Category Archives: Procession

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Dr Johnson’s Birthday commemoration

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The picturesque city of Lichfield could win a prize for the most traditional calendar customs and ceremonies a number of which I have detailed in this blog. One of these is an annual celebration of their most famous son, the poet, essayist, lexicographer and all around scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson. The man who gave the world the first real dictionary A Dictionary of the English Language.

Born in 1709 it too nearly 200 years for the city to formally recognise him however when in 1903 the Lichfield City Council first started their September birthday celebrations. A society was founded in 1910 the year after the bi-century of the author’s birth which was remembered with a big celebration.

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

In 1909 it was reported in Lichfield Mercury that;

“From Wednesday , Sept . 15 , to Sunday , Sept . 19 , 1909 , Lichfield gave itself up with great enthusiasm and éclat to the celebration of the two – hundredth anniversary of the birth of its most illustrious citizen , Dr . Samuel Johnson . 

For months before the preparations had been going on , and they culminated in great and brilliant gatherings which will without doubt be historic in the annals of the ancient and loyal City”. 

The order of the day has not changed much over the years:

12  Noon .  Great gathering of citizens in the Market  square , when the Children of the schools of the City will assemble to take part in the celebra tion .

Tableaux illustrative of the genius of Dr . Johnson will be placed in prominent positions in the Market square , representing  Literature ,   Poetry ,   and the  Drama . 

Address by the Sheriff .

Presentation of silver and bronze medals to the scholars of the respective schools in the City . The medals will be awarded for proficiency in the English language , English history and biography , general knowledge , and good conduct . 

Two hymns of Joseph Addison , the famous essayist , son of Lancelot Addison , Dean of Lichfield , and one of the eminent scholars of Lichfield Grammar School , will be sung on the occasion .

4 p . m . to 6 p . m . – Reception by the Mayor and Mayoress in the Guildhall . ”

7 30 p . m . – The Anniversary Johnson Supper , at the George Hotel . Speaker , Mr . W . Pett Ridge .

A man may be so much of everything that he is nothing of anything.

However, despite the big celebration for the 220th anniversary the Mayor of Lichfield stated that:

‘He was a great a man, and he was still a great man today: but there were so many who knew so little about the greatness of their fellow citizen.”

And it goes on to state that not many people knew of him. However, one cannot say that now as the town on Saturday morning was buzzing with people in the town perhaps encouraged by the free birthday cake available in the Birthplace museum. As noted in the 300th anniversary the events were:

On Friday September 18, Dr Johnson’s birthday, there will be a spectacular light and sound show in the Market Place, with live performances suitable for all the family.

The celebrations continue on Saturday with a ceremony in Market Square with live music, followed by cake at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. A special book fair will also take place at Wade Street Church Hall on Saturday in honour of Dr Johnson’s love of books.”

When I arrived the Mayor and various other dignitaries and a group of local children assembled around the statue of Johnson on his plinth where a metal step ladder was also placed.

The assembled group of children begun to sing and the Mayor and guest of honour came forward to a podium and drew the audience to the importance of the great man and came forward with a wreath which was placed on the moment. Then the city celebrated with some local bands and of course…some Morris dancers.

Custom survived: St Bartholomew’s Founder’s Day and Bun Race, Sandwich Kent

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Sandwich is a town where you would expect there to be many traditions. One of the Cinque ports, many traditions have arisen from its long association with sea. In a small chapel and its associated almshouse community is one of the most enjoyable.

Legend has it that on the 24th August 1217 the town received a considerable amount of money from a sea battle held off the coast. This they used to build St Bartholomew’s Chapel and a hospital for sixteen men and women to inhabit. It would probably have been envisioned as a place of refuge for pilgrims latterly as it is today becoming an almshouse for the elderly.

Sandwich did not forget this great sea battle’s bounty and it appears that St Bartholomew’s Day became a day of importance in the town with the Mayor and civic dignitaries processing to the chapel for a special patronal founder’s day service – a founder’s day with a difference.

A prickly decision

One of the roles of the service is the selection of a new Master for the coming year. This is called pricking out. During this process a list of all those living in the almshouse – called brothers and sisters – is laid out and a silver bodkin  is used to run over the names and selects the person who will be in charge for the next twelve months. However the role of the Master is fairly mundane being a sort of care taker!

Typically you might say for August, the weather was wet and horrible. I arrived to watch a rather soggy civic procession arrive at the chapel to meet the brothers and sisters within. I slipped into the chapel, just about finding some room, to see the pricking out ceremony and hear the oath which went:

“I – (insert name) will me as I ought to be true and faithful unto the hospital and all things shall do, to my best of my power, for the most weal, proper and commodate of the same hospital and at the end of the year, a true and just account shall make all of things, wherewith I shall have to do belonging to the hospital for this year following.”

Not a bun fight!

After the ceremony as Charles Kightly records in his 1986 Ceremonies and customs of Britain:

“The ceremonies then conclude in livelier fashion, with local children racing around the chapel for a reward of a currant bun a piece.”

Outside there were a fair number of parents and young children waiting the race – the chapel could never have accommodated all of them and I wondered how the race had arisen. Did it arise as a way to encourage a well behaved congregation or to encourage more attendees? Both struck me as odd as it was clear that the service had a rather private feel about it and large numbers of children may have equally ruined the atmosphere I would imagine!

The dampness and drizzle did not put the participants. They lived up in the designated place beside the chapel. As it began to rain, the Mayor blew a whistle and the kids were off

The mayor protected by an umbrella gave out the buns to an out of breadth congregation of grateful children of many sizes. Many covered in mud and soggy! The adults who attended were given a hard paste biscuit with the hospital’s seal and the date 1190 – it did not look as nice as the bun! It was over as soon as it started and the crowd dispersed for another year.

How did the Bun race originate? The bun race is an interesting custom. A bit like those no winners or losers sports day everyone gets a prize! Everyone gets a bun! Why a race? Perhaps the custom arose as a dole for wayfarers and as these slowly disappeared some one came up with the idea of a race. The race symbolising the race to Canterbury’s St Thomas’s shrine. When it arose is not clear either and I have been unable to find it out. Kightly suggests it can only be less than a hundred years old – but that was in 1986 – with 34 years elapsed I imagine it qualifies now!

Custom survived: Swan upping on the river Thames

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Swan-upping: a royal tradition | Vet TimesThe delightful mute swan, gliding majestically down the river, its pure white plumage shining in the summer, has always been thought to be a Royal bird. The monarch owning all birds but in the past ownership was granted to certain groups and since the medieval times to two livery companies – The Vintners and Dyers. These two companies have what is called the royalty of swans. Margaret Brenthall in her 1975 Old Companies and ceremonies of Britain:

“The Thames swans have always been protected birds, and to kill one was a crime which once earned dire punishment. As late as the mid-nineteenth century transportation for seven years was the penalty, and in 1895 it was seven weeks’ hard labour.”

Swanning about

Cleverly because it would be impossible to catch all swans so all those which were marked belonged to the monarch. As T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1875) suggests:

“Formerly the members of the Corporation of London, in gaily-decorated barges, went up the Thames annually in August, for the purpose of nicking or marking, and counting their swans. They used to laud off Barnes Elms, and partake of a collation. This yearly progress was commonly but incorrectly called ” swan-hopping : ” the correct designation is shown by the ancient statutes to be ” swan-upping,” the swans being taken up and nicked, or marked. A ” swan with-two-nicks ” indicated, by his second nick, that he had been taken up twice.”

His account suggests that it might have been a revived custom but as Brenthall notes:

“in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Swan Voyage as a purely practical affair. It was in the eighteenth century that a festive element was introduced. Guest accompanied the Liverymen in the Companies state barges, musicians were engaged to play during the voyage, guns were fired in celebration, and a vast amount of food and drink was disposed of. As the nineteenth century progressed the mood changed, for the state barges disappeared from the scene.”

Thus it appears Thistleton Dwyer is referring to this. However, as Brenthall notes:

“But a festive atmosphere still prevails today as accompaniment to the sheer work of rowing, catching the swans and cygnets, marking and pinioning; and on two days of the Swan Voyage the Court of each of the Livery companies; together with their guests; follow by launch in the wake of the swan uppers.”

Brenthall (1975) notes:

“For this task the three respective Swan Herdsmen and their teams of Swann Uppers set out each July on a week-long Swan Voyage from Temple Stairs to Henley…the Swan Herdsmen at the time of writing are: John Turk, Queen’s Swan Keeper; Michael Turk, the Vintners’ Swan Marker and Bargemaster and Harold Cobb, the Dyers Bargemaster.”

The author states there were strong hereditary links within the ancient river appointments and I believe a Turk was my contact when I decided to find out more.

Swan with two necks

With a start at Temple the barges move down to Henley, regular stopping points are provided by the livery companies involved but I thought to be honest I was more than likely to see them gliding by and that was it – although at one of the locks I had the opportunity to see them do the loyal toast. Unfortunately, I missed the loyal toast and after deciding to picnic by the river could see in the far distance the swan uppers thinking this would be my opportunity to at least photograph this colourful watery procession as they gently skiffed the river in their three barges adorned with the banners of the Queen, Vintners and Dyers in a dazzling array of red and white.

Then their colourful red coats loomed closer in to view and a shout went out – they had seen some swans. Then with their boats they created a block to prevent the swans from escaping and the Vintner’s bargemaster leant over and grabbed the swan. It was then hoisted on to the bank and another presumably swan marker reached to get their marker and the swan was weighed, checked over and marked accordingly. Nowadays much of the process is to check on the health of the swans and since 1998 no nicking is done to the beaks rings being placed on the legs instead – which means that they cannot now be easily identified. It is a simple but colourful affair. I was amazed to be present at such close hand to see the process close up. I haven’t been back since but I was interested that for the first time in centuries Queen Elizabeth II the ‘Seigneur of the Swans’ attended the Swan Upping ceremony for the first time. It’s a simple custom only being partially cancelled due to high river flows in 2012 and 2020 due to Covid-19 social distancing measures – although one could argue being in the middle of the Thames they would be pretty socially distanced!

Custom contrived: Broadstairs’ Dicken’s festival, Kent

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Broadstairs is one of those old fashioned genteel seaside towns, with picturesque views across the beach one can just imagine genteel Victorian ladies and gentlemen promenading along the road overlooking the bay. Well one does not have to imagine it come June time and one can see them!

What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens one great Victorian writer stayed in 1837 when he was 21 after the fame of Pickwick Papers, lodging at 12 High Street. After writing this he purchased a house, now part of the Royal Albion Hotel, where he finished Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens clearly loved the place he stayed at Lawn House where he wrote part of Barnaby Rudge and then finally Fort House. Here he wrote three works ‘David Copperfield’, ’The Haunted Man’ and ‘American notes’. He visited Broadstairs for many holidays finally writing ‘Our English Watering Place’ his homage to the town in August 1852.

Great expectations

With such an affection shown for the town it was not surprising that there was a great proud and love for the writer such that in 1937 a Broadstairs Dicken’s Fellowship was formed. Gladys Waterer, the resident of Dicken’s House then had the idea of celebrating the 100th anniversary of his first arrival in the town. This consisted on putting an production of David Copperfield which was advertised via people dressed in Victorian dress. Such was the Dicken’s festival born. It has continued with the exception of the World Wars and the Coronavirus ever since with some Victorian themes added to it. The fun includes readings, a Dickensian cricket match, a Victorian bathing party, and vaudeville acts.

Christopher Trent in his 1966 Festivals and events in Britain records:

“The centre piece of the week’s celebration is the performance of a play adapted from one of the novelist’s works. In Miss Waterer’s own words: ‘The festival is unique that it is the only Dicken’s festival in Europe. It is a completely local effort. The whole town joins in. In 1936 we put on the first Dickens play. After the war I wrote Christmas Carol and that was really the start’ It was a very good start.”

Of course other Dicken’s festivals have developed over the years such as Rochester, doubtlessly based on Broadstairs’ success

Trent continues:

“For many years a different play was staged each year. In 1964 the wheel turned full circle and a Christmas carol was staged again. In 1965 Our Mutual friend. The players are members of the Broadstairs Dickens Players’ society.”

The plays take up a considerable amount of dedication as he continues:

“the adaptation and rehearsals take on average nearly eight months. The result is the modest Festival Theatre is always satisfying, throwing a new and original light on the novelist, who is still one of the favourite writers of hundreds of thousands of people, young and old.”

What begun as a play developed into fringe entertainments doubtlessly in some cases there to advertise the play, became more and more and more and more imaginative. Trent noted that:

“Gradually the scope of the festival has been extended, though the play remains the most important part. Bleak House and Dickens House are open to the public throughout the week. There is Dickensian garden party in the grounds of Bleak House, with prizes offered for the best costumes. There are concerts of Victorian music, talks on Dickens and his work and a Victorian exhibition. A festival dance s organized in the grand ballroom, and the proof of Miss Waterer’s assertion that the whole town joins in is well illustrated by the number of  shops and the number of people, especially shopkeepers, who wear Dickensian costume in spite the difficulty in modern times of moving about in crinolines! A stage coach on he front is a sign that the festival is in progress. It is a replica of a coach in which many of Dickens’ characters travelled, and in which he must have made many of his journeys to Broadstairs.”

Dolby and son and son and daughter and grand children!

In 2017 it celebrated its 80th anniversary and the press said locally:

“Expect top hats, bonnets and billowing dresses as the community gathers for events including the grand parade, Dickensian picnic and beach party. Other activities includes a traditional Victorian country fair and theatre production of Dombey and Son – the author’s novel follows the fortunes of a shipping firm, whose owner is frustrated at not having a son to follow him in the job, and initially rejects his daughter’s love, eventually becoming reconciled with her before his death.”

Over the 82 years the theatre productions were still a focus on the event. However, back in 1994 I arrived to see two of its more custom like events – the Victorian bathing and the Grand parade.

The former was bizarre as if I had been sent back in time only the camera and the boats on the horizon reminded me I was back in the 20th century as there on the beach ready to dive in a collection of people dressed head to toe in Victorian bathers. Although this was June the water did not look that inviting and warm and a head to toe ensemble might not be too bad an idea. They all rushed to the water to have a paddle and the obligatory photo and some slipped away. Other rushed headlong and dived in.

The parade was a much more spectacular affair and it was clear that a lot of effort had been put in by those involved. Fronted by Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble with his ‘comforting’ arms around him with a pipers band. Behind them every character Dicken’s fertile imagination had concocted appeared to be there for David Copperfield to Pickwick. A great entertainment could be had trying to name the characters and some had really gone to town even affecting their characteristics. There were a few non-dressed entrants like the Brownies as well which rather broke the illusion. Each carried banners and shields. One of the most impressive was the stilt walking ghost from Christmas carol! But of course the most were in Victorian day wear and one could even hear the sound of crinoline!

Custom survived: Helston’s Furry Dance, Cornwall

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“To attempt the Furry Dance without, for instance, passing in and out of the houses would be to lose part of the charm and novelty…. in other towns the so-called Furry Dance is but a travesty, which usually consists of a few straggling couples performing all sorts of grotesque figures…. If other towns and villages attempt the dance as an attraction, visitors should be informed that the traditional dance belongs to Helston, where alone it is correctly danced. ….it is an insult to Helston to compare the travesties of modern dancing performed to the old air with the real “Helston Furry.”

Cornishman, Thursday 26th July 1934

Many people in the 1970s may remember Terry Wogan singing on Top of The Tops – the Floral dance. For some unknown reason this one-hit wonder caught the zeitgeist with its catchy tune straight out of nowhere, but for folklorists and people down in the Cornish town of Helston – it was not so little known. It was based on the annual May time celebration that is the Furry Dance.

Hel of a stone!

Why does Helston dance on this day? The story is that many years again a fiery dragon appeared and dropped a large stone on an area known as Angel Yard. Over a hundred years ago it was broken up and people thought it might result in calamity. It didn’t and they are said to have celebrated their survival by dancing in and out of each other’s houses. In Feasts and

“A legend says this day was set apart to commemorate a fight between the devil and St. Michael, in which the first was defeated. The name Helston has been fancifully derived from a large block of granite which until 1783 was to be seen in the yard of the Angel hotel, the principal inn of the place. This was the stone that sealed Hell’s mouth, and the devil was carrying it when met by St. Michael. Why he should have burdened himself with such a “large pebble” (as Cornish miners call all stones) is quite unknown. The fight and overthrow are figured on the town-seal.”

Utter rubbish of course!

More likely that this was an ancient patronal festival, May the 8th being St Michael of whom the Parish church is named, feast day especially significant that it is started by the bell ringing of that church. A theory expounded by others and suggested by Henry Jenny in the Western Morning News of May 11th 1931:

“It is quite probable that the Helston `Furry` observances are a survival of a pre-Christian Celtic custom transferred, or fixed on, to the patronal feast”.

Of course there is no evidence of any pre-Christian origin either but it clearly is very old. The dance by going in and out of houses resembles many mainland European dances such as the labyrinthian dances of the tarantula and this area may have been brought over by traders and sailors.

Furry about

The custom though has little changed in 200 years, an account from Royal Cornwall Gazette May 1802 gives a typical description and suggests at this point a great age perhaps:

“Our Flora-day seems to have lost none of its attractions. The first hour of the morning was ushered in with drums, fifes and fiddles. Various parties proceeded to the country, where they ravished the gardens and hedges of their sweets, decorated themselves in the spoils, passed a few hours in junketing, and then returned to the town, faddying it thro’ the streets. About ten o’clock, the Volunteers, commanded by Major Johns, proceeded through the Downs, where after going through various evolutions, they returned, and fired three vollies in the Coinage-hall-street. The town now began to fill with visitants in their holiday cloaths; who with the town’s people, faddied at intervals thro’ the streets, and regaled themselves with their friends till evening.”

Faddying is a local term for dancing from country to town by the way! Little had changed it seems a hundred and 50 odd years as Folk Life and Traditions by E. F. Coote Lake in Folklore notes that in 1959 except the clock missed a beat:

“No 7 a.m. Clock Stroke for Furry Dance: But Helston band gave the signal From The Western Morning News, May 9, 1959 Helston’s town clock missed a beat yesterday, and made the Furry Dance late. The band was poised in the street ready to lead off the first dance of the day. The dancers stood in double file in the Corn Exchange, with the Mayor, Mr F. E. Strike, on the steps. All waited for the town clock to strike, for the rule is that the dances must start on the stroke of the clock but it did not strike. The M.C. looked at his watch and looked at the clock, and as time went by it became apparent that the town clock was not going to strike. Instead, a signal was given to the band. The first stroke of the big bass drum called out the time-honoured Furry Dance tune, and once more Helstonians went tripping and twirling along the streets and in and out of the houses, in the first of a series of dances that went on throughout the day, winding a thread of gaiety in ‘the quaint old Cornish.”

However, if ever there was a custom which was ultra-organised it was the Furry dance and I am sure the lack of the bell was a big embarrassment!

In a hurry for the furry!

Arriving early – but not that early as I missed the church peal and the early dances but just in time for the first Hal an Tow – the streets were still relatively quiet and gave me the time to admire the splendour of the doorways dressed in huge boughs and bouquets of spring flowers. The sun shone brightly upon them and they filled the streets with rich aromas. What was incredible was the array on show and the imagination (and competitive streaks) on show. It is noted by Cornish Feasts in 1886’s Folklore:

The week before Flora-day is in Helston devoted to the ‘spring- clean,’  and every house is made ‘as bright as a new pin,’ and the gardens stripped of their flowers to coming into the town.”

Understandably the Furry dance attracts large numbers of curious onlookers so finding a good place can be challenge however I positioned myself beneath the clock tower of the guildhall and awaiting. From here one could see down the street and beyond. Soon the bells run and the music could be heard distantly and then could be seen the promenade dancers in a sea of white at first and then black and pastel colours. First we saw the young children all dressed in white like first communion celebrants, their footsteps weaving in and out, the concentration showing on their face. Then came the adults looking for all the world like we had walked in upon an 18th century debutant’s ball or a garden party at the Palace. These were old hands and this showed in their skill, the dancing was balletic and hypnotic in equal measure.

I ducked away from the busy concourse to see the dancers down a quiet street nearby with no crowds and here I watched how the door opened a local house and the all danced in and the after some time inside begun to dance outside. The band all the time playing their tune.

The sun was shining – well just – and the flowers, top hats and ball dresses looked splendid. Helston Furry dance perhaps the smartest of all may day events and not a Morris in sight!

 

Custom revived: Hal-an-Tow, Helston, Cornwall

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On the 8th of May – the picturesque town of Helston becomes even more picturesque. Doorways are adorned with masses and flowers and everyone is dressed immaculately in readiness for the famed Furry dance. However, for the folklorist and customs enthusiast get there early and one can experience two customs on the same day – the earliest the revived Hal-an-Tow.

In Tow!

The earliest account of the custom appears in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1790 which is quoted in Charles Knightly’s 1986 The customs and ceremonies of Britain:

“In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbours and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects, and of which I know no more than that there is a mention in it of the grey goose quill and of going to “the green wood to bring home the summer and the May-O”: and, accordingly, hawthorne flowering branches are worn in hats.”

John Bickerdyke’s 1889 The curiosities of Ale and Beer records:

“At Helston, in Cornwall, on the 8th of May, called “Furry Day,” may still be witnessed a survival of the old May Day festivities. Very early in the morning the young men and maidens of the place go off into the country to breakfast. About seven o’clock they return bearing green branches, and decked with flowers, they dance through the streets to the tune of the “Furry Dance.” At eight o’clock the “Hal-an-Tow” (Heel and Toe?) song is sung, and dancing and merriment fill the remainder of the day.”

THE HAL-AN-TOW.

Robin Hood and little John, They both are gone to fair O !And we will go to the merry green wood, To see what they to do there O !And for to chase O !To chase the buck and doe O !With Hal-an-tow, Jolly rumble O !

Chorus:

And we were up as soon as any day O !And for to fetch the summer home, The Summer and the May O !For Summer is a come O ! And Winter is a gone O !

Where are those Spaniards That makes so great a boast O !They shall eat the grey goose feather And we will eat the roast O !In every land O !The land where’er we go, With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c

As for St. George O !St. George he was a knight O !Of all the knights in Christendom, St. George he is the right O !In every land O !The land where’er we go,With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

God bless Aunt Mary Moyses, And all her power and might O !And send us peace in merry England,Both day and night O !And send us peace in merry England,Both now and evermore O !With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

Hal an Two, or three or four

What appears to be a unique custom may not be what it seems. Research suggests that it was found in other Cornish towns. Nicholas Boson of Newlyn records that it was said the maypole was set up with the men singing “Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbelow” in 1660.  

Hal – an Tow what it means?

One thought is that the word Hal derives from kalann meaning the first of the month which is changed to an H in some version and ‘tow’ means garland in Cornish. However, this is no believed not to be true as the tow is pronounced like cow and not toe and derives from the Cornish word ‘tew’ meaning fat. It is possibly that it refers to the eve of fattening time – ie the coming of summer!

What the Hal – an Tow is it about?

So what is Hal – an Tow about? To my mind watching it, it comes across as a way devised for the town to remember and teach its history in a lighthearted way. The song is associated with various tableaux of characters – Characters include Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, St. George, St Piran and St. Michael.

Knightly thinks that the custom, and the Furry Dance which takes place on the same day, is:

“a rare survivor of…the Robin Hood May Games once played from Cornwall to Southern Scotland”.

In Peter Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

The meaning of the title is disputed.  According to one theory it is “heave on the rope”, an adaptation by Cornish sailors from the Dutch “Haal aan het touw” (“tow” is pronounced to rhyme with “cow” in Helston today).  

 But it seems a pity with such a Cornish-sounding title to despair of finding a link with the old.”

Sabine Baring Gould 1890 Songs of the West suggested that the Hal an Toe formed part of an old English May Games which included the election of a May Queen and King, Morris dance performed by disguised sword-bearing men, the Hobby Horse and Robin Hood and thus was a sort of Mummer’s play. The Morris association is suggested in Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

Others think it might refer to the heel and toe dance of The Monk’s March, which is still danced in the English Cotswold Morris tradition.  

The work continues to note that Mordon stated that:

“has every sign of being a processional Morris dance even to the slow part at the beginning of the chorus in which, when its steps were still known and used, the dancers in characteristic Morris style would have spread out sideways for a few steps, waving their handkerchiefs before forming into line as before.” 

The first two verses are fairly typical of a Robin Hood mummer’s play song, with the addition of the invasion of the Spaniards remembering when there were many attacks on the coast such as the burning of Mousehole. The next verse refers to St George and the dragon, albeit referring to a Helston local variety perhaps. Interestingly it is believed that an additional verse by a noted Cornish poet, Robert Morton Nance in the 1930s:

“But to a greater than St George our Helston has a right-O, St Michael with his wings outspread, the Archangel so bright-O, Who fought the fiend-O, of all mankind the foe’

Interestingly, unlike other customs this indicates that the custom is more fluid then many and in 2005 the following was added:

“St Piran showed his care for us
And all our sons and daughters, O
He brought the book of Christendom
Across the western waters, O
And taught the love of Heaven above
For Cornishmen below.”

The last verse has been thought to possibly suggest a vulgarisation of the Virgin Mary, the Cornish word for ‘maid’ or ‘virgin’ being mowse like moses thus Mary Mowse, Mary the virgin, perhaps again it refers to Maid Marian

A similarity has been made to Padstow’s May Day in some of the wording seen in now unused sections of the song. Indeed there is a parallel between the character of Ursula Birdhood in their May song and Helston’s Mary Moses. Its singing at only the first and last place it is performed, echoes in away the Padstow’s Night song.

The revival

The custom was abandoned in the 19th century probably because it encouraged lascivious behaviour encouraging as it did the locals to enter the woods at dawn and collect boughs of plants with possible other diversions. Then in 1930 on the back of the Old Cornish Society wave of Cornish rebirth it was brought back.

Hal and back

I arrive on a Saturday when the sun was shining and the whole town sparkled. Map in hand I searched for the Hal-an-Tow’s first location which appeared to be a car park. Here a big crowd had assembled awaiting the players.  Oe read a proclamation and around them dancers covered head to toe in foliage, knights and a dragon. Following Hal an Tow is great fun and the players clearly are well practiced and take it very seriously as well as having great fun. Carrying banners and blowing whistles and horns they appear to be pushing out the evil spirits perhaps or waking up the locals for the main event! Their customs and tableaux are splendid and the dragon is particularly superb. The whole custom is very hypnotic and I you feel yourself singing along and the tune turning over and over again in your head…until that is your start hearing the Furry dance tune!!

Custom contrived: Sheringham Viking Procession and Long Ship burning

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When one thinks about Viking festivals one will probably say Up Helly Aa, some may mention York’s Yorvik festival or even Flamborough – only one of which unfortunately I have had the pleasure of attending. Few might say Sheringham, a fantastic week long event, has rapidly getting a reputation to rival the others.

Taking a Viking to the place

Sheringham takes it name from Shira meaning a Viking Lord and Heim meaning home. The custom, fairly young, was started by a local artist called Colin Seal who saw a potential to both honour its heritage, raise its profile and produce some well needed money for the seaside town in a time which is traditionally very quiet and not a time we think of visiting the seaside. In an interview for North Norfolk Press he stated:.

“After Christmas, it’s a bit of a let-down…January and February are quite miserable, so it’s nice to have something to do and, even though it’s cold, people wrap up and we go ahead whatever the weather.”

Cold it was, but at least the sun was shining as we arrived. It had certainly lived up to its promise. The town was very busy with adults and children milling around awaiting the procession.

Over the week there had been all manner of Viking themed events in the museum and local Oddfellows Hall transformed into a Viking Hall from shield and axe making to talks on Viking history but it was the final day which attracted my interest – a whole day of Viking re-enacting culminating in a splendid Viking Longship burning.

Been inViking to a great event

The event now run by a carnival committee also attracts a considerable number of reenactors from Essex to Leicestershire; although the local Gorleston Wuffa group were the main group. There was said to be around 200 and they certainly looked impressive. These re-enactors were excellent looking very convincing both in dress and hair. There were beards a plenty and lots of menace. It really did feel as if the Vikings really had landed that day as they assembled on the clifftop showing off their archery and axe throwing.

However it was the torchlit procession that I was waiting for. Slowly the sun was setting glimmering across the water and people were massing along the road and on the beach.  The Vikings then began to march, both men and women, holding their torches to the side. The warm of the torches certainly helped keep the crowd warm but it was about to get a lot warmer. Behind them came their Long boat and slowly they dragged it to the beach down the ramp followed by two Vikings carrying their torches aloft and the crowd behind them. Two groups of Vikings awaited holding their torches facing each other ready to burn it as the boat was physically raised over the pebbles to its burning place.

Do Burn your boats

Soon the Viking crowd threw bits of wood and other combustibles. The 28 foot long Longboat was an impressively made piece and a shame to see it burn, with its menacing dragon head. According to the Eastern Daily Press it:

“built by West Runton carpenter Brian Howe and his son Henri.Featuring a dragon-like figurehead with mythical creatures and Norse themed decorations on the bow, the boat also includes a mast and sail, as well as more than 30 hand-painted Viking shields emblazoned with the names of the town businesses sponsoring the festival. Weighing in at around 500lb, it has been painstakingly painted over hundreds of hours by a team of volunteers led by artist Jill Brammer, Viking Festival founder Colin Seal and former TV and film set designer Chris Neville.”

It was slowly lowered by the awaiting torch bearers on the softer and flatter sand. More and more wood was laid within it and one by one the torch bearers threw their torches in. A blast of the horn went out and the crowd cheered high above beach at a safe distance as the Vikings magically bathed in its glow. Raising their axes and swords the Vikings formed a group menacingly! Cheers went out from the Vikings and slowly but surely the boat began to be engulfed in the flames. As the sea lapped at its footings the flames continued to burn until after around an hour it was nothing but burn scraps, flames leaping into the air as it lay on its side collapsing. All in all a remarkable end to an excellent day and week.

 

Custom contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

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Each January the boarder town of Chepstow becomes home to a fascinating mix of Welsh and English customs – The Chepstow Wassail. A colourful picandmix custom.

On arrival it is very evident this has become a rallying place for all people who wish to celebrate the winter and as such Morris teams from a wide area attend. The town is awash with blacks, purples and the sounds of bells, cries and clashing of sticks.

Strictly speaking the custom is divided into two – the wassail an English luck giving custom previously described here and the Mari Lwyd – a Welsh house visiting good luck custom which has not been fully covered yet in this blog.

When I arrived there a large group had assembled around a rather raggedy looking tree below the grounds of the castle. Here some Border Morris were half way through an apple wassail, pouring ale over the roots whilst the congregation assembled singing a wassailing song, toast attached to trees and ribbons swaying.  Everyone despite the cold was enjoying themselves smiling and enjoying the special bond the custom had established.

A few metres away were some dancers and weaving in an out of the crowd were Kentish Hooden Oss making the children laugh and look bemused in equal measure. They were a fair way from home again indicating the countrywide popularity of the custom.

No room at the inn or stable!

However in the pub nearby was a Mari Lwyd, one of a number in the town, which was about to go through the Pwnco, a rhyme/song full of riddles – a sort of old Welsh rap battle! The landlord was preventing the Mari Lwyd and his team from entering. From a casual observer one might agree for outside clad in a white sheet was a scene from perhaps from a horror film – a bleach white horses skull. The Mari Lwyd is a curious custom and one we will only briefly discuss here.

“The discussion was From inside the house

What, ho! Morganwg’s happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request – demand?
Answer! We grant short parley

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here’s sweet metheglin, here’s cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!”

The Mari Lwyd is a strange mixture of macabre and marvellous. Its empty eye sockets filled with sparkling green glowing glass eyes, upon its head a crown of flowers with ribbons attached which flew in the cold winds. Its head shrouded to make it look even more mysterious – and hide the pole. Its jaw open and closing like a clapperboard.

Once inside it joined a whole throng of Mari Lwyds snapping and leaning over into people’s lunches and attempting to drink their lemonades! Those who expected them were very amused but there one or two who found it all a bit too weird.

Border Morris on the border

As darkness fell the main proceedings begun. At first the Mari Lwyds went to the bridge for the famed “Meeting Of English and Welsh at the border  Here a large crowd had assembled at the ‘border’ some carrying England flags on the English side and the others Welsh flags. The official start begun when a large rocket was sent into the air to tell the Mari Lwyd that the English wassailers had finished and that they were about to reach the bridge’s middle. With them the group carried lanterns, played music and carried a large apple cart carrying the symbol of their wassailing – a decorated apple tree. As a horn sounds, the sign of the English approach a which both them move slowly to the centre shouting and cheering carrying their flags. Warlike in a way if it wasn’t so surreally apparelled. Despite their menacing approach as soon as the middle is meet celebrations break out, hand shaking, flag exchanging and singing. Wassail to everyone and happy new year. If only every border was like. The Welsh invite the English over to join them in Chepstow. After then the Mari Lwyd descended upon the Chepstow Museum. Here the crowd once again got into good spirited boisterousness, name calling and ilk. Here the Pwnco continued until the Lord and Lady of the ceremony appeared at the museum door and offered a wassail cup full of mulled cider.

A meeting of skulls

Organised as event to revive local music dance and folk customs locally by the The Widders Welsh Border Morris and Tim Ryan of the Severn Princess ferry restoration since 2005 and has grown from strength to strength. As mentioned teams come from far afield across Wales and into the midlands and beyond. In 2019 there were 30 Mari Lwyds although this included some out of area versions such as Kimberley’s Owd Oss! For a custom once in decline it is clearly more and more popular. Indeed popularity has been an issue and in 2020 the custom went for a rest and a re-think due to its massive success. An article in a local newspaper stated that:

“It has grown so much in popularity since it began 15 years ago, to the extent that organisers have pulled the plug while they ponder how best to reorganise it. Mick Lewis, a member of the organising committee, said he is proud that they have built such a popular event, and confirmed the festival will return in 2021 after a period of “soul-searching”.”

One of the organisers stating:

“Fifteen years ago we started with just one Mari Lwyd, and now we get over 30 turn up, along with hundreds of people,”

Such can happen to customs, that their popularity outweighs their origin provision and thought. Bloggers like myself must be very aware of the impact our reviews can have. So I should state that the Chepstow Wassail is a great custom perhaps to reduce numbers not one to go to every year and spectate.

Custom revived: Richmond Poor Owd Oss

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“The most exciting Christmas custom was that of the Poor Old Horse which perambulated the town from one public house to another.”

William Wise 1888

It is not very often that a revisit a custom – but the Poor Owd Oss, Old Hoss or T’Owld ‘Oss of Richmond is different enough from its southern stablemate to have a separate account – and it is also not often you come across a custom which the great legend of traditional ceremonies, customs and British culture Mr. Homer Sykes, has not attended and photographed – in conversation with him he said he hadn’t heard of it and thought ‘why have I not done that one’. So I thought I would use this post to describe my experiences with the Poor Owd Oss and the history I have gleaned of it.

Take a horse to Richmond

Richmond is a delightful old market town nestled in equally picturesque Swaledale. A place that deserves many customs – it had at least three customs which are unique to the town – the poor Owd Oss being the most curious and certainly entertaining. A town nestling in both racing and hunting territory it is therefore not surprising to see a horse based custom. One which in itself regals in the hunting pink and crops of its attendants.

The words for the song were possibly first recorded academically by Robert Bell’s  1857 Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, under the title The Mummers’ Song; or The Poor Old Horse, As sung by the Mummers in the Neighbourhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas who adds:

“‘The rustic actor who sings the following song is dressed as an old horse, and at the end of every verse the jaws are snapped in chorus.”

The song sung is as follows although not all verses were sung dependent on the time the group wanted to spend in the place!:

You gentlemen and sportsmen,
And men of courage bold,
All you that’s got a good horse,
Take care of him when he is old;
Then put him in your stable,
And keep him there so warm;
Give him good corn and hay,
Pray let him take no harm.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

Once I had my clothing
Of linsey-woolsey fine,
My tail and mane of length,
And my body it did shine;
But now I’m growing old,
And my nature does decay,
My master frowns upon me,
These words I heard him say,
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

These pretty little shoulders,
That once were plump and round,
They are decayed and rotten,
I’m afraid they are not sound.
Likewise these little nimble legs,
That have run many miles,
Over hedges, over ditches,
Over valleys, gates, and stiles.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

 I used to be kept
On the best corn and hay
That in fields could be grown,
Or in any meadows gay;
But now, alas! it’s not so,
There’s no such food at all!
I’m forced to nip the short grass
That grows beneath your wall.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

I used to be kept up,All in a stable warm,
To keep my tender body
From any cold or harm;
But now I’m turned out
In the open fields to go,
To face all kinds of weather,
The wind, cold, frost, and snow.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

 

My hide unto the huntsman
So freely I would give,
My body to the hounds,
For I’d rather die than live:
So shoot him, whip him, strip him,
To the huntsman let him go;
For he’s neither fit to ride upon,
Nor in any team to draw.
Poor old horse! you must die!

So at each location, the group discuss ‘first three?’, ‘last two?’ In reference to what verses they recite. It is said that there were once 20 verses but the six verses above make sense, it would be difficult to see how any more verses would add anything.

During the song the ‘horse’ performs a number of actions. He even ‘nuzzles up to the huntsmen gallops and leaps, over hedges, over ditches, over valleys, gates and stiles’ and chomps on the ‘best of corn and hay’ and then forced to nibble the short grass and he is turned out to winter. In the winter he trembles with cold until he is finally beaten down by all the attendants with their whips and dies when he is neither fit to ride upon nor any teams to draw’. However, after he falls he is up again in the death and revival seen in all ‘mummer’s plays’

In the past it was accompanied by a fiddle, fife and drum, with a number of attendants, two of which were huntsmen, who carried long whips which they cracked throughout the song. In those days all of the T’owld ‘Oss party blacked their faces, which of course is the best way to disguise oneself.’

This is seen in a photo from around the turn of the century. Not so now and he does not appear to have been so since modern times. Now these attendants were in a well-dressed – possibly the best dressed – uniform as noted of hunting pink and top hats, these being adorned with holly and mistletoe.

I attended on their annual outing in and out of shops, cafes, banks and hairdressers in the town but days before they had done a prestigious circuit of villages and surrounding towns, going as far east as Malton. On the night of Christmas eve they extend their travels into the larger houses of the district being the guest of Aske Hall’s the Duke of Zetland. I was impressed by their routine but what is noticeable that unlike virtually all over such teams they do not collect for charity, indeed there is no evidence of any money collected. I enquired of this, one of the attendants explained that ‘Charity is a very personal thing and they did not feel it was right to impose a charity on people.’ They said they made it clear that any money given went to maintaining the costumes and ‘horse’ which do need to dry cleaned, tidied up and re-upholstered on occasions which is expensive.

Was is also interesting is that the group is not made of off duty Morris, as nearly all over ‘mummers’ are. Indeed, one too issue over the name ‘mummer’ although from an academic viewpoint this is what such customs would be called. Nor are the group, folk singers or folkies in general. No the team were local people who wanted to keep the custom going.

Horse has bolted?

When I turned up I thought I had missed it as a stream of people left the Town Hall and one of two of his attendants separated from the party and only partly dressed stood around drinking outside. Inside the town hall, the group were being feted by the town’s mayor with copious amounts of whisky after having entertained children and their parents in a show. Had they been around and this was their finally? I asked one of the company ‘what time do you start again?’ hopefully.

Julia Smith (1989) in Fairs, Feasts and Frolics states:

“My original informant remembered how she had been frightened when she came upon the ‘horse’ prancing through the streets when she was a child. She thought it had been connected with one family, and she was right, as I discovered when I found Mr Bill Ward. It was Bill Ward’s maternal grandfather Edward Peirse went out with the horse in the late nineteenth century and various members of the family have been involved with it over the 100 years.”

Although Julia Smith (1989) states that:

“the custom has never died out completely’

Image may contain: 5 people, people standingThough as she herself was told by Mr Ward ‘the horse may have remained stabled for short periods of time’. The Second World War was one period of rest and as Julia Smith states:

“After the second world war, when Mr Ward first became involved, he and his cousin visited a horse slaughterer to obtain a house’s skull which was boiled for them. They fitted the skull with eyes of black glass, painstakingly chipped from the bottle of old wine bottled and rounded on the inside. The skull was wired together so that the jaws could be opened and closed, while the inside of the mouth was lined with red plush velvet. The whole skull was covered with material to represent the skin….the horse…was adorned with artificial Christmas roses and poinsettias”

Horsing around again

Following the Old Oss for the day it was evident it was a welcome sight. We entered a barbers, where one of the team explained it to the hairdresser, into a packed Costa Coffee where the horse attempted to steal sandwiches and drink coffees, interacting with young children with a mixture of fear and confusion. We travelled down to the Old Station where a large crowd were entertained and terrorised. Some appeared to find it a little strange and odd! Perhaps the oddest was in Barclay’s Bank.  Here the team were rewarded with mince pies and wine by the bank manager – you don’t get that with internet banking.

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Back from the knacker’s yard!

However, this is not exactly accurate as a house or pub visiting custom it appears to have died out shortly after the second world war, in the 1950s. The reason given is the impact of TV. When the teams visited the houses with the Horse, they felt they had been intruding and that people were more interested in the TV. As a result I was informed that the head was buried for a long period in Mr Ward’s back garden.

It was not until the early 80s I believe that a local man interested in the custom, called Mick Sheenan, asked Mr Ward if he could revive the custom. No one appeared very clear on the date but I wonder if Julia Smith’s not being aware of it suggests close to the publication date of her book? It is mentioned in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem:

From the week before Christmas, pubs and parties around Richmond, North Yorkshire are the main targets of the Richmond Poor Horse players. These mummers perform and sing the Poor Old Horse which describes a horse’s life and death. One man, dressed in garish mock-horse guise – complete with decorated horse skull – mimes the appropriate action.”

The horse is looked upon a bringer of luck and fertility and indeed as the group moved around people rushed up to engage with the horse, rub its head. However, the visitations have not always been popular and as is experienced by many teams visiting pubs you can find you are not as popular as you thought. In one visit a drunken squady thought it would fun to show it who was tough and headbutted it – the result blood and a broken nose. In another the horse was worse for wear when after accidentally hitting someone at a bar, it was repeated pummelled so much that they had to drag the horse out of the fight!

Horse whispers?

How old is the custom? Bell was emphatic stating that the:

The ‘old horse’ is probably of Scandinavian origin,– a reminiscence of Odin’s Sleipnor

Quentin Cooper and Paul Sulivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem state:

“The creature dies, and then rises again; at which point you realise that you have strayed into totem-beast-as-Celtic-god territory.”

Whilst that is possible that the ‘horse’ remembers something ancient, it is more probable that the song is more contemporaneous to Bell’s time. Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year places the custom between 1840 and the middle of the 20th century. The death and rebirth is always cited by folklorists as evidence of the ancient origins tied to the dying of the sun at winter and indeed the song does have a similarity to the seasons. However, one can argue so does all life and thus it could be a pure coincidence. I have argued that it was done during winter for pure financial reasons people were in greater need and others such as the landed gentry more generous. Were they trying to remind us of how poor they were with their dead horse? Is it possible that the custom was a simple house visiting custom as like the Mari Lwyd, a welsh horse, in which a team decided to add a song perhaps when it translated across to England? Or are the Mari Lwyd and poor old oss a coincidence? The financial impact of which meant an increase in popularity and the spread of the song. The limit of the song to Yorkshire, north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire suggests that it had slowly spread from a point of creation – likely to be Yorkshire – and had not fully spread when it had begun dying out as Roud notes in the mid 20th century. However does it really matter? For some the custom harks back to our old pagan times some like it for the weirdness.

Richmond’s T’owd Oss ended up for the last time on Christmas Eve in the pub where he was beaten to death for the final time that year…but he’ll be back next year no doubt!

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Custom revived: Spalding Pumpkin Parade

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Mention Spalding and customs and most people will recall the famous and much lamented flower parade. Sadly that demised in the early 2000s but in an odd way as local growers have changed with the time another parade has arisen – the annual pumpkin parade – capitalise in the growth of the local pumpkin growing capitalising itself on the increased in demand since the 1990s.

Turn into a pumpkin

You might think that Halloween items appear in the shops far too early but in Spalding it is like they are already celebrating Halloween! Spalding’s Pumpkin parade has really grown from strength to strength, held on the second Friday in October, it acts as a herald to Halloween like advent does Christmas perhaps – well at least locally.

The streets of the market town when I arrived was already a throng, I had been told that 10,000 people had turned up and it certainly felt lie it. Whilst none had them had dressed in Halloween customs many of them had orange balloons and some even dressed orangey!  Amongst the attractions were a small local farmers markets and stalls for children making pumpkin based crafts…and lots of carved pumpkins. These are apparently donated by the local company. As the light began to fade people waited the parade.

Leading the parade was the town’s Flower queen, although what she does now without the flower parade I am not sure! Obviously she would have been in a pumpkin coach like a real Cinderella which glimmered with its lights in the darkness. She was then followed by school children, hundreds of school children and their families carrying lanterns, pumpkins and scarecrows. There were dancing troupes and one group dressed in carnival clothing – which looked a bit too cold and damp for that. Overall it was a vision in orange and flashing lights,, inflatable pumpkins, paper pumpkins and flashing lights..and there were plenty of them in the crowd too, spinning, flashing and flapping courtesy of the hawkers who turn up to any firework or lantern parade. Then to finish it off fireworks…to remind us Bonfire night was also around the corner!

From tiny seeds grow big pumpkin parades

Back in 2000 was the first parade and it has become more and more popular although relatively unknown outside of Lincolnshire it would seem, although in 2004 it won a local award and became a week of events culminating in the parade night in 2009, The catalyst for the custom is a local company which decided to grow pumpkins in the 1990s. Mr Bowman the owner came up with the idea and its grown in size every since. He stated in Spalding Today that:

“We’re really pleased to support the Pumpkin Festival – when I was first approached about it I thought it was going to be a one-off! It’s a great community event, bringing lots of people together and we’re really pleased to be involved – it’s nice for us to be able to give something back to the community.”

However, success comes with a price as noted this year in the Spalding today when rumours have suggested that its popularity could result in its demise Stating that there was concern over public safety but local councillor Roger Gambba Jones stated:

“I doubt very much there would ever be consideration to stop it (the pumpkin parade) because it’s something that people enjoy doing.”

He added it will continue under his present administration – which might mean only for the next four years…which would be a shame as Spalding needs a great custom to put it on the map..the Pumpkin parade is certainly unique!