Category Archives: Folk Play

Custom revived: Harthill’s Derby Tup

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A surviving custom?

The Derby Tup or Owd Tup of all the traditions that are to be found along the eastern midlands is the most enigmatic and fascinating.

It is possible that in the Harthill area there is an unbroken tradition of Tupping. On the Sheffield Forum a member called Denise relates that:

“We lived in Renishaw, my Brother and his friends use to do the Derby Tup around Mosborough, Renishaw, Eckington, Barlborough etc through the 1970s. They used to borrow my mother’s Shirley Bassey Wig for my wife and came to our house to count up and share out the money (lots of it).”

This is interesting for two reasons. One because it is close to the village visited in Russell’s 1974 Derby Tup film and his Survey of traditional Drama in North–east Derbyshire 1970-78 and secondly, because it overlaps with the Harthill Morris revival which begun in 1974. Furthermore, the local school continue the tradition and indeed may have since the 1970s.

The Tup play differed according to the village and each village had a different type. A competitive element was introduced when groups of young boys would vie to be the first group in a certain pub to give a rendition and obviously earn the biggest pot. According to Derreck another forum member, who relates that this rivalry ended up in fighting.

What’s tup?

The Tup is a curious play half acted and half sung about a large sheep being seen and then slaughtered. The play starts with the following lines:

Here comes me an’ ar owd lass, Short o’ money an’ short o’ brass: Pay for a pint and let us sup, Then we’ll act the Derby ‘Tup’.

The ram then dances around as the following is recited:

“As I was going to Derby, Upon a market day, I met the finest ram, sir, That ever was fed on hay.

(Chorus repeated after every verse) Faily, faily, ready for haily day!

This ram was fat behind, sir, This ram was fat before, This ram was three yards high, sir, Indeed he was, or more!

The wool upon his back, sir, Reached up to the sky, The eagles built their nests there, For I heard the young ‘uns cry.

The wool upon his tail, sir, Was three yards and an ell, Of it they made a rope, sir, To pull the parish bell.

The space between his horns, sir, Was as far as a man could reach, And there they built a pulpit, But no man in it preached.

This ram had four legs to walk on, This ram had four legs to stand, And every leg he had, sir, Stood on an acre of land.

Now the man that fed the ram, sir, He fed him twice a day, And each time that he fed him, He ate a rick of hay.”

A piece of dialogue then is recited and the Tup is killed. He lays on the floor and the butcher with the knife stands over him:

“The man that killed the ram, sir, Was up to his knees in blood, And the lad that held the pail, sir, Was carried away by the flood.

Indeed, sir, it’s the truth, sir, For I never was taught to lie,And if you go to Derby, You may eat a piece of the pie.

And now our song is ended, We have no more to say, So please will you gi’e us a copper or two To see us on our way.”

At which point a collection is made.

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What’s tup with that?

Many of the older Tups were simple structures made from a broom or even a turnip. In Worksop it was common to use a preserved head – a rather gruesome but effective device. Some had moving jars and illuminated eyes. That of the Harthill Tuppers is the latter, a substantial beast covered in wool with glowing ball eyes, an articulated mouth and a very impressive flapping and rolling tongue.

I planned to see the Tuppers at the Phoenix Inn, Ridgeway. After eating a rather fine meal there, I nearly missed the team as they Introducer came bursting in with his bell, fast behind him came the characters-the Farmer, Old Sal, the fool, the butcher and of course the TupCo-incidentally it is to Ridgeway that Ian Russell in his 1974 documentary on the Derby Tup of which more in a moment.

A pagan ramemberance?

Some folklorists suggest that the theme of the story is pre-Christian in origin. It is easy to read into pagan motifs into the story. The enactment around the summer solstice and new year emphasising this even more. Of course the ram image is a very significant figure. The Devil is always portrayed as goat like, but this is a personification of a pagan god. By killing him as the year ends, perhaps his blood is said to fertilise the land and encourage farm beasts to breed, as a sacrifice.

As with similar customs such as the Poor Owd Oss, it is also tempting to link the custom with the view of the Archbishop of  Canterbury, Theodore in the 7th century Liber Poenitentialis . He complained about tribes dressing in animal skins at the Kalends of January (the 1st) stating:

“whoever at the calends of January goeth about as a stag or bull; that is, making a himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, putting on the heads of the beast, whose who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.”

Indeed, evidence for its greater significance was given as the Tup left to be put in the car, a local lady said is this the Tup upon giving it a touch for good luck. It was interesting to see some traditions die hard!

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Tup and down

In 1974, folklorist Ian Russell toured and interviewed Tups around the Ridgeway. His film is a fascinating window into a custom which whilst in good health was perhaps in failing health. How did something which appears to have thrived die out in the intervening 30 years? But the film perhaps illustrates some reasons why the custom had begun to disappear. Let me discuss the reasons

Firstly, what is worth noting that in a scene in a pub, the death of the animal is greeted with boos! The early 70s was a period linked with greater awareness of such issues and as such younger people would have been less inclined to be involved in such a bloody thirsty custom. Interestingly, I think we’ve gone through the period of time which would seem ‘ritual slaughter’ offensive and now again children would enjoy this. A number of children watching the Tup with me were thoroughly enthralled.

We cannot discount apathy. Children today have many other enjoyments and this is evident in the film that many Tuppers may have been going through the motions. The first team shows this by the group of teenagers either not wanted to be filmed or not wanted to do it. However, the other scenes show more enthusiasm. Of course this lack of involvement combines with three other factors. One being increased affluence. Now that is a good thing of course, but children are less likely to find ways to raise their own money if they don’t need to. This combined with ‘Danger-Stranger’ probably sealed the fate of the original run of the custom – many people could not imagine their young children travelling around pubs to collect money and be concerned, rightly so, for their safety. The final important factor is society’s immunisation to begging. Collecting money for one self this way is frowned upon. I long to hear a Morris team or old custom which collects for itself rather than charity! As the prevailing culture was to collect for a worthy cause, other than themselves, this would be a factor to discourage the Tuppers. This is perhaps combined with ‘Charity lives at home’ attitude.

All these appear to have sadly caused the demise of the Derby or Owd Tup tradition as enacted by children, but fortunately this team excellent and energetically uphold the tradition and long may they continue. However one could not help feel that this was a dying tradition – and even from the words of one the main protagonists – they were not always welcome!

Custom demised: Weyhill Sheep Fair

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“To Wy and to Wynchestre I wente to the feyre.”

So does Langland record Weyhill Fair, in Piers Plowman, in 1377, the largest and most important livestock fair in the country. One of the features were the establishment of booths to sell produce and so many hops from Farnham were sold that they became known as Farnham row.  Like many great fairs despite an ancient provenance it was like others a charter fair…like others it did attract fringe activities – hiring of labour, a pleasure fair, bull baiting and even mummers and mystery plays.

Ancient fair

Twelve twenty five is the fair’s earliest reference being called Fair of Le We then. However this is not a charter. Indeed, the lack of a charter is perhaps because the fair was very ancient lying as it does on ancient crossroads which crisscrossed tin merchants, gold transporter and even pilgrims from as far as way as Cornwall, Kent and the Continent. Laying also on three parishes and three estates helped it escape the need for a Charter. For when in Andover town folk claimed a right to hold their own fair, by 1559 Royal charter, the fair owners claimed that the rules did not apply to their fair!

Court fair

As it grew into the 19th century the volume of trading grew exponentially. Cheeses from all over Wessex were sold and around 100,000 sheep were sold in one day.  Irish horse traders were accused of putting everyone in danger by showing off ‘charged up and down, and over hurdles’. Lawlessness was a common problem and so large was the fair that by the 16th century it was necessary to set up a Court of Pie Powder. This a common feature of large fairs was a court which provided quick settlement on disputes and could punish lawlessness. Wife selling was a custom associated with many fairs and one immortalised by Thomas Hardy in his 1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge. Renamed Weydon Priors one of his characters, Henchard, sells his wife for five guineas. Wife selling was not unknown in the days before divorce was relatively easy and affordable. An account records that a man called Henry Mears bought Joseph Thomson’s wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog – he was originally asking 50 but the account states both parties were happy. I am not so clear as the wife’s opinion.

The fall of the fair

The 1800s was perhaps the final heyday of the fair. By the end of the 19th century it was in decline. William Cobbett in his Rural rides visited the Fair in 1822. He had been a regular attendee for 40 years previous and found it already depressed:

“The 11th of October is the Sheep Fair. About £300,000 used, some few years ago, to be carried home by the sheep-sellers. Today, less perhaps, than £70,000 and yet the rents of these sheep sellers are, perhaps as high, on average, as they were then. The countenances of the farmers were descriptive of their ruinous state. I never, in all my life, beheld a more mournful scene.”

Reports suggest that despite being still the biggest fair in the South in 1867 each year less and less hops and cheeses were being sold.  Sheep and cattle continued to be trade until just after the Second World War. In 1948 only 1400 sheep were sold – a far drop from the 100,000s. The rapid progress of modernity, better roads, rail and communications meant such large meetings were unnecessary. Although the pleasure fair continued to thrive as in many places. In 1957, the last livestock auction was held and then so few animals were sold that the auctioneers deemed it unprofitable. So the fair stopped and unlike other fairs such as Nottingham Goose fair so did the pleasure fair. The booths were bought by a building company Dunnings Associates using them for storage. They themselves went bankrupt and the buildings fell into disrepair. The site is now a light industry site with the Fairground Craft and Design Centre continuing the name and tradition of selling.

Custom revived: The Winster Guisers

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“December 26th. — This evening we had several sets of children ‘guising,’ dressed up in all sorts of queer ways, and singing one thing or other. The ‘Hobby Horse’ came too. Five men — one as a devil, one as a woman, one as an old woman with a besom, one with the Hobby Horse, and one as something or other else. We had them in the kitchen and gave them money.

December 27th. — Troops of children ‘guising’ again. We gave something to each lot. In the evening the Winster ‘Snap Dragon’ and ‘Hobby Horse’ conjoined came to us — ten men, one as Snap Dragon, two with Hobby Horses, two devils, etc., etc. We had them in the kitchen and gave them money.

Llewellynn Jewitt diary from 1867

Anyone who has been following this blog or occasionally visits will know I do enjoy a Mummer’s Play or Folk Play…I could fill the blog with accounts and some years I might experience 20-30 or so from across the country and over the seasons. Previous posts being testament such as the Soulcakers, Nottinghamshire Plough Monday plays and Ripley Guisers..but there are many more of course. One such tradition, a stable mate geographically with Ripley is that of the Winster Guisers, is worth exploring. Why? This is because the group, although a 1980 revival, is based on a curious photo from around 1870 and are rather bizarrely and frighteningly attired.

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Keeping mum on the origin

Some authorities have argued that as Winster has a Morris tradition that the photo is of a Morris troup. Let us look at the evidence on both sides. Firstly, the season, the lack of leaves on the vine in the background suggests winter – the season of mainly mumming not Morris. However, two characters have musical instruments suggesting that the group are dancing yet music does appear in such folk plays for example the Poor Old Horse. This is particularly significant drawing reference to this as the tradition was a Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire-Yorkshire one and the photo may capture a rendition. However, the evidence against this are the other characters – particularly those on what appear to be hobby horses, something more apparent in Morris. However, surely these characters are soldiers riding their horses. Some authorities such as ….state that they do not appear to be in combat, but surely it is not difficult to consider they might jousting with their horses being the objects of conflict? The brooms held by the other characters are more difficult. Broom dancing does exist in Morris but it appears restricted to Molly dancing an eastern tradition of East Anglia and Lincolnshire. Alternatively and more likely these are the sweepers off commonly seen in renditions of the Derby Tup, again a locally prevalent folk play. The final evidence in favour are again those costumes – there is no uniformity, a facet commonly seen in Morris and they are disguised.  The wearing of masks of course is unknown in Morris who would use other forms such as blackening to disguise their features. This does not exclude the possibility but surely the wearing of masks would be an encumbrance for a dancer? It appears all pretty conclusive I feel, and perhaps doubts have only crept in as a result of Winster’s rather odd Morris hangers on – a witch, clown and sergeant – but could these have come from the mummers and not evidence of the other arrangement? Whatever the truth this evocative photo was used as the basis for the modern team but of course a photo does not provide a script.  I enquired about this and the team asked older members of the community who suggested the characters and snippets of the play.

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The team have very faithfully resurrected the costumes from the photograph – the two protagonists wearing military jackets with white trousers. Their heads being wrapped in a white cloth with a clown like imaginary painted upon it. The other characters have been resurrected – the besom carrying one and the doctor.  The script coming from a Cheshire souling play the most likely candidate but no one other than an expert of folk plays would notice of course.

Truly Dis-Guised

I turned up late for the first performance at Matlock..their schedule said 8.45, they started at 8.15…early for mummers is virtually unheard of it was probably a typo. At least this gave me time to settle in at their next venue and get a prime location.

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Soon the play started to a very receptive audience, many of whom had turned up to see it (it is good to advertise). In came the Introducer:

I open the door and I enter in

Your favour I shall win

Here I stand, sit or fall

I’ll do my best to please you all.

A room to enter in

Come raise up the fire, for in this room tonight, there’s going to be a dreadful fight,

So much a fight in this house, we’ll make the rafters ring

If you don’t please the words I say..step in St George, clear the way…”

Then in came the main protagonists Saint George followed by the Black Prince of Paradise both riding curious hobby horses. In came a rather rapid St George on his unusual hobby horse:

“I am St George, noble champion bold,

And was with this sword I will fight crimes again

It was I who fought that fiery dragon and brought him slaughter

For my valour I won fair sheila the King of Egypt’s daughter.

I’ve travelled the world, round and round, is not a man to equal me never have I found,

Shall meet the man that dare stand in front of me and I’ll cut him down with sword in hand

Black Prince: I am Black Prince of Paradise, born of high renowned,

And with this sword I soon fix thy loafty courage down,

In Black Morocco I am King and before this night old,

I’ll see thee lie dead upon this floor and make thy blood run cold

St George: What that thy sayeth

What I say I mean

Stand back thy black Morrocan dog or I’ll drive sword thy die

Cut thy body in four parts and make your button’s fly

I cast thy cut my body in four parts and make your button fly,

My head is made of brass, Me body is made of steel

My arms and legs are knuckle bone and challenge the to feel

Black Prince: Pull out thy purse and beg

St George: Pull out thy sword and fight!

The satisfaction I shall have before I thou goes away tonight.”

Horsing about?

What is unusual about the team shown in the photo are the small hobby horses which these protagonists ride between their legs geld by a cord around the rider’s neck. These appear to be like wooden rocking horse having a flat curved neck with small head and snapping jaws are about two feet long with a cylindrical body. The question being are these the snap dragons or the hobby horses described by Llewellynn Jewitt? Folklorist Cecil Sharp noted that a real horses head snap dragon was being used in 1908 however confusingly the Winster Morris in 1966 state they never had a hobby horse but did have a ceremony where a horse skull would be buried each year and dug up. That is a tradition which survives at Antrobus soul caking  – more of about this skull later.

Dying for a pint

King of Egypt enters similarly disguised in cloth with an Arabic hat: “I am the King of Egypt as proud doth I appear, I’ve come to seek the young black prince who is my son and heir.Where the man who doeth sway is and precious blood he spill?Who is the man upon this ground my only son did kill?”

St George: I did him slay was I who did him kill and on this ground his precious blood did spill. He challenged me to fight with him, did he, before I be a coward, I fight until I die

King of Egypt: St George, St George what have you done, you’ve gone and killed me only son.

My only son, my only heir, how can you leave him bleeding there?

This part then leads to the traditional entrance of a female character, usually a man in drag, but unusually and especially for this year…an actual women:

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Looks like there’s been some fighting in ‘ere , looks like we need a doctor

Is there a doctor who can cure this man of his deadly wounds?

King of Egypt: I’ll give you five pounds for a doctor

Doctor: There’s no five pound doctor.

King of Egypt: I’ll give you 10 pounds for a doctor

Doctor: In comes I who’s never late, With my big head and little wit, my big heads so big and my wits so small, I’ll endeavour to please you all, man of noble vein, no more than thee or any other man

I cames the to be a doctor?

Doctor: By my travels

Why how far hast you travelled?

Doctor: I’ve travelled up and down the country in this manner or that, I’ve travelled from the fireside to the bedside, from the bedside to me grandmother’s cupboard side, got many a lump of mouldy cheesey pie crust that has made me such a fine upstanding figure of man as I am.

Is that all?”

 No I’ve been to Italy, Spitaly, France, Germany and Spain and I come back to the insert pub name again,

What have you seen on your travels?

Two dead men fighting, two blind me seen fair play, two men acting arms pick them up and carrying them away and two dumb men shouted horray horray.

What canst you cure?

I can cure The ip, the pip, the stitch, the patsy and the gout, the pains within and pains out

There be nineteen Devils in a man’s skull I cast 21 of them out.

What else canst you cure?

I can cure a horse of the gout

How does you do that then?

Cut it off and kick it about!

Can you cure hotels?

I can cure horse of the piles

How does you do that?

Flick some salt on its arse and ride it for miles

Is that all your can cure?

No in this bag I’ve got all manner of things, crutches for lame ducks, and spectacles for blind bumblebees, splints for grasshoppers with broken legs and many other useful things

Any chance of curing this man then doctor?

I, I got some medicine. three sips from this bottle, go down his thittle-throttle, If not entirely slain, rise up and fight again.”

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What is clear perhaps from these doctor incidences is that in such communities the doctor was always a questionable character or that one of the least worthy men in the troup played him! After resurrecting the Black Prince he decides to fight St George again but is stopped and the starts the long sequence of begging. One of the most amusing being Little Johnny Jack, played by one of the tallest of the group, who delivered his lines with great emphasis and who had a collection of dolls stuck to his  back:

In comes I little Johnny Jack, it’s my wife and my family I got on my back, now my family is large and I’ve had a little fall, so a little please will help us all. Out of twelve children I’ve got but five, all the rest they’re starving alive, some in workhouse and some down mine, I’ll bring them all with me when I come here next year. Now Christmas comes but once a year, but when it comes it brings good cheer. There’s turkey and taters, and mince pies and no one likes this sort of thing more than these guisers and in. So ladies and gentlemen, sit there at your ease, but you’ll have to give a little to these guisers if you please. And if you don’t give enough to these lads and so then I’ll go back to the beginning and do it all over again.”

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The last line getting the best roar of the whole performance. Johnny Jack was joined by Beelzebub a traditional more threatening character and Little Devil Doubt who threatened:

“In comes in Little Devily doubt and If you don’t give me your money I’ll sweep you all out. It’s your money I want, it’s your money I crave and if you don’t give me your money I’ll sweep you to your grave. If you don’t believe the words I say..step in Old Horse and clear the way.”

This horse was the icing on this rather gruesome cake. A real horses skull, painted black with red circle eyes and controlling it unseen beneath a black sheet it’s handler…it moved on all fours with an eerie quick slow fashion like a horse out of control, or rather like a more benevolent Emu of Rod Hull fame!. He’s rider again eliciting sympathy:

In comes our old horse to bring you good cheer, Merry Christmas and Happy New year..he was a fine horse and now he’s dead, all is left is this poor old horses head, Cause he’s old with wrapped a blanket around him to keep him from the cold. Now he’s come to your house to see you, I pray I look around, a fine horse as ever there’s been

He’s got a Head as handsome as any Derby winner, But nose fine and noble, like a piece of Worcester China, Got an Eye like a hawk and a neck like a swan, ears less as keen they can hear the bells in Pomy church even when not ringing, he’s got a row of teeth big and bright, like new tombstones…a champion horse very well bred..travelled far, he’s been to Buxton and once as far as Elton.

King and Queen once rode behind him and bought him a neat coat but no only pulls an old milk float…When he was born his mother fell dead on spoonfuls of honey he was nursed and fed. Once he danced to many a tune, now he only has one leg and with this leg he has to beg..some coppers and some beer…he’ll dance you a gallop if you come next year.”

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The team sung us a Merry Christmas and the very appreciative audience, one of the best for a mummer’s play, dug deep for charity! Reflecting on a very amusing performance, one could understand the popularity of such plays then when there was an element of surprise in both the characterisation and dress perhaps in the days when many did not see regular performance.  The fights which must have been common place in pubs – they still are – easily got the attention. That combined with patriotic tendencies underlining it was a good one to elicit sympathy and support in the days when everyone appeared to be an enemy the other side of the channel! Furthermore, the plays gave the working classes the opportunity to ridicule the figures of authority as well…the language in some cases may seem a little odd and obscure, but the plays still have the power to make audiences laugh and of course dig deep. Winster Guisers, with its bizarre and scary costumes, unique hobby horse and eerie horse is something the town of Winster should be very proud of. Catch it if you can.

Spot the difference!

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Custom revived: Middleton Pace eggers and Egg rolling

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“It’s an important Manchester United match on…there won’t be any Pace Egging”

Was one paraphrased reply when enquiring about Pace Egging on Easter Monday from the Mossley team. Fortunately, the Middleton team were not some encumbered by a need to watch the footy..after all they could get snatches of it in the pubs.

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What egg-xactly does it mean?

The English can be confusing. Any search for the words Pace Egg will reveal two slightly contradictory uses of the phrase – a play and a decorated egg, the precursor of the chocolate egg, which is rolled down the hills.  This usage is noticeable in Lancashire.

The name Pace derives from Pasche which is derived from the Hebrew Passover which is when traditionally the Crucifixion is associated with. The term probably survived in the Lancashire region, like the burning Judas custom because of the large number of recusant Catholics and Irish catholic immigrants.

How did this confusion arise I think Poulson (1977) in her North Country Traditions gives us the clue:

“Children used to call door to door, sometimes selected houses in the district where they lived and stated that they were pace-egging. The householder would then offer an egg as a gift.”

What probably happened is that the play arose independently and largely became debased in areas where the children took it over as they did not practice and so it continued as a house visiting custom probably based around singing as their entertainment form. As it was Easter time, people would give eggs which they knew would be used as either food, rolled down the hills or both. Hence the name being used for both.

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The Middleton Pace Eggers have avoided this confusion by doing both! For after the play which finishes at the highest point of the town and the group move to a slopping field beside the church. So if you want to get two Easter traditions in following the Middleton Pace Eggers is a must

Egging you on?

There is evidence of Pace Egging in the area in the 18th century. As Joan Poulson (1977) North Country Traditions notes:

“a seventy-six year old Manchester man told me in 1974 that it was regular custom for school children to go Pace-Egging on Good Friday before 1910 and that afterwards it may have persisted for a year or two in some locations. The nineteen-four-teen/eighteen war certainly put an end to it.”

This group is one of the oldest of the revivals, 50 years in 2017. Unusually it is one which owes their existence to well known folk comedian Mike Harding who compiled the script from various plays such as those at Bury. Being a writer, Mike added some artistic license to the play and elaborated on some of the characters and made them more prominent such as the section with the Quack Doctor and St. George. Fortunately it is the doctor who has played the role since the 1967 that keeps the playing going on.

Pace yourself!

Like most other folk plays…one could see this as glorified pump crawl, although how the team can remember their lines after so many pints at the end is always a mystery!!

My first encounter was on the streets of Middleton a small town on the outskirts of Manchester, having just left their first pub – the Dusty Miller. They were a rag bag group of curiously dressed people – recognisable were a King with a crown, a black faced Turkish Knight, St. George the most obvious, as well as a whole pantheon of bizarrely dressed people including a horse on that pub crawl with a difference.

Entering the first pub, a Wetherspoons, I could not resist the temptation cracking that horse at the bar joke. The group knew there script well and certainly put passion and power into it…pity that no one thought of turning off the music blearing over them in the pub! A well…a sort break for some beer and up the hill to a more traditional spit and saw dust establishment. The crowd may have been smaller, but there was no music and they seemed quite appreciative and laughed in all the right bits!  There is something quite addictive in following these plays…the script is the same but you feed off the ab-libs and often as the drink takes over the mistakes.

Eggstrordinary story

The story is a familiar one! A story of conflict, death and resurrection – a more appropriate theme for Easter than at other times. The characters are the King of England and his son St. George, his antagonistic partner the Turkish Champion and Bold Slasher, the doctor, Beelzebub and Derry Doubt. Familiar characters and then the team have two unusual characters a ‘female’ clown called Miss Kitty Fair and impressive black horse called Dobbin. The basic plot concerns St George fighting the Turk. At first defeated (to the accompaniment of boos), St George is brought back to life by the mysterious Doctor and finally defeats his adversary

Curiously, the play starts with all the characters in a circle and they sing a song introducing themselves. Round one – Captain Slasher fights the Turkish Knight. The former wounded! Round two – St George fights the Turkish Knight (after some egging on from the King). The former dies! Everyone is distraught! In comes the Doctor with his unruly horse…and he ‘cures’ St. George. Round three – St George fights the Turkish Knight! Death to the Turkish Knight. Owd Beelzebub and Derry Doubt sweep up for some money (charity not beer!)

Small and almost children take on the Turkish Knight and almost win!

Last stage of the tour is the Ring O’Bells. Here we encountered what I consider one the scourge of events….the professional photographer. Don’t get me wrong,  I like to get a good shot, but sometimes I do think that these people arrogantly think the show is set up for them, just swan in at the end and demand photos. I know we all need publicity but I do think that such people can look down at the event for the sake of copy. Rant over! Having said this the custom is well supported by the press the Middleton Guardian reporting:

“Nowadays most of us are older and the joints are rather stiffer, so the prospect of carrying out a schedule like that doesn’t bear thinking about. Most memorable perhaps is the wonderful feeling as the team walk up through Jubilee Park and approach the final pub, The Ring O’ Bells. Although the crowd can vary, often dependent on the weather, on a good day, we can be welcomed by an appreciative crowd, waiting expectantly outside the pub, and the warmth of the welcome makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

At the Ring O’Bells we were greeted with bright but chilly weather and the team set the play outside. What is delightful is that the group are keep to accept volunteers, mainly children in their play. Here they solicited others for any children to join  in to slay the Turkish Knight…this was feverishly taken up by one boy who despite making a valiant effort was dispatched but kept coming back to life. Another appeared to also not read the brief and was determined to kill the Turkish Knight aiming for some more delicate places on the way. Without doubt the last performance was the best and all the team with the children who helped out got together for a group photo.

Then it was off for some egg rolling. This was clearly very well known in the area for a large congregation of children clutching eggs had appeared at this point. This rolling was a simple but nevertheless effective. The King blew his horn and the eggs were rolled and some went some great distances…sweets being given as prizes…once the rollers had climbed the steep hill up that is.

A King but no soldiers for the eggs!

A King but no soldiers for the eggs!

This I would say is the most important part of the custom and one which other similar customs could take points from…children are actively involved. One would hope that by doing so, especially encouraging participation in the play, the play’s survival is assured..perhaps such teams should invest in Junior  tours although it would have to be a tour of soft play centres…mind you there are plenty of them!

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs … http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/pace-egg-plays/

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Custom contrived: The Bankside Twelfth Night Wassail

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Wassailing appears to be all the rage in folk circles with revivals occurring all over. I had planned to discuss another custom for January, but after travelling back from Australia for Christmas and as I was in London, I decided to see this event and became so entranced by it that I felt I needed to extol its virtues.

Appropriately for someone coming from overseas, Bankside is a sort a microcosm of the modern day Britain. Old terraces share their boundaries with a resurrected Elizabethan Theatre, The Globe, whilst the shell of a monstrous power station holds a bizarre collection of art nearby. All lay along a mighty river. Quintessentially Britain in a nutshell. So it seems appropriate to establish a folk custom here which distils a number into one event!

Roaring success!

Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe was apparently the inspiration for this enterprise. A group, The Lions Part, being a spin of the Original Shakespeare Company based at the Globe, established the event in 1994 and it has gone from strength to strength since. For many there, this may be the first and only encounter with British folk customs and so the Lions Part have a large responsibility placed upon their shoulders. I did feel considering the enormous numbers watching the Mummer’s play, that someone should have been leafleting for mummers play countrywide…Like this? Why not try a Plough Monday play?

Despite the contrived nature of the custom, this is a custom which works…many because of the enthusiasm and professionalism of the performers but also because it is a curious amalgam of great British customs…a Green Man, Wassailing, Mummer’s Play, Molly dancing, Father Christmas, Twelfth Night cakes and the Lord and Lady of Misrule and even a tree dressing. Nothing was missed to make this smorgasbord of customs.

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A Holly Man for all seasons

The arrival of the Holly Man despite the modern panorama before us still has an ancient evocative appeal. Rowed by an old Thames Cutter, his image comes closer to view. To a number of people watching on the embankment, this must have been a very bizarre sight and not one they thought they may have encountered as they checked out Tate Modern! On the steps awaited Beelzebub carrying two flaming torches, a stag and a white bear (based on the Polar bear of the medieval Tower).

The Holly Man is a fine if possibly rather uncomfortable sight! Impressively covered head to toe in a variety of holly, ivy and yew, his face painted green with tendrils and leaves applied overall very otherworldly. Potentially the Holly Man looks very scary indeed but fortunately David Ridley who play him, spends a lot of time smiling.

The Holly Man is a curious character in folklore, identified by Robert Graves in The White Goddess as the Holly King who represented one half of the year being at his strongest at the Midwinter period and weakest naturally at Midsummer, when the Oak King ruled.  Whilst as an archetype it is an obvious model, there is no evidence that such a figure existed in England, although he is clearly popular with Neopagans.

And it Wassail from him and Wassail from me!

“Wassail” cried the crowd in unison! They had been here before I feel. Holding a wooden bowl filled with alcohol a scrib sheet was unfurled for the crowd and the first Wassail was read:

“Blow wind. Blow boat well, Ride well on the tide, Every beam and every sail, Bear the crew bravely home each sailing day.”

The group then moved through the massed crowds like rock stars at a concert to the steps of the Globe theatre. Here the doctor unfurled the second sheet and the crowd shouted:

“Blow wind. Globe bear well, Spring well in playing, Every lath and timber, Bear the tongues of poets, Next New Year’s summer.”

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The group then moved with their swarming crowd to an arena nearby for their mummer’s play. The characters of this play ranged from those still in circulation in the ‘modern’ mummers – St. George, Turkish Knight, Father Christmas, Beelzebub and the Doctor. To this they added Prudence, Gill Finney, Cleverlegs and Twelfth Bake, some of which have an authentic Elizabethan flavour.

The play, which was certainly longer than your average Mummer’s performance had all the usual ingredients, conflict between St. George and Turkish Knight, his death and resurrection at the hand of the Doctor with various add on scenes. The play was without doubt the slickest and best mummer’s play I had seen. That is no slight upon the many extremely enjoyable amateur performances, but of course, when professionals are involved like the theatre the result can be excellent. The best performance was by Justin Brett who played Beelzebub, he easily embodied the mischief and devilish nature of the character….very much like a court jester, and indeed he reminded me of Timothy Claypole of BBC TV classic show Rentaghost.  He was very amusing and played the crowd excellently during a section where he cried out for topics from 2013 to create rhymes…although I worried I had gone through a time worm hole when someone shouted ‘Olympics’. Certainly amongst the topics such as flooding, a rhyme about the death of Margaret Thatcher was well pitched to the clientele of Southwark and ‘arty’ establishment who were not exactly big supporters of the Iron Lady…it engendered the biggest laughs let us say!

Mind you Peas and Beans

After the Mummer’s play, cakes are distributed for the crowning of the King Bean and Queen Pea. Twelfth Night is an event that now has only become synonymous with taking the decorations down, (see a forthcoming February post for comment on this), but from medieval times to early 1800s it was a time to celebrate often with feasts and fun. Often the day would be associated with a Lord of Misrule character that would overturn the usual master and servant relationship. As time went on, many of the traditions associated with it died out…the cake lasting the longest before being brought back to Christmas Day itself. Yet despite its apparent demise it is interesting to see that you can’t keep an old custom down!

Cakes were duly given out…although I was missed…and the Holly Man held their twig crowns awaiting the discovery of the King and Queen. Poet Herrick noted the “King of the Bean” in the 17th century:

“Now, now the mirth comes,
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also,
Must revel as queen in the court here. Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not,
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here, Which known, let us make,
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here.”

 This custom appears to have been popular in Tudor times having been imported from France or Spain, the finder of the bean would be the King and the pea the Queen As a custom it died out in the 1700s I believe and so again it was great to see the group revive it. However, this year there was some problem finding the pea I believe, someone must have swallowed it unbeknownst and so someone volunteered to be the King Bean. So the King and Queen, both women. After this we travelled to the George Inn, Southwark. The curious assemble of onlookers, now becoming entranced by the whole spectacle gladly held hands and made their way to the watering hole in a giant unbroken daisy chain. Once at the pub, the Holly Man with his Bean and Pea royalty read their third Wassail.

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“Wassail to this old building, Long may she stand, Every barrel and every brew, Cheer the company bravely, Every drinking day!”

Here a miniature tree was also wassailed

“Here’s to this little apple tree, Long may it bear fruit, Every barrel, every brew, Cheer the company bravely, every drinking day.”

The group promised storytelling and dancing. I stayed for the dancing, Molly dancing from East Anglia, just to collect the folk collage.

What is curious is that the Bankside Twelfth Night, despite its twenty year vintage has soon become a focus for modern pagans. Like a modern day fertility symbol, there appeared to be no shortage of young women wishing to pose with the Holly Man, again underlining our need in this modern world for a fertility symbol. Perhaps for many here the surrealist day they might experience…especially for me with my day starting with a cup of tea with Noel Gallagher sitting beside me in Tate Modern. Rock stars. Modern Art. Holly Man…it’s difficult to work out what is more surreal!

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Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/bankside-twelth-night-celebrations/

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom survived: Handsworth Sword Dancers

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Handsworth sword dancersBoxing Day…much has been said of it. The most depressing day of the year, after all it’s a whole year until Christmas Day, the turkey sandwiches pile up, broken toys and games you’re already bored of, crushing hangovers and the feeling you’ve over-indulged and don’t forget the sales! Ah yes the sales, a custom in its own right. I try to avoid them…after all you’ve spent so much over Christmas, why spend more? However, one year I convinced my wife to visit the shrine of Northern consumerism Meadowhall…so I could see the Handsworth Sword Dancers.

Cut above the rest

The Handsworth team are one of a select few of surviving long sword dancers. First reported in the late 1800s and despite the name originally they came from Woodhouse. This earliest notice appears to have been made by a local clergyman recanting seeing them dance in the 1870s when he was a boy. It was in 1880 when most of its members were from Handsworth that the move was made.  In 1913, the famous folk dance enthusiast and Morris dancing revivalist Cecil Sharp visited and documented the group and they producing recall how they are one of the few groups which have survived the years since. Fortunately, unlike other teams which fell into abeyance or died out during the wars, being miners they were never called up for the First nor Second World War and unlike other customs it survived unbroken during this period. However, this is not to say the subsequent periods were not problematic, aging members (a common theme), a lack of permanent musicians, were among the reasons why the custom was sporadically kept up in the intervening year.  Yet the team survived and by 1963 they became revitalised and it was then that they decided to formalise their custom. It was decided that rather than go out over the December period the event was firmly fixed to Boxing Day.

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Strictly sword dancing!

The Handsworth team are sword dancers and although this is allied to Morris dancing there is a lot of difference. Firstly watching the dancers one is struck by the complexity of the dance. Secondly, the intensity and focus of the team and then thirdly the ritualistic nature. A dance can last for 9 minutes and during which the team will snake in and out, under and above their swords, swirl around and about, whilst in some cases doing some nifty footwork. Sharp (1913) described it as:

“This is a high springing, exuberant, running step, the dancers as they bound from one foot to the other freely raising the knee of the free leg. In movements like the ring (run around), and whenever the dancer has a clear space before him, the step is executed as vigorously as possible. At other and less favourable moments in the dance , it is modified and dance more quietly. Occasionally too, the dancers do a kind shuffling step, lazily dragging the free leg on the ground.”

This rather freeform nature has changed over the years and the dance has become more regimented but no less hypnotic in its nature.

I arrived at their dancing arena, which although traditionally was located in front of their parish church, it’s clear that over the intervening years, what may have been a picturesque location has been ruined by the dual carriage way behind to such an effect I wonder what the non –locals hurtling along this carriage way make of the dancers and their large group of bystanders. It was very cold and snow had settled slightly in areas and I was concerned that the ground may have been a bit too slippery…but I was reassured that its gone come what weather.

In come the clowns….and out again!

What is an enjoyable aspect of this team, compared to other similar events is that by attending we can celebrate three customs in one. Firstly there is the dance, there is a small break of some traditional Yorkshire Carols, at the time my first confused exposure to them..why were they singing different words? The other main aspect is the ‘mummer’s play’ this is a major attraction to the custom junkie and it usually rotates between two local plays: the Derby Tup and the Poor Owd Oss as below. When I visited there was a rendition of the Poor Owd Oss and a number of the group were dressed up as horse and riders. Their rendition was interesting and very amusing but didn’t appear to resemble that done elsewhere.

The play appeared to be done a differently dressed group. These I presumed were the clowns. These clowns were a regular feature of the team and their role appears to be to entertain the crowds during the dance, or probably between them, collect money and even get involved in the dance such as the lock. They were revived in the 1970s and were used to start the dance and clear the area with usual clown frivolity. The clowns appear now to be in the interludes, the plays and disappear or revert to dancers during the dancing part.

The striking thing about the Handsworth team is their uniforms which are based on a Hussars and suggest a military origin for the custom which seems likely of course, or otherwise it was done to make the group look more official.  The swords of course are not real swords but long strips of metal attached to a hilt. One wonders whether there did work with real swords.

As drifts of snow flowed across the dancing arena I became bewitched by that ritual rhythm of the custom. The dance frenetic yet fluid, the crowd cheering as it appeared to get more complex, one member jumps over another, in and out swirly around, and then the big cheer as the captain held the interlocked swords in the classic star shape. The team, made of an age from teen to geriatric were remarkable in their suppleness. Indeed, when I visited they had made flyers for new members disclosing that there was 70 years between the oldest and youngest. An account in the South Riding Folk Network News relates

“There are all sorts of reasons why we’re struggling for numbers” says their captain, John Pitts whose father Harry faced with similar problem back in the 1960s “some of the older ones are feeling aches and pains after 40 years of dancing. Several other regular dancers have moved away from Sheffield, two of them to University.”

They’ve survived since it appears. It’s such a shame I don’t live nearer as I fancy giving it a go!

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– images copyright Pixyled Publications

 

Custom revived: Poor Owd Oss

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Neigh Neigh!

Was it raining? It appeared that a month’s rain fell on Kimberley that evening as I made myself to an obscure pub in an out of the way part of the town. It was heavy..cold rain which gets in through your coat, under your skin, chills you…what did I expect it was the week before Christmas and there I stood in watching for the arrival of the Owd Oss…in a small typical suburban pub. Perhaps not the most likely one to see an old custom, but with it’s no nonsense decrepit decor, seats with the leather torn exposing their stuffing and mock Tudor woodwork, perhaps the most evocative. Arriving there early, I enquired if I had arrived at the correct place..yes they said they’ll arrive a little later and asked if I’d like a drink. I did a tea please….it was all I could have to warm me and for once a large mug was produced without any form of tutting or eye rolling! It was clearly a local’s pub, although unlike some local ones, it was in no way intimidating, but I did wonder what they would think when the Owd Oss would appear. Then through the rain appeared the team…running to avoid the wet from their car!!

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A kingdom for a horse!

Mayfield (1976) in his Legends of Nottinghamshire records a rendition done in the Mansfield area. Although called a mummer’s play it contains the least amount of dialogue and is mainly sung. The Owd Oss or Old Horse consisting of a painted horse’s skull on a stick which was often set up for it to snap shut.  The play itself describes a worn out horse. A report of the custom notes:

“A group of men would enter a pub or house and after reciting three verses of a prologue, would bring in Owd Oss which consisted of a man draped in a dark cloth with a carved horse’s head fastened to a stick. Rough music invariably followed the blacksmith’s attempt to shoe the horse, while the rest of the company played their parts. Then drinks were called for and the question was put could the Owd Oss manage to drink? The jaws of the horse were so arranged that a bear glass could be inserted and the moment of truth-and achievement- for the player performing the Owd Oss depending on the ability to take his drink without removing a scrap of his gruesome equipment.”       

Horse whispers…

Poor Owd Oss distribution was a north Midlands – Yorkshire one, with the longest continued tradition appearing to be in the 1970s in Dore on the outskirts of Sheffield. It appears to have been common in Nottinghamshire, particularly in Mansfield in the 1870s, but played until 1914, although as noted there is record in 1921 for the children of the village at school party. The local newspaper Mansfield Chad recorded a revival in 1984, but this appears to be a one off. Nothing appears recorded of the custom in the midlands for over 20 years. Then Dave Mooney, member of the Black Pig Morris and one of the Oss’s musicians apparently had the idea to revive it reading a book on folklore and customs in bed once, which noted that the Poor Owd Oss was enacted in Kimberley written by Mason (1902). He at the time was the member of a local Morris team and thought he would do some research. Lo and behold he found a script that was done in Kimberley and so getting a small group of musical friends together resurrected it in 2005. At first the Oss consisted of a papier-mâché skull, then one made of railway sleepers and finally a real horse’s skull. This skull is painted red, has LED eyes and other lights. Unlike the first skull this structure does not open and close its jaw – which is a shame. All skulls are attached to a pole and carried by a man cloaked and wearing a silver death mask. The reviver of this custom was Dave Mooney who informed me that he came across the custom whilst idly reading a book on traditions in bed! That year, after the discovery of the above script recorded by Mason in 1902 and information that is was done in Kimberley, with some musician friends and Morris men revived it. They custom is only undertaken one night, usually the week before Christmas and involves visiting local pubs usually three or four a night, including in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and mainly Kimberley in Nottinghamshire.

Take a horse to water…

It is also tempting to link the custom with the view of Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore in the 7th century Liber Poenitentialis who complained about tribes dressing in animal skins at the Kalends of January (the 1st) stating:

“whoever at the calends of January goeth about as a stag or bull; that is, making a himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, putting on the heads of the beast, whose who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.”

Perhaps the Poor Owd Oss is a survival of this Winter solstice observation with this custom being a continuation of a form of pagan animal worship. However, it could have equally arisen in the Industrial period as a response with something to do with the skulls of pit ponies to raise some money!

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Horse play

With traditional blackened, reddened and whitened faces, alone the musicians and the Introducer shocked some of the pub’s regulars. Then the Introducer began to sing:

“By leave, you gentlemen all,   Your pardon I do crave, For making bold to come, To see what sport you’ll have. There’s more in company, They’re following close behind; They’ve sent us on before, Admittance for to find. These blades they are but young; Never acted here before; They’ll do the best they can, And the best can do no more.”

At this point the Old Oss arrives and the music is started and the introducer starts the main part of the song. As he does so the Oss parades through the crowd causing mischief: The opening verses were song with great vigour and the arrival of the Oss, a real horse’s skull painted red, accompanied by its stirring banjo, trumpet and drum was very impressive. The song goes:

“This is my poor old horse, that has carried me many a mile, Over hedges, over ditches, over high-barred gate and stile; But now he has grown old, and his nature does decay, He’s forced to snap at the shortest grass that grows along the way;”

At the end of each verse the crowd would cry:

“Poor old horse! Poor old horse!”

 The song would those continue:

“His coat it was once of the linsey-woolsey fine, His mane it grew at length, and his body it did shine, His pretty little shoulders that were so plump and round, They’re both worn out and aged; I’m afraid he is not sound; Poor old horse! Poor old horse!

His keep it was once of the best of corn and hay, That ever grew in cornfields, or in the meadows gay; But now into the open fields he is obliged to go, To stand all sorts of weather, either rain, or frost, or snow; Poor old horse! Poor old horse!

His hide unto the tanner I will so freely give; His body to the dogs; I would rather him die than live: So we’ll hang him, whip him, strip him, and a-hunting let him go; He’s neither fit to ride upon, or in the team to draw;
Poor old horse! Poor old horse!”

Then the team got themselves together and off to the next pub. Here there was a bigger crowd and some of them happily joined in with the verses. Then after their third pub…it was into the night, back to the stable for another year.

Stable revival

What I enjoyed about this revival was it was done for the right reasons, for the need to continue something unique to the area. Richmond, Yorkshire has similarly revived theirs, but with its attendance to proper pubs and working men’s locations, there is something earthier and working class about this revival and more in keeping with its origins I feel. The Poor Owd Oss is a Nottinghamshire – Derbyshire tradition and it is great to see that local people recognise this. The Owd Oss is done because it should be done and long may it continue quietly to be enjoyed in the obscure areas of Nottinghamshire.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications