Category Archives: Norfolk

Custom transcribed: American Thanksgiving

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“Thanksgiving would never work in Britain, because it is the day that self-deprecation forgot. Is it a holiday commemorating the Anglo-Saxon invasion of a country that already belonged to someone else? Yes. And what must have been an incredibly awkward dinner party between invader and invadee? Right again.”

Speaks a correspondent to Telegraph

Thanksgiving is a quintessential stateside custom, that it may surprise you to read that it is celebrated in the UK. It is not that surprising considering there are near 200,000 ex-pat statesiders in the country not to add those tourists who may be here for a holiday.

Thankful for what?

The folklore tells that in 1620 the harvest failed at the Plymouth Foundation and half of the Pilgrim fathers died. Understandably when in 1621 there was a better harvest and so understandably they wanted to celebrate a particularly good harvest with their local first nation groups the Wampanoag. Indeed, it had not been for them they would not have survived, for they taught them how to grow corn, beans and squash – future staples of Thanksgiving. You’ll notice no turkey reports suggest the three-day feast included lobster, cod, deer and goose!

Fast forward to the first President George Washington, who in 1789 proclaimed the inaugural national Thanksgiving Day. Yet despite it becoming an annual holiday in 1863 when it was set as the last Thursday in November, it too Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to finalise the holiday setting it as the fourth Thursday in the month.

Thankful in the UK

It is unclear when Thanksgiving was first being celebrated in the UK, but I would imagine those World War II servicemen would have been privately having a toast in the dark days of the war. Indeed an account Similarly, from a young boy who happened to be visiting a base in the 1940s remarked:

 “I was invited into the dining room, and was amazed at the food that was there. It was Thanksgiving, and I thought Christmas had come early. I’d never seen so much food, as we were all living on rations. I was even lucky enough to taste some.”

And there is a comical photograph in Norfolk  which account how after being given permission by the farmer servicemen attempted to capture a turkey for their dinner – it was not clear whether they granted any of them a pardon! Similarly, the American students studying in the UK and their societies would have promoted the event and indeed it is one of the first places to look for it today.

However, ever eyeful on the commercial opportunity the main place you can find Thanksgiving in the many restaurants, often USA themed, dotted across the country and particularly in London which court American tourists. There can be found imaginative takes on the turkey, corn, pumpkin pie and other staples. Some are more than happy to spread it out to three days meaning they get lucrative weekend trade.

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Unsurprisingly one place where something more substantial is done is Plymouth. With its connection with the first pioneers, those Pilgrim fathers, Plymouth has commemorated their Mayflower and Transatlantic heritage for a number of years and in recent years it has been celebrated with some enthusiasm. The custom consists of the reading of speeches by the Lord Mayor and other figures on the Mayflower steps where those Pilgrim fathers sailed from followed by a poetry, choir. An illuminated carrying lanterns group representing the Wampanoag process from there to the Guildhall to tell the tale of Moshup the giant, a supernatural figure of the tribe. It’s the closest the UK has got yet to New York’s Macey’s parade.

The other significant event is understandably a thanksgiving to God and this is where the US Ambassador speaks at a special service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where America the Beautiful is also sung. The audience being again made up of ex-pats. However, the main stay of the celebration is the feast and now from Aberdeen to Wales, restaurants and University clubs will be serving up their feasts and providing kinship a necessary thing for those so far away.

Thankful this year?

Will it ever establish itself here in the mainstream? It seems unlikely, we already have our Harvest festivals, although the semi-secular nature and not to say the facts it’s a holiday may be an attraction. Thanksgiving is far too personal and unique to the UK and like Guy Fawkes Night, which has largely died out as the British diaspora lost their Britishness, it would be rather soulless. Sadly, perhaps many reading this would rather have this opportunity for a brief respite before the Christmas rush, a moment for family, friends, good food and company. Instead, the commercial side of the custom, Black Friday, has since 2012 been slowly establishing itself here, albeit devoid of its actual reason and purely a money-making venture. I personally think I’d rather have Thanksgiving given a choice than this buying bun fight! So to those who sit down to their turkey, pork and cornbread or sup on three sisters soup, finishing off with their Pecan pie this year – have a good one, you may be more thankful you are overseas than ever for this Thanksgiving!?

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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: Eton Ram Hunting, Berkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salt also notes:

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

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

 

Custom survived: St. Walstan’s Day pilgrimage, Bawburgh, Norfolk

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“Come journey in St. Walstan’s way, Come make a start this joyful day; And as he turned from wealth and ease, Go forth in prayer to seek God’s peace.”

The hymn of St. Walstan

Laying in a small private orchard beside the Parish church, St Walstan’s Well has been, on and off,  the goal of many pilgrims over the centuries. Here beside the church was once his chapel and in times before the Reformation, it doubtless swarmed with pilgrims visiting the shrine and well. The most auspicious date to visit the shrine and well would be the saint’s feast day the 30th May. How many pilgrims, what stories of their journeys and stories are now unknown. Little is recorded of the site before the Reformation but thanks to a return of pilgrimage and a greater tolerance and acceptance from Anglican Church and adoption by a revitalised Catholic church, St Walstan is now regularly remembered.

Saints alive!

Who is St. Walstan? He’s a little known saint today but his spread was once considerable through the agricultural heartlands of East Anglia and beyond. A Saxon saint, said to have been of royal lineage, who forwent this to be a farm hand, giving his riches to the poor. He died on the 30th May 1016, and legend tells us that three springs arose, one at his place of death, at Taverham, another, Costessey, where a cart pulled his body dragged by two white oxen and the final at Bawburgh, where his body was laid to rest and a shrine established which was very popular. Indeed, in a region rich with such shrines it attracted considerable miracles and money, it and his nearby well being the goal of man and beast. Then the reformation came, the shrine dismantled and attendance at the well discouraged! Put you cannot put a good saint down…nor more importantly his well.

Spring back

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

Author J. C. Husbenbeth in 1859 Life of St Walstan, confessor wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that:

“much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.”

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pilgrims bless themselves at the well

Still waters run deep

A number of cures were associated with the well and these combined with the spreading Anglo-Catholic ethos of the Oxford Movement renewed worship of the well. Among the colourful characters to have been connected with this revival at the time was Father Ignatius. He founded a monastic settlement called the Third Order in Norwich and led the first official pilgrimage to the well in 1864. Those attended it could have described it as did one of them Baronness de Bertouch:

“A Public pilgrimage in full feather to the St Walstan’s Well – a said to be miraculous source of water, four miles out of Norwich referred to on the programme of old world religious revivals. It was hundreds of years since a single pilgrim had dipped his cup into that long forgotten spring, or breathed a prayer to its derelict Patron; so the occasion was an historical one, and worthy of the pageant with which it was commemorated by the Monks and their contingent.”

Nearby Norwich, a strongly Protestant city viewed the whole affair differently as unwanted Popery and many opponents tried by any means possible to discourage the activities. To prevent any conflicts on the day of the procession it was suggested that constables should be placed on specific cross roads to monitor and thus remove any problems. Ignatius ignored this problem and marshalled his 400 pilgrim’s to the well. The crowd of pilgrims being so great that they moved as:

‘one long flexible column through the town.’

Critics in the press ridiculed their actions, a broadsheet entitled ‘The Monks Pilgrimage to Bawburgh’ was printed by Robert Cullum of Norwich and scathingly described their activities in a poem ridiculing the miraculous waters in the cure of Brother Stumpy’s leg:

“Why what in the world were these Monks now about,

They’re Lately been having a rather grand turn out,

To astonish the joskins the whole country round,

Such a set of poor simpletons elsewhere can’t be found.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Last Week they slipp’d out of Town one by one,

And people were puzzled to know where they’d gone,

In a fly there fine dresses and gimeracks were carried,

And some said that Blazer was gone to be married.

There’s Old Ginger Giles he vow and protest,

That he won’t work for farmers the Monks pay him best,

Seven shillings a week is not worth looking arter,

He can get twice as much from selling the water.

But soon they meet on the Earlham Road,

And some of the finery began to unload,

Pockthorpe famed Guild this rum lot would beat,

All it warned was Old Snap to make it complete.

The People of Bawburgh they never did ill,

And don’t know the want of a doctor or pill,

But if it is true what they say unto me,

‘Tis by using the water in making the tea.

 

‘And when all were muster’d under the trees,

Down went the whole lot right on to their knees,

On the dusty road Monks and Women were seen,

With their fine Sunday Dresses and smart Crinoline

There’s old mother Smith that lives by the Cock,

Declares that whenever she washes her smock,

With the water although she now getting old,

If she puts it on wet she never catch cold.

 

Then up they all got and made a great noise,

for some begun singing at the top of their voice,

Each village they came the people turned out,

For they could not imagine what t’was all about,

Brother Stumpy too met a wonderful cure,

You remember the wooden leg he had to be sure,

After bathing it well for an hour or two,

A beautiful new leg appeared to view.

 

But at Bawburgh is said that they have found out a well,

The water of which all others excel,

It will cure all complaints of those who receive it,

And keep out the Devil if you can believe it,

 

Poor neighbour goose who in St Lawrence now dwell,

Strange is the tale I’m about to tell,

Though the mother of eight children of late it is said,

Through drinking Holy Water, looks more like a maid

When they got there with fasting they turn’d very faint,

All were eager to drink at the well of the saint,

And some simpletons were heard to declare,

They could without victuals the rest of the year.

The blind made see, the lame made to walk,

The deaf made to hear and the dumb made to talk,

If you like to believe all the cures they tell,

That’s done by the water and moss from this well

Such a sight there was seen when they’d got to the well,

For flat on their faces these Pilgrims all fell,

And began kissing the ground as if they were crazed,

While the poor people looked on amazed.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Brother Magentis then said that when the saint died,

(Though between you and me I think that he lied)

The water was seen from this place to run,

And thousands of cures by it had been done.

 

Now take my advice, don’t be galled by such stuff,

Of Monks and Miracles were had quite enough,

If you go to their chapel and learn at their schools,

You’ll find that they think you a great set of fools.

They’ll make you believe every Pulk hole they find,

Sprung up where some saint died if they have a mind,

But I hope folks know better in the present age,

And won’t join the monks in their next Pilgrimage.”

The pilgrims decorated the well with flowers and lights. Various vials and vessels were filled and handed out among the crowd. Locally people begun to realise that the water was still profitable; Ginger Giles, the supplier, stating that he received more money from selling its water, than from working on the local farm. However the anti-popish feeling ran high and sadly the Order suffered under physical and literary abuse, and after a scandal involving the luring away of a young boy, Father Ignatius, in 1866, left following a serious illness.

However despite this scandal the well was not forgotten. Indeed the revival had the desired effect in re-establishing the power of its water, the Norwich Mercury even noted effectiveness in the cure of sick animals. In 1912, the Third National Catholic Congress, organised a mass pilgrimage to the well, after a successful one to Walsingham. It was the result of this congress that the first chronicled and official miracle of the twentieth century occurred, after a London man attending the pilgrimage took back with him some moss. Later that year he found his eyes failing and was diagnosed to be becoming blind. Yet after washing his eyes in the well’s water and placing the moss on his eyes for four days – and his eyes were restored. He vowed to make a second pilgrimage and did the following September. This story had been circulated and another Catholic Pilgrimage was organised. This procession starting in the grounds of Bawburgh Hall, and Mr Sparrow the farmer again helped with the water access, however someone was over zealous by bringing a gallon-sized beer bottle.

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Pilgrims pass Chapel Farm – a clue to an ancient pilgrim route?

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The banner held proudly aloft

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Through the fields they travelled..

Well look who’s here!

Despite the anti-pilgrimage opinions it would only 20 years for the Church of England moved towards revitalising the saint and that year saw the first of many Anglo-Catholic Pilgrimages and even worship of the saint included Bawburgh Methodists. Today there is a regular service at the well on the saint’s day 30th May.

In 1976 there was established an Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage. Indeed since the 1970s every year there has been an observance of the custom, with the Methodist joining in 1982. In 1989 an interfaith pilgrimage from Taverham to Bawburgh was established to recognise the saint’s adoption by the British Food and Agriculture year. How things have greatly and thankfully changed from the ‘stumpy’ protestations!

Actually there are three separate observations – on the Sunday nearest to St. Walstan’s Day for Anglicans and the Sunday after St. Walstan, the first in June for Catholics processing from the local Catholic Church at Costessey, with the Orthodox coming the week after. However, in the last few years the first two days have coincided in the calendar and thus the observation combined. The Catholic church processing and being met on the old packhorse bridge by the local Anglican church. A school visit on the 30th for children even being organised on year with an re-enactment of the cart carrying the body of the saint.  In 2016, the community commemorated the saint’s millennia again with a joint celebration with the Bishops of Norwich/East Anglia, Rt Reverend Grapham Jones and Rt Reverend Alan Hopes (both Catholic and Anglican).

Well trod

For the commemoration of the 1000th anniversary of his death, the village established a number of events. In the church was a flower festival based on the saint’s life and a special extended processional pilgrimage walk. In the village I even saw a man carrying an old scythe like St. Walstan.  A large group had assembled for the mass pilgrimage from Marlingford village hall for this walk, I waited for the man with the scythe to lead us – he didn’t turn up – did I imagine it At the hall I asked one of the organisers why this route. Apparently there was evidence that the route, now over private land, was an old pilgrim route – it does pass by a chapel farm – although more functionally a procession with large numbers from Taverham, the place of his death to Bawburgh, would be problematic for safety purposes. A shame but the essence of a pilgrimage was upheld nevertheless, and if we were walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims that added to it. The walk, which was around 3 miles took in some of the great agricultural landscapes that would have made this farming saint at home. Indeed half way we rested and paused to give thanks for what Norfolk and its agriculture had provided and the people who’s livelihood depended on it. The walk continued, with the banner of St Mary and St Walstan Catholic church proudly leading the way. Soon the church was in sight and after a long walk it was a welcome site.

Alls Well, that ends well

The procession made its way via St. Walstan’s Well, sadly we couldn’t refresh ourselves there as the water was unfit for drinking, fortunately there was tea and coffee available, a much needed physical refreshment. At the well a medieval band played and song, a St Walstan inspired madrigal, as the weary pilgrims took a blessing from the well’s water instead from bowls by the side. Some attached blessings to a tree nearby, a resurrected St. Walstan’s bush perhaps said to lie nearby. I went for the tea and coffee.

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BBOGOF – Bishops Buy one get one free!

In a field near the church and well, a large congregation had gathered, augmented by the pilgrims, to hear the unusual sounds of a joint Anglican-Catholic service, at one point read in union, which I must admit was quite unusual. The Catholic Bishop recalling the legend of St. Walstan and hymns included one dedicated to the saint. The Bishop double act entered the congregation and went around sprinkling blessings with holy water – although the Catholic bishop seemed a bit more expedient and appeared to cover more ground! The service ended with the clergy praying homage to the Well and remembering the saint and the gift of his water. Remarkable for such an obscure saint that his memory is still important 1000 years on..but then again very little has changed to mean that his message is no longer relevant !

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Wait all this time for some clergy and nine come at once. The Bishops bless the well.

Custom demised: Chalk Back Day

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In an account in Notes and Queries in 1851 it reads:

“It is customary for the juvenile populace on the Thursday before the third Friday in September to mark and disfigure each other’s dress with white chalk, pleading a prescriptive right to be mischievous on ‘chalk-back day’.”

So reads this unusual custom described in the town of Diss, Norfolk. It continues being mentioned until 1900 suggesting an established custom. Roud (2008) suggests that the custom was associated with a fair which iswas held at the same time. This is hinted at Bridlington when:

 “the boys used to assemble on the church green, where the fair was held, each armed with a lump of chalk and each intent on chalking the backs as many of the other boys as possible. This often led to quarrels as the boys then had on their Sunday clothes.”

Similarly, in Ireland was Chalk Sunday which was a name for the first Sunday in Lent when local youths from the nineteenth century to the 1930s would chalk people’s backs, often people who were unmarried so that jibes could be made. Today chalk is not as readily available to children…many schools have gone to whiteboard markers or even interactive white boards..and interactive whiteboard day does not seem as easy!

Custom survived: A visit from Father, Jack or Mother Valentine

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Click the image for a great account!

Click the image for a great account!

Multi-channel TV, the World Wide Web, international trade: all these things and other have brought us closer together, allowed us to share ideas and thoughts. Homogenised us and made us all very similar. Yet every now and then one comes across a custom or tradition whose very survival flies in the face of this globalisation. Jack or Father Valentine is one. Why? Because for some inexplicable reason it is largely restricted to two counties: Norfolk and Suffolk, and not only this it is restricted largely to Norwich and Lowestoft?

Normal for Norfolk?

Across the country in Victorian times, Valentine’s Day was an important day in the calendar. I have already described how the giving of cards was revived across the country on another post, but apparently whilst the sending of cards died out, in this obscure part of the country, Valentines was not forgotten.  Porter (1974) in the Folklore of East Anglia notes:

“Norwich is still known for the enthusiasm with which, by the sending of cards and gifts, the inhabitants celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on 14th February. The gifts should, traditionally be delivered in person, and the rat-tatting of door knockers was a familiar Valentines sound. “

However, despite this clearly describing the custom, the name is missing. This name Jack Valentine can metamorphose into Old Father Valentine, or Old Mother Valentine. Descriptions of the custom first arise in the mid 1800s. A lengthy note given by a John Wodderspoon is described in the first series of Notes and Queries:

“ST. VALENTINE IN NORWICH—. The day appropriated to St. Valentine is kept with some peculiarity in the city of Norwich. Although “Valentines,” as generally understood, that is to say billets sent by means of the post, are as numerously employed here as in other places, yet the custom consists not in the transmission of a missive overflowing with hearts and darts, or poetical posies, but in something far more substantial, elegant and costly—to wit, a goodly present of value unrestricted in use or expense. Though this custom is openly adopted among relatives and others whose friendship is reciprocated, yet the secret mode of placing a friend in possession of an offering is followed largely,—and this it is curious to remark, not on the day of the saint, when it might be supposed that the appropriateness of the gift would be duly ratified, the virtue of the season being in full vigour, but on the eve of St. Valentine, when it is fair to presume his charms are not properly matured. The mode adopted among all classes is that of placing the presents on the door-sill of the house of the favoured person, and intimating what is done by a run-a-way knock or ring as the giver pleases.”

 Despite the late recording it is clear from the account that the custom must have been well established as the author continues:

 “So universal is this custom in this ancient city, that it may be stated with truth some thousands of pounds are annually expended in the purchase of Valentine presents. At the time of writing (February 2.) the shops almost generally exhibit displays of articles calculated for the approaching period, unexampled in brilliancy, taste and costliness, and including nearly every item suitable to the drawing room, the parlour, or the boudoir. The local papers contain numerous advertising announcements of “Valentines;” the walls are occupied with printed placards of a similar character, and the city crier, by means of a loud bell and an equally sonorous voice, proclaims the particular advantages in the Valentine department of rival emporiums. All these preparations increase as the avator of St. Valentine approaches. At length the saint and his eve arrives—passes—and the custom, apparently expanding with age, is placed in abeyance until the next year. I am inclined to believe that this mode of keeping St. Valentine is confined to this city and the county of Norfolk.”

 A well written account in Thiselton-dyer’s (1900) British Popular Customs Present and Past reads

“Norfolk. As soon as it is dark, packages may be seen being carried about in a most mysterious way; and as soon as the coast seems clear, the parcel is laid on the doorstep, the bell rung, and the bearer runs away. Inside the house is all on the qui vive, and the moment the bell is heard, all the little folks (and the old ones too, sometimes) rush to the door, and seize the parcel and scrutinize the direction most anxiously, and see whether it is for papa or mamma, or one of the youngsters. The parcels contain presents of all descriptions, from the most magnificent books or desks, to little unhappy squeaking dolls. These presents are always sent anonymously, and nearly always contain a few verses, ending with the distich:

‘If you’ll be mine, 1’11 be thine, And so good morrow, Valentine.’

 The Opies (1959) in the Lore and Language of Schoolchildren note:

 “From Heydon and Stalham in the north-east to Loddon in the south, young children played ‘Jack Valentine’ and knock on the doors or windows of houses and leave little gifts on the doorsteps.”

The Opies (1959) also record rhymes, common at Valentines across the country, but included mention of Mother Valentine, such as Ingoldisthorpe, Norfolk:

 “Good Mother Valentine, God bless the baker!, Who’ll be the giver? I’ll be the taker. The roads are very dirty, My boots are very clean, And I’ve got a pocket, to put a penny in.”

However, this is more common frequently encountered sounding like a begging rhyme once found across the country under the name of ‘valentining’ And Tuttingham near Aylsham reads:

“Good morning, Father Valentine, Trim your hair as I do mine: Two to the fore and two behind, Good morning Father Valentine.”

At Mundham they chant:

“Old Father Valentine, Draw up your window blind; If you wish to hear us sing, come down and let us in.”

Sadly, not living in Norfolk I have failed to witness this custom in person, but a search of the internet clearly reveals it to be alive. Much of what can be gathered about the tradition is from entries to fora and websites, there appears to be no modern literature I am aware of about it. A typical view is that of a Dave Tong who described that:

“We felt as you do at Christmas – both excited and almost sick, waiting for the knock on the door and the present of marbles, plasticine or maybe even gun caps if you were really lucky. A neighbour knocked on our door and later my dad did the same for their family. This was in the 60s and we still carry on the tradition with our own children today. The reason some in Norfolk haven’t heard of it is I think because it came out of Norwich where my parents lived and so has only spread slowly outside the confines of the City.”

 A Leanne Tink notes:

“We used to look forward to Father valentine visiting more than Christmas day!It was always so exciting. I always used to think oh mum has missed him coming again!! I carried on this lovely tradition with all three of my children up until a few years ago and still do get them a small gift.”

 A good account from a Paul Gray noted:

“Coming from Gorleston, near Gt Yarmouth, I can remember the loud ‘knock’ on the front door on Valentine’s evening after dark. There was always a small bag containing sweets and maybe a book, game or model plane to build. This was in the 1960’s. Usually a neighbour was coerced to knock and deliver. My wife and I carried on the tradition in exactly the same way for our twins (Good ol’Reg!)- but as Reg was not as sprightly as he once was, we had to hold the twins back for a few seconds to allow Reg to slip into the shadows. As far as I was told, the custom doesn’t extend the Norwich-Lowestoft-Yarmouth area.”

Bullet for a valentine!

 An Amanda Woodhouse adds:

“Although my brother and I would get some good presents and some bad ones as our parents always said he was ‘naughty’”

With every custom which appears to welcome goodwill, there is always the other darker version. This custom is clearly no exception and the name ‘snatch Valenine’ is used. This concept of a bad presents or mock presents is recorded by Porter (1975) who adds:

“In Lowestoft, and in many places too, the gifts were left on the recipients’ doorsteps and were preceded by ‘mock’ presents such as boxes filled with nothing but paper, a custom which encouraged mischievous boys to leave such offerings as dead herrings and other unsavoury objects.”

Thistleton-Dyer (1900) using Hone’s Everyday Book as his source also notes

“At Swaffham, also, Valentines are sent on this evening. Watching for a convenient opportunity, the door is slyly opened, and the Valentine attached to an apple or an orange, is thrown in; a loud rap at the door immediately follows, and the offender taking to his heels, is off instantly. Those in the house, generally knowing for what purpose the amusing rap was made, commence a search for the juvenile billet-doux: in this manner numbers are disposed of by each youth. By way of teasing the person who attends the door, a white oblong square the size of a letter is usually chalked on the step of the door, and should an attempt be made to pick it up, great amusement is thus afforded to some of the urchins, who are generally watching.”

The Opie’s (1959) note that such pranks were common place amongst their correspondents and quite clever:

“Sometimes the older children take advantage of gift giving and play tricks. They attach a piece of string to a parcel and jerk it away from the doorstep when someone stoops to pick up.”

 Considering the time of year this could be quite unpleasant:

 “they lodge a broom or bucket of water against the door before they knock, so that when the door is opened it falls into the house.”

Love is all around

Although geographically to the Norfolk and north Suffolk, it probably has spread as people have moved away, Australia being probably the furthest! On the website an Elizabeth McManus describes:  

 “I was born in north Norfolk and always had a visit from father valentine, I am in my 50s now and always kept up the custom with my children even though I moved to Wisbech Cambs Now I do it for my grandchildren, in fact they are coming to visit today and the presents are all ready .”

A Tim Williamson also noted:

“Now we’ve bought the tradition to Brighton.”

Another, Angie Porter:

“I now live in Henley-on-Thomas and carry on the tradition for my Grandson but no one here has heard of it.”

It has spread even further afield as correspondent Matthew Benns notes:

Long live Jack Valentine. I remember the terror and excitement of Jack Valentine’s knock as a child in Norfolk so well. Now in Australia the custom has been transported here for my daughters – although with the warmer weather snatch’s repertoire has been expanded to include various other tricks involving buckets of water and the garden hose!”

 Pranks aside, Jack Valentine appears to have now been adopted by a Norwich shopping centre, the Lanes with cleverly staged CCTV footage, the report notes:

“The mythical figure of Jack Valentine has been caught on CCTV wandering around the Norwich Lanes over the last few days. In one of the stills, he’s spotted strolling around Pottergate with an urban fox. For several centuries, Jack was famous for delivering gifts to families on Valentine’s Eve, a tradition which is synonymous to Norwich and Norfolk. One local historian believes he may have returned after hearing of interest from the curators at the Bridewell Museum about his long term absence. Here in the Lanes we are incredibly excited that rumours of his return are true. If anyone else spots Jack on his travels, we urge people to contact us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #JackValentine.”

 With this sort of publicity perhaps the custom will spread. That would not be a bad thing, as I rather like this tradition for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is largely localised and defied the trend for globalisation and secondly, that it is clear that the character is someone that might be known to the recipient those avoiding the Father Christmas conundrum parents have.  So this year, for my resident Norfolk diasporas I made a little visit…and left their young son something or should I say Jack did..spread the word!

CCTV3_low-230x230

CCTV1_low-230x230 Find out when it’s on:

It’s not on Calendar customs yet, but it is always the 13th February or 14th February morning and in the Norwich-North Suffolk region.

http://www.gentlemanswalk.co.uk/?p=1350 for some more footage!