Category Archives: Lincolnshire

Custom demised: Fleas return on the 1st March

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Image result for Victorian flea

It appears to have been common belief across the country that on the 1st of March the fleas arrived back in the house. Accounts according to Steve Stroud (2005) are first made in print in late Victorian times. This belief even added geographical reference in Somerset, for a Yeovil it is said that they came marching down Hendford Hill, and at Crewkerne similarly down Cemetery Hill! Similarly, an c1890 account in Devon:

“A house-maid advised Mrs Hewett not to open her bedroom window on 1st March and aid that she had heard that the black army always came down Exeter Hill, in Swarms.”

This black army not only described the flea’s appearance but made them synonymous with the Devil for it was also said that:

“The Devil shakes a bag of fleas at everybody’s door on 1st March.”

Therefore it as advised that housewives should be careful early in the morning their front door steps to drive away any invasion or else not open one’s windows.

According to Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of Sussex:

“If the fleas you would be free, let all your doors and windows open be”

She also recalls that a West Sussex tradition would be to get up before dawn to fling their doors and windows open and cry welcome March and sometimes the children would be given brushes and told to sweep away all dirt from  thresholds and windowsills. In the eastern areas of the country they recommended:

“If from fleas you would be free, on the first of March let your windows closed be”

Bizarrely converse of course! An informant from Littleton told Simpson

“The reason why the windows were always kept shut in March because it was believed that the winds blew the fleas out of the thatch.”

People of Arundel on that date would shake themselves on Arundel bridge in the belief this would keep them free from fleas. Interestingly, Violets will bring fleas into the house in March according to an article in 1993 in Folklore called Plants used for pest control; some 20th century examples by Roy Vickery suggesting that being collected in 1985 there might have been some recent belief in the custom at least at Langtoft in Lincolnshire where it as collected.

In truth it was probably the change in climate that allowed cocoons laid in dust and fabrics to hatch and fleas to appear in great number. A similar event happens in houses which have been unoccupied for a period of time, in this case vibrations awake fleas from their torpor. Of course, no one remembers the 1st for its association with fleas – the human flea the scourge described in this folklore accounts in virtually if not entirely extinct in the British Isles a victim of the vacuum and temperatures of our homes are warm enough to allow cat and dog fleas to be active all year…I’d still watch up for some fleas coming down your street on the 1st of March.

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Custom contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!

Custom demised: Kick a Frenchman’s Day

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Image result for victorian potato pickers

Copyright North Lincolnshire Museum service

It is easy to think that calendar customs are all pleasant and light-hearted –  dancing around a maypole, processions, quaint customs irrelevant to the modern day or old customs but for the vagaries of our ancestors have vanished and are sorely missed. Every now and then there is a custom which is neither quaint nor do we desire it to be revived. We shouldn’t ignore such customs in our survey or apologise for bring them to notice but relish in the ideas things have changed. Hopefully, yet in this Brexit infused climate this one sadly appears slightly more ‘prescient’ than others.

Maureen Sutton in her excellent 1996 Lincolnshire Calendar records that:

“The presence of foreign workers in the potato picking season inspired a new custom between the wars which might have become established as a regular event if the influx of French workers had continued every year.”

It is interesting that the date, although traditionally a time for picking potatos was also one close to a national celebration, Trafalgar Day. Did it also remember this anniversary? It was a custom which appeared to be fairly widespread across the agricultural areas of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire especially in Holbeach or Wisbeach. Sadly it was also racially motivated as was clear from another correspondent, who records:

“Between the wars we got Frenchmen coming over to work in the summer months, they stayed until the potato harvest was finished. Most of them weren’t popular, they were often p****ed up, you could see them asleep under Sutton Bridge. The day they left to return home was locally known as ‘Kick a Frenchman Day’ the reason being we liked to help them on their way, so we gave them a kick, literally if they were canned up and sleeping it off under a hedge; we were pleased to see the back of them.”

Of course foreign workers still work many agricultural areas, although their attendance is not so seasonal. What is sad to note that attitudes to these obviously necessary supplements to the harvest team were thought of so poorly. One sincerely hopes that this custom does not become revived again in our post EU landscape and that anything which involves ‘kicking’ and ‘frenchman’ only involves balls and friendly team playing! Let’s keep this one unrevived!

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.

Custom survived: The Brigg Horse Fair

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Brigg Fair5

It was on the 5th of August, the weather fair and fine,
Unto Brigg Fair I did repair; for love I was inclined.

So famous a fair which became immortalised in the well-known folk song. However visiting on the day in the early 2000s I found a different story. The town sign clearly pronounced – Brigg – Town of the Horse Fair – but where was it? So famous a fair I thought would be much trumpeted with posters and banners. So I asked in the  Tourist Information Centre, they said they knew nothing? How strange I thought…then a local man learnt over to me and said in a quiet voice “It’s still on…they want to get rid of it and so are keeping quiet about it….it’s on the industrial estate on the edge of town.” Industrial estate I thought?

Horse whispers

It was a sad statement for an event which was the oldest of its kind in the country. Legendarily founded in 1204 in the Reign of King John it was an important charter fair which ran for five days. It may have originally been a general fair becoming a horse fair only later in its history. The sight of large numbers of horses and their assembled traveller community was a memorable site.

The Fair has in recent years apparently had a tenuous hold on survival. Maureen Sutton notes that it was in rapid decline in the early 1990s. She notes that in 1995 a new committee took it over the organisation and the fair was revivatilised and in 1997 80 horses were present. Morris dancers and local folk singers attended as well….these sadly were nowhere to be seen in the early 2000s.

Brigg Fair1
Of course in the world of NIMBYism an event which attracts large numbers of traveller folk was always in modern times to be not looked upon favourably and one wonders whether this was behind the councils attend to sequester it. Certainly if Maureen Sutton (1996) account is anything to go by in her Lincolnshire Calendar, the attendees were not shy of sharp practices.  An 89 year old man recalls:

“Oh aye, Brigg Fair, I seed it with me own eyes, I seed it. I was a boy of ten and me dad took me. Me dad bought twenty horses and one of them was lame, it it had sort of – like this, gristle in the leg. When they run with others up and down they kept this one to the wall side on the street, when they run them back again they made sure it was hid in the others, tricksters – they were that. I seed it bit I was too daft to tell me dad, lame it were – no good.”

Such activity was sure to make in unpopular. Indeed the reluctance to ‘allow’ the proper fair resulted In 2003 with two fairs occurring one unofficial one with horses the official one didn’t! Then the original fair site disappeared under a Tesco supermarket and an alternative could not be found and so the fair did not occur. Even barriers were placed across Station Street to prevent the traditional trotting of ponies, due to the danger to the general public…All this appeared to send the message that the fair or rather its traditional attendees were not welcome!

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Horsing around
Certainly there was a depressing and subdued atmosphere at the industrial estate – a very perfunctory place for a fair. Yet it was like stepping into another age. The roads were lined with caravans, stalls selling china and jewellery mainly and of course horse boxes with their horses and ponies sheltered in their shade. Nearby men had hushed conservations, every now punctuated with hand slapping and an occasional laugh. Up and down the lanes people milled around examining the materials on the stalls or else being curious. Every now and then a trap would come by with a pony trotting along. There was a feeling of being an intruder into another world – this was long before the media’s obsession with Gypsies – and certainly I experienced a number of furtive and concerned looks from the attendees – why was I taking photos they may have thought.
As I took these photos of the dying world I thought that this would be one of the last…but somethings customs can have greater resilience than that. Perhaps thanks to a combination a better organisation, that increased desire to preserve old customs and the media appeal of the travellers and their customs the Brigg Fair is bigger and better than ever.  Now the event starts with a parade of horses for the entertainment of the crowds…which sounds like a long way away from the trotting ban of early in the 20th century.

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Custom demised: Caister’s Palm Sunday Gap Whip

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In a glass frame in the church is a curious relic – the Gad Whip. An account in the Book of Days notes:

“Until it was discontinued in 1847, a singular ceremony took place annually in this church, by the performance of which certain lands in the parish of Broughton, near Brigg, were held. On Palm Sunday, a person from Broughton brought a large whip, called a gad whip, the stock of which was made of wood, tapered towards the top. He came to the north porch about the commencement of the first lesson, and cracked his whip at the door three times; after which, with ceremony, he wrapped the throng round the stock of the whip, and bound the whole together with whip cord, tying up with it some twigs of mountain ash; he then tied to the top of the whip-stock a small leather purse, containing two shillings, (originally 24 silver pennies) and took the whole upon his shoulder into the Hundon choir, or chapel, where he stood in front of the reading desk until the commencement of the second lesson; he then waved the purse over the head of the clergyman, knelt down upon a cushion, and continued in that posture, with the purse suspended over the clergyman’s head, till the end of the lesson, when he retired into the choir. After the service was concluded, he carried the whip and purse to the manor house of Hundon, where they were left.”

An odd procedure and one which had a few complainants.

Banning the custom

It is reported in the May 24th 1836 copy of the Hertford Mercury and Reformer that:

“A petition by Sir Culling Eardley-Smith of Bedwell Park, Hertfordshire, was put before the House of Lords Temporal and Spiritual , to get the practice in Caistor stopped on the grounds that it was a superstitious practice… Sir Culling had even applied to the Bishop of Lincoln to get it stopped but he had not done so. Sir Culling wanted the Lords to investigate the Bishop of Lincoln for this scandal.”

However, this petition was unsuccessful and it did not cease until 1847 when the land which paid for the custom was sold. A common source for the stopping of customs.

The origins of the custom

“generally supposed to be a penance for murder by the Lord of the manor, the Lord would have paid a penalty to the Lord of a neighbouring manor had it really been murder.”

Despite the article’s noting that the custom derived from the penance for murder, that seems unlikely. One possible origin is seen in the purse and its thirty silver pieces – does this refer to the betrayal of Judas? However, the whip is problematic if so..More likely is that considering the date that it is associated with the custom of the Procession of the Ass, a custom which has been revived across the country. The whip was probably used to move the Ass symbolically or actually! The name is further evidence being derived from the term goad for driving horses.

 

Custom demised: Bringing in the Yule Log

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“Come, bring with a noise,

My merry, merry boys,

The Christmas log to the firing;

While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free,

And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and

For good success in his spending,

On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may

Come while the log is tending.”

Robert Herrick 1591-1674

In the cold depths of winter nothing is heartening that a blazing fire ranging in the hearth. So important was the provision of this vital winter fuel that a whole custom arose around it – the bringing in the Yule log – a tradition with confusing origins as well. Today ask someone in the UK what a Yule log is and they will direct you to a cylindrical chocolate cake with or without a plastic Robin, but go back over 100 years ago and most people would have been familiar with it. An account from Belford in Northumberland summarises it well:

“the lord of the manor sends round to every house, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the Yule Logs—­four or five large logs—­to be burnt on Christmas Eve and Day.  This old custom has always, I am told, been kept up here.”

The collection and bringing in was all part of the ritual of course. In Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire, the Yule block was drawn into the house by a horse on Christmas Eve. This is one of the earliest accounts in England when a Sarah Chandler remembered:

“Beginning with Christmas Eve in the year 1759 my third year, I perfectly remember on that day being carried by Thomas, an old man servant to my grandmothers…the object of my visit on that particular day was to see the Yule block drawn to the house by horse, as a foundation for the fire on Christmas Day and according to the superstition of those times for twelve days following, as the said Block was not to be entirely reduc’d to ashes till that time had passed by.”

John Udal (1922) in his work on Dorset Folklore noted:

“It was customary in many farmhouses on Christmas Eve for a large block of wood to be brought into the kitchen, and an immense fire having been made up, the farm labourers would come around and sit around it, or as many as were able would crowd into the chimney corner, and drink beer and cider. This was what was usually called the Christmas brown.”

Ella Mary Leather (1912) in The Folklore of Herefordshire records:

“lasted for twelve days, and no work was done.  All houses were, and are now, decorated with sprigs of holly and ivy, which must not be brought in until Christmas Eve.  A Yule log, as large as the open hearth could accommodate, was brought into the kitchen of each farmhouse, and smaller ones were used in the cottages.  W——­ P——­ said he had seen a tree drawn into the kitchen at Kingstone Grange years ago by two cart horses; when it had been consumed a small portion was carefully kept to be used for lighting next year’s log.  ’Mother always kept it very carefully; she said it was lucky, and kept the house from fire and from lightning.’  It seems to have been the general practice to light it on Christmas Eve.”

In the West Riding, while the log blazed cheerfully, the people quaffed their ale and chanted:

“Yule!  Yule! a pack of new cards and a Christmas stool!”

In Shropshire, where it was called the brand or brund and could be oak, holly, yew or even crab tree and rollers and levers would be used to set it into the hearth of the fireplace.  Evidence for the force needed to drag this weighty log could apparently be seen in the rutted floor stones of Vesson’s farm at Habberley in 1895.

Yule meet again

In Gutch’s 1912 County Folk-lore of East Riding of Yorkshire notes an interesting practice recorded at Filey where besides the Yule log a tall Yule candle was lit on the same evening or in some cases holes bored in it to produce flames, this was the case in 1900 in Herefordshire where the bron or brund was bored twice in the middle so that flames would come out earning the name Christmas Candle.

Keep the fires burning

County Folk-lore of Lincolnshire by Mrs. Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) describes at Clee, that:

 “when Christmas Eve has come the Yule cake is duly cut and the Yule log lit, and I know of some even middle-class houses where the new log must always rest upon and be lighted by the old one, a small portion of which has been carefully stored away to preserve a continuity of light and heat.”

The log was lit on Christmas Eve and kept a blaze through the twelve days of Christmas and it was customarily said that as it burned the servants were always provided with ale. This would appear to be a survival of the tradition of having these days as holidays. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw (2003) in Folklore of Cornwall notes that it was also called the mock. They add that children were allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve watching the flames and toasting with drinks the mock until recently, although they do not give further details.

Touch wood for luck

It was said that a fragment of the log is occasionally saved, and put under a bed, as noted by Gutch (1901) in her County Folklore of North Riding of Yorkshire, where at Whitby it remained till next Christmas, under the bed. It was said to secure the house from fire; a small piece of it thrown into a fire occurring at the house of a neighbour, will quell the raging flame.  The embers were also carefully tended and were must not be thrown out “for fear of throwing them in Our Saviour’s face.” According to Charlotte Burne (1883)  in Shropshire folklore they were:

“were raked up to it every night, and it was carefully tended that it might not go out during the whole season, during which time no light might either be struck, given, or borrowed.”

This tradition of the log’s power has been used to suggest a pre-Christian origin to the tradition. Dean and Shaw particularly note that in Cornwall it often had the image of a man carved upon it thought done to prevent witchcraft. Some have suggested this had to do with human sacrifice. However, there is no evidence for any use before the 1700s in Britain and no evidence before Christianity either.

Wooden be found today!

The custom’s decline is an interesting example of how socio-economic changes cause customs to decline. Clearly a victim of the Great War as accounts appear to disappear or rather not recorded subsequent. This is because of the changes that happened. The the large estates with their infinite staff became to decline, numbers of staff fell and the Manor house began to lose its position as the community focus. Furthermore as heating became more dependent on mains supply, many places did not need it and that combined with the disappearance of the horse as a work animal might have been the final nail. Yet interestingly, this is one of the few customs which translated across to the Americas and thrives there, probably because parts of the continent are so cold and snow bound they need they. A notable example can he read here but in the main they are either associated with boarding houses or hotels. Something ripe for a revival in Britain I feel!