Category Archives: Trade

Custom survived: London Harvest of the Sea Festival

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“O Lord Jesus Christ, who after thy glorious resurrection didst prepare by  the waterside a breakfast of fish for disciples that had toiled the whole night  long; Come amongst these thy servants who toil beside our river day by day  to provide food for their fellow men, and bring thy blessing both on their  work and on their lives, O Lord our Saviour and help for ever. Amen.”

The Billingsgate Market Prayer – specially written by the late Very Rev. E. Milner-White

London has many traditions and customs as indeed this blog has detailed. One of the most visually arresting and unique is the Harvest of the Sea Harvest festival which is celebrated at St Marys at the Hill tucked away up the narrow Lovat Lane in the shadow of London’s famed Monument and a few yards from the Old Billingsgate Market.

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I remember as a child once being brought early in the morning to see this vibrant fish market in action. The seafood smells, the sounds and sights of the white coated porters rushing around delivering their valuable fish stock was a heady and confusing. Little did I know that a few years later this venerable market, which had traded here since Viking times, would move forever more from its famous location to the Isle of Dogs and the noise and smells lost forever here….that is until the second Sunday in October when the smells and memories return to the church nearby. 

Plenty of fish in the sea!

The custom is famed for its seafood display which is not only visually impressive but fills the air with a fresh maritime aroma; a unique experience in a London church. Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“Early in the morning a vanload of fish arrives to be laid out just inside the door of the church. In 1984 it took four men just two hours to create the astonishing display.”

He continues to state that one of the porters remarked:

“We counted fifty-four varieties of fish and shellfish…something like £500 worth of fish donated by the Billingsgate Fish Merchants.”

The display was similarly adorned with a large display of fish and seafood, with a separate stall of prawns, shrimps and cockles to the side. Nets were hung above and over a considerable monument which loomed above and crab and lobster pots – indeed two live crabs sat rather dazed upon the later awaiting their fate. 

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Fishing around

I spied beneath the stall, one of the traditional bobbins. These were unique hats once worn by the porters to enable quick and efficient movement of their wares. Recalling my childhood visit I do remember the considerable skill involved and was in awe of those men rushing around carrying several boxes of fish balanced on their heads. The hats themselves are of wooden construction, covered with canvas and coated with bitumen to make them long lasting. Held together with studs and understandably having a brim to prevent any unnecessary fluids reaching the face, they are now rare pieces and in the modern Billingsgate not required.  The hat belonged to Mr Billy Hallet, who was one of two senior porters in white overalls who obliged for a photo. 

But one may ask why were they needed then? The original Billingsgate and the areas around was largely cobbled and so wheeled trolleys would be difficult to maneuver. I was informed by one of the oldest ex-Porters there, Reg Condon, of a tradition which enabled them to get up the more challenging hills locally. Upon reaching such a local, a cry of ‘hill up’ would be called by the porter. This then awoke the various rough sleepers who rested in the area who would then appear to help push the porter up the hill! They would then would be rewarded a shilling for their help. Apparently, this was a long standing tradition known by the homeless community who would make sure they were local to help and receive their monies.  

The service begun with a traditional blessing of a small section of the fish by the Bishop of Birmingham – an interesting choice perhaps being a clergyman from a landlocked location. This blessed firsh  was later returned to the whole display, with a remark that this was probably more desirable as it had been blessed.  The service had other unique maritime features such as the unique Billingsgate Prayer and prayers for Seafarers as below:

“For Seafarers  O eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, rulest the raging  of the sea: Be pleased to receive into thy protection all those who go down to  the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. Preserve them  both in body and soul; prosper their labours with good success; in all time of  danger be their defence, and bring them to the haven where they would be;  through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

O God our heavenly Father, we pray to thee for all seafarers and those who serve their needs; for keepers of lighthouses and the pilots of our ports; for all who man the lifeboats and guard our coasts; for the men of the fishing fleets and those who carry out the services of docks and harbours; for the guilds and societies which care for the wellbeing of fishermen and their families. Bless them according to their need, and shield them in all dangers and temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

There was an uplifting rendition of the “For those in peril on the sea” even more poignant with the aroma of the sea drifting across the congregation. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem with the new amendments and soon food and drink was being served to the departing congregation. 

A different kettle of fish?

How old the current custom is is difficult to ascertain. It certainly is not mentioned in any of the books on customs and traditions from the 1800s or early 20th century. I spoke with a Mr Reg Condon who had worked in Billingsgate in the 50s, 60s and 70s and was 85. He could recall that the first service at St Mary’s was in the 1960s and that he did recall it being held in St Magnus. This would be in line with the reference in the Times of the 3rd October 1922 which describes a similar event. It seems likely that the custom moved perhaps after the second world war to its current location. Although St Magnus state that the service moved in 1923 to St Dunstan in the East and then to St Mary at Hill, Alternatively, Brian Shuel  in his 1985 a Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain states:

“This unique Harvest Thanksgiving began in the 1930s.. The Church Army  approached the market and suggested it as a charitable exercise. Sam Shepherd, a former Superintendent of the market told me they were delighted to agree. The occasion continues on the same basis; the Church Army still claims the fish and distributes to the needy.”

He adds surely with a tongue in cheek:

“I was grateful to accept a pair of dover sole myself, from the artistic fishmongers, who recognised my own unfortunate circumstances.”

Today a considerable queue forms and many happy congregations left with some quality seafood ready for that special occasion and despite the concerns over overfishing the display is as remarkable as ever. 

Custom demised: Eccles Wake

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Eccles Wakes Fair, 1822 | Art UK

In the town of Eccles was a famous wake, an annual festival associated with the Parish church and doubtless associated with its foundation. The event was celebrated on the first Sunday in September, and continued during the three succeeding days, and consisted of feasting upon a kind of local confectionery, called “Eccles Cakes,” and ale, with various sports. 

Edward Baines in their 1836 History of County of Lancaster: 

“On Monday morning, at eleven o’clock the sports will commence (the sports of Sunday being passed over in silence) with that most ancient, loyal, rational, constitutional and lawful diversion.”

One of the most barbaric aspects was:

 “Bull Baiting: In all its primitive excellence, for which this place has been long noted…the day’s sport to conclude with baiting the bull, Fury, for a superior dog-chain.”

The festivities continue:

“At one o’clock there will be a foot race; at two o’clock, a bull baiting for a horse collar; at four o’clock, donkey races for a pair of panniers; at five o’clock, a race for a stuff hat. On Tuesday, the sports will be repeated; also on Wednesday, with the additional attraction of a smock race by ladies. A main of cocks to be fought on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for twenty guineas, and five guineas the byes, between the gentlemen of Manchester and Eccles; the wake to conclude with a fiddling match by all the fiddlers that attend for a piece of silver.”

Such village wakes flourished throughout the midlands and northern England and were seen as holidays for working people in the industrial regions such as Wigan.  As such by the 18th century, huge crowds were attracted and by 1877 local residents complained and thus the custom stopped by order of the Home Secretary. 

Today the only relic of the Eccles wakes are those Eccles Cakes….and delicious they are too!

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

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“Stallions proud and ribbands prancing

Joyous fiddling and dancing

Isaac Horsfield who was there

He made sport for all the fair.

A handsome show of china ware

Of much variety was there

Cheesecakes plenty might be got

Gingerbread and good tom-trot.”

 

Lee Gap Fair was founded over 800 years ago been chartered by King Stephen in 1139, thus it can rightly claim to be England’s oldest horse fair only the local church is older and the two are linked.  Traditionally the fair took place on the Feast of the Assumption (15th September) and finished on the Nativity of the  blessed Virgin (8th September) and thus was linked to the church.

Making leeway

The fair became a major event People travelled vast distances to attend the fair. In the Middle Ages Lee Gap Fair attracted merchants from France, Spain, Florence and the low lands of Germany. Not only Horses bur cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock were sold at the fair.

Such was the occasion that people attending are said to have married or got their children baptised and hence the fair was good revenue for the church who had a priest on call the whole fair. Miracle plays were also performed to bring the faith to the masses.  The fair was owned by Nostell Priory until the Reformation when it was granted to a Dr Leigh and the fair moved to West Ardsley and took on his name although written as Lee and I am unsure where the Gap came from. However, there is some confusion over whether the Nostell Priory Fair and the current fair are the same continuation as their fair was five days starting on St Oswalds’s feast day on the 9th not 24th and early writers state that it was discontinued ‘centuries ago’.

Interestingly, the Charter does not tie the fair to one site only that it be held in the parish of Woolkirk or West Ardsley. Which is good because its most traditional site was lost to building many years back forcing a new location to be held. However, not only is its location fluid but its function too. Originally it was wool fair only becoming a horse fair as the need for horses through increasing warfare and agriculture forced the necessity.

Fairly well met

On first arrival you think there cannot be a horse fair here its too urban as you survey the neat gardens, hedges and waxed cars in their drives. And indeed, the first site was built upon a few years on. However, soon there appear to be see a parade of cones and then a small handwritten sign Lee Fair at the side of a farm lane. Going down here past some rather large houses the lane snakes down into a small, enclosed field and here 100s have gathered. A detailed sign at the gate informs me of what I can and cannot do there – no racing of horses and silly string stand out!

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A fair assessment?

Attending a horse fair is one of those rare experiences. A completely unvarnished natural organic custom devoid of any tourist pretensions. Indeed, at one point I think I am the only non-traveller there! Certainly, the only one with a camera around my neck which makes me self-conscious as I snap away but despite one boy asking for a photo; I appear invisible and inconsequential to those assembled. Such events always appear to be associated with problems

The horse fair is a window on another world. A world within a world. A world divorced from the mainstream. The stalls mainly sell materials which only suit its close clientele – metal churns, horses’ bits and various nick-nacks. There are of course cloth stalls but again in the main their apparel appeal to those who are there particularly the young girls who view these events as both a fashion parade and an opportunity to meet boys. Indeed, I came across and listened in on one such approach by a boy who runs over and asks ‘excuse me but my friend really likes you will you talk to him?’ None of that grabbing that was parade in the populist media a few years back.

Standing on the corners one comes across groups of old men. They had seen it all before. They appear the more traditionally dressed in their tweeds and barbers catching up with old friends and looking on at the young folk and their courting. Unlike a more formal selling environment with an arena and animals paraded in and out it is in these huddled groups that the horse trading is done. So often seeing or hearing a deal can be a rarity.

Walking around I noticed lots of strands of green, pink, blue materials and soon come across some younger kids attacking each other with kit and then looking like they immediately regretted it and set about removing it from each other’s hair! The silly string! Looks good they heeded then warning!

Every now and then a horse rushes by ridden, trotted or on occasion on its own! The crowd parts and everyone watches – again I am sure they said there was none of this-but I am glad there is because it adds some degree of excitement and authenticity.

Occasionally there are some other animals – chickens and caged canaries seem to be popular, and I see a number wandering around with the birds in colourful quaint wooden cages. The community are keen to maintain their traditions but unlike other customs where such things are kept up, here it seems natural and functional, rather than tradition for its own sake.

A fair representation?

Sadly, fairs and antisocial behaviour seem always to go hand in hand. One only need to delve into the records to see. The earliest being the 1315 Wakefield  Court Rolls which records three complaints brought against John  de Heton. He was accused of assaulting a man and a woman and overturning a stall, causing the owner damages and injuries totalling a loss of forty shillings. Regular accounts in the local press record thefts, selling of stolen horses and pick pockets litter the 19th century press accounts. Fairs always attract all types and certainly over the years drunkenness, damage to property and indeed bloodshed forced the local residents in 1656 to petition the West Riding justices to have it abolished stating that it was a nuisance and Wakefield market could provide their needs. It did not work of course, especially as the local community had not grasped that the fair whilst open to them was not really for them. By end of the 18th century the fair did indeed last from 24th August (St. Bartholomew’s) until 17th September. As the twentieth century developed it was moved to have the fair only on the starting date- 24th August and its last day and thus gave the name early Lee and Later Lee.   Alcohol was highlighted as a cause for much of the issues and as such there is no license to sell it at the fair.

Fairly well remembered

Julia Smith in the excellent 1989 Fairs, Feasts and Frolics spoke with a Mr J A Rawson, who she met at the ‘latter Lee’ in 1985. She said that he remembered when the fair was on the Baghill site. She says:

“He had been coming regularly for almost sixty years, and was only fourteen when he bought his first pony there for £4. 10S. He recalled once buying a foal and taking it home on the bus! He had spent his working life down the local pit and drove a pit pony when he first went underground. In order not to miss the fair, he would work the night shift and so have the day free. In the past a Welsh dealer had brought ponies and kept them on the moors at Hartshead to fatten them up for a few weeks prior to the fair, and Mr Rawson had often helped to drive them from there to Lee Gap. A Welsh dealer had been at the fair last year but had not returned this year, much to the disappointment of many of the visitors. Forty or fifty years ago, Irish traders also came to the fair bringing crates of geese and pullets, and the locals would buy a goose from them to fatten up for Christmas.”#

Little appears to have changed over the years since Smith’s description although gone have the:

“big chromium-plated gypsy caravans with their displays of Crown Derby china and their owners sitting on the steps, ‘as if they were showing off their homes and vying to outdo each other’.”

But the display of traditional wooden caravans appears to have increased in their absence as the community looks to continue its traditions. Everything else is almost identical to what greets the curious today she states that:

“the edges of the field were lined with horse boxes, vans and trailers. Horses for sale were tethered at the sides of them and tack, leather and ironwork were displayed on the tail-gates which were turned into makeshift stalls. Some of the traps and carts were decorated with delicately painted designs, I saw little actually changing hands, apart from a pedigree pup and a painting. Men huddled together in groups, deep in earnest conversations; it was here the real trading was done. At various intervals a shout would go up, a path would be cleared down the middle of the field and a horse would come galloping through the crowd, its bareback rider putting it through its paces. Buyers and sellers appeared to know each other, and there were shouts of encouragement or criticism as horse and rider sped by. Two minutes later and warning shouts would proclaim the presence of a huge shire horst being trotted, its owner running furiously alongside. Things would

quieten down for a little while and the huddles be reformed, but before long there was the crack of a whip and a pony and trap would dashdown the field.”

Interestingly unlike other fairs Lee Gap has not been swallowed up by its fringe activities and whilst Smith could watch:

“a man swallow and regurgitate a seven foot long chain! In the afternoon he escaped from a series of bonds and chains, accompanied by a good line in patter.

The business of the day was decidedly the buying and selling horses; four small swing-boats and a couple of slot machines were only concession to entertainment, apart from the escapologist of course.”

Today there are no fringe entertainments, certainly no miracle plays, only than the entertainment of meeting old friends, making new ones and silly string.

Of this buying and selling despite the lowkey nature of trading, I was fortunate to watch a number of deals which involved much too-ing and fro-ing, bluff and counter bluff, persuasion and the final slap of each other’s hands in a motion quite rhythmic and poetic. The deal being sealed and the horse sold.

It is a privilege to be able to see the Horse Fair, one which has remained unbroken for 800 years and whilst it may have its detractors its function being so pivotal to its community means it is a custom that on its own is in no danger of dying out as long as it is protected from those outside forces with their blinkered ways of looking at it!

Custom demised: The Order of Free Gardener’s processions

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During the middle of the 17th century in Scotland the Order of Free Gardeners was established a fraternal society with its main aim was the sharing of profession knowledge linked and mutual insurance. Furthermore like other organisations, it would process in July.

James Haig in his 1825 History of Kelso stated

“The Society of Gardeners, on the second Tuesday in the month of July, the day of their annual general meeting, parade the streets, accompanied by a band of music, and carrying an. elegant device, composed of the  most beautiful flowers, which, on the company reaching the inn where they dine, is thrown from the window to the crowd, who soon demolish it in a scramble for the flowers.”

The group had also spread into England, in the border town of Berwick, John Fuller in his  1825 History of Berwick-upon-Tweed states that:

“The association of gardeners, which took place in 1796, had in his time a procession through the streets yearly. It was accompanied with music; and, in the middle of the procession, a number of men carried a large wreath of flowers. The different officers belonging to this institution wore their respective insignia, and the whole society dined together.”

Interestingly, some societies paraded with a costumed character usually one called ‘Old Adam’ or the Green Man but sometimes Jock in the Green a vernacular Jack in the Green. He was particularly seen during Haddington parade, where led the town piper and Jock carrying a bower of flowers representing the Garden of Eden.

Flowers were carried as indicated below:

“Free Gardeners’ Penicuik Centenary Year Walk 8th July 1922 Lady members who intend joining the procession and all children of Free Gardiners who are able to carry flowers, designs etc, are invited to attend a meeting….As the procession is to be filmed it is hoped Members will endeavour to make the Children’s Section a feature of this unique event.”

They carried also banners which hang from horizontal pole being held up by two vertical poles. These perhaps surprisingly were blue, rather than the more plant related green and had painted or embroidered decoration often with biblical scenes – Noah and his Ark or Adam and Eve. The members also wore highly decorative aprons as well as they processed.

When these processions demised is unclear, some friendly societies still process however. The two World Wars called up most of the members so is likely that this stopped the annual event. This and the economic crash of 1929 and the National Insurance Act of 1946 both weakened their monetary capacities and purpose, and thus by 1950s must had gone the last surviving into the 1980s. With them went the colourful processions and the flower scramble.

Custom demised: Rushden’s Mop and Pail Day

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Sergeant Thomas Richards | Murder at the StarRushden records a possibly unique rather antisocial custom which I have not seen recorded elsewhere. First recorded in Round House” Scene. (about 1821)

” “Mop and Pail Day” it appears that the younger inhabitants of the village adhered tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the Mop and Pail. On one particular night a host of them went in accordance with their annual custom to collect mops, pails, brooms and wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on. These they placed on the Green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport began. At an early hour the lady owners of the mops etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, where a merry scene ensues. Some of the gentle dames were tugging at one mop or doing ditto to a water vat, other wielding certain articles to the imminent danger of the heads or ribs of their neighbours. It was customary for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play “Happy Land”. The men said little, but one old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom. They got into trouble over this affair.”

Another account records this extinct Northampton Mercury, 23 May 1846 indicated why this custom died out with some discussion of perhaps what is indicated about ‘getting into trouble’:

“Three young men, and one old lady, of Rushden, stood charged [at Wellingborough Petty Sessions] with conducting themselves in a disorderly manner, on the night of the 12th inst., and setting at defiance the powers that be.”

It continues:

“It appeared that the younger inhabitants of this merry village adhere tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the mop and pail, which by the bye has been entirely overlooked by Strutt [Joseph Strutt, Dresses and Habits of the English People, 1796-9, and Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801]; on the night in question, viz., the 12th of May, when Morpheus had closed the eyelids of the more peaceable inhabitants, the defendants and a host of others went in accordance with their annual custom to collect the mops, pails, brooms, wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on; these they placed on the green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport begins; at an early hour the lady owners of the mops, etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, when a scene ensued which defies pen or pencil.”

The source of the problem and why it was probably stopped is indicated here:

“Half a dozen gentle dames might be seen tugging at one mop, two attempting to wheel one barrow in different directions, or doing ditto to a water vat; others wielding certain of the articles to the imminent danger of the head or ribs of their neighbours. It is customary during the hubbub for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play some appropriate tune, such as “Happy Land”. The male defendants said little or nothing in their defence, but the old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom; gently brushing aside her still raven locks, she gave a statement which might interest a society of antiquarians, but not the generality of our readers. They were each called on to pay the expenses, Ss., and bound over to appear at the Sessions if called on. On leaving, the old lady sighed, and gently brushing aside her hair and a tear, exclaimed “We shan’t be allowed to play at marbles next”.

I am sure it was a very comical custom to watch and in a way perhaps a fun one with permission to revive?

 

Custom demised: Wetting the block

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All about shoes: Cordwainer or Cobbler : What's the difference ?

Hone’s Everyday book records a curious lost trade custom which was recorded in Berkshire and Hampshire only it appears. As the two counties are adjoining it is quite possible that it was established here but a note by the author suggests that it other places it took place in Easter. The author writes: 

“The first Monday in March being the time when shoemakers in the country cease from working by candle-light, it used to be customary for them to meet together in the evening for the purpose of wetting the block.”

The custom appears to be one done by the master of the trade to recognise the workers:

“On these occasions the master either provided a supper for his men, or made them a present of money or drink; the rest of the expense was defrayed by subscriptions among themselves, and sometimes by donations from customers.”

The custom then would have a ceremonial end which is the wetting part which consisted of the following:

“After the supper was ended, the block candlestick was placed in the midst, the shop candle was lighted, and all the glasses being filled.”

Then at the end:

“the oldest hand in the shop poured the contents of his glass over the candle to extinguish it; the rest then drank the contents of theirs standing, and gave three cheers. The meeting was usually kept to a late hour.”

As shoemaking became industrialised one imagine this custom died out!

Custom demised: Bradford’s St Blaise’s Day processions

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See the source image

Hone in his Book of Days discussed the importance of St Blaise’s Day to the Yorkshire city of Bradford he states:

“The large flourishing communities engaged in this business in Bradford, and other English towns, are accustomed to hold a septennial jubilee on the 3rd of February, in honour of Jason of the Golden Fleece and St. Blaize; and not many years ago the fête was conducted with considerable state and ceremony.”.

The author continues to report the procession as in 1825:

“Herald bearing a flag, Woolstaplers on horseback, each horse caparisoned with a fleece. Worsted Spinners and manufacturers_ on horseback, in white stuff waistcoats, with each a sliver over the shoulder, and a white stuff sash; the horses’ necks covered with nets made of thick yarn. Merchants_ on horseback, with coloured sashes.

Three guards. Masters’ Colours. Three guards. Apprentices and Masters’ Sons_, on horseback, with ornamented caps, scarlet stuff coats, white stuff waistcoats, and blue pantaloons.

Bradford and Keighley Bands. Mace-bearer, on foot. Six guards. King. Queen. Six guards. Guards. Jason. Princess Medea. Guards. Bishop’s Chaplain. Bishop Blase. Shepherd and Shepherdess. Shepherd Swains. Woolsorters, on horseback, with ornamented caps, and various coloured slivers. Comb Makers. Charcoal Burners. Combers’ Colours. Band. Woolcombers_ with wool wigs, &c.  Band. Dyers, with red cockades, blue aprons, and crossed slivers of red and blue.”

Before the procession started it was addressed by Richard Fawcett, Esq., in the following lines:

“Hail to the day, whose kind auspicious rays Deign’d first to smile on famous Bishop Blase! To the great author of our Combing trade, This day’s devoted, and due honour’s paid, To him whose fame thro’ Britain’s isle resounds, To him whose goodness to the poor abounds. Long shall his name in British annals shine. And grateful ages offer at his shrine! By this our trade are thousands daily fed, By it supplied with means to earn their bread. In various forms our trade its work impart, In different methods, and by different arts: 

Preserves from starving indigents distress’d, As Combers, Spinners, Weavers, and the rest. We boast no gems, or costly garments vain,  Borrow’d from India or the coast of Spain; Our native soil with wool our trade supplies, While foreign countries envy us the prize. No foreign broil our common good annoys, Our country’s product all our art employs; Our fleecy flocks abound in every vale, Our bleating lambs proclaim the joyful tale. So let not Spain with us attempt to vie,  Nor India’s wealth pretend to soar so high; Nor Jason pride him in his Colchian spoil, By hardships gain’d, and enterprising toil; Since Britons all with ease attain the prize, And every hill resounds with golden crie, To celebrate our founder’s great renown. Our shepherd and our shepherdess we crown, For England’s commerce and for George’s sway Each loyal subject give a loud Huzza.   Huzza!”

There was apparently a town-wide celebrations in 1804, 1811, 1818 and 1825 as recorded above and by a Bradford Dr John Simpson who wrote about:

“by different individuals connected with the trade of the place’ and that Bradford ‘may expect a great influx of strangers, indeed great numbers have arrived today’. His diary entry for the 3rd February, Saint Blaise’s Day, recorded how there had been ‘wind. . . snow and rain’ overnight but it had cleared by morning – ‘the morning was beautiful . . . it seemed as of the weather had taken up purposely for the celebration of the Blaise’.

This apparently was the first festival although there were apparently a smaller scale event in 1857 and 1930 and then no more! However, there is a campaign for a revival of sorts. Local poet and writer Glyn Watkins has campaigned to revive the festival through a series of walks, talks and events in Bradford combined with one year with a Bring Back Blaise Wool Festival at Bradford Industrial Museum. But so far it has not encouraged a real civic ceremony being revived.

Customs occasional: The ceremony of the Keys, The Tower of London

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Many years ago when I was younger my father rather excitedly gave me an envelope which I opened with a confused expression on my face – within were some tickets to see the Ceremony of the Keys in the Tower of London. He said it was quite difficult to get them and that they were a London tradition.

Key it all

This is possibly Britain’s most precise custom thoroughly prepared, executed and always on time.

How old this ceremony is is unknown it may have been established upon the building of the Tower. However a story is told about how the ceremony may have begun back in the 14th century. This is when Edward III tuned up unannounced one cold December night in 1340 and walked in straight in. Keen to beef up the Beefeaters after imprisoning the Tower’s constable for a bit he insisted that it be locked sunset and unlocked at sunrise. A few hundred years later and Mary I concerned that a Protestant plot could use the Tower as a secure starting point not only increased the number of Yeoman warders six patrolling at night and nine during the day, she also laid down precise instructions of how it should be performed:

“And it is ordered that there shall be a place appointed under Locke and key where in the keys of the gates of the saide Tower shall be laide in the sight of the constable, the porter and two of the Yeoman Warders, or three of them at the least, and by two or three of them to be taken out when the[y] shall be occupied. And the key of that locke or coffer where the keys be, to be kepte by the porter or, in his absence, by the chief yeoman warder.”

The final change to the flow of the custom happened in 1826. The Duke of Wellington was then the Constable of the Tower and ordered that rather than be an unspecified ‘sunset’ it should be fixed at 10pm. Since then it has been like clockwork only being disrupted when a bomb fell on the 29th December when the Chief Yeoman Warder was blown over just at the wrong moment!

Preparation is the key to success

I turned up on that cold wintry night to see at exactly seven minutes to ten, the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower emerges from the Byward Tower, wearing the traditional red Watch Coat and Tudor Bonnet. The darkest light by his single candle carried in a lantern. Its light illuminates his other hands and within them a set of keys – the Queen’s Keys.

Then he moves as measured pace to meet his military escort at the Bloody Tower. The military escort consists of two sentries, a sergeant and drummer with a bugle.

The custom follows:

“The Warder passes his lantern to a soldier, and marches with his escort to the outer gate. The sentries on duty salute the Queen’s Keys as they pass.
The Warder first locks the outer gate and then the gates of the Middle and Byward Towers. The Warder and escort march down Water Lane, until they reach the Bloody Tower archway where a sentry challenges the party to identify themselves:
Sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys”.
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys”.
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well”.
The Warder and escort march down to the foot of Broadwalk Steps where the main Tower Guard is drawn up to meet them. The party halts, and the officer in charge gives the command to present arms. The Chief Warder steps forward, doffs his bonnet, and proclaims:
Chief Warder: “God preserve Queen Elizabeth”.
Guard: “Amen!”
On the answering “Amen” the clock of the Waterloo Barracks strikes 10pm and the Last Post is sounded, marking the end of the ceremony.
The Guard is dismissed, and the Chief Warder takes the keys to the Queen’s House for safekeeping overnight.”

Key to success

The ceremony of the keys is a brief but very evocative custom which gives a glimpse of something ancient. There is a real nervous anticipation in waiting and a real feeling we are privileged in seeing it. It is also one of the few in which photography is forbidden!

Custom contrived: London’s New Year Parade

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“Executive director Bob Bone started the event with his wife Geri in the 1980s after they had wanted to take their children out on New Year’s Day and found most museums, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and shops were closed.”

And thus was born what would become the world’s largest New Year’s Day street parade.

 

It was new year 2019 and I had a busy day ahead. I got up early to attend a rather empty local radio studio for a breakfast show about new day customs and so it was rather appropriate to take the opportunity to attend one of the few New Year Day customs – the London New Year parade.

New year new custom

It was in 1987 that the first New Year’s Parade was started under the name Lord Mayor of Westminster’s Big Parade..surprisingly this rather clunky and rather lacking in details (or perhaps too much detail) name survived until 1994. I am sure that someone in the organisation thought to themselves it does not really say anything about when it is…and who outside of London would care about the Lord Mayor of Westminster was. So clearly with an eye on its commercial survival and its familiarity with tourists…the more obvious New Year’s Parade was coined. A name which would have greater resonance.

Certainly the organisers have their eye on the tourists. For example probably when another member of the teams rightfully observed that the parade route missed the big tourist locations the route was wisely reversed in 2010. This was done to:

“appease US television broadcasters and give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster (The Houses of Parliament, also known as Big Ben) and Trafalgar Square”.

The article continues

“The reverse route will give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. The annual parade is popular in the US and an estimated 100 million viewers are expected to tune in. Last year nearly 4,000 Americans took part, representing 24 different bands.”

A wise move with the event being televised now in 900 countries – although not broadcast live in the UK!

 

Parading about

I arrived around an hour before the parade was about to start and arrange myself in a place a mile or so down from the starting block. One could soon see the crowds awaiting and hear the sound coming of bands – that staple of all parades.

The event is certainly a big one with 32 London boroughs involved and all manner of commercial enterprises. At the head of the parade was a huge inflated Mayor of London and soon after an inflated red phone box! There was a clever nod to the other parades – yellow NYC taxis, a Chinese Dragon and some rather brave Brazilian dancers – a veritable smorgasbord of parade icons – through into this some classic cars, motor cycles and tickertape and reference to west end shows such as the Wicked! All in all on a rather dull January Day a bright and vibrant injection.

 

Whilst the New Year’s Day Parade is certainly an impressive and joyful event personally it is not one I hurry back to experience again. Why? The crowds surprisingly and perhaps not surprisingly because as the founder did state there is still little else to do in London on the 1st of January are a little intense. However, I have coped with crowds. No I feel it is more the overt commercial aspect of the event. It is an event purely for the tourists devoid of any real tradition. That’s fine the city needs to keep those tourists happy. However, I found it rather soulless! Loud, bright, engaging…perhaps fun…but soulless. I would certainly recommend it to anyone to see once and certainly if they in London over NYE but perhaps not to travel especially for..and indeed in 2021 one didn’t need to we all joined remotely!

Customs demised: Blood letting horses on St Stephen’s Day

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“Ere Christmas be passed let horse be let blood,
for many a purpose it doth them much good.
The day of St. Stephen old fathers did use:
if that do mislike thee some other day choose.

Thomas Tusser, Five hundred points of Good Husbandrie

Boxing Day for the modern household may involve the Boxing Day sales, more Christmas food or sitting on the sofa but to those until at least the 16th century who had horses or cattle it was an important day for phlebotomy – or blood-letting. It was common enough a tradition in the late 16th-century for poets such as Truse, who was also a farmer whose work was a poetical book on agricultural advice.

The view was widespread across Europe at the time as a quote from German protestant pastor and playwright Thomas Naogeorgus evidences:

“Then followeth Saint Stephens days, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode as swiftly as he can
Until they doe extreemely sweate, and than they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time took charge of horses heare.”

Is blood letting a viable treatment for laminitis? | Laminitis : Understanding, Cure, Prevention

Why let horses?

The tradition of blood letting is based on the principle of the four humours. This being that there were four elements: fire, earth, water and air, and four had corresponding body fluids: yellow bile, black bile, phlgem and blood. From the ancient Greeks onwards it was thought that an imbalance of these caused sickness and thus if there was too much blood sickness could arise!

Why St Stephen’s Day?

The reasons why this was done on St Stephen’s Day is unclear. It is possible that he was thought to be the patron saint of horses. Hone in his 1826 Everyday Book suggests:

About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in for then they are commonly at house then spring comes on un being now coming back from the solstice and there are three or days of rest and if it be upon St Stephen’s day it is not the worse seeing there are with it three days of rest or at least two.”

The custom would appear to be widespread. An entry:

Item for letting our horses blede in Chrystmasse weke iiijd

Is in the Receipts and of the Canons of St Mary in Huntingdon  Hone suggests that his sources that the tradition was brought to Britain by the Danes and states a book called Wits Fits and Fancies states:

“it is the custome for all horses to be let bloud and drench’d A gentleman being that morning demaunded whether it pleased him to have his horse let bloud and drencht according to the fashion He answered no sirra my horse is not diseas’d of the fashions.”

In John Brand’s Book of Days he quotes John Aubrey who says:

“On St Stephen’s day the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart horses.”

The wisdom of blood-letting as medicine improved disappeared as people realised by draining the blood they were making the patient potentially more ill or prone to disease. Consequently did this most curious custom but one would imagine it survived in rural areas longer than one would have expected.