Category Archives: Northamptonshire

Custom demised: Fig Sunday

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Palm Sunday known locally as Fig Sunday was a minor hamlet festival. Sprays of soft gold and silver willow catkins called ‘palm’ in that part of the country, were brought indoors to decorate the houses and worn as buttonholes for churchgoing. The children of the house loved fetching in the palm …..better still they loved the old custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday. Some of the more expert cooks among the women would use these to make fig puddings for dinner.’

Flora Thompson Lark Rise to Candleford

Fig Sunday was an alternative name for Palm Sunday and it appears to have been observed as a custom across the country. It is noted that at one point it was observed in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Northampton and North Wales. In Hertfordshire it is recorded in the village of Kempton:

“It has long been the custom for the people to eat figs – keep warsel! – and make merry with their friends on Palm Sunday. More figs are sold in the shops on the few days previous to the festival than in all the year beside.”

In Buckinghamshire it is noted that:

“At Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, the children procure figs and nearly every house has a fig- pudding.”

In Dunstable, Bedfordshire:

“For some days beforehand the shop windows of the neighbouring town are full of figs and on Palm Sunday crowds go to the top of Dunstable Downs, one of the highest points of the neighbourhood, and eat figs.”  

In the 1912 Byways in British Archaeology by Walter Johnson he observes that a:

 “Ceremony was carried out on Palm Sunday by the villagers of Avebury, Wiltshire, who mounted the famous Silbury Hill, there to eat fig cakes and drink sugar and water. The water was procured from the spring below, known as the Swallow Head.”

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The author observes that real figs were often replaced by raisins as they were in the west of England and Wessex.

Why figs?

“when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.”

The Gospel of St Mark

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Palm Sunday is so called from the custom of eating figs on that day but why them? The main claim is that on Christ’s entrance to city on Palm Sunday he cursed a fig tree for not having any fruit, a barren tree, being hungry he then cursed it. Another claim is that the practice arose from the Bible story of Zaccheus, who climbed up into a fig-tree to see Jesus.

Sadly although a few food bloggers might promote fig pudding making on the day, Fig Sunday as a community custom has long ceased.

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Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was suggested that the building was:

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

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

Custom demised: Going a-nutting

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nuttingAll the youths are now a-nutting gone.”

Grim the Collier of Croydon

The 14th September passes by without fanfare these days but for many it was Holy Cross Day when the True Cross was revealed but in England the day became associated with a more domestic custom…one actually possibly at loggerheads with the church. For in some cases these nuts were brought into church. In Edward Brayley’s Topographical history of Surrey (1850) notes that at the church at Kingston upon Thames:

“the cracking noise was often so powerful, that the minster was obliged to suspend his reading, or discourse until greater quietness was obtained.”

In this case Steve Stroud (2001) The English Year notes that it was believed to be part of a civic custom about selecting a bailiff although the author notes he cannot see the connection. But it might give a reason for Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766) stating:

“Religiously cracked nuts on Michaelmas Eve.”

The nuts collected considering the time of the year were hazelnuts and accounts of ‘going a nutting’ can be found across the centuries. Eton schoolboys were granted a half day holiday in 1560 to gather nuts…however one wonder what would greet them when they arrived. For clearly other activities were abroad which were far from innocent. The phrase soon became a bye word for sexual proclivity and soon collecting nuts would become a nod and wink for something else. Certainly by 1660 a common expression would be:

“A good year for nuts, a good year for babies.”

The Devil was soon associated with the custom as a way to avoid such proclivities. Poor Robin’s Almanack of 1709 contains the following verses:

“The devil, as the common people say, Doth go a nutting on Holy-rood day; And sure such leachery in some doth lurk, Going a nutting do the devil’s work.”

 Going nutting was particularly avoided on Sunday when it was thought the Devil would be abroad disguised as an kindly old gentlemen who would pull down branches and whisk you away. Poet John Clare notes that certain days he would be likely found:

“On Holy Rood Day it is faithfully…believed both by old and young that the Devil goes a –nutting…I have heard many people affirm that they thought it a tale until they ventured into the woods on that day when they smelt such a strong smell of brimstone as nearly stifled them before they could escape…”

Now few people go nutting today…so the Devil must be otherwise entertained.

 

Custom demised: Love Divination on Midsummer

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imageMidsummer was one of the days in the year where the lovelorn could discover details of their future lovers. There were many widespread customs. One under the cover of midsummer moonlit was to throw hemp or fern seeds over the shoulder and hopefully see your future husband saying:

“Hemp seeds I sow, Hempseed I mow, And the man who is my husband to be, let him follow me and mow.”

and the other to form the dumb cake. A midsummer method being in Charles Dicks (1911). ‘Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District.

Dumb Cake. On Midsummer Eve three girls are required to make a dumb cake. Two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put a piece under each of their pillows. Strict silence must be preserved. The following are the directions given how to proceed: The two must go to the larder and jointly get the various ingredients. First they get a bowl, each holding it and wash and dry it together. Then each gets a spoonful of flour, a spoonful of water and a little salt. When making the cake they must stand on something they have never stood on before. They must mix it together and roll it. Then they draw a line across the middle of the cake and each girl cuts her initials each on opposite sides of the line. Then both put it into the oven and bake it. The two take it out of the oven, and break it across the line and the two pieces are given to the third girl who places a piece under each pillow and they will dream of their future. Not a word must be spoken and the two girls after giving the pieces to the third girl have to walk backwards to bed and get into bed backwards. One word or exclamation by either of the three girls will break the charm. Should a gale arise and the wind appear to be rustling in the room, during the baking or latter part of the preparation, if they look over their left shoulder they will see their future husbands. In some districts the pieces of cake are eaten in bed and not put under their pillows but nothing must be drank before breakfast next morning. Another variation is that two only make the cake and go through the same form as the preceding, only they divide it themselves, then each eats her portion and goes to bed backwards as in the first case and nothing must be drank or a word spoken. An uncooked dried salt fish eaten before going to bed in silence and walking backwards and getting into bed the same way, causes ones future husband to appear in a dream with a glass of water in his hand if a teetotaller, or a glass of beer if he is not one. Nothing must be drank before breakfast. An old woman said she had tried it over 40 years ago and her husband brought her a glass of beer and he was not an abstainer but rather the reverse.”

Often plants were used as noted in Devon:

“if a young woman, blind-folded, plucks a full-blown rose on Midsummer day, while the chimes are playing twelve, folds the rose up in a sheet of white paper and does not take out the rose until Christmas, it will be found fresh as when gathered. Then if she places the rose on her bosom, the young man to whom she is to be married will come and snatch it away.”

The custom was widespread being recorded in Wiltshire, to Herefordshire using Orpines Sedum telephium. John Aubrey records a custom in Wiltshire in his Gentilisme and Judaiseme. He notes that:

“the maids, especially the cook maids and dairy maids would stick up in some chinks of the joists etc,. Midsummer men, which are slips of orpines. They placed them by pairs, one for such a man, the other for such a maid his sweetheart, and accordingly as the orpine did incline to, or recline from ye other, that there would be love, or aversion, if either did wither, death.”

Nowadays the love lorn peer into the horoscopes…little has changed

Custom survived: Broughton Tin Can Band

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Broughton (pronounced Browton) Tin Can band is a unique survival. Every year on the Monday morning – that is 12 midnight (accounts always say Sunday night but call me a pedant it’s not strictly is it) – villagers carry pans, metal dustbin lids, spoons, sticks, forks, spanners and anything that clangs, dongs, thumps or beats. It is not organised, planned or ordered but it happens every year. It has been going on as far as we know for 300 years. Why?  Read on.

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One man band

The Tin Can band had been on my radar for many years and finally I decided to see for myself what it was all about. I arrived in Broughton – streets dressed for Christmas but not a soul to be seen along its streets. I headed for the Red Lion, which advertised itself as the pre-Tin Band location and in the back of the pub were the carol singers, the nucleus of the said ‘band’. It appeared I was not the only one here to experience this curious custom for sitting at the table were two other researchers who can come to make a film and make sound recordings. Soon another visitor turned up guided in by the pub’s landlord as here’s another one of your lot! It was quite interesting that many of the attendees appeared quite surprised that anyone knew of it – I added that virtually every general folklore book has it mentioned which surprised them even more! Some interestingly, seemed reluctant to be filmed as well – hence why I blurred some faces!

Strike up the band!

Leaving at the pub at 11.50 giving me a few moments to walk to the church as we walked we debated whether it was at the church porch or at the bottom of the gates…I said it was more likely considering how dark the grounds of the church was that the gates seemed a sensible location.  It was the gates. The first to arrive were some seven youths. Now usually upon seeing some teenagers holding spanners and crowbars at midnight down a lane I would keep quiet (or run the other way!). However, they seemed genuine enough and keen to get involved. Was this everyone? Fortunately not as soon a larger group of older people arrived carrying their pans, metal trays, whistles and spoons some suspiciously looking like they had come from the nearby pub!

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Just before twelve a shadowy figure could be seen coming down the church path his cloak fluttering in the wind – it was the vicar Canon Revd Brian Withington. I thought he might have appeared to give some sort of disapproving sermon but fortunately not, the complete opposite he was there to give his blessing. On the BBC 4 documentary he does go onto disclose that he had joined, justifying if it was to drive out evil that was okay! This was a feature of the custom I was unaware of! Furthermore it was good to see the event advertised in the church’s newsletter. As soon as the church’s clock chimed twelve he read the Collect for Advent:

“Alrighty God give us Grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your son Jesus Christ came to visit us with great humility and in the last day he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead we may rise to the life immortal to him who liveth and reigneth with the holy ghost. Now and ever Amen.”

Then as his force rose to the occasion he called out:

“So put away all that is evil tonight as you go around the village as you make a racket.”

At this point ironically perhaps the heaven’s opened and heavy rain began to fall..this was no discouragement for the assembled ‘band’ who shock and rattled, whistled, honked, yelled and cried at message from the vicar. They then maked their way off bashing, smashing, whacking, hooting and whistling down the streets. The route took the main streets of the town; Church Street, Glebe Avenue, High Street and Gate Lane bringing a curious cacophony for these quiet streets.

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Band on the run

The Broughton Tin Can Band has had as rough a journey as the music.  It has always been controversial and complaints from the usual suspects resulted in 1929 that the Parish council appeared to have set about trying to stop what they saw as an undated and clearly anti-social practice noting that:

“Notice is hearby given that at a meeting at Broughton Parish council given on September 17th 1929, it was resolved that the practice of the Beating of Tin Kettles and the noise created thereby on Broughton streets must cease and will not be allowed.”

This thus would make it an arrestable offence! The police were called in and it is said appeared to have enjoyed the event much I am sure to the Parish’s chagrin. Finally they were forced to issue arrests and fined fifty-four people. However, as the village was still supported by the villagers and a dance was held which paid for the fines! Some elderly people still live in the village apparently proudly displaying their fines! The following year the police presence was reduced and fewer arrests and soon it appears to have returned to normal. Local people have been victims Mr Stamper notes that when they first moved there they had their metal dustbin lid taken…but a visit to the police station the next day found all the lost metal dust bin lids laying on the lawn for collection!

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Bandwagon jumping?

This has not been the only time. Three years ago it was close to be stopped but as John Stamper relates that there were enough people in the village who would be very upset it had. This was probably as a result of some undesirable elements joining the throng. The Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph 2007 notes:

However, last year the fun was marred by anti-social behaviour which saw vandals damaging street lights, signposts and garden fences. Police were called to the event after a series of incidents.”

These appear to have been people from outside the village and indeed the youths of our throng did seem to spend more time hitting lamp-posts and pins then what they were carrying. They appeared to get admonished for this but again as John Stamper notes again on a BBC4 Lives in the Landscape:

 “Once hour a year not going to kill anyone!”

And they generally grow up, more on or get girl-friends. Furthermore, in an essence this sort of ‘vandal’ behaviour is surely part of the appeal of the custom and it needs young blood to keep it going and if they get some sort of pleasure out of bashing bins and rattling railings…that’s the point of it! They all good humoured with it and importantly stopped when everyone else did.

Breaking band

Then back at the church the ‘band’ retired for the year…the group all linking arms to sing Auld Lang Syne…or at least the verse everyone knows and they disappeared into the darkness – presumably to bed! The rain then stopped. My companions remarked that that was what you got when you are trying to cast out evil spirits. And spookily according to folklorist Doc Rowe the same happened the year before!

What are the origins of this custom?

Unsurprisingly for such as anti-social custom its history is a little lacking. The custom is most often linked to the principle of ‘rough music’ which was an ad hoc custom undertaken by villagers to drive out an undesirable – a wife beater or philander – a tradition most recently seen during a mock funeral for Margaret Thatcher in Goldthorpe Yorkshire. The focus on this ire is said to be gypsies. However, as one local questioned in the BBC4 documentary that it could not be for gypsies as there were some in the locale! The other equally plausible theory is that it was used to drive out evil spirits. However, the two are not mutually exclusive as gypsies were through to cast spells and brought about evil.

One rarely made association is that the event is staged near what would have been Old St Andrew’s Day or Tander’s Day. This was a feast day particularly celebrated by lace makers, of which there were a number in Northamptonshire. Furthermore, Thomas Sternberg of Dialect and Folklore of Northamptonshire collected the following account from the mid 1880s which looks significant:

“Tander – of the numerous red-letter days which diversified the lives of our ancestors, this is the only one which has survived to our own times in anything like its pristine manner…Drinking and feasting prevail in a riotous extent. Towards evening the sober villagers appear to have suddenly smitten with a violent taste for masquerading. Women may be seen walking about in male attire, while men and boys donned the female dress, and visit each other’s cottages, drinking hot ‘eldern wine’; the staple beverage of the season.”

Since this account the custom has died out. However it is interesting to speculate that the Broughton Tin Can Band may have arisen this way. The association with St Andrew is supported by the fact that the church is dedicated to the saint and so the village would have celebrated the day as a patronal day. Furthermore there certainly were lace makers in the 1800s in the village according to the census, but it is not clear how many. I did not see any ‘men and boys donned the female dress’ but there were quite a few’ Women may be seen walking about in male attire’ well trousers anyhow!

Band aid

Whatever the truthful origins of the custom it is something the village must preserve. The group were keen to have it continue and wondered how they could ensure it preserved. Hopefully this small contribution There will always been those who disagree with it but being so unique it needs to be kept. However, understandably a custom which is set on midnight in December on a Sunday night-Monday morning might not have any takers. Numbers have waved over the years from the 100s said to have attended years back down to one lone drummer in the war years. When I attended there were 22. The greatest risk to the custom is not the complainers but like many customs apathy! So if you are reading this blog post and live near Broughton, nothing to do on Sunday night, have tin pan and will travel…don’t forget first Sunday after the 12th December.

Custom demised: Porch Watching on St Mark’s Eve

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 “Tis now, replied the village belle,  St. Mark’s mysterious eve, And all that old traditions tell, I tremblingly believe; How, when the midnight signal tolls, Along the churchyard green, A mournful train of sentenced souls  In winding-sheets are seen. The ghosts of all whom death shall doom  Within the coming year, In pale procession walk the gloom,  Amid the silence drear.”

On this date curious people would wait up on the 24th of April, St. Mark’s Eve to see who would die in the Parish. The details varied a little according to location, but the basic idea was that you sat in a church porch and the spirits or wraiths of those who were to die that year ahead would be seen as ghosts. The watchers had to remain silent from when the church clock struck 11pm until the clock struck one, and a procession of the dead predicted that year would appear either leaving or entering the church.  In some places such as Yorkshire, the observer would have to be there for three days in a row and then only would be able to see it.

It was widespread custom, but particularly noted in north of England, although Briggs in their Folklore of the Cotswolds is wrong when they  note it was found no further south than Northamptonshire (it was recorded in Oxfordshire). In East Anglia those who would die stay in the church and those who would survive would be seen in other places it was the other way around. Ethel Rudkin (1936) in Lincolnshire folklore records:

“On St Mark’s Eve all those who are going to die, or to be married, can be seen by anyone who watches in the church porch at Midnight, as they come into the church in spirit on that night.”

Let us hope they could tell the difference! Another method recorded was according to Chamber’s 1894 Book of Days involved:

“ riddling out all the ashes on the hearth-stone over night, in the expectation of seeing impressed upon them, in the morning, the footstep of any one of the party who was to die during the ensuing year. In circles much given to superstition, great misery was sometimes created by a malicious or wanton person coming slily into the kitchen during the night, and marking the ashes with the shoe of one of the party.”

A colourful account translated by Steve Roud Book of Days (2008) from its broad Yorkshire is by Richard Blakeborough in 1898:

“I never watched myself, but one James How used to watch the dead go in and come out at Bon’inston church every St. Mark’s Eve as it came around. He had to; he was forced to it, he couldn’t help himself…ate, and he saw the spirits of all of them that were going to die that year, and all of them dressed in their natural clothes, or else how would he have known who they were? They passed close to him, but none of them gave him a nod, or anything of that sort.”

A noted account is given about a Liveman Rampaine, household chaplain to Sir Thomas Munson, Burton Lincolnshire to Gervase Hollis, a noted writer who records:

“In the year 1631, two men (inhabitants of Burton) agreed betwixt themselves upon St. Mark’s eve at night to watch in the churchyard at Burton, to try whether or no (according to the ordinary belief amongst the common people) they should see the Spectra, or Phantasma of those persons which should die in that parish the year following. To this intent, having first performed the usual ceremonies and superstitions, late in the night, the moon shining then very bright, they repaired to the church porch, and there seated themselves, continuing there till near twelve of the clock. About which time (growing weary with expectation and partly with fear) they resolved to depart, but were held fast by a kind of insensible violence, not being able to move a foot.

About midnight, upon a sudden (as if the moon had been eclipsed), they were environed with a black darkness; immediately after, a kind of light, as if it had been a resultancy from torches. Then appears, coming towards the church porch, the minister of the place, with a book in his hand, and after him one in a winding-sheet, whom they both knew to resemble one of their neighbours. The church doors immediately fly open, and through pass the apparitions, and then the doors clap to again. Then they seem to hear a muttering, as if it were the burial service, with a rattling of bones and noise of earth, as in the filling up of a grave. Suddenly a still silence, and immediately after the apparition of the curate again, with another of their neighbours following in a winding-sheet, and so a third, fourth, and fifth, every one attended with the same circumstances as the first.

These all having passed away, there ensued a serenity of the sky, the moon shining bright, as at the first; they themselves being restored to their former liberty to walk away, which they did sufficiently affrighted. The next day they kept within doors, and met not together, being both of them exceedingly ill, by reason of the affrightment which had terrified them the night before. Then they conferred their notes, and both of them could very well remember the circumstances of every passage. Three of the apparitions they well knew to resemble three of their neighbours; but the fourth (which seemed an infant), and the fifth (like an old man), they could not conceive any resemblance of. After this they confidently reported to every one what they had done and seen; and in order designed to death those three of their neighbours, which came to pass accordingly.

Shortly after their deaths, a woman in the town was delivered of a child, which died likewise. So that now there wanted but one (the old man), to accomplish their predictions, which likewise came to pass after this manner. In that winter, about mid-January, began a sharp and long frost, during the continuance of which some of Sir John Munson’s friends in Cheshire, having some occasion of intercourse with him, despatched away a foot messenger (an ancient man), with letters to him. This man, tramling this bitter weather over the mountains in Derbyshire, was nearly perished with cold, yet at last he arrived at Burton with his letters, where within a day or two he died. And these men, as soon as ever they see him, said peremptorily that he was the man whose apparition they see, and that doubtless he would die before he returned, which accordingly he did.”

Of course waiting up late especially for many rural people who would have laboured all day would be tiring and so tales tell of people falling asleep are noted. This would be an unwise action as it is said that anyone who did would die as well! The practice would appear to have been frowned upon by the church, perhaps the tradition told in Yorkshire that anyone who did watch must do so every year of their life is a way of discouraging. As Blakeborough again notes this may have been to comfort the watcher:

“But them as does it once have to do it. They hold themselves back. They’re forced to go every time St. Mark’s Eve comes around. Man! It’s a desperate thing to have to do, because you have to go.”

Understandably, such a custom was also ripe for abuse. Kai Roberts in their Folklore of Yorkshire (2013) tells of a woman Old Peg Doo who every year used to watch at Bridlington Priory and charge her neighbours for the information. Of course finding out that you were one of these wraiths would have been quite disturbing so much that it must have caused the death of the person predicted a self fulfilling prophecy! As Chamber’s 1894 Book of Days notes:

“It may readily be presumed that this would prove a very pernicious superstition, as a malignant person, bearing an ill-will to any neighbour, had only to say or insinuate that he had seen him forming part of the visionary procession of St. Mark’s Eve, in order to visit him with. a serious affliction, if not with mortal disease.”

An account in Lincolnshire Notes and Queries by a  J. A. Penny in 1892-3

“As Martin by Timberland over the river, I was told that many years ago there was an old clerk who church watched and once when a farmer grumbled at the rates he said ‘you need not trouble for you’ll not have to pay them’ nor had he, for he went home and died within three months of the shock.”

Of course there was also a bizarre final realism for the observer as Richard Blakeborough once again notes:

“Whah! at last end you see yourself pass yourself and now you know your time’s come and you’ll be laid in the ground before that day twelvemonth.”

Sometimes as Chambers notes it would be common to scare people on the day, he notes:

A poem from Whittlesford Cambridgeshire in 1826, describing the tale of when in 1813, four or five villagers would watch at the church to see if the ghosts appeared. His friends played a joke on them by hiding in the church, ringing its bell and scaring them and sending their scattering and in one case causing one of them falling into an open grave.

The church became very strict on the custom and it is noted as early as in 1608, indeed the earliest record of the custom, when a woman was excommunicated at Walesby, Nottinghamshire for:

“watching upon Sainte Markes eve at nighte in the church porche by divelish demonstracion the deathe of somme neighnours within the yeere”

 The tradition appears to have died out by the 1800s across the country as rational thought sadly took over. However, there was at least one survival into the 20th century in Oxfordshire as a report in the Oxford Times recorded the event in the north of the county. So next St Mark’s eve perhaps…or perhaps not…you’ll want to watch.

Custom contrived: John Clare memorial midsummer cushions

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Cushion star!

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (99)

Often commemorations record pious politicians and mighty military men, every now and again it is nice to see a much more humble and harmless professions being celebrated: writers, poets and clowns being amongst them! At Helpston, since the 1980s a local festival has been established to toast a local and little known servant of the muses, the so-called ‘peasant poet’ John Clare. The event focuses around the weekend closest to his birth date, the 13th July and includes concerts and readings. However, it is the picturesque midsummer cushion ceremony which concerns us here. John Clare himself reported in his manuscript called Midsummer cushion in 1832:

“It is a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers and place it as an ornament in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer cushions.”

Glorious sunshine beamed down into the small churchyard of St. Botolphs and a crowd had begun to assemble around the tomb of this lauded local, some devotees of the verse, some curious bystanders and the rest dutiful parents. The later naturally swelled the churchyard as the custom is enacted by the pupils of John Clare Primary school naturally enough.

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (36)

At the allotted time 1.30, a stream of students holding proudly their creations entered beneath the churchyard arch, up the lavender lined path and towards the grave where under the direction of their head teacher, they laid their cushions around his grave. Slowly and surely they formed a picturesque patchwork, their vibrant colours glimmering in the mid day sunlight.

These cushions was composed in a fashion similar as possible to Clare’s description, using an ice cream tub crammed as much as possibly with colourful blooms and in one case a whole plants. The tradition perhaps should be a revived custom; although it is more a transferred custom as clearly it would not have been associated with the poet. Speaking to a local man he informed me it was a Northamptonshire custom, to which I added Cambridgeshire as well, to which he replied ‘sadly the village is now’ showing how still some are not happy to see the Soke of Peterborough be absorbed into the modern Cambridgeshire. However, the custom is not unique to this region as an MA Denham wrote in 1850s of a version in northern England that:

“The young lads and lasses of the town or village having procured a cushion…and covered it with calico, or silk of showy and attractive colour, proceeded to bedeck it with every variety of flower which they could procure out of their parents’ and more wealthy neighbour’s gardens, displaying them in such a manner so as to give it a most beautiful appearance. All this is done, they placed themselves with their cushion of Flora’s choicest gems, in the most public place they conveniently could soliciting of every passer-by a trifling present of pence, which in numerous cases was liberally and cheerfully bestowed…the custom prevailed from Midsummer Day to Magdalene Day (22 July), which latter has long corrupted to ‘Maudlin Day’.”

As early as 1778 John Hutchinson reported a similar custom in Northumberland but the cushions were made out of stools, with a layer of clay smeared on top and flowers stick into it much like a well dressing.

How long the ceremony has been enacted I am unclear, speaking to a regular attendee he said he had seen 30 years of them and suggested it had been done at least another 30 years previous by the school.

John Clare Midsummer 2013 (131) John Clare Midsummer 2013 (133)

Once all the children had assembled, a small group remained in the blazing sunlight to serenade the grave perhaps with songs based on Clare’s work set to music. After which the children then sat down in the shade to hear an introduction and explanation by the society’s representative and one could see a degree of anticipation on their faces. Was it the usual boredom? No it was awaiting the results of the poetry competition. Winners and commended were read out from each class with a nervous but surprisingly confident approach, there were no shy moments and the pieces had a surprising maturity, clearly the influence of Clare has had a positive effect. All in all it is very pleasant to see such a charming custom given such enthusiastic support…even during the heavy storms of 2012! Long may it continue.

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