The Bodmin wassail is one of the few surviving house visiting wassails and has been on my to do list for some time. I did plan to attend in 2020, but as we all know Covid struck and despite plans to revive in 2021 and 2022 they were not full bodied revivals I believe and indeed one of these years it was cancelled last minute. 2023 was the year then to attend! So I organised myself to get down to Bodmin the day before so I could attend.
Always held on the 6th or 5th if the 6th is a Sunday, the custom dates at least back to the will of one Nicholas Sprey, a three-time mayor of Bodmin who died in 1624. He bequeathed the sum of 13s 4d for an “annual wassail cup” aiming “the continuance of love and neighbourly meetings” and to “remember all others to carry a more charitable conscience”. It is possible that Sprey, a Town Clerk and once MP for Bodmin may have established the custom for he directed that the wassail cup should be taken to the mayor’s house each year on the 12th day of Christmas, raising funds as it passed through the town. This stipend was withdrawn in 1838 the stipend but as we know the custom continued which suggests it doubtlessly had an earlier origin.
I arrived at the old town hall, now a museum to see the wassailers assembling on the steps. They are without exception the best dressed of any wassails, being dressed as they describe on their website as:
“top hat and tails, smart outfits comprised of “gentlemen’s hand-me-downs” – clothes acquired from the local gentry and passed down from one wassailer to another over the decades.”
Assembled on the steps in their black morning suits and notable top hats, they certainly look like a scene from another era and as they processed around the town certainly looked even more distinctive. The group chatted to the curious onlooker as they assembled and it was interesting to hear how long some members had been in the group; and heartening to see their was a relative new recruit in their ranks.
The day begun at the offices of Bodmin Town Council and soon in a curious crocodile they made their way where they were greeted by the mayor and local councillors. Here the wassail cup was removed from the case and dutifully filled with wine for the first wassail with the Mayor. The wassail bowl is an important part of the custom; the cup usually being made of wood and decorated with holly, laurel and later tinsel. In Bodmin, however, it was always made of pottery. The original bowl of course has long gone, it was made of pottery. Apparently, according to a Mr. Tom Green Snr, a wassailer for around 70 years finishing late 1980s, it disappeared following the outbreak of the Second World War. At that time it disappeared having last being seen on display on top of a plant pot in a shop in Honey Street in Bodmin. Thus the wassailers continued without a drinking vessel.
In 2008 a former mayor John Chapman donated a specially commissioned bowl, made by Lostwithiel potter John Webb. When not on wassail service it is displayed throughout the year in the Tourist Information Centre in Bodmin’s Shire Hall. Of this Vic Legg, who has been part of the wassailing tradition for 33 years said:
“John has been a keen supporter of the tradition, as was his father and grandfather, and we are extremely grateful to him for this generous gift…We’ve carried on without a bowl since before the war, visiting houses, pubs and residential homes, but now we can fill it up with beer or cider and offer people a drink, the original intention when Nicholas Sprey bought the first wassailing cup all those years ago. Having the new bowl makes a tremendous difference as we can use it as the focal point of the wassail.”
The receptible for collection had become closer to the tradition method too, when 2014, a new leather purse was donated replacing the plastic ice cream tub. Apparently, it inspired by the lyrics from one wassail song:
“We’ve got a little purse made of stretching leather skin. We want a little of your money, to bind it well within.”
They started as traditional with one of three of their traditional wassail songs:
For singing Wassail, Wassail, Wassail,
And Johnney come to our jolly Wassail.
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,
Pockets of money and a cellar of beer.
If Master and Mistress be sitting at ease,
Put your hands in your pockets and give what you please.
If Master and Mistress are both wide awake,
Please go to the cupboard and bring us some cake.
Here comes a ship out in full sail,
Ploughs the wide ocean in many a gale.
If you’ve got an apple I hope you’ve got 10,
To make some sweet cider ‘gainst we comes again.
Come knock on the knocker and ring on the bell,
I hope you’ll reward us for singing Wassail.
The songs are the most important element of the wassail. Bodmin’s tradition has three, which is unique amongst wassail traditions – they usually have just one. Their website states:
“The first is sung on arrival before we enter the house or premises. The second was passed on to us by Mr Charlie Wilson, and is often sung during the eating, drinking, storytelling, fundraising and singing that goes on at each stop. The third is sung as we leave, thanking our hosts for their hospitality: “So now we must be gone to seek for more good cheer, where bounty will be shown, as we have found it here, in our Wassail.”
Of this first song the website notes:
“The verses are not always sung in this order, or indeed all of them sung at each stop. It is possible that in the chorus the word Johnney was originally ‘joy’, as in most wassails, but this is how Bodmin Wassail inherited the song.”
The old song is sung as they leave:
Wassail, Wassail, Wassail, Wassail,
I am joy, come to our jolly Wassail.
This is our merry night,
For choosing King and Queen,
Then be it your delight,
That something may be seen,
In our Wassail.
Is there any butler here?
Or dweller in this house,
I hope he’ll take a full carouse,
And enter to our bowl,
In our Wassail.
We fellows are all poor,
Can’t buy no house nor land,
Unless we do gain,
In our Wassail.
Our Wassail bowl to fill,
With apples and good spice,
Then grant us your good will,
To taste here, once or twice,
Of our Wassail.
So now we must be gone,
To seek for more good cheer,
Where bounty will be shown,
As we have found it here,
In our Wassail
As the website states:
“The old song is sung as they leave, sometimes in its entirety, and sometimes just the last verse and chorus. It has been around and sung, in either complete or truncated form, since at least the late 19th century, according to the late Wassailer Tom Green, Snr. A printed copy of the song was carried around on Wassail night. This copy was believed to have been lost until it came into the possession of Vic Legg in the mid 1970s via his colleague Vic Barratt. His father, Vic Barratt, Snr, had been a Wassailer for a short period in the 1940s and passed it down to his son.”
After around an hour here, taking advantage of the fine spread of food, the wassailers disappeared into a taxi to start a rather gruelling especially in the rather dreadful weather tour of at first residential homes, then local businesses and finally public houses of the town. At each place they would announce themselves with a wassail song.
The weather continued to be grim when we caught they entering a pub along Bodmin high street, despite singing and no doubt indulging in hospitality the entire morning there was no sign of fatigue as they song heartly and were received rapturously by those in the pub. After chatting and laughing with regulars there was a nod around the wassailers who then broke into their out song, grabbed hats and umbrellas and went their way to the next pub. And so, it went on through the town. Their repertoire varied little except for some poetry and discussion of the history of the songs to the local folk group who were keen to hear. I left them at their last pub, less packed and with a slightly more bemused assemblage, before the entered the dark gloom to finish some private sings and then rest for another year!
Bodmin’s wassail tradition is one indeed to be proud of. There are other wassails in Cornwall and beyond but these tend to be revivals. This is the oldest recorded and continually attended custom, even the pandemic did not prevent some wassailing, that being a socially distanced one of the Mayor….and no one mentioned it was probably bending the rules then,…but in a way that underlines the love Bodmin has for the wassail.