Category Archives: Lancashire

Custom contrived: Maundy Thursday Shoe Polishing

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“ It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…..he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”  Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

John 13:1-17

Shine on!

Whilst the Queen (and every modern monarch since George v) will distribute maundy money on the day, those in the hierarchy of the church try to do something in keeping with the words of John…after trying washing feet, called Pedivallium (which is surely a bit too invasive or Catholic) and whilst the Archbishops of Canterbury and York appear to keep to the tradition, other high level Anglicans have settled upon polishing shoes as a good compromise. It can be encountered across the country from Birmingham to Leicester, Northampton to Nottinghamshire, Coventry to Cardiff.

Where this compromise came from is difficult to find but it is likely to be a transatlantic import. The earliest British example is that of Manchester which appears to have been done since 2008. An account reading:

The Cathedral Clergy shined the shoes of shoppers in Manchester Arndale on Maundy Thursday. The shoe shine idea has a serious message aiming to emulate Jesus washing the feet of his followers 2000 years ago and the subsequent tradition of the clergy washing parishioners feet on the Thursday before Easter for centuries.”

In some places it appears to be a one man team but according to the Peterborough Today:

“THE Bishop of Peterborough rolled up his sleeves to give shoppers a free, symbolic, shoe shine. The Rt Rev Ian Cundy and more than 10 other clergymen and women from across the city gave shoppers’ shoes a bit of spit and polish in Cathedral Square.”

Shopping centres appear to be the popular location but:

“Commuters from Abergavenny were give a free shoe polish at the train station to mark Maundy Thursday today. Modern-day monks living in the community offered the service to people travelling to work in a re-enactment of Christ’s act of washing the feet of his disciples.”

Now there’s a group of people surely in need of a shine although perhaps the business men and women probably had had a shine beforehand, although an extra re-buff doesn’t harm.

Shoe off!

My first encounter with this curious custom was a Maundy Thursday back in 2011, where the Bishop of Southwell called out to me – fancy a shoe shine? How could I refuse and I enjoyed the chance to say back at work that my shoes had been polished by a Bishop.

However, some people were quite wary. Others lacked shoes which could be shined. Some wondered what it was about the Right Reverend Chris Edmonson, Bishop of Bolton, explained to the Lancashire Telegraph:

“This is a modern twist on the tradition of foot washing, which in Jesus’ day was done by the lowest servant of all. Jesus challenged his disciples then, and all of us today, to treat each other with such love and respect. We hope to have lots of opportunities to explain this and the message of Easter, while we offer a practical service to people in the town. Shoe shining in the public space is a brilliant opportunity for Bishop Paul and myself to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ visible.”

Certainly it was a good opportunity for the church to connect in a comical and non-preachy way with the community. Indeed, one man, clearly not a card carrying Christian had quite a deep conversation I observed. Was he convinced by the faith perhaps no, but he left more sympathetic. Indeed as Bishop Paul said:

“It’s all done with a light touch and plenty of banter, but it is very effective.”

The Rev Roger Morris, from Coventry went one further and set up for the three days of Easter he said in the local BBC web page:

“We want to bless the people of Coventry by offering them something for nothing. We’re not after money. We are not on a recruitment drive. We simply want people to associate the Church with the idea of good things, freely given – after all, that is at the heart of the Easter message.”

As Bishop Urquhart polishing shoes outside Birmingham cathedral noted in the Birmingham Mail:

“The shoeshine is just a small demonstration that people who follow Jesus are prepared to roll up their sleeves and serve their communities.”

In a world where those in power seem report a bit of humbleness is more than acceptable….picking up from the Bishops I did it myself this Maundy Thursday!

 

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Custom transcribed: Christingle

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Around 20 years ago I started noticing reference to Christingle service back in the late 80s as a I travelled around visiting churches. There did not seem any pattern to when they were done. Some were done on the first Sunday in December, others at a random Sunday in the run up to Christmas, some Christmas eve. All of them in advent. So I tried to delve deeper. These were the days before internet and my searches failed. Unfortunately, I was not living near a church which had such a service at the right time.

Then finally I discovered that the Christingle was a curious structure used to represent Jesus consisting of an Orange as the base, a ribbon, sweets and most importantly a candle. But where did this custom come from?

The orangins of the custom

Marienborn, Germany, 20th December, 1747 is the birth date of the Christingle. The creator, the minister, John de Watteville. At a children’s service he explained to the children that Jesus was he:

“who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”.

To emphasis he gave them a little lighted wax candle, tied round with a red ribbon. He ended the service with a prayer:

“Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become”.

Interestingly it is recorded that Marienborn Diary stated:

“hereupon the children went full of joy with their lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed”.

This was of course just a candle and ribbon. Over the years it appears that the Christingle developed. Now the central object is the orange which represents the world, the lighted candle Christ, the Light of the World and the ribbon the blood he shed. The addition of nuts, raisins and sweets on cocktail sticks around the candle represent God’s bounty and goodness in providing the fruits of the earth. Red paper, forming a frill around the base of the candle, reminds us of the blood of Christ shed for all people on the cross at Calvary.

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The name itself is a curious one. According to the Moravians no one knows when it was first used or from where it is derived. Some believe it comes from German engle meaning angel, or the German for child, remembering the importance of the Christ child, ‘kindle’ or more likely perhaps the Saxon word ‘Ingle’ for fire!

A wide a-peel!

“The services are suitable for all the family. They include Advent hymns and carols, prayers for our work, and a purse presentation by children of the diocese. Children go forward to receive Christingle oranges and the Christingle hymn or carol is sung by the light of these alone.”

Gateway, Children’s society magazine 1970

So how did a custom associated with a fairly obscure Christian group get to be in so many churches? The reason comes back to The Children’s Society and a man called John Pensom. He saw in 1968 the Christingle as way to involve children and introduced it to the church of England. It soon grew, by 1969 seven churches adopted it, by 1970 around 18 were held. Then in 1989, Coventry Cathedral and York Minster had special Christingle services to celebrate 21 years of the adoption. A giant Christingle was lit and like the Olympic flame, this was used to light another and then another. I should add this giant Christingle did not use an orange. In 1997, Liverpool Cathedral was the place to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Christingle This prominence may have again helped its’ spread, for by the 1990s, thousands of such services were held. Today virtually every Anglican church has adopted it, from Cornwall to Northumberland and it has spread to the Church of Scotland and Catholic churches. Not bad for a custom whose membership is only just a million compared to the 85 million Anglicans!

One could cynically easily see the adoption of the Christingle as a clever awe and wonder fun device to get families back to church but it is evident that it is beyond that. The Christingle in this world of abbreviations and acronyms is a clever metaphor and symbol, not too preachy but fun, a way to get the message across in this world of quick messages. Long may in spread and bright light to those cold December evenings.

 

Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

Custom survived: Visiting the Lewis Santa’s Grotto, Liverpool

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So reads the sign as we enter

Santa’s grotto. Seen in department stores, shopping malls, garden centres and indeed everywhere across the English speaking world from Australia to (New) York. A staple all through the 20th century.  Yet I bet you thought it was an American invention? But no! The first place ever to invite Father Christmas to enchant children was in Liverpool and what’s even less well known perhaps outside of the city is that the same grotto is still going strong 137 years on! At first it might seem a little unusual to consider this a custom but a custom it is – a calendar one – and possibly the most engaged in custom in Britain. And one which is truly English.

The story begins with David Lewis who upon visiting the world’s first department store, the Parisian Bon Marche, who brought the idea of a department store in 1877 back to Liverpool. What is interesting is that the store had an exhibition area, an idea Lewis also adopted – then in 1879 it decided to introduce a Christmas themed exhibition.

Santa Claus is coming to Town

Naturally in a city dominated by its maritime history, it was not surprising that Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, patron of seafarers as well as children would visit Liverpool first. Christmas Fairyland was the title of the world’s first Santa’s grotto. It was an instant success with the public attracting people from across the country who could finally meet Father Christmas in person and wonder at his grotto. The grotto covering 10,000 square feet became a popular seasonal sight for Liverpool. Its popularity caused other department stores to develop their own grottos of varying quality, including Blackler’s in Liverpool famed for its giant Father Christmas, again another seasonal staple, whose re-appearance at the Museum of Liverpool has been a welcome one for those who fondly remember it. By the end of the century the grotto had been established in the USA and Australia ensuring Santa would be very busy on the run up for the big day.

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Naughty or nice?

Entering the Lewis Grotto is still a magical experience. There is a whiff of exciting anticipation as one waits in the downstairs waiting room, ready for one’s number to be called, ascend the staircase and enter the magical world. Crossing the threshold one is confronted with a fairy tale fantasy world populated by a miniature world of elves and teddy bears. The grotto’s theme when I visited was nursery rhymes and famous children stories, Snow white, Pinocchio, Nutcracker, Peter Pan. Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Aladdin are represented by a tableaux, some moving and many incorporating familiar Liverpool sites like the Rapid Tower and the Liver Building. Other displays in the past have been Alice in Wonderland set in Liverpool and Santa on the Moon. Figures move and sway, wave and enchant both young and old. The display comprises interestingly of both the Lewis Grotto with additions from that of Blackler’s which ran from 1957 until 1988 a youngest compared to Lewis of course, these polar bears guard the entrance to Santa.

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Finding a new ho-ho home!

After 130 years of enchanting children it looked like this iconic grotto was to see its last Christmas, when like many department stores, it closed. But all was not lost. Then then grotto manager, a Mr Mike Done purchased the stock of the grotto at a considerable expense. He was the natural choice to want it to continue as he had worked with it 27 years. After looking around all of Liverpool for a suitable place – size and geography wise – Mike settled on perhaps the slightly incongruous 4th floor Rapid Hardware store. The first theme of its new location was to be about how Santa lost his home and ended up at Rapid.

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So there on the top floor the grottos is set up. This setting up takes a number of months consisting of blocking out windows, painting the backgrounds, setting up the figures, the electricity and everything needed to make the site magical.

It is fantastic to still be able to visit the grotto that spawned such a popular countrywide custom and one which has kept to its own traditions. It is clear by the busy downstairs waiting room that it is still an essential part of a Liverpudlian’s Christmas. Indeed as I was told by Mr. Done one particular visitor has been an 103 year old who worked in the store for 80 years previous and ever misses a visit. He was quick to add that such events spur him to continue with the grotto. Furthermore, as Mr Done related, grottos such as this are a dying tradition. True that Father Christmas is a busy as ever but these are in and out enterprises with very little event to them. This is certainly not the case at the Lewis grotto it is all about the experience.

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Not a grotty grotto

After wandering through these delightful displays we await our moment to meet– the curtain pulls across and there in a Victorian styled drawing sitting on a wreath wrapped thrown – was Father Christmas – even the most cynical is swept along with the enchanting experience and the children certainly leave spellbound with a special glint in their eyes.

In this modern quick fix world of the rapid turnover visit to Santa this Lewis grotto is indeed from another era – one as much about the experience and the build up being as much a part as meeting the man himself. So if you are looking to find that special magical Christmas feeling make a pilgrimage to the oldest and perhaps the best Santa’s grotto,  make it to Lewis grotto now firmly ensconced at Rapid and hopefully continuing well into its second century. Long may Santa be visiting it too.

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Custom demised: The Vessel or Wassail Cup

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The demise of this custom shows how easily common traditions can be lost. So popular was the custom that it had a place in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:

“What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as `the vessel cup,’ and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols.”

In the 1800s up to around 1920s, local children around the midlands and northern England, County Durham, Lancashire, and particularly Yorkshire, would enact a curious custom like a mix between carol singing and May Dolls. The custom had many names, often localised Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. When the custom was done varied. Visitation days varied accounts recorded in Yorkshire emphasis this variation in Thorpe Hesley it began at Christmas Eve and went on for two to three days. Whereas Hoyland Common only on Christmas day morning. West Melton and Hemingfield it was Boxing Day and Rawmarsh it was New Year’s Day. Generally though the tradition would begin at Advent or more often St. Thomas’s Day, although in some areas it was November, suggesting there is nothing new in the early celebration of Christmas!

How the custom was organized differed from place to place. Sometimes it was a private form of begging and at others organized by the church. The basic approach was as follows: two girls would be the ‘vessel maids’ and they carried a box, decorated with evergreens, often fruit and spices, from home to home, covered in a white cloth. At the people’s homes, the girls would sing a carol and solicit the homeowner for some money, usually a penny, to reveal what was under the sheet. This was a scene of the Holy Family.

Clement Miles in his Christmas in Ritual and Tradition notes that:

“At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin the Christ Child and Joseph.”

Wassail song

As Wright, in their A Yorkshire Wassail Box in Folklore (1906) notes the song sung varied. Sometimes it was the familiar ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ followed by:

God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too,

And all your pretty children

Around your table go.

For it is the time of year

When we travel far nad near;

So God bless you and send you

A Happy New Year.

We have a little purse,

It is made of leather skin,

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Our boots are very old,

And our clothes are very thin;

We’re tired out with wandering around,

And if we cannot sing,

If you only spare a copper

To line the purse within.

So God prosper you and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

At Normanton the following could be heard:

“Here we come a–wessailing (sic), among the leaves so green.

And here we come a—wandering, so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God send you a Happy New Year, a New Year!

And God send you a Happy New Year!

“We are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door,

But we are neighbour’s children, that you have seen before.

Love and joy come to you

I have a little purse lined with stretching leather skin,

And I want a little of your money to link it well within.

Love and joy come come to you.”

Then the box contents were revealed!

A description of the box from the Yorkshire village of Wheatcroft described it as follows:

“The dolls in it have been carried round for twenty–five years.  The box measures 111/4 in. x 7 1/2 in. by 3 in. deep.  It has a lid, but this is not always the case, though the contents of a box are always covered. The box contains besides the two dolls (the large of which is dressed in red), paper flowers, a lemon, holly and mistletoe, a purse, and an artificial orange and an artificial apple, both the artificial fruits containing sweets.  If all the fruits are real, it is necessary to put in a bag of sweets.  The purse should have a hole in it… S.A.’s mother says that the dolls represent the Virgin and Child, and that the box should be made of “parch–board” and lined with moss and ivy. 

Curious origins

Bad luck was associated with the vessel cup if the householder denied it or if it did not arrive. Duncan (1925) in his Second book of carols notes a saying:

“As unhappy as the man who has seen no Advent Images.”

Thistleton Dyer in his British Popular Customs,

“The household visited by the party were allowed to take from these decorations a leaf or flower, which was carefully preserved as a sovereign remedy for toothache.”

All these associations perhaps link it to a possible pagan origin. Certainly, Wright (1906) believed it was associated with pre-Christian deity Dionysius. For as a baby he was placed in a cradle and surrounded by flowers, although it is more likely the biblical crib story derives from that. He also notes that the name vessel came from ship and that the effigy was the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) as a representation of the birth of a new year. Support for this comes from author such as Chaucer who does record the belief that New Year “like a child, came over the sea in a ship.” However it is more likely that it comes from wassail as in was hael ‘good health’.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

Death of the custom

When the custom died out is unclear but certainly by the 19th century it was coming under some criticism being described as ‘impious,’ being celebrated by ‘the lowest dregs of humanity,’ and ‘the singing so wretched caterwauling.’

Interesting like many customs it appears in the early 20th century to have gone through a transformation. Dunstan in his West Riding Vessel Cup or Wassail Song states the song is:

“as now generally sung by children decked and carrying evergreens and sometimes having blackened faces.”

And no actual cup! Thomas et al (1926) in their Advent Images and Lucy Green, continues on the theme, the Lucy green is a small child dressed in evergreen branches and called it “Lucy Green.” And another called “Turkey Claw Chori” where a turkey claw as a badge of office for those soliciting money. Even the song changed ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ but sung to the tune of ‘God rest you merry.’ However, a search on the internet shows people are keen to revive and presenting some stateside Catholics have revived it…will it ever return here…time will tell.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

 

Custom survived: Mischief or Mischevious Night

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Trick no Treat?

I remember sitting at home watching TV in early November, when suddenly it kept flicking over. Was I sitting on the remote? No. Was there something wrong with the TV? No! I opened the curtains and outside there was a young boy holding a TV remote. This was my introduction to mischief night, perhaps the most controversial of custom. Being a Southern I had never heard of it…we’re too soft for this sort of thing, it was a very northern thing. Opie and Opie’s (1959) map shows the strongest area being in Middlesborough and Leeds and these areas still are!

A night to remember!

The answer differs depending where you are. The majority of cases, it is the night before Guy Fawkes Night although in other parts of the county the name referred to the 31st October,  5th itself or even in many cases 30th April. Opie and Opie (1959) note of this custom:

“From coast to coast across northern England the eve of Guy Fawkes Day has become ‘Mischief Night’, a night of humour and hooliganism affecting most of Yorkshire, and parts of Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. On this night children are half under the impression that lawlessness is permissible. Householders’ front doors are repeatedly assaulted with bogus calls, their gates removed, their dustbin lids hoisted up lamp posts, their window panes daubed with paint, their doorknobs coated with treacle or tied ‘sneck to sneck’, their evening newspapers (projecting from letter boxes) exchanged, their milk bottles placed so that they will be tripped over, their house-numbers unscrewed and fixed on to other houses, their windows tapped their backyards turned upside down and possibly ransacked for tomorrow’s bonfires, their drainpipes stuffed with paper and set alight, and their porchlight bulbs considered legitimate targets for catapults. Both villages and in great industrial cities youngsters bent on mischief roam the streets in happy warfare with the adult world.”                                                                                           

The origins of the custom are unclear, it may arise from the Lawless hours of the 1700s it is first mentioned in 1830s as a name but this again was the 30th April.  This argument over the date continues with some claiming the 30th October and others, the majority, claiming the 4th November, of course this may be due to the change in the calendars. However, other customs around this time year had an element of trouble making by farm hands so it may be older. Indeed, it appears to have largely died out in the 1950s. A typical report noted in Sutton’s Lincolnshire Calendar reported from Tattershall in 1920s:

“We tied a button to a piece of cotton and attched it to someone’s wiondow. They kept coming out to see who was knocking on the window. Another thing we did was to tie two door knobs together across the street, that caused a laugh”

From Lincoln 1950

“A firework through a letter box…its not just just kids of today that misbehave, it went on in my day too.”

Indeed a correspondent recording the 1960s stated:

“We were living on the Ermine Estate in 1960 and some fool blew off a manhole cover ….he tied a bundle of bangers together and set them off under a manhole cover; it bloew into the air but luckily no-one was hurt!”

The forms of mischief varied from the amusing:

“We used to write on car winscreens with my mothers lipstick FOR SALE. Also leave a letter for the milkman in an empty bottle ordering 24 pints of milk, great fun, no harm done. “

To:

“We used to egg and flour stuff (and people), flood people’s gardens…One year we wrapped up some chaps conifers with toilet role and set fire to them…We ran off singing the tune to chariots of Fire. It was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done!!!”

To the usual

“I would always get egged and floured by the local boys on miggy night and once had my skirt stolen and thrown up into a tree!”

Responses were not great. Another account states:

Once when we were kids, instead of knock-a-door run we tied a blokes door handle to a lamp post so he couldn’t get out before we knocked on the door and ran away, We thought it was funny but the bloke went mad and snapped his door in half to get out and I still feel terribly guilty to this day”

A night to forget!

It appears by the 1970s-80s the custom had died out in a number of places but not apparently in Yorkshire:

“Oh yes I remember those days well – A long row of terraced houses in Grimethorpe – we tied all the door handles with washing line and smeared dog muck on door steps and then one of us would run up the street knocking on the doors while the gang would be in the middle of the street shouting at those who tried to open their doors to chase us. When they cut the line they would have the dog muck on their slippers to tread back into their houses – and of course we would run off to egg peoples windows, cut TV aerials, swap garden gates, tie tin cans to cats tails (not nice – regret that one). It’s funny tho I now like in Doncaster and it don’t seem to be much of a thing here but I bet it’s still going strong in Barnsley.”

Penetrators thought that:

“When I was a kid I actually thought it was legal – ‘coppers can’t arrest you on miggy night’ That was the folklore….”

But local people did not and still do not think that and as noted in a Worksop police report in 2003:

“Angry residents and police have condemned ‘mischievous night’ yobs who damaged their homes. The vandals caused damage estimated at thousands of pounds during a Tuesday night wrecking spree. Up to 16 garden walls and gateposts were knocked over by the youngsters who targeted properties on and around the Water meadows area of Worksop. The gang knocked over a 30ft long section of wall in Mr Jennings’ front garden: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I looked out of the window shortly before eight and it was fine. Then my wife looked out of the bedroom window about half an hour later, it had been knocked over.” Mr Jennings was busy re-building the wall yesterday, but said that he knew of many other properties that had been affected, including his next door neighbour who had part of a wall knocked over and a tree in the front garden damaged. He also said another pensioner had some wheelbarrows stolen during the evening’s activities. Neighbour Mike Clarkson was helping Mr Jennings rebuild the wall. He knows all too well about the damage caused. His garden wall was knocked over last year. Police confirmed they had received six similar reports of vandalism on Water meadows, Robinson Drive and Dunstan Close.”            

It’s understandable when a Leeds perpetrator notes:

“The worst thing I ever did on this annual night of shame was to place a rather special smelly delivery in a post box, when it should have been in a toilet. Poor postman.”

Indeed, much of the activity of the mischief makers is seen a wanton vandalism and yobbish behaviour. The Worksop Guardian notes:                             

‘They should give them the birch. This isn’t mischief it’s vandalism,’ said Geoff Jennings whose home came under attack…..‘There are 16 that have been affected to a lesser or greater extent than my house,’ he said. ‘It’s wanton vandalism which is going to cost a fortune to fix, never mind the stress it’s causing us…..We’ve had people trick or treating which was quite innocent, but this kind of damage is no joke..’

An account at Skegby notes some of the activities which they stated giving the origin of the custom, to “Plan our mischievous deeds, just as Guy Fawkes and his conspirators did long ago” and may explain its popularity in Yorkshire where Fawkes was born and traditionally the 5th was not generally celebrated.

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Gate hangs well! Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Picture Post/Alex Dellow

“We decided to tie door handles together at a terraced house on crown street. We must have been heard giggling and whispering by the occupant, because as we knocked on the doors, a hand grabbed the back of my coat collar and I was shaken and released. We took to our heels and as if our tails were on fire, the man’s voice ringing in our ears…needless to say the two us never played that trick again……Another trick was the bull roar, we would stuff paper up the drain pipes and light the paper and run away. The draught used the paper to make a terrific roaring noise as it burnt in the pipe…..We also went window tapping. This entailed creeping into a garden with a pin tied on the end of the thread of a bobbin of cotton and then tying a bobbin of cotton and then tying a button further down the thread. The ideas was to stick the pin into the wooden window frame run out the thread, so that the button was near the glass and feed out the remainder of the thread, as we went to hide behind the garden fence or wall, we would pull on the thread and the button would tap on the window. If the occupant of the house came out to look what was going on , we would huddle silently until they went in and then we would crack up with giggles of laughter”                                                                                          

The police notes:

‘Mischievous night is OK if the young people involved are supervised by adults,” said Sgt Jenny Antill. “But these kind of incidents are not in good humour. They are quite simply acts of criminal damage. We will take action against people responsible.’

Certainly, a report by Nottinghamshire police of Carlton, Langold and Blyth reports:

 “Your Local Beat Team is also pleased to report that three of the potentially worst nights of the year for ASB, namely Halloween, Mischievous Night and Bonfire Night, were very quiet in the Carlton in Lindrick area.”

Interesting a poster on the Sheffield Forum under the controversial title ‘Are all Estate dwellers Estate Scum?’:

“I was bought up on a council estate in the 1960s / 70s in Nottinghamshire – in a place called Warsop, near Mansfield. There were ‘bad uns’ and the neighbouring streets had a reputation, but there did seem to be more limits of behaviour – you might get a bin set on fire on Mischief night, but that would be it in terms of arson. Possibly because the community was quite well knit and if you DID torch someone’s car you might not live to see the following morning.”

Mischief Night is perhaps one of those most unusual of surviving traditional customs. In our rather ‘youth-phobic’ culture and obsession with anti-social behaviour one which is likely to die out, hopefully, though if the pranks are toned down, the tradition could return to the light hearted attitude the victims had back in the 1950s!

Custom survived: Blackpool illuminations

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Last year I discussed the lesser known but nevertheless picturesque Matlock illuminations, this month it’s time to talk about the grandfather of illuminations: Blackpool. In 2012, the town celebrated 100 years of lighting up and so I felt it was fitting to return back.

Walking on artificial sunshine

Blackpool is the queen of all seaside resorts, a well established resort long before the illuminations begun. In 1879, the local council decided to invest £5000 into converting the gas lights to Dr Siemen’s 8 dynamo-electric street lighting, the first electric street lights in the world. This new scheme attracted near on 100,000 visitors to see the promenade lit up with 48,000 candles worth of ‘artificial sunlight’!

Like Matlock, royalty was again the influence and the regular lighting up was established after the first Royal visit, by Princess Louise, to the town and the renamed Princess Parade in May 1912 with its ‘novel fashion of garland lamps’.

So impressive were the 10,000 bulb display that it was they were set up again in September and large crowds assembled. So successful was the scheme that local businesses persuaded the council to repeat it in 1913 and despite the inevitable stoppage for the First World War, their revival soon cemented their fame and became an established tourist attraction and in 1932 animated tableaux was added. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the area covered by lights extended six miles from Squires Gate to Red Bank Road. Indeed, although a preview was made on the 31st August which ironically included a searchlight on top of the Tower, the blackout soon enveloped the town and it was not until 1949 that the brightness returned.

Many hands make light work

The switch on has been a big thing, from the big attraction of Lord Derby in 1934 to more recently Gary Barlow, a lesser attraction. In 1949, actress Anna Neagle pressed the switch, and this established the pattern from then on. Celebrities have become associated with this switch on are a barometer for then current fads and celebrity custom. From great Lancastrians such as George Formby, Gracie Fields and Ken Dodd to oddballs such as the Canberra Bomber and Red Rum, the horse!! Who could forget Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward in 1982 sandwiched between the Muppets and Cannon and Ball? One of the most memorable, being the 1975 Doctor Who switch one advertising the town’s long running Who exhibit. In the 00s we may remember The Stig from Top Gear, Keith Lemon and Steps, but come a hundred years on, they’ll be as well known as Jacob Malick and John H. Whitney! Who…? Look them up. Indeed the switch up has become an event in itself, yet with tickets at £34 and massive losses running into the £100,000s (is there a connection?) this may be in danger.

Strike a light

Despite the rain and the wind, which can make a visit at this time of year so bracing, somehow the bright lights raise the spirits. Walking from the guest house towards the Tower I awaited the allotted time when the lights were switched on. There was no countdown and I almost missed it only realising it was happening when I could hear the cries of the assembled people as we watched the lights go up, down and up, flash and a large heart light up.

Of course the other great illumination features is the one which could inflict injury: the trams, although these are surely during the illuminations safest they could be, being lit up like fireworks and resembling something Santa would dream up to transport himself. Catching them is another matter, for everything I managed to get to their depo, I’d just missed one!

Then 66 nights latter, it’s all switched off, taken down and put into storage for another year as this jewel of seaside towns beds down for the winter.  The crowds disappear, ready to return next year for these bright garish lights are still a great attraction even over a 100 years later and long may they blaze on.