Tag Archives: 2012

Custom survived: The Preston Guild

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“Yeah about every Preston Guild”

A local Northern expression which was said to be earlier this year and made me think when was the next one. A bit of research quickly revealed it was 2012 and so I made my arrangements to witness the start of this unique custom.

The history

A guild is an organisation of all traders, merchants and craftsmen in the town. Originally established to establish support many went on to monopolise and control all trade in the town. This prevented others from working there and subsequently new comers were frequently not made welcome and rarely became members of the guild. To ensure that the town controlled membership, all members periodically were called to a court where they swore loyalty to the Guild and Mayor. During this they were checked and renewed membership allowing them to trade in the town after giving a fee and then admitted admitted as a Burgess (the special name for its members.) It was soon noticed that the need to renew and check membership would only be needed once a generation and such from 1542 it was held every 20 years. First records of its celebration dates from 1387, but the origins of the custom date from 1179, when the town was given a Royal charter by King Henry II granted Guild was an organisation of traders, craftsmen and merchants. As it had a monopoly of trade in the town and only its members could carry out a craft or business. Newcomers could only trade here with the permission of the Guild, and such approval was not given lightly.

With the renewing of membership being every 20 years soon, this soon became a celebration of the city and people would take the opportunity to meet socially, feast and undertake processions and such it continues today.

The proclamation

You knew something was in the air, there was hustle and bustle of people in the town, barriers were being put up and a party of people began to assemble outside the museum where the proclamation was to be read. Unfortunately the height of the museum meant that one could not see that proclamation well although fortunately a large display screen relayed it. After what seemed to be an age of rather strange lounge music covers of popular rock songs a choir assembled, the burgesses, invited guests, the bell man and of course the Mayor of the Guild. This was a temporary Mayor who oversaw the whole affair and considering how rare the event was a considerable honour. After a delightful rendition of the Guild Hymm sung admirably by the quire and sung well by some in the crowd too, surprisingly considering it cannot be sung more than three or four times in a person’s lifetime, the Mayor was introduced and to cheers the Guild was announced.

The Trades Procession

Unsurprisingly, the longest running event associated with the Guild is the Trades Procession. Records suggest it has been undertaken at least since the 1600s. Of course the members in this procession have changed, cotton for example rose in Lancashire in the 19th century but is now defunct, and today along with more traditional trades, are a number which I still was not sure what they did.

I overheard someone in the crowd say that they thought no-one would be interested in the Guild this year, but clearly Jubilolympic fever had spread and this was clear in the thousands who had congregated to see the procession and final proclamation.

The procession was the largest the Guild had ever done consisting of just under 100 floats and members. Some had done a considerable amount of effort with people dressed as giant sofas, drinks, a wedding party and one of the largest shopping baskets I have ever seen. The floats were associated with the stirring sounds of a number of brass bands. Perhaps the most evocative of processions were the trade unions carrying their vibrant and brilliant banners and underlining still the importance of protecting one’s livelihood in modern times. Free gifts were given out aplenty – balloons, free pencils, free water bottles, sweets, bracelets…when the funeral directors appeared I was worried at what they would hand out for free! The procession continued without break for virtually two hours, a continuous serpent like, through the town. At one point, a lady pushed her head from the back of the crowds and asked for a policeman, everyone thought someone had had an accident but apparently she was asking if there was some way to get across the procession to go to a shop on the other side!!?

Entertainment for all-Wot no Rave?

As if a time machine had landed in the delightful grounds of Avenham Park, three tents over two nights boasted the ability to take you back to the parties of Guild past. Dance the Charleston in 1922, remember the War with 1942, relive the 70s soul (and especially local specialicity Northern Soul) in 1972 and experience a bit of a mish mash for 1992. Surely 1992s music was the Rave and it was hinted at, but perhaps a Rave all-dayer is a bit too madding for the gentile folk on Preston. The eerie sounds of music past resonated around these parks and back streets like those ghosts of Guild’s past creating a very special atmosphere. Indeed being every 20 years there is a rather melancholic feel to the Guild and these events built rather successfully upon that.

The procession to the church

The next day the Guild Mayor and members of the Corporation wore their finest robes of office, attended by trumpeters, mace bearers and sergeants in traditional costume and all the other professions of note in the town, judges and service personnel, process from the Guild Hall to the Minster church to give thanks for the return of the Guild. The spectacle although not as considerable as the Trades procession gave some idea of what the Civic and Church parades of the following week may have been like, as sadly I could not stay to see the Civic, church or torch procession…however, the local press was very complimentary calling it ‘The Best guild ever’ and I for one were very pleased to have been able to get involved. Especially as I may not be around to see the next one.

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom demised: The Ilford Dunmow Flitch

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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!