Category Archives: Shrovetide

Custom demised: Shrovetide Street Football, Dorking, Surrey

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dorking

1898: Shrove Tuesday football in Dorking: PS Campbell severely kicked in the struggle with the crowd and was incapacitated and forced to retire

Today it is the picture of a genteel Surrey town, bustling with shoppers in and out of shops. On Shrove Tuesday this year it will be much the same as it was the year before. However until the early 20th century each year the streets would be bustling with boisterous boys and blokes ready for a day of street football. Of course Shrovetide football survives still in a number of places of course, but each is subtly different and Dorking’s was no different.  The game much as any street football was a mixed game of kicking, throwing and scrumming which was curiously more formalized then others.

Original football chant?

Kick away both Whig and Tory/Wind and Water Dorking’s glory’.

So read an inscription on a frame carried by an old band. One unusual custom was that before the match there was a band. The Taffer Bolt’s Band disguised in back were the opening act for the match. They played pipes, drums and a triangle and were lead by one of them who carried three footballs, red and green, white and blue and gold leaf, attached to the said frame. Amusingly being genteel Surrey, the ‘organisers’ were keen to ensure everyone was provided for after the match and a collection was made before the match started.  It is worth noting that it was recorded that:

Wind and water is Dorking’s glory.” Mr. Charles Rose, in his Recollections of Old Dorking, 1878, suggests that “wind” refers to the inflation of the ball and “water” to the duckings in the mill pond and brook, at one time indulged in.”

Over the years the event became formalized. It begun at the gates of St. Martin church at 2 o’clock and was played until 6pm a meal was even organized at the Sun Inn afterwards.

 Kicked in to the long grass

Shrovetide football across the country has always had a fragile relationship with their communities and the police. In Dorking the combined concerns of the damage caused and the lost of trade for shop keepers lead for its abolishment. However the local council liked it. In the end Surrey County Council banned it. In 1897 the following account appears:

“Shrove Tuesday football in Dorking: Traders in West and South Streets in Dorking asked the Standing Joint Committee to adopt measures to end the nuisance. Superintendent Page was in charge and reported that he met with Superintendents Alexander and Bryce and with a force of sixty constables did their best to prevent the playing of football.

The ball was kicked off by a member of the Town Council and was then seized by the police. More balls were produced all of which were taken into the possession of the police after a severe struggle. By 5 and 6 o’clock the crowd was increased by a great number of people leaving work, joined in and added to the general confusion.

There was no riot or damage to property. Later in the year fifty two defendants were all convicted of the offence of playing football on Shrove Tuesday to the annoyance of passengers. Eventually they were fined five shillings being unable to produce the charter said to give them the right to play.”

Interestingly, the defence of the participants was supported not only by Dorking Urban District Council who passed a resolution criticising the action of the Surrey Standing Joint Committee but local important people amongst them Mr. Henry Attlee (father of the ex Prime Minister Clement).

However. despite this support the more powerful Surrey Council continued to penalize participants, 60 people in 1898 including Dorking councillor had been fined. An account reads above:

“PS Campbell severely kicked in the struggle with the crowd and was incapacitated and forced to retire.”

With such incidents, Surrey County Council were more strenuous in their attempt to supress and in 1907 the streets were silent on Shrove Tuesday. The custom had given up the ghost. It was extinct and was never revived.

Sadly, such street football events by their very nature I doubt will ever be revived. So today a walk down the streets of Dorking on Shrove Tuesday will not see scrums of people fighting over their ball…buts let us hope somewhere there might be a small group kicking some ball about!

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Custom survived: Atherstone’s Shrove Tuesday Football

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Atherstone is a curious town, setting on the ancient Watling street, about give or take 100 miles from London, famed for its hats and now a great place for books…it one of those British towns which has gone through many phases but never aspiring to be a metropolis – happy to be a small county town. A small proud county town it is at that – justly proud of its Ball Game. There are of course a number of such games, and I have covered Hallaton and Sedgefield in my accounts..there’s something a bit to coin a term often used in football ‘ a bit special’ about this one!

A load of balls?

In 1999 the town proudly celebrated the 800th anniversary of the event. However, this is perhaps a bold claim. Locally they will tell you that the town was granted the game in 1199 on the accession of King John. However, details are scant if that. Indeed, the claim seems to rest upon the vague suggestion of a Ralph Thompson who wrote in 1790:

“It was a match of Gold that was played betwixt the Warwickshire lads and the Leicestershire Lads on Shrove Tuesday; the Warwickshire Lads won the Gld. It was in King John’s reign…Atherstone, being the nearest town to the place where they play’d it, it is and has been a custom to turn a Foot Ball up Atherstone on Shrove Tuesday every Year since that time.”

What time? No date is given. Hugh Hornby in his excellent compendium of football games Uppies and Downies states that even if John did grant it on his accession he didn’t become king until the 6th of April! Never mind. It is certain that the Game has a long origin and was certainly continually played from the 1700s and despite the absence of any mention of the custom in the 1700s we can assume it happened.

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Game over?

In the early 20th century many Shrove tide games were quashed. An 1835 Highways Act prevented Football played in the street had attempted to stem them and combined with the potential drinking and civil unrest which could ensue, one by one across the country the red card was shown and the game stopped. When in 1901 the Warwickshire County Council tried to move in on the game, then then Chairman of the Parish Council in a meeting on the issue, a Mr. C Orton asserted:

“the custom had been observed so many years that it had become to be looked upon as a kind of charter by the working classes and not only by them but by others as well.”

And it was observed by a Mr. H. E. Vero that:

“The reason that football kicking has been stopped in other towns was because the tradespeople objected to it, but in Atherstone they did not.”

The meeting apparently concluded to support the custom and continue removing panes of glass from the gas lamps. The game went ahead, despite Warwickshire Country Council’s wishes and so it has been – ironically that same council trumpet it as a tourist event – how times have changed! The game continued unabated until in 1974 an committee was established to organise it and focus the action in Long Street and prevent the rampage around the town and then in 1986 established players were used a stewards. Indeed the focus in one street meant that unlike other more rural shrovetide games it was saved from a ban in 2001 foot and mouth outbreak and continued through both World Wars.

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Kick about

One of the reasons why it has remained I believe because unlike its counterparts it is far more a spectator sport. The ball is much larger and hence more visible in the scrum, it is focused on more place and more importantly everyone gets a chance to kick it. For during the first 90 or so minutes the game seems quite complexing – is this a ‘game’ or not? Why is no one trying to score? During this time all and sundry are given a go. I saw children of all ages getting involved, women – including quite an elderly one I feared might fall over and even a policeman! There’s no competition only for catching it and returning it and often a steward is on hand to make sure anyone who wants a kick has a go. This is clearly a great way to engender both interest and inclusion and whether or not any of the kickers really get involved in the game is irrelevant they had a kick – added to the apparent luck of doing so – its eagerly taken on.

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Jumpers for goal posts

I must admit to having a soft spot for Atherstone’s football and its only one of two I have been to more than once because of its accessibility. The last time I went I had come fresh from a pancake race elsewhere to be confronted with another just about to start down Long Street by the Major and other local dignitaries. A nice addition. Indeed, Atherstone’s Shrove Tuesday is not just about the Football it developed another custom to compliment it – a sweet presumably originally a penny scramble. With the addition of the pancake race it could be seen to be developing a shrove tide triathlon!

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The sun was bright and the white walls of the Angle Inn glistened its warming rays as a crowd of youngsters gathered beneath it. In the windows shadows can be seen. The children below appeared to move closer and stand eyes gazing up and hands ready. Soon a plastic pot appeared and a hand. Then a hand full of sweets and then to cheers below the sweets were cast upon the crowd. The children ducked, dived and tussled below. As more and more sweets descended the crowd went crazier and crazier. The face of the children more determined and fevered. It was quite intense and after a while it was clear that some of the younger children were dragged out of the mix. In the distribution was a giant Golden penny I saw it go out…but didn’t see it after, but presume the lucky child returned it for the £10 prize. The scramble was a clever device, a way both to attract fresh blood to the football, get them trained for the future and possibly satisfy their need to get into the throng.

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Golden balls

Then at 3 pm a new face appeared at the window. The children had dispersed and those that hadn’t were quickly removed. Now a new crowd arrived. Often burly men, clothed in rugby shirts and old jeans and trousers, probably ritually worn each year for the game. The guest of honour appeared holding the ball. A cheer went out and people positioned themselves. Interesting I noticed a few likely characters standing a drift from this throng..biding their time and conserving their energy for the right time to pounce on the ball. For unlike other Shrove football competitions and similar, there are no goals and unlike others there is a time limit. The winner? They who should have the ball when the horn is sounded. It was thus wise to wait. Then after a pep talk from one of the organisers asking for good conduct the ball was held ready to be through, attached to it three ribbons and off it went. The ribbons did not last long as the ball made its first appearance from the throng a few minutes they were gone grabbed by the attendees and again latter exchanged for their £10 prize money.

Then around 4.30 the crowd became to thicken and the ball’s direction changed. The game had really begun as the first attempt was made to take control. A big kick sent it down the street to a waiting pair of hands. The crowd surged towards it. It soon disappeared. The ball surfaced again. The crowd separated into participants and observes. The throng rushes downhill as the ball is kicked out of sight. I rushed down as a wall of people are looked against a wall with the ball somewhere within. The ball breaks free and is kicked again up the street. It does not go far as the throng and ball bow to gravity and roll further downhill. A steward steps in and a break occurs to refocus back to prevent it spilling too far. The ball is seen for a fleeting moment and then its gone. Too and fro. Piles of bodies encase the ball. Then it is out off and with it the crowd. Those watchers appear then to make their move, fresh of energy then enter the fray, ready to put their full weight and effort taking possession. Then the horn sounds, a cheer is let out, but the scrum does not disperse readily the scene is brightened by the reflective coats of the stewards, who now gently peel the bodies from each other to release the ball and the winner. Weary, bruised, shirt torn, sweaty the winner emerges, a smile beams across his face – he’s won – the ball looks a little worse for the encounter, its flat and devoid of any spherical appearance. Everyone is off to celebrate and it is over for another year.

Custom survived: East Hendred Shroving

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“Pit pat, pan’s hot,
Here we come a’ shroving
With a batcher up my back
A halfpenny is better than nothing.”

Ask anyone to name a custom associated with Shrove Tuesday – pancake making come top of the list, many say pancake racing, some may say football and a handful skipping…not many I would guess would suggest the oldest of shrove customs…the one more faithful to the reason for the day – Shroving.

Originally the purpose for Shrove Tuesday was to get shriven and be absolved of sins in preparation for Lent. One way in which you could absolve yourself of earthly desires was to give to charity and in many villages the less well off and often children would take advantage of this. As a result Shrove Tuesday became one of the begging days in the calendar and it became the duty of the local Lord of the manor to provide for the parishioners at this time.

Shrove off

Oxfordshire is fortunate to have a number of Shroving rhymes recorded by Percy Manning in his Stray Notes on Oxfordshire Folklore (Continued) for Folklore in 1904. He notes:

At Shrovetide, on the Tuesday, the children at Baldon go round the village begging pence, and singing the following song:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan’s hot,

I become a Shroving.

Catch a fish afore the net,

That’s better than nothing.

Eggs, lard, and flour’s dear,

This makes me come a-Shroving here.

If the singers do not get any money given them, they go on as follows:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan’s hot,

I be come a Shroving,

A bit of bread and a bit of cheese,

That’s better than nothing.

For eggs, lard, and flour’s dear,

So I be come a Shroving here. (1895.)

The following is from OAKLEY and ICKFORD, on the Buckinghamshire border of Oxfordshire :

‘Pit-a-pat ! the pan’s hot,

I be come a-Shroving;

A bit of bread, a bit of cheese

Or a cold apple dumpling.

Up with the kettle !

Down with the pan !

Give me a penny, and I’ll be on.’ (Circa 1897.)

At Islip in Oxfordshire, the children, on Shrove-Tuesday, go round to the various houses to collect pence, saying:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan is hot

We are come a-Shroving ;

A little bit of bread and cheese Is better than nothing.

The pan is hot, the pan is cold;

Is the fat in the pan nine days old ?

O. HALLIWELL, Popular Rhymes (1849), pp. 245-6.”

Another is recorded by Brand’s Popular Antiquities:

“In Oxfordshire the following version has been met with:

‘Knick, knock, the pan’s hot,

And we be come a Shroving;

A bit of bread, a bit of cheese,

A bit of barley dompling

That’s better than nothing,

Open the door and let us in,

For we be come a-pancaking.’”

Ironically despite a more detailed recording of the custom than many other counties it misses what is now a significant one; the only surviving locally and perhaps the least known survivor of this tradition being found in a little known Oxfordshire village of East Hendred.  Here the squire of the manor at Hendred House for 100s of years has maintained a custom with the rhyme similar of course to above:

“Pit pat, pan’s hot,
Here we come a’ shroving
With a batcher up my back
A halfpenny is better than nothing.” 

Schools out!

The custom of course is not exactly like those described above, the children do not beg around the village but evidently at some time the Squire wanting to provide for the parish but prevent begging, established the custom of giving. This may have even been for adults but now is for children. Clearly the presence of two faith based primary schools, particularly the Roman Catholic, significantly established by a previous occupant of Hendred House, has helped.

Interestingly, unlike many other Shrove Tuesday customs which now do not occur when the date falls in half-term, this continues, although the numbers are usually less.  The children snake from their school for noon, shepherded by their teachers and parents down the drive to the house and in the courtyard. At arrival they chant their rhyme whilst waiting for their gift. I wonder how many of them understand the words?

Mr Hine, a local historian, informed me that he remembered when he was a child in the 1950s that the Headmaster from his C of E school went along and would attempt to stop them singing the line ‘a halfpenny better than nothing because he thought it might upset the Squire! Now no such sensitivities no longer exist! The Hine family have a tradition with the village and Mr. Hine told me his father also attended the custom and it had not changed in that time!

Inflation hits!

Sitting on the pebbled courtyard is a table stacked with trays of sticky hot cross buns. They looked delicious. The children gleefully accepted these although some were probably a bit bemused by the monetary gift; a penny. Mind you they should be grateful they would have originally got a half-penny! Not that that either has any real buying power..unless the class teamed together to buy a packet of crisps. Let’s hope it went to charity.

A small but curious custom but a rare one and hopefully with the support of both schools and the community it should survive..although I was surprised when researching it to find some local people had never heard of it..but then when you work and were never a child there that is likely I suppose.

Custom demised: The Whipping Toms

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“‘Whipping-Toms’ began at one o’clock. Two, three, or more men, armed with cart-whips, and with a handkerchief tied over one eye, were let loose upon the people to flog anyone within the precincts of the Newark, a bellman giving the signal for the attack. They were not by custom allowed to whip above the knee, and anyone kneeling down was spared.”

So writes Thoresby in his 1791 The History of Leicester. A topical post perhaps what’s in the cinema! In Leicester city centre is a rather strange plaque which records the bizarre Shrove Tuesday custom of Whipping Toms. Why would these men whip people? Another account explains why:

“This was known as the ‘Whipping Toms’.  It began with the primeval game of hockey, played between two crowds of men and boys armed with sticks having a knob or a hook at the end, and were played with a wooden ball, the ends of the Newarke forming the goals. At about 1 o’clock in the day appeared the ‘Whipping Toms’; three of them were in blue smocked frocks and carrying long wagon whips, with whom were three men carrying small bells. They proceeded to drive out of the Newarke the crowd of men and boys who had been playing the game of hockey.”

One of the theories purported for the origins of the custom is that it commemorated the expulsion of the Danes from Leicester in the 10th century. Although unlikely a connection with the Danish custom of Hocktide is perhaps more likely as the custom involved the extortion for money as well. – two pence which many gladly gave! However, the date is confusing!

The Whipping Toms also liked to line people up and whip up and down the line. Often people attempted to avoid the whipping by wrapping material around their legs. However, the whipping clearly got out of hand and the ‘victims’ would attempt to protect themselves with sticks and fight back. Unsurprisingly it often got a little out of hand as the author above notes:

This proceeding, as may well be imagined, soon resulted in what would be described in more modern language as ‘a certain liveliness’, and the disorder became so great that about the year 1846, the corporation obtained parliamentary powers to bring it to an end.”

On the 16th February 1847 an Act of Parliament officially ended it and the last Whipping Toms put up a valiant fight – quite literally – but it was gone. Today the only record is the plaque on one of the corner pillars of the railings surrounding the De Montfort University’s Hawthorn Building.

Custom survived: Sedgefield Ball Game

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 “The liberal use of sheet leg guards is not merely a precaution but an absolute necessicity, for no sooner does the ball touch the ground than the most indiscriminate kicking begins and on times throughout the game.”

On the head…literally

Like the many of surviving and demised ball games a long history is suggested according to this account in 1889 that it:

“has been played on the Green at least since the twelfth century. It can last for hours and gets rowdy; the object is to ‘allay’ the ball and get it in part of the village defended by the other side.”

The account as gives an interesting reason:

“It is said to have started as a quarrel between Chester-Le-Street apprentices and a retainer at Lumley Castle, the first football being the latter’s head.”

Such an origin, probably confused may hint at earlier pagan origins. As indeed does the most common legend which states that it started in 1246-56 when the church was being built, the game ensuing between the craftsmen were occupied with its building and the local farm workers when the rector threw the ball at noon. Despite all this claimed heritage the earliest mention is in 1802 in the Sporting magazine. Although, a later account by William Parson and William White states that it is an ancient custom and relates the role of the parish clerk who provides the ball providing some evidence for the legend perhaps or origin.

Not a game of two halves

The first explanation may have some grain of truth for over the years the game has been known to have changed and fought in teams. Now it appears to have no teams but two goals were indentified until the 1920 which were for the two opposing teams, town and county. The town goal being a stream running along the boundary to the south and the county a pond a few hundred yards north of the town centre. The location of the goals, the county one being nearest to the town may hint at its age, recalling a pre 1636 date when farm workers would have lived within the town walls for protection.

copyright ball game sedgefieldPost 1920s the rules changed, the county goal was filled in when the blacksmiths nearby became a petrol station. This meant only one goal survived and the game was no longer divided into opposing factions. Now individuals or groups compete making it even more exciting as you do not know who is going to win!

Eye of the ball

It was a bright but cold day, I arrived at noon, no one was there, The church bell rang, a local noticing I was looking a little perplexed, informed me that this was the pancake bell, rang to encourage the locals to prepare them, and no doubt to fill the stomachs of the participants to warm them up and sustain them. An hour later a man appeared carrying a small ball, it was much smaller than the other ‘footballs’ from similar games and soon a scrum surrounded him as he stood over the bull ring in the Green.

DSCF84512As the participants scrummed around, the ball is passed unnoticed in the sea of men through the ball ring. There was a little to-ing and fro-ing awaiting to grasp the ball once it has been passed through the bull ring. One! The crowd jocked into position. Two! The scrum got closer. Three! Up it went and it soon disappeared….then it appeared as one member bravely kicked it across the grass and ran after it. The ball skirted down the main road, chased by three men, under a car and caught the other side. Then back into the centre. Then a tremendous kick into the air and I caught a glimpse as it glided above me…a happy participant then took procession and kicked controllably down the road. He didn’t have it free for long as soon the mass ranks of participants were after him and soon a scrum developed. I wryly observed as nearby life appeared to be continuing as normal as a bus turned up destined to the outside world and an elderly lady boarded just as the scrum surged in the bus’s direction. A small car behind not being so lucky as the passengers got a close view of the participant’s flesh pressed against the window as they waited at the crossing. I was surprised no one thought of passing the ball inside….to pick up later. The intense scrumming and breaking free continues until bizarrely it appeared to stop…where did they go? I checked my watch. It was 2pm and they’d obviously stopped to have a drink in the pub or have some sandwiches.  Just under an hour later and the game apparently appeared as if it hadn’t gone and it became more fevered. As the light begin to fade there was a more determined effort to get the ball to the goal…

After a while I retreated to a delightful team room as the cold had got to me and watched it through a half boarded up window… A mass scrum of dirty, wet and mud strewn bodies came into view, the ball somewhere with in them. Then at 4 the ball is to ‘allay’ to the goal a beck in the south of the village and the back to the centre and through the bull ring three times. Whosoever retrieves the ball from the goal of that team brings it back to the market bull ring and after passing it three times through the ring is declared the champion and allowed to keep the ball

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Of all these street games, this is the best one for the spectator, the ball is often kicked and the village green large enough so as not to feel claustrophobic, although it is difficult due to the ball’s size to work out exactly was in going on, the roars and shouts more than make you aware of its progress as long as it doesn’t disappear!

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs when its on…http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/sedgefield-football/

Copyright Pixyledpublications

Custom revived: Listening to witches

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Shrove tuesday…is full of customs, mostly pancakes. In this Bedfordshire village they don’t make them but listen for them in perhaps the country’s strangest custom.

Let’s all do the conger

As St. George’s church bell rings, a crocodile of children leave the local primary school and head towards a small hill. The hill called Conger Hill, a 12th century motte and bailey, is said to hold a strange captive. Once there they all kneeled down, on positioned mats or sheets so as not to get their clothes dirty and placed their ears to the ground.

What were they listening to? Doris Jones-Baker (1977) provides the notes. She states in her Folklore of Hertfordshire:

“The best-known maker of Shrove Tuesday Pancakes in Hertfordshire, however was no mortal but the Pancake Witch of Toddington….She fries her yearly batch deep inside Conger Hill.”

She continues to add:

“The Toddington village school bell rings five minutes before noon to give the children time to scurry along to the top of the hill nearby. Here putting their ears to the ground, they listen for the sizzle of the pancakes as they fry in the old witch’s pan.”

And so was written the last account of the custom whilst still undertaken. The origins of the custom are not clear, but it is believed to be at least 150 years old. The earliest account is in 1885 although it does not mention the hill stating:

“Being Shrove Tuesday, according to ancient custom, the children have a half holiday.”

However, it was common to give the children the afternoon off everywhere so it is difficult to judge. Jones-Baker  when she described the custom was recalling a revival or was it made up then by Richard Dillingham the primary school’s headmaster, from the 1940s (according to the Bedfordshire archives) or 1950s which continued until the 1970s (and into the 1990s according to many folk custom books).  And for many years that was that. It was a demised custom. Why perhaps parents moaned about dirty clothes or someone suggested it was a bit too pagan!

However, some customs refuse to die, especially when you have a thriving community and its spirit.  The Toddington Old Boys’ Association decided to revive the custom in 2011 after checking with a former pupil from the 50s that the witch was still there! And she was! So to ensure that the custom was understood the legend was told at the school and now the children are firmly involved.

Witch is it? Witch or not?

Cynics may argue that the sound is the reverb of the church bells vibrating in the ground. Others disagree “I heard the witch cackle” I can hear it…”quiet but evil” but another child would say “It’s just the ground.” I would say it could the M1 hurtling by nearby…a local legend recalls that the Lord of the Castle wanting pancakes imprisoned a witch in the dungeon. Looking around is quite surreal lots of children lying down with their heads buried in the grass, at a brief moment silent and giggling and chatting! My children thought it was all rather weird…but they believed. I think!

Whatever is the truth it’s nice to see the custom revived….and lets hope it continues.

My hard drive is playing up and I cannot access photos, the grainy photo from the following website where I found the majority of the information. Hope they don’t mind. It has a great video as well…

http://www.lutontoday.co.uk/news/local/video-conger-hill-witch-heard-frying-pancakes-on-shrove-tuesday-1-5913751

Find out when it’s on….

its not on Calendar customs yet, but there’s a lot on Shrove Tuesday there

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/shrove-tuesday/

Custom demised: Jack O’ Lent

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jack of lent

“you little Jack-a-Lent, have you been true to us;”

Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor

Aside the obvious Christian observation of the day, Ash Wednesday, is little else noted. However certainly from the Tudor period onwards, and possibly earlier, a curious custom was widespread across the country. For at the beginning of Lent, communities would make a straw figure called Jack O Lent which was paraded through the streets and abused. Often made up of straw and castoff clothes, he would be burnt, shot at, or thrown down a chimney to much merriment and pleasure.

By Tudor and Elizabethan times it was well known, as noted by Shakespeare who quotes it twice, for Falstaff remark later in the Merry Wives states:

“how wit may be made a Jack-a-Lent, when ’tis upon ill employment!”

Beaumont and Fletcher’s A Tamer Tam’d  in 1606-7 state:

“If I forfeit, Make me a Jack o Lent and break my shins, For Boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee.”

And in the Coxcomb 1608-10:

“Come, I’ll lead you in by your Jack a lent hair, go quietly, or I’ll make your crupper crack.”

A Shakespearian actor, Elderton, even recalled the custom in a ballad called Lenton Stuff:

“When Jakke a’ Lent comes justlynge in,
With the hedpeece of a herynge,
And saythe, repent yowe of yower syn,
For shame, syrs, leve yowre swerynge:
And to Palme Sonday doethe he ryde,
With sprots and herryngs by his syde,
And makes an end of Lenton tyde”

Who was Jack?

Generally it is thought that the image was said to be Judas Iscariot, but it may have an older and deeper meaning. Considering the time of year it may be a pagan figure who’s ritual abuse would record the turn of the year, a Winter god who dies when Spring is reborn. Sadly, as Ronald Hutton (1996) in his Stations of the Sun notes there does not appear any pre-Tudor note but its widespread discussion suggests an older origin. What is particularly interesting is the prevalence of the custom in the city of London and indeed he was seen in pageants. Such as pageant of Easter 1553 had him on his death bed, with a priest shriving him of sin and a wife begging a doctor to save his life for a thousand pounds, as a Lord of Misrule, representing the feasting of Easter looked on. Certainly, this is a symbolism that supports the Winter-Spring iconography. When Henrietta Maria made her entry into London, on June 16th 1625, a ballade called ‘Jack of Lent’s Ballad’ was constructed recalling such rich pageantry. Indeed, Jack O Lent figures highly through Jacobean to Restoration times if his numerous literary references are to be believed as a figure of worthlessness and ridicule. In 1611 John Crooke’s Greene’s Tu quoque notes of it

“for if a Boy, that is throwing at his Jack o’ Lent chance it hit me on the shins.”

Ben Jonson, in his 1633 Tale of a Tub, makes light of someone in need of begging by stating:

Thou cam’st but half a thing into the world,

And wast made up of patches, parings, shreds;                                                      

that when last thou wert put out of service, 

Travell’d to Hampstead Heath on an Ash Wednesday 

where thou didst stand six weeks the Jack of Lent, 

For boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee 

To make thee a purse.”

In Francis Quarles Shepherd’s Oracles dating from 1646

“How like a Jack a Lent, He stands for Boys to spend their Shrove-tide throws, Or like a puppit made to frighten crows.”

Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene note in the Old Comedy of Lady Alimony of 1659:

“Throwing cudgels, At Jack a lents or Shrove Cocks”

However, as figure of ridicule and pageantry it appears to disappear, certainly from London, probably as a result of Puritanism’s effect on Lent. However, it appears to survive elsewhere in name and occasionally in physical form until recent times. In Oxfordshire children would cry at least until the 17th century:

“Harings, harings white and red,

Ten a penny Lent’s dead,

Rise dame and give an egg,

Or else a piece of bacon,

One for Peter two for Paul

Three for Jack a Lents all,

Away Lent throw away.”

Elsewhere, mention is made of shying a Jack O Lent at Minehead by Palmer in Folklore of Somerset (1976). Oddly, in one case a permanent Jack O Lent existed. This was at Midsomer Norton, where a church effigy of the Gourney family was the subject of local egg and rock throwing when he ended up in the vicarage garden after the old church was demolished.  Whether in any cases it was paraded as such is unclear.  However, such parades may have been widespread. A mention is made of him in supposedly a similar procession at Worcester according to Chamberlain accounts of 1653. More significantly on Nickanan night in Cornwall and a parade of a Jack O Lent is noted in Polperro Cornwall as late as 1876. Indeed, in Lincolnshire the custom survived until the 1920s, when a Swineshead man in recalls perhaps the last Jack of Lent:

When I was about 15 years old, 70 years ago, they used to make an effigy of Judas from straw and hang it up on Boston market place near the old stocks. The idea was for folks to throw a clod of muck at it for betraying Jesus. If any of it was left at the end of Lent it was torn down or set on fire to: that was to make sure it got finished properly.”

This may not be strictly true of course, as the last although again not perhaps called as such burned away in Liverpool in the incendiary custom of Burning Judas, although Steve Roud (2008) in his The English Year believes this association to be a latter one…probably the Liverpool custom has the same origin but were not related. Perhaps we will never know…

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