Category Archives: London

Custom contrived: The White Peace Poppy

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Each year on the run up to the 11th November, there is a sea of red poppies but occasionally one comes across a white poppy and a fair few people look down on this flower but its association with Remembrance is almost as old as the more familiar red one. In 1926 a member of the No More War movement mooted the idea that pacifists should make and distribute their own poppy which would differ from the red one not only in colour but the centre would read ‘No More War. As such its plan was a remembrance of all victims of war, challenging militarism and a commitment to peace; whereas the red poppy would be remembering the military dead – which it remains symbolising. Despite the idea it was not developed and the Co-operative Women’s Guild were the first to sell white poppies in 1933 and then the Peace Pledge Union also begun distributing them in 1936 with wreaths being laid in 1937.

Interestingly white poppy sales rose in 2010 and in 2014 the 110,000 topped the previous sales of 80,000 in 1938. 

Up the Armistice centenary  there was a noticeable rise in the adoption of the white poppies as noted by the Coop News website

“According to PPU, the number of shops and other outlets known to be selling white poppies has risen by almost a third. Some Co-op Group supermarkets and Co-operative Bank branches also sell the poppies. Schools have made 70 orders for the white poppies schools pack, more then double the figure in 2017. The PPU received 34 orders for the new White Poppies for Churches pack as well.

In the end, the Armistice resulted in a record 122,385 being sold.

“Of course we are very pleased to have distributed so many white poppies but it is the meaning behind the symbol that matters. If everyone who wears a white poppy takes action against militarism and war, and works for peace and active nonviolence, that would be a fitting memorial to the millions of civilians and combatants whose lives have been wasted in war.””

This is however not to say that the rise of the white poppy has not and continues to not have its controversy and whilst the Royal British Legion has no opinion on whether it should be red or white poppy worn, plenty of others appear to have spoken on their behalf – unofficially I’d add. As early as the 1930s some women lost their jobs for wearing them. Yet in Northern Ireland where the red poppy is associated with the British; those seeking unification can accept the white poppy with no issue. Local debates have arisen such as that between the then Bishop of Salisbury, John Baker in 1986 who when asked about the appropriateness said:

“let’s not be hurt if we see a white poppy…there is plenty of space for red and white to bloom side by side.” 

This however resulted in Robert Kay the Salisbury MP disagreeing and even bringing then British PM Thatcher into the debate who said during Prime minister’s question time that she had a “deep distaste” for the symbol. This created much attraction and doubtless more adherents to the white poppy cause despite several negative articles in The Daily Star. 

This debate appears not to be disappearing yet even as late as 2014, at the Aberystwyth War Memorial,  white poppy wreaths were binned and in 2018 a similar report perhaps from Somerset when:

“A white poppy wreath laid at the Bath War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday has been ‘pinched’ – for the third year in a row. The wreath was laid by Bath Quakers, who had called for it to be ‘respected’ ahead of the commemoration.However, the wreath has disappeared again – and in record time. The group said it was gone within 24 hours of the ceremony, having previously taken ‘a week or so’ to vanish.”

This resulted in an open letter:

“Dear Editor, On Sunday 11th November, Bath Quakers will again be taking part in the ceremony at the Bath War Memorial. With the respectful acknowledgement of the British Legion, we have laid a white poppy wreath for the last two years. Each time the wreath has been removed in the days after the event. We are hurt by this action and would like to take the opportunity to explain the origins and purpose of the white poppy. It was launched in 1933, a few years after the red poppy, by the Co-operative Women’s Guild. These were wives, daughters, sisters and cousins of soldiers killed and wounded, who were challenging society to prevent this kind of catastrophe happening again. They were seeking to find other ways to resolve conflict and an end to all war. Proceeds from the sale of white poppies fund peace education work. Our white poppy wreath is laid out of respect for all people killed, maimed, wounded and traumatised by war, civilians and military personnel from all sides involved in conflict. Many people wear both the white and red poppy. This year Bath Quakers will be laying two attached wreaths, one white and one red, to convey the complexity of this issue. It demonstrates our respect for the event and all participants, and our compassion for fallen military personnel and their families. At the same time it confirms our remembrance of all victims of war and our determination to work for the peaceful resolution of all conflicts. We hope that this year our wreath will be respected and remains where it is laid.”

Whilst St Mary’s Torquay make a point of stating on their social media:

“Come and see these incredible creations by our local Yarn Fairies – a poppy for each person remembered on the War Memorial and a ring of 24 white poppies for the 21 children and 3 teachers killed when St Mary’s was destroyed by enemy action on the 30th May 1943.  May they all rest in peace.”

 

Yet the conflict over white and red continues with a regular appearance of some aggrieved MPs or newspapers looking for copy, and the unfortunate link with the term ‘snowflake’ with equal amounts of those in the entertainment world supporting it. Michael Morpurgo, children’s author writing in a Radio times article: 

“Wearing the red poppy for me is not simply a ritual, not worn as a politically correct nod towards public expectation. It is in honour of them, in respect and in gratitude for all they did for us. But I wear a white poppy alongside my red one, because I know they fought and so many died for my peace, our peace. And I wear both side by side because I believe the nature of remembrance is changing, and will change, as the decades pass since those two world wars.”

I shall leave the last word to poet Professor Benjamin Zephaniah

“Rise above the wars The folly of endless fight, Let’s try making love, Let’s make our poppies white.”

Custom survived: London Harvest of the Sea Festival

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“O Lord Jesus Christ, who after thy glorious resurrection didst prepare by  the waterside a breakfast of fish for disciples that had toiled the whole night  long; Come amongst these thy servants who toil beside our river day by day  to provide food for their fellow men, and bring thy blessing both on their  work and on their lives, O Lord our Saviour and help for ever. Amen.”

The Billingsgate Market Prayer – specially written by the late Very Rev. E. Milner-White

London has many traditions and customs as indeed this blog has detailed. One of the most visually arresting and unique is the Harvest of the Sea Harvest festival which is celebrated at St Marys at the Hill tucked away up the narrow Lovat Lane in the shadow of London’s famed Monument and a few yards from the Old Billingsgate Market.

May be an image of 1 person, food and indoor

I remember as a child once being brought early in the morning to see this vibrant fish market in action. The seafood smells, the sounds and sights of the white coated porters rushing around delivering their valuable fish stock was a heady and confusing. Little did I know that a few years later this venerable market, which had traded here since Viking times, would move forever more from its famous location to the Isle of Dogs and the noise and smells lost forever here….that is until the second Sunday in October when the smells and memories return to the church nearby. 

Plenty of fish in the sea!

The custom is famed for its seafood display which is not only visually impressive but fills the air with a fresh maritime aroma; a unique experience in a London church. Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“Early in the morning a vanload of fish arrives to be laid out just inside the door of the church. In 1984 it took four men just two hours to create the astonishing display.”

He continues to state that one of the porters remarked:

“We counted fifty-four varieties of fish and shellfish…something like £500 worth of fish donated by the Billingsgate Fish Merchants.”

The display was similarly adorned with a large display of fish and seafood, with a separate stall of prawns, shrimps and cockles to the side. Nets were hung above and over a considerable monument which loomed above and crab and lobster pots – indeed two live crabs sat rather dazed upon the later awaiting their fate. 

May be an image of 4 people, people standing and indoor

Fishing around

I spied beneath the stall, one of the traditional bobbins. These were unique hats once worn by the porters to enable quick and efficient movement of their wares. Recalling my childhood visit I do remember the considerable skill involved and was in awe of those men rushing around carrying several boxes of fish balanced on their heads. The hats themselves are of wooden construction, covered with canvas and coated with bitumen to make them long lasting. Held together with studs and understandably having a brim to prevent any unnecessary fluids reaching the face, they are now rare pieces and in the modern Billingsgate not required.  The hat belonged to Mr Billy Hallet, who was one of two senior porters in white overalls who obliged for a photo. 

But one may ask why were they needed then? The original Billingsgate and the areas around was largely cobbled and so wheeled trolleys would be difficult to maneuver. I was informed by one of the oldest ex-Porters there, Reg Condon, of a tradition which enabled them to get up the more challenging hills locally. Upon reaching such a local, a cry of ‘hill up’ would be called by the porter. This then awoke the various rough sleepers who rested in the area who would then appear to help push the porter up the hill! They would then would be rewarded a shilling for their help. Apparently, this was a long standing tradition known by the homeless community who would make sure they were local to help and receive their monies.  

The service begun with a traditional blessing of a small section of the fish by the Bishop of Birmingham – an interesting choice perhaps being a clergyman from a landlocked location. This blessed firsh  was later returned to the whole display, with a remark that this was probably more desirable as it had been blessed.  The service had other unique maritime features such as the unique Billingsgate Prayer and prayers for Seafarers as below:

“For Seafarers  O eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, rulest the raging  of the sea: Be pleased to receive into thy protection all those who go down to  the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. Preserve them  both in body and soul; prosper their labours with good success; in all time of  danger be their defence, and bring them to the haven where they would be;  through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

O God our heavenly Father, we pray to thee for all seafarers and those who serve their needs; for keepers of lighthouses and the pilots of our ports; for all who man the lifeboats and guard our coasts; for the men of the fishing fleets and those who carry out the services of docks and harbours; for the guilds and societies which care for the wellbeing of fishermen and their families. Bless them according to their need, and shield them in all dangers and temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

There was an uplifting rendition of the “For those in peril on the sea” even more poignant with the aroma of the sea drifting across the congregation. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem with the new amendments and soon food and drink was being served to the departing congregation. 

A different kettle of fish?

How old the current custom is is difficult to ascertain. It certainly is not mentioned in any of the books on customs and traditions from the 1800s or early 20th century. I spoke with a Mr Reg Condon who had worked in Billingsgate in the 50s, 60s and 70s and was 85. He could recall that the first service at St Mary’s was in the 1960s and that he did recall it being held in St Magnus. This would be in line with the reference in the Times of the 3rd October 1922 which describes a similar event. It seems likely that the custom moved perhaps after the second world war to its current location. Although St Magnus state that the service moved in 1923 to St Dunstan in the East and then to St Mary at Hill, Alternatively, Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“This unique Harvest Thanksgiving began in the 1930s.. The Church Army  approached the market and suggested it as a charitable exercise. Sam Shepherd, a former Superintendent of the market told me they were delighted to agree. The occasion continues on the same basis; the Church Army still claims the fish and distributes to the needy.”

He adds surely with a tongue in cheek:

“I was grateful to accept a pair of dover sole myself, from the artistic fishmongers, who recognised my own unfortunate circumstances.”

Today a considerable queue forms and many happy congregations left with some quality seafood ready for that special occasion and despite the concerns over overfishing the display is as remarkable as ever. 

Custom contrived: October Plenty

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“October Plenty is such a special way to celebrate the Autumn Harvest and show off the beautiful colours of the season’s fruit & veg piled high on our traders’ stalls. We are really looking forward to welcoming the event back to the Market this year and sharing festivities, stories and dancing for a lovely family event. The Corn Queene and Berry Man are always particular favourites of ours and we are excited to host visitors as well as the many different characters in the procession!”

Kate Howell, Director of Communications and Engagement at Borough Market

The autumn period is packed with curious customs and celebrations associated with the changing seasons; from harvest festivals to Hallowe’en, from Diwali to Bonfire Night. In recent years, a celebration of that quintessential season fruit; the apple has attracted its day. Attempting to join many ideas together in one place; as a sort of smorgasbord of autumn, is the Lion’s Part’s October Plenty, which is undertaken in London’s Southwark. Indeed, as the organiser’s website records:

Over 20 years ago, fired with enthusiasm for amazing autumn festivies that people celebrated world wide and influenced by the organisation Common Ground, whose creation of Apple Day has inspired so many, I gathered with local friends and members of the Lions part and we launched October Plenty. At the heart of it was the iconic Corn Queene. Since then, in collaboration with Roots and Shoots, Lambeth, through David Perkins and Sarah Wilson, she has become an annual wonder.”

A bit corny!

The most remarkable feature is the Corn Queene whose appearance at the front of the Globe marks the beginning and is central to the procession. The website for the event records how this Corn Queene has been made since 2004 and that:

“she has emerged each year at Roots and Shoots in Lambeth and, like another mythical old bird, she takes form, rises, briefly reigns, before dissipating in a great shout…..Her demeanour can seem bemused, condescending, even dismissive, of the antics of much smaller humans.”

What is interesting about this Corn Queene is that although clearly a modern invention it has the feel of something more ancient and authenticate. She plays a central role in the October Plenty festival and her annual reincarnation is a central point and theme to this custom. Each year although she follows a similar design, she is also different; she metamorphosizes and since 2003 she parades on an old market barrow. She is described as:

“The Queene’s facial features are very colourful, often with an interesting complexion and skin texture. Her nose generally resembles a small gourd (regrettably warty at times) and she almost always has decidedly hot lips. Lashes can be long, perhaps enhanced with extensions (wire, right). Beauty spots have appeared now and then and she has favoured ear decorations on a number of occasions (small gourds or radish, maybe).”

Originally it was made by the actors on the day then as the event became more successful and merged with the markets own Apple Day since 2012 it had allowed the Queene to take place under cover in a then newly refurbished area of the Market; taking around 3 or 4 days to build her. 

The procession has also changed and since 2019, the Queene now emerges from Lambeth, passes the Tibetan Peace Garden/Imperial War Museum via Lambeth Walk.

On my visit this Corn Queene was indeed a very odd, comical but still rather eerie ‘creature’ looming over the crowd that had assembled for the start of the procession. Joining her was the equally odd Berry Man..now we had seen him before at the beginning of the year as the Green man of course and this autumnal version adorned with shades of brown and orange and suitably seasonal fruits and berries was perhaps even more impressive. It certainly turned a few heads as he, the Corn Queene and the Mayor headed a procession of players down the streets on the southbank and into the market. 

Here one could sample that wonderful autumnal produce, and the assembled crowd certainly took advantage of that opportunity as the market was bustling. Soon as a large enough audience had developed the actors presented them with Tudor dancing and a Georgian play which was the correct mix of bawdy and bizarre. Once the play had been presented the procession reformed and made its way to the George Inn, a delightful galleried inn which has survived considerable progress around. Here there was conker competitions, apple bobbing, a wishing tree….and that traditional staple of a countryside custom – Morris dancers.

October Plenty is certainly a fun and colourful custom; completely made up with a feel of authenticity, a modern take on the Harvest home perhaps, and one might add playing a vital role in our modern life. Especially in the city. For in our modern city lives it’s important to understand the countryside and how we are very dependent on it. October Plenty provides a historical nod to how this was done in the past in a very modern spin. When seasonality often lost in the 21st century, when everything is available irrespective of the time of year, October plenty allows the city folk to reconnect in a fun way, with the season and the wonderful colours and bounty that autumn provides.

Custom transcribed: London Rathayatra

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Occasionally London surprises you and you discover a fairly long running and sizeable custom such is the remarkable Hare Krisna Rathayatra custom which fills the streets of London with incredible sounds and sights in what could be described as London’s most vibrant religious customs. 

Hare Hare

The custom begun when eight devotees and their congregation organised the first procession from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in 1969. Devotee Shyamasundar Dasa constructed the first chariot for Lord Jagannath making the deities of Jagannath Beladeva and Subhadra ‘so beautiful that everyone will be attracted to them’ as Indian Guru Srila Prabhupada instructed, and these are the deities which still process today. The Back to Godhead Magazine stated:

“Londoners still have not recovered from that initial shock of that transcendental sound vibration in 1969. The Radha Krishna Temple (music band) has not let them”

In those first headlines in national papers read “Krishna Chant Startles London”. In those early years the congregation was small around 30 but their presence was increasing particularly when in 1970 a new 50 foot chariot was built and  Hare Krishna devotees overtook Leicester square with huge flashing billboards announcing “Holy Jagannath Car Procession”. The Godhead magazine, the magazine of the Hare Krisna movement, stated

The second annual London Rathayatra festival happened just like that. Two years before, when six disciples of the Hare Krsna Movement first invaded British soil, the newspapers declared: “KRSNA CHANT STARTLES LONDON.” Londoners still haven’t recovered from that initial shock of transcendental sound vibration. The Radha-Krsna Temple (London) hasn’t let them. The devotees there (now numbering near thirty) have continued to bombard England with Hare Krsna on records on television and radio, in the movies, in newspapers and magazines, and daily the sankirtana party of saffron-clad chanters dance their way down Oxford Street.”

In 1973 the Rathayatra was attended by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada Founder Acharya of ISKCON. It was reported that:

 “although Srila Prabhupada was 74 years of age, he chanted and danced throughout the entire procession. He ignored the elegant seat on the chariot, which was offered to him, much to the delight of the assembled devotees. This festival was Srila Prabhupada’s triumphant moment looking out at thousands of people chanting the Holy name in Trafalgar Square.”

A future leader of the Hare Krishna movement Maha Vishnu Swami organised the event and donated £10,000 pounds to publicise it. The next day Guardian newspaper read “ISKCON Rathayatha is rival to Nelson’s column” and the Srila Prabhupada stated that:

“Just as the residents of Puri compared the Rathayatra cart to Mount Sumeru, the residents of London considered the cart rival to the Nelson Monument.”

By 1985 the Rathayatra now proceeded from Marble Arch to Battersea Park, allowing for a larger festival at the end of the procession and here for a number of years a big festival was established in the park. In 1996 the procession had swelled to around 8000 members and by 1999 it had returned to its original route combined with the fact that Trafalgar square was traffic free and it was attended by 10 Sannyasis, the movement’s senior leaders and was filmed for an international TV series Abhay Charan. 

By 2004, two more chariots were built and thus the procession consisted of three chariots and in 2008 the oldest chariot was rebuilt utilising the skills of the Queen’s wheelwright to construct the huge wooden wheels in the traditional style with the rest of the work such as the painting done by volunteers. In 2018, the custom celebrated its 50th anniversary. 

Hare along to see

I stopped outside the Ritz as a wave of Hare Krishna devotees flowed down from Marble Arch. First one noticed the sound of chanting ‘Hare Krisna’ and a blur of distinctive orange as large numbers of people danced in and out of the crowd. As they got closer one could see that the procession was not only made up of joyous dancers but consisted of portable shrines, individuals dressed as deities and of course the enormous chariot which soon loomed into view and filled the sky. 

The chariot is a remarkable construction, although initially disappointed that there was only one as I was under the impression there would be three. A huge wooden construction covered in maroon, yellow and blue proclaiming Hare Krishna, covered in garlands upon which sat a smiling figure of the late spiritual leader Srila Prabhupada; there in spirit if not sadly in body. The canvas top of the 

Soon the massed procession passed by Eros and the intrusive neon commerciality of Piccadilly Circus which in a way was a curious juxtaposition; but that is London after all. After around an hour the whole procession and the cart arrived in Trafalgar Square where the celebration continued. There was more dancing, weaving in and out and chanting. However, the most remarkable site became the queue for the free food; a common feature of the Hare Krishna movement. 

All in all, the procession was a remarkable visual and auditory experience. One of the great customs of the capital and one which clearly drew many people from different backgrounds together to celebrate life and devotion. Long may it continue.

Customs occasional: The ceremony of the Keys, The Tower of London

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Many years ago when I was younger my father rather excitedly gave me an envelope which I opened with a confused expression on my face – within were some tickets to see the Ceremony of the Keys in the Tower of London. He said it was quite difficult to get them and that they were a London tradition.

Key it all

This is possibly Britain’s most precise custom thoroughly prepared, executed and always on time.

How old this ceremony is is unknown it may have been established upon the building of the Tower. However a story is told about how the ceremony may have begun back in the 14th century. This is when Edward III tuned up unannounced one cold December night in 1340 and walked in straight in. Keen to beef up the Beefeaters after imprisoning the Tower’s constable for a bit he insisted that it be locked sunset and unlocked at sunrise. A few hundred years later and Mary I concerned that a Protestant plot could use the Tower as a secure starting point not only increased the number of Yeoman warders six patrolling at night and nine during the day, she also laid down precise instructions of how it should be performed:

“And it is ordered that there shall be a place appointed under Locke and key where in the keys of the gates of the saide Tower shall be laide in the sight of the constable, the porter and two of the Yeoman Warders, or three of them at the least, and by two or three of them to be taken out when the[y] shall be occupied. And the key of that locke or coffer where the keys be, to be kepte by the porter or, in his absence, by the chief yeoman warder.”

The final change to the flow of the custom happened in 1826. The Duke of Wellington was then the Constable of the Tower and ordered that rather than be an unspecified ‘sunset’ it should be fixed at 10pm. Since then it has been like clockwork only being disrupted when a bomb fell on the 29th December when the Chief Yeoman Warder was blown over just at the wrong moment!

Preparation is the key to success

I turned up on that cold wintry night to see at exactly seven minutes to ten, the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower emerges from the Byward Tower, wearing the traditional red Watch Coat and Tudor Bonnet. The darkest light by his single candle carried in a lantern. Its light illuminates his other hands and within them a set of keys – the Queen’s Keys.

Then he moves as measured pace to meet his military escort at the Bloody Tower. The military escort consists of two sentries, a sergeant and drummer with a bugle.

The custom follows:

“The Warder passes his lantern to a soldier, and marches with his escort to the outer gate. The sentries on duty salute the Queen’s Keys as they pass.
The Warder first locks the outer gate and then the gates of the Middle and Byward Towers. The Warder and escort march down Water Lane, until they reach the Bloody Tower archway where a sentry challenges the party to identify themselves:
Sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys”.
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys”.
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well”.
The Warder and escort march down to the foot of Broadwalk Steps where the main Tower Guard is drawn up to meet them. The party halts, and the officer in charge gives the command to present arms. The Chief Warder steps forward, doffs his bonnet, and proclaims:
Chief Warder: “God preserve Queen Elizabeth”.
Guard: “Amen!”
On the answering “Amen” the clock of the Waterloo Barracks strikes 10pm and the Last Post is sounded, marking the end of the ceremony.
The Guard is dismissed, and the Chief Warder takes the keys to the Queen’s House for safekeeping overnight.”

Key to success

The ceremony of the keys is a brief but very evocative custom which gives a glimpse of something ancient. There is a real nervous anticipation in waiting and a real feeling we are privileged in seeing it. It is also one of the few in which photography is forbidden!

Custom survived: Signor Pasquale Favale Bequest

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I should say just survived as just before the pandemic hit the City of London were proposing re-allocating the moneys to other charitable purposes; however I am unclear whether this has happened…

Calendar customs are not always very evident some are small and rather private affairs; Signor Pasquale Favale bequest is one of these. My attention was first drawn to this by accident reading notices outside of a church and was curious to find out more.  The bequest reading:

“poor, honest, young woman, native of London, aged 16 to 25 who has recently been, or are about to be married”

A marriage made in heaven.

Favale was an Italian married a London girl and was married for many happy years with her in such that when he died in 1882 he stipulated in his Will of the 25th March that 18,000 Italian francs (around £720) should be used to provide a yearly dowry to three girls as his wife ‘was a native of the city’ and that ‘he had many happy years in the city’. Like all such bequests there were stipulations. Firstly that they should be born in the city that they should be born in the City., be poor, honest young women. They should be aged 16-25 and who had recently been, or were about to be, married. Thus be doing so he set up Britain’s most unusual bequest and custom. Thus every July the trustees of the charity decide upon the beneficiaries. Of course finding these beneficiaries is not easy – hence the sign on that church door -doubtlessly multiplied across the city. 

Outside St Botolph Without Bishopgate copyright David Brown via Flickr

18000 Italian francs was around £720 which after expenses needed to set up the foundation he required; the residue was too small for the interest in it to be enough to put the bequest until effect until 1914, but for over a hundred years it has been given.

When the money was left dowries were common practice from the bride’s families to her husband and perhaps he was concerned that many prospective women lost out because of the lack of money or was he bitter that his wife’s family never provided him with one?  

For richer or poorer?

Of course wording of the bequest has been problematic. When the City of London became the trustees the necessity that recipients be born in the City was removed. Very few are more within the square mile of the city, especially since St Barts closed its maternity unit and those that might be are unlikely to be ‘poor’ but I’d hope they were ‘honest’!

Such that since 2000 the bequest states that it should award:

“Marriage Portions to poor honest women who were born within the City of London or have resided therein for the period of at least one year, and who either have been married within the period of twelve calendar months next preceding the date of award or who are about to be married”.

As a report by the City of London states:

“Although the terms might make bestowing the gift difficult – finding a ‘poor’ resident of the City probably poses as much of a challenge as determining whether she is ‘honest’, the tradition continues.”

One of the most recent recipients has been Lorna Emmett a 31-year-old chartered accountant, Lorna Emmett, who married her husband in Hampstead in May. She received the £150 dowry. Another recipient stated:

 “It was actually the concierge at my building who pointed it out. I thought it would be nice to be part of such a romantic tradition and it will also make a small contribution to the wedding expenses!”

Indeed £150 probably does not go far these days and this is what is probably behind the move to consolidate the charity with others and use the moneys elsewhere. Interestingly, there are many poor and honest brides outside of the city boundaries who would no doubt benefit but it does not seem that that method of changing the bequest has been explored!

One do hope that the bequest does not disappear into an amorphous charity pot and that brides still benefit for years to come…despite its rather antiquated idea behind it.

Custom contrived: London’s New Year Parade

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“Executive director Bob Bone started the event with his wife Geri in the 1980s after they had wanted to take their children out on New Year’s Day and found most museums, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and shops were closed.”

And thus was born what would become the world’s largest New Year’s Day street parade.

 

It was new year 2019 and I had a busy day ahead. I got up early to attend a rather empty local radio studio for a breakfast show about new day customs and so it was rather appropriate to take the opportunity to attend one of the few New Year Day customs – the London New Year parade.

New year new custom

It was in 1987 that the first New Year’s Parade was started under the name Lord Mayor of Westminster’s Big Parade..surprisingly this rather clunky and rather lacking in details (or perhaps too much detail) name survived until 1994. I am sure that someone in the organisation thought to themselves it does not really say anything about when it is…and who outside of London would care about the Lord Mayor of Westminster was. So clearly with an eye on its commercial survival and its familiarity with tourists…the more obvious New Year’s Parade was coined. A name which would have greater resonance.

Certainly the organisers have their eye on the tourists. For example probably when another member of the teams rightfully observed that the parade route missed the big tourist locations the route was wisely reversed in 2010. This was done to:

“appease US television broadcasters and give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster (The Houses of Parliament, also known as Big Ben) and Trafalgar Square”.

The article continues

“The reverse route will give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. The annual parade is popular in the US and an estimated 100 million viewers are expected to tune in. Last year nearly 4,000 Americans took part, representing 24 different bands.”

A wise move with the event being televised now in 900 countries – although not broadcast live in the UK!

 

Parading about

I arrived around an hour before the parade was about to start and arrange myself in a place a mile or so down from the starting block. One could soon see the crowds awaiting and hear the sound coming of bands – that staple of all parades.

The event is certainly a big one with 32 London boroughs involved and all manner of commercial enterprises. At the head of the parade was a huge inflated Mayor of London and soon after an inflated red phone box! There was a clever nod to the other parades – yellow NYC taxis, a Chinese Dragon and some rather brave Brazilian dancers – a veritable smorgasbord of parade icons – through into this some classic cars, motor cycles and tickertape and reference to west end shows such as the Wicked! All in all on a rather dull January Day a bright and vibrant injection.

 

Whilst the New Year’s Day Parade is certainly an impressive and joyful event personally it is not one I hurry back to experience again. Why? The crowds surprisingly and perhaps not surprisingly because as the founder did state there is still little else to do in London on the 1st of January are a little intense. However, I have coped with crowds. No I feel it is more the overt commercial aspect of the event. It is an event purely for the tourists devoid of any real tradition. That’s fine the city needs to keep those tourists happy. However, I found it rather soulless! Loud, bright, engaging…perhaps fun…but soulless. I would certainly recommend it to anyone to see once and certainly if they in London over NYE but perhaps not to travel especially for..and indeed in 2021 one didn’t need to we all joined remotely!

Custom contrived: London Bridge Sheep Drive

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If you turn up on the last Sunday in September it is not just cars you have to dodge as you cross London bridge, no it will be sheep, liverymen, an odd celebrity and photographers! Yes for this is the annual London sheep drive – drive as in the sense to drive them across, as I mean a sheep drove, er no not with a car, you go behind them…oh well hopefully you will realise what I mean!

Pulling the wool over one’s eyes?

The event is organised by the Woolmen of the city, who claim that in medieval times, when sheep farmers drove their sheep across the bridge into the City of London to sell them at market, the Freemen of the City were excused the bridge toll that had to be paid by the others, as they were local traders and were  recognised as such. It is not clear when this sheep were last driven across but the appearance of the motor car would have made such a journey a bit perilous and unnecessary as well!

At some point in one of those conversations down the pub; this time presumably in the bar of the livery company of Woolmen, someone came up with the idea of re-instating the drove; as some sort of ancient right cum tradition, which of course there is little evidence it was despite what Bill Clark, Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, said: “Driving sheep over London Bridge by Freemen of the City is a tradition rooted in more than 800 years of the history of the Woolmen.

This notwithstanding, in 2013 wanting to uphold the tradition of Freemen’s rights, the Worshipful Company of Woolmen arranged:

“the first official Sheep Drive for Freemen of the City and their guests to ‘drive’ sheep across the bridge. The event has been so successful that it has continued ever since and with places selling out every year we are planning for over 700 pre-booked supporters for 2021.”

Being a bit sheepish!

However, this was not the first time in recent years. As in 2009 a group dressed as farmers had crossed the bridge – albeit in far less publicity as the recent establishment. Over the short number of years the company has attracted a colourful and impressive roster of celebrity drivers ranging from Alan Titchmarsh to Barbara Windsor; .

“Re-energising this old tradition provides a fun day out for Londoners but it is also a reminder of the City of London’s important trading history. Wool may have been replaced by stocks and shares but London is still the world’s centre of commerce.”

In 2016 it was reported that:

“Thirty sheep are provided for the event by a Bedfordshire farmer, with just ten at a time driven across the bridge by successive groups of Freemen.”

The event offers a colourful spectacle as the liverymen and the mayor officials and even Bo Peep stand by to drive in small groups with a sponsor the sheep across the bridge and back again..a real classic British custom colourful but largely if completely pointless! I do wonder what they sheep think of it! The assembled crowds loved it of course.

Custom demised: Letting the Lammas Letts, Chelsea, Middlesex

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Many villages had specific areas which could be grazed on at specific times. In Sports, Pastimes, and Customs of London, 1847 Craddock et al it is recorded that:

“In the parish of St. Luke, Chelsea, were formerly ” The Letts,” Lammas land, for ages appurtenant to the manor of Chelsea, The lord of the manor possessed the right of letting the land on lease for the spring and summer quarters, beginning with March and ending in August, and the inhabitants at large enjoyed the privilege of turning in their cattle from August till February, being the autumn and winter quarters.”

The grazing time was more specific the 2004 Victoria County History of Middlesex chapter 12 V.C.H noting:

“The freeholders and tenants of the manor of Chelsea had the right to graze the open arable fields with any stock except temporary sheep flocks between Lammas day (1 August) and Candlemas (2 February).”

The V.C.H note that:

“Lammas rights became a source of conflict between landowners and parishioners by the late 16th century with the gradual enclosure of parts of the open fields, particularly Westfield.”

Over the years access was curtailed and people were prevented from grazing for example a 50 acre in Westfield belonging to the earl of Lincoln was lost when he inclosed it c. 1607. However, by 1619 Lincoln’s successor, Sir Arthur Gorges, made the land available again. V.C.H recorded that:

“The commoners maintained that the close had formerly had one side left open until the earl had inclosed it; after a suit in 1612 he had left a gate into the close open for the exercise of common rights, but the gate was kept closed after the earl’s death (in 1616).”

A report was made for the Privy Council in 1631 after complaints about inclosure in Chelsea. V.C.H records:

“In Eastfield an inclosure near Stonebridge had been reversed, and c. 20 a. of Sir William Blake’s estate had been inclosed and partially hedged, but was still laid open at Lammas. The meadow in the detached part of Kensington by the Thames which was ditched and banked had also usually been commoned at Lammas over the bank. In Westfield, however, inclosures seem to have become permanent. The five acres on which Richard Stocke’s house and garden had been built by 1619, and 14 a. adjoining it behind the houses at Little Chelsea was inclosed, with another 31 a. in Westfield belonging to Lady Elizabeth Gorges, probably including the grounds of Stanley House, and 3 a. meadow of Lady Elizabeth’s in the open field had also been ditched and common rights prevented.   Prior to that Lady Elizabeth and her daughter Lady Lane had been allowed to inclose 4 acres in return for a payment to the parish poor.”

John Timbs in the 1856 Things Not Generally Known Popular Errors Explained & Illustrated records:

“This state of appropriation continued till the year 1825 or 1826, when the directors of the Kensington Canal Company took possession of them for their own use immediately upon the completion of the canal ; they have detained them ever since, and have let them successively to several persons, and received rent for the same. The Chelsea Lammas lands had hitherto been opened on the 12th of August, being the first of the month according to the old style.”

There appeared to be a custom like approach to the openings as:

“The graziers, butchers, and others with their cattle, used formerly to assemble in the lane leading to ” The Letts,” on the eve of Lammas, and when the clock had struck twelve they entered the meadow.”

The Victoria County History V.C.H of Middlesex notes that:

“Lammas rights presumably became less of an issue as Chelsea’s agriculture changed, but even in 1834 the parish officers and inhabitants repossessed the Lots meadow after the bankruptcy of the Kensington Canal Company on the grounds that it was Lammas lands on which they had a right to put their cattle, with Lord Cadogan having the right to let it for the other six months.”

Lots Road Pub and Dining Room, Chelsea, SW10 | A posh gastro… | Flickr

However, finally the Lammas rights of common grazing were abolished on the “Lots” and thus according to V.C.H:

“the The Lots meadow was still called Lammas land in the Chelsea Improvement Act of 1845, when it was owned by Lord Cadogan, the West London Railway, the Kensington Canal Company, and Chelsea parishioners.”

Now it is remembered by Lots Lane but the chances of grazing in this high end real estate is virtually zero.

 

Custom demised: Hocktide Rope Monday and Binding Tuesday

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The popular holidays of Hock-tide, mentioned by Matthew Paris and other early writers, were kept on the Monday and Tuesday following the second Sunday after Easter Day; and distinguished, according to John Rouse, the Warwickshire historian of the fifteenth century, by various sportive pastimes, in which the towns-people, divided into parties, were accustomed to draw each other with ropes. Spelman is more definite, and tells us,

“they consisted in the men and women binding each other, and especially the women the mem.”

and hence it was called Binding-Tuesday or as Plot in his work on Staffordshire notes on Monday, called Rope Monday. In Nottinghamshire it is noted:

“Hock-binding consisted to stretching a rope across highways and enclosing within its compass persons travelling on the Monday and Tuesday following the second Sunday after Easter. On the Monday, the custom was practiced by men of the village, and women had their turn on Hock Tuesday, impounding members of the other sex and relieving a contribution ostensibly devoted to the maintenance of the fabric funds of the parish church.  The custom is said to commemorate a massacre of the Danes by the exasperated Anglo-Saxon in England and although it had no legal sanction and was contrary to the freedom of passage of the King’s highway, it was indulged in as part of the merriment of the day, and fines for freedom to pass were modest and usually paid. As might be expected, the sums collected by women usually exceeded those gathered by men. The amounts paid over were sometimes appreciable, the local churchwardens receiving the equivalent of several pounds in modern currency, and on busy thoroughfares much more. The custom died out generally at the Reformation, but in some parts lingered in degraded from into the 19th century.”

Cowel informs us that it was customary in several manors in Hampshire for:

“the men to hock the women on the Monday, and the women the men upon the Tuesday; that is, on that day the women in merriment stop the ways with ropes and pull the passengers to them, desiring something to be laid out in pious uses in order to obtain their freedom.”

Binding day made Hock-day a day which authorities had wanted to supress it. It is reported that hokking as it was called was forbade between 1406 and 1419. However it was successful for in 1446 hokking was again banned to improve public behaviour before a visit by Queen Margaret. Similarly in Essex, reports in Maldon’s court rolls mention a Rope Monday in 1403, 1463, and 1468Indeed the over-exuberance of the people taking part was probably the reason for its disappearance for example Ipswich curate Samuel Byrd called it cruel and abusive. Calling it noxious corruption in a letter to the almoner of Worcester cathedral, John Carpenter, Bishop of Worcester, soundly condemned the holiday. He noted that

“one set day usually, alas, when the solemn feast of Easter has ended women feign to bind men, and on another (or the next) day men feign to bind women, and to do other things-would that they were not dishonorable or worse!-in full view of passers-by, even pretending to increase church profit but earning loss (literally damnation) for the soul under false pretenses. Many scandals arise from the occasion of these activities, and adulteries and other outrageous crimes are committed as a clear offence to God, a very serious danger to the souls of those committing them, and a pernicious example to other.”

The bishop demanded that all parishioners:

“cease and desist from these bindings and unsuitable pastimes on the hitherto usual days, commonly called hock days.”

Anyone caught still participating in the holiday was to be brought before the bishop’s consistory court. These predations clearly had their effect as Hock tide bindings have long ceased and even the name Hock tide is forgot all but in Hungerford of course.