Category Archives: Hocktide

Custom demised: The Whipping Toms

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“‘Whipping-Toms’ began at one o’clock. Two, three, or more men, armed with cart-whips, and with a handkerchief tied over one eye, were let loose upon the people to flog anyone within the precincts of the Newark, a bellman giving the signal for the attack. They were not by custom allowed to whip above the knee, and anyone kneeling down was spared.”

So writes Thoresby in his 1791 The History of Leicester. A topical post perhaps what’s in the cinema! In Leicester city centre is a rather strange plaque which records the bizarre Shrove Tuesday custom of Whipping Toms. Why would these men whip people? Another account explains why:

“This was known as the ‘Whipping Toms’.  It began with the primeval game of hockey, played between two crowds of men and boys armed with sticks having a knob or a hook at the end, and were played with a wooden ball, the ends of the Newarke forming the goals. At about 1 o’clock in the day appeared the ‘Whipping Toms’; three of them were in blue smocked frocks and carrying long wagon whips, with whom were three men carrying small bells. They proceeded to drive out of the Newarke the crowd of men and boys who had been playing the game of hockey.”

One of the theories purported for the origins of the custom is that it commemorated the expulsion of the Danes from Leicester in the 10th century. Although unlikely a connection with the Danish custom of Hocktide is perhaps more likely as the custom involved the extortion for money as well. – two pence which many gladly gave! However, the date is confusing!

The Whipping Toms also liked to line people up and whip up and down the line. Often people attempted to avoid the whipping by wrapping material around their legs. However, the whipping clearly got out of hand and the ‘victims’ would attempt to protect themselves with sticks and fight back. Unsurprisingly it often got a little out of hand as the author above notes:

This proceeding, as may well be imagined, soon resulted in what would be described in more modern language as ‘a certain liveliness’, and the disorder became so great that about the year 1846, the corporation obtained parliamentary powers to bring it to an end.”

On the 16th February 1847 an Act of Parliament officially ended it and the last Whipping Toms put up a valiant fight – quite literally – but it was gone. Today the only record is the plaque on one of the corner pillars of the railings surrounding the De Montfort University’s Hawthorn Building.

Custom survived: The Hungerford Hocktide

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Hungerford Hocktide was one of those well known colourful customs which has always been on my to do list and despite living in both Bristol and London (Hungerford is mid way between the two) I never managed it, mainly because it falls on a weekday, a Tuesday two weeks after Easter Monday….so this year I thought I would.

Calling all commoners to the court.

Turning up in the morning, I thought that I had made a mistake picking this time to visit, the wind howled down the street taking with it a sharp and penetrating rain which looked like it may in for the day making the observation of the Tuttimen’s progress less than pleasurable and certainly not very photogenic. Yet in these unpleasant conditions quite a throng of observers had assembled, the usual press and TV crews, this year one being the team behind Ade in Britain with its host, comedian Ade Edmondson As the bell of the Town Hall struck 8 am, the Bell Man and the Horn blower, this year a lady, arrived on its balcony and blew the horn to call all the commoners to the court. She disappeared back into the building, but this was not the end of the duties for the Bell man, who surging against the wet terrain and started his perambulation of the town to visit key locations to call for the commoners to enter the court. These commoners, one should add are being those who live in the main street of the town and in Sandford Fee, a one point a separate hamlet but now indistinguishable from the main town and own houses in these areas. For Hungerford is unique in both retaining this ancient privilege of owning the common, fishery rights, various properties such as the John O Gaunt Inn and their own Town Hall, unique in the country. Returning to the Bell man this year being a sort of last minute replacement after the sad death of the iconic figure of Mr. Tubbs who not only had continued the tradition for 50 years was at his death thought to be last in a long line of bell man in his family…until his nephew offered to take on the role for 2013.

The ancient court

At 9 o’clock those appointed Tuttimen (and before you ask women have and can do it I believe) waiting across the road in the Three Swans cross to join the tutti girls, a group of school girls specially released for the day with their chaperone, whose roll is to give out sweets and balloons to small children. Their original role apparently was to give out ale and so I would presume they were a bit older than they are now…Once crossing the road, they are met by the Town’s constable (the equivalent of the Mayor) who then after being given their flower bedecked poles topped by an orange and joined by the orange giver, they are told to go about their business and their first stop was the shop across the town hall, where followed by Ade Edmondson and film crew they squeezed into the shop and claimed their first kisses of the day.. These tutti men or tithing men, whose role was to collect a tithe from all commoners, but this  now consists of a kiss, which may also link to the binding custom. They are accompanied by another top hated character the Orange giver. His role is probably the most recent of the associated characters on this day, oranges of course were not available in the 14th century, and probably dates from William of Orange (who is said to have heard he has King in Hungerford).

Meanwhile….

The ancient court begins, and I returned back to the town hall to witness it. Perhaps the most sombre of the day’s events but of course the whole reason for the day, this consists of reading those entitled to claim rights to the common, the fishery and use of the facilities covered by the then now charity. The court consisted of a series of readings of the frankpledge, those commoners not present being fined with the bell man calling here and slamming a penny coin on the table in symbolism of this now it would appear unenforceable fine. During the meeting an importance decision was the election of new officers to this court: the constable (returned), Portreeve (rent-collector), baliff (market toll collector), water bailiffs, ale tasters (traditionally last year’s Tuttimen), common overseers, keepers of the common coffer and blacksmith. These people, who despite in some cases a considerable amount of hard work and effort such as clearing the common and being involved in legal disputes, are not paid. These officers put forward the week before at what is called the Macaroni supper and were elected in the meeting with the end man and middle man being asked to stand forth and concur.. However, despite this possible frivolity that such an ancient court could have, there is after-all a real Mayor in the town, the reading and discussion of the counts brought to observer the importance of this court and its relevance in discussion of the issues of running a fishery, the lease of the pub, ensuring the common was functioning and that the town hall was a suitable venue….clearly the cost of a new kitchen being a bit of a bone of contention!

The Tutti men go about your business

To return to the Tuttimen, I had missed the staged climbing of the ladder to receive a kiss from a commoner, in this case the wife of one of the Tuttimen. Of course by this stage they were a long way off finishing. Every house is visited on the day which does not finish until 9 pm, but is punctuality by good hospitality at each house or business (when they were in that is!). I found generally people were very welcoming to this tradition and indeed some organised parties when the Tuttimen arrived. Surprisingly in some cases people appeared a little unaware of the custom, the occupier of the Indian restaurant was most bemused…although the fish and chip shop was very pleased to see them with most welcoming with some gratis chips although the couple eating there did appear rather non-plused! . Of course at each house, the Tuttimen and their orange given filled their tankards….with a mixture of alcohol and this continued all day…

The Hocktide luncheon

Sadly I was a bit too disorganised to get a ticket for this event and so investigated the possibility of viewing it from the balcony which I was told that would be alright. However, I felt immensely privileged, when I was informed  that there may be the possibility of a ticket. The meal was excellent and the company was superb. The meal begun again with a minute’s silence for the passing of the noted bellman, and then with an excellent amusing grace by the colourful vicar (more of him later) and was then punctuated by toasts namely to their founder the Duke of Lancaster (or the Queen as most of us know her as!).Other notable sections the ale tasters proclamation concerning the quality of the ale be fine and the presentation of the Plantagenet punch with its recipe known only to a few and clearly the descendent of a loving cup or wassail ceremony with the sharing of the drink. The constable introduced in amusing fashion his top table, the vicar introduced as being in the dictionary between vibrator and vice. He then distributed then as an unexpected extra gift, a silver coin minted especially for the Jubilee. The meal formally ended with a talk by Lady Carnarvon, whose nearby Highclere Castle is associated now with the hit TV show Downtown Abbey. She spoke of the similarities with the problems of visitors and TV crews……after the meal came the

Shoeing the colts

Colts is referred to in other Court leets and in particular during beating of the bounds and other hocktide events (such as Reach fair now moved to Mayday), but as far as I am away this shoeing is a unique custom here in Hungerford. Certainly most bizarre element of the whole day and certainly the most enjoyable. The manor’s blacksmith dons his leather apron and with hammer, horse shoes and nails shoes the colts or those who had never been to the luncheon before, which this year was a sizable list of names, including me, and shows that interest in the traditions in the town continues through new comers and the younger people… Women faired okay and most were offered a chair to sit down on and then raising their leg, the blacksmith tapped the shoe into their shoes until they quietly called out ‘punch’ but the men! This was when the excitement begun. It was traditional to fight or try to run away and such grappling, grabbing, half nelson’s and sitting on were all in the process, the later mainly done by the larger than life character of the vicar again! I watched some of the members of my table be dragged before the blacksmith I was rather daunted when told by one of the Tuttimen, that when he was done the previous day the vicar was so enthusiastic that he upended him and he banged his head on the floor and was concussed being taken to see the doctor! But the moment came, and realising that I needed my fee money rushed across to the cash machine and caught up in a terrible rain storm!!!! You’re not going are you because we’ll find you they said…..Soon, I was grabbed on one side by the vicar and struggled for all my worth kicking and was turned upside down with my feet flailing in the air at which point the vicar jumped on my chest and I was laying on the floor…with the sound of the horse shoe into my foot I shouted punch although it was difficult to remember to say this as I was laughing so much.

Anchovies on toast and back with the Tuttimen

After the luncheon it was back over to the Three Swans where the traditional anchovies on toast was made available, perhaps in celebration of the fishery rights of the manor…and still the Tuttimen and orange giver went on their business….it finally became a delightful evening and the sun was glinting down the high street, I bumped into the Tuttimen again who appeared to be now rather staggering and working towards the need of a wheel barrow, offered by the lady who owned the house I was invited into with them.

What is hocktide about?

Hocktide is believed to get its name from the Saxon word ‘hock’ meaning ‘in debt’ and is believed to date from the reign of Etherlread in 1002 after a victory against the Danes or the death of Harthacnut in 1042. As neither were associated with the week after Easter, the first November and second June, it appears confusing why these are suggested. Furthermore, these are secular events and it does appear to have been associated with raising money for the church in many places. In many places roads were closed off by ropes and fines levied. There is a clear link between this and Easter heaving or lifting and perhaps the two customs were linked in the past and as Hocktide died out, the custom was transferred to Easter. In Hungerford this was granted by John of Gaunt in 1364 within whose vast Duchy of Lancaster estates the town lays. He gave a horn, now only used on special occasions, an ancient hunting horn. This is now replaced by a 1634 edition which still has the inscription “John a Gaun did give and grant the Riall of Fishing to Hungerford town from Eldren Stub to Irish Stil, excepting som several Mill Pound (ponds)” All in all, in all my encounters with ceremonies and traditions I never come across a more friendly and welcoming place than Hungerford. Everyone welcomed me in and offered me nibbles and drinks at their houses and made me feel very welcome. I am sure I will return to Hungerford and hopefully on Hocktide now that I am no longer a colt to be shoed..