Category Archives: Northamptonshire

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom survived: Rothwell Trinity Fair Proclamation Day

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Rowell Proclamation (14)Fair enough

“I ******* love Rothwell…where else do they get you up a 6 am so you can get bladdered early”

Not perhaps the most erudite introduction to Rothwell (pronounced Rowell), a small market town but perhaps correct. For this is a town which retains a curious and unique custom, which I must admit I had never heard of until recently.

On the Monday after Trinity Sunday, which falls either in late May or June (usually more often in June), this quiet and often bypassed town. However, on that day, often a normal working day, the pubs and restaurants of the town open and serve a very early 6 am pint! Everyone has a drink, even the horse! So important is this aspect, indeed it was probably one of the reasons the custom has survived, that its advertising flyers were beer mats!

This is perhaps a rather antisocial customs for a number of reasons, least of all the fact it starts so early, requiring an overnight stay. So I booked myself a small hotel in the town so that I wouldn’t have to get up that early…6 am is early enough! Booking in the concierge remarked “I have to tell you there is a proclamation outside the main entrance at 6!” if that would put me off. I replied “It’s why I am here…good to see they are bring the custom to my door.”

I woke early, around 5.30 and made the short journey to the west porch of the church where the festivities begun. For a short time, I was the only one and then a large group of teenagers appeared, then another and an even larger group…I immediately thought  “if you’d asked some teenagers to get up at this hour..the response wouldn’t be positive, but get a promise of fighting and you get loads!”

A local couple obviously realising I was not local asked:

“Have you been here before? If not you’ll enjoy it, it’s weird”

Soon enough I could see and hear a procession climbing from the main street towards the church followed by a large number of people. The procession consisted of a brass band, the bowler hatted Bailiff on a horse with his bowler hatted officials accompanied by his bodyguard of halberdiers holding a type of medieval lance. I noticed that the older members held full sized ones whereas the younger members carried shorter ones..the significance of which would become self evident later. As the clock chimed the allotted time, the Bailiff cleared his throat and with a scroll in hand he read out the proclamation:

“Whereas heretofore, his late Majesty King James the first and his progenitors, Lords of the Manor of Rowell had, and used to have, One fair in the year, to be holden within the said Manor, which said fair is now by good and lawfull means come to Zandra Maunsell Powell.

She, the said Zandra Maunsell Powell, doth by these presents notify and declare, that the said fair shall begin this Monday after the feast of the Holy Trinity, and so to continue for the space of five days next, after the holding and keeping of it, and no longer, during which time it shall be lawful for all Her Majesties Subjects to come , to go, to buy and to sell all manner of cattle, merchandise and other stuff being saleable ware and allowed to be bought and sold by the laws of this Kingdom. No toll for cattle, stakes for horses, sheep-pens, shows and stalls are charged for as heretofore. And she further chargeth and commandeth all manner of persons within the liberties of the said fair to keep the Queen’s peace in all things upon such penalties as the laws and statutes of this Kingdom are provided. God save the Queen and the Lord of the Manor.”

The crowd gave out a cheer and the band played the National Anthem. As soon as they had finished, the vicar appeared with the traditional glass of rum and milk, called Rowell Fair rum and milk which was intended to keep the bailiff warm. Once drunk, off they went.

Next they stopped outside the newsagent below the church and did it all over again…except this time the gleeful shopkeeper provided beers for the halberdiers and the band.

So far despite an obvious picturesque and old world nature there was nothing particularly exciting about it. Yet, there was an air of excitement especially amongst the youth element that sometime was about to happen.

At the third stop, the proclamation was read, band played the National Anthem, drinks went down and then there was a pause and all hell broke out. It was as if the surrounding crowd collapsed onto the road as any local lad worth his salt tussled and struggled in the street. Their object, to lay claim to one of the halberdier’s spears….the short ones not the full length, a fight for those of course would have resulted in a loss of some of bystanders no doubt. After much to-ing and fro-ing. One of the bowler hatter men blew a whistle and on we went to the next hostelry.

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And so and it went on, but at each pub or in some cases sites of old pubs, the fight became more powerful and yet more comical. At one point the conflict appeared to become very aggressive and intense, with one body halberdier struggling under the weight of a number of burly youths. But then the whistle was blown and immediately without quarrel they all stood up brushed each other down with smiles and handshakes and went on! I quickly noticed that the free alcohol liberally distributed to the halberdiers played into the hands of their disarmers. Who remained sober and more able to wrestle the spears off the increasing more ‘drunk’ bodyguards. However, it all appeared well humoured and despite a combination of alcohol and street fighting not usually being a desirable activity, those police present appeared to find no need for intervention.

The crowd moved on and finally stopped at the Rowell Charter Inn, their final stop. After the final proclamation the crowd disperses and with all the pubs and restaurants open, continue to have a breakfast both liquid and solid!

Fair Tarts

Rowell Fair Day is still a time for homecoming with tasty treats such as home cured ham and Rowell Fair tarts, although I was unlucky not to try one, I did notice they were advertised in a shop window. Below is a recipe!

Despite the details in the proclamation I saw no cattle, pens for sheep nor stakes for horses, these have long gone, but at its height it attracted cattle dealers from far as way as Wales, local people advertising the availability of accommodation with birch branches over their doorways. It also became an important horse fair from the seventeenth century, but what with the advent of the train and better roads, all commercial trading ceased replaced by the now all too familiar frenetic sounds of the pleasure fair.

The proclamation appears to have survived the periods which killed most customs, the war years, but by 1968, it appeared to be at risk as a result the Rowell Fair Society was formed and its work has been very successful in preserving this unique custom if the crowds are anything to go by.

Yet the Proclamation Day is one of those great customs, surviving 800 years, and with its curious mix of pageantry and punch-up should survive many years to come.

Clearly not everyone was out in Rothwell that morning. I later over heard a conservation between two women explaining the day. One saying in reply

“ I wondered my I was woken up by the sound of the national anthem.”

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

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