Category Archives: Lost

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 demised: Shrove Tuesday Cockshying

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“1622 Received for cocks at Shrovetide 12s Od

1628 Received for cocks in towne 19s 10d

Out of towne 0 6d”

Pinner public receipts

Often the folklorist wistfully looks upon lost customs hoping one day they would be revived. This one is not one of them. Alternatively called Cock shying it lasted until the late 18th century being popular with all cases and all ages, Sir Thomas More referred to his skill at ‘casting a cokstele’ when a boy. William Hone 1892 The Year Book notes as shown above that the custom was a parochial one as seen above in the hamlet Pinner at Harrow on the Hill and the money collected at this sport was in aid of the poor rates. John Brand in his 1791 Popular antiquities work notes

“The of throwing at cocks on Shrove is still retained at Heston in Middlesex in a field near the church have been often directed to attend on occasion in order to put a stop to barbarous a custom but hitherto have attended in vain”

He continued to describe the method:

“the sport owner of the cock trains his bird for time before Shrove Tuesday and a stick at him himself in order to him for the fatal day by accustoming to watch the threatened danger and springing aside avoid the fatal blow lie holds the poor victim on the marked out by a cord fixed to his leg the distance of nine or ten yards so as be out of the way of the stick himself Another spot is marked at the distance twenty two yards for the person throws to stand upon He has says or throws for two pence wins the cock if he can knock him down and run up and catch him before the recovers his legs.”

It is recorded that even if the cock broken his kegs he would be supported by sticks, in some cases he was put into a jar and in Sussex a version similar to the procedure of bull baiting saw it tied to a 5 foot rope.

The end of the custom

As early as the Commonwealth period, there was already attempts to supress it. It is recorded that in 1660’s Bristol it was banned on Shrove Tuesday a move which apparently resulted in rioting! However the writing was on the wall for the custom, animal welfare interests had developed. Popular culture begun to demonise the sport, in 1751’s The Four Stages of Cruelty, William Hogarth identified it as a first stage. The church too became involved with Josiah Tucker in his 1753 ‘Earnest and Affectionate Address to the Common People of England Concerning their Usual Recreations on Shrove Tuesday’ described it as the:

“most cruel and barbarous diversion,”

Public order fines started to be given out by local magistrates and its popularity waned and in some areas it was banned so by the early 19th century it was confined to the folklore books! And long may it reside there!

Custom demised: Cattle kneeling on Christmas Eve

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“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Isaiah Chapter 1, verse 3

It was once believed that at the bells rang at midnight, the cattle in their barns would kneel in honour of the occasion. The belief would appear to be an extrapolation of the account in Isaiah as neither St Matthew’s and St Luke’s gospel mention it and from this slight on how the people of Israel disregard Christ compared to the animals, grew into the belief immortalized in paints and illustrations. It became such a widespread belief that Thomas Hardy’s 1895 Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

 “Well, then he called to mind how he’d seen the cattle kneel o’ Christmas Eves in the dead o’ night. It was not Christmas Eve then, but it came into his head to play a trick upon the bull. So he broke into the ‘Tivity Hymm, just as at Christmas carol-singing; when, lo and behold, down went the bull on his bended knees, in his ignorance, just as if ’twere the true ‘Tivity night and hour. As soon as his horned friend were down, William turned, clinked off like a long-dog, and jumped safe over hedge, before the praying bull had got on his feet again to take after him. William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when he found his pious feelings had been played upon, and ’twas not Christmas Eve. …”

Indeed, Hardy was so interested in the custom that he celebrated it again in poetry in 1915 for The Times on Christmas Eve:

“Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. ‘Now they are all on their knees,’ An elder said as we sat in a flock By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where They dwelt in their strawy pen; Nor did it occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then. 

So fair a fancy few would weave  In these years! Yet, I feel, If someone said on Christmas Eve, ‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb, Our childhood used to know,’ I should go with him in the gloom,  Hoping it might be so.”

 John Brand in his 1849 Observations of popular antiquities of Great Britain was the first to record the folk custom, although as Steve Roud in his 2008 The English year states that it was extremely well-known in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Brand states:

“An honest countryman, living on the edge of St. Stephen’s Down, near Launceston, Cornwall informed me, October 28th 1790, that he once, with some others, made trial of the truth of the above and watching several oxen in the stalls at the above time, at twelve midnight, they observed the two eldest oxen only fall on their knees, and as he expressed it, in the idiom of the country, make ‘a cruel moan like Christian creatures’

Testing the belief

Of course, the first test of this belief would come when in 1752 the calendar was changed from Julian to Gregorian, but a contributor to Bentley’s Magazine in 1847 had a way of explaining it:

“It is said as the morning of the day on which Christ was born, the cattle in the stalls kneel down; and I have heard it confidently asserted that when the new style came in, the younger cattle only knelt on December 25th while the older bullocks preserved their genuflections fir old Christmas Day, January 6th

Despite this explanation many thought the event implausible, even Brand himself:

“I could not but with great difficulty keep my countenance; he saw this, and seemed angry that I gave so little credit to his tale, and walking off in a pettish humour seemed to marvel at my unbelief.”

Despite these early scoffs there may well indeed be people who believe this happens as Roud (2008) states and it is interesting to note perhaps that the belief was strongest in the USA.

Custom demised: Love divination on St. Faith’s and St. Luke’s Day

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On the eve of St Faith’s Day, a 3rd century Aquitaine resident, Virgin and Martyr,  being burned on an iron bed placed over a flame pit. Thomas Thistleton- Dyer (1875) British Popular culture records the procedure:

“On this day a very curious custom is observed in the North of England. A cake of flour, spring-water, salt, and sugar must be made by three maidens or three widows, and each must have an equal share in the composition. It is then baked before the fire in a Dutch-oven, and, all the while it is doing, silence must be strictly observed, and the cake must be turned nine times, or three times to each person. When it is thoroughly done it is divided into three parts. Each one taking her share, and cutting it into nine slices, must pass each slip three times through a wedding-ring previously borrowed from a woman who has been married at least seven years.”

He records that each one must eat her nine slices as she is undressing, and repeat the following rhyme:

“good St. Faith, be kind to-night, And bring to me my heart’s delight; Let me my future husband view, Aud be my visions chaste and true.”

Another source suggests that it consisted of:

“An egg-shell-full of salt, An egg-shell-full of wheat meal. An egg-shell-full of barley-meal. Water.”

Notes and Queries appears to record another less prescription method undertaken in October across Ireland:

“In Ireland, this season is celebrated by the making of the Michaelmas cake. A lady’s ring is mixed in the dough, and, when the cake is baked it is cut into sections and distributed to the unmarried people at table, and the person who gets the slice with the ring ” is sure to be married before next Michaelmas”

Of course, like many calendar custom allowed a second attempt to discover your sweetheart, this time without making a cake. Thomas Firminger and Thistleton Dyer in their 1884 work Folklore of plants.  On the eve of St. Luke. In this case it could be found by rubbing dry marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme and a wormwood. These were sifting through a fine piece of lawn and simmer over a slow fire. To this honey and vinegar was added. After doing all this one anointed oneself before going to bed and recite the following:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In dreams let me my true love see”

She must turn around three times and cast over their left shoulder. If on falling the mixture forms a letter this was your sweetheart and if it fell apart dead would happen! Was it worth doing I wonder…a cake would be better!

 

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.’”

Image result for "st helen's well" lancashire

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 demised: Crabbing the Parson, Clent, Worcestershire

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A.M Protheroe and T. E. Jones in their Scraps of English folklore X in Folklore record in the Worcestershire village of Clent:

“The strange annual custom of ” crabbing the parson ” was followed on ” Wake Sunday ” at St. Kenelm’s, the wake being held on the first Sunday after July 28th, or St. Kenelm’s Day. The custom was discontinued more than a hundred years ago, and in the St. Kenelm’s of to-day seems to be quite forgotten.”

John Noake in his 1848 The Rambler in Worcestershire, or, Stray Notes on Churches and Congregations relates comically that:

“The last clergyman but one who was subjected to this process was a somewhat eccentric gentleman named Lee. He had been chaplain to a man-of-war, and was a jovial old fellow in his way, who could enter into the spirit of the thing. My informant well recollects the worthy divine, after partaking of dinner at the solitary house near the church, quietly quitting the table when the time for performing the service drew nigh, reconnoitering the angles of the building, and each “buttress and coign of vantage” behind which it was reasonable to suppose the enemy would be posted, and watching for a favourable opportunity, he would start forth at his best walking pace (he scorned to run) to reach the church. Around him, thick and fast, fell from ready hands a shower of crabs, not a few telling with fearful emphasis on his burly person, amid the intense merriment of the rustic assailants; but the distance is small; he reaches the old porch, and the storm is over.”

However, not always did the vicar join in the fun as Noake continues:

“Another informant, a man of Clent, states that he has seen the late incumbent, the Rev. John Todd, frequently run the gauntlet, and that on one occasion there were two sacks of crabs, each containing at least three bushels, emptied in the church field, besides large store of other missiles provided by other parties; and it also appears that some of the more wanton not unfrequently threw sticks, stakes, &c., which probably led to the suppression of the practice.”

Sadly, the author is probably correct and like many customs which tread the line between violence and fun it did disappear, but why did it exist. Noake again gives a reason:

“The custom of crabbing the parson is said to have arisen on this wise. ‘Long, long ago,’ an incumbent of Frankley, to which St. Kenelm’s was attached, was accustomed, through horrid, deep-rutted, miry roads, occasionally to wend his way to the sequestered depository of the remains of the murdered Saint King, to perform divine service. It was his wont to carry creature comforts with him, which he discussed at a lone farmhouse near the scene of his pastoral duties. On one occasion, whether the pastor’s wallet was badly furnished, or his stomach more than usually keen, tradition sayeth not, but having eat up his own provision, he was tempted (after he had donned his sacerdotal habit, and in the absence of the good dame) to pry into the secrets of a huge pot in which was simmering the savoury dinner the lady had provided for her household; among the rest, dumplings formed no inconsiderable portion of the contents; whether they were Norfolk or apple dumplings is not mentioned, but the story runs that our parson poached sundry of them, hissing hot, from the cauldron, and hearing the footsteps of his hostess, he, with great dexterity, deposited them in the ample sleeves of his surplice; she, however, was wide awake to her loss, and closely following the parson to the church, by her presence prevented him from disposing of them, and to avoid her accusation (‘a guilty conscience needs no accuser’) he forthwith entered the reading desk and began to read the service, John Clerk beneath making the responses. Ere long a dumpling slips out of the parson’s sleeve, and falls plump on sleek John’s head; he looks up with astonishment, but having ascertained that his reverence is not labouring under the effects of an emetic (‘vomits’ they called them in those days), John took the matter in good part, and proceeded with the service; by and bye, however, John’s pate receives a second visitation, to which he, with upturned eyes and ready tongue, responded, ‘Two can play at that, master!’ and suiting the action to the word, he forthwith began pelting the parson with crabs, a store of which he had gathered, intending to take them home in his pocket to foment the sprained leg of his jade of a horse; and so well did the clerk play his part that the parson soon decamped, amid the jeers of the old dame, and the laughter of the few persons who were in attendance; and in commemoration of this event (so saith the legend), ‘crabbing the parson’ has been practised on the wake Sunday from that time till a very recent period.”

Perhaps, but one cannot feel they may be a connection between the church’s association with the martyred king and perhaps it was done as a type of atonement or originally a scape goat was used transferring to the parson over time. We may never really know but rest assured the vicar is safe on the 28th July every year….unless one of us lies in wait!

 

 

Custom demised: May Goslings

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May Gosling’s dead and gone You’re the fool for thinking on

We all know of April Fool’s day but in many places, especially in the North, it was the first of May which was associated with pranks. The receivers of which were called May Goslings.

According to a contributor to the Gentleman’s magazine of 1791:

“A May gosling on the 1st of May is made with as much eagerness in the North of England, as an April noddy (noodle) or fool, on the first of April.”

Despite the unlikeliness of needing two fool’s days back to back it was apparently still current in the 1950s in Cumbria and north Yorkshire according to Opie in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959)

Indeed Nicholas Rhea’s diary, a blog site records:

“One very popular May Day game when I was a child in Eskdale was May Gosling. It was rather like April Fool pranks played on April 1 because children played jokes upon each other. Anyone who fell victim was known as a May Gosling. Just like April Fool jokes, the pranks had to be perpetrated before noon.”

He notes he has not heard any reference to it recently suggesting its demise.  Like April Fool’s Day, as noted above one must do all the pranks by none otherwise you would be taunted with:

May Gosling’s dead and gone, You’re the fool for thinking on.”

Even TV celebrity and gardener Alan Titchmarsh notes in his 2012 Complete Countrymen illuminates and suggests it did indeed survive longest in Yorkshire:

“As a Yorkshire lad, born on 2 May, my Yorkshire grandmother would ask me ‘Have you been christened a May Gosling?” I wondered what she meant then I discovered there had been a Northern custom, akin to April Fooling, which took place on 1 May. Tricks were played and successful perpetrators would cry ‘May Gosling!’ presumably implying the victim was a silly as a young goose. The response would be: ‘May Gosling past and gone. You’re the fool for making me one!”

John Brand in his 1810 Observations on Popular antiquities noted a ritual associated with it:

“The following shews a custom of making fools on the first of May, like that on the first of April “U.P.K spells May Goslings” is an expression used by boys at play, as an insult to the losing party. U.P.K is up pick that is up with your pin or peg, the mark of the goal. An additional punishment was thus: the winner made a hole in the ground with his heel, into which a peg about three inches long was driven, its top being below the surface; the loser with his hands tied behind him, was to pull it up with his teeth, the boys buffeting with their hats and calling out “Up pick you May Gosling” or “U.P.K Goslings in May.”

Robert Chambers in 1843’s Everyday Book noted also that:

“There was also a practice of making fools on May-day, similar to what obtains on the first of the preceding month. The deluded were called May-goslings.”

Perhaps it is due for a revival for in response to the above’s Nicholas Rhea’s article a commenter notes:

May gosling mischief

Having been born and bred in Yorkshire, but lived all my married life in the Vale of Evesham, I could hardly believe my eyes on reading Nicholas Rhea’s tale in the May edition – someone actually knew of May Gosling! Fifty or so years ago when I tried to describe May Gosling Day to my husband, I got some very strange looks. I gave up in the end! Had you been caught out on April Fool’s Day, it was such a joy to get your own back on May Gosling Day. Thank you, Nicholas Rhea. Mrs E B Palfrey, Pershore”

What with Yorkshire’s continuation of Mischief Night perhaps another day of pranks might not be needed!