Tag Archives: Berkshire

Custom demised: Eton Ram Hunting, Berkshire

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Schools begin again soon but amongst the curious rituals of the new term, none are as bizarre as that which – now would be done during school holidays – the hunting of a ram on Election Saturday. The College had an ancient claim upon its butcher to provide a ram on the Election Saturday, to be hunted by the scholars. In his 1847 History of Buckinghamshire, Lipscombe notes:

“the animal having been so pressed as to swim across the Thames, it ran into Windsor Market, with the boys after it, and much mischief was caused by this unexpected accident. The health of the scholars had also suffered from the length of the chase, or the heat of the season. The character of the sport was therefore changed about 1740, when the ram was ham-strung, and, after the speech, was knocked on the head with large, twisted clubs.”

An account in the Gentleman’s Magasine of 1731 notes:

“Monday, Aug. 2 was the election at Eton College, when the scholars, according to custom, hunted a ram, by which the Provost and Fellows hold a Manor.”

Eton was not alone with its custom, East Wretham in Norfolk also had a harvest related hunting the ram. John Blomefield in his 1831 History of Norfolk notes:

“When the harvest work was finished by the tenants, they were to have an acre of barley, and a ram let loose in the midst of them; if they caught him, he was their property but if he escaped then the Lord claimed him”.

Surprisingly at a school, this rather cruel act was not unique, for as Henry S. Salt in his Blood Sports at School – The Eton Hare-Hunt notes:

Even in the nineteenth century such sports as bull-baiting, badger-baits, dog-fights, and cat and duck hunts, were “organised for the special edification of the Eton boys.”

However, views on such barbarity were changing even Liscombe noted:

But the barbarity of the amusement caused it to be laid aside at the election in 1747, and the, flesh of the ram was prepared in pasties The dish, however, still continued nominally to grace the Election Monday.”

Salt also notes:

“It is a curious fact that the large majority of Etonians, though nowadays a bit ashamed of the ram-hunt and other sporting pleasantries of a bygone period, do not in the least suspect that their beloved hare-hunt belongs in effect to the same category of amusement. Thus, Sir H. Maxwell Lyte, in his history of the school, referring to the earlier barbarities, remarks that “it is evident that in the time of Elizabeth cruelty to animals was not counted among the sins for which penitents require to be shriven.” But what, it may be asked, of the time of George V.? It is entertaining to find the Eton College Chronicle itself referring to the ram-hunt of the eighteenth century as a ‘brutal custom’; and remarking that Etonians were “only so barbarous.” Once!”

I for one see this as one ancient custom not necessary to revive.

 

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Custom demised: Mace Monday at Newbury

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“Why, dant’e know the old zouls keep all holidays, and eat pancakes Shrove Tuesday, bacon and beans Mace Monday, and rize to zee the zin dance Easter Day ?”

Palmer’s Devonshire Dialogue 1837

So records a curious lost Berkshire custom. The custom was associated with the election of a Mock Mayor at Newbury, called the Justice of Bartlemas despite being elected over a month before that date! The event as is usual with Mock Mayors (see Mock Mayor of Woodstock) the event was associated with a public house – the Bull and Dog. Brand’s Popular Antiquities (1853) informs us that:

“THE first Monday after St. Anne’s Day, July 26, a feast is held at Newbury, in Berkshire, the principal dishes being bacon and beans.”

Hone’s Everyday Book (1827) states that after this feast:

“In the course of the day, a procession takes place; a cabbage is stuck on a pole, and carried instead of a mace, accompanied by similar substitutes for other emblems of civic dignity, and there is of course plenty of rough music. A ‘justice’ is chosen at the same time, some other offices are filled up, and the day ends by all concerned getting comfortably ‘how come ye so.”

How come ye so equated to drunk! Sadly all this frivolity died out around the 1890s but if it was better known I am sure many would be keen to see a revival!

Custom demised: Grove Duck Feast

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07wtpast2All over the countries, fetes and village fairs often have swarms of people waiting impatiently along stream banks. Why? They are waiting for someone to open a netted bag of plastic yellow ducks…a duck race has begun. This staple of any village event with a stream…has a more ancient forbearer which used real ducks!!

The custom attracted hundreds of eager participants along the Letcombe Brook, in Grove, a village near Wantage, in a custom which in the mid 20th century was said to be over 200 years old. The association of this custom with an annual Feast makes it very clear the idea behind it…to catch them and eat them. By the 20th century the eating aspect had disappeared of course.

The custom consisted of 12 races and the aim was to catch the bird without harming it bare handed. An article in the John Bull magazine of 1955 a competitor reported:

“Duck racing isn’t as easy as it sounds,’ says Albert Cook, who one year won five out of six races. I’ve seen a dozen men take twenty minutes to catch a duck.”

 Duck feast

Another Cook, appeared to be involved in the organisation according to the Oxford Mail from July 1956:

“A blast from the whistle of the starter, Percy Cook, was the signal for the competitors, who lined up at the bridge, to jump into the water and race for the duck that Mr Cook had put into the water about 30 yards downstream.”

John Chipperfield in a recent article Ducking and diving in notes that understandably, what with the damning of the brook, large numbers of people and very nature of the event, concerns were raised over the welfare of the ducks. An RSPCA official stating:

 “We strongly deplore these races. We have received many letters of complaint about them, not only from people living in Grove but from all over the country.”

However, the very fact that the ducks often eluded the captors and much of the enjoyment was about people falling in the water was not considered.  Especially as often it is said the spectators got so excited that they leapt into the water fully clothed to join in.

Yet pressure continued and legal action was threatened. Interesting one of the organisers a Mr Knight, noted sagely:

“Our races are not terrible like stag or fox hunting. The difference seems to be that our races are the poor man’s entertainment while stag and fox hunting are rich men’s sports.”

Public pressure caused it to sink without trace in 1960 a nary a plastic duck replaced it!