Category Archives: South Yorkshire

Customs occasional: Denby Dale Pies

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“It was absolutely glorious. It really was lovely. Very, very savoury – the spices that they’d added to it were such that they brought out the full flavour of the meat. It was more like best stewing steak, so well cooked that it was starting to fall and to disintegrate…It wasn’t chewy, but it was easy on the teeth with lots of rich gravy on it.”

BBC Look North talking to David Bostwick of his pie memories of 1988!

Whilst many waited to see the clocks chine 12 or the impact of the Millennium Bug (remember that) on their VHS recorders (remember them!?) I was thinking I wonder if Denby Dale would do a pie this year? A pie, not instantly an exciting prospect, but this was to be one of the famous giant pie, the biggest pies in the world. I searched in vain on-line, remember this was the day of slow dial up and even slower and primitive pages…but after some searching and contacting the local tourist information they confirmed a pie was planned for the first weekend in September. I made a note in the diary.

 Having a finger in every pie.

This rather unassuming Yorkshire village has progressively baked larger pies since 1788, ten now in all, each attracting more and more hungry mouths. Why this village should start the tradition is unclear – although giant baked produce are not exactly common, they are not that rare – but only this village has kept it. The first pie was baked to celebrate George III’s recovery – albeit brief – from his bouts of madness – I suppose making a crazy pie helped.

However, clearly the villages got the taste for giant pies for soon in 1815, twenty chickens and two sheep were used to make a second pie this time to celebrate the victory of Waterloo. The third to celebrate repeal of the Corn Laws in August 29, 1846, at least made sense it lowered the price of wheat products!  This 1846 pie nearly ended in disaster when 15,000 could have perished when the stage collapsed and a mass escape ensued leaving the official cutter trapped inside it!

Half-baked idea?

However, the most famed incident in pie history is recorded for the fourth pie baked to celebrate Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in August 1887. Not learning from the earlier event perhaps the lack of any organization once the pie appeared at Norman park, having been cooked at the White Hart by Halifax bakers led by a London chef, crowds swamped it. Yet as they dug into it, a rather unpleasant smell arose!

“emitted such an intolerable stench that a number of persons were injured in the stampede to escape.”

It transpired that apparently that in the cooking process the meat had gone cold. This combined with dirt on the potatoes and the fact that the pie had sat all day in the sun, had made the dish go seriously off….so much that it was buried in quick – line and never eaten. A local newspaper the Huddersfield Examiner stated that:

“I am astonished how the promoters dare offer the pie for human food.”

They were not to be beaten and on the 3rd of September that year another pie as made and a select 2000 people invited. It was called the Resurrection Pie.

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Pies the limit?

No such cooking problems would affect the 2000 pie which had the state of the art heating mechanisms which ensured that each piece of the pie was kept piping hot. Infact although it had a crust a top, I wondered how much the mechanical dish with its separate compartments, twenty four in all, heated by three kilowatt heating, could be justified with the concept of a giant pie – was this not smaller pies albeit sharing a giant crust?

1896 saw the 50th anniversary since the Corn Law repeal a good reason to use some of that corn for a crust so a sixth pie was constructed using the previous pie dish. However, for the seventh pie, a local brick and tile works made the dish – 16ft long, 5ft deep and 15 inches deep and it was baked in August 1928 to raise money for the local hospital and as such as called the Infirmary Pie which raised £1000 for them and was given to 40,000 recipients. The pie was almost lost, as the dish got stuck in its specially made oven and needed considerable elbow grease from 20 mean and crowbars to extract it. Not only that there were not enough rollers to move the five-ton pie!

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Pie in the sky

The town did not see another pie due to the Second World War and indeed the original dish was melted down to help the war effort. It was not until 1964 when four Royal births in the same year Prince Edward, Lady Helen Windsor, Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones and James Ogilvy was thought worthy of celebration. In an interesting attempt of publicity, the new pie dish was floated down the canal to Denby – it didn’t make far before it sunk! Sadly, this pie would be tinged with sadness as returning for a television show promoting the pie, four of the main organisers were killed in a car crash. Despite the tragedy, the pie went on and was served to 30,000 people. The money made from it and its associated celebrations paid for Denby Dale Pie Hall which was opened in 1972.

1988 could not go by without a pie as it was 2000 years since the original and so on the 3rd September the Bicentenary Pie was baked. For the first time the pie was served over two days with a fantastically impressive 90,000 being served at £1 apiece. The pie entered the Guinness Book of records as the biggest meat and potato pie in the world and the dish sits holding flowers in the village.

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Nice as pie.

So in 2000, the new millennium combined with the 100th birthday of the Queen’s Mother meant that a pie must be made. This time it contained two and a half tons of beef and potatoes, three and half tons of pastry and 36 gallons of bitter. The dish was 40ft by 8ft and 44 inches deep – so big that it was the trailer of a lorry – 70 feet in all.

And what a site this giant pie was. I stood at the end of the long lane and soon it swung into sight. In a parade which one would only see when a giant pie was in town. With it unsurprisingly were the Sheffield Giants, whose towering statue came close to normalising the gigantic crusted creature.

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With much trumpeting and celebration, the pie arrived at the field. Here entry by paid ticket entitled the bearer to a piece of pie, to prevent a scram they were timed and zoned if I remember. Before all that was the ceremonial cutting of the pie. I sneaked in amongst the press back to see the chefs checking on the pie. Huge wafts of heat bellowed out of it and the smell this time fresh and enticing rose majestically out of it. Of course to cut such a Yorkshire icon needed a Yorkshire icon and as such famed cricket umpire Dickie Bird took the honour. He wielded a giant sword – what else to slay a baked beast as this. Raising it with a devilish grin on his face the pastry skin was pieces and steam arose from it. The pastry pierced it was now time to dish up.

 

Sadly being a vegetarian – they didn’t cater for that – I didn’t partake in this meaty masterpiece giving my offering to a hungry looking boy nearby. I asked him his thoughts…’marvellous’ he said.

I searched on-line (more successfully this time) to find if any further pies were planned such as for the Queen’s recent Jubilees or 90th birthday, but it appears some plans were made, no pies were baked up. One hopes that as the souvenir brochure for the 2000 pie, the Chairman noted:

“there are people saying this is the last Denby Dale Pie. The thoughts were expressed also at the time of the 1964 and 1988 events. I do however believe that in a generation or so, hence, some notable event will encourage a group of ‘pie crazy’ villagers to assemble a ‘mammoth’ pie, and thus maintain a tradition which has made the village of Denby Dale famous throughout the world.”

Let us hope that the Queen’s Hundred or a coronation – whichever happens first – will be the impetus. But until then I am glad to have witnessed such a monumental meaty manifestation!

“When word was given a general rush,

Took place to hack and hew it;

The clambered up outside the crust to get their knives into it,

When all at once the crust gave way,

It’s true, I’ll take my davy

And ninety-five poor souls they say

Were drowned in the gravy.”

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Custom contrived: Grenoside Traipse

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“The team would go for many miles on foot to perform for the local gentry, calling at all the public houses on the way. Even if they arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning, they still insisted on their white trousers being washed and pressed for the next day’s outing.”

Harrington Housely 1973 after 51 years of dancing!

Grenoside Sword Dancers are the other surviving Sheffield team, its earliest reference being in 1750. Sheffield was a stronghold of the custom which appears to have arisen as a means to make money for workers in the city’s cutlery industry who were often layed off over Christmas when the companies did their stock taking. This was a means to raise so much needed cash.

Walk this way

Like Wentworth Boxing Day is the famed outing for the Grenoside Sword Dancers, but this is a fairly recent invention for many years the main outing was the traipse – a walking tour of nearby houses. An account of the team visiting one of these houses is recorded in visitation is made by Lady Tweedsmuir of Wortley Hall in her The Lilac and the Rose:

“Before I leave the subject of Wortley, I would like to recall a strange little episode. We children were told that mummers were coming one evening to sing and dance. What that meant we had of course no idea, but we were allowed to sit up later than usual when they came, and that in itself gave us keen pleasure. We assembled in a room with a stone floor. In came a party of men dressed entrancingly in short coats with bright coloured patterns on them, and long dark trousers. Their leader wore a large rabbit-skin cap with a small rabbit’s head in front.

The songs and dances were charming, and the men’s faces interesting and serious. These mummers were the real thing, and their dances were not inscribed on any printed page, but had come down to them from their forebears. Harry Gust, who was married to our cousin, Nina Welby, was there, and he took down songs and stories from one of the mummers. The man was surprised and reluctant, but eventually told him in scraps and fragments something of his own and his friends’ mumming activities.       One of the songs began pleasantly with,

Tantiro Tantiro, the drums they do beat, The trumpets they do sound upon call, Methinks music’s here, some bold captain’s near, March on, my brave soldiers, away!

I remember now Harry Gust’s face alight with interest as he talked to the captain of the mummers. He wrote an article about them in the Pall Mall Gazette, which he was then editing for Waldorf Astor. I do not know if it interested people. It should have, because it was brilliantly written, but the cult of English folk lore had not dawned then on the horizon of the intelligentsia.

I remember in a childish way being interested in the mummers, realising dimly that they came from an alien world, quite different to the ordered and staid mode of life in that staid and orderly household of Wortley Hall, and that they represented something historical, rough, and elemental.”

A large area, well beyond the Parish would be covered on foot. The intention that between Christmas Eve and the end of January, all of the large manor houses and stately homes, like Wortley Hall would be visited, entertained and money would be given. Indeed the largess was considerable an article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895 notes each team member could accrue 30 to 35 shillings over the period (which would be a staggering £530 in modern money). One notable visit to Wentworth Woodhouse managed to collect a staggering £25 at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party – around  a £1000 worth today!!.

After the Great War, the length and duration of the walking tours were less ambitious year by year until in 1937 the outing was restricted to a Boxing Day tour of the large houses of the Parish Whitley Hall, Greno Lodge, Chapeltown Club and the house of a Dr Moles at Ecclesfield, now the Boxing Day event is associated with only one pub – the Harrow! Then after 57 years a walking tour returned in a way, a custom more contrived to give an idea than a true revival – and it’s not surprising considering the distances! On the 8th of January 1994. A much shorter tour around the Parish’s pubs and some private houses but a homage to those great walks of yore.

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At the sharp end

I first found them finishing a set at the ….well they were getting in their cars – not really a walking tour after all I thought. A bit of a shame but then again the members were not spring chickens!! At Stone house farm despite the remote location attracted quite a crowd of curious onlookers all enraptured and perhaps hypnotised by the ins and outs of the dance. Indeed, there was something quite evocative and magical watching and hearing the dancers, especially when their clogs tapped on the stone floor. Douglas Kennedy in his 1949 England’s Dancers records a scene that has little changed:

“…the dance is performed by six men wearing clogs and carrying straight swords. Associated with it is a certain amount of dialogue and a song ‘calling on’ the dancers, sung by the leader, who brandishes a curved sabre and wears a cap of rabbit’s skin, with the head of the animal set in front. The dancers tie the ‘lock’ at the beginning of their performance, the leader (or Captain as he is called) kneels down in the centre, and afterwards the ‘Lock’ has been placed around his neck the swords are drawn. His cap of skin is knocked off in the process and rolls on the ground, looking like a decapitated head.”

Interesting unlike 1949’s observation where:

“the captain himself does not fall down to become the centre of a dramatic resurrection but just slips away from the dance, which continues its course.”

Now a special sheet is laid and the captain comically falls dead and lays in a foetus position as if dead…although his resurrection still does not occur!

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What does the dance mean? One of the commonest explanations is that it has a pagan origin, a celebration of the turning year as this evocative account below recalls:

“The Captain sings a song of bravery and love and the dance proceeds with his symbolic beheading and death. The main part of the dance then starts and immediately the Captain revives and “rises from the dead” to lead the dancers in reviving the spirit of the New Year. The six dancers weave intricate patterns with their swords and equally complicated rhythms with their steel-shod clogs. The dance reaches its climax as the fiddler increases the tempo of the dance whilst the dancers perform a rolling figure. The dancers finally form a tight circle and perform a fervent tattoo on the floor before raising their swords, pointing upwards to the sky and, one hopes, a mid-winter sun.”

However convenient this would be the evidence is difficult to find. But do we need a reason?

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At the farm I finally met up with fellow folklorist Richard Bradley, we walked back to the Harrow to see the final dance talking of folk customs. As we arrived at the pub the Sword dancers began to arrive – they looked up as the drizzle became to form and become heavier – not sure if we’ll be doing it inside or out one remarked. We retreated inside for a cup of tea, at the other end of the bar the Sword dancers too rested…however we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice that the dancers had gone. Rushing outside we just saw them finish their dance! Oh dear!