Category Archives: South Yorkshire

Custom survived: Penny for the Guy

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A few years back I was in discussion with someone and the topic of Penny for the Guy arose. At that moment we both realised that we had not seen this once very common customs for decades. Indeed, it was so common perhaps it was less commonly reported by folklorists being so ubiquitous. There are a wide range of accounts. In the 1974 Folklore of Staffordshire by Jon Raven records:

“During the nineteenth century the children made their collection for the Guy and would sing the following ditty:

“Pray a hapenny for a taper

An a hapenny for a match,

An a happeny for a faggot

An another for a match

Pray gee us for some money

For crackers and powder

To charge all our canons

An mack them sound louder

Pray gee us a jacket

To dress Guy the infernal

Of a fire eternal.”

In the 1976 Folklore of the Welsh borders Jacqueline Simpson records:

“Gangs of children roaming the streets demanding pennies”.

The decline is also hinted by Doris Barker in her 1977 Folklore of Hertfordshire states:

“Groups of children – no longer just the poor – many with paper mache masks instead of the soot blacken faces customary in many places until the middle of this century, still go from door to door in villages and towns with traditional Guys asking ‘Penny for the Guy’ – with inflation expecting more -for money to buy fireworks and sometimes for charities.”

The decline is perhaps first noted by Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia:

“Still celebrated with bonfires fireworks and making of Guys, though the children who take round their guys or stand with them on street corners, seldom chant the old rhymes.”

In the 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire Roy Palmer notes:

“By the 1920s the groups of children going around wealthier homes were usually asking for pennies to buy commercially produced fireworks.”

I personally remember it in the late 70s and through the 80s but cannot recollect it after that but apparently the tradition was surviving.  For example records of it still continuing in some areas can be found, as a Dave (Notts Breamer) notes in a angler’s forum:

“… I saw 2 kids outside Asda today, they had a tin full of money, its a dying game, but those that do bother to do it, earn a fortune.”

This suggested a siting in Nottinghamshire well at least in 2011 and as an ASDA but which one? Looking for a custom such as this is without the preverbal ‘needle in a haystack’. Where? What time? What day? Etc Etc?

Penny for your thoughts

The difficulty of finding such a custom combined with a desire to discover whether it was still extant somewhere made me turn to the 21st century solution. The internet and a blog. Therefore I set up the PennyfortheGuy sighting page to solicit from members of the public.

The site went live in 2013 and the first reports came in. They asked for a description, where it happened, the age of the children and response of the public. It started with a rather positive one!

In early Nov 2012 or 2013 I was with my dad and we saw some kids with a “Penny for the Guy” near the local Co-Op store in York Parade shops in north Tonbridge. My Dad remarked he’d not seen this type of thing for years. Cant remember the exact details exactly – jeans and jumper+hat?
Geographical location: York Parade, Tonbridge, Kent, TN10
Age of children: 12-13?
Response of public: none
Date and time: afternoon, early Nov
Length of time observed: just in passing”

And one rather negative one:

Description of Guy: unfortunately not a good story! we went to local pub Saturday night and around 10 pm 2 girls came in and the barman asked what they were doing “toilet” one said “OK be quick” said barman. But instead of going to the toilet they went round pub asking for Penny for the Guy but all they had was a normal baby type Doll. The barman asked them to leave and also asked where their parents were but all he got was abuse, the girl with the doll was around 12 years the other around 10 years. Is this a sign of the times???
Geographical location:Nottingham Old Basford
Age of children: 12 years & 10 years
Response of public: horrified
Date and time: 10pm Saturday 19th October 2013
Length of time observed: 10-15 minutes

Time: October 23, 2013 at 11:05 am

Then the following year a report from Bristol, Stockport, Stoke on Trent, Wigan and Manchester the later suggesting that it was not a dying custom at all if anything is to go by from the less than enthusiastic entry

“Geographical location I.e where in the UK?: Manchester
Description of Guy: Countless crap ones, usually in wheelbarrows being wheeled to my front door or dumped outside shops and petrol stations, with accompanying urchin children begging for loose change.It’s not a dying tradition. It’s annoying.
Age of children: 7-15
Response of public: usually abusive
Date and time: later than they should be out
Length of time observed: anytime between halloween and bonfire night”

Then in 2018 I received a report from fellow folklorist and author Richard Bradley. His report reading:

“Geographical location I.e where in the UK?: Morrisons Supermarket, Hillsborough, Sheffield Description of Guy: Consisted of a stuffed black child’s hoodie and grey trousers with tied-off arms and legs, its face being a mass-produced Halloween mask (a skull wearing shades and red teeth). Asked makers if they were going to burn it on a bonfire and they said they were. Age of children: 3 young lads, would estimate around 9 or 10 Response of public: Indifference from majority; great excitement from me! Date and time: 30th October 2018 12:50pm. I asked if they knew of any other Penny for the Guys and they said outside Southey [Green] Co-Op there was one where the makers had used a large teddy bear for the body and dressed and stuffed it.”

Dying of Guying

It was clear that from the reports the custom was still alive but in decline. A series of theories have been put forward or could be suggested for its decline and disappearance some mine some others.

Theory 1: The inability to buy fireworks – This is seen as one of the commonest reasons for the decline mainly because this is cited as a reason children did so. Although there is no firm evidence that this was exclusively all that the money was used for and it does seem unlikely that it would stop the custom. Certainly the children interviewed had no concern over how to use their money and one could argue it could still be given to parents to buy fireworks

Theory 2: The rise of Hallowe’en trick or treat. This is often seen as the main reason for the decline. Why would children make something and spend hours collecting money when they can get free sweets and sometimes money by dressing up and going around houses on one night? However, versions of trick or treat have existed side by side with making Penny for the Guy and indeed in a way they both involve for the diligent student effort. Indeed one could argue that putting a mask on some newspaper filled clothes involves less effort than dressing up or sourcing a costume. Similarly, the collection is different – sweets versus money – Money could be considered more useful especially when potentially large volumes can be collected.

Theory 3: Stranger danger. Increasing concerns from the 1970s onwards of the risk of children from members of the public has influenced the custom no doubt, with rightfully concerned parents preventing children in having the freedom previous generations enjoyed. This has combined with an increasing toxification of children as ‘gangs’. However, children still assembly in groups from aged 11 onwards – ages which have been reported as doing Penny for the Guy – so this in itself in some areas cannot be a major factor

Theory 4: Anti-begging – any cursory examination of a parental forum post on this subject such as Mumsnet would indicate that many see it as begging and this being now not acceptable. Of course the custom is, but this cannot be seen as a major influence in areas of low incomes and in a way this is a class driven view which probably always existed and indeed was espoused by parents when I was younger.

Theory 5: Rise in affluence. The general rise in average income and in particular its effect on pocket money would certainly have reduced the impetus for students and thus the number that would entertain the idea of Penny for the Guy

Theory 6: Other entertainments. With all manner of games have kept children indoors in and in many cases have replaced face to face communication

Theory 7: Lack of back garden bonfires and street fires. The smallness of new estates, increasing lack of waste ground and a push to encourage families to attend civic firework ceremonies means less domestic ones and less demand for Guys.

To summarise I feel that the rise in general affluence, lack of private bonfires (giving the Guy a raison d’etre), stranger danger and distraction of other entertainments has had an effect. Therefore the custom should survive I areas where there are low incomes and large areas as well as a close knit community.

Looking for a Guy

It would seem that from this research (as of 2019) via the PennyfortheGuysightings site that Guy strongholds could possibly be are Sheffield, Cheadle/Manchester and Stoke on Trent. The Sheffield report by fellow folklorist Richard Bradley suggested multiple Guys but the city was the only place where academic research had been undertaken by Ervin Beck in 1984 in Children’s Guy Fawkes Customs in Sheffield in Folklore 95:

“Among the schoolchildren sampled, about 23% made Guy Fawkes figures in 1981, with eleven-year-olds showing the most involvement (32% active). Thirteen-year-olds at Bradfield and eight-year-olds at Wisewood were the most active (52%). Hallam- Tapton students showed least involvement at 17%-a figure that would be even lower had fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds been included in the sample there. In both the Wisewood-Wisewood and Bolsterstone-Bradfield systems, interest remains surprisingly steady from early years until the Sixth Form, when participation in the custom falls off entirely. In 1981 children made their guys as early as October 10 and as late as the morning of November 5. Many made them a few days before Hallowe’en. Tracy, 12, made hers two weeks before November 5 and continued to improve it during the days leading up to Bonfire Night.”

Therefore it seemed to be a good place to try and search out these surviving Penny for the Guy. I decided to pick a weekday in the school holidays which fortunately was close to Guy Fawkes Night, close enough I feel for any Guy makers to make good of the potential. My first arrival at Hillsborough Morrisons was unsuccessful there was no sign of a Guy as people busily went around their shopping. It looked an ideal location however. I then travelled to Southey Green a smaller settlement but again no luck. However, I was not put off so I decided to travel around the area. Then passing a small shopping strip I did a doubletake. There was a Penny for the Guy attended by four children. After all this time I could not believe it. I quickly went over to them. I could not believe it after 20 plus years there were some children doing Penny for the Guy. This was no folk revival but genuine folk custom naturally undertaken as had done so for a generations.

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The group appeared to be loosely organised with an older boy around 12 being in charge. The Guy was laid against the wall of the post office outside where the boys were situated, and had a white V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes Mask suggesting the boys knew their heritage! I spoke with them at length and they explained why they were doing it and that they intended to throw it on one of their parents backyard bonfires.

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So why had it survived in this area of Sheffield? I spoke to a women who was curious why I was interested in the boys. She was naturally suspicious but once I had allayed her fears that I was not a risk to the boys she discussed why. She said that it was a close knit community everyone knew everyone in this area of Sheffield despite being pure urban city it had a village mentality. This certainly benefited its survival. No one would be annoyed by the custom as they knew the kids and the kids would be polite as they knew they were known by the community. I spoke to the children again and they said that the previous year they had made £60 which they spent on games for their Playstations. Thus destroying the theory that the belief that Hallowe’en giving free sweets trumped the Penny for the Guy monetarily. Even whilst I was there one of the group was speculating to accumulate by one of the boys who was taking some of his cash to buy another mask to set up another group. Indeed, the women who spoke to me said the groups increased after dark and there were at least three groups on this small area of five or six groups. Indeed, another boy turned up whilst I was there interested what I was doing and when he found out took to some bins behind the arcades were he had his retired Guy and another he was working on. Three Guys after 20 years! The general descriptions of the Guys was that they were made of tracksuits sown together and filled with newspaper. The arms and legs tied closed with tape, the top had a hoddie which enabled it to be filled with newspaper and a mask stuck inside it or over it – both I was informed had been used for Hallowe’en beforehand or in the past . They were not as varied as described again by Ervin Beck in 1984 in Children’s Guy Fawkes Customs in Sheffield in Folklore 95:

The simplest guy constructed by children in the 1981 survey belonged to Rachel, 9, who put a cardboard box with the figure of a man painted on it on top of her bonfire. But the typical guy was built around a pair of Mum’s discarded tights, stuffed with paper, clothed in someone’s tattered trousers and jumper and topped with a head made of a paper or plastic bag with a face drawn on it with a felt-tip pen. Depending on whose old clothes were used, the figure was either adult- or child-sized, with the smaller size apparently predominating. On top often sat an old bowler, top hat, ‘crash’ hat, ‘pompom’ hat, safari hat or paper party hat. Only two wigs were reported, one made of a dishcloth, the other of cassette tape in all its tangled, unwound glory. Masks sometimes replaced felt-tip pen in supplying features on the bag heads. Discarded footballs were also favourite materials to use for the guy’s head, as were turnips (Whistler’s ‘mangel-wurzel’). Penelope, 16, painted her turnip with felt-tip pen; Nicola, 12, stuck a carrot nose on her turnip head. Carl, 13, used the pumpkin lantern he had earlier used for Hallowe’en trick-or-treat.”

The boys said of another group they knew of but there was not anyone there however it showed this was indeed a thriving area for the custom. Indeed, it was pretty clear these kids were not doing for tradition although generous passers by did recall that they had done so themselves in the area – they were doing it for cash. When money is involved folk customs can suffer but when they make money they obviously can survive. So it is clear that in areas with a strong community and dare I say it economically less well off Penny for the Guy will survive as my theory beforehand suggested. I am sure it will survive for a long period in these areas with its only threat being the fabric of those communities. Change may come and it may survive. But until then on the streets of some parts of Sheffield can still be heard:.

“Penny for the Guy”

Inflation had not yet hit it I add!

Custom contrived: Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship

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Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoorAs I am writing this blog post on Easter Monday bemoaning the deluge of rain pouring off the house making this one of the worse, weatherwise, Easter Monday I can remember. But then a message pops up that there’s heavy snow in Wakefield….last year I was making my way to the Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship; this year the heavy snow was putting it at risk. However, they are made of tough stuff up north and as they claim nothing has cancelled it in its 55 year history…and indeed it wasn’t!

But where is Gawthorpe? The Sat Nav did not appear to know. But the mass media did find it on this day which draws this small hamlet out of obscurity and into international attention

This was proud coal mining land and carrying coal would have been a common enough occurrence for someone to think it could be turned into a competition. The competition website tells the following story of its creation:

“At the century-old Beehive Inn situated in Gawthorpe the following incident took place one day in 1963. Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ” Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered!” slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out.‘’ Ah’m as fit as thee’’ he told Lewis, ‘’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’’ ( Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal ). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee ( and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand. ” ‘Owd on a minute,’’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’’( The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House )”

So it could be claimed to be the grandfather of the increasingly common ‘customs made up in a pub’ and indeed the pub is pivotal to the custom starting as it does at the Royal Oak strictly speaking in Ossett and ends uphill at the village green where the Maypole resides a not so easy 1012 metres. It is curious that Easter Monday was chosen as it was the traditional time for heaving…not sure if heaving a person or a coal bag would be harder work or not!

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At the coal face

It is indeed hard work. At the start the contestants full of enthusiasm and energy. The contestants laugh and occasionally rib each other as they psych themselves up. This might seem a rather bizarre and comical event but it has become a serious measure of ability and stamina. Firmly, becoming on the list of endurance things to do. Some people even had coaches running along with them shouting words of encouragement! Serious stuff. It certainly was as the gentle slope near the start became steep and steeper. At first the event is attended by a few curious onlookers but as the centre of the village is approach the crowds become greater, each side of the road kept at bay by metal railings, waiting here to see the contestants try to attempt the most crueling part. I waited here and watched as the contestants now covered in black soot, in some cases only the whites of their eyes escaping, huffed and puffed up the hill.

Carry coals to Newcastle

When the custom started this was a proud mining community. Its still now proud and so it should be having two notable traditions for such a small and rather indistinct. However, this is far from a coal community, coal comes from elsewhere, the mine closed and miners long gone into retirement or other jobs. The custom might seem a bit outdated; a bit superfluous! But no it is now a great source of income for local pubs as now the custom attracts people from all across the country and across the world in fact. As Julia Smith in her Fairs, Feasts and Frolics customs and traditions of Yorkshire, 25 years in it had already taken on the air of professionalism:

“The event has changed considerably in its twenty-five years. As news spread, more people became interested and wanted to take part. The competitors are now drawn from a wide area and it has become sport orientated. The local pit has closed and the miners have been replaced by serious athletes who wear regulation running gear and train thoroughly sometimes all year round.”

Now adult racers either carry 50kg men, or 20kg, women (no one’s crying out for equal masses here I notice), and smaller masses for children and veterans. Again Smith was informed that:

“it was not necessary to be big and hefty to take part as not was often fell runners wo did well, wiry types with good strong legs.”

Of course the professionals have not taken over the event, it is clear that some have entered to prove they could do it – they are not going to win, never have a chance of winning….there is some achievement carrying fifty kilos of coal and all the back breaking, dust covering, a hot sweatiness is worth it to say you entered and did it. For some its for charity, some as a personal goal and others on a spur of a moment…how many regret half way through as there’s no dropping a few coals on the way: the bags are sown up! As I watched the runners it was indeed clear they were achieving sometime and the atmosphere from the crowd as they cheered they on was electric. Over two thousand people cheering is nearly enough to get over the fact they are carrying coal on your back!

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Hot coals on snow

As the Huddersfield Daily Enquirer’s Nick Laviguer in a piece called Snow fails to stop famous Gawthorpe Coal Race reported:

There was doubt the spectacle would take place this morning after several inches of snow fell on the course in Ossett, causing the cancellation of the children’s event. But at 11am with the thaw beginning to set in, organisers decided to go ahead and allow the more than 100 competitors to complete the challenge –. Women’s champion, was local teacher Danielle Sidebottom, who has entered numerous times but never won before. In the end, victory was taken by reigning men’s champion Andrew Corrigan of Driffield, who actually improved his time from 2017 by two seconds.”

Who would of thought that an idle discussion in the pub would last over 50 years and become a national icon, that snow will not even stop and as it appears above improve it…well at least they had the hot coals ready to melt it.

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.”

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!