Category Archives: Cumbria

Custom demised: Holly Day, Brough, Cumbria

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hollytree

In the Cumbrian town of Brough, once in Westmorland was an unusual Twelfth night custom which appeared to be the extension of the usual burning of the greenery on Twelfth night as now enacted at London’s Geffrey Museum. An account by Reuben Percy and John Timbs in their 1828 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction which states:

“Holly Tree At Brough it is called night because it was customary at time of the year to decorate the altars holly There are two head inns in town at which the holly is provided alternately Early in the morning send out a body of husbandmen to fell large ash tree for although it is called night yet holly being a scarcity ash substituted They then affix torches of greased reeds to each bough tree and then take it into the inn to remain till seven o clock in At that hour a gun or pistol is fired the tree is taken out into a convenient part of the town where it is lighted after huzzaing for about half an hour is carried up and down the town on shoulders followed by the and stopping every time they the cross at the top of the town again salute the holly and fireworks are discharged It is taken town again and so on till it is The person who carries the his shoulders is named Ling who it is extinguished carries it to of the town and after throws it among the crowd eagerly watch the opportunity of away with it for I should observe two separate contending parties to whichever inn it is carried the to spend the evening in drinking very often it terminates with a name given to all their The origin of the custom as I observed from the offerings to the altars at of the year which is the by the name given to it WHH”

William Hone in his 1827 Everyday book added:

“Twelfth Night, or Holly Night, was formerly celebrated at Brough, by carrying through the town a holly-tree with torches attached to its branches. The procession set out at 8 o’clock in the evening preceded by music, and stopped at the town-bridge, and again at the cross, where it was greeted each time with shouts of applause. Many of the inhabitants carried lighted branches as flambeaux; and rockets, squibs, &c, were discharged on the joyful occasion. After the tree had been carried about, and the torches were sufficiently burnt, it was placed in the middle of the town, when it was again cheered by the surrounding crowd, and then was thrown among them. The spectators at once divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one of the inns, and the other to a rival inn. The innkeeper whose party triumphed was expected to treat his partisans liberally.”

A curious custom which appears to be a mixture of burning out bad spirits into the new year with some survival of a pagan tradition mixed up with wassailing. What is more curious is that in some form we have not seen it restored.

Custom demised: Pinch bum day: a child’s view of Oak Apple day

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Oak Apple day was a nationally celebrated event which commemorated the restoration of Charles II and his escape by hiding in an oak tree. It was an official day that was to be celebrated around the county, and some places still organise events on or around this date,  but generally outside of these places its main observance the wearing of oak leaves or more precisely oak apples (oak wasp galls) has disappeared. Across the country, this custom was particularly upheld by children not perhaps necessarily because of any keenness of the monarch but perhaps for the joint pleasure of a half day holiday from school. The common rhyme had different variants according to the local name from it.

“Royal Oak Day, 29th May.

If you don’t give us a holiday.

We run away”.

Wilson (1940) notes that at Windermere Grammar School, the day was called Yak Bob Day, where although it was seen as a holiday the master decided to ignore this and so with protests falling on deaf ears the older boys bolted and barricaded the windows and doors to the school. With the boys chanting the above chant except obviously the first line, the teachers were unable to enter and the holiday was restored.

It was also popular as a result of the ability to admonish those who had forgotten! Like a student who has forgot its non-uniform day, such students were the target of a wide range of penalties. The most common appears to be pinch bottom day. When those not wearing had their bottoms pinched! This was particularly popular in mixed schools and various accounts tell of rather over-enthusiastic boys getting in trouble. The reason for pinching bottoms comes from a legendary story that Major Carless who was also up the tree prevents the king from falling out by pinching his bottom!School boys were particularly important in upholding the custom, probably because of the potential of causing mischief. Unsurprising, pinch bottom day was not particularly held up in boy’s school, where other penalties were given.   No more vigorous was the tradition upheld than at Nottingham High School where individuals not upholding the tradition where pelted with rotten eggs. The observance of this penalty fell into abeyance in the 1870s. Briscoe  a Nottinghamshire author notes:

“A more unpleasant custom prevailed in the northern portion of the county about twenty years ago. Those who did not conform to the usages of the “Royal Oak Day” were pelted with rotten eggs. In order  to be well supplied with the ” needful ” for that day the young men would hoard’ up hen eggs for about a couple of months before they would be brought into requisition, so that the eggs would become rotten before they were required. This custom was in time carried to such an extent that the ‘strong arm of the law’ was often brought into requisition to suppress it; the rough young folk pelting persons indiscriminately. Smaller eggs are still used by the school lads on ‘King Charles’ Day.’

More common was nettling! A Nottinghamshire author notes thatnettles used on people without a spray of leaves and adds that the wise boy wore his oak leaves, armed themselves with a stinging nettle and carried a few dock leaves for first aid just in case. This was carried on until noon. The schools were generally not appreciative of this tradition and at Hayton a correspondent of NFWI remembers their brother being canned on both hands for nettling a girl. The penalty ranged from the rather innocuous rubbing clothese with chalk and such the day was called Chalky Back Day to Cobbing’ or spitting as was done in Cornwall.

Sometimes, non wearers were simply berated such as at Gloucester College where they were called shig shags and interestingly at Kirkby Lonsdale as well as being beaten by oak branches they were called Tom Paine, after the noted ‘revolutionary and republican’.. According to Brand’s popular antiquities boys in Newcastle-upon-Tyne would taunt :

“Royal oak, The Whigs to provoke.”

Those who wore plane-tree leaves recieved:

“Plane-tree leaves, The Church folk are thieves.”

The customs appears to died out soon after 1859 when the day ceased to be a holiday. Reports suggest that the children’s observation survived into the 1870s, but bereft of the holiday aspect and perhaps the concerns of parents the custom has completely died out. Perhaps for the good eh?