Tag Archives: Calendar custom blog

Custom contrived: Matlock Raft Race, Derbyshire

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Matlock Bath is justly proud of its Venetian carnival but there is another aquatic antic which is less genteel and shows the other side of the town a more raucous one. On Boxing Day crowds line, many prepared with deckchairs and pack lunches to watch below and indeed interact with the bizarre array of rafters below, as they speed or drift passed.

Draft idea or not

Local tradition tells that in 1961 a group of divers finding little they could do over the cold winter months decided it would be a good idea to come up with a fun charity event. Obviously picking Boxing Day as a day associated with wacky races and sports in general they set about organizing their first raft race. From the first year it was a huge success with people entering from all over the country with over 100 rafts taking part. Over the years the event has become more and more popular and as befits a calendar custom more and more bizarre!

Like most races its impossible to see beginning in end and most spectators simply watch for them as they flow and often rush down river, over the weir, often creating some hilarity depending on the seaworthiness of the raft and then to Cromford meadows at the finishing line.

Raft of ideas

With around 50 rafts there was a great array of oddness. There is a prize for the best dressed raft and it did not disappoint. Dressed in their obligatory helmets and floating devices for safety reason can be seen super heroes, men in drag, cartoon characters, there was a real attempt to make a show of it. The rafts were pretty amazing too and a considerable amount of effort had gone into them. The most amazing were the cut down cars, in particular in a mini, which sadly in its appearance stuck in the water would have been seen in the 2019 floods thereabouts. An account in the Matlock Mercury published on Saturday 29 December 2012 put it well:

In a show of bravery and sheer madness the intrepid rafters dressed up as members of the Muppets and Santa Claus, furiously paddling Minis through the rapids to the delight of spectators.”

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Raft of missiles

The custom is not the most popular amongst certain quarters. Huge crowds had assembled overlooking the river cheering and waving.  Along the path by the river signs proclaim:

“No Eggs No Plastic bags”

This is reference to one of the strangest aspects of the custom, the throwing of objects at the rafts. As if navigating yourself down a river on a cold day in December was not enough the tradition of throwing eggs and flour at the participants has developed. When I arrived the whole walkway had become a slippery morass of flour and egg like some pancake making disaster. Crowds cheered as they pelted the contestants with flour bombs made on flour wrapped in clingfilm – hence the concern that these would affect the wildlife – a point I could not disagree with. Indeed, this aspect of the custom is one which would bring it close to closure I feel. One person on the bank had a whole bag full of pre-wrapped flour bundles, there must have been hundreds.

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On the Derbyshire Dales website in 2017 the following pleas were made, with Paul Reeves, Environment Officer at the Environment Agency, saying :

“We realise the Matlock Raft Race is an important social event for the area, which attracts a large number of local residents as well as visitors from further afield, has a positive impact on the local economy, and raises funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

“However, we are appealing to spectators to consider the environment by not throwing flour-filled plastic bags or other objects at the raft racers and into the water this year.

“If plastic or paper bags enter the watercourse, they pose a real threat to wildlife both locally and further afield. Last year there were sightings of water birds trying to eat floating flour-filled bags, and the deadly impact of plastics on river and sea life is well known and currently in the news.”

Councillor Lewis Rose OBE, Leader of Derbyshire Dales District Council, said:

“The Boxing Day raft race has become something of a tradition here in the Derbyshire Dales and long may it continue. However, we absolutely support the Environment Agency’s plea to spectators to refrain from activities that threaten the environment and wildlife, as well as littering our waterways and streets.”

It made no effect as I saw in 2018!

Of course the rafters do not just idly pass by and let this rain of missiles happen. No they are prepared. Many carry super-soakers and some even water cannons. A number protect themselves with umbrellas. The crowd at times can get thoroughly wet and flour covered and one wonders how this all started. Did the rafters start the war or the onlookers felt the need to get involved. It is all hilarious stuff and a cheer goes out if a hit on the raft results in a participant covered in flour – but they were soon to hit back.

I watched as a cloud of flour fell over the edge to coat a superhero below soon to be greeting the assailant with a rapid fire of the water cannon. I passed a family covered head to toe in flour who had been caught in the crossfire. They were as happy as can be. But it is messy stuff. Unpopular and from the mess and litter one could see why but it would be a shame to see one of the best aspects of the custom disappear due to a lack of lateral thinking.

Recent events with flooding meant that the Raft Race was cancelled for the first time perhaps ever. One is concerned that the gentile folk of Matlock Bath do not use its temporary cancellation as a permanent one

On their website it was clear how popular the custom is:

Social media activity around the cancellation was outstanding (the cancellation post reached over 20,000 people and shared by 1,500 people), it is clear that the event is well loved and appreciated by individuals and families, some travelling from far afield to take part and see the event.”

On the website the organised discussed its cancellation. It seemed that there were genuine reasons for the cancellation following the terrible 2019 floodings. However it did seem a shame in a year when Matlock’s river had become a threat not a gift not to allow something which would have seen it in a positive light. However I feel we will once again be covered in plumes of flower and soaked to the skin when it returns in 2020.

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 revived: The Wild horse of Antrobus and the Soulcakers

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I have previously reported on soulcaking before but the most famous team, the Wild horse of Antrobus. When I first got into calendar customs it was via books like Homer Sykes’ Once a Year and Brian Shuel’s National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs. From the later I was enthralled by what he called the Wild Horse of Antrobus:

“The nine players dress in character. When I saw them back in 1972 King George looked like a bandsman, the Black Prince – mysteriously like an old fashioned police constable, the Quack doctor as normal for the part. Mary was a ‘splendid old woman’ bag to disguise his masculinity. Beelzebub was a dreadful old man with a big black beard. Derry Doubt not only dressed like a schoolboy but very probably was one. The letter in did not appear to be in costume at all. The driver was resplendent in full and immaculate, hunting pink, The Wild Horse , was a man bowed forward from the waist beneath a canvas cover which was attached to a real horse skull. This was painted shiny black and mounted on a pole which the man held. Thus with two black legs, a bulky canvas body, one front leg and ferocious snapping head, a reasonably convincing – if bizarre – horse was achieved.”

Now I had seen the Warburton soulcakers and similar ‘horses’ with them, the Winster Guisers and the Poor Owd Oss, of course, but this the oldest of the revived teams haunted me. So this year I finally decided to get myself organised to see them and they did not disappoint.

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Soul for the caking

For those unfamiliar and who have not read my earlier post on the topic. Soul caking is a custom now largely confined to the North-west of England, in particular in Cheshire. Chris Eyres in a piece on the website http://warrington.westlancsfreemasons.org.uk/soulcaking-revisited explains:

“As far as Soulcaking is concerned, we believe that these rituals will have changed over time and the characters in such ‘plays’ will also have changed to reflect the good and bad omens and heroes of the day. It is also likely that, during the middle ages, in order to curry favour with communities, the Church will have ‘hijacked’ some of these beliefs and Christianised them in some way and added them to the Church calendar. It is clear that such rituals would have been an important part of village life and ones which all villagers would have looked forward to. It is also significant that the play is performed after harvest time. This would have been a time of great celebration within a rural village community. There would also be some concern that the earth would be required to produce crops for the following year. The raising of the dead in the play and the inclusion of a horse are believed to relate to superstitions surrounding fertility.”

There are now around half a dozen souling gangs surviving in Cheshire, they were once much more common.  It seems that many large villages had a gang until the start of the 20th century.  Most of today’s groups have arrived in the folk revival of the 1960s-70s, though Antrobus Soulcakers are claimed to be an uninterrupted tradition since the late 19th century, that is not strictly true as the evidence appears to be that they were revived in the 1930ss after a brief hiatus which could have seen it gone for good. Like many customs it was the First World War put an end to almost all of the Soulcakers but at Comberbach, the old tradition survived into the 1920s, when Major A Boy heard it and published the text in 1929. Following his encouragement several young farmers clubs in the Antrobus area undertook to carry out the performances and the revival begun. The revival was noted by Christina Hole noted that:

“On October 31st 1934, the Comberbach Soulcaking play was broadcast from Frandley House near Northwich, the home of Mr. W. A. Boyd. Mr Boyd

The Comberbach soulcaking play was that undertaken by the Antrobus Soulcakers and so the revival continued.

Popped in…not souled out

Arriving at the venue it was a wet Friday evening. Like many times with such plays one never knows if they came early and missed it. However, soon a minibus loomed into view and out poured not dissimilar to the arrival of tour bus of some famous band; one by one in their curious costumes. They assembled themselves around the front of the pub for their entrance. Quite often with such plays the reception can be variable, but here quite a crowd had assembled awaiting the Soulcakers. The team was much as described by Shuel:

“The dress of the characters is modern King George appearing in Khaki, and the Black Prince in a bandsman’s tunic and a spiked helmet. The characters in this version are the Letter -in, who announced that ‘there’s going to be a dreadful fight’, King George, who in many versions has taken the place of St George, and who, in this case is the slayer, the Black Prince the victim, and Old Woman, his mother and the Quack Doctor who raises the corpse to life. In addition there are dairy doubt and Beelzebub, the Driver and the Wild Horse.”

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Horse play

The main draw of the Antrobus Soulcakers is the Wildhorse. The horse is described as having been bred from Marbury Dun, a famous animal who really existed and is buried at Marbury Hall, not far off.  As Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year notes the play is standard until the end when the Wild horse and his Driver appear:

“In comes Dick and all his men,

He’s come to see you once again,

He was once alive and now he’s dead

He’s nothing but a old horses head,

Stand around Dick and show yourself,

Now ladies and gentlemen just view around,

See whether you’ve seen a better horse on any ground,

He double ribbed sure footed

A splendid horse in any gears

And him if you can

He’s travelled high, he’s travelled low,

He’s travelled through frost and snow,

He’s travelled the land of Ikerty Pikkery.

Where there’s neither land nor city….

The horse was bred in Seven Oaks

The finest horse e’er fed on oats,

He’s won the Derby and the Oaks,

And now pulls an old milk float,

Now I ask you all to open your hearts to buy Dick a newsprung cart,

Not for him to pull, oh dear no! For him,

To ride in. If you don’t believe these words I say ask those outside here They’re better liars than I am.”

Indeed much of the play’s charm and enjoyment came from this wild horse who certainly lived up to his name as he threw itself around the pub to equal amounts of fear and laughter. It was remarkable how a skull, a stick and blanket can have the appearance of something alive. Indeed, one woman found the whole experience a little too weird and was quite scared of it! I myself never stopped laughing as its handler resplendent in his hunting pink pulled and yanked at its chain and tried to keep it under control. The audience were soon getting their phones out to film this curious encounter and it was clear that the team bounced off the rapport in such venues.

There is certainly something otherworldly in the Wildhorse with its black head, gnashing teeth and staring white eye. A good mix of horror and hilarity and may it long entertain the Cheshire pubs.

Custom demised: Cob Coaling

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Image result for "cob coalin'""“We come a Cob-coaling for Bonfire time,

Your coal and your money we hope to enjoy.

Fal-a-dee, fal-a-die, fal-a-diddly-i-do-day.

For down in yon’ cellar there’s an owd umberella

And up on yon’ cornish there’s an owd pepperpot.

Pepperpot! Pepperpot! Morning ’till night.

If you give us nowt, we’ll steal nowt and bid you good night.

Up a ladder, down a wall, a cob o’coal would save us all.

If you don’t have a penny a ha’penny will do.

If you don’t have a ha’penny, then God bless you.

We knock at your knocker and ring at your bell

To see what you’ll give us for singing so well.

So goes a short song sung in this case by south Lancashire children as they went around collecting wood for the fire and any money they could for fireworks.  The custom appears to have restricted to around the Lancashire and Yorkshire areas, the former unsurprisingly a coal area and each area would have different versions. On the East of the M60 blog some variants are suggested by commenters to a post on Cob coaling. A Peter Swarbrick notes:

“I lived in Denton during the 40’s and 50’s when Halloween was a Scottish custom that we had nothing to do with. When we went calling, the words to our song were as follows: We come a cob calling for bonfire plot
There’s nowt in yon corner but an old pepper pot Fol der ee, fol der ee, fol der ee dum dy day, Guy Guy Guy stick him in the eye Tie him to a lamp post And there let him die Christmas is coming The geese are getting fat, Please put a penny in the old man’s hat. If you haven’t got a penny A ha’penny will do If you haven’t got a ha’penny Then god bless you.”

Interesting to note a link with Christmas showing the creeping early intervention of the custom is no new thing perhaps. Also on the blog a Duncan Graham similarly notes:

“In Hyde we used to sing We’ve come a cob coaling, cob coaling, cob coaling. We’ve come a cob coaling for bonfire night. Good tidings we bring to your your king, We’ve come a cob coaling for bonfire night.”

Also a Rob Standing also notes that:

“The last two lines are new to me, but otherwise the song is identical to what we sang in Hathershaw, Oldham in the early 1960’s, except we sang ‘If you give us owt, we’ll steal nowt and bid you good night.
Small but crucial change (and slightly threatening in retrospect) which makes more sense.”

It appears to have surprised until the late 1970s and early 80s. It is possible that it survived into the 1990s as it is mentioned by Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1993 maypoles, martyrs and mayhem on the 21st October saying :

“in the weeks leading up to November the 5th bonfires have to be built. Nicking gates is not the way to win a neighbour’s affections; and so it was that the organised fuel collecting tradition was born. Cob Coaling was the North’s version of this. It survives around Stalybridge and Dunkinfield, just east of Manchester. Children go from door to door sing cob-coaling songs and asking for lumps of wood as well as money for fireworks. The cob coaling song has the complex and erudite chorus:

“We’ve come a cob-coaling, cob coaling, cob coaling, We’ve come a cob coaling for Bonfire night.”

Sadly despite the memorable song it appears to have died out. The death of cob coaling would appear to have been the same factors that have been claimed to have caused the demise of Penny for the Guy the growth of modern estates with reduced area for bonfires combined with the restrictions on the sale of fireworks. Today cob-coaling is fondly remembered by over 40s and a few folk singers. Although it may survive in some areas you never know!

Custom revived: Spalding Pumpkin Parade

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Mention Spalding and customs and most people will recall the famous and much lamented flower parade. Sadly that demised in the early 2000s but in an odd way as local growers have changed with the time another parade has arisen – the annual pumpkin parade – capitalise in the growth of the local pumpkin growing capitalising itself on the increased in demand since the 1990s.

Turn into a pumpkin

You might think that Halloween items appear in the shops far too early but in Spalding it is like they are already celebrating Halloween! Spalding’s Pumpkin parade has really grown from strength to strength, held on the second Friday in October, it acts as a herald to Halloween like advent does Christmas perhaps – well at least locally.

The streets of the market town when I arrived was already a throng, I had been told that 10,000 people had turned up and it certainly felt lie it. Whilst none had them had dressed in Halloween customs many of them had orange balloons and some even dressed orangey!  Amongst the attractions were a small local farmers markets and stalls for children making pumpkin based crafts…and lots of carved pumpkins. These are apparently donated by the local company. As the light began to fade people waited the parade.

Leading the parade was the town’s Flower queen, although what she does now without the flower parade I am not sure! Obviously she would have been in a pumpkin coach like a real Cinderella which glimmered with its lights in the darkness. She was then followed by school children, hundreds of school children and their families carrying lanterns, pumpkins and scarecrows. There were dancing troupes and one group dressed in carnival clothing – which looked a bit too cold and damp for that. Overall it was a vision in orange and flashing lights,, inflatable pumpkins, paper pumpkins and flashing lights..and there were plenty of them in the crowd too, spinning, flashing and flapping courtesy of the hawkers who turn up to any firework or lantern parade. Then to finish it off fireworks…to remind us Bonfire night was also around the corner!

From tiny seeds grow big pumpkin parades

Back in 2000 was the first parade and it has become more and more popular although relatively unknown outside of Lincolnshire it would seem, although in 2004 it won a local award and became a week of events culminating in the parade night in 2009, The catalyst for the custom is a local company which decided to grow pumpkins in the 1990s. Mr Bowman the owner came up with the idea and its grown in size every since. He stated in Spalding Today that:

“We’re really pleased to support the Pumpkin Festival – when I was first approached about it I thought it was going to be a one-off! It’s a great community event, bringing lots of people together and we’re really pleased to be involved – it’s nice for us to be able to give something back to the community.”

However, success comes with a price as noted this year in the Spalding today when rumours have suggested that its popularity could result in its demise Stating that there was concern over public safety but local councillor Roger Gambba Jones stated:

“I doubt very much there would ever be consideration to stop it (the pumpkin parade) because it’s something that people enjoy doing.”

He added it will continue under his present administration – which might mean only for the next four years…which would be a shame as Spalding needs a great custom to put it on the map..the Pumpkin parade is certainly unique!

Custom demised: Rochford Lawless Court, Essex

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Image result for Rochford lawless court

 

Now largely forgotten is a curious legal custom which persisted until the late 1800s in Essex. Personal recollections of which are given by Courtney Kenny (1905) in the article The Lawless Court of Essex in the Columbia Law Review Vol. 5, No. 7 notes:

“It was in 1878 that, on October 5th (the Tuesday following Old Michaelmas-day), I went down from London to witness the Lawless Court. The railroad could only take me as far as Southend, a watering place at the mouth of the Thames in the south-eastern corner of Essex. But even there I found, as the evening drew on, that some mysterious excitement was abroad. There seemed a gradual disappearance of the male inhabitants of the town between the ages of fifteen and fifty; the streets grew silent, and the public houses became deserted. I caught a stray youth whom an unenterprising disposition or a maternal injunction had detained at home, and asked him the reason of this sudden emigration. ‘It is Cockcrowing Night’ he replied. And in every village and hamlet throughout the Hundred of Rochford that watchword had been passing from boy to boy all day long–” It is Cockcrowing night.”

What was this court? Morant in his 1768 History of Essex states that at King’s-hill, about half a mile northeast of Rochford Church, in the yard of a house once belonging to Crips, Gent,, and afterwards to Robert Hackshaw, of London, merchant, and to Mr. John Buckle. Here the tenants kneel, and do their homage. The time is the Wednesday morning next after Michaelmas Day, upon the first cock-crowing, without any kind of light but such as the heavens will afford.

Why was it called whispering court?

Apparently those who appeared at the court

“all such as are bound to appear with as low a voice as possible, giving no notice, when he that gives not an answer is deeply amerced. They are all to whisper to each other ; nor have they any pen and ink, but supply that office with a coal ; and he that owes suit and service thereto, and appears not, forfeits to the lord double his rent every hour he is absent. A tenant of this manor forfeited not long ago his land for non-attendance, but was restored to it, the lord only taking a fine. The Court is called Lawless because held at an unlawful or lawless hour.”

Pivotal to this was a post called the Whispering post quadrilateral in section, five feet in height and topped with a conical carving representing a candles flame. Here the orderly line was formed about the post as the lighted torch was put out. Here the scroll and announced:

“’Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!, all manner of persons that do owe suit and service to this Court now to be holden in and for the Manor of Kings Hill in the Hundred of Rochford draw near and give your attendance and perform your several suits and services according to the custom of the said Manor. God Save The King’”

The origins of the custom

Kenny (1908) notes that:

“Hundreds of years since, so their tradition ran, there had dwelt at Rayleigh a sturdy baron, who was Lord of the Manor of King’s Hill. One autumn night as he lay in bed he was disturbed from his slumbers by the premature and pertinacious crowing of a barn-door cock. He rose and sallied out; and, as he walked through the chill air, he overheard whispers. He listened, and to his amazement found that he was listening to a party of the vassals of his manor, arranging the details of a plan to murder him. I suppose he strode back to the manor house, and summoned Jack and Giles and Roger and all the other knaves and varlets of the household to his assistance. But whether he was thus backed by aid, or whether he was single-handed, matters little, for anyhow (so says the story) he interrupted the conspirators, convicted them of their treason, and made them tremble for their lives and their lands. Then, of his clemency, the puissant lord consented to a compromise. The crime should be pardoned, the forfeiture should be waived, the homage and fealty of the penitent rebels should be again accepted. But, to secure the perpetual remembrance of their crime, they and their heirs were forever to hold the restored lands by a shameful service.”

As a result as he continues:

“Year after year as the anniversary of the detected plot returned-the Wednesday following Old Michaelmas Day, i. e., following October 1st -the tenants of this Manor of King’s Hill should assemble, as soon as the midnight of Tuesday was past, in the open air, with no light but such as the sky might give, on the spot where their traitorous ancestors whispered over their plans. There the lord’s steward should whisper out the roll of their names with as low a voice as possible; and the tenant that answered not when his name was whispered should forfeit to the lord double his rent for every hour he was absent. The steward should have no ink and pen to record his minutes; the blackened end of a piece of burned wood must suffice to make all the entries on the roll of this court of shame. Nor must these assembled sons of traitors venture to depart when the business of the court was done. They were to linger on the hill through the cold night, until the bird of warning who defeated their fathers’ crime should give them leave to go.

From midnight, then, to the first cockcrow, must they wait upon the King’s Hill; at the crowing of the cock they were to be free to depart. And in this manner, for unknown centuries, was the court duly held. In something of this manner was it held even when I saw it.”

However as in these cases:

“The court indeed had long lost all forensic importance. For centuries past, no prosecutions and no litigation had taken place in it. Perhaps, indeed, no prosecutions ever had; for its title, ‘Curia Sine Lege’ has been conjecturally explained as ‘ the court without a leet-day.’ And it had ceased to do conveyancing work; no demesne lands or copyhold lands were controlled by it. It had become a mere settling-day for the payment of quit-rents and suit fines. Next, something had come to be conceded to the degeneracy of modern manners. Down to the earlier part of the eighteenth century the fine for non-attendance was still inflicted. But before I8oo the tenants had come to have more fear of late hours and autumn damps than of manorial penalties. So they became accustomed to pay their dues in the morning at the steward’s comfortable office; and to leave King’s Hill and its chilly starlight to the juveniles and the antiquaries. Moreover, even in the matter of the star light an innovation grew to be allowed; and a goodly supply of torches was not only permitted, but actually provided for the suitors. And in the point of cockcrowing, a perfect revolution gradually came about. First of all, a legal fiction was introduced for shortening the proceedings; a stout lunged Rochfordian being bribed to play the part of a cock, and crow lustily as soon as the business of the court was over; so as to save the suitors from having to w three hours for the notes of the veritable chanticleer, and having to incur meanwhile imminent perils of colds and coughs, ‘catarrhs and agues, and joint-racking rheums.’ Next, the paid expert was dispensed with; and the cock crowing was done on the voluntary system. And I found that, without any stimulus from manorial compulsion or manorial pay, the youth of Rochford accepted with spontaneous enthusiasm the steward’s slightest hint that the time had come for their services, and would go on crowing as long and as loud as could be desired by the deafest ten ant or the sleepiest baron. Yet, even with these maimed rites, the court would not have survived till near the end of the nineteenth century, had it not been for one further venerable and admirable usage, of which no mention is made by any of the reverend antiquaries who have described the use and wont of the Manor of King’s Hill. The lords of that ilk had for many a long year had a good old custom,-like fine old English gentlemen of the most olden time,-of spending all the profits of the manor in providing a good supper for the attendants at this Lawless Court. So year by year, when Cockcrowing Night had come, the lord called in all his antiquarian-minded neighbours. And there, in Rochford, at the good old hostelry of the King’s Head, they would sit and sup; as their forefathers had sat and supped.”

Kenny continues to note

“A good supper i’ faith it was, when I sat down at it in the year 1878. It was held in the traditional room, with the steward of the manor presiding in the traditional chair, over the traditional joint and the traditional apple-pie, and ultimately, with the most traditional of ladles, dispensing the traditional bowl of punch, compiled from a traditional receipt of preterhuman cunningness. A jovial supper it was; as we ate up and drank up, at our feudal seigneur’s bidding, all the proceeds of his quit-rents, and chief rents, and fee farm rents, and fines of suit, and profits of rendre and prendre.”

But this curious mix of ancient pointless custom, feast and legal duty did not last beyond Kenny’s description. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century saw the ending of The Whispering Court, and despite a mock revival by the local history society, which I believe no longer enact it, and all is left today is the house, a private dwelling and in the grounds the whispering post.

Custom occasional: Spitting on the Heart of Midlothian, Edinburgh

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Tourists mill to and fro down the Royal Mile passing St Mary’s Kirk may miss an unusual heart shaped mosaic made of stones set into the pavement below them. That is until someone passes raises back their head and lands a big glob of spit upon it and walks off! But why?

The heart together with the brass markers set into the pavement mark the location of the 15th century Tolbooth of Edinburgh, the once administrative centre of the town and also its prison and site of execution.

Spit it out

One possible origin is that it is associated with the Porteous riots of 1736 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted smuggler was publicly hanged and that when his body was cut down against the wishes of the mob a riot ensued. The Lord Provost Captain Porteous called out the guards to deal with them as the mob became violent and began stoning the guards. This then lead to a precipitation of violence which resulted in six people being shot and Porteous being arrested and charged with murder. Testimony differed on whether he was responsible and the people feeling a plot was organised to make him innocent, dragged him from the prison and after some horrendous acts was finally beaten to death. It is said that the stone represented the people’s views on murder of the six people. The tolbooth was immortalised in Water Scott’s 1818 novel ‘Heart of Midlothian’, the year after it was demolished.

I could just spit

The Heart of Midlothian is a heart-shaped mosaic on the pavement of the Royal Mile, which many people spit on in passing, supposedly to bring them good luck.

At first it would appear that understandably those who were or associated with criminals as a form of disdain to show their disgust or ward off evil associated with it. It is said to mark where the death cell was and so looking back as an accused man you would spit although others state it is where the entrance was. By the 20th century it had become associated with good luck as recorded by Florence Marian MacNeil’s 1977 Silver Bough: Scottish folk-lore and folk-belief who recorded that ‘an occasional boy’ would be seen spitting on it.

Even more recently it would appear that Hibernian F.C football team would spit on the stones thinking it was there to demonstrate their hatred of rival team Heart of Midlothian F.C! Indeed a commenter on a Hibernian FC forum suggested they spit for luck for the 1998 Cup final.

However even more recently it has been gum and copper coins deposited there, the later certainly more sanitary. Indeed, a mini documentary does show both confusion of over why it was done and what it represents.

However, the custom continues, as I stood one wet and rainy day on the Royal Mile, a tile red-headed man appeared and drew up some spittle and thrust it down on the heart in front of me…perhaps realising I was a tourist! Interesting, spitting is banned in the city but the heart remains a final sanctuary for the unpleasant act which back in 1967 there was an attempt to ban this ‘filthy act’…however with a tourist conscious city of Edinburgh, even this antisocial custom is worth preserving.