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Custom survived: Thomas Jones Day, Wilden All Saints, Worcestershire

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“to be applied by the said Managers for the benefit of the said school…….and that it is my desire that some reasonable portion thereof may be applied towards the expense of providing the children attending the said school with a treat on St. Swithin’s Day in every year…….”

Thomas Jones’s Will

For many people on the 15th July will mean dread – they look at the forecast, up to the sky, await upon the rheumatism to kick in – all to tell us that rain is on its way. Yes for the 15th July is St Swithun’s Day and as I am sure you aware if it rains then it does so for 40 days and night! Well in the tiny village of Wilden All Saints – the 15th does not mean awaiting the gloom of a soggy summer. No it means something altogether more spiritually uplifting – Thomas Jones’ Day. Who you may ask…well let me elaborate

Firstly, I’d like to explain that this custom is a rather private one. It involves primary children, over 100 of them, and as such they are rather concerned about unwanted visitors taking photos. So as you will see there are no children in this photos and you’ll have to imagine behind the photographer a great throng of singing infants and juniors.

A day to remember

In this village school the name Thomas Jones is a prevalent one. Awards are given out in his name and a mural is displayed in the school about him. Unlike other schools he is not the founder but a benefactor with a curious story. After making some enquiries I was invited to witness this curious unique custom. I arrived at the school just as the children were being delivered by parents and grandparents. I overheard one saying ‘I nearly forget it was his day today so we stopped by the roadside and picked some flowers in the hedgerow’

After being introduced to the current and old head I sat in the hall to hear about what Thomas Jones Day was about. As the hall filled with children each clutching their flowers. I could not help thing about which ones looked suspiciously like it had been plucked along the way…there were a few I thought! However, far in the majority, the parents had done the school proud, there were some rather splendid blooms help proudly by the children

Hearts and Flowers

Thomas Jones asked for the school children to sing songs over his grave and lay flowers and dutifully it was done. This was not due to his fear of St Swithun but the date was his birthday. This was a clear idea for unlike the graves of the schools founder Baldwin, which lay forgotten and unremembered by the children, every child through the school will recall celebrating this poor cowherder! As such Thomas Jones Day must be unique – many schools have a Founders Day but this one celebrates one who provided money for trips and ice-cream not the foundation stones of the school! As Mr Nick Liverly recalls when the name is mentioned to old alumni they all hold their hands out to represent holding flowers!

After hearing the story, the processed out of the school and into the graveyard making a circuit of the church and back to the grave. It was quite an odd site; the children clutching their flowers earnestly and proudly. Their goal, Thomas Jones’ Grave, was a typical Victorian pitched stone tomb looking like any other such grave – but that was about to change.

The teachers with their head stood around the grave, with one teacher guitar in hand, ready to play the music for their hymns, them the flowers were handed to the teachers to place on the grave. Soon they began to grow in number, 1, 2, 3 soon it was in the 10s and then after around 30 minutes the grave was hidden by bouquets, posies and large clumps of flowers – flowers of all types laid there making the final product a remarkable multi-coloured patchwork shining in the bright July day. As the flowers were laid the children sung a song which had a line giving thanks to their benefactor.

Keeping up with the Joneses!

Who was this curious benefactor. Born on the 15th July 1820, Thomas Jones earned as a Cowman 12/- or 60p today. He was a simple man, who lived very frugally and was thought to be poor. So much that when in June 1899, a Mr. Millward was called by a local doctor to write a dying man’s Will. When Mr Millward arrived and saw who it was, he was understandably doubtful as he knew Thomas was a mere farm worker and earned a modest wage. However, Thomas revealed a number of bank books which revealed several hundred ponds. This was collated from the rents taken from a field on Wilden Top as well as other pieces of land around. In all £385 was left to local people. The 4/5 acre field raised £303 18s 6d and his estate was worth £1211 18s 0d, a very large sum in 1899. The money was used to set up a trust at the school used to provide an annual treat. In the early 20th century they were treated to an outing with a picnic with journeys to London and Weston Super Mare being recorded.

Part of his Will stipulated that the children of the school must remember his day with singing around his grave and flowers and despite the money running out this has been fervently upheld.

Thomas Jones Life and Soul of the Party

“A sum of money having been left by an old gentlemen (Mr. Jones) for providing a tea annually for the Day School Children. The first was given on Wednesday when the whole holiday was granted for the occasion and the children showed their appreciation and respect for the old gentlemen by placing a number of wreaths upon his grave.”

20th September 1900

It would appear that the tradition begun with a tea party and then laying of flowers but first held in September in 1902 to 1911, this was probably because the school would have been closed for the Harvest by the 15th! It is recorded that in 1902 after the tea party the children received a new pinny from Lady Poyner, who was Louisa Baldwin’s sister and thus related to the founder. Then in 1911, it moved to the 3rd July and this year Louisa Baldwin donated some pictures. How the money was used varied over the years. In 1918 it was suspended and the money apparently going to sports and school work prizes. Yet in 1919 the money was instead used to start a school library with £5 awarded for books and 180 Peace day cups were bought for a shilling each from Selfridges and given to the students who had attended in the last three years. The giving of gifts appeared to continue, books in 1921 and the Vicar and Headmistress distributing in 1924. In 1945 his Legacy had accumulated £100 and it was then spent on strip lighting to benefit the students By 1925, the Tea party had been resumed after the headmistress addressing the children and presumably reminding them of Thomas Jones. I am sure the children were equally happy to hear that the school would close midday for a tea as well. Then in 1926 the school was closed for an excursion and in 1930 this went as far as Weston Super Mare – a two hour car journey today I could not imagine how long by coach it would have been and then in 1933 to London, again a three hour journey – presumably by train it may have been easier! From that point on the treats involved coach trips to Dudley Zoo, Droitwich, Bromsgrove, Kinver, Habberley Valley, Drayton Manor, Warwick, Worcester, Birmingham, Telford, Cardingmill Valley.

Party’s over

By the mid 1970s the legacy had diminished considerably and all that was left was £13 just enough for an ice-cream for each child. However, it was believed that the school should continue to honour him and make sure funds available to honour the expression that sometime should ‘benefit the children’. So distance achievement badges and later certificates were awarded annually in his name

The centenary was celebrated in 1999 with the children dressed in Victorian clothes and a wall mural was erected in the school. The church was also used as a display area with posies and drawings, two concerts were held and a wedding with the whole school in attendance.

Flower of youth

Interesting although the end of the legacy, although meant no money, didn’t mean no custom Now unlike Little Edith’s Treat. But of course we could consider the customs in two parts and of course the second was not dependent on any endowment! After the final flowers were laid the children a rousing rendition ‘Our Lord is a great big god’ with all the hand actions and then it was back to class, back to the three Rs. A delightful custom and one that the weather did not spoil that day. However, as Mr Nick Lilvery recalled in the great drought of the summer of 1976 – it rained so much on the 15th that they could not do the ceremony….St Swithun no doubt stamping his authority on the day!

 

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Custom demised: Relic Sunday

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“Worshipfull frendis, on Sunday next commyng shall be the holy fest of all relykis (called Relike Sonday), which that be left here in erth to the grete magnificence, honour and worship of god and profite to man bothe bodily and gostily, for in as much as we be in sufficient to worship and reuerence singulerly all reuerent Relikis of all seyntis left here in erth, for it passith mannis power. Wherefore holy Chirch in especiall the Chirch of Yngelonde hathe ordeynd this holy Fest to be worshipped the next Sonday aftir the translacion of seint Thomas of Cauntirbery yerely to be hallowed and had in reuerence.”

So is written in a late 15th century sermon called In festo Reliquarum. Relic Sunday was a Catholic feast which was celebrated in either on the 1st Sunday in July or the third Sunday after Midsummer. The feast was designed to celebrate the relics of Christian saints and was perhaps cynically set up to focus pilgrimage to shrines in which either the saint’s feast day was unknown or else to encourage further devotion, certainly it was recognised by more offerings being given. By undertaking pilgrimage on Relic Sunday an indulgence could be gained. One did not have to go far, for example even when John Baylis’s wife went to her parish church in Rolvenden (Kent) on Relic Sunday in 1511 she stated that she was going on

‘pilgrimage at the relics’.

Image result for St Thomas becket shrine Victorian drawingSimilarly avoiding Relic Sunday would result in penalty. At the quarter sessions in Wigan (Lancashire) in 1592 it was noted that:

“Richard and William Buckley, of Charnock Richard, Laboureres and Richard Sharrock of Heath Charnock butcher on the day called Relic Sunday 1592 in time of divine service at Chorley played at bowls”

Of course the Reformation would have its final say and as the 1846 The Church of England as by law established being very doctrine and express words of homilies against popery noted:

“Concerning Popish Relics But in this they pass the folly and wickedness of the that they honour and worship the relics and of our saints which prove that they be mortal and dead and therefore no gods to be worshipped the Gentiles would never confess of their Gods very shame But the relics we must kiss and offer specially on relic Sunday And while we offer that we should not be weary or repent us of our the music and minstrelsy goeth merrily all the time with praising and calling upon those whose relics be then in presence Yea and water also wherein those relics have been must with great reverence be reserved as ve and effectual Is this agreeable to St Chrysostom writeth thus of relics Do not regard the ashes”

Relic Sunday then disappeared as the shrines became dismantled and the church moved away from Catholicism. It survived longest in Northamptonshire where Thistleton Dyer’s Popular Customs

“In some parts of this county the Sunday after St. Thomas a Becket’s Day goes by the name of Relic Sunday.”

But even here it was forgotten probably only remembered because of fairs associated with the day. The relics are forgotten and as far as I am aware it was never revived!

Custom contrived: Blessing the Midsummer Bower, Woolmer Forest

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“How sweetly I, at close of Summer’s Day,

While thy dear presence blessed these happy Bowers,

Could lost in rapture with my Daphne stray,

Or in soft converse pass the fleeting Hours.”

Midsummer madness?

In the Deadwatervalley Trust maintained Woolmer Forest a curious custom has developed. Curious firstly because it is based on the observations of a local famed Naturalist – Gilbert White and secondly because it is organised by a woodland conservation ground. Thanks to Bill Wain who provided the materials on the custom; one which appeaThe custom is based on an observation made by the author that at Walldown on St. Barnabus’ Day a bower would be constructed. He recorded in his A Natural History of Selborne within the letters to Thomas Pennant, a fellow naturalist:

“On two of the most conspicuous eminences of this forest stand two arbours or bowers, made of the boughs of oaks; the one called Waldon-lodge , the other Brimstone-lodge; these the keepers renew annually on the feast of St Barnabas, talking the old materials for a perquisite. The farm called Blackmoor, in this parish, is obliged to find the posts and brushwood for the former; while the farms at Greatham, in rotation, furnish for the latter; and are all enjoined to cut and deliver the materials at the spot. This custom I mention, because I look upon it to be of very remote antiquity.”

And that is it really! Gilbert White wrote no more about the custom and neither did any other author. However, some have attempted to link it to May bowers. D. H. Moutray Read in their 1911 article for Folklore on Hampshire folklore records:

“Miss Burne, in her Presidential Address last year, spoke of the “bowery” erected for sports at Woodstock, and readers of Miss Mitford’s Our Village will recall how in “Bramley Maying” she describes the ” May-houses to dance,” built of green boughs by the lads and lasses of the neighbouring parishes.”

However this could be a tenuous link – these are not midsummer bowers. Yet the lack of any reference to midsummer bowers is not a reason not to establish a custom on them. This is clearly a new custom based upon an account of something older.

Midsummer nights dream

It is of course worth noting that this is a different midsummer to the one we currently recognise. Before the calendar change, St Barnabas Day fell on Midsummer’s Day as remembered:

Barnaby Bright, Barnaby Bright

The longest day and the shortest night

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, tree, plant, sky, wedding, outdoor and nature

Therefore when in 2010, the Deadwater Valley Trust and the Woolmer Forest Heritage Society decided to start the custom the closest day to old St Barnabus, i.e 13th June was chosen, although local events such as the Queen’s Birthday in 2016 did get in the way of organising it.
The earthworks noted by White were also selected to make the custom a copy of that recorded by White. However, because the site is a scheduled ancient monument the bower can only be there for a day. As such early in the day local children arrange branches to create an arch and then use green boughs and branches to drape over the structure creating a small green hut.
Bowery boys and girls
Then around midday a collection of curious onlookers and those involved with the trusts and group stand around the Bower as first a man dressed in typical Georgian squire attire with a white wig as Gilbert White reads out his note to Pennant about the custom and then the vicar gives his thanks giving and the bower is blessed; a slightly contrived aspect as the White gave no reference to the structure being blessed. Nor did he mention processing around it! However, this all goes to make a most unusual of customs. Of course making a bower on a hot day also affords a good shelter and the children were quick to realise this ducking under the branches and finding a cool respite under the leaves to excited glee ‘let’s make one of these at home’ one said to another.
Of course why midsummer and why at these earthworks is a question that remains unanswered. But is clear that even given the slimest of provenances a great little custom can arise and give colour and interest. Long may the bower be built.

Custom revived: Bawming the Appleton Thorn, Cheshire

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“The Maypole in spring merry maidens adorn,
Our midsummer May-Day means Bawming the Thorn.
On her garlanded throne sits the May Queen alone,
Here each Appleton lad has a Queen of his own

Chorus

Up with fresh garlands this Midsummer morn,
Up with red ribbons on Appleton Thorn.
Come lasses and lads to the Thorn Tree today
To Bawm it and shout as ye Bawm it, Hooray!

The oak in its strength is the pride of the wood,
The birch bears a twig that made naughty boys good,
But there grows not a tree which in splendour can vie
With our thorn tree when Bawmed in the month of July.

Chorus

Kissing under the rose is when nobody sees,
You may under the mistletoe kiss when you please;
But no kiss can be sweet as that stolen one be
Which is snatched from a sweetheart when Bawming the Tree.

Chorus

Ye Appleton Lads I can promise you this;
When her lips you have pressed with a true lover’s kiss,
Woo’ed her and won her and made her your bride
Thenceforth shall she ne’er be a thorn in your side.

Chorus

So long as this Thorn Tree o’ershadows the ground
May sweethearts to Bawm it in plenty be found.
And a thousand years hence when tis gone and is dead
May there stand here a Thorn to be Bawmed in its stead.

If there was a custom which could claim to have been revived the most it could be Appleton’s Bawming the Thorn in Cheshire.. The current version was invariably described as being revived in 1967 or 1973, by headmaster, Bob Jones, itself based on a 1930 revival which again was a probable Victorian revival of the 1860s when a Bawming song was written. The present version appears to be in good health and is now a pivotal event in the village and indeed in the wider Warrington area. Why did it die out? Christine Hole in her 1937 Traditions and customs of Cheshire noted that

“it was allowed to lapse because so many strangers came to see it that it became rowdy, and property was damaged.”

Thorn in the side?

A few miles from the metropolitan Manchester and Warrington is Appleton Thorn, a village which happily celebrates in its name with a unique custom; called Bawming the Thorn. It is not difficult to find the thorn it sits surrounded by a protective metal fence on an island near the church. Early in the day the tree is adorned with red ribbons and children place some plant boxes/pots/bouquets or wreaths, small gardens set out with colourful collections of flowers living and dead. These are similar to those laid at the John Clare memorial, called Midsummer Cushions and indeed maybe exactly the same. However, it is the tree we are here to see, here to celebrate. An ordinary looking thorn covered in leaves and between the leaves red ribbons and small flags.

Soon one can hear a brass band further along the road and soon a large procession comes into view. The children, usually the year 6s of the local primary school, appear dressed in a red and white. They snake their way towards the tree ready to dance around the titular tree.

A thorny subject

What does bawm mean? Well the Oxford English Dictionary does not include it but Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary does and Roger Wilbraham’s 1817 An attempt at a glossary of some words used in Cheshire suggests

“At Appleton it was custom at the time of the Wake to clip and adorn an old hawthorn which till very lately stood in the middle of the town. The ceremony is called Bawming the Appleton Thorn.!”

As Steve Roud notes in his 2006 The English Year the inclusion of the term Wake is significant and that as such it was part of the decoration of the village like many others. As such it was not a custom on its own but a vestige of the festivities of the wake. However, why would someone remember the tree and establish a new custom of dancing around it? Would not a maypole be easier? What is also worth noting is the word clip however, which Roud does not discuss that, clipping or clypping being the custom in which on patronal days a church is encircled but its parishioners. As such one could argue that the clypping had a pre-Christian origin originally being associated with stone circles, was it done around sacred trees? It is pure conjecture of course. Hole notes that in the Warrington Journal it was recorded as:

“The tree and its protective railings were decorated with garlands, flags and red ribbons and sang a song written by the late Mr. Egerton-Warburton. Country dancing, sports and a procession round the village are part of the modern ceremony.”

All a bit bawmy?

A local legend has it that the original thorn was brought from Glastonbury by Adam de Dutton, an Appleton landowner who has also returned from the Crusades. How genuine this story is, is difficult to say, but of course as reported before Glastonbury thorns were distributed across the country. The only curious question is why this particular offcut is not associated with flowering on Old Christmas Day? Dare I say the story may have been concocted to explain the phenomena which could be construed as pagan?

Local author William Beament included the story of the thorn’s arrival in his 1877 An Account of the Cheshire Township of Appleton Thorn, but even he states in 1844 that he was unaware of it custom’s origin

The custom starts when a boy dressed as Sir Adam and his squire enter the area around the Thorn. He is the first to start the proceedings off. Clutching a sword and a leafy branch he declares:

“I Adam de Dutton, raise plant this thorn, on this morn in Appleton Thorn”

It is clear that the village are keen to recognise this benefactor however genuine he is. After his speak, the other children then add their bouquets to the fence.

Then the dancing begins. A choir in black and red sing the Bawming the Thorn hymn This is Maypole dancing albeit without a Maypole the children dance around in pairs swirling, skipping, joining hands. The clipping is in evident when the children hold hands in a big circle they move in and out enclosing the tree in a grand hokecokey! Then it is over and off everyone goes for the supplementary events and a well earned ice-cream no doubt!

Custom contrived: Blessing St. John’s of Harpham’s Well

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“In days of old in country ways, In Yorkshire woods, John sang they praise. Each year on the springtime wold, he saw the primroses unfold, the bleating lambs, the breaking sea. God gift to man eternally. Mist-laden nights, the shepherd’s crook, he left for cloister and for book, Through psalm and vigil, fast and prayer he grew in soul and found the three. But as he served n land of Kent. His winging thoughts still northernly.”

St John of Beverley’s anthem

It is a quiet village. Bypassed by a major room which brings excited tourists from York to Bridlington. Harpham lies to the south perhaps sleeping, except on the Thursday nearest the 7th May when the village and nearby town Beverley celebrate the village’s famous son, Saint John of Beverley. Indeed apart from the fine pub named after the local landowners, it is the relics of the saint which draw people to the village – the fine church and down a lane his old holy well. Although the well is one of two ancient ones in the village, itself unusual, this one is dedicated to the saint. Indeed it is claimed that the saint who was born in the village is said to have struck the ground with his staff and this spring arose

Well established tradition

Despite a claim that the visits to the well go back a 1000 years, the current custom dates back to the 2nd of May 1929, when the Minster at Beverley decided it was time to celebrate their own saint once encased in a fine shrine in that church, by visiting the place of his birth and paying homage to the spring. The date now moving to the Thursday nearest to the Saint’s feast day, the 7th of May. John born in Harpham in AD 640, would become an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Hexham and York, being educated at St Hilda at Whitby and retiring back home at Beverley where he was buried and until the Reformation a fine shrine housed his relics. A number of posthumous miracles are associated with the saint in particular his ability to tame wild bulls brought into the church yard. As William of Malmesbury records in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum:

“Savage bulls are brought up, tied fast, by strong men sweating profusely; but as soon as they enter the churchyard they lose all their ferocity and become, you might suppose, no more than innocent sheep. So they are untied and left to frolic in the yard, though previously they used to go for anything in their way with horns and hooves.”

Well dressed

St John’s Well, the very one said to have been made by his staff is the focus of the ceremony held on this evening. In the nineteenth century the spring was enclosed in its current stonework and surrounded by a circle of railings. During the afternoon St John’s Well is dressed. However, this is not one of those Derbyshire well dressings made of clay and petals, it is sometime for simpler but just as impressive and pleasing to the eye. Around the base of this well are placed primroses and on top of the railings

Blooming Hawthorn crowns the top of the railings, beneath the hawthorn, are three wreaths of mixed seasonal foliage and flowers mainly rosemary, gorse and forget-me-not on each side with another just above the small opening. In other years ivy and adorned with a cross and garlands of tulips and daffodils had been used but the year I went the simple adornment was most effective in the evening sunshine. Similarly in previous years had meant only a slight representation of primroses making the well dressing a little lacking in impact. The year I went it was a glorious attempt. Primroses were still a little short in number in May and so much of the yellow was provided by mimulus.

Well remembered

Inside the church people were gathering excitedly. Dark clouds had threatened all day but as soon as the choir appeared from the church the sun started to shine. This choir which come from Beverley Minster, consisted of 27 men and boys of all ages enthusiastically were gathered beneath the church tower. They were running hither and thither; it looked like getting them to be in an orderly row would be difficult – but the choir master called out and they arranged themselves ready to go. The crucifer appeared and clutching their hymnals they were off through the churchyard down the lane to the church and then across the main road. Unlike similar processions there were no police in their bright jackets obscuring the spectacle. No cars appeared in the time they processed, it is an obscure village after all or was it the miracle of John taming the bullish motorcar. Behind the choir were the rest of the congregation which was added to as the procession went as curious onlookers, photographers and locals who had not managed to get to the church joined in.

In such a small village such a procession was quite a spectacle: with its crucifer holding their cross up high and proud, snaking down the lanes to the well, with the white tunics of the choir shining in the evening sunshine.

Soon the choir reached St. John’s Well and they arranged themselves on the bank opposite and opened their hymnals ready to sing. The rest of the congregation arrived at the well and a silence descended as they prepared. Previous years one of the congregation, a young boy or girl, stooped down and placed a small pot of primroses at the base of the well to add to the others. As the well was fully decorated perhaps this was missed. Once the congregation was in position, appropriately the vicar started with John 7:

“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.”

The followed the Collect for St John of Beverley

Afterwards the choir sang St. John of Beverley’s Anthem:

“In days of old in country ways, In Yorkshire woods, John sang they praise. Each year on the springtime wold, he saw the primroses unfold, the bleating lambs, the breaking sea. God gift to man eternally.

Mist-laden nights, the shepherd’s crook, he left for cloister and for book, Through psalm and vigil, fast and prayer he grew in soul and found the three. But as he served in land of Kent. His winging thoughts still northernly.”

It was a short but evocative ceremony remembering this local Anglo-Saxon saint and the gift he gave to the village…once they had done their service they turned around and processed back to the church were a sung eucharist uplifted the spirits more. A delightful event which is nearing is 100 years and long may it be celebrated.

Custom demised: Baldock’s My-Lord and-My-Lady May day effigies, Hertfordshire

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According to the 1832, William Hone’s Yearbook:

the “good wives” of the labouring poor, mostly living in what was then called “the backside” (the yards behind Church Street), made a unique May day structure, the Lords and Ladies similar to a Guy Fawkes effigy.”..

Thisleton-Dwyer in his Popular British customs notes:

At Baldock, in former times, the peasantry were accustomed to make a ‘my-lord and-my-lady ‘ in effigy on the first of May. These figures were constructed of rags, pasteboard, old masks, canvas, straw, &c., and were dressed up in the holiday habiliments of their fabricators—’my lady’ in the best gown’d, apron, kerchief, and mob cap of the dame, and ‘my lord’ in the Sunday gear of her master. The tiring finished, ‘ the pair ‘ were seated on chairs or joint stools, placed outside the cottage-door or in the porch, their bosoms ornamented with large bouquets of May flowers.”

What was the purpose of the custom. Thistleton-Dwyer adds:

“They supported a hat, into which the contributions of the lookers-on were put. Before them, on a table were arranged a mug of ale, a drinking-horn, a pipe, a pair of spectacles, and sometimes a newspaper. The observance of this usage was exclusively confined to the wives of the labouring poor resident in the town, who were amply compensated for their pains-taking by the contributions, which generally amounted to something considerable.”

The tradition must have been long established by 1832 as a Betty Thorn, described as “long since deceased”, was remembered as a “capital hand” at making a May day “my lord and my lady” Hone notes:

These dumb shows as may be expected attracted a crowd of gazers They varied according to the materials and skill of the constructors One old woman named Betty Thorn long since deceased is still remembered as a capital hand at making up a Mayday my lord and my lady of whose appearance the above is a faithful description The origin of this singular not to say ludicrous custom of attiring inanimate figures in the humble garb of cottagers to counterfeit persons of rank or whether any particular individuals were intended to he represented and how and when they first became connected with the sports on May day are to me alike unknown The subject is worthy of elucidation The observance of the usage just detailed was exclusively confined to the good wives of the laboring poor resident in the town who were amply compensated for their pains taking by the voluntary contributions which generally amounted to something considerable.”

When and why the custom became extinct is unclear but it was long gone but not forgotten when in the town’s Festival in 1982 the custom was briefly revived as can be seen from this photo from Victoria Maddern from Baldock Museum….it has not be revived since!

In 1982, the tradition of My Lord and My Lady was revived during the Baldock Festival. A handsome couple sit outside their cottage door just as they did 150 years earlier. (Photo: Victoria Maddren)

Custom survived: Biddenden’s Chalkhurst Dole

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“There is a vulgar tradition in these parts, that the figures on the cakes represent the donors of this gift, being two women, twins, who were joined together in their bodies, and lived together so till they were between twenty and thirty years of age. But this seems without foundation. The truth seems to be, that it was the gift of two maidens, of the name of Preston ; and that the print of the women on the cakes has taken place only within these fifty years, and was made to represent two poor widows, as the general objects of a charitable benefaction.”

So records Edward Hasted in his History of Kent in 1812, about what is perhaps the most famed of annually distributed doles that of the picturesque Wealden village of Biddenden; which happens every year on Easter Monday. It is a custom which features in virtually every book on calendar customs but why?

Two rectangular cakes, one showing two women apparently conjoined at the shoulder and the other one damaged in such a way that it is not clearly apparent whether the women are conjoined. Each cake has the word "Biddenden" written above the women.

The earliest surviving depiction of Biddenden cakes, 1775. The figures are shown as conjoined, but the names, ages and 1100 date are not shown source Wikipedia Public Domain

Two’s company

T. F. Thistleton-Dyer (1911) in his British popular customs past and present tells us:

“The cakes distributed on this occasion were impressed with the figures of two females side by side, and close together.”! Amongst the country people it was believed that these figures represented two maidens named Preston, who had left the endowments; and they further alleged that the ladies were twins, who were bond in bodily union, that is, joined side to side, as represented on the cakes ; who lived nearly thirty years in this connection, when at length one of them died, necessarily causing the death of the other in a few hours. It is thought by the Biddenden people that the figures on the cakes are meant as a memorial of this natural prodigy, as well as of the charitable disposition of the two ladies.”

Local tradition records that the benefactors of the charity were Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst, the name Preston has never been traced locally, who gave their lands those twenty acres to the poor on their death in 1134. Now there is nothing unusual in sisters joining giving monies this example however is possibly unique – the sisters were conjoined twins – as shown by the biscuit or cake given out. They lived jointly to the age of 34 with one dying and the other giving up her life at the same time.

The custom has changed a little over the years as Hasted again notes that:

“Twenty Acres Of Land, called the Bread and Cheese Lands, lying in five pieces, were given by persons unknown, the yearly rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish. This is yearly done on Easter Sunday in the afternoon, in 600 cakes, each of which have the figures of two women impressed on them, and are given to all such as attend the church; and 270 loaves, weighing three pounds and an half a-piece; to which latter is added one pound and an half of cheese, are given to the parishioners only, at the same time.”

The following account was written 1808 to be provided as a broadside which featured a woodcut of the twins and a brief history of their alleged story was sold outside the church at Easter:

“A Short but Concise account of Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst
who were born joined together by the Hips and Shoulders
In the year of our Lord 1100 at Biddenden in the County of Kent, commonly called
The Biddenden Maids
The reader will observe by the plate of them, that they lived together in the above state Thirty-four years, at the expiration of which time one of them was taken ill and in a short time died; the surviving one was advised to be separated from the body of her deceased Sister by dissection, but she absolutely refused the separation by saying these words—”As we came together we will also go together,”—and in the space of about Six Hours after her Sister’s decease she was taken ill and died also.
By their will they bequeath to the Churchwardens of the Parish of Biddenden and their successors Churchwardens for ever, certain Pieces or Parcels of Land in the Parish of Biddenden, containing Twenty Acres more or less, which now let at 40 Guineas per annum. There are usually made, in commemoration of these wonderful Phenomena of Nature, about 1000 Rolls with their Impression printed on them, and given away to all strangers on Easter Sunday after Divine Service in the Afternoon; also about 500 Quartern Loaves and Cheese in proportion, to all the poor Inhabitants of the said Parish.”

Copies of this account are still distributed. What is interesting as this is the first to make mention of the names of the twins. Did it invent them?

Two’s a crowd

The dole has had many threats put upon it partly as a consequence of its size and fame. In 1656 the Rector, a John Horner, then the rector of the parish, claimed the Bread and Cheese lands as being given to augment his glebe, but the Court of Exchequer did not agree.

Many villages had doles, indeed the majority provided for their poor, so it surprising to record that the dole became increasingly more and more popular. In the late 1700s for those attending the service were given six hundred cakes whilst ironically only two hundred and seventy loaves of three and a half pounds weight each, with a pound and a half of cheese, were given in addition to the parishioners. It was clearly more popular outside of the village. For example the following from Hone’s Everyday Book account of 1830 states that the custom:

“attracted from the adjacent towns and villages by the usage, and the wonderful account of its origin, and the day is spent in rude festivity

By 1872, 538 loaves were being distributed. Indeed as an article in 1992 by Jan Boderson called  The Biddenden Maids: a curious chapter in the history of conjoined twins in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated that these large crowds became problematic and at one occasion an unruly mob had developed that was kept in order by the church wardens using their staffs to keep them back. All this did not impress the church and By 1882 the village’s rector again, this time Rev Giles Hinton had petitioned to abandon the dole stating that:

“even to this time is with much disorder and indecency observed and needs a regulation by His Grace’s authority.”

His Grace, Sancroft Archbishop of Canterbury allowed it to continue minus the free beer! It was also at this time that it moved from the church to outside. Very wise! Even so it is worth observing that even in 1902 as a picture by noted photographer Sir Benjamin Stone showed three severe looking policemen watching the assembled queue. By this time the date had changed and the workhouse its location.

When in 1907, the Chulkhurst Charity was joined with other local charities with similar purposes, to form the Biddenden Consolidated Charity the distribution survived where in other villages such moves removed the ceremony. Even when the charity’s Bread and Cheese Lands were sold for housing the custom survived indeed the profitability of the land provided the opportunity for better provision. As a result not only is bread, cheese and tea provided but cash payments are made at Christmas. Again, the custom survived the 1940s and 1950s food rationing where cocoa replaced the cheese until it resumed in 1951.Finally the closure of the village’s bakery in the 1990s which for generations had provided the bread closed…the dole soldiered on.