Category Archives: Effigy

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!

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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!

Custom demised: Queene’s or Queen Elizabeth’s Day

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deonstration

“Vouchsafe, dread sovereign”

Robert Deveraux 17th November

 

It is common place now for villages, towns and cities to celebrate the succession of the monarch but until Queen Elizabeth accession it was not celebrated. Early in her reign the 17th of November became a time to celebrate the country’s powerful monarch.

However, it was not until the 10th anniversary in 1568, that the event was commemorate by the ringing of bells and slowly this became a more established event, hyped up no doubt by those who wanted it to be seen as a day of Protestant victory of the threat of Catholicism.

Long live the Queen…she’s dead

The death of the queen, unlike other accession celebrations since, did not cause the end of the custom. Fed by anti-Catholic fervour, the observations became more established. They changed from a ‘form of prayer and thanksgiving’ to out and out orgy of triumphalism. Soon the event consisted of triumphal parades, processions, sermons and burning of the Pope – sound familiar? However, they were not terribly popular by all, especially understandably the subsequent monarchs. In particular Catholic leaning Charles I was reportedly upset why his or his wife’s birthday and accession days were not recognised. His son’s reign obviously saw the Great Fire of London and it is reported that afterwards:

“these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

Chambers in his Book of Days records:

“Violent political and religious excitement characterised the close of the reign of King Charles II. The unconstitutional acts of that sovereign, and the avowed tendency of his brother toward the Church of Rome, made thoughtful men uneasy for the future peace of the country, and excited the populace to the utmost degree. It had been usual to observe the anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth with rejoicings; and hence the 17th of November was popularly known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Day;’ but after the great fire, these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

By the 1680s the events became more and more elaborate founded by protestant political groups keen to keep her memory fresh under the threat of Catholic insurgence under the reign of James II and calculated to whip up popular excitement and inflame the minds of peaceable citizens as Chambers puts it. The Earl of Shaftesbury as part of a group called the Green Ribbon Group, from a ribbon in their head, were the organisers and were very well connected. A pamphlet called London’s Defiance to Rome recorded how:

“the magnificent procession and solemn burning of the pope at Temple Bar, November 17, 1679.”

It was described as:

“the bells generally about the town began to ring about three o’clock in the morning;’ but the great procession was deferred till night, when ‘ the whole was attended with one hundred and fifty flambeaus and lights, by order; but so many more came in volunteers, as made up some thousands At the approach of evening (all things being in readiness), the solemn procession began, setting forth from Moorgate, and so passing first to Aldgate, and thence through Leadenhall Street, by the Royal Exchange through Cheapside, and so to Temple Bar. Never were the balconies, windows, and houses more numerously lined, or the streets closer thronged, with multitudes of people, all expressing their abhorrence of popery with continued shouts and exclamations, so that ’tis modestly computed that, in the whole progress, there could not be fewer than two hundred thousand spectators.”

In the Letters to and from the Earl of Derby, he recounts his visit to this pope-burning, in company with a French gentleman who had a curiosity to see it. The earl says:

“I carried him within Temple Bar to a friend’s house of mine, where he saw the show and the great concourse of people, which was very great at that time, to his great amazement. At my return, he seemed frighted that somebody that had been in the room had known him, for then he might have been in some danger, for had the mob had the least intimation of him, they had torn him to pieces. He wondered when I told him no manner of mischief was done, not so much as a head broke; but in three or four hours were all quiet as at other times.”

Although largely pro-establishment, it was feared that serious riots could result and in 1682 there was a call for the Lord Mayor to stop it but the civic magnates declined to interfere. In 1683, pageantry was reported to have grander than ever but the Mayor finally suppressed the display and their patrols through the streets to ensure order.  Under the reign of Queen Anne concerns over the Pretender were rife and so pageants were organised. A describe of it read:

“It was intended to open the procession with twenty watchmen, and as many more link-boys; to be followed by bag-pipers playing Lilliburlero, drummers with the pope’s arms in mourning, ‘a figure representing Cardinal Gualteri, lately made by the Pretender Protector of the English nation, looking down on the ground in a sorrowful posture.’ Then came burlesque representatives of the Romish officials; standard-bearers ‘with the pictures of the seven bishops who were sent to the Tower; twelve monks representing the Fellows who were put into Magdalen College, Oxford, on the expulsion of the Protestants by James II’ These were succeeded by a number of friars, Jesuits, and cardinals; lastly came ‘the pope under a magnificent canopy, with a silver fringe, accompanied by the Chevalier St. George on the left, and his counsellor the Devil on the right. The whole procession clos’d by twenty men bearing streamers, on each of which was wrought these words: “God bless Queen Anne, the nation’s great defender! Keep out the French, the Pope, and the Pretender.” After the proper ditties were sung, the Pretender was to have been committed to the flames, being first absolved by the Cardinal Gualteri. After that, the said cardinal was to have been absolved by the Pope, and burned. And then the devil was to jump into the flames with his holiness in his arms.”                          

However, this time the secretary of state interfered and seized the stuffed figures, and prevented the display. The very proper suppression of all this absurd profanity was construed into a ministerial plot against the Hanoverian succession.  With the stability which came with the Hanovians, the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Day began to subside and slowly disappear.

Looking back at the custom it is clear how it disappeared. In the wake of the attempt on James and his parliament, the government would be keen to re-focus this anti-Catholic feeling into a new custom – Guy Fawkes. Yet you cannot keep an old custom down, surprisingly in 2005, the Devon village of Berry Pomeroy resurrected it. This consisted of a service in the parish church finished with the burning of Satan on a giant bonfire! However I have been unable to confirm whether this still continues otherwise it will be a revived custom!

Custom survived: Folkestone’s Blessing the sea and fisheries

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God bless you!

The ceremonies of blessing the sea and fisheries are perhaps one of the best examples of a Christianisation of a pagan ritual. They originated as early man’s way of giving thanks to ensure good harvests for the next year. Yet, it is clear that they are part of the ‘revived’ or rather ‘cleaned’ harvest thanksgiving ceremonies, which have become quite familiar, thanks to this revival or rather adoption by the church perhaps, in the mid-1800s. Found around the country in a number of maritime locations (even in locations where fishing has become a matter of academic history). Kent, being a county surrounded on two sides by sea naturally it has a fair number of these ceremonies. Traditionally they were help around Ascension Day or during the three days of ‘Rogationtide’ (during which beating the bounds ceremonies would also be undertaken), many have moved to either dates nearing Patronal saints (Fishermen saints Peter or James), or when tourists are more frequent!

 

 

 

Folkestone’s ceremony claims to be the oldest continually undertaken still surviving. One of these occurs in the ancient fishing town of Folkestone, being associated with the chapel of St. Peter, dedicated to the town’s fisher folk with fine views of the harbour.

The earliest traceable record is an account in the Folkestone Express of July 8th 1883. However, according to Mr. Fisher of Folkestone St Peter’s Church, this ceremony may have already been of some age then. This is because, the report laments that it was a depressed event with a low tide and sluggish boats. Traditionally it was held in the old fish market. At the time he notes that there must have been 100 boats in the inner harbour. Photographs of the 1920s show a large number of smocks attending. The Folkestone Herald of July Seventh 1906, noted an addition to the traditional service in the form of prayers. It added:

“that it may please Thee to bless the waters of the sea that they may bring forth fish abundantly.. bless and preserve the fishermen of these waters…and lift their minds to heavenly desires.”

Something fishy?

In 1935 was the last year to be held in the old fish market, and since it has been held overlooking the harbour. The parish priest had worked hard to have all the old hovels removed and replaced by the terrace housing which remains to today.

In a press report of 1958, it noted that it was then attended by the Bishop of Dover, the Rt. Rev. L. Meredith, and the Mayor, F. W. Archer as well as other members of the Corporation, Choristers, Scouts, members of the Old Contemptible and the Royal Naval Association and children dressed in traditional fishermen’s clothes.

In this report it was sadly noted that service lacked the gaiety of previous years as the little fisherman’s cottages were not bedecked with flags and nor were the boats in harbour decorated as they were for previous occasions. Furthermore, no fishermen were to be found in the procession. A 67 year old fishermen, Bill Harris who had fished the waters from Folkestone some 50 years, noted that: ‘Things had certainly changed’, he could remember those times when the harbour was full of fully decorated boats and all the houses were flying flags and bunting. He bemoaned that no-one was interested. The then Bishop said that Blessing the Fishermen, fell into two groups those which do it for fun and those who did it for a life’s work. He said that:

” It is those who devote their whole lives to fishing in the sea that we are asking for God’s continued blessing this afternoon.’” 

This blessing attracted television coverage from both the BBC and ITA, and the service was performed by Bishop Noel Hall, formerly Bishop of Vhota Nagpour, India with two Deacons of Honour (Rev. W. H. Bathhurst Vicar of St. Saviours) and Rev. J. Meliss (curate of Folkestone Parish church). The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. H. J. L. Stephens (Vicar of St. Peters).

The lack of fishermen was what doubtless prompted the event to be renamed ‘blessing the sea’ rather than ‘fisheries’ and by doing so saved this the oldest of such blessings. Tony Foxworthy (2008) in Customs in Kent describes it well:

“The evening starts with service in St. Peter’s church. After the service a procession is formed consisting of a local band in the lead followed by the children of St. Peter’s primary school, with the girls carrying small posies of flowers, and the boys carrying a large model of a fishermen’s boat. Following the children comes the church choir then the processional cross, then the clergy and local dignitaries like the Mayor, the Mayoress and local councillors, then the invited guest preacher, usually a local Bishop. The procession winds its way to the harbour where a large crowd has assembled. The fisheries are then blessed by the visiting Bishop, who then leads to a short service and addresses the hundreds of people attending this very picturesque custom.”

 

The custom retains a very colourful and evocative feel especially as the clergy process down from St. Peter’s Church, (usually on the first Sunday after St. Peter’s Day (29th June), at around three o’ clock). Also attending this ceremony, are the Lord Mayor and his barker. After a series of hymns, and readings, the sea is blessed by splashing holy water and shaking incense over the harbour railings.