Tag Archives: customs blog

Custom survived: The Christmas Tree

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“Children knew nothing about Santa Claus or about Christmas Trees – those are German innovations which should be left to Germans…instead of the German tree we had the old fashioned English Mistletoe Bough.”

1890 J. S Fletcher A picturesque picture of Yorkshire

Well everyone can have an opinion but clearly J.S Fletcher was wrong…I am sitting composing this in the flickering light of mine, picture below, but on reflection cutting down, dragging in and setting up a tree in one’s house is such an odd tradition – but it is one that 8 million do each year. Indeed, in an odd way, the Christmas Tree is the most religiously neutral of Christmas paraphernalia…and for over a hundred years people have been putting up with the smell of pine and pine needles embedding in the feet, carpet, cracks of the floorboards (delete as appropriate)…the mistletoe bough was relatively simple..

Branching out from Germany

The origin of the Christmas Tree is often attributed to Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort. However, although he may have popularised it he did not introduce it. Its origins did not come as J. S. Fletcher noted came from Germany but from the Medieval region which is now Estonia and Latvia. It really only just gained popularity in Germany when George III’s wife Charlotte introduced a tree at a children’s party in 1800 it what is believed to be the first one. In a way it would be one of the most notable examples of a transcribed custom becoming a native and now surviving custom. Charles Grenville grandson of a duke was staying at Panshanger in Hertfordshire when the wide of the Russian Ambassador Princess Lieven had in 1829:

“got up a little fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three large trees in large pots were put unto a long table covered with pink linen, each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various articles  – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was only for the children, in Germany it extends to persons of all ages.”

Incredibly little has changed since except now the trees tend to be dead rather than living in pots and much larger one would assume. It was evidently popular in the Royal family as Victoria recalls in her journal for 1832 at Christmas Eve that after dinner:

“ we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.”

By the 1840s, the custom had spread to the wealthy middle-class families  followed the fashion. An 1842 newspaper advert for the Times recalls:

“GERMAN CHRISTMAS TREES. The nobility and gentry are respectfully informed that these handsome JUVENILE CHRISTMAS PRESENTS are supplied and elegantly fitted up.”

The 1844 The Christmas Tree: published by Darton and Clark also recorded:

“The ceremony of the Christmas tree, so well known throughout Germany, bids fair to be welcomed among us, with the other festivities of the season, especially now the Queen, within her own little circle, has set the fashion, by introducing it on the Christmas Eve in her own regal palace.”

Cant see the wood from the tree

Setting up a Christmas Tree is a bit of an adventure. Once you’d been around measuring up and looking at examples. And despite the fact they all are basically the same, you still go to several suppliers. Its then packaged up and the first challenge is to get it in the car, all the seats down and its head sticking out of the front passenger window!  Next challenge getting it into the house and manipulated into the drawing room. I managed to get the tree in through the door, after sawing off the base of course to supposedly keep it fresher for longer – it didn’t seem to work. Then it was a case of then inserting the mighty log in the base….now that was a  real challenge as it swayed back and fro. Was it in. Yes. No. Let’s see…oh its fallen…another go and yes finally. Next open it up. Snip snip snip…pong the branches spring out pushing me backwards but fortunately the windows survive.

The undressed tree

Then comes dressing the tree. The first dressings were wax candles – slightly impractical as much as I like to keep to tradition – electric lights are more sensible The first Georgian trees were dressed  with “roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats”. I had a choice of baubles, ornaments, candy canes and my least favourite tinsel and after about what seemed an hour it was dressed…last state the star. I got the ladder but as I got closer I realised a problem. The ladder was tall enough but I could not safely reach the top..so no star!

Firm roots for a custom

By the mid 1840s, adverts were regularly appearing in the Newspapers such as in The Times, 23 December 1844 called it “A new pleasure for Christmas.” By 1847 Prince Albert wrote:

“I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.”

The tradition slowly spread through the aristocracy for example a letter to William Fox Talbot on the 2nd of January from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire recorded:

“Constance is extremely busy preparing the Bohemian  Xmas Tree. It is made from Caroline’s description of those she saw in Germany.”

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The dressed tree

By January 1848,  the custom was well-enough known for The Times to compare the January budget of 1848 with gifts handed out beneath “the Christmas tree”: From this point onwards it appears that the tree spread from the wealthy families to all families and by 1906  The Poor Children’s Yuletide Association. According to the Times had

“sent 71 trees ‘bearing thousands of toys’ to the poorest districts of London.”

And by 1926 it was stated that:

“’Poor families in Lewisham and similar districts are just as particular about the shape of their trees as people in Belgravia…’ ‘Shapely Christmas Trees.”

However, it looked like this establishing custom would be cut down before it fully grew its roots. Again the Times wishing its readers  “A Merry Christmas”: The Times in, 27 December 1918, stated:

“the so-called “Christmas tree” was out of favour. Large stocks of young firs were to be seen at Covent Garden on Christmas Eve, but found few buyers. It was remembered that the ‘Christmas tree’ has enemy associations.”

But fortunately this association was soon forgotten for in 1919 again the Times noted that a charity fair in aid of injured soldiers featured ‘a huge Christmas-tree’ at St. Dunstan’s Christmas Fair. By 1937 British farmers had started to invest money in Christmas Tree Plantations and it has not looked back since. Indeed despite another conflict with Germany the tree did not wain in popularity presumably because its Germanic associations had been largely forgotten. Indeed, in 1947 as the Norwegians remind us it is Norse – not German tradition – a fact they annually remind us every Christmas in Trafalgar square. The 20 metre high towering Norway Spruce which adorns Trafalgar Square has been an annual thanksgiving gift from the Norwegian government as it states each year:

“This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.A tree has been given annually since 1947.”

And after all as we annually gather around our Christmas Tree the message that Norway gives every year is more than reticent…peace to all at Christmas.

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Custom demised: Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas

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History of Childermas: Feast of the Holy Innocents

Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas is a forgotten date in the calendar but in Britain it was recorded. The day still remembered beyond the British Isles records the slaughter by Herod of the boy children born in Bethlehem in his attempt to remove the Christ child. As these the first murdered associated with the burgeoning faith, they became the first martyrs and as such became marked in the church calendar.

Generally the day was thought to be unlucky and nothing would be organised on this day, Richard Carew noted on 17th century Cornwall:

“that proves as ominous to the fisherman as beginning a voyage on the day when Childermas day fell doth to the mariner.”

Similarly in Shropshire Charlotte Burne in her 1883 book of Shropshire folklore recorded:

“Innocent’s Day sometimes called Cross day is a day of ill omen. The ancient people of Pulverbach applied this name not only to Innocent’s day but throughout the year to the day of the week on which it had last fallen, such day of the week being believed to be an unlucky day for commencing any work or undertaking. A popular saying about any unfortunate enterprise was ‘It must have been begun on a cross day.”

As children were the forefront of the custom it was important to remember them. In some parts of the country the youngest child “rules the day.” It was the youngest who decides the day’s foods, drinks, music, entertainments. In Rutland, according to Leicestershire notes and queries:

“Playing in Church – When living in the Parish of Exton, Rutland, some 15 years ago. I was told by an old lady that in her girlhood, in the very early years of this century, it was custom for children to be allowed to play in the church on ‘Innocent’s day.’”

Still today, Boy or Youth Bishops, rule until Holy Innocent’s day and often a mass is held to commemorate their hand over. In the 17th century, Gregorie’s Works of 1684 noted a contrary custom:

“It was at one time customary on this day to whip the juvenile members of a family. Gregory remarks that ” it hath been a custom, and yet is elsewhere, to whip up the children upon Innocents’ Day morning, that the memory of this murder might stick the closer ; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the cruelty again in kind.”

According to Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1900 British Popular customs past and present Gregory was informed of another custom told to him by his friend, Dr. Gerard Langbain, the Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, from which it appears that, at the church of Oseney, associated with the old abbey. He notes:

“They were wont to bring out, upon this day, the foot of a child prepared after their fashion, and put upon with red and black colour, as to signify the dismal part of the day. They put this up in a chest in the vestry, ready to be produced at the time, and to be solemnly carried about the church to be adored by the people.”

This too has been forgotten and perhaps what with Christmas’s secular approach more and more skewed to children it appear unlikely that any customs are going to be revived

Custom transcribed: Polish Andrzejki or St Andrew’s Day love divination

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“ The St Andrew Day –

Young girls hope and pray…”

The UK’s burgeoning Polish community has added and as well augmented our calendar customs. In many cases they have revived those customs which fell into abeyance at the Reformation due to the prominence of Catholism but in some cases they have introduced something unique. The Polish observance of St Andrew’s Day eve is one.

The observations on St Andrew’s Day or Andrzejki is about games associated with the future romantic encounters of the participants. Today these observations are perhaps not done in earnest but as a piece of juvenile fun. I was invited to see these prognostications one St. Andrew Day evening to a private party of young girls who had planned to celebrate the evening accordingly with some music, laughter (there was a lot of giggling) and predicting their love life…oh and giggling. Did I mention this? They weren’t keen on being photographed but were happy for me to photograph their activities

Paper kisses

When I turned up the girl’s dinning room was set up with paper, pens, keys and bowls of water…as well lots of sweets and cups for drinks. I asked them what the paper was for. I discovered that they planned to write all the names of the boys they all knew (jointly I imagine for what it entailed). With lots of chatting, much due to it being Polish, unintelligible, the girls closed their eyes and taking it turns one of the girls help up the paper and then another with a pin closed her eyes and inserted it into it..it missed a name. One of the girls examined it and decided it was Alex and then they went on becoming more and more giggly especially when one of the names transpired to be a boy who the older girl did actually fancy!

Soul mate

Then the girls turned sat down and took off their shoes. They then decided from the back wall to place them in sequence, a shoe at a time, along a line to the door. As the door got nearer there was genuine excitement to see who’s would cross the threshold. It was Amanda who was embarrassed to found she’d be the first to marry.

Sincerely, I love you, without wax

But wax will help! A few drinks later and the evening ended with the girls picking up a key and as she held it over a bowl of water another tipped a candle over the it and it flowed through the key and into the water. The other girls looked intently to try and work out what shape the wax had cooled and solidified into…it looked like an S, was it Symon? Clearly as the giggles developed one who was already again favoured. Each girl took turns and tried to interpret which in the main looked like an S or a splodge!

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Why St. Andrew’s Day?

As St Andrew’s Day often came with the start of Advent in the Catholic Church it was a good time for reflection, and prayer to  develop spiritual contact with God. As a result St Andrew became a patron  of young girls looking for love guidance as such since at least the 16th Century in Poland such fortune  telling has been recorded. St Andrew’s Eve was also the last day when dancing parties were permitted. Therefore, understandably with discussion of future spouses enterprising people have identified the night as an opportunity to have discos and club nights encouraged by the idea that any partner found on that night would be the one.

Custom contrived: Kew Gardens Clog and Apron Race

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Kew is a delightful retreat in west London. Its splendid glasshouses, incrediable arrays of perrenials and peaceful vistas. That is unless you happen to be there when the Clog and Apron race is on. For a few minutes only one of the main paths in the gardens thunders to the sound of wooden clogs and cheering!

Clogged up

But why clogs and aprons? Well clogs were traditionally the footwear of all gardens long before crocs and wellies appeared.They were better than leather boots to keep one’s feet dry Aprons being used for holding garden tools. Each year first year horticultural students are given a pair of wooden soled leather clogs and an apron in a ceremonial way as symbols of their profession. Whilst the aprons may be worn by these students, the clogs are purely symbolic most preferring those rubber shoes.

Runners (but not beans or strawberry)

The exact origins of the race are unclear as records have only been kept since the 1950s but it is thought to have started in the 1920s. It was one of a whole range of running events such as one which was between rival RHS Wisley and all around the garden race – must be all that propogating demanding some serious leg stretching.

The clog and apron race was a way of the older students to welcome the newer ones without any form of reward but glory.; more recently the Student Union has provided medals for first, second and third place.

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One of the earliest records in is the 1952 version of the Kew Journal where the extracts below are taken, which was the first after the interregnum that the second world war had enforced. The Clog and Apron Race was again held this year after a long interval, as the last race was run in 1939. Interesting it was held in the early summer:

“The race was held in fine weather on Friday, May 25th and the number of runners was so large that the field had to be divided into two heats. The first hear was run in the time of 59 seconds, being won by Mr P. Nutt ( -pixyledpublications honestly that was his name!) whilst the second heat, which like the first consisted of thirteen runners, was won by Mr. G Fuller. The first four from each heat lined up for the final and in this a very exciting race resulted. The ultimate winner, Mr Nutt, went into the lead very early, and despite all the efforts of the other runners, continued to gain until he ran hime an easy winner in a remarkable time of 49 seconds. Having regard to the fact that the course was from the Circle in the Broad Walk to No 3 Museum, measuring 375 yards and in view of the handicap of clogs and apron, the time is one which will be very difficult to beat in any future race.”

59 seconds seemed to be the model average. Nine runners in 1951 with a D. Hubbard gaining that time. It seems a few years later this Hubbard, becoming Dr Hubbard who in 1955:

“who started the race, gave a bottle of sherry and also cider to the winners. It was an exciting finish. J Eaton just beating A Keevil in 57 secs with D. Coleman third. J. Eaton also received the Pearce Cup, presented for the first year by Mr Pearce for the winner of the Race. Cynthia Warner also received a bottle of cider for being the only girl brave enough to challeng the lads. Mr Pearce provided cider to revive all the competitors. “

Then in 1976, the race then being held in October recorded that:

“The race started in failing light and finished up in almost total darkness. A record time was established by a second year student, Miss Sally Vernon, who became the first female to win the face but also claims the honour of breaking P. Nutt’s record time which was 49.0 seconds in 1951, by a clear 4 seconds. Sally with the speed of a 8.30 Trident, zoomed in at 45.9 seconds. “

However there were some recriminations

“Paul Potter, who came second in 55.0 seconds a clear 10 seconds behind speedy Sall, says that the girls should have been given only two little bins start, instead of the four they were allowed this year. I think that Paul knows that Sally would have still burnt him out if she had not been given any start at all. “

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In 1979 the race for the first time was organised so that members of the public could experience it. The Press release read:

“The Clog and Apron Race Thursday 27th September 1979 for the first time ever, the annual Clog and Apron Race wil be staged whilst the Gardens are opens so that those members of the public who wish can witness the special occasion. The race is held on Thursday 27th September and will start at approximately 5.00 pm and the activities should be finished by 5.45pm”

It adds;

“The event recaptures some of the ancient apprenticeship traditions and colour of the former days. The Race competitors, all dressed in horticultural aprons and heavy clogs, pound the full length of Broadwalk a wide 375 yard long avenue (running from the Palm House Pond and Orangery)….Lady students are given a 50 yard start.”

Alan Titchmarsh in his Knave of Spades notes the event, failing to mention this was perhaps his sole sporting success:

“The clogs were used competitively each autumn in the Clog and Apron Race, which took place o the Broad Walk that runs from Kew’s Orangery to Palm House Pond, a distance of perhaps a hundred and fifty yards. Clad in this traditional apparel (both still worn by Kew students in the late 1960s) those who were rash enough to enter would clatter their way down he wide Tarmac path, sparks flying from their footwear and their denim aprons billowing like kites. The prize was a crate of beer, which was shared round anyway, so it mattered not who won or lost, but how they clattered down.”

Clogging on

It was a very fine evening with the warmth of the fading sun on my face, I awaited on the grass verge the runners. Running in clogs must be a strange experience. The weight of the wooden shoes suggesting the need for some strength in those gardening muscles. I don’t think it would be an event you would want to do every day. Fortunately it was quick for them for in less than a minute the first runner appeared. One could hear them approaching before seeing him or rather them as there was he was closely followed behind by the rest. The winner made a respectable timing and looks very happy to hold aloft the prize. Then it was back to the hard work of horticulture.

 

Custom demised: Little Coxwell’s Educational Charity

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Henry Edwards in their 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes on the 29th of September the village enacted an unusual custom. He noted that:

“the Rev. David Collier charged certain lands in the hamlet of Little Coxwell with the payment of eight bushels of barley yearly…. for teaching the poor children of this parish to read, write, and cast accounts, for three years, when they were to be succeeded by two others to be taught for the same term, and so on successively for ever, and he empowered the vicar and churchwardens, or the major part of them (the vicar being always one) to nominate the children.”

This was back in 1724 and those these were the times when the poor were rarely educated and as such a benefactor who provided money to enable education would be gratefully received. Edwards notes that:

“The payment has been regularly made, sometimes in kind, but latterly in money estimated at the price of barley, at the Farringdon market, the nearest to the day when the annual payment becomes due. The payment is made, under the direction of the churchwardens, to a schoolmistress for teaching three children to read, and, if girls, to mark also. The number of children was formerly two only, who were further taught to write and cast accounts.”

However by the time of Edwards the charity was already appearing to die out in reference to teaching them to write and cast accounts:

“but this part of their education was discontinued many years ago in consequence of the inadequacy of the fund, and, instead thereof an additional child was sent to be instructed with the others.”

Now education is free and as such the provision of the money has long gone.

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

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At the time I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe – but that’s another story – and as a break from the incessant publicity I decided to take myself to find the Burry man. These were the days before the Internet and asking at the Tourist Information in Edinburgh they thought it was some sort of Fringe event..but I thought it is only a few miles out I would try and find it.

The Burryman is perhaps the most bizarre of our customs. A man covered head to toe with burrs with a flowery hat of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. No skin is visible. Just a slit for the mouth. So much that his humanity appears to stripped for him, from a far he is most alien only a cummerbund adorned with a red lion suggesting he is human. He walks with two smartly dressed attendees, who help him hold onto to two hydrangea filled poles.

I located the Burryman easy enough propped outside of a pub like a rag doll. He appeared to acknowledge me but did not say. A few moments later a man appeared with a glass of something – whisky –  what else? Of course drinking the Whisky was a challenge; he only had a slit for a mouth. A straw was provided and it was steadily consumed..one of many it would appear.

As I followed him around some local children cheered his arrival, others watched from behind their parents more suspiciously. The lack of sound perhaps making it more curious for unlike every other similar custom, there is no associated music, no accordions, no violins, no bagpipers and no Morris!

Burry little clear on the origins

History is silent on its origin. Being linked to the local fair, which although medieval in origin only established a charter in 1687 suggests that it dates from then. Very unlikely I would feel and the two has become coincidentally associated. Some state it has a 900 year origin but it only has a recorded history since 120 odd years ago. Interestingly, the date 1687 was when the town became a burgh – burgh – burr – was this a local joke go on and on?

The Burryman is clearly a very odd folk figure. If there was a list of scary English folk figures he would be up there with the Straw bear and Bartle. Indeed, some believe that was part of its function, a mechanism to ward off evil spirits. One belief is that he is a sacrificial scape goat, much akin to the theory of Burning Bartle and the custom’s date being close to the ancient Lammas it is not difficult to reason with its association with harvest fertility, rebirth and regeneration. Certainly, the lack of speech and painfulness of the whole process suggests sacrifice as Brian Shuel notes in his 1984 Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain:

“It has to be said that by the late afternoon the Burry Man’s attendants were proping him up. Exhausted and full of whisky he was extremely relieved to get back to the Town hall where they stripped him in moments and left him comatose in his underpants for ten minutes before his wife, Julia, managed to prod him back to life. Suddenly he revived and in no time was himself again.”

But why here and why no-where else? Well it was found associated with Scottish fishing communities on the Moray Firth and was used to protect against poor fishing seasons. In Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the 1860s and their Burryman was on horseback and travelled through the town with a piper. In Buckie it appears to have been only done in response to a failure of the fishing fleet but curiously it was a Cooper who was wheelbarrowed around the town.  Queensferry is near the Sea so it is understandable it would survive there. But why the burrs? The provision of whisky is said to give the provider good luck; a clever way to ensure a free supply.

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Burrly able to move

There are many foliage people – Jacks, Straw men etc – but the Burryman has got to be the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable. He is covered head to toe with sticky flower heads of the burdock. These being collected on the Friday morning before the parade These burrs, of which 11,000 is the average number which cover him, would be almost impossible to bear on a person’s normal clothing so he is covered head to toe in thick longjohns, vest, heavy sweeter and a balaclava which in August must be just as bad as being covered it spikey foliage! The burrs also cause the wearer to walk awkwardly with an open leg gait and arms outstretched which adds to the curious appearance! As if being covered with burrs and wearing a balaclava is not bad enough the Burryman has to walk a seven-mile route which usually takes nine hours!

The whole event begins in the Staghead Hotel at around 7am. The Friday previous the Burryman collects burrs and places them on newspaper make A3 size burr squares their natural Velcro like ability enables them to form ready-made fabrics. Overall 25 are made. The would then be placed on the volunteer and slowly but surely he becomes the Burryman. His first stumbling steps make it to the Town Hall where traditionally he receives his first dram of whisky.

Only locals can be the Burryman and despite the discomfort they are repeat performances one man Alan Reid having the pleasure for 25 years. He was only a few years from retirement when I ‘met’ him in the 1990s. Since 2012 an Andrew Taylor has the honour.

Burrly there!

I spent a couple of hours in the middle of the day which the Burryman, watching as he was greeted with great enthusiasm from pubs, shops, passerbys and a local factory. At lunchtime his attendees arrived at a local pub, where after having some difficulty getting him through the doorway, left him in the hall way again propped against the way – he could not sit down. Half an hour passed and he was still there but appeared like a forgotten rag doll! After a number of drams he looked decidedly jaded, although his foliage had jet to droop! In the bar I managed to speak to renowned custom hunter Doc Rowe and it is great to know Doc has returned regularly ever since. He was particularly amazed when in less than a month later he recognised me at Abbott Bromley at the Horn Dance and the mad search for customs has not stopped since!

With the modernity’s shadow of the Forth Bridge looming over the town, the curious juxtaposition survival of ancient and modern are very clear here. As the bizarre Burry man parades pointlessly around the town – the fair it was associated with long gone – it is evident that the locals need him like they would the whiskey he imbibes or the cars they drive. He is part of the fabric of the community. A mysterious almost mesmerizing old custom, one which would drag people back to see it again. It has been over 20 years since I experience the Burryman and I feel a revisit is long overdue!

Custom demised: Shooting the silver arrow, Harrow School

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Our historic independent school are a rich source for calendar customs and indeed many still survive. Formerly Harrow schools Silver Arrow competition was annually held, to be shot for by the scholars of the Free School at Harrow. The following extract is taken from the Gentlemen Magasine 1731, vol. i., p. 351 :

“Thursday, August 5th, according to an ancient custom, a silver arrow, value £3, was shot for at the butts on Harrow on-the-Hill, by six youths of the Free School, in archery habits, and won by a son of Captain Brown, commander of an East Indiaman. This diversion was the gift of John Lyon, Esq., founder of the said school.”

An archery scorecard, showing a contest with spectators watching contestants at the left shooting at targets. 1769 Etching with engravingThe origins of the custom are described by Paul Goldman, in Sporting Life’ BM 1983 cat.2 who states that:

“In 1684 Sir Gilbert Talbot presented a silver arrow worth three pounds to Harrow School as a prize for shooting. The contest eventually became a regular fixture and although interrupted by the reign of James II, lasted until 1771. The tradition lives on, at least in name, in a rifle match called the Silver Arrow Competition, and as part of the crest of the school which bears two crossed arrows.”

It was abolished by a headmaster called Heath for unknown reasons but it is not forgotten. For such a relatively short lived custom, just over a 100 years, its impact on the school psyche is considerable. It is immortalised in its emblem, a Harrow song and remembered as a trophy in an annual sailing, but the competition did not survive, part of the reason no doubt being that the school is closed now over August; being the school holidays.