Category Archives: Staffordshire

Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

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Custom contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Court of St. George

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Currently, towns and villages are awash with St. George’s day celebrations, this is a recent thing. For many years the day went without notice, bar a few scouts groups, but keeping the flame alight during those dark days was St. George’s court, Lichfield. A custom which continued since at least 1600.

If there was a competition to name the place outside of London with the most traditions in England, I am sure Lichfield would win it. What with commemorations of their greatest son, Samuel Johnson to the Sheriffs ride, with all sorts of pancake tomfoolery and mock courts and processions in between, Lichfield is the place to be. But despite these rich traditions, there it has never paraded in any pomposity but lays on the laughs. This is not to say it treats these traditions with a lack of respect, but have realised or such customs to survive they have be enjoyable.

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Under ancient regulations set up by Edward VI, Lichfield’s mayor was also Lord of the Manor and thus was entitled to call a Court Baron and View of Frank Pledge.

Frank Pledge was a system whereby small groups of people were bound to and mutually responsible for one another. Court of View of Frankpledge meant that male subjects of over fourteen years swore allegiance to the King and if any disputes arose within the group the court settle by the View of Frankpledge. Nice idea but totally defunct, but that does not stop Lichfield. Each year officials are appointed and a jury selected and sworn in. None of the attendees take the job seriously although the ale taster was very happy to fully fulfil his job! This was no jingoistic flag waving overtly patriotic event though comical plastic St. George’s Day hats were made available and everyone wore a red rose. No one was making a point…well actually they were…

Court up with it

I arrived at the Guildhall to find nearly all the seats were gone…this is a popular fixture, often people go each year. Why? Well it is not to see court matters as the event is purely ceremonial and has no powers at all! A roll call of all citizens who should attend is read out, most of which do not attend..especially on a week day but are fined a groat…let me see I do have one somewhere!

The court consists of the Mayor, sheriff, the steward, High constables, Pinners, Ale Tasters, Bailiff, Dozeners and Pinlock Keepers are there giving their reports for the year. Such strange names you may say what did they do? Well Commoners – took care of the common lands, Pinlock Keepers tended stray animals, and Dozeners maintained general order in the ward of the city assigned to them…or they should do, all they hear now are complain..comically of course!

The Court started like any normal court, with the audience being called for order and the court standing for the ‘judge’ except most were wearing plastic St. George’s Day hats. A jury stood to hear complaints although they did not appear to take action.

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Court in the act

The first to take the stand to read their report were the high constables. Amongst a number of comical observations and an obvious in joke reference to a spate of wallet thefts, a valid point was made. Being very pertinent to readers of this blog ‘why does to cost to police a procession but it’s free for a riot?’

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In stormed the ale tasters waving their flags and proclaiming independence for Market Street even waving their own currency. They again worked excellently a comical team and it was evident they were regularly looked forward to. A Laurel and Hardy-esq pair of characters – one even donned a moustache and the other scratched his head to emulate them too – their discussion riddled with local political jokes was rapturously received. A pint was poured for the ‘judge’ and the clerks as they discussed their grievances. The pint was found to be more than adequate.

At the end refreshments were served and the loyal toast raised and then ended a great hour or so of entertainment…but no actions taken…I think?

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Custom demised: Clementing and catterning

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Cattern and Clemen, be here be here! Some of your apples and some of your beer!”

It is unusual to find two days which become tied together in folklore and belief – obviously there are the obvious Christian festivals, but for a long time St Clement’s Day – 23rd November and St Katherine’s Day – the 25th of November became unified as a season for mainly children to beg. Often this was for fruit and nuts and was once down in churchyards associated with the saints. Henry the VIIIth banned the practice in churchyards…yet outside it could continue.

Plot in his History of Staffordshire 1686 notes:

“a Pot is marked against the 23rd November, the Feast of St. Clement, from the ancient custom of going about that night to beg drink to make merry with.”

An 1914 article in by Charlotte Burne in Folklore called Souling, clementing and catterning – three November customs of the western Midlands emphasizes the wide range of begging chants for this custom:

“Clemeny, Clemeny, year by year, Some of your apples and some of your beer I. Up with the ladder and down with the can ! Give me red apples and I’ll be gone !”

Or “Dame come down and deal your dole ! And the Lord have mercy on your soul! “

Or “We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door, But we are neighbours’ children whom you have seen before.”

Or “The master and the missis are sitting by the fire, While we poor children are a-trudging in the mire. The lanes arevery dirty, our shoes are very thin, We’ve got a little pocket to put a penny in! “

Or “Roll, roll ! Gentleman butler, fill the bowl! If you fill it of the best, God will send your soul to rest ! If you fill it of the small You shall have no rest at all!”

Or

“If you fill it from the well God will send your soul to Hell!”

The range of chants is interesting and it is clear that some overlapping with souling, itself only 22 days earlier is evident. Indeed, the distribution geographically shows overlap. The custom was particularly strong in the midlands – Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire. Indeed it was in Staffordshire that the last clementing custom existed. It is thought that the employment of nail and chain makers in the industrialised areas may have caused the frequency of the celebration of St. Clement being considered the patron saint of blacksmiths.

Indeed, it is Staffordshire-Shropshire boarders where we see record of the last surviving Clementing. Unsurprisingly it is a school. The Stourbridge Express of 27th November 1965 reported:

“that over 60 children at Enville School celebrated the Feast of St Clement in the traditional manner on Thursday. The feast which symbolised the gathering of the apple crop, was revived by the headmistress Miss Steward in 1961. The children marched to Enville Hall where they sung the Clemeny Song, they then received an apple each. Afterwards the butler, Mr Longbottom showered the children with hot pennies.”

These pennies were placed on a heated shovel and tossed into the air. It was a self-conscious effort for the owner of the hall obviously with an eye for the quaint but perhaps one which was doomed to disappear as the estate changed. Indeed in correspondence with Mrs Sandy Haynes, archivist to the Enville Estates she believed the custom continued until the 1970s when the school was closed..certainly it was still listed in some early 80s folk custom books such as Bernard Schofield’s 1981 Events in Britain who adds:

“St Clement’s Day Ceremony Enville. A procession of children from the local school proceeds to Enville Hall where the Clemeny-song of the district is sung. They are given an apple apiece and then scramble for hot pennies.”

However it was probably extinct by then. Recently I have read of a revival of sorts by the teams behind the Hastings Bonfire, although this time there are no begging children and probably few apples!

Custom survived: Leek Club Day

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The Staffordshire town of Leek nestling on the edge of the Peak District looks like a place which should preserve some old and curious traditions. One of these is Leek Club Day. A custom, despite being largely little known outside of the town, it is not mentioned in any customs books I am aware of, is worthy of standing up there with similar events

A Leek of Faith

The day begins with all the local churches and organisations such as Cubs, Scouts, Guides and Brownies assembling in the Market Square. Here hymns were sung and prayers given…then it was off. The procession snakes around the town pronouncing their faith and a colourful visage is created. Each church and organisation rallies beneath their banner which are held high proudly as they processed. The custom is simply a walking exercise – hence the name Walking Day – and was one of a number of similar customs, often around Whitsun time. Indeed like the Whit Walks famed from Chesterfield to Manchester, many children attend in their first Holy Communion dresses and hence once it was called Cap Sunday around the early 1800s because girls wore white caps. These caps appear to have disappeared.

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Culture club

The first thing that you experience is the sound of the bagpipes and occasional glimpse on the horizon. Then drums. Then as the procession nears the bright colours of the church banners – St Matthew’s Meerbrook, Waterhouses Sunday School, All Saints, St Luke’s and St Paul’s, Youth of Leek, Community of St Mary, Trinity Church, Edward the Confessor’s Parish Church, St John the Evangelist, St Edward’s Mission Church and so.

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Each of these banners were held high by proud members and pulled along by ropes attached to some of the attendees. I was particularly interested to see what appeared to be Maypoles with their ribbons attached and decked in flowers being carried aloft.

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Nearly each church, group or club, was ushered in by its own band – brass, wind and percussion – sometimes provided by the scouts or guides although they themselves formed a large contingency carrying their rolled standards. One of the best, unsurprisingly perhaps, was the Salvation Army who produced stirring music for their march. A sea of sound, a soundwave, passes you and then fades in time for the next one…and so it continues for about 20 minutes.

The formality of earlier years has perhaps waned, some children were dressed up, mainly those in the Scouting and allied organisations, but few adults. However, I noticed that the wearing of roses was undertaken by one group.

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In this day and age when individuals can be afraid to be proud of their beliefs it is good to see that Leek’s club day being still embraced by the churches around the town as a great celebration. It still appears to be going strong over 100 years later and despite what one correspondent to the BBC website said in the 1980s:

“I have been in Club Day and I liked it. It makes your legs tired though, but the party is good.”       

Custom survived: The Abbot Bromley Horn Dance 100th Post!

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An obvious choice for the 100th post but there is something mesmerising about this perhaps the oldest dance ritual in Europe. Many have said this was the first custom which made them fascinated in our strange customs, such as Averil of the excellent Calendar Customs website.  My first experience is back in the 1990s and I travelled from Bristol to see it! It is perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable and iconic, with its olde world dress and impressive reindeer antlers- the horns- which are danced with.

A horny subject?

How old is it? This is a moot subject and depends on whether you need hard evidence. The earliest reference is in Plots 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire, but there reference of a hobby horse being used in 1532 with ‘six men carrying rain deer heads’ but that does not necessary mean the dance is that old. More convincing is the evidence of the Carbon dating of the Horns, which dates them to the 11th century, 1056 more accurately, suggesting an Anglo-Saxon origin perhaps. It has been suggested that it may have pagan origins, certainly it is significant that reindeer would have been extinct by the 11th century. Does this suggest the custom had a Norse origin, as reindeer are still extant there? Did the horns come later if so why? Some authorities had related the custom to privileges from the time when hunting was undertaken in the nearby Cannock Chase. Interestingly, the appointment of a forester continued until the 16th century and that they were called the Forester of Bentylee and it is the name of Bentley which continued organising the events until 1914. Coincidental perhaps?

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Keeping on dancing

The horn dance as Plot noted is on Wakes Monday which is after the first Sunday after the fourth of September. It’s a long day…the antlers are removed from the wall location early at 8 am after a blessing at the church, where they lay for 364 days a year and the dancing begins. Already there is a sizeable crowd ready to watch as they weave in and out of themselves on the green as the six dancers face each other and try to avoid the heavy horns, weighing around 25lbs, clashing. Interestingly, red deer antlers are used when the team perform outside of the village making witnessing the custom in situ more special.

The dancers have a quaint dress which might suggest evidence for an early origin but sadly these have a fairly recent origin, 1880s by the vicar’s wife, and before then they would wear normal clothing.

Clashing horns

Then off they went around the Parish, stopping in back lanes and open spaces to hypnotically play their tune and do their dance. One of the notable locations is Blithfield Hall. Here one can get a view of the dancers without the throng of observers and often photographers and get a real feeling of its ancient mesmeric nature.

There are twelve dancers, which consist of six horn carriers, an accordion player and unusually two children one with a bow and arrow and the other a triangle. There is also a Fool, Maid Marian character and Hobby Horse, features of Morris teams across the country

Then at eight in the evening the horns are returned back to the church a service is undertaken and its over for another year.  What is splendid about the dance is its simplicity and authenticity, as the author of a piece in the Times from 7th September 1936 wrote:

“The whole thing is done unassumably and with a quite purposefulness which is the keynote of the whole proceedings. One feels they are not dancing for joy or self-expression, but going quietly about a task which must be accomplished with necessary fuss.”

Custom survived: Flash Teapot Parade

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Flash a remote village on the borders of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire has a number of claims to fame. It is the highest village in England 1518 feet above sea level. Its location made it a town for counterfeiting, ‘flash money’; a more dubious claim to fame perhaps. A better claim to fame is that it is home to the Flash teapot parade, a far more wholesome claim and not just because it involves tea!

No flash in the pan

Sick or burial clubs were widespread across England in the days before the NHS when medical care or burial costs was expensive. The earliest mention of such a group is from 1767 with a Quarnford Club, and by 1846 the Flash Loyal Union friendly society was established and based at the Traveller’s Rest. By 1906 it became known as the Tea Pot Club by 1906 which had 700 members at its peak. This name is believed to originate from the means in which the money was stored as Doug Pickford (1992) in his Myths and Legends of East Cheshire and the Moorlands:

“people would keep their spare halfpennies and farthings in teapots….regular collections were made by an elected Committee and all proceeds kept in the tea pot. Whenever a family needed to use the monetary contents of the teapot, a committee member would call and empty the entire money onto the kitchen table. The collection would start again until the next person or persons needed to have the contents emptied.”

Such that the money was then given out to villagers in times of unemployment, sickness or bereavement. Like many Friendly Societies, each year they would have a church service and then parade and photos exist from the 1800s and 1940s showing assembled groups often carrying banners. Andy Collins, one of the organisers stated that members had to attend or pay a fine and would march with a local band starting alternatively from the Parish or Methodist church but always to the Traveller’s Rest and back for a tea, where she adds seed cake and ham sandwiches were eaten. Flash Teapot parade 2014 (130) Flash back

Doug Pickford in his Earth Mysteries of the Three shires makes an interesting observation, a teapot would have been an odd commodity for a remote community to have, and believes it has a more ancient origin from the Celtic Taoiseach (pronounced tea shock) for leader! This he believes may be more significant for when the find was dissolved no teapot was found!! A point I raised with one of the organisers, who thought it was interesting idea, although did say the teapots were those belonging to the individual members. It is an interesting point, perhaps greater research may reveal the answer. Flash Teapot parade 2014 (51) No flash pan!

The Tea Pot parade is the pivotal event in this remote village when eyes from outside look in and not to say they had been the highest village in the world! It is indeed a strange village, one a hamlet of disparate houses perhaps and a pub whose sign remembers Flash’s other claim to fame – counterfeit money or Flash money…did this swell that teapot I wonder. I arrived as the group was midway through their special, Tea pot church service, sitting in the churchyard was a blue striped teapot, a surreal object amid the graves. I decided to have a look at the well dressing and it was a fine one. The topic for this year, being an obvious and much to be repeated one across the season no doubt, WWI, but it was professionally executed with a delightful teapot tradition. Soon the vicar arrived and followed by his congregation he blessed the well in a simple service.  Then it was time for the parade, sadly the local brass band, usually the Leek and District Scout and Guide Band appeared to no longer attend, but a violinist and drummer provided some evocative and stirring music. The banners were collected by a large group of adults and children and proudly displayed ready for the off. Amongst them were the delightfully dressed Flash Rose Queen and retinue. Before they could go of course, the teapot had to be moved into pride of place…then we were off.  The procession moved majestically up the minor road, little traffic travelled down there, but I wonder what happened when we reached the much busier A53 where the Traveller’s Rest lay. As we reached the A53, the road was closed as we climbed to the Inn, around us the sky darkened, storm clouds gathered. Here the group downed banners and had a drink or two. Then the procession returned down towards Flash but stopping at the Village Hall for some tea. Flash Teapot parade 2014 (109) Storm in a teapot

This parade of course is a sort of facsimile, a copy but without an association with the group it was based on. Why? The fall, quite literally, of a notable newspaper magnate and the subsequent disappearance of millions of pounds of pension money, had a big effect. Why should that have an effect on a remote village and its custom? New laws on saving organisations had their impact and as such the small volumes controlled by the group could not be legally collected and so in 1995 the Flash Loyal Union friendly society was finally dissolved and its banner was laid over the church door. However although in 1995 the last authentic Flash teapot parade finished, 1996 saw it continue as a village tradition organised by the locals as a valid attempt to keep the custom alive. No doubt due to the remoteness of the communities here it continued for longer than most. This re-invention rather than revival was a conscious effort by Andy and some other local incomers and involved the children making banners and significantly a giant teapot! She also added that for several years a play was performed on how the society was formed. This sadly has lapsed. Of course, this being the Peak District, something was missing, then in 2006 a well dressing was introduced and this continues to this day. However, all in all, this custom remains a unique addition to the year’s calendar especially if you like a cuppa.

Find out when it is on…..

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