“numbers are a bit down this year we usually like to have all around the pitch covered. Its because Tottenham are playing at home. I tried to get Pochettino to make sure they weren’t but he could manage it.”
So spoke one of the organisers wryly as I surveyed the pitch at this most bizarre seasonal custom. Football is long associated with Boxing Day, more of which in a future blog post perhaps, but this was something else. The crowds were indeed down but this would stop the enthusiasm for this bonkers boxing day bonanza!
The custom begun as an amusing way to raise money for Cheshunt Cottage hospital. Although there appears to be no record of when exactly begun or who thought to establish it; the earliest date being 1905, however it is generally agreed that it begun in 1909. It soon became established as a popular event and in 1910 a souvenir postcard was even produced with all the players named and the score sweeps 2 bakers 1. An early account appear no different from the normal sports fixtures it would appear suggesting the distinctive craziness had not yet developed on the pitch but had on the run up to it as recorded in Andrea Gilbey and Les Wells’ excellent and much recommended history of the custom The Bakers and Sweeps Flour Soot and Mayhem:
“Football charity match – Bakers vs Sweeps – The annual interesting encounter took place on Boxing Day morning at Cheshunt recreation ground. The respective teams dressed at the Falcon Hotel and marched to the field of battle with brushes (Sweeps) flying; headed by the Temperance Band. The Bakers in their spotless whites, were a distinct contrast to the sweeps, who were indeed a motley crowd, with their tattered and torn garments and dirty shoes….the popular captain of the Sweeps caused endless amounts of fun on the march to the ground.”
Indeed, special silver medals were made. One such in 1928 showed a football between the feet or a short, fat baker, holding a baker’s peel, who’s head and body are made from a cob loaf and a tall, skinny chimney sweep, holding a dustpan and brush and who’s body is made from a bundle of chimney rods and brush.
The band was a regular part of the procession and whilst a procession before the match still occurs when the team members collect money from local businesses, houses and passers by the band has gone.
So did the custom nearly as the second world war caused an unwanted hiatus and it did not return until 1951 however by then the comedy was fully developed:
“when the play begun the fun started in earnest. All the rules of soccer were discarded and the game developed into a free for all catch as you can encounter with a mixture of rugger, hockey and football. In fact it was one of the funniest slapstick encounters we have ever witnessed since the game was first conceived….there were of course interventions of course when the players set off a smokescreen on the field, while the bursting of fireworks gave one impression that the somehow Boxing Day had got mixed up with November 5th.”
Like all great sporting fixtures the two teams lined up for the traditional meet the dignitary, not a member of the royalty but the town’s mayor. However this was a meet the team with a difference as one by one soot and flour was deposited on the head of the mayor.
Indeed, this barrage of soot and flour is as much a tradition as the game itself and the team members took great pride in getting the Mayor dirtier and dirtier with one of the team captains gently guiding her to each assailant. A great article in Gilbey and Wells book states:
“Gangs of black and white hooligans posing as footballers savagely attacked the mayor of Broxbourne Cllr Gerald Cookson and his Mayoress wife Sadie as they went for a boxing day stroll over Waltham Cross playing fields. They pelted the Mayor with soot and flour and smothered the Mayor with shaving cream but nobody came to the rescue.”
This was all tongue and cheek of course!
Sooty and Sweep
The teams was made up of a wide range of bizarre customs – a carrot, an elf and bizarrely a blind baker complete with white stick and glasses – no one said this was going to PC! It was worse in 1977 with Bunny girls being made available to provide half time drinks…
After the line-up, the game appeared to start without even a ball, the participants simply enjoying covering each over with flour and soot. Then a rugby ball was tossed in, to0 much confusion considering this was supposedly a football game, but it was kicked causing it to spin around uncontrollably and at one point the ball disappeared under a scrum of every single member baker and sweep and a few bystanders as well by the look of it too!
But of course one ball wasn’t enough and soon two, three, four, five, six and seven balls of differing sizes were thrown onto the pitch, causing considerable confusion. But soon some goals were scored and cheers came from the crowd.
At one point cling film being wrapped around one goal to add comedy value as one if the participants surged into it and bounced back, but still scored a goal. At one point there appeared to be a foul and one of the bakers was then taken to the stocks, although for pedantry sake it was really a pillory. He was then ceremonially covered with as much soot and flour as remained.
Half baked ideas
At some point the tricks and pranks became one of the central tenants of the custom. Over the years Gilbey and Wells tell us that they ranged from exploding tanks, cannons, Daleks to a Pantomime horse scoring a penalty. Finally in a concern that the game was becoming a bit too unruly (never) and attempt to orchestrate came about, especially as there might have been some concern, especially as fireworks might be used, that it might become unsafe and the pranks derail the game as such a script was written! Whether this idea stuck is unclear, but in 1983 a list of pranks was made including:
“smelly loo, Andrew Clayden running amok with an emu, A guillotine to cut off players heads and this to be used as a football (!)..obtain a grocer’s bike to ride the length of the pitch and score a goal.”
Then it was half time. No oranges (from the bottom of the stocking or not) this time but beers. It was a brief break and soon the game was on again. This second half being dominated by a space hopper used as the ball, which was kicked and rose into the air some considerable height considerably, but rather than being kicked was hopped over the line! At one point a member of the Sweeps caused the goalie to fall over and so this was a good enough excuse to have him gunged! Sadly the giant ball much beloved of the game did not appear. Apparently despite sitting deflated at the touchline it was so beaten and broken that it could now no longer be inflated I was told.
A clean sweep
At the end the two teams were invited to a traditional tug of war which ended up with a rather uneven Bakers side loosing and being dragged across the mud. Then it was over for another year. This year it was a draw – not by my reckoning it was but I don’t anyone was really taking score.
With the sounds of Yakety sax blaring out the speaker appropriately I did feel I’d been dragged back to a more innocent time the 1970s; this was a very Tiswaz like event resplendent with gunge tanks and its mirth making mess makers. However, despite its 20th century nature it is difficult not to think that this has an even older origin. It is possibly that the custom was a resurrected earlier one which had been forgotten, a type of mob football often seen on holidays such as Boxing Day, which may have existed in the area and not been recorded by any local antiquarians. Indeed, even the procession beforehand has the feel of a mummers tour for largess. Whatever the true origins of the custom it is one to be cherished in this day of overproduced fare. Simple knockabout humour and great fundraising too. A local event indeed, but one which deserves to be better known.