Category Archives: Northumberland

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

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As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

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Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

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Custom transcribed: Christingle

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Around 20 years ago I started noticing reference to Christingle service back in the late 80s as a I travelled around visiting churches. There did not seem any pattern to when they were done. Some were done on the first Sunday in December, others at a random Sunday in the run up to Christmas, some Christmas eve. All of them in advent. So I tried to delve deeper. These were the days before internet and my searches failed. Unfortunately, I was not living near a church which had such a service at the right time.

Then finally I discovered that the Christingle was a curious structure used to represent Jesus consisting of an Orange as the base, a ribbon, sweets and most importantly a candle. But where did this custom come from?

The orangins of the custom

Marienborn, Germany, 20th December, 1747 is the birth date of the Christingle. The creator, the minister, John de Watteville. At a children’s service he explained to the children that Jesus was he:

“who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”.

To emphasis he gave them a little lighted wax candle, tied round with a red ribbon. He ended the service with a prayer:

“Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become”.

Interestingly it is recorded that Marienborn Diary stated:

“hereupon the children went full of joy with their lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed”.

This was of course just a candle and ribbon. Over the years it appears that the Christingle developed. Now the central object is the orange which represents the world, the lighted candle Christ, the Light of the World and the ribbon the blood he shed. The addition of nuts, raisins and sweets on cocktail sticks around the candle represent God’s bounty and goodness in providing the fruits of the earth. Red paper, forming a frill around the base of the candle, reminds us of the blood of Christ shed for all people on the cross at Calvary.

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The name itself is a curious one. According to the Moravians no one knows when it was first used or from where it is derived. Some believe it comes from German engle meaning angel, or the German for child, remembering the importance of the Christ child, ‘kindle’ or more likely perhaps the Saxon word ‘Ingle’ for fire!

A wide a-peel!

“The services are suitable for all the family. They include Advent hymns and carols, prayers for our work, and a purse presentation by children of the diocese. Children go forward to receive Christingle oranges and the Christingle hymn or carol is sung by the light of these alone.”

Gateway, Children’s society magazine 1970

So how did a custom associated with a fairly obscure Christian group get to be in so many churches? The reason comes back to The Children’s Society and a man called John Pensom. He saw in 1968 the Christingle as way to involve children and introduced it to the church of England. It soon grew, by 1969 seven churches adopted it, by 1970 around 18 were held. Then in 1989, Coventry Cathedral and York Minster had special Christingle services to celebrate 21 years of the adoption. A giant Christingle was lit and like the Olympic flame, this was used to light another and then another. I should add this giant Christingle did not use an orange. In 1997, Liverpool Cathedral was the place to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Christingle This prominence may have again helped its’ spread, for by the 1990s, thousands of such services were held. Today virtually every Anglican church has adopted it, from Cornwall to Northumberland and it has spread to the Church of Scotland and Catholic churches. Not bad for a custom whose membership is only just a million compared to the 85 million Anglicans!

One could cynically easily see the adoption of the Christingle as a clever awe and wonder fun device to get families back to church but it is evident that it is beyond that. The Christingle in this world of abbreviations and acronyms is a clever metaphor and symbol, not too preachy but fun, a way to get the message across in this world of quick messages. Long may in spread and bright light to those cold December evenings.

 

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: 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: Bringing in the Yule Log

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“Come, bring with a noise,

My merry, merry boys,

The Christmas log to the firing;

While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free,

And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and

For good success in his spending,

On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may

Come while the log is tending.”

Robert Herrick 1591-1674

In the cold depths of winter nothing is heartening that a blazing fire ranging in the hearth. So important was the provision of this vital winter fuel that a whole custom arose around it – the bringing in the Yule log – a tradition with confusing origins as well. Today ask someone in the UK what a Yule log is and they will direct you to a cylindrical chocolate cake with or without a plastic Robin, but go back over 100 years ago and most people would have been familiar with it. An account from Belford in Northumberland summarises it well:

“the lord of the manor sends round to every house, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the Yule Logs—­four or five large logs—­to be burnt on Christmas Eve and Day.  This old custom has always, I am told, been kept up here.”

The collection and bringing in was all part of the ritual of course. In Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire, the Yule block was drawn into the house by a horse on Christmas Eve. This is one of the earliest accounts in England when a Sarah Chandler remembered:

“Beginning with Christmas Eve in the year 1759 my third year, I perfectly remember on that day being carried by Thomas, an old man servant to my grandmothers…the object of my visit on that particular day was to see the Yule block drawn to the house by horse, as a foundation for the fire on Christmas Day and according to the superstition of those times for twelve days following, as the said Block was not to be entirely reduc’d to ashes till that time had passed by.”

John Udal (1922) in his work on Dorset Folklore noted:

“It was customary in many farmhouses on Christmas Eve for a large block of wood to be brought into the kitchen, and an immense fire having been made up, the farm labourers would come around and sit around it, or as many as were able would crowd into the chimney corner, and drink beer and cider. This was what was usually called the Christmas brown.”

Ella Mary Leather (1912) in The Folklore of Herefordshire records:

“lasted for twelve days, and no work was done.  All houses were, and are now, decorated with sprigs of holly and ivy, which must not be brought in until Christmas Eve.  A Yule log, as large as the open hearth could accommodate, was brought into the kitchen of each farmhouse, and smaller ones were used in the cottages.  W——­ P——­ said he had seen a tree drawn into the kitchen at Kingstone Grange years ago by two cart horses; when it had been consumed a small portion was carefully kept to be used for lighting next year’s log.  ’Mother always kept it very carefully; she said it was lucky, and kept the house from fire and from lightning.’  It seems to have been the general practice to light it on Christmas Eve.”

In the West Riding, while the log blazed cheerfully, the people quaffed their ale and chanted:

“Yule!  Yule! a pack of new cards and a Christmas stool!”

In Shropshire, where it was called the brand or brund and could be oak, holly, yew or even crab tree and rollers and levers would be used to set it into the hearth of the fireplace.  Evidence for the force needed to drag this weighty log could apparently be seen in the rutted floor stones of Vesson’s farm at Habberley in 1895.

Yule meet again

In Gutch’s 1912 County Folk-lore of East Riding of Yorkshire notes an interesting practice recorded at Filey where besides the Yule log a tall Yule candle was lit on the same evening or in some cases holes bored in it to produce flames, this was the case in 1900 in Herefordshire where the bron or brund was bored twice in the middle so that flames would come out earning the name Christmas Candle.

Keep the fires burning

County Folk-lore of Lincolnshire by Mrs. Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) describes at Clee, that:

 “when Christmas Eve has come the Yule cake is duly cut and the Yule log lit, and I know of some even middle-class houses where the new log must always rest upon and be lighted by the old one, a small portion of which has been carefully stored away to preserve a continuity of light and heat.”

The log was lit on Christmas Eve and kept a blaze through the twelve days of Christmas and it was customarily said that as it burned the servants were always provided with ale. This would appear to be a survival of the tradition of having these days as holidays. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw (2003) in Folklore of Cornwall notes that it was also called the mock. They add that children were allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve watching the flames and toasting with drinks the mock until recently, although they do not give further details.

Touch wood for luck

It was said that a fragment of the log is occasionally saved, and put under a bed, as noted by Gutch (1901) in her County Folklore of North Riding of Yorkshire, where at Whitby it remained till next Christmas, under the bed. It was said to secure the house from fire; a small piece of it thrown into a fire occurring at the house of a neighbour, will quell the raging flame.  The embers were also carefully tended and were must not be thrown out “for fear of throwing them in Our Saviour’s face.” According to Charlotte Burne (1883)  in Shropshire folklore they were:

“were raked up to it every night, and it was carefully tended that it might not go out during the whole season, during which time no light might either be struck, given, or borrowed.”

This tradition of the log’s power has been used to suggest a pre-Christian origin to the tradition. Dean and Shaw particularly note that in Cornwall it often had the image of a man carved upon it thought done to prevent witchcraft. Some have suggested this had to do with human sacrifice. However, there is no evidence for any use before the 1700s in Britain and no evidence before Christianity either.

Wooden be found today!

The custom’s decline is an interesting example of how socio-economic changes cause customs to decline. Clearly a victim of the Great War as accounts appear to disappear or rather not recorded subsequent. This is because of the changes that happened. The the large estates with their infinite staff became to decline, numbers of staff fell and the Manor house began to lose its position as the community focus. Furthermore as heating became more dependent on mains supply, many places did not need it and that combined with the disappearance of the horse as a work animal might have been the final nail. Yet interestingly, this is one of the few customs which translated across to the Americas and thrives there, probably because parts of the continent are so cold and snow bound they need they. A notable example can he read here but in the main they are either associated with boarding houses or hotels. Something ripe for a revival in Britain I feel!

 

 

Custom survived: Mischief or Mischevious Night

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Trick no Treat?

I remember sitting at home watching TV in early November, when suddenly it kept flicking over. Was I sitting on the remote? No. Was there something wrong with the TV? No! I opened the curtains and outside there was a young boy holding a TV remote. This was my introduction to mischief night, perhaps the most controversial of custom. Being a Southern I had never heard of it…we’re too soft for this sort of thing, it was a very northern thing. Opie and Opie’s (1959) map shows the strongest area being in Middlesborough and Leeds and these areas still are!

A night to remember!

The answer differs depending where you are. The majority of cases, it is the night before Guy Fawkes Night although in other parts of the county the name referred to the 31st October,  5th itself or even in many cases 30th April. Opie and Opie (1959) note of this custom:

“From coast to coast across northern England the eve of Guy Fawkes Day has become ‘Mischief Night’, a night of humour and hooliganism affecting most of Yorkshire, and parts of Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. On this night children are half under the impression that lawlessness is permissible. Householders’ front doors are repeatedly assaulted with bogus calls, their gates removed, their dustbin lids hoisted up lamp posts, their window panes daubed with paint, their doorknobs coated with treacle or tied ‘sneck to sneck’, their evening newspapers (projecting from letter boxes) exchanged, their milk bottles placed so that they will be tripped over, their house-numbers unscrewed and fixed on to other houses, their windows tapped their backyards turned upside down and possibly ransacked for tomorrow’s bonfires, their drainpipes stuffed with paper and set alight, and their porchlight bulbs considered legitimate targets for catapults. Both villages and in great industrial cities youngsters bent on mischief roam the streets in happy warfare with the adult world.”                                                                                           

The origins of the custom are unclear, it may arise from the Lawless hours of the 1700s it is first mentioned in 1830s as a name but this again was the 30th April.  This argument over the date continues with some claiming the 30th October and others, the majority, claiming the 4th November, of course this may be due to the change in the calendars. However, other customs around this time year had an element of trouble making by farm hands so it may be older. Indeed, it appears to have largely died out in the 1950s. A typical report noted in Sutton’s Lincolnshire Calendar reported from Tattershall in 1920s:

“We tied a button to a piece of cotton and attched it to someone’s wiondow. They kept coming out to see who was knocking on the window. Another thing we did was to tie two door knobs together across the street, that caused a laugh”

From Lincoln 1950

“A firework through a letter box…its not just just kids of today that misbehave, it went on in my day too.”

Indeed a correspondent recording the 1960s stated:

“We were living on the Ermine Estate in 1960 and some fool blew off a manhole cover ….he tied a bundle of bangers together and set them off under a manhole cover; it bloew into the air but luckily no-one was hurt!”

The forms of mischief varied from the amusing:

“We used to write on car winscreens with my mothers lipstick FOR SALE. Also leave a letter for the milkman in an empty bottle ordering 24 pints of milk, great fun, no harm done. “

To:

“We used to egg and flour stuff (and people), flood people’s gardens…One year we wrapped up some chaps conifers with toilet role and set fire to them…We ran off singing the tune to chariots of Fire. It was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done!!!”

To the usual

“I would always get egged and floured by the local boys on miggy night and once had my skirt stolen and thrown up into a tree!”

Responses were not great. Another account states:

Once when we were kids, instead of knock-a-door run we tied a blokes door handle to a lamp post so he couldn’t get out before we knocked on the door and ran away, We thought it was funny but the bloke went mad and snapped his door in half to get out and I still feel terribly guilty to this day”

A night to forget!

It appears by the 1970s-80s the custom had died out in a number of places but not apparently in Yorkshire:

“Oh yes I remember those days well – A long row of terraced houses in Grimethorpe – we tied all the door handles with washing line and smeared dog muck on door steps and then one of us would run up the street knocking on the doors while the gang would be in the middle of the street shouting at those who tried to open their doors to chase us. When they cut the line they would have the dog muck on their slippers to tread back into their houses – and of course we would run off to egg peoples windows, cut TV aerials, swap garden gates, tie tin cans to cats tails (not nice – regret that one). It’s funny tho I now like in Doncaster and it don’t seem to be much of a thing here but I bet it’s still going strong in Barnsley.”

Penetrators thought that:

“When I was a kid I actually thought it was legal – ‘coppers can’t arrest you on miggy night’ That was the folklore….”

But local people did not and still do not think that and as noted in a Worksop police report in 2003:

“Angry residents and police have condemned ‘mischievous night’ yobs who damaged their homes. The vandals caused damage estimated at thousands of pounds during a Tuesday night wrecking spree. Up to 16 garden walls and gateposts were knocked over by the youngsters who targeted properties on and around the Water meadows area of Worksop. The gang knocked over a 30ft long section of wall in Mr Jennings’ front garden: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I looked out of the window shortly before eight and it was fine. Then my wife looked out of the bedroom window about half an hour later, it had been knocked over.” Mr Jennings was busy re-building the wall yesterday, but said that he knew of many other properties that had been affected, including his next door neighbour who had part of a wall knocked over and a tree in the front garden damaged. He also said another pensioner had some wheelbarrows stolen during the evening’s activities. Neighbour Mike Clarkson was helping Mr Jennings rebuild the wall. He knows all too well about the damage caused. His garden wall was knocked over last year. Police confirmed they had received six similar reports of vandalism on Water meadows, Robinson Drive and Dunstan Close.”            

It’s understandable when a Leeds perpetrator notes:

“The worst thing I ever did on this annual night of shame was to place a rather special smelly delivery in a post box, when it should have been in a toilet. Poor postman.”

Indeed, much of the activity of the mischief makers is seen a wanton vandalism and yobbish behaviour. The Worksop Guardian notes:                             

‘They should give them the birch. This isn’t mischief it’s vandalism,’ said Geoff Jennings whose home came under attack…..‘There are 16 that have been affected to a lesser or greater extent than my house,’ he said. ‘It’s wanton vandalism which is going to cost a fortune to fix, never mind the stress it’s causing us…..We’ve had people trick or treating which was quite innocent, but this kind of damage is no joke..’

An account at Skegby notes some of the activities which they stated giving the origin of the custom, to “Plan our mischievous deeds, just as Guy Fawkes and his conspirators did long ago” and may explain its popularity in Yorkshire where Fawkes was born and traditionally the 5th was not generally celebrated.

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Gate hangs well! Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Picture Post/Alex Dellow

“We decided to tie door handles together at a terraced house on crown street. We must have been heard giggling and whispering by the occupant, because as we knocked on the doors, a hand grabbed the back of my coat collar and I was shaken and released. We took to our heels and as if our tails were on fire, the man’s voice ringing in our ears…needless to say the two us never played that trick again……Another trick was the bull roar, we would stuff paper up the drain pipes and light the paper and run away. The draught used the paper to make a terrific roaring noise as it burnt in the pipe…..We also went window tapping. This entailed creeping into a garden with a pin tied on the end of the thread of a bobbin of cotton and then tying a bobbin of cotton and then tying a button further down the thread. The ideas was to stick the pin into the wooden window frame run out the thread, so that the button was near the glass and feed out the remainder of the thread, as we went to hide behind the garden fence or wall, we would pull on the thread and the button would tap on the window. If the occupant of the house came out to look what was going on , we would huddle silently until they went in and then we would crack up with giggles of laughter”                                                                                          

The police notes:

‘Mischievous night is OK if the young people involved are supervised by adults,” said Sgt Jenny Antill. “But these kind of incidents are not in good humour. They are quite simply acts of criminal damage. We will take action against people responsible.’

Certainly, a report by Nottinghamshire police of Carlton, Langold and Blyth reports:

 “Your Local Beat Team is also pleased to report that three of the potentially worst nights of the year for ASB, namely Halloween, Mischievous Night and Bonfire Night, were very quiet in the Carlton in Lindrick area.”

Interesting a poster on the Sheffield Forum under the controversial title ‘Are all Estate dwellers Estate Scum?’:

“I was bought up on a council estate in the 1960s / 70s in Nottinghamshire – in a place called Warsop, near Mansfield. There were ‘bad uns’ and the neighbouring streets had a reputation, but there did seem to be more limits of behaviour – you might get a bin set on fire on Mischief night, but that would be it in terms of arson. Possibly because the community was quite well knit and if you DID torch someone’s car you might not live to see the following morning.”

Mischief Night is perhaps one of those most unusual of surviving traditional customs. In our rather ‘youth-phobic’ culture and obsession with anti-social behaviour one which is likely to die out, hopefully, though if the pranks are toned down, the tradition could return to the light hearted attitude the victims had back in the 1950s!

Custom survived: Morpeth Easter Oranges

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Oranges are the only fruit!

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Communication. What with the books, phones, email and the world wide web, communication of information is easy. Yet it is surprising how some facts and figures, some well known local traditions and customs can fall below the radar. The orange giving ceremony is one such custom. Look for it in a book and you will not find it! Indeed, I found it difficult finding exactly when it happened. It said 10.30 on the Round Table website. I emailed them. No reply. Communication you see! So I arrived early. It was 11 am it happened for future note. What happened? Well every Easter Monday the local town council appear at Carlisle Park and distribute oranges to all the children they can. Afterwards a range of egg themed sports from the very familiar egg and spoon race to egg rolling and jarping were planned. I was told that one year, a group of young teenagers got cocky in an egg passing competition and when it was their turn the hard boiled was replaced with a raw one to hilarious results!

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The start of many oranges!

Odd orangins

Unlike many food giving customs, there does not appear to be an associated benefactor or name associated to the custom. Apparently, the local gentry and town’s folk were concerned about the children’s lack of fresh fruit and decided to provide some for free. This is said to have happened in the 17th century.  It makes sense oranges had become a popular fruit around this time but I find it odd that there is no record of exactly why! Perhaps it was because the town wanted to show support for William of Orange or someone acquired a job lot.

 

 

The custom appears to have been undertaken on a site significantly called Easter fields to the north-east of the town. A record of the custom is recorded in Hist BNC XIV 129 which suggests young people resorted to the North field to play ball and other games.  The distribution moved apparently in the 1970s when it was realized that children preferred Carlisle Park…as there were swings.

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Would you like an orange?

Presently four boxes of oranges arrived, good quality round and juicy navels, a good handful for any young child. I calculated just under 600 oranges. It was a lot to give out, but already as the tables were set up under the Easter Orange special banner, small groups were assembling. Many looked keen. The group of councillors waited for the Mayor, as it got later and later, it looked unlikely they would appear. Perhaps there had been a breakdown in communication? So as there was no sign of the Mayor, so at 11 as promised the deputy mayor opened proceedings with a quick speak about the origins of the custom…and no sooner had he finished than a small toddler rushed up to grab an orange. He was the first of many, for at least 20 minutes the distribution was fast and furious with all hands on the oranges! After about thirty minutes the crowd had dispersed.

Don’t keep jaapin’ on about it.

After and during the orange distribution, the local Round Table provided traditional Easter games, egg rolling or boolin’ and jaapin’ but they were nowhere to be seen! Many of the children and a fair few adults weren’t happy about this. But despite no organisation some had brought eggs and nothing was going to stop them boolin’ them! The hillside behind the playground was covered by children throwing and rolling eggs and oranges. I did not see any jaapin, hitting another’s eggs with yours, a sport akin to conkers. The other children seemed content with the bouncy castle provided, which was a good compromise but not really in spirit with the day perhaps.  

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Orange rolling

One of your five a day!

After the Easter Sunday excesses of chocolate, I am sure a nice refreshing orange was a great antidote. Many of the parents thought so…less so the children, some of which seemed perplexed by the large orange spherical objects being passed out. Interestingly, it is worth noting that what with recent news about the need to increase 5 to 7 a day, a dose of orange is what the doctor ordered. Those forefathers got it right.

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The last orange!

 

 Then at 12.40 the last orange was given out. It was over for another year. Still no mayor. I wonder what communication was passed on to them?

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs …its not on there yet, but it is always on Easter Monday at 11.

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