maggot and duck racing – not together of course culminating in a making of a local mayor – a mock mayor, although they are never called that, of Luddenden!

The Mayor making day certainly brought the village alive with a  range of events and stalls around the village’s pub and spilling through the churchyard. The bale race was exciting to watch as they raced around the town carrying straw bales on their shoulders. Indeed, there are a lot of races going on – a maggot, duck, bale and pint. The pint race was particularly enjoyable watching a rather fast and then slow race of people carrying a pint in each hand around the outside of the pub. I did wonder why I had not seen this before. And don’t worry there was a tee-totalers one with water.

By half past four crowd had formed around the Lord Nelson Inn in Luddenden to see the 157th Mayor elected (although not strictly true as the event as we shall see when through a bit of a hiatus ). Then the main event the inauguration of a new Mayor. Standing in front of a large St George’s flag and an equally large Yorkshire flag on the raised area of the war memorial, the outgoing Mayor wearing the red coat, tricorn hat, frilly shirt, chain and ermine gave an leaving speech and then it was over to the new Mayor to be announced by the master of ceremonies in morning suit and top hat. The crowd cheered and laughed as the new Mayor gave their incoming speech full of local in jokes.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

May or May not

Like other Mock Mayors the custom begun as a slight at the growth of local towns such as Halifax and a self-acknowledgement of the settlement’s own growth. The town resented Halifax’s growth encompassing the town and thus having a Mayor who would govern over the settlement. So if one town could have one why could we not? So in 1861, the customs of the local Lord Nelson Inn elected their first Mayor. To make it official they bought a chain of office to match that of Halifax in its elaborate nature and set about giving the Mayor a suitable location. However, Luddenden could not claim to have a Town Hall like Halifax and so the snug of the Nelson became the ‘Mayor’s Parlour’ with a bench known as the Mayor’s chair.

To be elected Mayor one had to sit in the chair. Whether this was by design or accident is unclear. For the person who sat in the chair would become by custom Mayor for a month. However, they were also invited to pay for drinks for everyone in the bar. It seems likely these two aspects might well have arisen after the decline of the custom and that the Mayor role might have been for a year at least! Then after years in abeyance in 1996 the local community decided to revive the custom. Today local people are invited to become the Mayor back in June when adverts appear in the village.

Now though the Mayor is treated a real bone fide entity, especially by the local press. Like a real Mayor Christmas lights are turned on and social events such as Burn’s Night attended.

It is evident that part of this view that the role is a real Mayor is due to the role the Mayor has in the community. As Committee member and licensee of the Lord Nelson pub, Debbie Collinge in the 2005 Halifax Courier:

“It brings the community together and it is all fun and games. The money from the fund-raising keeps things alive in the village.”

In essence she said it ‘keeps the area strong. This is due in no small part to those fund raising activities. The Mayor has a Mayor’s fund with a committee elected at the same time. Fund raising over the years have included money raised for local swings

Each year the Mayor picks a challenge. These have ranged from cycling the equivalent distance between Paris to the village and raising £1600 for Breast Cancer charities to climbing Yorkshire’s Three Peaks for the Atrial Fibrillation Association.  The former being on static bikes and I assume they will be climbing real peaks though!

Luddenden’s Mayor – a mock mayor in principle but one that does not make a mockery of their responsibilities.

Custom demised: Nativity of the Virgin Mary Boar’s Hunt, Grimsby, Lincolnshire

Standard

The town of Grimsby has three boars on its crest you may ask why?

The origin comes from when the town was surrounded by wild woods and when boars were common in these areas. The tradition having two parts the main part being the presentation of a boar’s head. T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1975) notes:

“An old tradition existing within the town of Grimsby asserts that every burgess at his admission to the freedom of the borough anciently presented to the mayor a boar’s head, or an equivalent in money when the animal could not be procured.”

Indeed, an 1828 copy of The Gentlemen’s Magazine states that the Mayor of Grimsby would have three boars heads at the table at his feast. Part of the tradition would be to hunt, for it is also recorded that:

“The lord, too, of the adjacent manor of Bradley, it seems, was obliged by his tenure to keep a supply of these animals in his wood for the entertainment of the mayor and burgesses, and an annual hunting match was officially proclaimed on some particular day after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. In the midst of these extensive woods the sport was carried on, and seldom did the assembled train fail to bring down a leash of noble boars, which were designed for a public entertainment on the following day. At this feast the newly-elected mayor took his seat at the head of the table, which contained the whole body corporate and the principal gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood.”

When did this custom begin? The coat of arms is 17th century but it may go back to a Viking or Saxon tradition. Interestingly, the last boar in England was said to have hunted in Bradley which may have been for the Mayor of Grimsby.

Custom survived: The Worshipful Company of Vintner’s Installation Day Procession, London

Standard

It’s hardly one of the longest processions in fact my conversation to the wine porter as we awaited the assembled group was longer, but if you want to get a feel of medieval London, the Worshipful Company of Vintner’s procession to install their new Master, or Installation Day fits the bill.

The City of London has many livery companies and many processions but despite its shortness the Company of Vintner’s procession to the local parish church from their Livery Hall is certainly unusual .

vintners3

Making a clean sweep of it

The procession is to bless the inaugurated new Master of the Vintners and to ensure that the journey is both a safe and pleasant one two additions are required. Firstly, ahead of the procession is the Wine Porter who carries a broom with a top hat and white smock. This is ceremonially brushed from one side to another in front of the procession traditionally to remove any detritus from the Medieval world which lay in front of them. He uses a birch broom which would have been that available to his medieval forbearers rather than a flat headed modern broom which might have been a bit more successful removing the chewing gum and sweet wrappers. Originally there were two who were employed with:

‘full besoms…that the Master, wardens and his warden and brethren of the Court of Assistant step not on any foulness or litter in our streets’

No new broom sweeping clean

The history of the Company may go back to the Norman Conquest although as its first formal charter was signed in 1363 which gave them a monopoly of trade with Gascony. As wine was an important and valuable commodity in the medieval world the Vintners were a very important although its importance waned when like many companies their monopoly was removed in the Victorian period. The Wine porter has exclusive rights to handle wine in the Pool of London, as the Hall which doubled as a warehouse backing on to the Thames, but they were disbanded in 1963 as numbers dwindled as wine arrive by other means. Today it is more of a charitable organisation. Indeed Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“Harry Darude, the last surviving Wine porter, was wielding his broom for the twenty-fifth time while a,l the other present were wondering who would be doing it if he passed on.”

However it was and despite their reduction in role the Wine porter survives if purely ceremonially. Behind the Wine Porter are the outgoing and incoming Master and three Wardens, Bargemaster, Beadle with their mace, Stavemens, members of Court of Assistants, Clerk and the vicar. Appearing like they had stepped out a Holbein painting they wear furred gown, Tudor caps and carry posies of flowers.

vintners2

A good nose for a wine

These posies or rather nosegays are not flowers to be laid at some grave or tomb at the church but had a functional purpose. In the medieval period the streets smelled bad, sewage line the footpath and fires filled the air. The posies made of strong smelling flowers and herbs were thought to keep the air fresh around the carrier and:

“their nostrils be not offended by any noxious flowers or other ill vapours.”

In those days thought to prevent diseases caused by bad air! Mind you it would have been made worse surely but the broom sweeping it up into the air! One wonders how good they are at covering car pollution!

When the time came the police appeared and stopped the traffic. Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“It was in this year, 1982, that Harry was much disconnected to find his normal route barred by impenetrable roadworks, causing him to improvise a long diversion. Furthermore it was pouring with rain, necessitating the addition of large black umbrellas to the usual regalia.”

The weather was thankfully fine and despite a strange journey over a bridge it was uneventful as they arrived in good time at St. James Garlickhythe. Once the service was over it was repeat performance sweeping back to the Livery Hall. Hopefully for a celebratory glass of wine. It’s taken me longer to open some wine bottles to be honest. However, one cannot perhaps find a more accessible procession.