Category Archives: Private

Custom survived: Halloween Apple bobbin

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Long before we were seeing hoards of children traipsing the street dressed up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls, children would be found inside with their heads down in water. Why? For many people apple bobbing was Hallowe’en and indeed for many it still is a fun part.

At first glance these parties appear to be influenced by American popular culture and certainly have been growing in popularity since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia suggests so by stating:

“East Anglia has no long-established customs observed at Hallowe’en, 31 October. Of recent years, however, probably due to the ever increasing interest in witchcraft, parties are often held in private homes and clubs and societies in which some old Halloween games such as bobbing for apples in a pail of water are played.” 

This would appear in line with the growth of Trick or Treat however this would be wrong.  For in Nella Last’s wartime diary she records parties in the 1920s and 30s, pre-war family:

“Hallowe’en 31 October 1939…my towels all in a drawer and not in a wet heaps in the garage where everybody would have been ducking for apples.”

Indeed in Stamford, a correspondent in Maureen Sutton’s 1996 A Lincolnshire Calendar records in 1940:

“At school we would stop lessons. A large bowl would be filled with cold water in which the teacher would float the apples. We’d have to have our hands behind our backs. Three or four of us would get round the bowl and we’d try to bite and retrieve the apple floating in the water, while at the same time the teacher would gleefully dunk our heads in it.”

  1. S Burne records that an extract from an old notebook records:

“Malvern, Ist November, 1888. Colonel C.- G.- tells me that when he was a boy, I suppose about 1845-48, he stayed in a Denbighshire farmhouse, where the sons (young men) stripped to the waist and ‘bobbed’ for apples in a tub of water on All Saints Eve. They urged him to join them, in the presence of the full family circle, and laughed at his modest scruples.”

In fact Owen’s Account of the Bards, preserved in Sir R. Hoare’s Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (vol. ii. p. 315), provides more evidence of the ancient origin of the custom:

“The autumnal tire kindled in North Wales on the eve of the 1st of November is attended by many ceremonies, such as running through the fire and smoke, each casting a stone into the fire, and all running off at the conclusion, to escape from the black short-tailed sow ; then supping upon parsnips, nuts, and apples ; catching at an apple suspended by a string, -with the mouth alone, and the same by an apple in a tub of water.”

The presence of the names for Hallowe’en as Duck in Newcastle or Apple or Dookie Apple Night in Swansea, ‘Apple and candle night’ in Pontypool, ‘Bob apple’ or ‘crab apple Night’ in Durham. Opie and Opie (1956) Folklore of Children record that:

“like most British games the games on Hallowe’en give the onlookers splendid entertainment, but demand fortitude on the part of the players.”

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThey describe the method as follows:

“Duck Apple. A large bowl or tub is filled with cold water (sometimes soapy water) and a number of apples floated in it. One or two players a time get down on their knees and, with their hands behind their backs (not infrequently tied behind their backs) try to get hold of one of the apples with their teeth ‘when they have done this they must lift the apple out of the basin. If they do this they may eat it.” In Monmouthshire, as the game begins the children shout gleefully: Crab Apple Night is my delight. If you take a bite of the apple nothing will happen to you, but, exults the 11 year old ‘if you miss, your head goes into the water with a splash’ ”

Variants of the game exist with Forking for apples, using a fork or Bob Apple or Snap Apple being on the line.

Silver RavenWolf  in his 1999 Hallowe’en links the custom to the Roman invasion of Britain where she states that they brought with them their deity Pomona and her sacred apple tree. It is said that during the annual celebration, young unmarried people would use it as a way to determine who was next to marry and indeed it is recorded in the 1800s a maiden would place the apple under a pillow to dream of this future husband. However, the first custom is mentioned by Charles Vallencey in his 1789 book Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis as occurring in Ireland. An Irish origin seems more likely than a Roman one

Whether Roman or Irish it is good to see amongst all the pointless plastic and pumpkins it remains and is even features amongst the Youtube influencer generation.

Custom occasional: Spitting on the Heart of Midlothian, Edinburgh

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Tourists mill to and fro down the Royal Mile passing St Mary’s Kirk may miss an unusual heart shaped mosaic made of stones set into the pavement below them. That is until someone passes raises back their head and lands a big glob of spit upon it and walks off! But why?

The heart together with the brass markers set into the pavement mark the location of the 15th century Tolbooth of Edinburgh, the once administrative centre of the town and also its prison and site of execution.

Spit it out

One possible origin is that it is associated with the Porteous riots of 1736 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted smuggler was publicly hanged and that when his body was cut down against the wishes of the mob a riot ensued. The Lord Provost Captain Porteous called out the guards to deal with them as the mob became violent and began stoning the guards. This then lead to a precipitation of violence which resulted in six people being shot and Porteous being arrested and charged with murder. Testimony differed on whether he was responsible and the people feeling a plot was organised to make him innocent, dragged him from the prison and after some horrendous acts was finally beaten to death. It is said that the stone represented the people’s views on murder of the six people. The tolbooth was immortalised in Water Scott’s 1818 novel ‘Heart of Midlothian’, the year after it was demolished.

I could just spit

The Heart of Midlothian is a heart-shaped mosaic on the pavement of the Royal Mile, which many people spit on in passing, supposedly to bring them good luck.

At first it would appear that understandably those who were or associated with criminals as a form of disdain to show their disgust or ward off evil associated with it. It is said to mark where the death cell was and so looking back as an accused man you would spit although others state it is where the entrance was. By the 20th century it had become associated with good luck as recorded by Florence Marian MacNeil’s 1977 Silver Bough: Scottish folk-lore and folk-belief who recorded that ‘an occasional boy’ would be seen spitting on it.

Even more recently it would appear that Hibernian F.C football team would spit on the stones thinking it was there to demonstrate their hatred of rival team Heart of Midlothian F.C! Indeed a commenter on a Hibernian FC forum suggested they spit for luck for the 1998 Cup final.

However even more recently it has been gum and copper coins deposited there, the later certainly more sanitary. Indeed, a mini documentary does show both confusion of over why it was done and what it represents.

However, the custom continues, as I stood one wet and rainy day on the Royal Mile, a tile red-headed man appeared and drew up some spittle and thrust it down on the heart in front of me…perhaps realising I was a tourist! Interesting, spitting is banned in the city but the heart remains a final sanctuary for the unpleasant act which back in 1967 there was an attempt to ban this ‘filthy act’…however with a tourist conscious city of Edinburgh, even this antisocial custom is worth preserving.

Custom demised: Nativity of the Virgin Mary Boar’s Hunt, Grimsby, Lincolnshire

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The town of Grimsby has three boars on its crest you may ask why?

The origin comes from when the town was surrounded by wild woods and when boars were common in these areas. The tradition having two parts the main part being the presentation of a boar’s head. T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1975) notes:

“An old tradition existing within the town of Grimsby asserts that every burgess at his admission to the freedom of the borough anciently presented to the mayor a boar’s head, or an equivalent in money when the animal could not be procured.”

Indeed, an 1828 copy of The Gentlemen’s Magazine states that the Mayor of Grimsby would have three boars heads at the table at his feast. Part of the tradition would be to hunt, for it is also recorded that:

“The lord, too, of the adjacent manor of Bradley, it seems, was obliged by his tenure to keep a supply of these animals in his wood for the entertainment of the mayor and burgesses, and an annual hunting match was officially proclaimed on some particular day after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. In the midst of these extensive woods the sport was carried on, and seldom did the assembled train fail to bring down a leash of noble boars, which were designed for a public entertainment on the following day. At this feast the newly-elected mayor took his seat at the head of the table, which contained the whole body corporate and the principal gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood.”

When did this custom begin? The coat of arms is 17th century but it may go back to a Viking or Saxon tradition. Interestingly, the last boar in England was said to have hunted in Bradley which may have been for the Mayor of Grimsby.

Custom survived: South Ronaldsay Festival of the Horse and Boy ploughing, Orkney

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St Margaret at Hope is a settlement which sweeps along its harbour, an important port for the ferry too and from mainland Scotland. I wonder how many passengers are aware of the village’s unique custom – the festival of the horse and boy’s ploughing – really in essence two customs.

Plough a deep furrow

As I arrived boys and their parents were arriving clutching their tiny ploughs. Inside the school other parents feverishly dressed their children to resemble shire horses, perhaps one of the county’s most curious of customs. Outside a crowd gathered entertained by a local band doing their own rendition of ‘Road to’ in a Phoenix Nightseque fashion. At first the boys existed proudly holding their ploughs and sat down on a bench. Then the sound of a piper could be heard flowing out of the school and then sparkling and clanking lined up in front of the ploughboys, ready to be judged.

The aim of the costume is to represent the shire horses which would drive the plough in their ceremonial dress. As such the dress would include a large collar, blinkers and feet decorations. Around their neck was a large heart which would indicate symbolically their name. The costumes are a mixture of old and new, some of the oldest being handed down through generations having real horse red white and blue pompoms and horse hair dating back 50 years ago. The basis of the dress would be the Sunday suit which could be easily adapted to do the job. In a report Moira Budge chairperson of the South Ronaldsay Ploughing Match in The Scotsman :

“We have known of a baker’s family who used cake frills around the feet to look like the feathers of a heavy horse. There was also a newsagent who used the trinkets and brooches that sometimes came with magazines…People just used what they had and the adornments were sewn onto the Sunday suit. In the past it was very basic as it had to be sewn on and taken off again before Sunday…Once people had more money, they could keep a suit aside and the decorations became more fancy. Next year, they would add a bit more.”

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Just horseplay

To ensure the costumes were ready and in their finest condition work would begun back in April I was told, often old broaches and personalised jewellery would be added. Despite their apparent complexity many parts of the costume would be easily made. For example the collar would be made first from cardboard with foam laid on it and them covered in fabric. The backs are almost as decorated as the fronts with gold braiding, necklaces, broaches, tiny mirrors and shining bells perhaps to ‘reflect away’ bad luck. The costumes themselves have a sort of Scandinavian feel about them – perhaps not surprising as Orkney was Norse until the 1400s.

Brian Shuel (1985) National Trust guide to Traditional customs describes it well:

“All the items are profusely decorated literally like the most overloaded Christmas tree, with bells, baubles,, tinsel, beads, rosettes, ribbons, tassles, plastic flowers, cracker novelties and anything else which may come to hand during the several generations it took to being hem to their present advanced state. You could hardly see the girls underneath it all.”

The array of costume differences is quite amazing considering the limited pallet of what this costume could consist of. Some incorporated real horse harness and I was amused to watch one participant chewing on their bit. Girls with long hair would have it platted to mimic that done to the shire horses and fake tails would also be added.

The parade did not last long, soon a massive cloud appeared from nowhere and the brightness which bounced off the bangles and bits disappeared and everyone ran inside. Here dutifully the ‘horses’ stood on their podium and the judging continued. Amusingly like horses, parents administered cold drinks by holding them up to them with draws or feeding their sweets as the ‘horses’ could not hold them themselves as they had fake hooves in some cases. I was very impressed with the stoic nature of the ‘horses’ standing so still under what must be very heavy and hot clothing and conditions. Even the youngest were patient and keen to smile when the cameras looked in their direction. Only one after around an hour of standing decided to have a break. On the announcement of the best dressed and best harness, the winners dutifully stood forward. I spoke to the two judges, who had just that week come from a judging of real horses, said it was difficult to judge the best dressed as it was subjective, but as the harness had to have specific pieces – eg bit, blinkers etc, this was easier as some had forgotten to include some items – no doubt out of comfort!

Plough on

Not only would the horses be judged but careful consideration was made of the ploughs. These ploughs being often family heirlooms and could be nearing 100 years old. The judge carefully examined each running their hand gently along the side, feeling the balance and examining carefully the blades. Then there would write careful notes in their notepad considering the best wooden and metal ploughs. Originally they pretended with a stick with an Ox hoof tied to it. Then a local blacksmith called Bill Hourston made a replica plough in 1920 which clearly caught on and subsequently all the participants had miniature ploughs.

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Ploughed up

When does the custom come from? I have heard it claimed that the dressing of the children as horses has pre-Christian origins being linked to the horse whispering tradition. However, as in many other counties the farmers of the settlement would have ploughing matches, where their skills would be tested and ploughs and horses inspected. Uniquely, however in this part of Orkney perhaps the children looked on and wanted to copy or some farmer worried about the lack of youth uptake in ploughing established it to encourage both the development of ploughing skills and foster a community spirit and good old fashioned competition. Early records of the custom are hard to locate and everyone I spoke to their stated it probably started in the late 1800s. The ploughing match has a common sense origin it was for the ploughmen to teach their sons the technique.

Perhaps as one could not breed miniature horses, the girls would have to get involved and pretend to be the horses. A far more sensible explanation, and so much for the pagan origins claimed by some reporters! Apparently there were similar events held at Burray and Stronsay. That of South Ronaldsay almost died out and the second world war being revived after a ten year hiatus by a local bank manager Norman Williamson and it has continued ever since. It is thought that the girls became involved after World War II, beforehand the horses were younger boys and indeed despite it being stated that the horses were girls there was one boy in attendance which in a way is probably more traditional and less likely to be highlighted as sexist! Always aware of the potential of how bad weather and tourism can stall and feed a custom, in the 1960s it was moved from the children’s Easter holidays to the summer in hope of better weather and more tourists!

God speed the plough

As soon as the ‘horses’ were judged and the dark clouds disappeared everyone jumped into their cars and off to the Sand O’Wright for the ploughing. Originally done inland, at Hope Kailyard, and at some point it was noticed that judging would be easier on the sand. Here earlier two ploughing veterans select an area of sand with minimal stones and the right moisture – too wet nor too dry. They then scrapped off seaweed, measuring the area out with a wooden set to square off the flats. Soon small groups of plough boys were practicing, listening to the sage advice of the adult, themselves retired boy ploughman.

Each boys selects a four square area called a flat each which are numbered and compete for the three categories Champion, Ordinary and under 8s. As the Boys ploughing began to start there was a real look of concentration on the faces of all the boys and a nervous look on their helpers. The boys had 45 minutes to do the plough their lines. I asked what the judges would be looking for. One told me it was for straight and consistent lines in the upward and both downward plough, equal spacing neat and evenness being particularly valued. Indeed, I was impressed how neat they were and it was clear considerable pride was taken in them.

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It was difficult not to be impressed and the way in which children from 5 to 15 got involved with intensity and enthusiasm. I spoke with one of last years’ champion class who was nervous at winning this year and remarked that he was not as neat with his handwriting as he was with the plough.

Sadly the ferry prevented me for attending the whole session and seeing who obtained the best finish and start, the straightest and the evenest. However, as a custom it is without doubt the most successful in providing both a community spirit and a colourful and unusual spectacle.

 

 

Custom demised: St Bartholomew’s Eve Scholar debate, Smithfield London

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Before schools closed for August, scholars and schoolmasters from the different London schools met at the St. Bartholomew’s’ Priory for disputations on grammar and logic, and wrangled together in verse These were the days when much of the learning was oral  based rather than written and such a debate would really stretch the minds of the student and test their knowledge. John Stow in c1525-1605 Survey of London book recalls that:

“the arguing of the schoolboys about the principles of grammar hath continued even till our time; for I myself, in my youth, have yearly seen, on the Eve of St Bartholomew the Apostle, the scholars of divers grammar schools repair unto the churchyard of St Bartholomew, the Priory in Smithfield, where upon a bank boarded about under a tree.”

He describes the method as:

“one scholar hath stepped up, and there hath opposed and answered till he were by some better scholar  overcome and put down; and then the overcomer taking his place, did like as the first. And in the end, the best opposers and answerers had regards, which I observed not but it made both good schoolmasters, and also good scholars, diligently against such times to prepare themselves for the obtaining of this garland.”

Stow continues to discuss who attended. And it is clear that there was a fair bit of debate and some schools, as today, had a better reputation:

“I remember there repaired to these exercises, amongst others, the masters and scholars of the free schools of St Paul’s in London, of St Peter’s at Westminster, of St Thomas Acon’s hospital, and of St Anthony’s Hospital; whereof the last named commonly presented the best scholars, and had the prize in those days. This Priory of St Bartholomew being surrendered to Henry the Eighth, those disputations of scholars in that place surceased; and was again., only for a year or twain, revived in the cloister of Christ’s Hospital, were the best scholars, then still of St Anthony’s school, howsoever the same be now fallen both in number and estimation, were rewarded with bows and arrows of silver, given them by Sir Martin Bower, goldsmith.”

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the custom also encouraged disputes of a non-scholarly kind which Stow again explained:

“The scholars of Paul’s, meeting with them of St Anthony’s, would call them Anthony’s Pigs, and they again would call the other Pigeons of Paul’s, because many pigeons were bred in St Paul’s church, and St Anthony was always figured with a pig following him; and mindful of the former usage, did for a long season disorderly provoke one another in the open street with “Salve tu quoque, placet mecum disputare?” – “Placet.” And so proceeding from this to questions in grammar, they usually fell from words to blows with their satchels full of books, many times in great heaps, that they troubled the streets and passengers; so that finally they were restrained with the decay of St Anthony’s school.”

Interesting how the use of ‘would you like to debate or discuss?’ became a stimulus for a fight and it appears when it comes to children nothing is new. Indeed, sadly, like a number of school based traditions the reactions of the students curtailed the success of the custom which Stow appears to indicate. The rewards and prizes were not always enough to encourage a positive opinion of the custom:

“The satchels full of books, with which the boys belaboured  one another, really were the weapons that had put an end to the old practice of incessant oral disputation. Schoolmasters and men of learning, years before, had also taken to the thrashing of each other with many books; and books scattered abroad “many times in great heaps” were the remains also of their new way  of controversy. If a man had learning, society no longer made it in any degree necessary for him to go bodily in search of the general public to a Fair, or in search of the educated public to the great hall of a University. Writing was no longer a solemn business, and writing materials were no longer too costly to be delivered over to the herd of schoolboys for habitual use and destruction. Written, instead of spoken exercises, occupied the ‘pigs’ and ‘pigeons’ who ran riot over the remains of a dead system.”

Of course the Reformation was also a final block on the custom and it was never revived. Such great Independent schools still exist in London, they still do Latin of course, but its more book based. Perhaps it would be interested to encourage a more oral based debate again. Time for a revival?

Custom survived: The Worshipful Company of Vintner’s Installation Day Procession, London

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It’s hardly one of the longest processions in fact my conversation to the wine porter as we awaited the assembled group was longer, but if you want to get a feel of medieval London, the Worshipful Company of Vintner’s procession to install their new Master, or Installation Day fits the bill.

The City of London has many livery companies and many processions but despite its shortness the Company of Vintner’s procession to the local parish church from their Livery Hall is certainly unusual .

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Making a clean sweep of it

The procession is to bless the inaugurated new Master of the Vintners and to ensure that the journey is both a safe and pleasant one two additions are required. Firstly, ahead of the procession is the Wine Porter who carries a broom with a top hat and white smock. This is ceremonially brushed from one side to another in front of the procession traditionally to remove any detritus from the Medieval world which lay in front of them. He uses a birch broom which would have been that available to his medieval forbearers rather than a flat headed modern broom which might have been a bit more successful removing the chewing gum and sweet wrappers. Originally there were two who were employed with:

‘full besoms…that the Master, wardens and his warden and brethren of the Court of Assistant step not on any foulness or litter in our streets’

No new broom sweeping clean

The history of the Company may go back to the Norman Conquest although as its first formal charter was signed in 1363 which gave them a monopoly of trade with Gascony. As wine was an important and valuable commodity in the medieval world the Vintners were a very important although its importance waned when like many companies their monopoly was removed in the Victorian period. The Wine porter has exclusive rights to handle wine in the Pool of London, as the Hall which doubled as a warehouse backing on to the Thames, but they were disbanded in 1963 as numbers dwindled as wine arrive by other means. Today it is more of a charitable organisation. Indeed Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“Harry Darude, the last surviving Wine porter, was wielding his broom for the twenty-fifth time while a,l the other present were wondering who would be doing it if he passed on.”

However it was and despite their reduction in role the Wine porter survives if purely ceremonially. Behind the Wine Porter are the outgoing and incoming Master and three Wardens, Bargemaster, Beadle with their mace, Stavemens, members of Court of Assistants, Clerk and the vicar. Appearing like they had stepped out a Holbein painting they wear furred gown, Tudor caps and carry posies of flowers.

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A good nose for a wine

These posies or rather nosegays are not flowers to be laid at some grave or tomb at the church but had a functional purpose. In the medieval period the streets smelled bad, sewage line the footpath and fires filled the air. The posies made of strong smelling flowers and herbs were thought to keep the air fresh around the carrier and:

“their nostrils be not offended by any noxious flowers or other ill vapours.”

In those days thought to prevent diseases caused by bad air! Mind you it would have been made worse surely but the broom sweeping it up into the air! One wonders how good they are at covering car pollution!

When the time came the police appeared and stopped the traffic. Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“It was in this year, 1982, that Harry was much disconnected to find his normal route barred by impenetrable roadworks, causing him to improvise a long diversion. Furthermore it was pouring with rain, necessitating the addition of large black umbrellas to the usual regalia.”

The weather was thankfully fine and despite a strange journey over a bridge it was uneventful as they arrived in good time at St. James Garlickhythe. Once the service was over it was repeat performance sweeping back to the Livery Hall. Hopefully for a celebratory glass of wine. It’s taken me longer to open some wine bottles to be honest. However, one cannot perhaps find a more accessible procession.

Custom demised: Martin o’ Balymas Day or St Bulgan’s Day, Caithness and Shetland

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In the Highland county of Caithness and the isles of Shetland, the 4th of July was thought to be an important day to observe the weather to ensure safe sailing for the fisher folk. On the Shetland islands this day was called “Martin o’ Balymas Day” but in Caithness, it was “St Bulgan’s Day”. The names being a corruption of “St Martin of Bullion’s Day” in turn a mispronunciation of “Martin le Bouillant” meaning boiling referring to the hot summer feast.

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In the Northern Isles, this feast day took over the day traditionally ascribed to St Swithin and was said to mark the beginning of six weeks of dry weather. If the feast was greeted by a gale of wind, however, as is unfortunately all too common, rain would be sure to follow. An anonymous folklorist recorded:

“If the morning be fine, they had no hesitation to go to sea, because they knew the day would be good throughout, but they invariably avoided going the preceding day, lest they be overtaken by bad weather on the 4th or as they call it here St. Martinabilumas Day. By a few it is called St Martins, and the legend regarding the name of the day is that a dutch man, unjustly accused and condemned was put to death on this day and at the time of his execution stated that the day might be particularly distinguished in all time as proof of his innocence. The prayer of the righteous man was heard, and six weeks of dry or raining weather have annually commenced at this date, and he rainy season always begins with a gale of wind.”

St Martin of Bullion’s Day and its derivative is now forgotten and St Swithun has taken over!