Category Archives: Private

Custom demised: Shrove Tuesday Cockshying


“1622 Received for cocks at Shrovetide 12s Od

1628 Received for cocks in towne 19s 10d

Out of towne 0 6d”

Pinner public receipts

Often the folklorist wistfully looks upon lost customs hoping one day they would be revived. This one is not one of them. Alternatively called Cock shying it lasted until the late 18th century being popular with all cases and all ages, Sir Thomas More referred to his skill at ‘casting a cokstele’ when a boy. William Hone 1892 The Year Book notes as shown above that the custom was a parochial one as seen above in the hamlet Pinner at Harrow on the Hill and the money collected at this sport was in aid of the poor rates. John Brand in his 1791 Popular antiquities work notes

“The of throwing at cocks on Shrove is still retained at Heston in Middlesex in a field near the church have been often directed to attend on occasion in order to put a stop to barbarous a custom but hitherto have attended in vain”

He continued to describe the method:

“the sport owner of the cock trains his bird for time before Shrove Tuesday and a stick at him himself in order to him for the fatal day by accustoming to watch the threatened danger and springing aside avoid the fatal blow lie holds the poor victim on the marked out by a cord fixed to his leg the distance of nine or ten yards so as be out of the way of the stick himself Another spot is marked at the distance twenty two yards for the person throws to stand upon He has says or throws for two pence wins the cock if he can knock him down and run up and catch him before the recovers his legs.”

It is recorded that even if the cock broken his kegs he would be supported by sticks, in some cases he was put into a jar and in Sussex a version similar to the procedure of bull baiting saw it tied to a 5 foot rope.

The end of the custom

As early as the Commonwealth period, there was already attempts to supress it. It is recorded that in 1660’s Bristol it was banned on Shrove Tuesday a move which apparently resulted in rioting! However the writing was on the wall for the custom, animal welfare interests had developed. Popular culture begun to demonise the sport, in 1751’s The Four Stages of Cruelty, William Hogarth identified it as a first stage. The church too became involved with Josiah Tucker in his 1753 ‘Earnest and Affectionate Address to the Common People of England Concerning their Usual Recreations on Shrove Tuesday’ described it as the:

“most cruel and barbarous diversion,”

Public order fines started to be given out by local magistrates and its popularity waned and in some areas it was banned so by the early 19th century it was confined to the folklore books! And long may it reside there!


Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot


Curry Rivel Somerset

“Wassail O Wassail all over the town,                                                         

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown,                                                   

The cup it is made of the good old ashen tree.                                            

  And so’s the beer from the best barley,

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O here we take this door held fast by the ring,                                        

Hoping Master and Missus will let us all walk in And for to fill our wassail bowl and sail away again.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O Master and Missus have we done you any harm                                          

Pray hold fast this door and let us pass along                                         

And give us hearty thanks for the singing of our song.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail

Wassailing is becoming all the rage in folk circles and beyond. It seems that like Morris dancing in the 20th century, wassailing is the 21st century revival equivalent. However these revived wassails appear to be those associated with trees, the original surviving one of which I discussed here, there does not appear to be a similar revival in house visiting wassailing, which one could claim probably was the original approach. Therefore when given the chance to experience one of the few surviving wassails one jumps at the chance. Such happened last Twelfth Night at the small village of Curry Rivel in Somerset.

Wassail in

Arriving at the King William IV I found a group of men standing around. “Are you the wassailers?” I asked “Yes” they replied “Do you mind if I join you and take some photos?” They were a bit perplexed by my enquiry but the reply was positive‘Yes that’s okay as long as you don’t mind being shoved in the back of the van?!”

Next minute I noticed I was in the back of transit van with six strangers. We were off to pick up the oldest member of the group, a sprightly 93 year old Harry Richards, one of them joking that the thud was the van knocking him over! A joke of course and no disrespect was intended as these men whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s had a great pride in their venerable leader.

Soon as he was in thou, sitting at the front, not crammed in the back, we were off. I had no idea where we were going and indeed at one point we appeared to go off-road, but that’s Somerset roads for you. A large crowd had congregated at the first house and as they assembled with their venerable leader at the front. Then they opened their mouths and the wassail song came out.

Curry Rivel Somerset

I was impressed how forceful it sounded considering this was the first time they’d sung it together – they had small wordsheets to help them but only one member appeared to be struggling to remember and it didn’t really notice.

The door opened with a warm welcome and the wassails entered. Inside across the kitchen table was a fine spread of food and drink. The Wassail evokes a party atmosphere in the village and to be one of the houses chosen is a great honour especially as it is thought that the wassailers would bring good luck as emphasised by the toast given by their leader

“God bless Master and Missus and all the family. Hoping they’ve had a Merry Christmas and wishing them a Happy New Year.”

After satiating themselves at the first house it was off to the next. Back in the van. Hold on as we swerved a tight corner. A makeshift light being provided by a blinking torch or on occasions someone’s lighter. When we arrived at the next house, we leaped out into the gloom of a remote house. Here an even warmer welcome and spread was available. Then off the next and the next. At each more and more food, and more and more alcohol was being taken. This meant that the groups ability to hold on to the string and sides of the transits less easy and some thought it was best just to sit down. .

The food was indeed quite exquisite and it was obvious that the great honour of being a wassailed house asked for more than just supermarket fayre! At one of the houses an actual wassail bowl was provided which the members took a sip readily from. The wassail bowl being of course mentioned in their song but surprisingly absent I thought! Despite the amount of alcohol imbibed the song did not waver in its nature and indeed appeared to get stronger and song with more vigour! The final stop was one of the younger members of wassailer where again like in all the houses I was warmly welcomed and treated.

Ashen faces

Back at the William IV pub faces were squashed against the windows awaiting the wassails. They were late – I was glad I had attended the wassails and not waited at the pub – then a window was opened and their final wassail was song

Despite accounts to the contrary the Ashen Faggot is not carried around by the wassailers but awaited them at the bar. The Faggot is a fine construction, made traditionally by the same family in the valley below the village.

It consisted of ash logs tied together neatly with ash withies, nine in all, a magical number. Walker in her Old Somerset Customs tells us that it was once as long as five feet and four oxen were employed to drag it to the hearth…no wonder it wasn’t carried! Now it’s a more manageable foot or so to fit into the rather small fireplace at the pub.

Curry Rivel Somerset

It is evident that the Ashen Faggot is an older custom, possibly pre-Christian. This is especially evident in Curry Rivel when it is claimed that its burning has happened for at least 200 years but the Wassailers only date back to 1900.

The Ashen Faggot is a Somerset and Devon tradition and Curry Rivel is not the only village to have one. In a way it is the local version of the Yule log but were as this has died out in Britain, the Ashen Faggot survives and indeed in some places has been revived.

Curry Rivel Village

Muriel Walker in Old Somerset Customs tells us that the Ashen Faggot was said to have been first made by the shepherds to warm the baby Jesus, another version tells that Joseph had collected the bundles and Mary had lighted it to wash the baby Jesus.

Ashen faced?

At the allotted time, Mr. Richards was assisted carrying the Ashen Faggot to the fireplace and saying a few words placed it in the fireplace giving it a ceremonial kick into place.

Willey notes:

“after it has been burnt none of the remains are saved for the next year’s faggot. Free food and drink go around once the faggot is on the fire; the food is bread and cheese etc. and usually the brewery to which the inn is tied supplies a free firkin of ale. The landlord makes up a hot punch based on scrumpy (rough cider) and a scrumpy and wine mixture – home-made wheat wine and scrumpy is particularly potent and highly recommended by the locals. Each time a band on the faggot burned through the landlord was expected to drain a pint of beer or cider.”

Curry Rivel Somerset

Apparently the brewery ceased the free beer a few years back. Yet despite this there was a real party atmosphere and as the embers flickered and faded from the old faggot I made my goodbyes and left. As Willey notes:

“In a village where, during the same period, other traditions, for example the annual ploughing match, the Silver Band, have completely disappeared as casualties of suburbanization, the survival of wassailing in any form is perhaps both curious and heartening.”

Indeed it is and it is evident from the warm welcome and full spreads from the houses that there is no fear of wassailing dying out any time soon in Curry Rivel. A tradition grasped by the younger community as well and a great tradition with some great people as well.

Curry Rivel SomersetCurry Rivel Village

Custom demised: Censing the loaf on Twelfth Night


One lost custom, as far as one can discover for it may well be done in private homes, is recorded in xxx and was undertaken on Twelfth Night. Barnaby Googe’s a disused custom of censing a loaf and a preservative against illness and misfortune

“throughout the year sixe night’s then from they do count with diligence eche master in his doth hurne by franckensence on the able settes a loafs when night approcheth there the coles and be perfumed”

He then relates the method of administration:

“there bowing downe his heade he and nose and eares and eyes smokes and with his mouth fume that doth arise followeth straight his the same full solemly of their children everyone all their family doth preserue they say nose and eyes and ears eucry kind of maladie sicknesse all the ye are everyone recieved hath odour great and small one taken up the pan with franckensence and all other takes the loafe whom reast do follow here round about the house they torch or taper clere neither bread nor meat do witch with dreadful power to hurt their do their cattell harme There are that three nightes onely do perfourme this foolish geare this intent aad thinke themselves in safetie all the yeare.”

It would appear to have been a Catholic tradition which survived into the 18th century but when it died out is unclear.

Custom demised: Cattle kneeling on Christmas Eve


“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Isaiah Chapter 1, verse 3

It was once believed that at the bells rang at midnight, the cattle in their barns would kneel in honour of the occasion. The belief would appear to be an extrapolation of the account in Isaiah as neither St Matthew’s and St Luke’s gospel mention it and from this slight on how the people of Israel disregard Christ compared to the animals, grew into the belief immortalized in paints and illustrations. It became such a widespread belief that Thomas Hardy’s 1895 Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

 “Well, then he called to mind how he’d seen the cattle kneel o’ Christmas Eves in the dead o’ night. It was not Christmas Eve then, but it came into his head to play a trick upon the bull. So he broke into the ‘Tivity Hymm, just as at Christmas carol-singing; when, lo and behold, down went the bull on his bended knees, in his ignorance, just as if ’twere the true ‘Tivity night and hour. As soon as his horned friend were down, William turned, clinked off like a long-dog, and jumped safe over hedge, before the praying bull had got on his feet again to take after him. William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when he found his pious feelings had been played upon, and ’twas not Christmas Eve. …”

Indeed, Hardy was so interested in the custom that he celebrated it again in poetry in 1915 for The Times on Christmas Eve:

“Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. ‘Now they are all on their knees,’ An elder said as we sat in a flock By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where They dwelt in their strawy pen; Nor did it occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then. 

So fair a fancy few would weave  In these years! Yet, I feel, If someone said on Christmas Eve, ‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb, Our childhood used to know,’ I should go with him in the gloom,  Hoping it might be so.”

 John Brand in his 1849 Observations of popular antiquities of Great Britain was the first to record the folk custom, although as Steve Roud in his 2008 The English year states that it was extremely well-known in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Brand states:

“An honest countryman, living on the edge of St. Stephen’s Down, near Launceston, Cornwall informed me, October 28th 1790, that he once, with some others, made trial of the truth of the above and watching several oxen in the stalls at the above time, at twelve midnight, they observed the two eldest oxen only fall on their knees, and as he expressed it, in the idiom of the country, make ‘a cruel moan like Christian creatures’

Testing the belief

Of course, the first test of this belief would come when in 1752 the calendar was changed from Julian to Gregorian, but a contributor to Bentley’s Magazine in 1847 had a way of explaining it:

“It is said as the morning of the day on which Christ was born, the cattle in the stalls kneel down; and I have heard it confidently asserted that when the new style came in, the younger cattle only knelt on December 25th while the older bullocks preserved their genuflections fir old Christmas Day, January 6th

Despite this explanation many thought the event implausible, even Brand himself:

“I could not but with great difficulty keep my countenance; he saw this, and seemed angry that I gave so little credit to his tale, and walking off in a pettish humour seemed to marvel at my unbelief.”

Despite these early scoffs there may well indeed be people who believe this happens as Roud (2008) states and it is interesting to note perhaps that the belief was strongest in the USA.

Custom demised: Love divination on St. Faith’s and St. Luke’s Day


On the eve of St Faith’s Day, a 3rd century Aquitaine resident, Virgin and Martyr,  being burned on an iron bed placed over a flame pit. Thomas Thistleton- Dyer (1875) British Popular culture records the procedure:

“On this day a very curious custom is observed in the North of England. A cake of flour, spring-water, salt, and sugar must be made by three maidens or three widows, and each must have an equal share in the composition. It is then baked before the fire in a Dutch-oven, and, all the while it is doing, silence must be strictly observed, and the cake must be turned nine times, or three times to each person. When it is thoroughly done it is divided into three parts. Each one taking her share, and cutting it into nine slices, must pass each slip three times through a wedding-ring previously borrowed from a woman who has been married at least seven years.”

He records that each one must eat her nine slices as she is undressing, and repeat the following rhyme:

“good St. Faith, be kind to-night, And bring to me my heart’s delight; Let me my future husband view, Aud be my visions chaste and true.”

Another source suggests that it consisted of:

“An egg-shell-full of salt, An egg-shell-full of wheat meal. An egg-shell-full of barley-meal. Water.”

Notes and Queries appears to record another less prescription method undertaken in October across Ireland:

“In Ireland, this season is celebrated by the making of the Michaelmas cake. A lady’s ring is mixed in the dough, and, when the cake is baked it is cut into sections and distributed to the unmarried people at table, and the person who gets the slice with the ring ” is sure to be married before next Michaelmas”

Of course, like many calendar custom allowed a second attempt to discover your sweetheart, this time without making a cake. Thomas Firminger and Thistleton Dyer in their 1884 work Folklore of plants.  On the eve of St. Luke. In this case it could be found by rubbing dry marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme and a wormwood. These were sifting through a fine piece of lawn and simmer over a slow fire. To this honey and vinegar was added. After doing all this one anointed oneself before going to bed and recite the following:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In dreams let me my true love see”

She must turn around three times and cast over their left shoulder. If on falling the mixture forms a letter this was your sweetheart and if it fell apart dead would happen! Was it worth doing I wonder…a cake would be better!


Custom transcribed: Ganesh Chaturthi – immersing of Ganesha effigies


I followed with the greatest curiosity crowds who carried in procession an infinite number of idols of the god Ganesh. Each little quarter of the town, each family with its adherents, each little street corner I may almost say, organizes a procession of its own, and the poorest may be seen carrying on a simple plank their little idol or of papier mâché… A crowd, more or less numerous, accompanies the idol, clapping hands and raises cries of joy, while a little orchestra generally precedes the idol.”

Angelo de Gubernatis, Bombay Gazette (1886)

One of the most fascinating thing about having an interest in customs and ceremonies is the adoption of customs from other parts of the world. Even more pleasing is when on a day out at the seaside one comes across a custom quite literally whilst sitting on a deckchair having a cup of tea! It happened on Saturday in early September – unfortunately I didn’t have my SLR camera but I did manage some okay photos with my mobile!

So one minute I was sipping my tea and then just behind me I could hear the beating of drums and chanting. A small group of people had assembled with drums and some were carrying effigies. They appeared to be processing straight to the beach. What I was encountering is the very public spectacle at the end of Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the God Ganesha, which lasts for 10 days from late August to early September.

Who is Ganesha?

It is perhaps significant that the Lord Ganesha is celebrated at this time of year, the harvest time, because he is the God of New Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles. The ceremony is focused around installation of clay idols of the god in homes or temporary stages. On the tenth day they are carried in procession to the nearest water whether river or ocean – on in this case the pool at Shoeburyness, Essex. It is believed that as the deity dissolves in the water the God is returned to Mount Kailash to fellow deities Parvati and Shiva.

It was a small but nevertheless colourful procession with three Ganesh effigies. These were adored with flowers and jewellery and looked splendid if slightly heavy. The adornments were carefully removed for what would happen next would be that they would be immersed in the sea.

Under the sea

What I found interesting and amusing about the custom is despite this being clearly a Hindu festival it was typically British in the approach some of the attendees had to it. Some of the younger members upon the moment their toes hit the water forgot all ceremony and complained about the cold of it – and then after seeing a crab – one almost refused to enter!

He was convinced and after wading to their waists, the effigies were then lowered into the water bits appearing to break off even before they were fully submerged. One of the women in the party who appeared to be organising the event reminded the men that they needed to immerse themselves fully in the water. They weren’t keen! After some berating they begrudgely lowered themselves and disappeared beneath it! They emerged looking cold but slightly enriched by the experience.

What such a custom shows is behind even the most solemn custom the comedy of human nature is always there…and that there could be a custom around the corner at any moment! Be prepared!

Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day


After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

Image result for "st helen's well" lancashire

The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.