Category Archives: Trial

Custom revived: Old Woodstock Mock Mayor

Standard

DSC_2344The Old Woodstock Mock Mayor is a little known custom which appears to have been ignored by books on calendar customs, but it is a classic example of the reason behind the establishment of this perhaps most English of traditions – taking the mickey!

The rise, fall and rise of a custom

The election of the Mock Mayors in this case was a response to the newer Woodstock over the stream! This is because Old Woodstock was until 1886 in the parish of Wooton when an independent of the borough of “new” Woodstock arose and so the custom developed as mockery of the Borough authorities in the new Woodstock who had by 1776 built themselves a new Town Hall and so they responded with this light hearted repost.

DSC_2118

The first formal recognition of the custom appears to be linked with the mace which is inscribed:

“This Mace was made at the Sole Expense of Charles Lewellyn Perkins Esq. Mayor of the ancient village of Old Woodstock – Anno Domini 1786”

The custom continued it appears without break until 1928.

Why the custom died out in 1928 is unclear, but it was probably due to the First World War. However, whereas in most cases this would bring the end of the custom it was revived in 1954. This new Mayor wore a crimson gown made out of a 19th century blanket, a chain of curtain rings and a top hat. The event was associated with the Rose and Crown and unlike today it never crossed into New Woodstock. Evidence suggests that originally the custom was associated with the Wootton Parish Feast Day which was the 19th September, but this revival moved it to August Bank Holiday. The event saw a Beauty Queen and Flower show as well. The revival was short lived and although it saw its first female Mayor, a Miss K. Castle, with the installation of Mr Frederick Warmington in 1958, the custom lapsed and so for 25 years he remained the reigning Mock Mayor!

DSC_2177DSC_2219

A local writer recalled in 1973:

“It seems unlikely that those ceremonies will ever be started again in view of the fact that Mayors and Borough Councils will disappear in 1974. Also the changes in population mobility will leave fewer people to remain interested in purely local affairs since many are newcomers to the district.”

Despite these joint fears, the later unnecessary for ‘foreigners’ have embraced the custom and although Woodstock became a Town Council it retained its Mayor.It was revived by the Rose and Crown, it has moved locations and dates a number of times to settle at the Black Prince, since the former’s closure. Despite the 25 year break, the custom appeared to grab the zeitgeist and has continued ever since as a charity and community event. The ceremony used to take place in September and consisted of a dinner at the Rose and Crown and a cricket match: the Mayor being usually selected for his drinking capacity, but the closure of the Crown moved it to the

Mock up Old Woodstock mock mayor

Like other Mock Mayor the regalia which resembles that of the real Mayor but at half the price. However, this regalia appeared to have become a bit more sophisticated: a Mayoral chain chained from curtain rings to mechano metal pieces, a black top hat, a robe of office said to be made from a 19th Century red blanket. The mace did consist of a holly stick entwined with a large cabbage stem capped by a crown but is now a more sophisticated three sided wooden mace. Clearly the mock mayor is more serious matter now! Despite what could easy be described as a local event, this is a tradition with all the regulars: coconut shy, plate breaking, Punch and Judy and Oxfordshire favourite Aunt Sally.

Mock the week DSC_2147

At the allotted time a motley bunch appeared made up of the Mock Mayor, his deputy, a constable, Town Crier, Mace bearer, two flag bearers and an inexplicable Saxon Warrior an odd dressed group if ever there was one. Then the ‘town’ cryer with his blue frock coat and black tricorn hat asked those intending to stand or those representing those intending to stand to join in the hustings….there was a bit of an embarrassing silence. Then a few people stood up to appeal for election, in 1993 one candidate promised to bring the Olympics to Blenham Park and promised good weather. I’m not sure which was more probable. In 2013, the crowd appeared a little reticent although one candidate, perhaps the crowd knew it was a fix! Of those who stood one candidate suggested they would investigate fracking…at New Woodstock whilst a young boy boldly proclaimed he would make the village more interesting…he didn’t win!

After the hustings the committee huddled in the corner to agree what had already been agreed – and selected the new Mock Mayor. Previously the adjourned to a room in the pub and white smoke was sent up. The outgoing Mayor caused the newly appointed to kneel to which he then knighted him and passed on his robes. It was made clear that the new Mock Mayor had already been selected, making a mockery of the whole custom- perhaps due to the ducking aspect and whole ‘health and safety’ its best they know who it is…a random member might not be so happy with the impromtu swim!

Mock a doodle do!

DSC_2228DSC_2270

The newly selected mock mayor and his entourage then called upon the audience to join them in their procession…or perhaps march in protest to the New Woodstock Town Hall. This was an odd route across the road from the pub, in through a gate and into the spacious grounds of Blenheim Palace and up hill…fighting the wind to the top of the hill where the New Woodstock physically and metaphorically reign over them! On the way, the mace bearer stopped at the gates and like Blackrod in parliament tapped the door with a silver cane…slowly the doors opened and the group marched forth to their goal the Georgian Town Hall. At the Town Hall stood a more obvious Trumptoesque Mayor bedecked with the finery of his mayoral red robes and chain, one could understand previous generations being annoyed by the pomp of this new Town! Here the Town Crier called for a dance between the Mayor and Mock Mayor

DSC_2225

Mock turtle soup….

The climax of the ceremony is the ducking of the Mock-Mayor. Although this was a bit confusing because although there was a ducking stool set up, the process appeared to consist of simply throwing him in the water. The ducking signifies the Mayor and the Corporation turning their backs on and declaring their independence from the “other” Woodstock by crossing the boundary line. A similar ducking of a Mock Mayor occured in Birmingham in a local holy well and it is possible that this part of the procedure is the oldest part…did it signify a water sacrifice? Despite its rather frivolous nature, Old Woodstock’s Mock Mayor is the closest to the true nature of the mock mayor tradition across the country – still metaphorically raising its two fingers at the New Woodstock…Or should I say both two fingers…its W oodstock after all!

DSC_2339DSC_2383

Copyright Pixyledpublications if you’d like to use the photos contact me.

Advertisements

Custom survived: The Dunmow Flitch

Standard

“Or in twelvemonth and a day, Not wisht yourselves unmarried again”

Every four years, since the Second World War, in July all eyes fall upon the market town of Great Dunmow in Essex for the world famous Dunmow Flitch. A unique custom, a sort of dole with conditions (doles with provisos are not uncommon although most appear to be reciting the Lord’s Prayer), proving fidelity and matrimonial bliss being the necessary requirements (although in the last two flitches the occurrence of two surnames for the claimants suggests that marriage is not itself not a requirement such as it moved with the times!)

The legend of their origins

The true origins of this bizarre custom are unclear and some authorities suggest a Saxon or Norman origin. However, the earliest recorded origin appears to date from 1104 when the Lord of The Manor of Dunmow, a Reginald Fiztwalter and his wife, dressed as beggars, visited the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow and asked for a year and a day after marriage. The prior responded by giving a flitch of bacon. At this point the lord revealed himself and gave his lands to the Priory on condition that a flitch would be given to any other couples who could prove similar. From these rather unlikely origins the custom grew that by the 1300s the Dunmow Flitch trial had already made its way into literature, when Geoffrey Chaucer refers to ‘Flitch of Bacon of Dunmow renowned’ in his Wife of Bath and William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman also gives mention to it in 1362:

that if any pair could, after a twelvemonth of matrimony, come forward, and make oath at Dunmow ..that, during the whole time, they had never had a quarrel, never regretted their marriage, and, if again open to an engagement, would make exactly that they had made, they should be rewarded with a flitch of Bacon,”

Steven Samuel is however in 1445 is the earliest recorded successful claimant. The next recorded is Richard Wright and he travelled from Norwich to prove it suggesting again a far reaching fame. There are only three known pre-Reformation claimants, but considering that the claimants from 1980 are unknown this does not infer it was not regularly challenged. Interestingly, whilst other such customs associated with the Priory disappeared at the Reformation, it survived passing to the Lord of the Manor and continued, after a probable brief respite, the tradition was revived by Sir Thomas May in 1701 when he became the owner of the Priory.

The demise

Despite a claim being made in 1772 by a John and Susan Gilder, the then lord of the Manor decided it should not happen and apparently nailed the doors of the Priory shut. A further unsuccessful attempt was made by a retired cheesemaker called Joshua Vine and his wife who travelled from Reading, who upon meeting the Steward of Little Dunmow, a George Wade, he refused to hold a trial stating that it was:

“an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”

In 1837, the Saffron Walden and Dunmow Agricultural Society restored the custom, although the flitch was apparently distributed during their dinner supposedly to the most faithful of their member. Despite this claimants still appeared and in 1851 a couple from Felsted claimed the bacon and were refused but finally a flitch was obtained from Great Dunmow.

This view point appears to have lead to its decline and finally it disappeared. However, the relics of the ancient custom: the oak chair and stone upon which the couples knelt were kept and remain within Little Dunmow church which was part of the Priory

Revival

Curiously it was a book in 1855, the novel ‘The custom of Dunmow’ by Harrison Ainsworth, which spurned the revival of the event run this time by the town council, and thus had nothing to do with the church and manor. Ainsworth himself was involved in its revival and it continued to be held regularly since then becoming every four years since the Second World War.

The present format-2012 trials

The Trials now resemble that of a modern court case with defending and opposing counsels who represent the Flitch donors, a Judge, jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors, an User and Clerk of the court. I have seen two flitches one in 1996 and the other 2012, despite the obvious changes in those 16 years for example no-one was asked to turn off mobile phones in 2012, the trials were the same a great mix of pomp and pantomime. In 1996 the main counsel was Jerry Hayes MP and agony aunt Claire Rayner, who claimed the flitch successfully in 2008 and it was fitting to see a tribute to her in the programme.

Those claiming the bacon must bemarried for at least a year and a day and as all claimants can win the Bacon as they do not compete which each other. This year the claimants came from as near as Dunmow to as far as Spain and Australia although she was resident in the UK.

Most of the fun comes from the opposing counsel (for the bacon), who use any mechanism to prove that the couple should not claim the bacon and despite the jovial nature of the custom, the claimants do not always win. In 2008 there were some classic one-liners. In the first trial the much fun came from the couple’s revelation that the wife was double dating and had their honeymoon in Harlow (less than 10 miles from home!) The best one-liners particularly came from BBC Radio Essex’s Dave Monk upon asking the third couple, the wife of which worked at Marks and Spencers, paraphrased the advert tag line when she told him she was looking for a man, but not just any man…..

The most comical asides came when interrogating a couple who were sci-fi fans. It was revealed that the first date had to be moved because it clashed with the first new episode of Doctor Who! The wife neatly defined the difference between nerd, geeks and dorks. It was also revealed that the couple’s first kiss was on the playground, the quick retort being was the relationship on the slide ever since and that marriage was not all swings and roundabouts. ….Dave Monk later stated that he and his colleague were Men in Black and used his pen to make the jury forget the claimant’s plea! Despite the great ‘banter’ between the couple and the counsel which appeared to favour the couple…they lost and had to walk to the market place to collect the gammon, the consolation prize. They were the unlucky ones for four out of five won.

The winning couples, except the heavily pregnant one, were then lifted on a wooden chair, this year a new one replaced a more ancient one now retired to the local museum.  With the flitch carried aloft in front they are carried triumphantly by bearers in the flitch chair to the market place and on those ‘pointed stones’ they take the oath. Here they take the oath (said to be similar to pre-Reformation marriage vows and certainly used since 1751) it goes as follows:

“You shall swear by custom of confession,

That you ne’er made nuptial transgression;

Nor, since you were married man and wife,

By household brawls, or contentious strife,

Or otherwise at bed or board,

Offended each other in deed or in word,

Or since the parish clerk said, Amen,

Wished yourselves unmarried again,

Or in twelvemonth and a day,

Repented in thought any way,

But continue true in thought and desire,

As when you joined hands in holy quire.”

The judge reads out the following sentence:

“If to these conditions without all fear,

Of your own accord you will freely swear,

A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,

And bear it hence with love and good leave:

For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,

Tho’ the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own”

With the last few words chanted by all!

Origins

Although a medieval date is given for the origins, the presence of similar customs in Europe, in Vienna and Rennes, Brittany suggests the origin given may be false. Indeed it may have an earlier possibly pagan origin. It is not beyond reason that the meat was a boar which could have been given as a sacrifice to a pagan god. This is suggested by Historian Helene Guerber her Myths of the Norsemen in 1908 who connects it to the German Yule feast, where a boar is eaten at Yule in Goddess’s Freyr’s honour which can only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. As Freyr was the patron of gladness and harmony it is not within reason to see the goddess association with harmonious marriages.

Whatever the origins, the Dunmow Flitch remains one of the most enjoyable and joyous celebrations of both English eccentricity and marriage (if those two are not necessarily mutually exclusive).

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom demised: The Ilford Dunmow Flitch

Standard

In this flitch year I thought it was worth detailing, a flitch tradition which may not be very well known. This is the Ilford Flitch. Ilford is a small town now virtually swallowed up by the greater London conurbation and now close to the Olympic site of course. However, after the First World War, Ilford Catholics decided to introduce the custom as part of their Whitsun fete. This is doubly interesting for a number of reasons, it occurred in a hiatus in the celebration of the real Dunmow Flitch, and indeed may have stimulated the organising reclaim the bacon so to speak and also that it was clearly a Catholic tradition encouraging marriage.

Of course, it received a fair bit of criticism from Dunmow and from the author Steer(1951) who said “you may as well take the Barnet fair to Southampton” or the “Varsity boat race to the Clyde” Yet despite this knocking the tradition was clearly not a one off and attracted a number of well known names, the most famous being Will Hay, Comedian, school teacher and astronomer.

The first flitch was apparently held in 1920 at the drill hall and the features of the true flitch are apparent: the counsel for the claimants (Mr C. E. Grigsby and Miss Maggie Buckley both regular attendees) and for the flitch (Mr W Vaughan and Mrs Petrie again regular attendees). It was overseen by an usher and judge and the winners had to receive the sentence kneeling on ‘pointed stones’.  It was claimed these came from Dunmow and were actually genuine. Before this the flitches of bacon would be paraded with the winning couple. That year it was a Mr. and Mrs. Gray.

In 1922 a Mr and Mrs Samuels won it, but the 1924 one was more memorable. This time having moved to a marquee held in Gordon fields and the noted Jeffret Farnol .novelist acted as judge counsel for the claimants being the Rev H Dunnico MP,  Mr. E.W. Tanner and Mrs Petrie with Mr. Grigsby, Mr. Jack Jones MP, Mrs  Ellie Porter for the Claimants. This time the counsel challenged the judge on two accounts stating that if he were married he would look with suspicion on any evidence of matrimonial bliss and second if he were single his lack of experience made him unfit to be a judge. A fact that questioned the very nature of the trial perhaps. To this claim, the judge fined the Rev Dunnico a farthing for contempt of court. He paid using a hundred thousand mark note which was accepted.  There is further confusing between the two Jones MP, when one of the claimants was also a Jones and an MP! In the end Mardy Jones of Pontypridd and Mr Harry Byford won the bacon despite the defending counsel claiming that if they did not produce marriage lines they could not be happily married and claim the bacon!

In 1928, the musical star, Charlie Austin was the judge and this generated a fair bit of hilarity with his antics. However by 1929 Major Sir George Hamilton JP was a more sober judge and all the claimants won and in 1931 in the presence of a heatwave! Little details appear to recorded of these occasions bar those in defending and claimants counsels.

1932 saw the appearance of Will Hay. Now I am great fan of Will Hay and it may come as a surprise to hear of his involvement. However, clearly he was an inspired choice and made much of the ceremony. He was making much play for the audience with his fellow ‘barrister’ Miss Buckley and would disappear together within the box to decide the outcome. At one point he himself claimed the bacon and grabbed it and dragged it into the box. His claim was unsuccessful! Mr Grigsby again for the claimants summed up:

“Man has many faults, women only tow there’s nothing right they say and nothing right they do!”

In 1933 three couples claimed it one of the winners a Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald were the winners from Bournemouth. In 1934 a claimant, Mr James O’Brien was asked to produce marital happiness evidence! He asked his eight children to stand up and claimed black-shirt being a member of the British Fascists. Indeed, the oncoming Second World War appears to have been the end of this bizarre stolen custom….but it does make you think knowing how much fun one can have with the ceremony it may be good one to encourage elsewhere!