Category Archives: Hunting

Custom demised: Eton Ram Hunting, Berkshire

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Schools begin again soon but amongst the curious rituals of the new term, none are as bizarre as that which – now would be done during school holidays – the hunting of a ram on Election Saturday. The College had an ancient claim upon its butcher to provide a ram on the Election Saturday, to be hunted by the scholars. In his 1847 History of Buckinghamshire, Lipscombe notes:

“the animal having been so pressed as to swim across the Thames, it ran into Windsor Market, with the boys after it, and much mischief was caused by this unexpected accident. The health of the scholars had also suffered from the length of the chase, or the heat of the season. The character of the sport was therefore changed about 1740, when the ram was ham-strung, and, after the speech, was knocked on the head with large, twisted clubs.”

An account in the Gentleman’s Magasine of 1731 notes:

“Monday, Aug. 2 was the election at Eton College, when the scholars, according to custom, hunted a ram, by which the Provost and Fellows hold a Manor.”

Eton was not alone with its custom, East Wretham in Norfolk also had a harvest related hunting the ram. John Blomefield in his 1831 History of Norfolk notes:

“When the harvest work was finished by the tenants, they were to have an acre of barley, and a ram let loose in the midst of them; if they caught him, he was their property but if he escaped then the Lord claimed him”.

Surprisingly at a school, this rather cruel act was not unique, for as Henry S. Salt in his Blood Sports at School – The Eton Hare-Hunt notes:

Even in the nineteenth century such sports as bull-baiting, badger-baits, dog-fights, and cat and duck hunts, were “organised for the special edification of the Eton boys.”

However, views on such barbarity were changing even Liscombe noted:

But the barbarity of the amusement caused it to be laid aside at the election in 1747, and the, flesh of the ram was prepared in pasties The dish, however, still continued nominally to grace the Election Monday.”

Salt also notes:

“It is a curious fact that the large majority of Etonians, though nowadays a bit ashamed of the ram-hunt and other sporting pleasantries of a bygone period, do not in the least suspect that their beloved hare-hunt belongs in effect to the same category of amusement. Thus, Sir H. Maxwell Lyte, in his history of the school, referring to the earlier barbarities, remarks that “it is evident that in the time of Elizabeth cruelty to animals was not counted among the sins for which penitents require to be shriven.” But what, it may be asked, of the time of George V.? It is entertaining to find the Eton College Chronicle itself referring to the ram-hunt of the eighteenth century as a ‘brutal custom’; and remarking that Etonians were “only so barbarous.” Once!”

I for one see this as one ancient custom not necessary to revive.

 

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Custom demised: Hunting the Hare at Dane Hills Leicester

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If you were to go to Leciester on Easter Monday you may have been witness to the annual congregation of horse-riding dignitaries, amongst them the Lord Mayor, ready to ride off to hunt the hare. The event is first recorded in the Town records in 1668, but as it was probably by then an ancient custom. The association with hare hunting and Easter was not unique to Leicester, there is a 1574 account that 12d was given to to ‘the hare-finders at Whetston Court’ and of course hares are ‘on the menu’ although now beef I believe in Leicestershire’s Hallaton Hare Pie and Bottle kicking! Just over the border in Coleshill, Warwickshire, the parson would give a groat, a calf’s head and a hundred eggs, if a hare was presented to him by the young men of the Parish before 10 o’clock on Easter Monday!

Another account is in the Calendar of State Papers which records:

“1620, April 2. Thos. Fulnety solicits the permission of Lord Zouch, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, to kill a hare on Good Friday, as huntsmen say that those who have not a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.”

Returning to Dane Hills, it is in Throsby’s History of Leicester gives the longest and most detailed account:

“It had long been customary on Easter Monday for the Mayor and his brethren, in their scarlet gowns, attended by their proper officers, in form, to go to a certain close, called Black-Annis’ Bower Close, parcel of, or bordering upon, Leicester Forest, to see the diversion of hunting, or rather the trailing of a cat before a pack of hounds; a custom perhaps originating out of a claim to the royalty of the forest. Hither, on a fair day, resorted the young and old, and those of all denominations. In the greatest harmony the Spring was welcomed.”

However, although hares were the quarry they were perhaps at the time of Throsby’s account getting a bit scarce, therefore after the morning was spent in ‘various amusements and athletic exercises’:

“a dead cat, about noon, was prepared by aniseed water for commencing the mock-hunting of the hare. In about half-an-hour, after the cat had been trailed at the tail of a horse over the grounds in zig-zag directions, the hounds were directed to the spot where the cat had been trailed from. Here the hounds gave tongue in glorious concert. The people from the various eminences who had placed themselves to behold the sight, with shouts of rapture, gave applause; the horsemen dashing after the hounds through foul passages and over fences, were emulous for taking the lead of their fellows. . . . As the cat had been trailed to the Mayor’s door, through some of the principal streets, consequently the dogs and horsemen followed. After the hunt was over, the Mayor gave a handsome treat to his friends; in this manner the day ended.”

Why did they do the custom? As the land was held time immemorial as part of the demesne of the ancient Earls of Leicester passing to the crown in the reign of Henry IV, and thus Kelly’s Notices of Leicester believes that:

“this formal ceremony of hunting in their state robes was adopted by the Corporation as an assertion of their right of free warren over the lands in question”.

However, the hunting of the hare is as noted an ancient tradition long older than the medieval perhaps. The site, Dane hill is believed to be derived from a possible pagan deity who is remembered as Black Annis (derived from the Celt Anu?). It was bogeyman or witch who would ‘suck on their blood’, as noted in Leicester Chronicle of 1894, of children. Is it a coincidence that the hunters dragged a cat soaked in anni-seed? This is especially suspicious considering that the legend of the bogeyman was called in the 1890s as ‘Cat Anna’ or did this remember the cat soaked in anniseed?

The custom survived until 1767, but as often happens the associated ‘amusements’ which arose around it continued for longer. An account from April 2nd 1842 notes:

“The Dane Hill Fair was crowded with visitors, principally young people of the working classes, and the fields beyond the spot where the field is held were also thronged with merry-makers.”

This fair was the last vestige of the unusual custom and died out in 1842. And hares or dead cats be sighing relief!

Custom survived: The Abbot Bromley Horn Dance 100th Post!

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An obvious choice for the 100th post but there is something mesmerising about this perhaps the oldest dance ritual in Europe. Many have said this was the first custom which made them fascinated in our strange customs, such as Averil of the excellent Calendar Customs website.  My first experience is back in the 1990s and I travelled from Bristol to see it! It is perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable and iconic, with its olde world dress and impressive reindeer antlers- the horns- which are danced with.

A horny subject?

How old is it? This is a moot subject and depends on whether you need hard evidence. The earliest reference is in Plots 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire, but there reference of a hobby horse being used in 1532 with ‘six men carrying rain deer heads’ but that does not necessary mean the dance is that old. More convincing is the evidence of the Carbon dating of the Horns, which dates them to the 11th century, 1056 more accurately, suggesting an Anglo-Saxon origin perhaps. It has been suggested that it may have pagan origins, certainly it is significant that reindeer would have been extinct by the 11th century. Does this suggest the custom had a Norse origin, as reindeer are still extant there? Did the horns come later if so why? Some authorities had related the custom to privileges from the time when hunting was undertaken in the nearby Cannock Chase. Interestingly, the appointment of a forester continued until the 16th century and that they were called the Forester of Bentylee and it is the name of Bentley which continued organising the events until 1914. Coincidental perhaps?

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Keeping on dancing

The horn dance as Plot noted is on Wakes Monday which is after the first Sunday after the fourth of September. It’s a long day…the antlers are removed from the wall location early at 8 am after a blessing at the church, where they lay for 364 days a year and the dancing begins. Already there is a sizeable crowd ready to watch as they weave in and out of themselves on the green as the six dancers face each other and try to avoid the heavy horns, weighing around 25lbs, clashing. Interestingly, red deer antlers are used when the team perform outside of the village making witnessing the custom in situ more special.

The dancers have a quaint dress which might suggest evidence for an early origin but sadly these have a fairly recent origin, 1880s by the vicar’s wife, and before then they would wear normal clothing.

Clashing horns

Then off they went around the Parish, stopping in back lanes and open spaces to hypnotically play their tune and do their dance. One of the notable locations is Blithfield Hall. Here one can get a view of the dancers without the throng of observers and often photographers and get a real feeling of its ancient mesmeric nature.

There are twelve dancers, which consist of six horn carriers, an accordion player and unusually two children one with a bow and arrow and the other a triangle. There is also a Fool, Maid Marian character and Hobby Horse, features of Morris teams across the country

Then at eight in the evening the horns are returned back to the church a service is undertaken and its over for another year.  What is splendid about the dance is its simplicity and authenticity, as the author of a piece in the Times from 7th September 1936 wrote:

“The whole thing is done unassumably and with a quite purposefulness which is the keynote of the whole proceedings. One feels they are not dancing for joy or self-expression, but going quietly about a task which must be accomplished with necessary fuss.”

Custom demised: Grove Duck Feast

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07wtpast2All over the countries, fetes and village fairs often have swarms of people waiting impatiently along stream banks. Why? They are waiting for someone to open a netted bag of plastic yellow ducks…a duck race has begun. This staple of any village event with a stream…has a more ancient forbearer which used real ducks!!

The custom attracted hundreds of eager participants along the Letcombe Brook, in Grove, a village near Wantage, in a custom which in the mid 20th century was said to be over 200 years old. The association of this custom with an annual Feast makes it very clear the idea behind it…to catch them and eat them. By the 20th century the eating aspect had disappeared of course.

The custom consisted of 12 races and the aim was to catch the bird without harming it bare handed. An article in the John Bull magazine of 1955 a competitor reported:

“Duck racing isn’t as easy as it sounds,’ says Albert Cook, who one year won five out of six races. I’ve seen a dozen men take twenty minutes to catch a duck.”

 Duck feast

Another Cook, appeared to be involved in the organisation according to the Oxford Mail from July 1956:

“A blast from the whistle of the starter, Percy Cook, was the signal for the competitors, who lined up at the bridge, to jump into the water and race for the duck that Mr Cook had put into the water about 30 yards downstream.”

John Chipperfield in a recent article Ducking and diving in notes that understandably, what with the damning of the brook, large numbers of people and very nature of the event, concerns were raised over the welfare of the ducks. An RSPCA official stating:

 “We strongly deplore these races. We have received many letters of complaint about them, not only from people living in Grove but from all over the country.”

However, the very fact that the ducks often eluded the captors and much of the enjoyment was about people falling in the water was not considered.  Especially as often it is said the spectators got so excited that they leapt into the water fully clothed to join in.

Yet pressure continued and legal action was threatened. Interesting one of the organisers a Mr Knight, noted sagely:

“Our races are not terrible like stag or fox hunting. The difference seems to be that our races are the poor man’s entertainment while stag and fox hunting are rich men’s sports.”

Public pressure caused it to sink without trace in 1960 a nary a plastic duck replaced it!

Custom demised: St. Andrew’s Day squirrel Hunt

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St. Andrew’s Day is more regularly associated with parties associated with Scotland’s patron saint. but in parts of England, it was also a traditional day for hunting squirrels. Now days, the grey squirrel divides opinion, vermin or established interloper, but these accounts involve its more well thought of Red Squirrel. Now in decline and one wonders why. Hasted in his work on Kent records that  in the parish of Eastling on St Andrew’s Day:

” there is yearly a diversion called squirrel-hunting in this and the neighbouring parishes, when the labourers and lower kind of people, assembling together, form a lawless rabble, and being accoutred with guns, poles, clubs, and other such weapons, spend the greatest part of the day in parading through the woods and grounds, with loud shoutings.”,

It is clear that the custom was an excuse for bad behaviour, as the author notes and the squirrels perhaps need not worry much:

“under the pretence of demolishing the squirrels, some few of which they kill, they destroy numbers of hares, pheasants, partridges, and in short whatever comes in their way, breaking down the hedges, and doing much other mischief, and in the evening betaking themselves to the alehouses.”

Perhaps, the custom was more about making mischief than hunting squirrels after all why choose this date. In 1852 the Journal of the Archaeological Association noted the same custom in Derbyshire.

“At Duffield, a curious remnant of the right of hunting wild animals is still observed—this is called the ” squirrel hunt.” The young men of the village assemble together on the Wakes Monday, each provided with a horn, a pan, or something capable of making a noise, and proceed to Keddleston Park, where, with shouting and the discordant noise of the instruments, they frighten the poor little squirrels, until they drop from the trees. Several having been thus captured the hunters return to Duffield, and having released the squirrels amongst some trees, recommence the hunt.”

Again the custom appeared to be part of an older tradition associated with preparing for Christmas perhaps as it notes:

“At Duffield, the right of collecting wood in the forest is also singularly observed. The young men in considerable numbers collect together, and having taken possession of any cart they can find, yoke themselves to it, and preceded by horns, remove any trees or other wood from the various lanes and hedge-rows; this is done almost nightly, between Sep­tember and the Wakes, in the first week in November, when a bonfire is made of the wood collected on the Wakes Monday.”

Both these customs associated with the same activity and month suggests it was more widespread than it recorded. St. Andrew’s Day, passes by without any worrying wildlife….and that’s a good thing for those poor squirrels I imagine!