“The tradition of cooking carlins is relatively unheard of today. But we still mark the occasion at Beamish, usually by cooking peas, seasoned with either salt and vinegar or sugar! See carlin pea displays at Pockerley Old Hall and The 1900s Pit Village.”
Beamish Museum website
The fifth Sunday in Lent and is known as Carlin Sunday due to its association with Carlin peas, one of the few surviving localised dishes perhaps in England – I had never heard of them until I had visited the north and read more in books on folk customs – but despite what Beamish says above is still enacted and the peas can be seen for sale in northern soups and elsewhere. In the North a saying; developed to help people remember what days were what being derived from the psalms and hymns and names of the Sundays in Lent:
“Tid, Mid, Miseray, Carlin, Palm, Pace-Egg Day”
Tid was the second Sunday when Ye Deum Laudamus was sung, Mid was third Sunday when theMi Deus Hymn was sung, Miseray – the fourth Sunday, was when the Misere MeiPsalmwould be chanted and then Carlin, the fifth Sunday, Palm the sixth and final and Pace Egg was Easter Sunday. As the communities became separated from the Catholic doctrine it would seem only the last three would be remembered.
Give peas a chance!
So what are Carlin peas? They are dried maple peas or pigeon peas often fed to bord and used for fish bait, but somehow became a Lenten staple. The were usually soaked in salt water overnight on Friday, then on Saturday boiled in bacon fat enabling them to be eaten cold or hot on the Sunday, often being served with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, vinegar or rum.
Two peas in a pod
So why the North only? Well, there are two origins said to why the peas were restricted to the North-east as related in Chris Lloyd in his excellent 2021 Northern Echo article “Why the North-East traditionally spends today eating dried pigeon peas.:
“This tradition may have started in 1327 when Robert the Bruce and his Scots were besieging Newcastle. The starving Novacastrians were saved on Palm Sunday when a shipload of dried peas – perhaps sailed by Captain Karlin – arrived from Norway. Fortified by the carlins, the defenders fought off the Scots who went and attacked Durham instead.
Or it may have started during the Civil War in 1644 when, from February 3 to October 27, another army of Scots besieged the Royalist forces in Newcastle. This time, Captain Karlin arrived with a boatload of peas from France to save the day”
Versions of this later story have the ship of peas wrecked or stranded at Southshields a fortnight before Easter Day, which was also in time of famine and the peas washed ashore and were eaten, the salt adding to the flavour, which is still recommended to eating it. And equally say the shop came from Canada. Despite being a North -eastern tradition it soon spread to Yorkshire and Lancashire – my first experience was at a Good Friday fair just south of Manchester..
In the 20th Century, the tradition began to die out, although it seems to have clung on in pubs. With all pubs now closed, perhaps the pandemic will kill off a North-East tradition that may be 700 years old and could have been started by Captain Karlin.
A correspondent of Notes & Queries (1st S. vol. iii. 449) tells us that on the north-east coast of England, where the custom of frying dry peas on this day is attended with much augury, some ascribe its origin to the loss of a ship freighted with peas on the coast of Northumberland. Carling is the foundation beam of a ship, or the beam on the keel.
So there is another explanation of the name. Yet another suggestion is made by Brand in his 1849 Popular. Antiquities:
“In the Roman Calendar, I find it observed on this day, that a dole is made of soft beans. I can hardly entertain a doubt but that our custom is derived from hence. It was usual among the Romanists to give away beans in the doles at funerals; it was also a rite in the funeral ceremonies of heathen Rome. Why we have substituted peas I know not, unless it was because they are a pulse somewhat fitter to be eaten at this season of the year.” Having observed from Erasmus that Plutarch held pulse (legumina) to be of the highest efficacy in invocation of the Manes, he adds: “Ridiculous and absurd as these superstitions may appear, it is quite certain that Carlings deduce their origin from thence.”
This explanation, however, is by no means regarded as satisfactory.
Chris Lloyd (2021) states:
“I remember when I lived in the Stokesley area, neighbours used to mention Carlin Sunday and it was something to do with eating peas on that day. I wondered if you would be able to find out more about it, please?”
He also states that they were commonly sold at fairgrounds and mobile food counters, being eaten with salt and vinegar as I had. Lloyd (2021) notes that:
“At fairgrounds, they were traditionally served in white porcelain mugs and eaten with a spoon. In more recent years, they have been served in thick white disposable cups”
And that in:
“ world famous Bury Market and in Preston, parched peas are sold ready-cooked and served in brown-paper bags or in plastic tubs.”
He also claims that:
“Consumption is limited to certain areas within the historical boundaries of Lancashire, notably Oldham, Wigan, Bury, Rochdale, Prestob, Stalybridge, Leigh, Atherton, Tyldesley and Bolton.“
However it may have had a wider distribution. Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1836 Popular customs states:
“On this day, in the northern counties, and in Scotland, a custom obtains of eating Carlings, which are grey peas, steeped all night in water, and fried the next day with butter.”
It is indeed remembered in Ritson’s Scottish songs:
“There’ll be all the lads and lassies. Set down in the midst of the ha’, With sybows, and ryfarts, and carlings, That are bath sodden and raw.”
Whatever the truth despite a decline and apparent disappearance in the early 20th century, carlin peas are now again sold in pubs and in food stores and carlin Sunday continues.
Shrove Tuesday in Derby was a hectic day for the city as Thistleton-Dwyer notes:
“Formerly the inhabitants of Derby had a foot-ball match between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter’s; the conflicting parties being strengthened by volunteers from the other parishes, and from the surrounding country.”
Some significant culturally was the custom that the bells of the different churches in Derby would have rang their merry peals on the morning giving rise to a rhymn of the five parishes of All Saints’, St. Peter’s, St. Werburgh’s, St. Alkmund’s, and St. Michael’s:
“Pancakes and fritters, Say All Saints’ and St. Peter’s; When will the ball come, Say the bells of St. Alkmum; At two they will throw, Says Saint Werabo’;O! very well, Says little Michel.”
Like similar mob football company the goals were wide apart; the goal of All Saints’ was the water-wheel of the nun’s mill, and that of St. Peter’s, on the opposite side of the town, at the gallow’s balk, on the Normanton Road. The ball was also unique it was:
“of a very large size, was made of leather, and stuffed quite hard with shavings.”
It would be thrown in;
“about noon was thrown into the market-place, from the Town Hall, into the midst of an assembly of many thousand people, so closely wedged together, as scarcely to admit of locomotion. The moment the ball was thrown, the “war cries” of the rival parishes began, and thousands of arms were uplifted in the hope of catching it during its descent. The opposing parties endeavoured by every possible means, and by the exertion of their utmost strength, to carry the ball in the direction of their respective goals, and by this means the town was traversed and retraversed many times in the course of the day; indeed, to such an extent has the contest been carried, that some years ago the fortunate holder of the ball, having made his way into the river Derwent, was followed by the whole body, who took to the water in the most gallant style, and kept up the chase to near the village of Duffield, a distance of five miles, the whole course being against the rapid stream, and one or two weirs having to be passed; on another occasion, the possessor of the ball is said to have quietly dropped himself into the culvert or sewer which passes under the town, and to have been followed by several others of both parties, and, after fighting his way the whole distance under the town, to have come out victorious at the other side where, a considerable party having collected, the contest was renewed in the river.”
He continues that:
“On the conclusion of the day’s sport the man who had the honour of “goaling” the ball was the champion of the year; the bells of the victorious parish announced the conquest, and the victor was chaired through the town. So universal has been the feeling with regard to this game, that it is said a gentleman from Derby having met with a person in the backwoods of America, whom from his style and conversation he suspected to be from the Midland Counties of England, cried out when he saw him, “All Saints’ for ever;” to this the stranger instantly retorted, “Peter’s for ever;” and this satisfied them that they were fellow-townsmen.”
Sadly this would not be the case even though by 1846 it had become the biggest and most notorious football event in the UK and ‘that ran in the veins of every Derbeian’ Indeed the historian, William Hutton, states in his 1791 History of Derby that it was so popular the ‘the very infant learns to kick and then to walk’.
The game was well supported and the fact that the locally influential, Joseph Strutt, would play dressed in a specially made buckskin suit, suggested its wide support.
However 1846 was a significant day for the custom when the army was called in to stop it. William Mousley, the city Mayor had been granted permission from the home secretary to it using the facility of two troops of dragoon guards.
However, the players were not keen on following the ban and the ball was thrown up in the Morledge, it was Benjamin Fearn, one of Derby’s first policemen who was sent in to get it. He is said to have dived into the throng of players emerging soon with the ball which was then cut to pieces. Yet the crowd were defiant, later the same day, another ball was thrown up; again the police and dragoons this time chased the players out into the countryside around Normanton. Fearn again gained the ball and although he had it for ten minutes so players from St Peters overpowered him and threw him over a hedge. Despite this 1846 marked the end of the custom and its long history.
The Bodmin wassail is one of the few surviving house visiting wassails and has been on my to do list for some time. I did plan to attend in 2020, but as we all know Covid struck and despite plans to revive in 2021 and 2022 they were not full bodied revivals I believe and indeed one of these years it was cancelled last minute. 2023 was the year then to attend! So I organised myself to get down to Bodmin the day before so I could attend.
Always held on the 6th or 5th if the 6th is a Sunday, the custom dates at least back to the will of one Nicholas Sprey, a three-time mayor of Bodmin who died in 1624. He bequeathed the sum of 13s 4d for an “annual wassail cup” aiming “the continuance of love and neighbourly meetings” and to “remember all others to carry a more charitable conscience”. It is possible that Sprey, a Town Clerk and once MP for Bodmin may have established the custom for he directed that the wassail cup should be taken to the mayor’s house each year on the 12th day of Christmas, raising funds as it passed through the town. This stipend was withdrawn in 1838 the stipend but as we know the custom continued which suggests it doubtlessly had an earlier origin.
I arrived at the old town hall, now a museum to see the wassailers assembling on the steps. They are without exception the best dressed of any wassails, being dressed as they describe on their website as:
“top hat and tails, smart outfits comprised of “gentlemen’s hand-me-downs” – clothes acquired from the local gentry and passed down from one wassailer to another over the decades.”
Assembled on the steps in their black morning suits and notable top hats, they certainly look like a scene from another era and as they processed around the town certainly looked even more distinctive. The group chatted to the curious onlooker as they assembled and it was interesting to hear how long some members had been in the group; and heartening to see their was a relative new recruit in their ranks.
The day begun at the offices of Bodmin Town Council and soon in a curious crocodile they made their way where they were greeted by the mayor and local councillors. Here the wassail cup was removed from the case and dutifully filled with wine for the first wassail with the Mayor. The wassail bowl is an important part of the custom; the cup usually being made of wood and decorated with holly, laurel and later tinsel. In Bodmin, however, it was always made of pottery. The original bowl of course has long gone, it was made of pottery. Apparently, according to a Mr. Tom Green Snr, a wassailer for around 70 years finishing late 1980s, it disappeared following the outbreak of the Second World War. At that time it disappeared having last being seen on display on top of a plant pot in a shop in Honey Street in Bodmin. Thus the wassailers continued without a drinking vessel.
In 2008 a former mayor John Chapman donated a specially commissioned bowl, made by Lostwithiel potter John Webb. When not on wassail service it is displayed throughout the year in the Tourist Information Centre in Bodmin’s Shire Hall. Of this Vic Legg, who has been part of the wassailing tradition for 33 years said:
“John has been a keen supporter of the tradition, as was his father and grandfather, and we are extremely grateful to him for this generous gift…We’ve carried on without a bowl since before the war, visiting houses, pubs and residential homes, but now we can fill it up with beer or cider and offer people a drink, the original intention when Nicholas Sprey bought the first wassailing cup all those years ago. Having the new bowl makes a tremendous difference as we can use it as the focal point of the wassail.”
The receptible for collection had become closer to the tradition method too, when 2014, a new leather purse was donated replacing the plastic ice cream tub. Apparently, it inspired by the lyrics from one wassail song:
“We’ve got a little purse made of stretching leather skin. We want a little of your money, to bind it well within.”
They started as traditional with one of three of their traditional wassail songs:
For singing Wassail, Wassail, Wassail,
And Johnney come to our jolly Wassail.
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,
Pockets of money and a cellar of beer.
If Master and Mistress be sitting at ease,
Put your hands in your pockets and give what you please.
If Master and Mistress are both wide awake,
Please go to the cupboard and bring us some cake.
Here comes a ship out in full sail,
Ploughs the wide ocean in many a gale.
If you’ve got an apple I hope you’ve got 10,
To make some sweet cider ‘gainst we comes again.
Come knock on the knocker and ring on the bell,
I hope you’ll reward us for singing Wassail.
The songs are the most important element of the wassail. Bodmin’s tradition has three, which is unique amongst wassail traditions – they usually have just one. Their website states:
“The first is sung on arrival before we enter the house or premises. The second was passed on to us by Mr Charlie Wilson, and is often sung during the eating, drinking, storytelling, fundraising and singing that goes on at each stop. The third is sung as we leave, thanking our hosts for their hospitality: “So now we must be gone to seek for more good cheer, where bounty will be shown, as we have found it here, in our Wassail.”
Of this first song the website notes:
“The verses are not always sung in this order, or indeed all of them sung at each stop. It is possible that in the chorus the word Johnney was originally ‘joy’, as in most wassails, but this is how Bodmin Wassail inherited the song.”
The old song is sung as they leave:
“Chorus Wassail, Wassail, Wassail, Wassail, I am joy, come to our jolly Wassail.
This is our merry night, For choosing King and Queen, Then be it your delight, That something may be seen, In our Wassail.
Is there any butler here? Or dweller in this house, I hope he’ll take a full carouse, And enter to our bowl, In our Wassail.
We fellows are all poor, Can’t buy no house nor land, Unless we do gain, In our Wassail.
Our Wassail bowl to fill, With apples and good spice, Then grant us your good will, To taste here, once or twice, Of our Wassail.
So now we must be gone, To seek for more good cheer, Where bounty will be shown, As we have found it here, In our Wassail
As the website states:
“The old song is sung as they leave, sometimes in its entirety, and sometimes just the last verse and chorus. It has been around and sung, in either complete or truncated form, since at least the late 19th century, according to the late Wassailer Tom Green, Snr. A printed copy of the song was carried around on Wassail night. This copy was believed to have been lost until it came into the possession of Vic Legg in the mid 1970s via his colleague Vic Barratt. His father, Vic Barratt, Snr, had been a Wassailer for a short period in the 1940s and passed it down to his son.”
After around an hour here, taking advantage of the fine spread of food, the wassailers disappeared into a taxi to start a rather gruelling especially in the rather dreadful weather tour of at first residential homes, then local businesses and finally public houses of the town. At each place they would announce themselves with a wassail song.
The weather continued to be grim when we caught they entering a pub along Bodmin high street, despite singing and no doubt indulging in hospitality the entire morning there was no sign of fatigue as they song heartly and were received rapturously by those in the pub. After chatting and laughing with regulars there was a nod around the wassailers who then broke into their out song, grabbed hats and umbrellas and went their way to the next pub. And so, it went on through the town. Their repertoire varied little except for some poetry and discussion of the history of the songs to the local folk group who were keen to hear. I left them at their last pub, less packed and with a slightly more bemused assemblage, before the entered the dark gloom to finish some private sings and then rest for another year!
Bodmin’s wassail tradition is one indeed to be proud of. There are other wassails in Cornwall and beyond but these tend to be revivals. This is the oldest recorded and continually attended custom, even the pandemic did not prevent some wassailing, that being a socially distanced one of the Mayor….and no one mentioned it was probably bending the rules then,…but in a way that underlines the love Bodmin has for the wassail.
This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to witness the Laxton Jury Day and Court Day; the later I shall discuss in December, which I have been fascinated by many years. I had tried unsuccessfully before to attend but this year I was invited to attend. Much has been written about the unique survival that is Laxton and I can only briefly discuss it here. Of course, it is the calendared events which interest us here. And every final Thursday in November twelve local farmers who compromise the Jury, who are also called the Homage, who then come and inspect the fields and particularly the sykes and drains. These stakes mark where each strip should join the bordering sykes and gaits which remain uncultivated to secure access. Any transgressions, including ploughing too far or not far enough, are recorded and presented at the Court Leet the following week. With each transgression is a suggested fine agreed by the Jury, and the Court has the legal power to enforce them. A particularly unique situation at Laxton is the retention of the three fields which undertake crop rotation – a fascinating survival as every GCSE Geography student will tell you!
The land has been part of a landed estate as far back as records survive being first recorded in map form for the then landowner, Sir William Courten, in 1635 and despite a consolidation and reduction on the strips between about 1906 and 1913, the overall layout remains the same today. I have never come across a village with so many houses called ‘farms’ although the number of actual farms has diminished and despite about 50% of the village being now in private hands, the farms are still owned by the landlord and worked by tenant farmers. It is worth noting the key points about the farming system are that any farm tenancy includes the strips designated for that farm and although occasionally the landowner may make minor adjustments, generally, the strips worked now, were the same worked by his father and grandfather and by someone else before him. Hence the affection and significance they have in the community.
I turned up at the local pub, the Dovecote Inn, which has been central to the tradition for many years. Here I was warmly welcomed by the members of the Jury and some local curious people. The Jury overseen by an appointed bailiff has a different elected foreman for each of the three fields. Also, part of the group is the Steward who represents the Estate which was until recently the Crown but now nearby Thoresby, passing to them in 2020. These roles are life roles and indeed the fields themselves pass through the families and rarely pass into ‘outsiders’ hands. After warming with some teas, coffees and some early mince pies a large tractor with a trailer set up with straw bales for seating backed into the car park and we ascended the trailer to sit down. It was certainly a hold on to your hats situation as the trailer hurtled along the lanes and into the field which was being surveyed.
Soon we arrived at the field and here there was some confusion as to where the foreman was sending the team but soon grasping hammers and buckets full of posts two groups jumped out and soon disappeared down a lane. I jumped out to witness the action but soon realised a better experience might be following the steward who had his book ready to write down any transgressions firmly in hand. Therefore, I quickly rushed up to catch up with this group. Here the foreman was observing the previous post locations and guiding the insertion of new ones to mark the boundaries. At one point he observed some encroachment of the boundary, and this was duly noted in the book for future fining. The owners assembled took the potential of a fine very well I felt; particularly well when after some complaints from the foreman of the activity; the same offence was noticed at his strips! Too much hilarity I might add. Soon the different groups started to head to the central point where the tractor lay and after some brief discussion with the land agent and concerns over the survival of a tradition ill fitted to modern technology. After watching some evident pride from the Jurymen’s ability to find a suitable point for the boundary posts; I am not sure how well the observation from the Thoresby estate representative when he observed how well GPS would be to mark the exact location of the boundaries. Rather missing the point that the marking of these boundaries by posts probably has not changed in a 1000 years!
We got back on the tractor trailer and rather happy to have the job done the Jury returned back to the pub to eat a hearty meal and discuss the matters pressing from the Steward’s little book! Here the Bailiff convened a rather informal meeting of the Jury as they awaited the meal. With a weighty tone as reference, he asked for field back on what the jury had seen. Thus, a rather unusual discuss started about how much the transgressions should be fined with ostensibly those responsible. The discussion on how much to pay or whether the transgression should be let off with a warning was couched with injections such as ‘well you charged me £10 last time’ ‘it’s his second offence so it should be £20’ whilst these were perhaps trivial amounts of money, there were serious points to make. Despite some heated debate, the issues were put to bed for the week and we would await next month’s court’s thoughts on the matter.
“Nottingham has a growing Irish community which is very apparent on a day like today”.
Patrick’s Day has been celebrated by an annual procession in Nottingham since 2000 which may surprise you that means it is only slightly younger than that help in Dublin and thus rightfully should be remarked upon as a custom in its own right.
The week starts when a ceremonial shamrock is given to the Mayor at the town hall which is then blessed at a Mass of St Patrick at Our Lady and St Patrick’s Church in Robin Hood Way, The Meadows. This starts the festivities which really do showcase the Irish community and its importance to the city. Each year a city from Northern Ireland or the Republic is chosen to lead the procession flanked by impressive Irish wolf hounds. The impartial reporter of
“FERMANAGH will be represented at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Nottingham tomorrow (Friday). The 10 day festival finishes with a city centre parade led by local representatives, including chief marshalls Eileen Dowling and Siobhan Begley, both of whom were born in Fermanagh. Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have been invited to attend the event as part of an initiative each year in which the city hosts a different county from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Marching bands from across the city will take part and there will be a selection of Irish food on offer and a chance for Nottingham residents to learn about Fermanagh from SDLP Councillor John Coyle, Sinn Fein’s Thomas O’Reilly, Ulster Unionist’s Chris Smyth, Tourist Development Officer Edward McGovern and Tanya Cathcart of Fermanagh Lakeland Tourism. A civic reception will take place at Nottingham Council House hosted by Lord Mayor Mohammed Saghir.”
The procession is lead by a member dressed as St Patrick dressed as a Bishop and starts at the Forest ground just outside of the city. Behind him were symbols of the day and many children taken from schools across the city and of course the compulsory band. Once in the square there are speeches and a detailed events programme of Irish music and dancing. As one looks around seeing a sea of green, leprechauns, shamrocks and lava bread on stalls it is evident that the city has gone all out for St Patrick. Many people had coloured their hair or wore green hats, some had hats of Guinness pints or even harps.
Some may ask is St. Patrick’s Day just another excuse to go to the pub? Well drinking was on many people’s minds especially as all the pubs around the square were heavy with green glad people (some may have been pretending to be Robin Hood of course it is Nottingham after all) and their doorways with green balloons aplenty. Asked this question by the Nottingham evening post it is clear that the event superseded any desire in many to drink:
“I have two choices, go to the pub and drink all day, or come out and see all the different events and parades with my kids, the answer is a simple one, it isn’t all about the Guinness”.
Nottingham’s St Patrick Day parade is a great day out devoid of the embarrassment that might sadly associate itself with St George’s Day implied or subconscious. A real day to celebrate Irish culture and identity. A good day to people watch and find the most Irish cliched dress. A day awash with green so much that even Robin Hood joins the start of the procession!
Guildford’s Twelfth Night celebrations, always held on the night is a great smorgasbord of the customs associated with the old celebrations associated with the day and a more rousing and enjoyable twelfth night celebration you couldn’t find I’d say.
The Twelfth Night at Guildford founded by Pilgrim Morris founded in 1972. The groups dressed as characters from a plough or Mummer’s Play tour a number of Guildford’s pubs injecting a necessary shot of jollity into a drab winter’s night. As they tour around a fair number of followers are attracted to their infectious fun. Their costumes in themselves were a riot of craziness and eccentricity covered with ribbons and adorned with Chrimbo iconography one even included a miniature Father Christmas!
I arrived at the first pub having travelled across the capital from the Jeffrey’s museum’s Twelfth night and came across them mid mummer’s play as St George was being speared by a Saracen in such a rather cramped location that I feared as he feel he would hit his head on a table.
At the play’s conclusion seeing the revival of St George to cheers one of the Morris mean appeared with a cake and urged people to eat. Some were rather reluctant whereas others upon finding the purpose dived in and took a piece hoping to find the pea and bean. The pea and bean, hidden in the cake, being a Twelfth Night tradition, whosever would find it would be King or Queen of Misrule. The taker was unsuccessful. However, soon a partaker looking like they’d swallowed something a bit odd, reached into his mouth and extracted a hard bean – a cheer went out and he was celebrated as the King for the night.
There was then a sword dance again in the rather small area and it was perhaps thankful the swords were not the sharp kind. One of the Morris then moved a chair and upon standing on it began to chalking the beam as traditional for epiphany. Their version slightly different:
“Finally, at each place, three crosses are chalked onto the beams to protect the house and bring good luck for the next year.”
There were more cheers.
Off we went to another pub and hear the wassail bowl was out. This a wooden bowl filled with spiced ale and was being offered around and drunk enthusiastically like a communion wine and in a way this was the intentions.
Phil Gorton noted in the Guildford gazette
“In each of the five places that we visited, the Guildford Mummer’s play was performed followed carols and wassail songs – not the boring standard issue ones but traditional versions, some of which are local to Surrey.”
These songs were particularly uplifting at their final pub The Royal Oak where gathered around the stairway and up on the balcony the Morris dancers and accompanied impromptu choir sung their hearts out in their mixture of traditional and not so familiar carols. The custom is so well established now that it has its own followers who regularly attend and know the words of the more obscure and localised carols much as they do around Sheffield. As noted by Phil again:
“There are always plenty of singers who come along to bolster the unofficial choir and, as happens each year“
The local newspaper recording:
“Up to 150 wassailers, traditionally celebrating twelfth night, toured some of Guildford’s pubs last night (Jan 6th) causing merriment at every venue.
One of the celebrants, morris man Phil Gorton of Farncombe said: “The pubs were packed and it was a riotous night!””
If you are in Guildford or perhaps not and are free on Twelfth Night join the wassail at Guildford for a great experience – second to none as it has something customwise for everyone – including free food and drink!!
“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’
Though 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.
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!
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!
I have previously reported on soulcaking before but the most famous team, the Wild horse of Antrobus. When I first got into calendar customs it was via books like Homer Sykes’ Once a Year and Brian Shuel’s National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs. From the later I was enthralled by what he called the Wild Horse of Antrobus:
“The nine players dress in character. When I saw them back in 1972 King George looked like a bandsman, the Black Prince – mysteriously like an old fashioned police constable, the Quack doctor as normal for the part. Mary was a ‘splendid old woman’ bag to disguise his masculinity. Beelzebub was a dreadful old man with a big black beard. Derry Doubt not only dressed like a schoolboy but very probably was one. The letter in did not appear to be in costume at all. The driver was resplendent in full and immaculate, hunting pink, The Wild Horse , was a man bowed forward from the waist beneath a canvas cover which was attached to a real horse skull. This was painted shiny black and mounted on a pole which the man held. Thus with two black legs, a bulky canvas body, one front leg and ferocious snapping head, a reasonably convincing – if bizarre – horse was achieved.”
Now I had seen the Warburton soulcakers and similar ‘horses’ with them, the Winster Guisers and the Poor Owd Oss, of course, but this the oldest of the revived teams haunted me. So this year I finally decided to get myself organised to see them and they did not disappoint.
“As far as Soulcaking is concerned, we believe that these rituals will have changed over time and the characters in such ‘plays’ will also have changed to reflect the good and bad omens and heroes of the day. It is also likely that, during the middle ages, in order to curry favour with communities, the Church will have ‘hijacked’ some of these beliefs and Christianised them in some way and added them to the Church calendar. It is clear that such rituals would have been an important part of village life and ones which all villagers would have looked forward to. It is also significant that the play is performed after harvest time. This would have been a time of great celebration within a rural village community. There would also be some concern that the earth would be required to produce crops for the following year. The raising of the dead in the play and the inclusion of a horse are believed to relate to superstitions surrounding fertility.”
There are now around half a dozen souling gangs surviving in Cheshire, they were once much more common. It seems that many large villages had a gang until the start of the 20th century. Most of today’s groups have arrived in the folk revival of the 1960s-70s, though Antrobus Soulcakers are claimed to be an uninterrupted tradition since the late 19th century, that is not strictly true as the evidence appears to be that they were revived in the 1930ss after a brief hiatus which could have seen it gone for good. Like many customs it was the First World War put an end to almost all of the Soulcakers but at Comberbach, the old tradition survived into the 1920s, when Major A Boy heard it and published the text in 1929. Following his encouragement several young farmers clubs in the Antrobus area undertook to carry out the performances and the revival begun. The revival was noted by Christina Hole noted that:
“On October 31st 1934, the Comberbach Soulcaking play was broadcast from Frandley House near Northwich, the home of Mr. W. A. Boyd. Mr Boyd
The Comberbach soulcaking play was that undertaken by the Antrobus Soulcakers and so the revival continued.
Popped in…not souled out
Arriving at the venue it was a wet Friday evening. Like many times with such plays one never knows if they came early and missed it. However, soon a minibus loomed into view and out poured not dissimilar to the arrival of tour bus of some famous band; one by one in their curious costumes. They assembled themselves around the front of the pub for their entrance. Quite often with such plays the reception can be variable, but here quite a crowd had assembled awaiting the Soulcakers. The team was much as described by Shuel:
“The dress of the characters is modern King George appearing in Khaki, and the Black Prince in a bandsman’s tunic and a spiked helmet. The characters in this version are the Letter -in, who announced that ‘there’s going to be a dreadful fight’, King George, who in many versions has taken the place of St George, and who, in this case is the slayer, the Black Prince the victim, and Old Woman, his mother and the Quack Doctor who raises the corpse to life. In addition there are dairy doubt and Beelzebub, the Driver and the Wild Horse.”
The main draw of the Antrobus Soulcakers is the Wildhorse. The horse is described as having been bred from Marbury Dun, a famous animal who really existed and is buried at Marbury Hall, not far off. As Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year notes the play is standard until the end when the Wild horse and his Driver appear:
“In comes Dick and all his men,
He’s come to see you once again,
He was once alive and now he’s dead
He’s nothing but a old horses head,
Stand around Dick and show yourself,
Now ladies and gentlemen just view around,
See whether you’ve seen a better horse on any ground,
He double ribbed sure footed
A splendid horse in any gears
And him if you can
He’s travelled high, he’s travelled low,
He’s travelled through frost and snow,
He’s travelled the land of Ikerty Pikkery.
Where there’s neither land nor city….
The horse was bred in Seven Oaks
The finest horse e’er fed on oats,
He’s won the Derby and the Oaks,
And now pulls an old milk float,
Now I ask you all to open your hearts to buy Dick a newsprung cart,
Not for him to pull, oh dear no! For him,
To ride in. If you don’t believe these words I say ask those outside here They’re better liars than I am.”
Indeed much of the play’s charm and enjoyment came from this wild horse who certainly lived up to his name as he threw itself around the pub to equal amounts of fear and laughter. It was remarkable how a skull, a stick and blanket can have the appearance of something alive. Indeed, one woman found the whole experience a little too weird and was quite scared of it! I myself never stopped laughing as its handler resplendent in his hunting pink pulled and yanked at its chain and tried to keep it under control. The audience were soon getting their phones out to film this curious encounter and it was clear that the team bounced off the rapport in such venues.
There is certainly something otherworldly in the Wildhorse with its black head, gnashing teeth and staring white eye. A good mix of horror and hilarity and may it long entertain the Cheshire pubs.
Nestling in deep valleys with its stone buildings and winding streets, Luddenden looks like a place where traditions survive and indeed on the second Saturday in September crowds assemble to see a wide range of weird and wonderful events from bale, maggot and duck racing – not together of course culminating in a making of a local mayor – a mock mayor, although they are never called that, of Luddenden!
The Mayor making day certainly brought the village alive with a range of events and stalls around the village’s pub and spilling through the churchyard. The bale race was exciting to watch as they raced around the town carrying straw bales on their shoulders. Indeed, there are a lot of races going on – a maggot, duck, bale and pint. The pint race was particularly enjoyable watching a rather fast and then slow race of people carrying a pint in each hand around the outside of the pub. I did wonder why I had not seen this before. And don’t worry there was a tee-totalers one with water.
By half past four crowd had formed around the Lord Nelson Inn in Luddenden to see the 157th Mayor elected (although not strictly true as the event as we shall see when through a bit of a hiatus ). Then the main event the inauguration of a new Mayor. Standing in front of a large St George’s flag and an equally large Yorkshire flag on the raised area of the war memorial, the outgoing Mayor wearing the red coat, tricorn hat, frilly shirt, chain and ermine gave an leaving speech and then it was over to the new Mayor to be announced by the master of ceremonies in morning suit and top hat. The crowd cheered and laughed as the new Mayor gave their incoming speech full of local in jokes.
May or May not
Like other Mock Mayors the custom begun as a slight at the growth of local towns such as Halifax and a self-acknowledgement of the settlement’s own growth. The town resented Halifax’s growth encompassing the town and thus having a Mayor who would govern over the settlement. So if one town could have one why could we not? So in 1861, the customs of the local Lord Nelson Inn elected their first Mayor. To make it official they bought a chain of office to match that of Halifax in its elaborate nature and set about giving the Mayor a suitable location. However, Luddenden could not claim to have a Town Hall like Halifax and so the snug of the Nelson became the ‘Mayor’s Parlour’ with a bench known as the Mayor’s chair.
To be elected Mayor one had to sit in the chair. Whether this was by design or accident is unclear. For the person who sat in the chair would become by custom Mayor for a month. However, they were also invited to pay for drinks for everyone in the bar. It seems likely these two aspects might well have arisen after the decline of the custom and that the Mayor role might have been for a year at least! Then after years in abeyance in 1996 the local community decided to revive the custom. Today local people are invited to become the Mayor back in June when adverts appear in the village.
Now though the Mayor is treated a real bone fide entity, especially by the local press. Like a real Mayor Christmas lights are turned on and social events such as Burn’s Night attended.
It is evident that part of this view that the role is a real Mayor is due to the role the Mayor has in the community. As Committee member and licensee of the Lord Nelson pub, Debbie Collinge in the 2005 Halifax Courier:
“It brings the community together and it is all fun and games. The money from the fund-raising keeps things alive in the village.”
In essence she said it ‘keeps the area strong. This is due in no small part to those fund raising activities. The Mayor has a Mayor’s fund with a committee elected at the same time. Fund raising over the years have included money raised for local swings
Each year the Mayor picks a challenge. These have ranged from cycling the equivalent distance between Paris to the village and raising £1600 for Breast Cancer charities to climbing Yorkshire’s Three Peaks for the Atrial Fibrillation Association. The former being on static bikes and I assume they will be climbing real peaks though!
Luddenden’s Mayor – a mock mayor in principle but one that does not make a mockery of their responsibilities.
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.
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.
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!