Tag Archives: Essex

Custom contrived: Blessing the Horses at Horndon-on-the Hill, Essex

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“On January the seventh is celebrated at Rome feast of St Anthony the abbot On the morning of this feast the pope cardinals princes prelates and indeed all those who have horses send to be blessed by the monks of St Anthony saddles and bridles are also blessed upon the of a small sum being paid for each the beasts with their furniture The Roman Catholics in England were in some measure kept in dark concerning this ceremony of blessing the till 1732 when Dr Middleton wrote his from Rome in which he tells us that he paid eighteen pence for having his horse and that his servant blessed Dr Challoner the titular bishop of London attacked Dr Middleton this subject telling him that although he Dr had lived many years on the continent he never saw or heard of it”

William Hurd in his 1790 Universal of Religious rites:

As a custom it disappeared in Britain at the reformation but in the 20th century a couple of contrived customs have arisen perhaps in knowledge or not of the older custom. One such place is on the green of the picturesque Havering-atte-Bower. Here for over 10 years, the church and Havering-atte-Bower Village Conservation Society have organised Horseman’s Sunday, itself said to be a revival from 1954, but I have been unable to find out why this itself was started although that custom died out in the 70s.

Horsing about

It certainly a big thing for this picturesque village with its green. Usually a quiet village green but soon the horses and their riders and all important helpers – mainly their mums it appeared arrived – it might be called Horseman’s Sunday but Horseperson would have been better name I thought. Havering-atte-Bower is well-known for its horses and there are a large number of stables around the village, and indeed it appeared that everyone who was associated with them had turn up. Fifty horses from large riding mares to small ponies parade before settling behind the rope on the green to avoid accidents, they were keen to keen telling us that! I wonder if they intended using the stocks nearby for those crossing it? I was impressed how patient and calm they were. It certainly has become a day for one’s best as an article in the Romford recorder noted of its organiser Michael Heap:

“It was a beautiful day…There were lots of riders dressed in all their finest and it was all we could ask for.”

The service was led by the church, this time being given by Reverend Dave Marshall from St John’s Church and like previous year the local MP, Romford MP Andrew Rosindell and councillors attend. This is true red, white and blue, British bulldog don’t’ mention the EU territory, and the custom brings together all what you expect from this sort of quaint Britishness, even more acute for those towns and villages clinging to the apron strings of the great metropolis whilst still fiercely attached to their independence. Their local MP in fact is the very bastion of Britishness having with him his Staffordshire terrier wrapped up from the cold in its union flag (not Jack please) body warmer.

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Horse whisperers

A selection of rousing hymns were sung, which despite problems with the amplification and the openness of the site managed to fill the green. Mr Rosindell, who read a poem called Ode to the Horse, said:

“Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride, friendship without envy or beauty without vanity? Here, where grace is laced with muscle, and strength by gentleness confined. He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity. There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent, there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient. England’s past has been borne on his back. All our history is his industry; we are his heirs, he our inheritance. The Horse!”

Indeed the event appears to have had a positive effect on the MP who even passed an early day motion on it in Parliament:

That this House congratulates the Havering-atte-Bower Conservation Society for re-establishing the traditional English ceremony of Horseman’s Sunday held at St John The Evangelist Church, Havering Village Green, Romford, on Sunday 12th October; notes with pride that this was the first such event since the early 1970s; commends the organisers for this momentous achievement in re-creating a special day for horses and their riders to attend an open air service of thanksgiving, to be presented with commemorative rosettes and receive a blessing; and believes that Horseman’s Sunday is a joyous event, bringing the entire community together, fostering tradition and encouraging respect for the great British horse, a creature that has been an inspiration and help to man throughout the ages.”

So despite being as little known as other events, the custom even got as far as a mention in parliament https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2011-12-13a.661.0 (where you can read the rest and learn of some little known days, he had certainly done some research) of which he said:

“In my constituency, I attend the annual horseman’s Sunday in the historic village of  Havering ate Bower, where local horses and their owners attend an open air service on the village green and the local MP presents a rosette to every horse.

It is also important that communities have a chance to organise their own local festivals, so why should not each county, town or village designate a particular day of the year as their day to celebrate in whatever way they see fit, bringing everyone together in celebration of their local identity? Fine examples are St Piran’s day in Cornwall and Yorkshire day.

My Bill would also require the Government to prepare and publish a list of festivals and commemorations up to 10 years in advance, to give local communities the chance to plan and prepare fully for all our historic occasions, allowing everyone the opportunity to celebrate those events that are important to them, and to ensure that all anniversaries and traditions are recognised and kept alive rather than relegated to the pages of history books.

My Bill would also address the nature of our bank and public holidays. Under our current system, those that fall on a weekend are transferred to a day following the weekend. For example, this year, Monday 3 January was made a public holiday in lieu of new year’s day, which fell on Saturday 1 January. When that happens, rather than having a meaningless day off next to a weekend, we should use it for a day of greater significance. If we followed that rule for all existing bank holidays, I believe it would be possible to make St George’s day, St Andrew’s day and St David’s day annual public holidays without creating more days off overall, thus not harming businesses or the economy.”

Nice idea, but it didn’t pass but then what do we expect after repeated Governments have failed to sign up the UNESCO Intangible Heritage agreement. Political rant over! Next time I see him I’ll ask him to support this perhaps!

At the end of the service all the horses were blessed and given rosettes which were handed out by Mr Rosindell. Being a faithful crowd Sapphire rosettes given to celebrate the Queen’s sapphire jubilee. Then the whole event was tied up by the British of British things, a BBQ, but unBritishlike the sunshine spoilt the traditional aspects i.e it did not rain!

All in all a great slice of British life in a picturesque place.

 

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Custom survived: Colchester Oyster Proclaimation

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Customs which are firmly attached to a specific date are today a rarity; many have now slipped the more convenient nearest weekend – but not Colchester’s Oyster Proclamation, itself a bit of a rarity being an Essex custom. Firmly fixed to the first Friday in September originally the first of September. Why September? Well this is the first month with an R in it!

Now there is another aspect which means witnesses the custom can be a problematic – it is held on a boat in the middle of the estuary. However, this year for logistical reason it returned to shore.

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Shellfishly does it!

Dating from 1540 it is a colourful event full of the right level of pomp but not pompous. Afterall you cannot think yourself too important when you are swaying in the sea. Indeed, The Times in 22nd September 1928 recorded:

“The company were about to drink a toast in gin, in accordance with ancient custom, when the table containing the tiny glasses, filled win gin, overbalanced ad fell, crushing to the deck, together with the small cakes of gingerbread provided for the occasion. Amid hearty laughter fresh supplies were soon forthcoming and the ceremony concluded in the time honoured fashion.”

An article in the Daily Mail suggests the custom can be even more fraught with problems noting:

The oyster-opening ceremony has taken place on the sea for more than 400 years – but not this year and possibly not next year. Mrs Lewis said it was uncertain whether the tradition would even return to the water next year, when she is out of office – because of health and safety. She said: ‘The jury is still out on that one. If the next mayor wants to go back on the water, there are a couple of health and safety issues that need to be addressed. ‘The mayor nearly fell overboard last year so we had to look at the risk anyway.”

The Daily Mail had more to state:

“But because last year’s mayor almost fell into the water as he moved from boat to boat, the ceremony – which dates back to 1540 – was instead staged on land. 

And to make matters worse, the current mayor, Conservative Sonia Lewis, suffers from seasickness, further scuppering any chance of holding the ceremony on the water….Speaking about the decision, Mrs Lewis said: ‘I have never been able to attend the opening of the fisheries because of my inability to tolerate tidal waters. I confirmed on more than one occasion that I was prepared to stand down from the ‘opening of the Colchester oyster fisheries’ this year.”

So that year a Mayor nearly overboard, a seasick and a non-oyster eating Mayor made that year’s event one a memorable one in its possible 2000 year history – a claim deriving from the Roman’s love of Oysters and the significant presence in the Colchester area. Certainly it can be traced back possibly further than its 16th century record possibly to the time when the town confirmed in 1189 by King Richard I that to raise money for a crusade, its control of fishing ‘from North Bridge up to Westness was established. It is worth noting however, the Mayor came over her dislike of oysters stating:

“She had said she would not eat the oyster, describing herself as ‘more of a fish and chip girl’ but she dutifully quaffed it down with a grimace.”

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Being on land does create another obstacle. Part of the ceremony was the Mayor to dredge in the first catch of Oysters…unless he was planning to scout around on the beach or have a long net, that was not going to happen. The solution was to get a local oyster chef in and to give the Mayor the first oyster on a plate to eat.

I was informed that it was alright to attend and take photos and that it would be in the Country Park. Making my way there it was not difficult to work out where it would be happening – a small white marquee at the end of the park near the sea – planned just in case it was wet!

Inside was a hive of activity, a man was shucking oysters in remarkably quick time whilst nearby a lady was carefully filling glasses of gin and another cutting slices of gingerbread. Soon all the attendees turned up with the Mayor and at the allotted time they assembled on a bank overlooking the bay. The curious spectacle of the Sergeant with his mace and the Mayor in full regalia attracted quite a few onlookers. Then the bell was rung and the proclamation read. A toast to the queen and the Mayor tasted the first oyster of the season.

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Gingerly with the gin and gingerbread? .

Soon as the proclamation was made trays of gin and tonic and gingerbread where handed around. I didn’t partake of the G and T but the gingerbread was delightfully moist and flavoursome. I asked why it was gin and gingerbread. No one was sure but it was suggested that the ginger in the gingerbread settled the stomach on a stormy sea and the gin masked the fumes of the boat!

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The ceremony it appears has to be checked out by her majesty herself. Before it a letter is sent to The Queen. In 2004 it is said to have read:

“According to ancient Custom and Charter dating back to Norman times, the Mayor and Councillors of the Colchester Borough Council will formally proclaim the Opening of the Colne Oyster Fishery for the coming season and will drink to your Majesty’s long life and health and request respectfully to offer to your Majesty their expressions of dutiful loyalty and devotion.”

She couldn’t attend but it  was a great pleasure to attend this year’s proclamation, eat the gingerbread and be for once able to hear what is said rather than trying to hear it from the shore.

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Custom transcribed: Ganesh Chaturthi – immersing of Ganesha effigies

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I followed with the greatest curiosity crowds who carried in procession an infinite number of idols of the god Ganesh. Each little quarter of the town, each family with its adherents, each little street corner I may almost say, organizes a procession of its own, and the poorest may be seen carrying on a simple plank their little idol or of papier mâché… A crowd, more or less numerous, accompanies the idol, clapping hands and raises cries of joy, while a little orchestra generally precedes the idol.”

Angelo de Gubernatis, Bombay Gazette (1886)

One of the most fascinating thing about having an interest in customs and ceremonies is the adoption of customs from other parts of the world. Even more pleasing is when on a day out at the seaside one comes across a custom quite literally whilst sitting on a deckchair having a cup of tea! It happened on Saturday in early September – unfortunately I didn’t have my SLR camera but I did manage some okay photos with my mobile!

So one minute I was sipping my tea and then just behind me I could hear the beating of drums and chanting. A small group of people had assembled with drums and some were carrying effigies. They appeared to be processing straight to the beach. What I was encountering is the very public spectacle at the end of Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the God Ganesha, which lasts for 10 days from late August to early September.

Who is Ganesha?

It is perhaps significant that the Lord Ganesha is celebrated at this time of year, the harvest time, because he is the God of New Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles. The ceremony is focused around installation of clay idols of the god in homes or temporary stages. On the tenth day they are carried in procession to the nearest water whether river or ocean – on in this case the pool at Shoeburyness, Essex. It is believed that as the deity dissolves in the water the God is returned to Mount Kailash to fellow deities Parvati and Shiva.

It was a small but nevertheless colourful procession with three Ganesh effigies. These were adored with flowers and jewellery and looked splendid if slightly heavy. The adornments were carefully removed for what would happen next would be that they would be immersed in the sea.

Under the sea

What I found interesting and amusing about the custom is despite this being clearly a Hindu festival it was typically British in the approach some of the attendees had to it. Some of the younger members upon the moment their toes hit the water forgot all ceremony and complained about the cold of it – and then after seeing a crab – one almost refused to enter!

He was convinced and after wading to their waists, the effigies were then lowered into the water bits appearing to break off even before they were fully submerged. One of the women in the party who appeared to be organising the event reminded the men that they needed to immerse themselves fully in the water. They weren’t keen! After some berating they begrudgely lowered themselves and disappeared beneath it! They emerged looking cold but slightly enriched by the experience.

What such a custom shows is behind even the most solemn custom the comedy of human nature is always there…and that there could be a custom around the corner at any moment! Be prepared!

Custom revived: The Whitebait Festival

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The days when we all lived in clover, With whitebait, can never revive, I assure you,” said Lawless, “they’re over, But, oh, keep the licence alive.”

Such were the lines from ‘Punch‘ to have two politicians who were commenting on the end of the great Whitebait Feast.

The consumption of baby sprats and herring – commonly called Whitebait – was such a popular dish in Essex that it attracted much ceremony which included members of parliament and even the prime minister!

Raise to the bait

The association with an annual feast apparently is associated with those who funded the Barking Breach, a costly anti-flood venture which was built in 1707. This begun with the host Sir Robert Preson, the Dover MP inviting distinguished guests to his fishing cottage nearby. Then in 1766, the first Whitebait Feast first took place in Dagenham, this was largely a private affair, often attended by politicians and marked the end of the parliamentary season on or around Whit Sunday. The politicians would process by boat to the party. A regular attendee was the then Prime Minster, Pitt the Younger. He was concerned that the venue was too far too London and as such it moved to Greenwich. However this being a political activity there were two locales: the Trafalgar Tavern (for the Liberal members) and the Old Ship Tavern (for the Tories). The last such Dinner was held in 1894 a closure forced by the lack of Whitebait, a consequence of the Thames pollution rather than any political falling out.

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Baited breathe

Then Southend Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry revived it in 1934. The improvement in water quality in the Thames has resulted in spawning occurring not far from Southend pier. Of this first revived feast the Times reported:

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds; whitebait ill-cooked is much nastier than salt cod, and many are the people who do not like whitebait because they have never tasted whitebait worthily cooked and served.”

The custom consisted of an official opening ceremony with the catch blessed at from the end of the pier with the bringing in of the first catch. This catch was then taken to the feast. However a few changes have been made – since the burning down of the pier – the event has moved to the Bawley below Cliff’s Pavillion. The Mayor of Southend, other important people of the town and the ministers of the five different denominations attend. Arriving a few moments earlier one has to peer into the nearby restaurant where the whitebait feast occurs – tickets available from the Round Table – but don’t expect any prime ministers. Here the party assembled and then vicar and mayor carrying a basket of whitebait in a white cloth. Gingerly making their way to the water’s edge, the vicar said a few words and together holding the fish and nearly dropping them they threw them back!  Then the group went to a local restaurant to enjoy the Whitebait – although this is only the first course I would imagine!

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Sadly despite the blessing – much of the whitebait is caught 100s of miles away in the Baltic..and I am not sure the blessing gets that far!

Custom survived: The Nepton Distribution Barking

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I have travelled and do, travel quite bit around the country visiting, experiencing and photographing old, curious and unique customs and ceremonies. I am sure if you are a follower – you’ve noticed and enjoyed!

Yet what I did not realise until recently that being enacted every year not far from my home town was a custom just as curious and old – the Nepton Distribution, a charity organised by the Poulters, a London Livery company.

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The only way is Essex

Essex has had a bad press in recent years – and often it is portrayed as vacuous, lacking any finesse or class – but scrape beneath the surface and proper pomp and circumstance can be found. Each year St. Margaret’s Church is visited by the Poulters and local dignitaries to visit the Tomb of a local worthy, Nepton and provide local people with the proceeds of his endowment.

I was informed that the custom is the longest unbroken monetary charity in the country after the Maundy Money, which if it is correct makes its lack of notice even more surprising. The money was provided by the Will of Ann Nepton, who in January 1728 set up a trust using a property in Dunning’s Alley , which after the death of her son, passed to the Company of Poulters’ who would pay forever £40 per annum to the poor people of Barking in the county of Essex those that;

“shall be the most industrious and that do not receive Alms or reliefe of the said parish”.

The property was finally acquired by the North London Railway Company and was the Great Eastern terminus site in 1865.

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In Barking on a journey

In 1890 when Ilford split from Barking it was decided that the Master and Clerk would visit both and distribute £20. This money is now topped up by the Charity fund of the Poulter’s company. It was ordered that the Master and Clerk should wear their gowns and announce:

A Committee representing the Court of the Worshipful Company of Poulters London appears here for the   purpose of paying to the Poor of this Parish the sum of £40 under the will of Ann Nepton.”

After an introduction and welcome by the town’s Mayor and then the Master of the Poulters, a local dignitary, a Mr. Glenny read out the names. Hands were raised and voices heard and a small envelope with money was hand delivered. Every now and then no one answered – absent – and the distribution went on. Records show how these distributions have fluctuated in line with the profit made on the endowment and changes in inflation:

“1771-1774      £22

1801               £34

1802-1804     £28

1822-1823     £50

1836               £30”

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 Barking mad!

The irony of this custom being enacted in my home town was that I have been generally unable to attend and having thought it would be of interest to spread the knowledge of this little known custom further, I sent a reporter – my father. However, I had forgotten, he had forgotten..and had fell asleep – only to be woken by a piece of paper which had the details of the custom. Noting it had yet occurred he speeded off to it. He made it and thanks to him for the photos and details. He was warmly welcomed by the Poulters and was the only person not part of the distribution.

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Once the distribution was over there was a more solemn task, The second part of the custom involved paying respects to the benefactor. In the churchyard is a notable table tomb, the burial place of the Barking benefactor, Thomas Nepton

“Beneath this Tomb are deposited the Remains of Mr. Thomas Nepton. Formerly of this Parish, who departed this life On the 26th day of September 1724 in the 49th year of his age. Also of Mrs. Ann Nepton Wife of the above, who departed this life On the 2nd day of May 1728 in the 64th year of her age. This tomb was repaired & beautified in the year 1825 by an order of the Court of Assistants of the Worshipful Company of Poulterers, London made on the 31st day of March in the same year to which Company the above named

Thomas and Ann Nepton gave & devised considerable Estates in Trust for Charitable purposes.”

The beneficiaries, led by the clergy, Master of Poulters and other dignitaries made their way to the tomb where prayers were said and a wreath laid. A solemn thanks. Although the upkeep of the tomb was the responsibility of the company, the wreath laying only begun in 1975. The third part as stipulated by the will was a supper – I did not get my father a ticket for that, but he appeared to enjoyed it and he too was surprised it had gone on without his knowledge.

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Indeed the custom is perhaps now unique. There were many similar charities and doles. Many survive. Yet few appear to have a real impact. Here where 160 local people are the beneficiaries – 60 from Barking and 60 from neighbouring Ilford – there’s a real feeling that the people attend out of need. Certainly the attendees were well known to the distributors. Perhaps in the 21st century that is a bitter pill to take, but the people were good humoured and appeared to enjoy the ceremony of it – as well as the Nepton’s continuing generosity.

When is it on? It’s not on calendar customs yet but it’s usually in the first week of June.

Custom survived: The Dunmow Flitch

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“Or in twelvemonth and a day, Not wisht yourselves unmarried again”

Every four years, since the Second World War, in July all eyes fall upon the market town of Great Dunmow in Essex for the world famous Dunmow Flitch. A unique custom, a sort of dole with conditions (doles with provisos are not uncommon although most appear to be reciting the Lord’s Prayer), proving fidelity and matrimonial bliss being the necessary requirements (although in the last two flitches the occurrence of two surnames for the claimants suggests that marriage is not itself not a requirement such as it moved with the times!)

The legend of their origins

The true origins of this bizarre custom are unclear and some authorities suggest a Saxon or Norman origin. However, the earliest recorded origin appears to date from 1104 when the Lord of The Manor of Dunmow, a Reginald Fiztwalter and his wife, dressed as beggars, visited the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow and asked for a year and a day after marriage. The prior responded by giving a flitch of bacon. At this point the lord revealed himself and gave his lands to the Priory on condition that a flitch would be given to any other couples who could prove similar. From these rather unlikely origins the custom grew that by the 1300s the Dunmow Flitch trial had already made its way into literature, when Geoffrey Chaucer refers to ‘Flitch of Bacon of Dunmow renowned’ in his Wife of Bath and William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman also gives mention to it in 1362:

that if any pair could, after a twelvemonth of matrimony, come forward, and make oath at Dunmow ..that, during the whole time, they had never had a quarrel, never regretted their marriage, and, if again open to an engagement, would make exactly that they had made, they should be rewarded with a flitch of Bacon,”

Steven Samuel is however in 1445 is the earliest recorded successful claimant. The next recorded is Richard Wright and he travelled from Norwich to prove it suggesting again a far reaching fame. There are only three known pre-Reformation claimants, but considering that the claimants from 1980 are unknown this does not infer it was not regularly challenged. Interestingly, whilst other such customs associated with the Priory disappeared at the Reformation, it survived passing to the Lord of the Manor and continued, after a probable brief respite, the tradition was revived by Sir Thomas May in 1701 when he became the owner of the Priory.

The demise

Despite a claim being made in 1772 by a John and Susan Gilder, the then lord of the Manor decided it should not happen and apparently nailed the doors of the Priory shut. A further unsuccessful attempt was made by a retired cheesemaker called Joshua Vine and his wife who travelled from Reading, who upon meeting the Steward of Little Dunmow, a George Wade, he refused to hold a trial stating that it was:

“an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”

In 1837, the Saffron Walden and Dunmow Agricultural Society restored the custom, although the flitch was apparently distributed during their dinner supposedly to the most faithful of their member. Despite this claimants still appeared and in 1851 a couple from Felsted claimed the bacon and were refused but finally a flitch was obtained from Great Dunmow.

This view point appears to have lead to its decline and finally it disappeared. However, the relics of the ancient custom: the oak chair and stone upon which the couples knelt were kept and remain within Little Dunmow church which was part of the Priory

Revival

Curiously it was a book in 1855, the novel ‘The custom of Dunmow’ by Harrison Ainsworth, which spurned the revival of the event run this time by the town council, and thus had nothing to do with the church and manor. Ainsworth himself was involved in its revival and it continued to be held regularly since then becoming every four years since the Second World War.

The present format-2012 trials

The Trials now resemble that of a modern court case with defending and opposing counsels who represent the Flitch donors, a Judge, jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors, an User and Clerk of the court. I have seen two flitches one in 1996 and the other 2012, despite the obvious changes in those 16 years for example no-one was asked to turn off mobile phones in 2012, the trials were the same a great mix of pomp and pantomime. In 1996 the main counsel was Jerry Hayes MP and agony aunt Claire Rayner, who claimed the flitch successfully in 2008 and it was fitting to see a tribute to her in the programme.

Those claiming the bacon must bemarried for at least a year and a day and as all claimants can win the Bacon as they do not compete which each other. This year the claimants came from as near as Dunmow to as far as Spain and Australia although she was resident in the UK.

Most of the fun comes from the opposing counsel (for the bacon), who use any mechanism to prove that the couple should not claim the bacon and despite the jovial nature of the custom, the claimants do not always win. In 2008 there were some classic one-liners. In the first trial the much fun came from the couple’s revelation that the wife was double dating and had their honeymoon in Harlow (less than 10 miles from home!) The best one-liners particularly came from BBC Radio Essex’s Dave Monk upon asking the third couple, the wife of which worked at Marks and Spencers, paraphrased the advert tag line when she told him she was looking for a man, but not just any man…..

The most comical asides came when interrogating a couple who were sci-fi fans. It was revealed that the first date had to be moved because it clashed with the first new episode of Doctor Who! The wife neatly defined the difference between nerd, geeks and dorks. It was also revealed that the couple’s first kiss was on the playground, the quick retort being was the relationship on the slide ever since and that marriage was not all swings and roundabouts. ….Dave Monk later stated that he and his colleague were Men in Black and used his pen to make the jury forget the claimant’s plea! Despite the great ‘banter’ between the couple and the counsel which appeared to favour the couple…they lost and had to walk to the market place to collect the gammon, the consolation prize. They were the unlucky ones for four out of five won.

The winning couples, except the heavily pregnant one, were then lifted on a wooden chair, this year a new one replaced a more ancient one now retired to the local museum.  With the flitch carried aloft in front they are carried triumphantly by bearers in the flitch chair to the market place and on those ‘pointed stones’ they take the oath. Here they take the oath (said to be similar to pre-Reformation marriage vows and certainly used since 1751) it goes as follows:

“You shall swear by custom of confession,

That you ne’er made nuptial transgression;

Nor, since you were married man and wife,

By household brawls, or contentious strife,

Or otherwise at bed or board,

Offended each other in deed or in word,

Or since the parish clerk said, Amen,

Wished yourselves unmarried again,

Or in twelvemonth and a day,

Repented in thought any way,

But continue true in thought and desire,

As when you joined hands in holy quire.”

The judge reads out the following sentence:

“If to these conditions without all fear,

Of your own accord you will freely swear,

A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,

And bear it hence with love and good leave:

For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,

Tho’ the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own”

With the last few words chanted by all!

Origins

Although a medieval date is given for the origins, the presence of similar customs in Europe, in Vienna and Rennes, Brittany suggests the origin given may be false. Indeed it may have an earlier possibly pagan origin. It is not beyond reason that the meat was a boar which could have been given as a sacrifice to a pagan god. This is suggested by Historian Helene Guerber her Myths of the Norsemen in 1908 who connects it to the German Yule feast, where a boar is eaten at Yule in Goddess’s Freyr’s honour which can only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. As Freyr was the patron of gladness and harmony it is not within reason to see the goddess association with harmonious marriages.

Whatever the origins, the Dunmow Flitch remains one of the most enjoyable and joyous celebrations of both English eccentricity and marriage (if those two are not necessarily mutually exclusive).

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom demised: The Ilford Dunmow Flitch

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In this flitch year I thought it was worth detailing, a flitch tradition which may not be very well known. This is the Ilford Flitch. Ilford is a small town now virtually swallowed up by the greater London conurbation and now close to the Olympic site of course. However, after the First World War, Ilford Catholics decided to introduce the custom as part of their Whitsun fete. This is doubly interesting for a number of reasons, it occurred in a hiatus in the celebration of the real Dunmow Flitch, and indeed may have stimulated the organising reclaim the bacon so to speak and also that it was clearly a Catholic tradition encouraging marriage.

Of course, it received a fair bit of criticism from Dunmow and from the author Steer(1951) who said “you may as well take the Barnet fair to Southampton” or the “Varsity boat race to the Clyde” Yet despite this knocking the tradition was clearly not a one off and attracted a number of well known names, the most famous being Will Hay, Comedian, school teacher and astronomer.

The first flitch was apparently held in 1920 at the drill hall and the features of the true flitch are apparent: the counsel for the claimants (Mr C. E. Grigsby and Miss Maggie Buckley both regular attendees) and for the flitch (Mr W Vaughan and Mrs Petrie again regular attendees). It was overseen by an usher and judge and the winners had to receive the sentence kneeling on ‘pointed stones’.  It was claimed these came from Dunmow and were actually genuine. Before this the flitches of bacon would be paraded with the winning couple. That year it was a Mr. and Mrs. Gray.

In 1922 a Mr and Mrs Samuels won it, but the 1924 one was more memorable. This time having moved to a marquee held in Gordon fields and the noted Jeffret Farnol .novelist acted as judge counsel for the claimants being the Rev H Dunnico MP,  Mr. E.W. Tanner and Mrs Petrie with Mr. Grigsby, Mr. Jack Jones MP, Mrs  Ellie Porter for the Claimants. This time the counsel challenged the judge on two accounts stating that if he were married he would look with suspicion on any evidence of matrimonial bliss and second if he were single his lack of experience made him unfit to be a judge. A fact that questioned the very nature of the trial perhaps. To this claim, the judge fined the Rev Dunnico a farthing for contempt of court. He paid using a hundred thousand mark note which was accepted.  There is further confusing between the two Jones MP, when one of the claimants was also a Jones and an MP! In the end Mardy Jones of Pontypridd and Mr Harry Byford won the bacon despite the defending counsel claiming that if they did not produce marriage lines they could not be happily married and claim the bacon!

In 1928, the musical star, Charlie Austin was the judge and this generated a fair bit of hilarity with his antics. However by 1929 Major Sir George Hamilton JP was a more sober judge and all the claimants won and in 1931 in the presence of a heatwave! Little details appear to recorded of these occasions bar those in defending and claimants counsels.

1932 saw the appearance of Will Hay. Now I am great fan of Will Hay and it may come as a surprise to hear of his involvement. However, clearly he was an inspired choice and made much of the ceremony. He was making much play for the audience with his fellow ‘barrister’ Miss Buckley and would disappear together within the box to decide the outcome. At one point he himself claimed the bacon and grabbed it and dragged it into the box. His claim was unsuccessful! Mr Grigsby again for the claimants summed up:

“Man has many faults, women only tow there’s nothing right they say and nothing right they do!”

In 1933 three couples claimed it one of the winners a Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald were the winners from Bournemouth. In 1934 a claimant, Mr James O’Brien was asked to produce marital happiness evidence! He asked his eight children to stand up and claimed black-shirt being a member of the British Fascists. Indeed, the oncoming Second World War appears to have been the end of this bizarre stolen custom….but it does make you think knowing how much fun one can have with the ceremony it may be good one to encourage elsewhere!