Category Archives: Durham

Custom demised: Push Penny at Durham Cathedral, County Durham

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Image result for Victorian durham cathedral

Penny scrambling customs have a tendency to survive and there exist widely across the country usually but not exclusively associated with fairs. Thomas Thistleton-Dyer in his Popular customs notes an example held in Durham. He states that

“Mr. Cuthbert Carlton, of Durham, gives in the Durham Chronicle, of November 29th, 1872, the following account of a curious custom called ” Push Penny.” He says: This custom, which has been discontinued nearly a quarter of a century, is thus referred to in the Derbyshire Times of Saturday last:—

“There is a custom which has been upheld from time immemorial by the Dean and Chapter of Durham on three days in the year—30th of January, 29th of May, and 5th of November, the anniversary of King Charles’ Martyrdom, Royal Oak Day, and Gunpowder Plot, which is known among Durham lads as “push-penny” On these days the Chapter causes twenty shillings in copper to be scrambled for in the college yard by the juveniles, who never fail to be present.’ The practice observed every 29th of May, and 5th of November, was to throw away within the college thirty shillings in penny pieces. Whether the custom dates from time immemorial, it is difficult to say, but the two last dates would seem only to point to the origin of the custom at the end of the seventeenth, or beginning of the eighteenth centuries, to testify the loyalty of the Dean and Chapter to the Throne, and their appreciation of the happy restoration of the ‘ Merry Monarch,’ and the escape of the King and his Parliament on the 6th of November. There was some such custom, however, during the monastic period, when pennies were thrown away to the citizens who were wont to assemble in the vicinity of the Prior’s mansion. At Bishop Auckland the bishop was accustomed to throw away silver pennies at certain times of the year, and it is even a peck of copper was in earlier times scattered broad-cast among the people. The Reformation, however, swept these and many other old customs away, but after the Restoration of Charles II., the Dean and Chapter no doubt considered the 29th of May and the 5th of November ought to be kept as days of rejoicing, and as one means of doing so caused one of their officials to throw a bag full of pennies to the people who met in the college. The duty was entrusted to the senior verger of the cathedral. For many years it was the practice for the children of the Blue Coat Schools to attend Divine service in the cathedral, who were drawn up in rank and file in the nave, for the inspection of the prebends, who minutely examined the new scholastic garments of the Blue Coat scholars. This being done they were ushered into the choir, and at the end of the service a regular pellmell rush was made for the cloister doors, in order to be present at ‘ push-penny.’ The scenes on these occasions were almost beyond description. For a few years the custom thus continued, the attendants at ‘ push-penny ‘ gradually diminishing; for twenty-five years, however, it has been discontinued, nor is it likely to be revived.”

And so, the reporter is correct, it has never been revived. Its extinction considering it existed on a number of separate occasions shows how a custom will die out if someone wants it to!

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Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.

Custom survived: Sedgefield Ball Game

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 “The liberal use of sheet leg guards is not merely a precaution but an absolute necessicity, for no sooner does the ball touch the ground than the most indiscriminate kicking begins and on times throughout the game.”

On the head…literally

Like the many of surviving and demised ball games a long history is suggested according to this account in 1889 that it:

“has been played on the Green at least since the twelfth century. It can last for hours and gets rowdy; the object is to ‘allay’ the ball and get it in part of the village defended by the other side.”

The account as gives an interesting reason:

“It is said to have started as a quarrel between Chester-Le-Street apprentices and a retainer at Lumley Castle, the first football being the latter’s head.”

Such an origin, probably confused may hint at earlier pagan origins. As indeed does the most common legend which states that it started in 1246-56 when the church was being built, the game ensuing between the craftsmen were occupied with its building and the local farm workers when the rector threw the ball at noon. Despite all this claimed heritage the earliest mention is in 1802 in the Sporting magazine. Although, a later account by William Parson and William White states that it is an ancient custom and relates the role of the parish clerk who provides the ball providing some evidence for the legend perhaps or origin.

Not a game of two halves

The first explanation may have some grain of truth for over the years the game has been known to have changed and fought in teams. Now it appears to have no teams but two goals were indentified until the 1920 which were for the two opposing teams, town and county. The town goal being a stream running along the boundary to the south and the county a pond a few hundred yards north of the town centre. The location of the goals, the county one being nearest to the town may hint at its age, recalling a pre 1636 date when farm workers would have lived within the town walls for protection.

copyright ball game sedgefieldPost 1920s the rules changed, the county goal was filled in when the blacksmiths nearby became a petrol station. This meant only one goal survived and the game was no longer divided into opposing factions. Now individuals or groups compete making it even more exciting as you do not know who is going to win!

Eye of the ball

It was a bright but cold day, I arrived at noon, no one was there, The church bell rang, a local noticing I was looking a little perplexed, informed me that this was the pancake bell, rang to encourage the locals to prepare them, and no doubt to fill the stomachs of the participants to warm them up and sustain them. An hour later a man appeared carrying a small ball, it was much smaller than the other ‘footballs’ from similar games and soon a scrum surrounded him as he stood over the bull ring in the Green.

DSCF84512As the participants scrummed around, the ball is passed unnoticed in the sea of men through the ball ring. There was a little to-ing and fro-ing awaiting to grasp the ball once it has been passed through the bull ring. One! The crowd jocked into position. Two! The scrum got closer. Three! Up it went and it soon disappeared….then it appeared as one member bravely kicked it across the grass and ran after it. The ball skirted down the main road, chased by three men, under a car and caught the other side. Then back into the centre. Then a tremendous kick into the air and I caught a glimpse as it glided above me…a happy participant then took procession and kicked controllably down the road. He didn’t have it free for long as soon the mass ranks of participants were after him and soon a scrum developed. I wryly observed as nearby life appeared to be continuing as normal as a bus turned up destined to the outside world and an elderly lady boarded just as the scrum surged in the bus’s direction. A small car behind not being so lucky as the passengers got a close view of the participant’s flesh pressed against the window as they waited at the crossing. I was surprised no one thought of passing the ball inside….to pick up later. The intense scrumming and breaking free continues until bizarrely it appeared to stop…where did they go? I checked my watch. It was 2pm and they’d obviously stopped to have a drink in the pub or have some sandwiches.  Just under an hour later and the game apparently appeared as if it hadn’t gone and it became more fevered. As the light begin to fade there was a more determined effort to get the ball to the goal…

After a while I retreated to a delightful team room as the cold had got to me and watched it through a half boarded up window… A mass scrum of dirty, wet and mud strewn bodies came into view, the ball somewhere with in them. Then at 4 the ball is to ‘allay’ to the goal a beck in the south of the village and the back to the centre and through the bull ring three times. Whosoever retrieves the ball from the goal of that team brings it back to the market bull ring and after passing it three times through the ring is declared the champion and allowed to keep the ball

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Of all these street games, this is the best one for the spectator, the ball is often kicked and the village green large enough so as not to feel claustrophobic, although it is difficult due to the ball’s size to work out exactly was in going on, the roars and shouts more than make you aware of its progress as long as it doesn’t disappear!

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs when its on…http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/sedgefield-football/

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