Category Archives: Essex

Custom demised: Rochford Lawless Court, Essex

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Now largely forgotten is a curious legal custom which persisted until the late 1800s in Essex. Personal recollections of which are given by Courtney Kenny (1905) in the article The Lawless Court of Essex in the Columbia Law Review Vol. 5, No. 7 notes:

“It was in 1878 that, on October 5th (the Tuesday following Old Michaelmas-day), I went down from London to witness the Lawless Court. The railroad could only take me as far as Southend, a watering place at the mouth of the Thames in the south-eastern corner of Essex. But even there I found, as the evening drew on, that some mysterious excitement was abroad. There seemed a gradual disappearance of the male inhabitants of the town between the ages of fifteen and fifty; the streets grew silent, and the public houses became deserted. I caught a stray youth whom an unenterprising disposition or a maternal injunction had detained at home, and asked him the reason of this sudden emigration. ‘It is Cockcrowing Night’ he replied. And in every village and hamlet throughout the Hundred of Rochford that watchword had been passing from boy to boy all day long–” It is Cockcrowing night.”

What was this court? Morant in his 1768 History of Essex states that at King’s-hill, about half a mile northeast of Rochford Church, in the yard of a house once belonging to Crips, Gent,, and afterwards to Robert Hackshaw, of London, merchant, and to Mr. John Buckle. Here the tenants kneel, and do their homage. The time is the Wednesday morning next after Michaelmas Day, upon the first cock-crowing, without any kind of light but such as the heavens will afford.

Why was it called whispering court?

Apparently those who appeared at the court

“all such as are bound to appear with as low a voice as possible, giving no notice, when he that gives not an answer is deeply amerced. They are all to whisper to each other ; nor have they any pen and ink, but supply that office with a coal ; and he that owes suit and service thereto, and appears not, forfeits to the lord double his rent every hour he is absent. A tenant of this manor forfeited not long ago his land for non-attendance, but was restored to it, the lord only taking a fine. The Court is called Lawless because held at an unlawful or lawless hour.”

Pivotal to this was a post called the Whispering post quadrilateral in section, five feet in height and topped with a conical carving representing a candles flame. Here the orderly line was formed about the post as the lighted torch was put out. Here the scroll and announced:

“’Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!, all manner of persons that do owe suit and service to this Court now to be holden in and for the Manor of Kings Hill in the Hundred of Rochford draw near and give your attendance and perform your several suits and services according to the custom of the said Manor. God Save The King’”

The origins of the custom

Kenny (1908) notes that:

“Hundreds of years since, so their tradition ran, there had dwelt at Rayleigh a sturdy baron, who was Lord of the Manor of King’s Hill. One autumn night as he lay in bed he was disturbed from his slumbers by the premature and pertinacious crowing of a barn-door cock. He rose and sallied out; and, as he walked through the chill air, he overheard whispers. He listened, and to his amazement found that he was listening to a party of the vassals of his manor, arranging the details of a plan to murder him. I suppose he strode back to the manor house, and summoned Jack and Giles and Roger and all the other knaves and varlets of the household to his assistance. But whether he was thus backed by aid, or whether he was single-handed, matters little, for anyhow (so says the story) he interrupted the conspirators, convicted them of their treason, and made them tremble for their lives and their lands. Then, of his clemency, the puissant lord consented to a compromise. The crime should be pardoned, the forfeiture should be waived, the homage and fealty of the penitent rebels should be again accepted. But, to secure the perpetual remembrance of their crime, they and their heirs were forever to hold the restored lands by a shameful service.”

As a result as he continues:

“Year after year as the anniversary of the detected plot returned-the Wednesday following Old Michaelmas Day, i. e., following October 1st -the tenants of this Manor of King’s Hill should assemble, as soon as the midnight of Tuesday was past, in the open air, with no light but such as the sky might give, on the spot where their traitorous ancestors whispered over their plans. There the lord’s steward should whisper out the roll of their names with as low a voice as possible; and the tenant that answered not when his name was whispered should forfeit to the lord double his rent for every hour he was absent. The steward should have no ink and pen to record his minutes; the blackened end of a piece of burned wood must suffice to make all the entries on the roll of this court of shame. Nor must these assembled sons of traitors venture to depart when the business of the court was done. They were to linger on the hill through the cold night, until the bird of warning who defeated their fathers’ crime should give them leave to go.

From midnight, then, to the first cockcrow, must they wait upon the King’s Hill; at the crowing of the cock they were to be free to depart. And in this manner, for unknown centuries, was the court duly held. In something of this manner was it held even when I saw it.”

However as in these cases:

“The court indeed had long lost all forensic importance. For centuries past, no prosecutions and no litigation had taken place in it. Perhaps, indeed, no prosecutions ever had; for its title, ‘Curia Sine Lege’ has been conjecturally explained as ‘ the court without a leet-day.’ And it had ceased to do conveyancing work; no demesne lands or copyhold lands were controlled by it. It had become a mere settling-day for the payment of quit-rents and suit fines. Next, something had come to be conceded to the degeneracy of modern manners. Down to the earlier part of the eighteenth century the fine for non-attendance was still inflicted. But before I8oo the tenants had come to have more fear of late hours and autumn damps than of manorial penalties. So they became accustomed to pay their dues in the morning at the steward’s comfortable office; and to leave King’s Hill and its chilly starlight to the juveniles and the antiquaries. Moreover, even in the matter of the star light an innovation grew to be allowed; and a goodly supply of torches was not only permitted, but actually provided for the suitors. And in the point of cockcrowing, a perfect revolution gradually came about. First of all, a legal fiction was introduced for shortening the proceedings; a stout lunged Rochfordian being bribed to play the part of a cock, and crow lustily as soon as the business of the court was over; so as to save the suitors from having to w three hours for the notes of the veritable chanticleer, and having to incur meanwhile imminent perils of colds and coughs, ‘catarrhs and agues, and joint-racking rheums.’ Next, the paid expert was dispensed with; and the cock crowing was done on the voluntary system. And I found that, without any stimulus from manorial compulsion or manorial pay, the youth of Rochford accepted with spontaneous enthusiasm the steward’s slightest hint that the time had come for their services, and would go on crowing as long and as loud as could be desired by the deafest ten ant or the sleepiest baron. Yet, even with these maimed rites, the court would not have survived till near the end of the nineteenth century, had it not been for one further venerable and admirable usage, of which no mention is made by any of the reverend antiquaries who have described the use and wont of the Manor of King’s Hill. The lords of that ilk had for many a long year had a good old custom,-like fine old English gentlemen of the most olden time,-of spending all the profits of the manor in providing a good supper for the attendants at this Lawless Court. So year by year, when Cockcrowing Night had come, the lord called in all his antiquarian-minded neighbours. And there, in Rochford, at the good old hostelry of the King’s Head, they would sit and sup; as their forefathers had sat and supped.”

Kenny continues to note

“A good supper i’ faith it was, when I sat down at it in the year 1878. It was held in the traditional room, with the steward of the manor presiding in the traditional chair, over the traditional joint and the traditional apple-pie, and ultimately, with the most traditional of ladles, dispensing the traditional bowl of punch, compiled from a traditional receipt of preterhuman cunningness. A jovial supper it was; as we ate up and drank up, at our feudal seigneur’s bidding, all the proceeds of his quit-rents, and chief rents, and fee farm rents, and fines of suit, and profits of rendre and prendre.”

But this curious mix of ancient pointless custom, feast and legal duty did not last beyond Kenny’s description. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century saw the ending of The Whispering Court, and despite a mock revival by the local history society, which I believe no longer enact it, and all is left today is the house, a private dwelling and in the grounds the whispering post.

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

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As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

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Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

Custom contrived: Blessing the Horses at Horndon-on-the Hill, Essex

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“On January the seventh is celebrated at Rome feast of St Anthony the abbot On the morning of this feast the pope cardinals princes prelates and indeed all those who have horses send to be blessed by the monks of St Anthony saddles and bridles are also blessed upon the of a small sum being paid for each the beasts with their furniture The Roman Catholics in England were in some measure kept in dark concerning this ceremony of blessing the till 1732 when Dr Middleton wrote his from Rome in which he tells us that he paid eighteen pence for having his horse and that his servant blessed Dr Challoner the titular bishop of London attacked Dr Middleton this subject telling him that although he Dr had lived many years on the continent he never saw or heard of it”

William Hurd in his 1790 Universal of Religious rites:

As a custom it disappeared in Britain at the reformation but in the 20th century a couple of contrived customs have arisen perhaps in knowledge or not of the older custom. One such place is on the green of the picturesque Havering-atte-Bower. Here for over 10 years, the church and Havering-atte-Bower Village Conservation Society have organised Horseman’s Sunday, itself said to be a revival from 1954, but I have been unable to find out why this itself was started although that custom died out in the 70s.

Horsing about

It certainly a big thing for this picturesque village with its green. Usually a quiet village green but soon the horses and their riders and all important helpers – mainly their mums it appeared arrived – it might be called Horseman’s Sunday but Horseperson would have been better name I thought. Havering-atte-Bower is well-known for its horses and there are a large number of stables around the village, and indeed it appeared that everyone who was associated with them had turn up. Fifty horses from large riding mares to small ponies parade before settling behind the rope on the green to avoid accidents, they were keen to keen telling us that! I wonder if they intended using the stocks nearby for those crossing it? I was impressed how patient and calm they were. It certainly has become a day for one’s best as an article in the Romford recorder noted of its organiser Michael Heap:

“It was a beautiful day…There were lots of riders dressed in all their finest and it was all we could ask for.”

The service was led by the church, this time being given by Reverend Dave Marshall from St John’s Church and like previous year the local MP, Romford MP Andrew Rosindell and councillors attend. This is true red, white and blue, British bulldog don’t’ mention the EU territory, and the custom brings together all what you expect from this sort of quaint Britishness, even more acute for those towns and villages clinging to the apron strings of the great metropolis whilst still fiercely attached to their independence. Their local MP in fact is the very bastion of Britishness having with him his Staffordshire terrier wrapped up from the cold in its union flag (not Jack please) body warmer.

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Horse whisperers

A selection of rousing hymns were sung, which despite problems with the amplification and the openness of the site managed to fill the green. Mr Rosindell, who read a poem called Ode to the Horse, said:

“Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride, friendship without envy or beauty without vanity? Here, where grace is laced with muscle, and strength by gentleness confined. He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity. There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent, there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient. England’s past has been borne on his back. All our history is his industry; we are his heirs, he our inheritance. The Horse!”

Indeed the event appears to have had a positive effect on the MP who even passed an early day motion on it in Parliament:

That this House congratulates the Havering-atte-Bower Conservation Society for re-establishing the traditional English ceremony of Horseman’s Sunday held at St John The Evangelist Church, Havering Village Green, Romford, on Sunday 12th October; notes with pride that this was the first such event since the early 1970s; commends the organisers for this momentous achievement in re-creating a special day for horses and their riders to attend an open air service of thanksgiving, to be presented with commemorative rosettes and receive a blessing; and believes that Horseman’s Sunday is a joyous event, bringing the entire community together, fostering tradition and encouraging respect for the great British horse, a creature that has been an inspiration and help to man throughout the ages.”

So despite being as little known as other events, the custom even got as far as a mention in parliament https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2011-12-13a.661.0 (where you can read the rest and learn of some little known days, he had certainly done some research) of which he said:

“In my constituency, I attend the annual horseman’s Sunday in the historic village of  Havering ate Bower, where local horses and their owners attend an open air service on the village green and the local MP presents a rosette to every horse.

It is also important that communities have a chance to organise their own local festivals, so why should not each county, town or village designate a particular day of the year as their day to celebrate in whatever way they see fit, bringing everyone together in celebration of their local identity? Fine examples are St Piran’s day in Cornwall and Yorkshire day.

My Bill would also require the Government to prepare and publish a list of festivals and commemorations up to 10 years in advance, to give local communities the chance to plan and prepare fully for all our historic occasions, allowing everyone the opportunity to celebrate those events that are important to them, and to ensure that all anniversaries and traditions are recognised and kept alive rather than relegated to the pages of history books.

My Bill would also address the nature of our bank and public holidays. Under our current system, those that fall on a weekend are transferred to a day following the weekend. For example, this year, Monday 3 January was made a public holiday in lieu of new year’s day, which fell on Saturday 1 January. When that happens, rather than having a meaningless day off next to a weekend, we should use it for a day of greater significance. If we followed that rule for all existing bank holidays, I believe it would be possible to make St George’s day, St Andrew’s day and St David’s day annual public holidays without creating more days off overall, thus not harming businesses or the economy.”

Nice idea, but it didn’t pass but then what do we expect after repeated Governments have failed to sign up the UNESCO Intangible Heritage agreement. Political rant over! Next time I see him I’ll ask him to support this perhaps!

At the end of the service all the horses were blessed and given rosettes which were handed out by Mr Rosindell. Being a faithful crowd Sapphire rosettes given to celebrate the Queen’s sapphire jubilee. Then the whole event was tied up by the British of British things, a BBQ, but unBritishlike the sunshine spoilt the traditional aspects i.e it did not rain!

All in all a great slice of British life in a picturesque place.

 

Custom survived: Colchester Oyster Proclaimation

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Customs which are firmly attached to a specific date are today a rarity; many have now slipped the more convenient nearest weekend – but not Colchester’s Oyster Proclamation, itself a bit of a rarity being an Essex custom. Firmly fixed to the first Friday in September originally the first of September. Why September? Well this is the first month with an R in it!

Now there is another aspect which means witnesses the custom can be a problematic – it is held on a boat in the middle of the estuary. However, this year for logistical reason it returned to shore.

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Shellfishly does it!

Dating from 1540 it is a colourful event full of the right level of pomp but not pompous. Afterall you cannot think yourself too important when you are swaying in the sea. Indeed, The Times in 22nd September 1928 recorded:

“The company were about to drink a toast in gin, in accordance with ancient custom, when the table containing the tiny glasses, filled win gin, overbalanced ad fell, crushing to the deck, together with the small cakes of gingerbread provided for the occasion. Amid hearty laughter fresh supplies were soon forthcoming and the ceremony concluded in the time honoured fashion.”

An article in the Daily Mail suggests the custom can be even more fraught with problems noting:

The oyster-opening ceremony has taken place on the sea for more than 400 years – but not this year and possibly not next year. Mrs Lewis said it was uncertain whether the tradition would even return to the water next year, when she is out of office – because of health and safety. She said: ‘The jury is still out on that one. If the next mayor wants to go back on the water, there are a couple of health and safety issues that need to be addressed. ‘The mayor nearly fell overboard last year so we had to look at the risk anyway.”

The Daily Mail had more to state:

“But because last year’s mayor almost fell into the water as he moved from boat to boat, the ceremony – which dates back to 1540 – was instead staged on land. 

And to make matters worse, the current mayor, Conservative Sonia Lewis, suffers from seasickness, further scuppering any chance of holding the ceremony on the water….Speaking about the decision, Mrs Lewis said: ‘I have never been able to attend the opening of the fisheries because of my inability to tolerate tidal waters. I confirmed on more than one occasion that I was prepared to stand down from the ‘opening of the Colchester oyster fisheries’ this year.”

So that year a Mayor nearly overboard, a seasick and a non-oyster eating Mayor made that year’s event one a memorable one in its possible 2000 year history – a claim deriving from the Roman’s love of Oysters and the significant presence in the Colchester area. Certainly it can be traced back possibly further than its 16th century record possibly to the time when the town confirmed in 1189 by King Richard I that to raise money for a crusade, its control of fishing ‘from North Bridge up to Westness was established. It is worth noting however, the Mayor came over her dislike of oysters stating:

“She had said she would not eat the oyster, describing herself as ‘more of a fish and chip girl’ but she dutifully quaffed it down with a grimace.”

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Being on land does create another obstacle. Part of the ceremony was the Mayor to dredge in the first catch of Oysters…unless he was planning to scout around on the beach or have a long net, that was not going to happen. The solution was to get a local oyster chef in and to give the Mayor the first oyster on a plate to eat.

I was informed that it was alright to attend and take photos and that it would be in the Country Park. Making my way there it was not difficult to work out where it would be happening – a small white marquee at the end of the park near the sea – planned just in case it was wet!

Inside was a hive of activity, a man was shucking oysters in remarkably quick time whilst nearby a lady was carefully filling glasses of gin and another cutting slices of gingerbread. Soon all the attendees turned up with the Mayor and at the allotted time they assembled on a bank overlooking the bay. The curious spectacle of the Sergeant with his mace and the Mayor in full regalia attracted quite a few onlookers. Then the bell was rung and the proclamation read. A toast to the queen and the Mayor tasted the first oyster of the season.

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Gingerly with the gin and gingerbread? .

Soon as the proclamation was made trays of gin and tonic and gingerbread where handed around. I didn’t partake of the G and T but the gingerbread was delightfully moist and flavoursome. I asked why it was gin and gingerbread. No one was sure but it was suggested that the ginger in the gingerbread settled the stomach on a stormy sea and the gin masked the fumes of the boat!

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The ceremony it appears has to be checked out by her majesty herself. Before it a letter is sent to The Queen. In 2004 it is said to have read:

“According to ancient Custom and Charter dating back to Norman times, the Mayor and Councillors of the Colchester Borough Council will formally proclaim the Opening of the Colne Oyster Fishery for the coming season and will drink to your Majesty’s long life and health and request respectfully to offer to your Majesty their expressions of dutiful loyalty and devotion.”

She couldn’t attend but it  was a great pleasure to attend this year’s proclamation, eat the gingerbread and be for once able to hear what is said rather than trying to hear it from the shore.

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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 contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!

Custom revived: The Whitebait Festival

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The days when we all lived in clover, With whitebait, can never revive, I assure you,” said Lawless, “they’re over, But, oh, keep the licence alive.”

Such were the lines from ‘Punch‘ to have two politicians who were commenting on the end of the great Whitebait Feast.

The consumption of baby sprats and herring – commonly called Whitebait – was such a popular dish in Essex that it attracted much ceremony which included members of parliament and even the prime minister!

Raise to the bait

The association with an annual feast apparently is associated with those who funded the Barking Breach, a costly anti-flood venture which was built in 1707. This begun with the host Sir Robert Preson, the Dover MP inviting distinguished guests to his fishing cottage nearby. Then in 1766, the first Whitebait Feast first took place in Dagenham, this was largely a private affair, often attended by politicians and marked the end of the parliamentary season on or around Whit Sunday. The politicians would process by boat to the party. A regular attendee was the then Prime Minster, Pitt the Younger. He was concerned that the venue was too far too London and as such it moved to Greenwich. However this being a political activity there were two locales: the Trafalgar Tavern (for the Liberal members) and the Old Ship Tavern (for the Tories). The last such Dinner was held in 1894 a closure forced by the lack of Whitebait, a consequence of the Thames pollution rather than any political falling out.

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Baited breathe

Then Southend Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry revived it in 1934. The improvement in water quality in the Thames has resulted in spawning occurring not far from Southend pier. Of this first revived feast the Times reported:

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds; whitebait ill-cooked is much nastier than salt cod, and many are the people who do not like whitebait because they have never tasted whitebait worthily cooked and served.”

The custom consisted of an official opening ceremony with the catch blessed at from the end of the pier with the bringing in of the first catch. This catch was then taken to the feast. However a few changes have been made – since the burning down of the pier – the event has moved to the Bawley below Cliff’s Pavillion. The Mayor of Southend, other important people of the town and the ministers of the five different denominations attend. Arriving a few moments earlier one has to peer into the nearby restaurant where the whitebait feast occurs – tickets available from the Round Table – but don’t expect any prime ministers. Here the party assembled and then vicar and mayor carrying a basket of whitebait in a white cloth. Gingerly making their way to the water’s edge, the vicar said a few words and together holding the fish and nearly dropping them they threw them back!  Then the group went to a local restaurant to enjoy the Whitebait – although this is only the first course I would imagine!

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Sadly despite the blessing – much of the whitebait is caught 100s of miles away in the Baltic..and I am not sure the blessing gets that far!