Category Archives: Singing

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot


Curry Rivel Somerset

“Wassail O Wassail all over the town,                                                         

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

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

  And so’s the beer from the best barley,

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

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

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

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

 O Master and Missus have we done you any harm                                          

Pray hold fast this door and let us pass along                                         

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

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

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

Wassail in

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

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

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

Curry Rivel Somerset

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

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

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

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

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

Ashen faces

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

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

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

Curry Rivel Somerset

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

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

Curry Rivel Village

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

Ashen faced?

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

Willey notes:

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

Curry Rivel Somerset

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

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

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

Curry Rivel SomersetCurry Rivel Village


Custom revived: The Hinkley Plough Bullockers


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

Richard Fowlkes, Elmesthorpe, 1811

A load of ol’ bullockers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

We plough and furrow

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

Ploughed up

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

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

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

Custom survived: The Lion Sermon, St Katherine Cree, London


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“We pray and give thanks for the life and example of Sir John Gayer; for his deliverance from the lion and his endowment of this annual sermon in his memory.”

London is like many great cities a fascinating mix of old and new; ancient buildings exist cheek by jowl, and so do customs and ceremonies exist in the modern culture. St Katherine Cree is a church which typifies this juxtaposition between old and new. It lays in shadow of glass giants of the city such as the famed Gherkin. A church for the city. Such that it remembers one of the city’s own and his remarkable escape each year around the 16th October in a church which itself escaped the Great Fire unscathed.

Lion’s mouth

You might wonder what the prayer is talking about. In the 1894 Manners, Customs, and Observances: Their Origin and Significance Leopold Wagner informs us that:

“This is in commemoration of the miraculous deliverance of Sir John Gayer, an opulent City merchant, and erstwhile Lord Mayor, from the jaws of a lion in an Arabian desert, two centuries and a half ago. By some means this good knight missed his caravan, and while in search of it, a huge lion stalked up to him. Perfectly defenceless, he gave himself up for lost, and on bended knee offered up his soul in prayer to God. To his intense astonishment, the huge animal ‘eyed him, and gently walked away’”

Leopold Wagner continues:

“Shortly afterwards Sir John rejoined his caravan none the worse for his extraordinary adventure; yet so fully impressed was he with the peril he had passed through, and the Divine interposition on his behalf, that he resolved to make an adequate provision for an annual thanksgiving sermon at the church of his ‘beloved Aldgate,’ in which his mortal remains now rest.”

He was true to his word and then 368 years later we are still remembering this lucky escape. Each year this main sermon being given not by a member of the clergy, although I would imagine up until recent history that was the case, but by some London notable. In previous years it was Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti who I’d imagine would have a lot to say about dealing with adversity!

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However, unlike many customs which their historical founder, this is no founder forgotten in the midst of time, each year the descendants of the Mayor attend the service and give readings. This year two members of the family gave appropriate readings, of course Daniel 6 10-23 ‘Daniel in the Lion’s den’ and less well-known lion containing Peter 5 5-11:

“Be sober be vigilant because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about; seeking whom he may devour.”

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Lion’s share

Indeed, that could have been the subtext of ex Transport for London and Network Rail Chair Sir Peter Hendy CBE’s talk. In a time when the news is constantly discussing Brexit machinations and bearing in mind the church’s proximity to the city centre, I was expected to switch on my Brexitometer. However, he cleverly sailed past this and focused on his own career and how he avoided adversity, work together and how his adversary, a certain blonde haired mayor perhaps was a good analogy for a lion….he was not popular in the city. Indeed, I heard him described as the traitor of London…but Sir Peter eschewed any strong politics talk only to say how to work better! Discussion was made of TFL success of the Olympics and dealing with terror attacks all what he put down to team work  – a refreshing approach from a person in charge who has read those signs about bosses and leaders it seemed and did something!

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The service was peppered by suitable hymns including Who would true valour be, which has a sneaky ‘no lion can call him fright’ some sung by the Lloyd’s Choir in spine tingling joyfulness. At the end of the service we were all invited for a hot lunch and some drinks possibly part of the endowment to provide food for the poor…many appeared to have developed the appetite of a lion!


Custom survived: Mummers or Darkie Day in Padstow


I was staying in Padstow over the 2000-2001 New year once (the real dawning of the Millennium but that’s another story!), after escaping some of the worst sounds of the party being held in a pub in the town I went to bed earlier so that I could greet the new dawn. The next day was a delightful one full of clear skies and promise, I got up early the next day to be greeted by the spectacle of local people with blackened faces playing traditional instruments of drums and accordions and singing with much gusto. A strange sight and one which in recent years has become much in contention beyond Cornwall. I’d written this post back in 2011 and did not post…perhaps I was a bit nervous of doing so…..and its only posted now as I have been ill and did not have time to do another post…..interestingly its more current than ever, what with news reports about banning black faced Morris in Birmingham so its worth examining a new.


A black mark against the town?

Listening to the songs I became wary of their odd lyrics they appears to be minstrel songs, I admitted although I had been to May day in the town I had never heard of this tradition, it was absent from my books. Clearly local people and tourists enjoyed the spectacle. I thought little more of it and was glad I had witnessed the custom
A few days later driven by an article in the Daily Mail and the Guardian I believe a storm developed over the racist element of the day, with the usual subtext of ignorant yokels (in itself racist of course). Soon prominent black politicians understandably got involved and a media storm ensued this time involving the BBC with comments from the venerable late London MP Bernie Grant:

“I thought the days when white people dressed up as black people were well behind us”

Padstonians insist that this is not the case and deny both description and allegations and indeed as early back as the 1970s the content and conduct was apparently reviewed to avoid offence…although one must remember Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrels were popular at that time!! That said the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary did get involved and saw no reason for arrest. The Padstonians showed obvious concern and renamed it Mummer’s day but the controversy continues.

dark dark2

Keep mum?

How old the custom is, is difficult to say. It is known that in eastern Cornwall, such get-togethers were common in pubs and private homes in the 19th century but antiquarian interest and indeed national press coverage is lacking, which is surprising considering the acres of footage on the town’s famed May Day. Most reports are local, the Cornish Guardian certainly report it since 1901 as Carol singing. A copy of the Padstow Echo in 1967 notes in a diary entry where 15, 7 to 13 year old children travelled the town visiting the elderly. The three women are thanked for:

“keeping alive the Padstow Darkies by training the young Padstonians with the Darky Songs which have been traditionally sung here, with also the musical accompaniment.”

An online article using local informants recollects their involvement in the 1940s and then into the early 20th century when their parents were involved. On this basis it can be included as a surviving custom if it is a rather secretive one, but possibly a changeable one.

dark5 dark6 dark7

Not all black and white
The origins of the day are confusing; the blackening of one’s face after all is very common in a wide range of folk customs from mummers to molly dancers. The overall theme being to disguise the face, so that in most cases the employers would not have recognised them, as the majority of the customs, including this one, were begging. This has probably been done for centuries long before English people ever had contact with our African relatives.
Whether confusion occurs is the claim that it stems from the town’s experience with slaves, emphasized by a tradition that slaves were allowed free time in the town and this would have naturally brought they into contact with the natives. This happened elsewhere and did not create a folk custom, which suggests that the Cornish were either more susceptible to the traditions the slaves had or in support of the non-racist origin had greater sympathy, a point I will explore later.
From what can be gathered is that the original tradition was closer to a mummer’s play and perhaps because it was undertaken mainly by children who I argue either had difficulty in remembering lines or else the play had unsuitable themes, someone changed it. Anyone who has children will know it’s easier to get to get them to sing carols than do the nativity!
In simple terms someone seems to fused minstrel songs to an older tradition and because these songs were probably better, more tuneful or memorable, this aspect dominated. This theory is supported by an article by…where one of the correspondents says:

“I believe that the mummers went from house to house performing their play and got fed up with the same old lines and tried out the new at that time Foster music hall songs. This was enjoyed and response probably favourable and the tradition took off in place of the mumming”.

Is it racist?


Anyone who’s been to Cornwall will know they can be a bit wary of anyone east of the Tamar, but I don’t think they are racist…indeed they are very friendly, just understandably protection of their traditions. From what I can gather there could be two reasons for the tradition. The simplest is that an adult in the 1920s when the minstrel songs were popular decided to build a repertoire of these songs for the children as they were easier to remember. The other theory is custom was established as albeit a rather ham-fisted attempt to show support for the American black people community or simpler a love of their music. Solidarity for them was often strong in Methodist areas and Cornwall is one of these. An example of this being the strike held in Manchester cotton mills where the pro-slavery confederate army uniforms were being made. Perhaps typically for the British we put our foot in it, and sadly what is seen as once support has naturally become offensive. A parody rather than show parity by dressing up – but again as blacking up is a common motif for begging is that a coincidence? Interestingly now the name is changed, perhaps the one thing which would stop the racist accusations would be to stop blackening their faces, costume aside which is although is claimed minstrel based is common to many folk groups. It was a sensible compromise. Now that this is done, would anyone really be offended after all we’ve all been singing Beyoncé and Michael Jackson songs and not been called racist..have we?


Custom transcribed: Notting Hill Carnival



What a custom! Vibrant, splendid, colourful, joyful, loud, proud and every superlative you can think of. A custom which is British terms is 50 years young (or so). A custom which draws at least a million visitors, something that many other customs would love to achieve. A custom which despite its firm fixture in London’s event calendar is one which has had a turbulent history and continues to attract problems, although considering nearly a million people attend statistically this is likely.

Notting like it

Arriving just before the 10 o’clock starting point the first observation is that it does not look like it will start on time! Indeed, the large numbers of police I was expecting them to form a procession – a police procession now there’s a thought- soon though one can hear the pounding sounds and a swirl of colour – mainly the bright green of the stewards – a mix a wash of gold.


Soon the Carnival begins with this first procession, dancers wrapped in gold and holding aloft huge hands with 50. Celebrating 50 years (young) of the carnival, although this was also celebrated in 2014 and 2015. Then there was a big gap – which seemed like 30 mins – the next float. This is the first of 60 floats and countless colourful costumes, it will be a long day if you wait for it all to pass by. Many of course eschew the parade and stick to the 38 static sound systems dotted around this small enclave of west London.


These floats are not like your usual float crammed full of themed participants, there would not be room, much of it is full of booming bass and tweaking speakers. Surrounding each float are some of the most wonderful costumes to be seen outside of the Rio Carnival. Massive tableaux of faces, feathers, bright vibrant colours. Samba dancers brightly adorned in their feathers and revealing costumes weave in and out dancing to whip up the crowds. Sounds of calypso, soca and reggae boom from the floats and bounce around the street.


Notting allowed!

Sadly for what should be a great outburst of sounds and sights, its origins have been fraught. Born as a response of racial tension and the need for a unifying social identity. Although its official ‘birth date’ is 1964 this event was a descendent of a rather less impacting event, in was January and indoors, a Caribbean Carnival on the 30th January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall. This fused with a more hippie inspired street party organised in the mid-1960s to encourage cultural unity. This street party consisted of a procession of neighbourhood kids and a steel band. Roll forward to 1970 and it was described as:

the Notting Hill Carnival consisted of 2 music bands, the Russell Henderson Combo and Selwyn Baptiste’s Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband and 500 dancing spectators”

By the early 70s greater sponsorship thanks to an enterprising local teacher by the name of Leslie Palmer, resulted in an increase in steel bands, reggae groups and sound systems. The event begun to develop into two strands, a masquerade procession with floats and the establishment of stationary islands with their own sound systems.

From what clearly appears to be a very valid celebration of Caribbean culture was not popular with the authorities to begin with. The riots did not help in 1976 when disaffected youths battled with police and as a result for a long period of time this became the unfortunate media representation of the colourful event. However, such action could have been a result of heavy handed approaches of the police and the constant attempt to ban the event. It would not be until 1987 that the Carnival was officially allowed to take place. This has not prevented trouble (five deaths in the years since) or the need for high levels of police, but it has certainly reduced and fallen away to the fringes. Troubles and occasional serious crimes still arise from time to time – with around a million people swarming the narrow streets it’s not difficult to understand why something could boil over – but the media is much more favourable and is seen by the authorities as a celebration of London’s multicultural society.


In a way, the Notting Hill Carnival typifies how customs become hybridised. Carnival is of course a Roman Catholic tradition brought over from France and Spanish colonisation. Through in the displaced masses of the African slave and brought back to Europe to be enjoyed by all races. All human life is here, of all ages, sexes and races. Despite the problems which create a sometimes poor reputation I would recommend the sounds and sights (and smells…of diesel and other intoxicants) to anyone. If you want to miss the crowds get there for the start and near the start and you’ll find it a pleasant experience. Go on experience it..

Custom survived: The Knillian Ceremony, St Ives, Cornwall


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The John Knill Ceremony often called the Knillian is perhaps because of the combination of its bizarre stipulations, quincentarian nature and picturesque nature of the custom and its associated seaside town, is the archetypical calendar custom.

Basically a glorified dole with specific conditions. Of course being every five years means that all eyes are focused on the town on the Feast of James, that is 25th July. Being so rarely done it is a time that anyone and everyone interested in customs or indeed connected to the custom will try to make.

In many ways, John Knill, the founder, both customs collector (exercise and customs that is) and Mayor of St. Ives in 1767, is a personal role model, a man determined to establish the most bizarre custom so that he could long be remembered. This campaign to be remembered begun in 1782 when he instructed the building of a fifty foot triangular pyramidical folly – subsequently called Knill’s steeple – as jointly a sea mark for shipping, his mausoleum and subsequently the foci of the custom. Ironically due to reasons over consecration he was not interred there but at St. Andrew’s Holborn some 281 miles – a bit too far for a procession and not as picturesque for a custom! So the mausoleum became a real folly!

His Will stipulated that the custom should involve 15 minute dancing by ten young girls, each under the age of ten, traditionally daughters of either fishermen, tinners or seamen, two widows, the Mayor, the Customs Officer and a Master of Ceremonies. Originally it appears that the tune was the Old Hundred, but now is the very jolly perennial Cornish favourite the ‘floral or furry dance’ tune is played. John left money for the upkeep of his monument and also £25 for celebrations to take place.  An account of the 1886 Knill ceremony neatly sums it up:

“The widows were Elizabeth Trevorrow, seventy-six, and Nancy Stoneman, seventy-four. These ancient crones, with their very much younger sisters, managed, at the end of their shambling, to quaver out the  ‘Old Hundredth,’ and a ‘ fine old tune ‘ they made of it. During the afternoon the money was paid to the recipients at the office of Mr. Hicks; and the sum of £5, for the man who had brought up the largest family of children up to ten years of age, was awarded to Andrew Noall, seventy-one, who had had sixteen children, nine of them being under the specified age. The fiddler received £1”

Over time it appears that the custom grew as illustrated by an account by Sabine Baring-Gould states in his Cornish Characters and curious events and first seemed a veritable party:

“Early in the morning the roads from Helston, Truro, and Penzance, were lined with horses and vehicles of every description. These were seen midst clouds of dust pouring down the sides of the mountains, while thousands of travellers on foot chose the more pleasant route through the winding passages of the valleys. At noon the assembly was formed. The wrestlers entered the ring; the troop of virgins, dressed all in white, advanced with solemn step, which was regulated by the notes of harmony. The spectators ranged themselves along the hills which enclose the extensive Bay, while the pyramid on the summit seemed pointing to the sun, who appeared in all the majesty of light, rejoicing at the scene. At length the Mayor of St. Ives appeared in his robes of state. The signal was given. The flags were displayed in waving splendour from the towers of the Castle.

Here the wrestlers exerted their sinewy strength; there the rowers, in their various dresses of blue, white, and red, urged the gilded prows of their boats through the sparkling waves of the ocean; while the hills echoed to the mingled shouts of the victors, the dashing of the oars, the songs of the virgins, and the repeated plaudits of the admiring crowd, who stood so thick upon the crescent which is formed by the surrounding mountains as to appear one living amphitheatre.”

Knill points

Knill was very particular in his Will and stipulated the following stipulated points in the use of the £25 pounds he invested. Firstly:

“£10 for a dinner for the Trustees who are the mayor, Vicar and Customs Officer plus two guests each. This dinner was to take place at the George and Dragon Inn, Market Place.

£5 to ten young girls who have to be the daughters of either fishermen, tinners or seamen.

£1 to the fiddler.

£2 to two widows.”

Such a feast does go on, privately, but I doubt that the original £25 covers it – not even fish and chips. It is probably nowhere as grandiose as that described by Baring Gould in his Cornish characters and strange events:

“The ladies and gentlemen of Penzance returned to an elegant dinner, which they had ordered to be prepared at the Union Hotel, and a splendid ball concluded the entertainment of the evening.”

Some stipulations and doles have subsequently died out as times has changed:

“£5 to the man and wife, widower or widow, who shall raise the greatest family of legitimate children who have reached the age

of ten years (without parochial assistance).

£1 for white ribbon for breast knots.”

I doubt these are still given out…so too the money for the best followers after the fishing boats…they themselves gone!

As for the other stipulations these are still done and the monies are handed out in silk purses from his ancient chest on the steps of the town’s Guildhall but now the Fiddler gets £25 – well he does do a fair bit of work and in 2016 he came from Padstow!

Interestingly there was some controversy regarding the children chosen..some of which were apparently not descended from these processions and too young, when older ones could have attended!! I like a bit of local intrigue!

Knill and void

Sadly some of the aspects described in these first Knillians have gone. The wrestlers have gone for example.  So too had gone the song sung by the minstrel adorned in ribbons for the virgins to dance to…as indeed the use of the word virgin…. The song sung is recorded as follows:

“Shun the bustle of the bay,

Hasten, virgins, come away;

Hasten to the mountain’s brow,

Leave, O leave, S. Ives below.

Haste to breathe a purer air,

Virgins fair, and pure as fair;

Fly S. Ives and all her treasures,

Fly her soft voluptuous pleasures;

Fly her sons and all their wiles,

Lushing in their wanton smiles;

Fly the splendid midnight halls;

Fly the revels of her balls;

Fly, O fly the chosen seat,

Where vanity and fashion meet.

Hither hasten from the ring,

Round the tomb in chorus sing,

And on the lofty mountain’s brow, aptly dight,

Just as we should be, all in white,

Leave all our troubles and our cares below.”

Knill down

Around 10 a large crowd had begun to assemble outside the Guidhall, where the stipulations of his Will and the story of the custom was related. The large metal chest inscribed with “Knill’s Chest 1797” was temporarily removed from the museum and put on the table at the foot of the steps. With some humming and ahhing, the table was removed for a better one, more befitting and the chest placed upon this – nobody noticed! Remember they have had five years to organise this! Soon the Mayor, Vicar and Custom officer appeared. These are pivotal characters for each hold a key to the chest and as such all three keys need to be used to open it. Although to save embarrassment it appeared someone had already opened it and discretely propped it open with a piece of old wood. The Master of Ceremonies welcomed everybody, or rather those at the front as the mic did not work – remember five years planning! The Mayor introduced the custom and soon all three keys were in the lock and the chest was ceremonially open to cheers. Then all three hands went to distribute in white purses the monies owed as stipulated.

Just as the ceremony was about to proceed to the dancing a furious squall arrived drenching everyone ‘shall we hold off?’ I heard cry ‘no it’ll pass over’…and with such faith in the transient British weather they were off.

The children then proceed to dance around the town, weaving through the back streets to an awaiting transport – a minibus. Apparently, this was established early on as it is reported that:

“In former years the custom had been for the dancers to walk in procession from the town to the mausoleum. But in 1881 the weather was so unfavourable that the old practice was departed from, and the actors were driven up in a waggonette.”

Indeed the walk to the monument is quite a long one and all along it were people making this five yearly pilgrimage – I jumped into a taxi! By the time I reached the top there was already a throng of people being entertained by a Cornish music and dancing group.

Not late for his funeral!

Interestingly, unlike many benefactors of curious dole customs John Knill was able to witness the first of his established custom in 1801. It is not recorded whether he attended the 1806 event but he was barred from attending the 1811 event as he died on 29th March 1811!

Knilly there!

Soon the fiddler could be heard and the party flowed through the crowd and made their way into the mausoleum’s enclosure. The girls assembled along the long wall around the Steeple and the others in the party beneath as the Master of Ceremonies once again explained the story and everyone readied themselves as the Fiddler led the girls, widows, Mayor, Vicar and Custom master around the monument. The girls were understandably more enthusiastic in their dancing around, spinning and skipping, the widows a little less, but the glint in their eyes suggested they dearly wanted to and giggled at the oddness of it.

Then the Master of Ceremonies called all those assembled to sing the Old Hundreth – the words helpfully in the commemorative booklet. The sounds of the crowds singing could no doubt be heard for miles around. Then another dance was called for around the monument and after a few thank yous, the Vicar was called to give his blessing to the this moment a heavy storm appeared again and fitting the wind and rain and ‘making it as brief as possible’ he blessed us on our onward journey and it was over for another five years!

Custom contrived: The Bluebell Service, Swithland Woods, Leicestershire


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“Strangers enjoying an afternoon stroll in Swithland Woods on Sunday might have been surprised to hear the strains of All Things Bright and Beautiful coming through the trees near the old slate quarry.”

Loughborough Echo 14th May 1993

Indeed, almost hidden in a natural amphitheatre beside a great water filled hollow can be found around two hundred worshipers – why are they there? What are they waiting for? A service which is possibly unique in England yet surprisingly still little known – the annual Bluebell service.


If you go down to the woods today

Arriving at the north car park to the wood, the existence of the event, one follows the small blue signs. I must admit during my half hour or so walk, I did not see a single blue flower. This was despite seeing great swaths of them on the way, particularly in Stoneywell Wood. This might not have been a one off. S. R. Meadows in the 1965 Swithland noted that in an early ceremony an early spring had meant there were no flowers in the woods and the Vicar had to:

admit the bluebells had already come and departed. Whereupon a Salvation army lady, who had attended the corps band stepped boldly forward and presented him with a single bloom, which appropriately she had saved for him.”

All things bright and beautiful

The custom begun soon after the estate was given to the public in the 1920s. The area had long been known as a beauty spot, where bluebells proliferated in great number and so the Rotary Club decided to instigate an annual event. It was a Walter Kilby and a Mr Harry Gimson who conceived the idea of the service with Reverend Frederick Oliver, then vicar of Swithland in 1928 and it has been going ever since then. Indeed until recently, the daughter and the daughter in law of the founders still attended. A search of copies of the Leicestershire mercury or Loughborough Echo recording such regular annual devotion. In 1997 14th May the Leicester Mercury, noted that a Mrs Gweneth Gimson:

“has been present at every single Bluebell service.”

The Leicester Mercury reported on the 6th May 1998 adding next year:

“Swithland churchwarden, Mrs Gweneth Gimson 85 first attended as a 13 year old girl when the service begun in 1927.”

Although the Loughborough Echo of 13th May 1994, suggests that:

“played the harmonium for the service at the age of 10!”

The paper claims that she had been present at every one forget that in 1993 it was noted that:

“Mrs Gweneth Gimson, who has supervised the event for many years, was missing as she suffered an accident at home.”

Fortunately, as it was later testament she did regularly attend thereafter. I did not enquire whether she still attended, she’d be 101, but I am sure she would be there in spirit. Regular attendance is clearly an important aspect of any custom and especially this one. Even when there is a clear threat of rain or in the 1990s murder as the paper stated:

“The worship is expected to go ahead as planned despite the inquiry into the fatal stabbing of Leicester man Esmail Hassan whose body was discovered in the woods just over a week ago.”

Coming up smelling of…bluebells!


In the small amphitheatre I found the congregation, some were in rows of seats, many with their dogs sat on the hill behind them. In front of them was an outside altar, a table covered with a cloth with a sizeable silver crucifix upon it. There was the vicar of Swithland church, the Mayor and Lady Mayoress and a brass band from Welbeck College. The service which was pleasantly succinct and under an hour long – perhaps they feared the rain – was very focused on giving homage to nature. Guest preachers have varied over the time and in I1997, The Bishop of Leicester, the right Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler was the preacher. The year I attended, the guest was xxxx. The sermon, short and focusing on amongst other things Leicester City’s triumphant Premier League win…a link to the blue of the bluebells! The knowledgeable sermon drew reference to some of the wonderful plants and animals around the woods. The sermon underlined the reason for the service perhaps as a correspondent recorded:

“It’s a country service for those who enjoy the countryside. In a way it’s a celebration of the Creation.”

An earlier Leicester Mercury reference also agreeing to consider that:

“As the sun shone through the delicate green leaves of late spring on the bluebells of Swithland wood on Sunday afternoon, it was not difficult to respond to the invitation from the preacher to ‘consider the flowers of the field’ which more wondrous than Soloman in his glory.”

Swithland (8)Swithland (9)I was particularly impressed by the volume of the singing from the congregation, albeit supported by an excellent choir and especially impressive considering the congregation was seated. Understandably All Things Bright and Beautiful was sung with great gusto. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National anthem and it was easy to agree with the sentiment again of the Leicester Mercury which recorded:

“as singing the National Anthem to enjoy the bluebells in the afternoon sun, it was obvious that this event in Swithland had lost none of its appeal for visitors to the area.”

All in all an uplifting pause to consider the wonderful world around us and give thanks for it.