Category Archives: Pub

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

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At the time I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe – but that’s another story – and as a break from the incessant publicity I decided to take myself to find the Burry man. These were the days before the Internet and asking at the Tourist Information in Edinburgh they thought it was some sort of Fringe event..but I thought it is only a few miles out I would try and find it.

The Burryman is perhaps the most bizarre of our customs. A man covered head to toe with burrs with a flowery hat of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. No skin is visible. Just a slit for the mouth. So much that his humanity appears to stripped for him, from a far he is most alien only a cummerbund adorned with a red lion suggesting he is human. He walks with two smartly dressed attendees, who help him hold onto to two hydrangea filled poles.

I located the Burryman easy enough propped outside of a pub like a rag doll. He appeared to acknowledge me but did not say. A few moments later a man appeared with a glass of something – whisky –  what else? Of course drinking the Whisky was a challenge; he only had a slit for a mouth. A straw was provided and it was steadily consumed..one of many it would appear.

As I followed him around some local children cheered his arrival, others watched from behind their parents more suspiciously. The lack of sound perhaps making it more curious for unlike every other similar custom, there is no associated music, no accordions, no violins, no bagpipers and no Morris!

Burry little clear on the origins

History is silent on its origin. Being linked to the local fair, which although medieval in origin only established a charter in 1687 suggests that it dates from then. Very unlikely I would feel and the two has become coincidentally associated. Some state it has a 900 year origin but it only has a recorded history since 120 odd years ago. Interestingly, the date 1687 was when the town became a burgh – burgh – burr – was this a local joke go on and on?

The Burryman is clearly a very odd folk figure. If there was a list of scary English folk figures he would be up there with the Straw bear and Bartle. Indeed, some believe that was part of its function, a mechanism to ward off evil spirits. One belief is that he is a sacrificial scape goat, much akin to the theory of Burning Bartle and the custom’s date being close to the ancient Lammas it is not difficult to reason with its association with harvest fertility, rebirth and regeneration. Certainly, the lack of speech and painfulness of the whole process suggests sacrifice as Brian Shuel notes in his 1984 Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain:

“It has to be said that by the late afternoon the Burry Man’s attendants were proping him up. Exhausted and full of whisky he was extremely relieved to get back to the Town hall where they stripped him in moments and left him comatose in his underpants for ten minutes before his wife, Julia, managed to prod him back to life. Suddenly he revived and in no time was himself again.”

But why here and why no-where else? Well it was found associated with Scottish fishing communities on the Moray Firth and was used to protect against poor fishing seasons. In Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the 1860s and their Burryman was on horseback and travelled through the town with a piper. In Buckie it appears to have been only done in response to a failure of the fishing fleet but curiously it was a Cooper who was wheelbarrowed around the town.  Queensferry is near the Sea so it is understandable it would survive there. But why the burrs? The provision of whisky is said to give the provider good luck; a clever way to ensure a free supply.

See the source image

Burrly able to move

There are many foliage people – Jacks, Straw men etc – but the Burryman has got to be the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable. He is covered head to toe with sticky flower heads of the burdock. These being collected on the Friday morning before the parade These burrs, of which 11,000 is the average number which cover him, would be almost impossible to bear on a person’s normal clothing so he is covered head to toe in thick longjohns, vest, heavy sweeter and a balaclava which in August must be just as bad as being covered it spikey foliage! The burrs also cause the wearer to walk awkwardly with an open leg gait and arms outstretched which adds to the curious appearance! As if being covered with burrs and wearing a balaclava is not bad enough the Burryman has to walk a seven-mile route which usually takes nine hours!

The whole event begins in the Staghead Hotel at around 7am. The Friday previous the Burryman collects burrs and places them on newspaper make A3 size burr squares their natural Velcro like ability enables them to form ready-made fabrics. Overall 25 are made. The would then be placed on the volunteer and slowly but surely he becomes the Burryman. His first stumbling steps make it to the Town Hall where traditionally he receives his first dram of whisky.

Only locals can be the Burryman and despite the discomfort they are repeat performances one man Alan Reid having the pleasure for 25 years. He was only a few years from retirement when I ‘met’ him in the 1990s. Since 2012 an Andrew Taylor has the honour.

Burrly there!

I spent a couple of hours in the middle of the day which the Burryman, watching as he was greeted with great enthusiasm from pubs, shops, passerbys and a local factory. At lunchtime his attendees arrived at a local pub, where after having some difficulty getting him through the doorway, left him in the hall way again propped against the way – he could not sit down. Half an hour passed and he was still there but appeared like a forgotten rag doll! After a number of drams he looked decidedly jaded, although his foliage had jet to droop! In the bar I managed to speak to renowned custom hunter Doc Rowe and it is great to know Doc has returned regularly ever since. He was particularly amazed when in less than a month later he recognised me at Abbott Bromley at the Horn Dance and the mad search for customs has not stopped since!

With the modernity’s shadow of the Forth Bridge looming over the town, the curious juxtaposition survival of ancient and modern are very clear here. As the bizarre Burry man parades pointlessly around the town – the fair it was associated with long gone – it is evident that the locals need him like they would the whiskey he imbibes or the cars they drive. He is part of the fabric of the community. A mysterious almost mesmerizing old custom, one which would drag people back to see it again. It has been over 20 years since I experience the Burryman and I feel a revisit is long overdue!

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Custom survived: Ashbourne Shrovetide Football

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Keep the ball out of churchyards, the cemetery and the Memorial Gardens Do not trespass on other people’s property You must not intentionally cause harm to others The ball must not be hidden in bags or rucksacks The ball must not be transported in, or on, motorised vehicles.”

So are the rules of the ancient game of Shrovetide in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Standing at the throwing in stand which for 363 days sits rather pointlessly in the town’s car park the organiser reminded the throng below him these rules….but within 10 minutes it had ended up in the cemetery

Up’ard and down’ard

There is a festival feeling in Ashbourne with town proclaiming the day with bunting. An odd festival feeling with all the shops and houses on the main streets boarded up that is. That said, this is not a war zone but everyone is excited and in the nearby hall a big meal is being held. The crowds await outside. Then after some rapturous applause. Like most mob games football is a bit of misnomer. It was hugged, punched and rolled but rarely kicked. Once I stood there motionless, like a rabbit stuck in headlights, as the ball rolled towards me and between my legs. A few seconds later a mass of men came my way shouting ‘get out the way’ or something like that! I soon jumped to the side and the ball disappeared under a mass of writhing men.

It all starts rather incongruously in a car park at the back of the shops…in truth the only large space in the town. Here is a large platform, redundant for 363 days, but today no card but people. Tourists look over from the edge, in the centre excited and waiting. After the aforementioned announcements as above, the ball was thrown in, or turned up in the local language….and of it went over the heads of the crowd and then disappeared into. The scrum held for a while, someone broke through and then went into the cemetery!

As soon as the ball was retrieved from the cemetery it found its way into the pool beside the park. At first eager members tried to use the branches to precariously perch themselves and lean over the water to get it…I winced…had they not seen the public information films from the 70s…and then plop in the water. It must have been cold..one then two, then three risked the cold depths. Soon there was a struggle for the ball in the water and then a cheer as it was hit skyward. Not enough.

Again the town divides teams into two geographical locations: Up’ards (north of the River Henmore) and the Down’ards (south). This was clearly a necessity to get a team together back in the day but nowadays anyone joins in and it’s a bit irrelevant..

On the head mate

Although called football, the Ashbourne game like many similar games is not often kicked but scrummed. Indeed it appears to have been called hugball, at some time and is believed to date from mediaeval times, although finding exact date is unknown, exacerbated by the fact that in the 1890s the archive was destroyed

One interesting theory states that the ball was originally a severed head thrown into the crowd after an execution – it seems unlikely to be honest!

The current ball is a large and beautiful item, sadly quickly smeared and obscured by the grasp of many hands. Often it is painted, a common image is that of the Cockayne coat of Arms: three cocks. This itself is interesting and was traced in 2012 to a game called La Soule played on the first Sunday of Lent and Easter Monday in the Picardy town of Tricot. Why? Because Tricot’s emblem is three cockerels . Coincidence possibly not and that

What is also unusual is that this is a two day game each day starting at 2 and going on until 10.00pm; but if the ball is goaled before half five it starts all over again! They do like their game! This goal consists of hitting the milestone this goal three times…when done, always under the cover of darkness, cheers erupt and the winner is carried on the crowd’s shoulders back to the pubs in the town.

I’ve never made it too the end mind. The cold keeps putting me off! They are made of tough stuff in Ashbourne.

Custom contrived: Waitangi Day Pub Crawl, London

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Its horrible February weather. Cold, made colder by a sharp wind and every now and again they is a flurry of snow…down in New Zealand its Summer of course ; perfect al fresco drinking weather…but that doesn’t stop the New Zealander’s enthusiasm for the day. I’m wrapped up in a coat, scarf and hat and there a group of men in shorts!

What is Waitangi Day?

This is the national day of New Zealand commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document of New Zealand on the 6th February 1840. New Zealand citizens across the two islands celebrate and naturally where so ever the diaspora end up….in Britain it appears to around Paddington

I turned up at the Pride of Paddington Pub at 10. Yes the aim of the day is a fancy dress pub crawl basically using the Circle line as the template. It is understandable that having the largest expatriate community London would have a big event. The ‘official’ events are a church service at St Lawrence Jewry and a posh event is the Waitangi Day Ball with cultural entertainment from Maori groups and fine food and wine..

However since 1986 on the nearest Saturday to 6th February a mighty pub crawl has evolved from a small gathering to a mighty fancy dress parade – of sorts! The event is almost at risk of being closed down by the want of its own publicity. After all fancy dress, drinking alcohol and large numbers do not make for a hassle free event necessarily. Indeed, it would be evident from the organisers plea on his the website that often this undesirable elements are overblown because it is easier to comment on what goes on over seas than at home:

“We’re trying to avoid having overexcited NZ TV crews beam us back home as looking disrespectful.  Considering we have had no arrests in years and only 1 complaint in 2014, our pub crawl is nothing compared to something like to what it was like at the Wellington 7’s and a night out in any big Kiwi city.”

Tiki Tour

The most impressive were the Kiwi fancy dressed individuals who when bent over looked quick convincing; well as convincing as a person dressed as a one foot bird can be! Outside one train station a group of men dressed in Cricketing whites proved or perhaps not how the country was famed for its sport. Nearby Gandolf – Lord of the Rings was filmed there – chatted with a giant beer can! At a later stop there was a large group of bare chested men…this was early February remember!!

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Hangi over

There were some sore heads on the next day and it was clear that by the end some of the bravado seen at the beginning was waning. Having said this enough enthusiasm was recovered from the traditional ending – the Hakka in Trafalgar Square.

It is interesting to note that Waitangi day means different things to different people. In an online article when the attendees were asked the views were different.

“I think it’s really great that we celebrate how the English invaders made a great peaceful treaty with the indigenous people of New Zealand,” said one.

“It’s not like a ‘yeah New Zealand’ kind of day, but it is a reflective kind of day,” said another.

Others said it simply meant a day off.”

Like many ex-pats, views differ at home and abroad: clearly it’s better to celebrate being a New Zealander when not in New Zealand, as a study suggested on 38% where proud of their country! As one attendee notes:

“Maybe back home it’s different, but definitely when you go overseas you realise how special New Zealand and being a Kiwi is.”

Hence the enthusiasm for this grand Kiwi pub crawl. But, of course such a custom can survive only when those involved are there. Numbers have dropped from in 2005 over 12,000 visas were granted dropping to 6,940 visas in 2016. Political motivations have a reputation for ruining customs and it would shame that changes to the visa rules kill of this joyous national celebration.

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot

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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 revived: The Hinkley Plough Bullockers

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“The old custom of Plough Monday still prevails Like a great many other popular tales, Plough Bullocks dressed in ribbons, a gaudy show In a long procession shouting as they go—- ‘Higham on the Hill, Stoke in the Vale, Wykin for buttermilk Hinckley for ale!’”

Richard Fowlkes, Elmesthorpe, 1811

A load of ol’ bullockers?

Reviving a custom can be fraught with problems and issues. Claims can be made that its completely made up and bears no relevance to what went before. However Hinckley’s plough bullockers is a test case in how excellent research, forged with enthusiasm and improved by local knowledge coming to the fore as a result of the tradition, can produce a durable and worthy reproduction.

A full account of how the custom was revived is informatively covered by an article called The Hinckley Bullockers by Tony Ashley in The Morris Dancer Volume 5, Number 4 February 2016 who explored whether there were any customs associated with the villages around Hinckley.

In The History and Antiquities of Claybrook in the county of Leicester’ by Rev. A. Macaulay he notes that:

“On Plow [sic] Monday I have taken notice of an annual display of Morris-dancers at Claybrook who came from the neighbouring villages of Sapcote and Sharnford.”

A longer piece was to be found in 1930 ‘The History of Hinckley’ accounting ‘Pastimes and amusements of the people of Hinckley 1800 to 1850’ quoting from Sebastian Evan’s ‘Leicestershire words and Phrases’ which relates:

A number of men or youths (generally six or eight in number) dressed themselves in grotesque fashion – half their number being in female costume and half in male. One of the former as supposed to represent Maid Marion. The men wore top hats and were thoroughly bedecked with ribbons. One of the party portrayed Beelzebub; he carried a cow’s horn, on which he blew, and with it afterwards collected. He also had a tail and wore tight fitting stocks formed of coloured patchwork squares. He had a bell on a spring at his back, fastened to his body by means of a belt round his waist – hence, to the popular minds, the reason for his being called ‘bells e bub’. Sometimes he also carried a large rattle. Another performer impersonated the fool; he always carried the money box and had a bladder with peas in it fastened by a string to the end of a stick. They danced a sort of country dance to the music of a fiddle and hautboy.

This gave the group some considerable information to work with to reconstruct the custom in regards to appearance of the Plough Bullockers. Thus:

“The men dressed in dark clothes with sashes, rosettes, arm ribbons, lallygags and high hats with ribbons. There was even a very authentic Beelzebub in his rag coat and wearing his bell and tail. The one thing missing was a plough. This was simply because the first Tour was very much a case of suck it and see and it was not known if the revival would continue.”

A plough was finally secured from a local museum and then after concerns that it might get damaged as a result of the tour it was decided that the group should buy one. However, it is all very well identifying the custom occurred but no of the accounts really told them what exactly they were doing on Plough Monday in Hinckley? Elsewhere there had been Plough Plays (such as described here), and further north Sword Dancing (Plough Stots or Plough Jags) or Sword Dancing combined with Plough Plays tended to be limited to South Yorkshire (Goathland Plough Stots)There was no evidence this was what was done. There was no evidence it wasn’t however, one would have thought that if it an antiquarian would have described it.

 

What was the evidence? The group were pulling ploughs, covered in raddle (a red face colouring) collecting money from farms and large houses, playing music and dancing with comments like ‘country dance style dances with ad lib stamping and shuffling’, there were no specific descriptions of the dances performed. Ashby (2016) notes that

“In 1986 at the Forest of Dean Family Weekend there was a chance meeting with an elderly gentleman, who at that time was musician to Thaxted Morris. He described his experience of dancing Molly on Plough Monday and this description of events fitted perfectly with the information previously collected. Now it was believed that the dancing referred to in previously collected information was in fact Molly Dancing. References to Molly dancing were located in Folk magazines. Some evidence referred to Molly Dancing extending north into Leicestershire and even to Winster in Derbyshire.”

With this discovery it was decided to adopt Molly dancing into the group’s repertoire Ashby notes that.

“all of the men interested in being involved in the revival were all in full time employment so a decision was made to hold the Plough Monday celebration on the Saturday preceding Plough Monday….. We recruited three musicians, a concertina player and a melodeon player from Anstey Morris and a local fiddler who had seen the articles in the local papers.”

We plough and furrow

These resurrected Plough bullockers are very impressive indeed. Wearing black suits with top hats ribbons of different colours – yellow, reds, blue, they weave in and out of each other. Their pheasant feathers fluttering in the January winds. The raddle looks effective especially against the whites of their eyes and their white beards. There is even a slight menacing effect to them slightly let down by the melodious music and the molly dancing which looked most appropriate in its odd way arms in arms, circling around, normal Morris dancing wouldn’t perhaps, although I did notice a handkerchief appear. I was also impressed that there seamed as many musicians and members dressed up creating an impressive group on the roadside and one that certainly attracted a fair number of curious onlookers.

Ploughed up

Interestingly the revival harvested more information. A Mr Brown a local Sapcote resident and local historian informed the group that during his deceased mother’s childhood, suggesting the late 1890s, she remembered the Bullockers did visit the village, being blacked-up and wearing

“white shirts with cut outs of the plough sewn to the shirts, horse ribbons and rosettes, bells and brasses adorned their legs, arms and shoulders. Molly Dancers accompanied them with country music played on fiddles, such as The Farmer’s Boy etc. The leading fiddler was Punty Garratt and Old Chuter was the Fool who whacked everyone with his pig’s bladder. Their ceremonial plough was known as the White Plough and was pulled around the village by a length of rope encased in leather which was kept from year to year. They met at The Red Lion in the morning, toured the farms, large houses and pubs in the area before returning to The Red Lion where in the evening they dined and then held a “Country Dance”. At this event they danced the dances that had been performed during the day by the men as social dances.”

This news pleased the group as it vindicated their decisions in its resurrection. This is a faithful reconstruction now in its 31st year, as gaudy and vibrant as that described in 1811.

Custom demised: Holly Day, Brough, Cumbria

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hollytree

In the Cumbrian town of Brough, once in Westmorland was an unusual Twelfth night custom which appeared to be the extension of the usual burning of the greenery on Twelfth night as now enacted at London’s Geffrey Museum. An account by Reuben Percy and John Timbs in their 1828 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction which states:

“Holly Tree At Brough it is called night because it was customary at time of the year to decorate the altars holly There are two head inns in town at which the holly is provided alternately Early in the morning send out a body of husbandmen to fell large ash tree for although it is called night yet holly being a scarcity ash substituted They then affix torches of greased reeds to each bough tree and then take it into the inn to remain till seven o clock in At that hour a gun or pistol is fired the tree is taken out into a convenient part of the town where it is lighted after huzzaing for about half an hour is carried up and down the town on shoulders followed by the and stopping every time they the cross at the top of the town again salute the holly and fireworks are discharged It is taken town again and so on till it is The person who carries the his shoulders is named Ling who it is extinguished carries it to of the town and after throws it among the crowd eagerly watch the opportunity of away with it for I should observe two separate contending parties to whichever inn it is carried the to spend the evening in drinking very often it terminates with a name given to all their The origin of the custom as I observed from the offerings to the altars at of the year which is the by the name given to it WHH”

William Hone in his 1827 Everyday book added:

“Twelfth Night, or Holly Night, was formerly celebrated at Brough, by carrying through the town a holly-tree with torches attached to its branches. The procession set out at 8 o’clock in the evening preceded by music, and stopped at the town-bridge, and again at the cross, where it was greeted each time with shouts of applause. Many of the inhabitants carried lighted branches as flambeaux; and rockets, squibs, &c, were discharged on the joyful occasion. After the tree had been carried about, and the torches were sufficiently burnt, it was placed in the middle of the town, when it was again cheered by the surrounding crowd, and then was thrown among them. The spectators at once divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one of the inns, and the other to a rival inn. The innkeeper whose party triumphed was expected to treat his partisans liberally.”

A curious custom which appears to be a mixture of burning out bad spirits into the new year with some survival of a pagan tradition mixed up with wassailing. What is more curious is that in some form we have not seen it restored.

Custom revived: The Whitebait Festival

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The days when we all lived in clover, With whitebait, can never revive, I assure you,” said Lawless, “they’re over, But, oh, keep the licence alive.”

Such were the lines from ‘Punch‘ to have two politicians who were commenting on the end of the great Whitebait Feast.

The consumption of baby sprats and herring – commonly called Whitebait – was such a popular dish in Essex that it attracted much ceremony which included members of parliament and even the prime minister!

Raise to the bait

The association with an annual feast apparently is associated with those who funded the Barking Breach, a costly anti-flood venture which was built in 1707. This begun with the host Sir Robert Preson, the Dover MP inviting distinguished guests to his fishing cottage nearby. Then in 1766, the first Whitebait Feast first took place in Dagenham, this was largely a private affair, often attended by politicians and marked the end of the parliamentary season on or around Whit Sunday. The politicians would process by boat to the party. A regular attendee was the then Prime Minster, Pitt the Younger. He was concerned that the venue was too far too London and as such it moved to Greenwich. However this being a political activity there were two locales: the Trafalgar Tavern (for the Liberal members) and the Old Ship Tavern (for the Tories). The last such Dinner was held in 1894 a closure forced by the lack of Whitebait, a consequence of the Thames pollution rather than any political falling out.

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Baited breathe

Then Southend Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry revived it in 1934. The improvement in water quality in the Thames has resulted in spawning occurring not far from Southend pier. Of this first revived feast the Times reported:

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds; whitebait ill-cooked is much nastier than salt cod, and many are the people who do not like whitebait because they have never tasted whitebait worthily cooked and served.”

The custom consisted of an official opening ceremony with the catch blessed at from the end of the pier with the bringing in of the first catch. This catch was then taken to the feast. However a few changes have been made – since the burning down of the pier – the event has moved to the Bawley below Cliff’s Pavillion. The Mayor of Southend, other important people of the town and the ministers of the five different denominations attend. Arriving a few moments earlier one has to peer into the nearby restaurant where the whitebait feast occurs – tickets available from the Round Table – but don’t expect any prime ministers. Here the party assembled and then vicar and mayor carrying a basket of whitebait in a white cloth. Gingerly making their way to the water’s edge, the vicar said a few words and together holding the fish and nearly dropping them they threw them back!  Then the group went to a local restaurant to enjoy the Whitebait – although this is only the first course I would imagine!

whitebait2

Sadly despite the blessing – much of the whitebait is caught 100s of miles away in the Baltic..and I am not sure the blessing gets that far!