Category Archives: Food

Custom survived: Reach Fair and Penny Scramble Cambridgeshire

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Regular readers of posts will have noticed fairs have been covered quite a bit this year. This will probably be the last one for a bit but it certainly is an unusual one to end with. It has the attributes of the other fairs covered here – rides, fast food and an opening from the Mayor. But the opening by the Mayor is more dramatic plus bizarrely it is a Mayor from the nearby city not the village it is in.

Within Reach

There is something ancient about Reach and its fair. I decided to travel to the fair via the Devil’s Dyke path following this ancient Anglo-Saxon entrenchment which ended at the village and one part of the fair even lay along it. Reach itself is a small settlement, a picturesque village, nestled around a green called Fair Green. Officially, it received charter in 1201 it is probably much older and likely dates back to the Saxon period. Over the years like many fairs it has changed. Despite being a small village, it was economically important to East Anglia, even nationally possibly internationally important being noted for selling ponies. These would fill the village and the auction would be held at the Hythe where a large stone still stands called the Auction Stone, the bids being struct for the third time. Over time like nearly every fair in the UK it moved from trade to fun.

Reaching out

I arrived a few minutes before the official opening of the fair. Making my way to the centre of the village, to Fair Green, where in this small area were crammed an array of whirling and buzzing rides; a big wheel, dodgems and a Maypole! It was May day after all!

Then at midday, the Cambridge Corporation and the Mayor party arrived. The Mayor being attended by the Aldermen and women in top hats and sergeant at Mace and various dignitaries from the University who processed to the bank and their assembled. They were given flower posies made by the local children, originally to keep the smells away! Below them the whole of the fair assembled waiting for the proclamation and more importantly for the hundreds of children – the penny scramble!

The Sergeant-at-Mace stood forward rang his bell, or rather dropped his clanger as it didnt work, and gave the proclamation:

“The King, by a charter dated at Geddington, the 8th of January, in the 2nd year of his reign, and tested by Roger bishop of St. Andrew’s, Geoffery Fitzpeter earl of Essex, Robert earl of Leicester, William earl of Sarum, and others, granted to the burgesses of Cambridge the following privileges :

  1. That they should have a gild of merchants.
  2. That no burgess should plead without the walls of the borough of any plea, save pleas of exterior tenure (except the King’s moneyers and servants).

III. That no burgess should make duel; and that with regard to pleas of the Crown, the burgesses might defend themselves according to the ancient custom of the borough.

  1. That all burgesses of the merchant’s gild should be free of toll, passage, lastage, pontage, and stallage, in the fair, and without, and throughout the ports of the English sea, and in all the King’s lands on this side of the sea, and beyond the sea, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).
  2. That no burgess should be judged by arbitrary amerciaments, except according to the ancient late of the borough existing in the time of the King’s ancestors.

  3. That the burgesses should have justly all their lands and tenures, wages and debts whatsoever, to them due, and that right should be done to them of their lands and tenures within the borough, according to the custom thereof.

VII. That of all the debts of burgesses which should be contracted at Cambridge and of the appearances there to be made, the pleas should be holden at Cambridge.

VIII. That if anyone in all the King’s dominions, should take toll or custom from the men of Cambridge of the merchant’s gild, and should not make satisfaction, the Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, or the Bailiff of Cambridge, should take therefore a distress at Cambridge, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).

  1. That for the amendment of the borough, the burgesses should have a fair in Rogation week, with all its liberties as they had been accustomed to have.
  2. That all the burgesses of Cambridge might be free of yereshyve and of scotale, if the King’s sheriff or any other bailiff had made scotale.

  3. That the burgesses might have all other liberties and free customs which they had in the time of the King’s ancestors, when they had them better or more freely.

XII. That if any customs should be unlawfully levied in war, they should be broken.

XIII. That whosoever should come to the borough of Cambridge with his merchandise, of whatever place, whether stranger or otherwise, might come, tarry, and return in safety, and without disturbance, rendering the right customs.

XIV. That any one causing injury, loss or trouble, to the burgesses, should forfeit a £10 to the King.

  1. That the burgesses and their heirs, might have and hold the foregoing liberties, of the King and his heirs, peaceably, freely, quietly, entirely, and honourably in all things.”

Much of the proclamation being largely incomprehensible to the crowd of course but of course everyone was waiting for the penny scramble. It is worth noting that the fair was originally on Rogation Monday later being moved to May Day Bank holiday for the convenience of the attendees. Like many fairs it was a time for homecoming. The second worth noting is that the charter allowed the development of a Pie Powder court to deal with trade offences and civil disobedience. This later point was of importance because it was said that it was the time when local people would fight with their neighbours and the nearby Upware men would make it the day the fought with Reach and got their hair cut! Indeed, in 1852 the local newspaper reported that a serious fire was caused by:

“Dissolute characters… attracted by the Annual Horse Fair”

Charles Lucas records in his 1930 Fenman’s world:

“Between ten and eleven o’clock things begin to get a bit lively as Upware and boxing, or rather free fighting, seemed to be the order of the day…the Wicken and Swaffham police were dealt with summarily, one being pitched into the Lode and the other into the Fen drain…at this time a crank Cambridge, a from Jesus graduate, Richard Ramsey Fielden MA, gave out that he was King and champion of Upware and he spent his time there arguing and fighting the bargees…it was though that he was the originator of the proceedings

Reach for the pennies!

Then after the proclamation the members of the corporation called Colts and Fillies apparent reached into their pockets for their bags of coins and then with very little fanfare we were off. Coins flew through the air. At one point coins fell from the sky like bullets. Below the children were prostrate on the ground, searching every blade of grass for the golden pieces, glinting in the light. I looked down and saw some children making large bundles of coins clutched in his hand beaming widely.

The barrage was constant and just when I thought it had stopped more coins appeared. The children were hungry for it and then it stopped. The crowd disappeared and the sound of the fair cranked up and it was open. Morris dancers appeared and danced. Young children did Maypole dancing – and sadly got tangled up and burgers were sold. Reach fair an obscure oddity and a great day to spend the May Day. Certainly much of the surrounding area agreed people were walking the roads for miles from nearby villages.

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Custom Survived: Rivington Pike Good Friday Walk and Fair

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 “When I lived in Horwich in Lancashire (UK) in the early 1950s, we used to walk up to the old hunting lodge on the top of Rivington Pike on Easter Monday. There was always a fair up there – heaven knows how they got up there in those days – and we kids would roll our hard-boiled, hand-painted Easter eggs down the hill and chase after them. Then, having looked at all the stalls and tried out some of the treats, filled with candy-floss and ice-cream and carrying cheap wooden toys, we’d walk home through the Chinese Gardens. ….Then it was back to work for the men on Tuesday morning, and back to school for us. Anyone else ever go up the Pike at Easter? Is the fair still there, and do kids still roll eggs? Probably not, but I’d be interested to hear.”

Mudcat Cafe forum Will Fly in 2010

Rivington Pike arises like a large beacon on the horizon, glinting in the sunlight. It appears to calling people to come, climb and reach the summit and on Good Friday the surrounding towns and villages make the pilgrimage to the top; although perhaps they don’t really know why! Or rather the origins, for today the pleasures of the view, some pace egging or egg rolling and a fun fair are more than enough to pass the day.

This year the sun was shining, a rarity for Good Friday, but again it was late April and more than ever Rivington was a draw. As one drove through the villages, scores of people carrying picnics and surrounded by children appeared to heading to it. The closer one became, the road became more and more choked up with cars jockeying for position, for someone to park. At the slopes thousands of people were gathered and hundreds of cars, each possible place was filled and after a while a small gap on the road was found. Parked I made my way to summit and joining the thousands who had decided to.

Pike walk

How long people have been walking to the summit is not really known. It is known that a fair was established in 1900 on the lower slopes, having moved from an original Whit Sunday. This became a major draw card for visitors however it is only here because of the large numbers not caused by them! A local newspaper reports how in the 1920s that the holidaymakers of Lancashire towns such as Chorley would make a beeline for the hill:

“Chorley people will tonight commence the Easter holiday all the more cheerfully in the knowledge that there will be no extended stoppages at local mills over the holiday period. Chorley people as a rule do not go away for the Easter holiday, though the day excursions being run from the town are expected to be fully utilised. Weather permitting there will be the traditional trek on Good Friday to Rivington Pike.”

Such large numbers attracted more than just fairs and Christian groups would ascend the Pike to orate on the Good Friday message. It is very probable that the walk to the top was by church congregations to celebrate Good Friday. Today the message is still there, proclaiming ‘Jesus Saves’ on a banner across the Pike but no organised services appear to be there. An account from 2009 at least suggests local people remember the importance of the day in the church:

“A special mention must go to an excellent and original effort from a couple of charity fundraisers we witnessed at the Pike, dressed as Jesus and The Queen. Complete with wooden cross and thorny crown Jesus ascended the Pike where he spoke to the multitude offering to perform a “sponsored walk on water”. The characters were portrayed in a completely inoffensive manner, and very popular with the crowd.

Just keep climbing

It was so hot and the walk was punishing, perhaps reminding those of the Passion, and when one thought one was close there were still more to go. Finally past the delightful gardens which cloak the slope, the moorland opened up and the Pike could be seen as could the snake of people reaching the top. As one got closer, crushed eggs could be seen by the wayside. Worn eggs or those who didn’t make it.

Then finally the Pike was in reach and its swarmed with people of all ages. I watched as one by one the stream of pilgrims reached the summit and ceremonially placed their hand on the odd monument at the summit. Each person did it and in one crevice, flowers were placed to remember someone who was not able to reach it this year. I asked one of the people who was most determined to place their hand there. ‘It’s a good luck for the rest of the year’ they said.

Just keep rolling

As I surveyed the area, it was evident that this was a family affair – three or sometimes more generations made it to the top. Speaking to Jean, in her 70s, she said she been going on and off since the 1960s and remember her grandparents coming with them. Why? Well the view was amazing, the fair was always a draw and the pace egging. Yes, for on the top hundred of children had assembled with their coloured eggs to roll down the steep slopes. Unlike other places, such as Fountains Abbey, where the rolling is organised with prizes, here it was completely impromptu – well as impromptu as climbing a hill with some pre-prepared eggs can be. Everywhere eggs were tumbling and in some cases children too down the very steep slopes. The dogs around getting confused by the balls they could eat as well! This again was a generational thing, the adults having as much fun rolling – without any kids and playing an egg rolling equivalent of dodgeball or dodge-egg! A real tradition untainted by commercialisation.

Finally after admiring the rolling, the views and enjoying the sunshine I walked down, trying to miss the flying eggs, to the fair below. This laid on a dirt track below the hill but apparently was once on the upper slopes holding on, on those fierce Good Friday winds, precariously holding on, the bouncy castles almost bouncing off. A small fair but popular, Northern soul tracks pumping out of the hook a duck stall…creating a special northern feel. The Rivington Pike Good Friday walk is one of those sort of spontaneous customs which are rare today, it may have had a fair attached to it, the walk still appears rain or shine, wind or calm conditions, to be the goal. I was just thankful that it was warm and sunny!

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Shrovetide Fair

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I’ve decided to do sometime a bit different for this month’s post which is to divide two customs into its traditional part and its contrived form.

Lichfield as I said before is justly proud of its customs and I have had the pleasure of attending all of them (and it is only the Bower and Court of Array I have yet to record in this blog). The last Lichfield custom I had yet to attend was the Pancake Toss and Shrovetide Fair

This blog post as the page records is about the Shrovetide Fair and its traditional opening.

A fair market

The shrovetide Fair is often the earliest traditional fair in Britain if the date of Shrove Tuesday is early. It was established by the 14th century survived the Reformation and Parliament to be given a Royal Charter of James 1 which then set the date that it was proclaimed on Shrove Tuesday, usually started on Ash Wednesday and finished on Friday. By the late 17th century it was known as the Old Fair.

As the fair was held on the eve of Lent it capitalised on the needs for people who would observe fasting over this period. And thus it was once famous for the sale of cured fish. Tolls, which were recorded as 4d, record that salt fish, salmon, herrings, eels, stock fish were common. Detailed records show that in 6000 red herring and two barrels of herring prepared in stock were purchased in 1367 by Halesowen abbey. A fair record of the mid 1520s show that the stock was diversifying for Sir Henry Willoughby of Wollaton Hall not only included fish and seafood: eels, herring, salmon, mussels, but also honey, oil, and currants. By the mid 1820s the Ash Wednesday fair was dealing in sheep, cattle, horses, cheese, and bacon.

The official day of the fair changed a number of times from Shrove Tuesday to Ash Wednesday until the 1870s when St Mary’s church complained the fair which did sit beneath it was disturbing the solemnity of the Ash Wednesday service; although this was not permanent until 1890. Over time though it was clear that the mercantile opportunities of the fair had been reduced and by the late 1980s only a pleasure fair was held which then continuing for the rest of the week. This has continued to the present day.

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Fair appraisal

As the Civic procession made their way to the market square for noon to open the fair. Now as noted above this fair has changed over the years but I could imagine it was a bit more exciting years back for now it only consisted of a few small rides. In previous year the Mayoral party decamped on a exciting pulsating ride like the Waltzers as above. The year I attended the group then met up beside heady delights of spinning teacups (!) with the fair organiser as the Towncryer proclaimed the fair open he discussed the Pie Powdre which was for

“the redressing of all grievances or complaints that shall happen to arise during the time of the fair”

This was established in 1464 Now despite I am sure some complaints being raised at the fair over the grabbers or the size of the candy floss, the court no longer sits. At the point that the proclamation was made the bells of St. Mary’s church which beamed over the small fair rang out. The Mayor then invited the children for their free ride – there wasn’t exactly a rush the cold and inclement weather had rather discouraged a crowd of onlookers. A small somewhat reluctant toddler was removed from their pushchair into a cup close by the Mayor – it looked very bemused – and the Mayor wisely jumped out to be replaced by the girl’s mother. As regular readers of my blog will know I do enjoy a Mayoral fair opening but this one really did have the feel of Trumpton about it as the party slowly glided around in those heady teacups!

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One ride was enough and the party then processed back to the Guildhall where those who attended were given free victuals –this in itself was one of the oldest surviving traditions recorded at the Ash Wednesday fair of 1747 as ‘simnels and wine’ – I enjoyed a rather nice cup of tea and a peace of that delicious traditional Simnel Cake.

I have always noted not only does Lichfield have some great colourful customs but they also are very welcoming and inclusive of strangers with great food and drink! It’s so great that Lichfield has so many customs as well!

Custom survived: Somerleyton Bun and Penny Day, Suffolk

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To most people Valentine’s Day means cards, flowers, romantic meals, but to the staff and pupils of Somerleyton Primary School it is Bun and Penny Day, a unique custom.

Not a bun fight

Each year on or the nearest school day to, St Valentine’s Day, the children of Somerleyton Primary school make the journey to the impressive Hall where the Lord and Lady of the manor welcome the excitable children in their bright blue jumpers into the spacious main hall of the house. Here awaits them crates of iced buns and piles of money. The children are naturally very excited. This is clearly a highlight of their year and the older children have been every year of their primary school tenure.

Sing for your supper…or rather bun

This is not a simply turn up and get your bun and money, the children have to perform, although they were clearly happy. The children had practiced for a series of traditional songs. Lined up neatly in front of the red flock wall-paper and gold of the room, nervously at first they begin. In 2013 to link in with their studies on World War II the children attended in 1940s fancy dress. The Lowerstoft Journal reported that they were:

“ singing war time songs for Lord and Lady Somerleyton in the ballroom of the hall. They also gave a performance of 1940s-style dancing Nyree Martin, the acting head of the school, said: “The children were really excited about the visit. They were quite overwhelmed by the grandeur of the building and knew it was a really special occasion. “It was very special for them to perform in such a grand venue. They are really good singers. They performed a selection of nine songs from war time including Goodnight Sweetheart, The Quartermaster’s Store, Bless Them All and White Cliffs of Dover.”

Certainly the children soon get into the swing and clearly enjoy the performance. The children also showed their talent with performing with flutes, cellos and violas showing a wide range of talent from the children.  

No penny pinching

It is good to see that the custom has moved with the times. Whilst a penny might have bought a few sweets years back, it would not garner much excitement now. So it is reassuring that inflation has hit the custom is a good way and now each child collects a shiny a 50p piece as well as an iced bun from Lord and Lady Somerleyton, currently the Hon Hugh Crossley and his wife Lara.

In for a penny in for a pound

How did the tradition begin? East Anglia has a strong connection with Valentine’s Day (or especially Eve as I have reported with Father Valentine). It is possible that the tradition was to remember the custom of Valentining, when local children the country over would visit houses to beg for gifts. What is known for sure is that the custom dates back to when Sir Morton Peto lived in the house in the 1840s.  Why he decided to start the custom is unclear. One theory suggested is that it was a way of saying thank you to the children who worked in the fields over the summer. Although one would ask why it was done on Valentine’s Day. Another possibility is that it was originally associated with Shrove Tuesday a date more commonly associated with the giving of children buns. What is interesting is the lack of any reporting by folklorists of this custom.

Sadly like any school customs there will always be an end as noted by a Year Six pupil, Eden, said:

“This is the seventh time I have done Penny and Bun Day. It’s always really fun singing there and the buns are really tasty especially when you can eat them with your friends.”

Hopefully his secondary school could introduce a similar custom!

 

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 occasional: Hunting the Mallard at All Soul’s College Oxford

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Such elaborate junketing may sound a little odd to anyone unconnected with All Souls . . . But presumably, if Homer may be excused an occasional nod, a Fellow of All Souls may be allowed, once in a hundred years, to play the fool.”

Account from Cosmo Lang’s Biography

Back in 2001 I was invited to see a strange spectacle which by its rarity and unusual description I honestly didn’t believe actually existed, All Soul’s College Hunting the Mallard. Sadly in the end I could not go and missing out in a way cemented by desire some may say obsession to catalogue our curious and colourful customs. Why? Well because the Hunting of the Mallard is the rarest of beasts, as rare as the said Mallard, as it is only done every 100 years.

Interestingly Thistleton-Dyer in his excellent Popular customs past and present 1876 appears unaware of the 100 year cycle recording:

“This day was formerly celebrated in All Souls College, Oxford, in commemoration of the discovery of a very large mallard or drake in a drain, when digging for the foundation of the college ; and though this observance no longer exists, yet on one of the college ” gaudies ” there is sung in memory of the occurrence a very old song called ‘ The swapping, swapping mallard.”

Ducking and diving

As noted above the Mallard has a strong association with this venerable Oxford college; it is their mascot and can be seen on various objects around the college. But how did it all start? 1437 is the date given when during the digging of the college’s foundations the college’s founder Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Clichele, was indecisive of where he should build his college. But during a dream he was told that:

“…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele fattened and almost bosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college”

The location in the dream was next to the church and upon digging where he was directed and could hear in a hole: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes” reaching in he pulled a duck describe as the size of “a bustarde or an ostridge.” This was a the sign and as the bird flew away the academics who were to become the Fellows of All Souls chased it, caught and then of course ate it! And so immortalised the bird in the college’s history.

When the custom started is unclear but an account by Archbishop Abbott in 1632 is the earliest recording:

“civil men should never so far forget themselves under pretence of a foolish mallard as to do things barbarously unbecoming.”

It may have been thoughts like this which resulted it in being a 100 year cycle!

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Yes Mall’ord

On the night of January 14, 2001, some of Oxford’s most learned fellows could be seen marching around All Souls College behind a wooden duck held aloft on a pole. They were engaged in the bizarre ritual of hunting the mallard that occurs once every 100 years at the College. I was up at Oxford at the time, and one of my tutors was present and so I got the eye-witness account of the matter.

After a commemorative feast the fellows paraded around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by “Lord Mallard” carried in a sedan chair. They were in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built.

And so, during the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied. Originally it was a live bird, by 1901 it had become a dead bird, and by 2001 it was a bird carved from wood. The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101.

How many hunting the mallards there officially have been is unclear – one presumes six – as little is recorded. The only one to have been documented before the 2001 one was the 1901 custom. The Mallard Lord being Cosmo Gordon Lang, who recalled via J G Lockhart, his biographer:

“I was carried in a chair by four stalwart Fellows – Wilbrahim [First Church Estates Commissioner], Gwyer [later Chief Justice of India], Steel-Maitland [later Minister of Labour] and Fossie Cunliffe – for nearly two hours after midnight round the quadrangles and roofs of the College, with a dead mallard borne in front on a long pole (which I still possess) singing the Mallard Song all the time, preceded by the seniors and followed by the juniors, all of them carrying staves and torches, a scene unimaginable in any place in the world except Oxford, or there in any society except All Souls.”

The account related that in 1901 that:

“The whole strange ceremony had been kept secret; only late workers in the night can have heard the unusual sound, though it is said that Provost McGrath of Queen’s muttered in his sleep, ‘I must send the Torpid down for this noise.”

At the end of the event Lang notes that the dead mallard was thrown on a bonfire to which Lang noted:

“some of the junior fellows could not be restrained from eating portions of its charred flesh”.

Its all quackers!

As the procession hunted the duck the procession would sing the Mallard Song:

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon

Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on

And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,

But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.

CHORUS:

Hough the bloud of King Edward,

By ye bloud of King Edward,

It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

Some storys strange are told I trow

By Baker Holinshead and Stow 

Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things

That happen’d in ye Reignes of theire Kings.

CHORUS

The Romans once admir’d a gander

More than they did theire best Commander,

Because hee saved, if some don’t foolle us,

The place named from ye Scull of Tolus

CHORUS

The Poets fain’d Jove turn’d a Swan,

But lett them prove it if they can.

To mak’t appeare it’s not att all hard:

Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.

CHORUS

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,

Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh;

His swapping tool of generation

Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.

CHORUS

Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard

in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,

And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,

Let’s dabble, dive & duck in Boule.

CHORUS”

The song is not restricted to the Mallard and is song at events such as the Gaudy held annually.

Duck soup

In 1801 it was said that a live mallard was chased around, by 1901 it was a dead one on a pole and by 2001:

There will be a wooden mallard duck carried at the head of the procession on a pole.”

The History Girls blogsite accounted that in 2001 Dr Martin Litchfield West was the Mallard Lord it reported:

“Behind Dr West, fortified by the Mallard Feast and dressed in black tie and gowns, marched the other fellows of the college. Among those expected to participate were William Waldegrave and John Redwood, members of the last Conservative Cabinet, and Lord Neill of Bladen, former chairman of the committee for standards in public life and once warden of All Souls. All fellows taking part in the procession are expected to give full voice to the Mallard Song. …There will be 118 people, all fellows or past fellows, carrying torches. We shall go around the college and up the front tower and back again. We will then join the college servants for a lot of drinking and there will be a fireworks display.”

Image result for hunting the mallard all souls college

An account of the custom first hand related to the blogger of the excellent History Girls blogsite notes:

“My tutor gave us the insider’s view of the Great Mallard Chase of 2001. She and the other Fellows partook of a 14 course dinner in the medieval Codrington Library, accompanied by superb wines (All Souls has the best cellar in the country – better than Buckingham Palace). I have reprinted the menu from 1901 below. Dr Martin Litchfield West as the Lord Mallard, and the Fellows sang, much as they have done for hundreds of years, the Mallard Song. The Victorians disapproved of the reference in the song to the Mallard’s “swapping tool of Generation”, mightier than any other in “ye winged Nation” (of birds) and dropped this verse from the song. It was restored in the 2001 ceremony, when the Fellows sat down to the Mallard Centennial Dinner, which did include a duck. When everyone was in an excess of good spirits, four of the younger fellows hoisted the Lord Mallard up in his special sedan chair (the same one used in 1901 – but we’re not sure if it was also used in 1801) and they chased a wooden mallard duck around the quad. In the days before Animal Rights (a very serious consideration in Oxford, given letter bombs to scientists and sabotage of laboratories), they chased a real duck. But this century, for the first time, a fake duck had to do. So, with the Lord Mallard hoisted high in his sedan chair the whole congregation of fellows chased this wood duck around the quadrangle bellowing out the Mallard Song. Now, given that he was not expending any energy and was the centre of attention, the Lord Mallard was anxious to repeat the experience. “Again, again” he cried, and he was carried around the quadrangle again, and then for a third time at his excited urging. But, when he said “Again”, wanting a fourth perambulation, the poor sedan carriers rebelled and dumped him on the ground. Then there were wonderful fireworks, including fireworks in the shape of a mallard. “

Sad to have missed it and not a single photo…ah well here’s to 2101!!

Custom demised: Handsel Monday in Scotland

Standard

Image result for handsel monday

“In their impatience to have the holiday commence, young people usually waken the villages by kicking old tin pans at unearthly hours of the morning through the quiet streets,”

Such was the popularity of this lost custom. William Walsh in his 1897 Curiosities of Popular Customs records that:

“Handsel Monday. The first Monday in the year. This is a great holiday among the peasantry and the children generally in Scotland, being especially devoted to the giving and receiving of presents, or, in the Scotch vocabulary, handsels. The young visit their seniors in expectation of some remembrance, and postmen, scavengers, and newspaper carriers look for the equivalent of what in England are known as Christmas boxes.”

Chambers Book of Days notes that:

“The first Monday of the year is a great holiday among the peasantry of Scotland, and children generally, as being the day peculiarly devoted in that country to the giving and receiving of presents. It is on this account called Handsel Monday, Handsel being in Scotland the equivalent of a Christmas box, but more specially inferring a gift at the commencement of a season or the induing of some new garment. The young people visit their seniors in expectation of tips (the word, but not the action, unknown in the north). Postmen, scavengers, and deliverers of newspapers look for their little annual guerdons.”

This lost custom a sort of Scottish Boxing Day survived the longest in Fife and Perthshire when despite Dundee and Glasgow moving to New Year’s Day as a holiday of choice rural areas still remembered it. in Auchterarder .It was marked with:

“much noise and boisterous mirths….Boys, carrying flambeans, began to perambulate the town shortly after 12 o’clock and from that hour till morning the streets resounded with their hideous noise…. “well fortified withing…A few fist blows were exchanged later in the evening, but this appeared to be the head and front of the offending,”

Its popularity deriving from it being a holiday for farm workers as report in the Dunfermline Press in 1890 states that:

“On farms, Auld Hansel-Monday, where it is kept, is the great winter holiday of the year. Outdoor and indoor servants have a complete escape from bondage for the day, and many a farmer will own that the hardest day’s work for him and his wife throughout the year occurs on Handsel Monday.”

To Handsel was then to give a gift and it is recorded that:

“Not only has he himself to fill their place, but he is expected to handsel them, from foreman to herd-boy; and part of the handsel almost invariably includes a gift of a little money.”

On January 6, 1870, the Perthshire Advertiser called the day the “holiday-in-chief” of the year

The death of the custom

What killed the custom off was the adoption of New Year’s Day as a holiday as reported from a public meeting held in Dunfermline to make this decision. Many argued in the November 1886 meeting that it was a much loved tradition. The former Provost Robert Robertson, who could not be parted from it ‘without a pang’ from his “old friend” stating that:

“In his younger days, Handsel Monday was the day of all days – the principal day of the year, and a day of much pleasure. Then it was that family circles met together. Grandfather and grandmother, father, mother and family, all met together, There were no strangers admitted to the family circle then. Children came many miles…and if there was one member of the family absent, there was a sad blank.There was no teetotalism then, but in decent families there was no hard drinking. It was a great day, and because of that it was long looked forward to.”

Despite the pleas Dumferline chose January 1st and Handsel was consigned to history.

Handy breakfast

The breakfast was one of the most popular parts of the custom. The farmers would treat their servants on that morning to:

“ a liberal breakfast of roast and boiled, with ale, whiskey, and cake, to their utmost contentment; after which the guests went about seeing their friends for the remainder of the day. It was also the day on which any disposed for change gave up their places, and when new servants were engaged.”

An interesting account of the healing powers of the custom and its associated victuals noted by Chambers from Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, xv. 201:

“It is worth mentioning that one William Hunter, a collier (residing in the parish of Tillicoultry, in Clackmannanshire), was cured in the year 1738 of an inveterate rheumatism or gout, by drinking freely of new ale, full of harm or yeast. The poor man had been confined to his bed. for a year and a half, having almost entirely lost the use of his limbs. On the evening of Handsel Monday, as it is called, some of his neighbours came to make merry with him. Though he could not rise, yet he always took his share of the ale, as it passed round the company, and in the end he became much intoxicated. The consequence was that he had the use of his limbs next morning, and was able to walk about. He lived more than twenty years after this, and never had the smallest return of his old complaint.”

Now there is a reason to revive a custom!