Category Archives: Effigy

Custom contrived: Marsden Imbolc, Yorkshire

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We have reported a number of fire festivals on this blog most of which have been associated with Guy Fawkes Day or New Years, but a relatively new fire festival has perhaps the country’s oldest credentials. Ask a person in the street when Imbolc is and they will doubtless look at you in confusion and state when is that? Spelling it out will not help either as its one of those words said differently to spoken! However, to those local to the town of Marsden in Yorkshire and they will know it for its celebration has been a major event in the town drawing 1000s of curious onlookers to witness this colourful custom.

Fire up a festival

How did this unique and remarkable event begin. In the Huddersfield Gazette Angie Boycott-Garnett the organiser records that it was the very cold winter of 1993 which made her think that:

“We wanted to put on an event in the cold winter time when people can feel down…The idea came from a group of us who were part of the now defunct Kirklees Countryside Volunteers and put on a lot of events together.”

Why might wonder why an ancient pagan festival was the event they came up with Boycott-Garnett explains that

“Duggs Carre came up with the idea for the Imbolc festival. He’d heard about the celebration, which takes place in-between two of the eight periods of the Pagan calendar year. Imbolc celebrates the end of winter and the first stirrings of spring, while encouraging the idea of regrowth and renewal.”

What started out as a local small event involving a walk through the woods with key entertainers: fire dancers and eaters and fire sculptures grew and grew. Originally they thought the event would be a one off. Angie talked about how they set up their first event.

“We thought it would be good to bring people together. The first was quite small and revolved around a walk through the woods near Stannedge Tunnel, where entertainers would be performing. We had things like fire sculptures, fire dancers and eaters. We originally thought it would be a one off but the event was very successful. So we decided to run it again but we wanted to make sure that the community involved to keep it going.”

The event has continued to go from strength to strength, although the cost of organising it, around £7000 meant that since 2014 it has been every two years.

Fire in the belly

Imbolc is an old Celtic tradition traditionally followed Candlemas and remembered the longest in Ireland. It was believed to remember the coming of spring and its etymology may refer to the pregnancy of ewes, washing oneself in a ritual cleanse or budding. Whichever the day has become an important one to neopagans and as such Marsden has developed into a major celebratory event for those in this community.

Baptism of fire

My first Marsden Imbolc I did not know what to expect except that it would be evocatively captivating and indeed it was. The event with an atmospheric procession from the Old Good’s Yard. To the sound of bagpipes and drums, hooded figures wearing animal and solar and lunar masks loom into view carrying torches.The most ominous being the large figure of a crow man who loomed over the watching crowds. Said to represent Druids and Celtic gods they certainly added an air of the mysterious. Following up these mysterious figures was a procession of lanterns made by local children and driven forward by a steel band. The crowds which watched this atmospheric entourage joined the end and we made our way to the site of the festival.

There to the rhythmic intoxicating sounds of the drums these masked figures with their torches stood in a formation and swirled around their torches in a spectacular mesmerizing pattern. Whilst they did this tableaux of Spring scenes where light and they blazed in their pure white light against the pitch black night.

No photo description available.

Fight fire with fire

The main event is the battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man. This symbolic battle is said to represent the fight between winter and spring. The towering figure of Jack Frost eerily comes into view covered in fireworks he sparkles and spits fire into the air accompanied by masked torch holding acolytes. After his display the Green man makes his appearance. He too is associated with masked and hooded figures carrying torches and accompanied by the sound of bagpipes which drifted through the cold icy air, he was ready to confront Jack Frost. They fronted onto each other whilst the hooded figures of each side swirl and throw their torches to symbolise conflict. The Green man stares into Jack Frost as they stand facing each other and then as the drum rhythm builds Jack turns and is defeated…to cheers, whistles and claps from the crowd. Winter is over and spring is here.

The evening ended with a riotous flash of white light as an array of fireworks launched into the air and overall a wonderful experience sadly one would have to wait two years to witness it again but well worth the wait!



 

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Custom demised: Medway St Catherine’s Day procession

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Image result for Victorian rope makers chatham

According to N, & Q. (2nd S. vol V. p. 47) they record that:

“On Wednesday (the 25th) night last the towns of Chatham, Rochester, and Brompton exhibited considerable excitement in consequence of a torchlight procession appearing in the streets, headed by a band of fifes and drums.”

This was to celebrate the association of Chatham with the making of ropes and its founder Queen Catherine and as it notes:

“Notwithstanding the late hour (eleven o’clock) & large number of persons of both sexes, accompanied the party. The demonstration was got up by the rope-makers of the dockyard, to celebrate the anniversary of the founder of the ropery (Queen Catherine). The female representing her Majesty (who was borne in a chair of state by six ropemakers) was dressed in white muslin, wore a gilt crown, and carried in her hand a Roman banner.”

It is evident that there was so confusion her between Queen and Saint and surely it was the saint who was being commemorated. When the custom disappeared is unclear and it is perhaps surprising that the Chatham Historic dockyard have not thought to revive this custom.

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

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At the time I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe – but that’s another story – and as a break from the incessant publicity I decided to take myself to find the Burry man. These were the days before the Internet and asking at the Tourist Information in Edinburgh they thought it was some sort of Fringe event..but I thought it is only a few miles out I would try and find it.

The Burryman is perhaps the most bizarre of our customs. A man covered head to toe with burrs with a flowery hat of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. No skin is visible. Just a slit for the mouth. So much that his humanity appears to stripped for him, from a far he is most alien only a cummerbund adorned with a red lion suggesting he is human. He walks with two smartly dressed attendees, who help him hold onto to two hydrangea filled poles.

I located the Burryman easy enough propped outside of a pub like a rag doll. He appeared to acknowledge me but did not say. A few moments later a man appeared with a glass of something – whisky –  what else? Of course drinking the Whisky was a challenge; he only had a slit for a mouth. A straw was provided and it was steadily consumed..one of many it would appear.

As I followed him around some local children cheered his arrival, others watched from behind their parents more suspiciously. The lack of sound perhaps making it more curious for unlike every other similar custom, there is no associated music, no accordions, no violins, no bagpipers and no Morris!

Burry little clear on the origins

History is silent on its origin. Being linked to the local fair, which although medieval in origin only established a charter in 1687 suggests that it dates from then. Very unlikely I would feel and the two has become coincidentally associated. Some state it has a 900 year origin but it only has a recorded history since 120 odd years ago. Interestingly, the date 1687 was when the town became a burgh – burgh – burr – was this a local joke go on and on?

The Burryman is clearly a very odd folk figure. If there was a list of scary English folk figures he would be up there with the Straw bear and Bartle. Indeed, some believe that was part of its function, a mechanism to ward off evil spirits. One belief is that he is a sacrificial scape goat, much akin to the theory of Burning Bartle and the custom’s date being close to the ancient Lammas it is not difficult to reason with its association with harvest fertility, rebirth and regeneration. Certainly, the lack of speech and painfulness of the whole process suggests sacrifice as Brian Shuel notes in his 1984 Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain:

“It has to be said that by the late afternoon the Burry Man’s attendants were proping him up. Exhausted and full of whisky he was extremely relieved to get back to the Town hall where they stripped him in moments and left him comatose in his underpants for ten minutes before his wife, Julia, managed to prod him back to life. Suddenly he revived and in no time was himself again.”

But why here and why no-where else? Well it was found associated with Scottish fishing communities on the Moray Firth and was used to protect against poor fishing seasons. In Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the 1860s and their Burryman was on horseback and travelled through the town with a piper. In Buckie it appears to have been only done in response to a failure of the fishing fleet but curiously it was a Cooper who was wheelbarrowed around the town.  Queensferry is near the Sea so it is understandable it would survive there. But why the burrs? The provision of whisky is said to give the provider good luck; a clever way to ensure a free supply.

See the source image

Burrly able to move

There are many foliage people – Jacks, Straw men etc – but the Burryman has got to be the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable. He is covered head to toe with sticky flower heads of the burdock. These being collected on the Friday morning before the parade These burrs, of which 11,000 is the average number which cover him, would be almost impossible to bear on a person’s normal clothing so he is covered head to toe in thick longjohns, vest, heavy sweeter and a balaclava which in August must be just as bad as being covered it spikey foliage! The burrs also cause the wearer to walk awkwardly with an open leg gait and arms outstretched which adds to the curious appearance! As if being covered with burrs and wearing a balaclava is not bad enough the Burryman has to walk a seven-mile route which usually takes nine hours!

The whole event begins in the Staghead Hotel at around 7am. The Friday previous the Burryman collects burrs and places them on newspaper make A3 size burr squares their natural Velcro like ability enables them to form ready-made fabrics. Overall 25 are made. The would then be placed on the volunteer and slowly but surely he becomes the Burryman. His first stumbling steps make it to the Town Hall where traditionally he receives his first dram of whisky.

Only locals can be the Burryman and despite the discomfort they are repeat performances one man Alan Reid having the pleasure for 25 years. He was only a few years from retirement when I ‘met’ him in the 1990s. Since 2012 an Andrew Taylor has the honour.

Burrly there!

I spent a couple of hours in the middle of the day which the Burryman, watching as he was greeted with great enthusiasm from pubs, shops, passerbys and a local factory. At lunchtime his attendees arrived at a local pub, where after having some difficulty getting him through the doorway, left him in the hall way again propped against the way – he could not sit down. Half an hour passed and he was still there but appeared like a forgotten rag doll! After a number of drams he looked decidedly jaded, although his foliage had jet to droop! In the bar I managed to speak to renowned custom hunter Doc Rowe and it is great to know Doc has returned regularly ever since. He was particularly amazed when in less than a month later he recognised me at Abbott Bromley at the Horn Dance and the mad search for customs has not stopped since!

With the modernity’s shadow of the Forth Bridge looming over the town, the curious juxtaposition survival of ancient and modern are very clear here. As the bizarre Burry man parades pointlessly around the town – the fair it was associated with long gone – it is evident that the locals need him like they would the whiskey he imbibes or the cars they drive. He is part of the fabric of the community. A mysterious almost mesmerizing old custom, one which would drag people back to see it again. It has been over 20 years since I experience the Burryman and I feel a revisit is long overdue!

Custom demised: Chalvey Stab Monk Ceremony, Berkshire

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Anyone born and bred in the village of Chalvey, now absorbed into the urban sprawl of Slough, is called a ‘stab Monk’. Why? Well the name is associated with a strange legend with an even more bizarre custom which became held annually on Whit Monday usually in June.

Despite some attempts in linking the custom to Roman pagan traditions and parallels can be drawn to Oasby’s Baboon night and the famed monkey hangers of Hartlepool, it appears to be based on a fairly recent story. This story apparently dates from between 1850-1880 and tells how on Sunday an Organ Grinder visited the village to entertain the villagers, especially the children. However, one child teased the monkey and unsurprisingly perhaps he was bitten on the finger. When he rushed home to tell his father, who understandably having been drinking all Sunday the Cape of Good Hope Pub all day quickly responded by storming over to the Organ Grinder and stabbing the monkey to death! To recompense the Organ Grinder, a collection was made, a funeral arranged and a wake organised. It is said that this wake was so popular, providing as it did free beer, that it was repeated the next year!

The next year, a plaster monkey made by a local craftsman and another wake was organised, although the model appears to be something that has come from a pub and one wonders whether it was originally came from the pub and was totally made up. During this one, a person fell into the Chalvey Brook and he was proclaimed the Mayor of Chalvey for that year! This also became a tradition and each year the person who fell into the brook was so proclaimed, in as much a person would be purposely pushed into it. One year it was a policemen watching the procession that was pushed in.

Of course, the popularity of the event was firmly based on alcohol and as such it frequently became notorious. One notable event was when revelers were caught drinking out of hours at the Cape of Good Hope Pub in 1919 during Victory celebrations. The landlord a George Holdway, was summoned to court to explain the situation. He won the case explaining that it was the funeral procession passing the pub which he invited to celebrate the end of the war. He won the case and just paid court costs.

This most bizarre event dragged itself through the early part of the 20th century and photos exist from the 30s and 40s showing robbed and top hat wearing processors, the latest being 1947 but it became less frequent, until it appears to have died out. Although apparently for charitable reasons he can re-appear, he resides in Slough museum for all who are curious to hear about this most unusual and perhaps pointless custom.

The name is preserved locally, in the football team with its logo of a monkey and knife, in the name of a local park the term ‘stab-monk’ used to describe man born and bred in Chalvey, having been pushed or fallen, into the Chalvey Brook

Custom demised: Baldock’s My-Lord and-My-Lady May day effigies, Hertfordshire

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According to the 1832, William Hone’s Yearbook:

the “good wives” of the labouring poor, mostly living in what was then called “the backside” (the yards behind Church Street), made a unique May day structure, the Lords and Ladies similar to a Guy Fawkes effigy.”..

Thisleton-Dwyer in his Popular British customs notes:

At Baldock, in former times, the peasantry were accustomed to make a ‘my-lord and-my-lady ‘ in effigy on the first of May. These figures were constructed of rags, pasteboard, old masks, canvas, straw, &c., and were dressed up in the holiday habiliments of their fabricators—’my lady’ in the best gown’d, apron, kerchief, and mob cap of the dame, and ‘my lord’ in the Sunday gear of her master. The tiring finished, ‘ the pair ‘ were seated on chairs or joint stools, placed outside the cottage-door or in the porch, their bosoms ornamented with large bouquets of May flowers.”

What was the purpose of the custom. Thistleton-Dwyer adds:

“They supported a hat, into which the contributions of the lookers-on were put. Before them, on a table were arranged a mug of ale, a drinking-horn, a pipe, a pair of spectacles, and sometimes a newspaper. The observance of this usage was exclusively confined to the wives of the labouring poor resident in the town, who were amply compensated for their pains-taking by the contributions, which generally amounted to something considerable.”

The tradition must have been long established by 1832 as a Betty Thorn, described as “long since deceased”, was remembered as a “capital hand” at making a May day “my lord and my lady” Hone notes:

These dumb shows as may be expected attracted a crowd of gazers They varied according to the materials and skill of the constructors One old woman named Betty Thorn long since deceased is still remembered as a capital hand at making up a Mayday my lord and my lady of whose appearance the above is a faithful description The origin of this singular not to say ludicrous custom of attiring inanimate figures in the humble garb of cottagers to counterfeit persons of rank or whether any particular individuals were intended to he represented and how and when they first became connected with the sports on May day are to me alike unknown The subject is worthy of elucidation The observance of the usage just detailed was exclusively confined to the good wives of the laboring poor resident in the town who were amply compensated for their pains taking by the voluntary contributions which generally amounted to something considerable.”

When and why the custom became extinct is unclear but it was long gone but not forgotten when in the town’s Festival in 1982 the custom was briefly revived as can be seen from this photo from Victoria Maddern from Baldock Museum….it has not be revived since!

In 1982, the tradition of My Lord and My Lady was revived during the Baldock Festival. A handsome couple sit outside their cottage door just as they did 150 years earlier. (Photo: Victoria Maddren)

Custom survived: Biddenden’s Chalkhurst Dole

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“There is a vulgar tradition in these parts, that the figures on the cakes represent the donors of this gift, being two women, twins, who were joined together in their bodies, and lived together so till they were between twenty and thirty years of age. But this seems without foundation. The truth seems to be, that it was the gift of two maidens, of the name of Preston ; and that the print of the women on the cakes has taken place only within these fifty years, and was made to represent two poor widows, as the general objects of a charitable benefaction.”

So records Edward Hasted in his History of Kent in 1812, about what is perhaps the most famed of annually distributed doles that of the picturesque Wealden village of Biddenden; which happens every year on Easter Monday. It is a custom which features in virtually every book on calendar customs but why?

Two rectangular cakes, one showing two women apparently conjoined at the shoulder and the other one damaged in such a way that it is not clearly apparent whether the women are conjoined. Each cake has the word "Biddenden" written above the women.

The earliest surviving depiction of Biddenden cakes, 1775. The figures are shown as conjoined, but the names, ages and 1100 date are not shown source Wikipedia Public Domain

Two’s company

T. F. Thistleton-Dyer (1911) in his British popular customs past and present tells us:

“The cakes distributed on this occasion were impressed with the figures of two females side by side, and close together.”! Amongst the country people it was believed that these figures represented two maidens named Preston, who had left the endowments; and they further alleged that the ladies were twins, who were bond in bodily union, that is, joined side to side, as represented on the cakes ; who lived nearly thirty years in this connection, when at length one of them died, necessarily causing the death of the other in a few hours. It is thought by the Biddenden people that the figures on the cakes are meant as a memorial of this natural prodigy, as well as of the charitable disposition of the two ladies.”

Local tradition records that the benefactors of the charity were Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst, the name Preston has never been traced locally, who gave their lands those twenty acres to the poor on their death in 1134. Now there is nothing unusual in sisters joining giving monies this example however is possibly unique – the sisters were conjoined twins – as shown by the biscuit or cake given out. They lived jointly to the age of 34 with one dying and the other giving up her life at the same time.

The custom has changed a little over the years as Hasted again notes that:

“Twenty Acres Of Land, called the Bread and Cheese Lands, lying in five pieces, were given by persons unknown, the yearly rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish. This is yearly done on Easter Sunday in the afternoon, in 600 cakes, each of which have the figures of two women impressed on them, and are given to all such as attend the church; and 270 loaves, weighing three pounds and an half a-piece; to which latter is added one pound and an half of cheese, are given to the parishioners only, at the same time.”

The following account was written 1808 to be provided as a broadside which featured a woodcut of the twins and a brief history of their alleged story was sold outside the church at Easter:

“A Short but Concise account of Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst
who were born joined together by the Hips and Shoulders
In the year of our Lord 1100 at Biddenden in the County of Kent, commonly called
The Biddenden Maids
The reader will observe by the plate of them, that they lived together in the above state Thirty-four years, at the expiration of which time one of them was taken ill and in a short time died; the surviving one was advised to be separated from the body of her deceased Sister by dissection, but she absolutely refused the separation by saying these words—”As we came together we will also go together,”—and in the space of about Six Hours after her Sister’s decease she was taken ill and died also.
By their will they bequeath to the Churchwardens of the Parish of Biddenden and their successors Churchwardens for ever, certain Pieces or Parcels of Land in the Parish of Biddenden, containing Twenty Acres more or less, which now let at 40 Guineas per annum. There are usually made, in commemoration of these wonderful Phenomena of Nature, about 1000 Rolls with their Impression printed on them, and given away to all strangers on Easter Sunday after Divine Service in the Afternoon; also about 500 Quartern Loaves and Cheese in proportion, to all the poor Inhabitants of the said Parish.”

Copies of this account are still distributed. What is interesting as this is the first to make mention of the names of the twins. Did it invent them?

Two’s a crowd

The dole has had many threats put upon it partly as a consequence of its size and fame. In 1656 the Rector, a John Horner, then the rector of the parish, claimed the Bread and Cheese lands as being given to augment his glebe, but the Court of Exchequer did not agree.

Many villages had doles, indeed the majority provided for their poor, so it surprising to record that the dole became increasingly more and more popular. In the late 1700s for those attending the service were given six hundred cakes whilst ironically only two hundred and seventy loaves of three and a half pounds weight each, with a pound and a half of cheese, were given in addition to the parishioners. It was clearly more popular outside of the village. For example the following from Hone’s Everyday Book account of 1830 states that the custom:

“attracted from the adjacent towns and villages by the usage, and the wonderful account of its origin, and the day is spent in rude festivity

By 1872, 538 loaves were being distributed. Indeed as an article in 1992 by Jan Boderson called  The Biddenden Maids: a curious chapter in the history of conjoined twins in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated that these large crowds became problematic and at one occasion an unruly mob had developed that was kept in order by the church wardens using their staffs to keep them back. All this did not impress the church and By 1882 the village’s rector again, this time Rev Giles Hinton had petitioned to abandon the dole stating that:

“even to this time is with much disorder and indecency observed and needs a regulation by His Grace’s authority.”

His Grace, Sancroft Archbishop of Canterbury allowed it to continue minus the free beer! It was also at this time that it moved from the church to outside. Very wise! Even so it is worth observing that even in 1902 as a picture by noted photographer Sir Benjamin Stone showed three severe looking policemen watching the assembled queue. By this time the date had changed and the workhouse its location.

When in 1907, the Chulkhurst Charity was joined with other local charities with similar purposes, to form the Biddenden Consolidated Charity the distribution survived where in other villages such moves removed the ceremony. Even when the charity’s Bread and Cheese Lands were sold for housing the custom survived indeed the profitability of the land provided the opportunity for better provision. As a result not only is bread, cheese and tea provided but cash payments are made at Christmas. Again, the custom survived the 1940s and 1950s food rationing where cocoa replaced the cheese until it resumed in 1951.Finally the closure of the village’s bakery in the 1990s which for generations had provided the bread closed…the dole soldiered on.

Custom transcribed: Ganesh Chaturthi – immersing of Ganesha effigies

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I followed with the greatest curiosity crowds who carried in procession an infinite number of idols of the god Ganesh. Each little quarter of the town, each family with its adherents, each little street corner I may almost say, organizes a procession of its own, and the poorest may be seen carrying on a simple plank their little idol or of papier mâché… A crowd, more or less numerous, accompanies the idol, clapping hands and raises cries of joy, while a little orchestra generally precedes the idol.”

Angelo de Gubernatis, Bombay Gazette (1886)

One of the most fascinating thing about having an interest in customs and ceremonies is the adoption of customs from other parts of the world. Even more pleasing is when on a day out at the seaside one comes across a custom quite literally whilst sitting on a deckchair having a cup of tea! It happened on Saturday in early September – unfortunately I didn’t have my SLR camera but I did manage some okay photos with my mobile!

So one minute I was sipping my tea and then just behind me I could hear the beating of drums and chanting. A small group of people had assembled with drums and some were carrying effigies. They appeared to be processing straight to the beach. What I was encountering is the very public spectacle at the end of Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the God Ganesha, which lasts for 10 days from late August to early September.

Who is Ganesha?

It is perhaps significant that the Lord Ganesha is celebrated at this time of year, the harvest time, because he is the God of New Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles. The ceremony is focused around installation of clay idols of the god in homes or temporary stages. On the tenth day they are carried in procession to the nearest water whether river or ocean – on in this case the pool at Shoeburyness, Essex. It is believed that as the deity dissolves in the water the God is returned to Mount Kailash to fellow deities Parvati and Shiva.

It was a small but nevertheless colourful procession with three Ganesh effigies. These were adored with flowers and jewellery and looked splendid if slightly heavy. The adornments were carefully removed for what would happen next would be that they would be immersed in the sea.

Under the sea

What I found interesting and amusing about the custom is despite this being clearly a Hindu festival it was typically British in the approach some of the attendees had to it. Some of the younger members upon the moment their toes hit the water forgot all ceremony and complained about the cold of it – and then after seeing a crab – one almost refused to enter!

He was convinced and after wading to their waists, the effigies were then lowered into the water bits appearing to break off even before they were fully submerged. One of the women in the party who appeared to be organising the event reminded the men that they needed to immerse themselves fully in the water. They weren’t keen! After some berating they begrudgely lowered themselves and disappeared beneath it! They emerged looking cold but slightly enriched by the experience.

What such a custom shows is behind even the most solemn custom the comedy of human nature is always there…and that there could be a custom around the corner at any moment! Be prepared!