Tag Archives: King George

Custom revived: The Ripley Guisers

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The east midlands are a very interesting area for folk plays as I have discussed before. What is particularly interesting is the pre-Christmas and post-Christmas divide. In Nottingham-Lincolnshire pre-Christmas mummer’s plays do not appear to exist, such activity being restricted to Plough Monday, but just over the Derbyshire border they do. Is this to do with the east west Dane law divide? One team which bridges that divide between Nottinghamshire (Selston) and Derbyshire (Ripley) is the Hammersmith Play performed by the Ripley Morris or Ripley Guisers, a Hero-Combat style of play.

Once a dying custom

In a strange parallel to the plot of the play, Mummer’s play are a success story custom wise. This is a reverse compared to when George Long, writing in 1930 who states that the joint attractions of the wireless and theatre were too distracting for the younger folk. The author references some locations where mummer’s plays were or at time of writing were once found, but he does not reference Derbyshire. Indeed pick up any nationwide published survey and the only mention of Mummer’s plays is generally the well known Marshfield team and little else. It is true that this team is one of the oldest, other counties have long traditions and revivals. In Derbyshire there appears to be three permanent teams: Glossop, Winster and Ripley.  In the area the name Guizers or often Bull Guisers is used. The term Guiser deriving from disguise and the term is also in currency to describe both the characters of nearby Yorkshire Cakin Neet (descendent of Hallowe’en’s trick or treat) or those characters which appear in Up-Helly–Ah and New Year’s eve in Allendale.  The term bull again is interesting considering my opening statement and suggests a hybrid from the term Plough Bullocks a term used in Notts and Lincs for Plough Monday teams.

Not keeping mum

On Friday night, the team go out for three consecutive Fridays in the last three weeks of December, they were in their home patch of Ripley. The weather was wild, windy and wet, perfect perhaps to cast one’s mind back to times gone. Turning up, I just nipped to the loo, when I heard the sound of a ringing handbell and rushing out, fortunately I was washing my hands at the time, I was confronted by the image of a man covered in a suit of colourful ribbons. He was the introducer, and introduced the characters: King George, Turkish Knight, Beelzebub. The crowd in this bijou pub clearly enjoyed the experience with its various in jokes and comic asides, clearly indicating the team enjoyed ths annual jaunt, the play continues to the customary ressurection. As soon as they appeared, they disappeared and not a drop was drunk going against the view of many the play was just an excuse for drinking!

A local revival

Poor jokes aside..and there was another topical joke about ash trees having a bigger bark that bite..what is pleasing to hear is that unlike some other revivals the play used is very local coming from a village to the north called Hammersmith. Before its revival, it was last performed in 1904, fortunately in 1983, the Ripley Morris Men met Percy Cook, a 91 year, who had performed the play when a young boy. He told them the script with consisted of 5 or 6 characters and two songs. The characters, King George, Beelzebub, The Doctor (or t’Doctor), the Turkish knight and the introducer were familiar characters, but in this play was …a Policeman, who stops the fight at the end! Interestingly, there familiar man in drag is absent and Beelzebub is the blood relation to the Turkish Knight.

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There is record that the play was still being performed in the early 70s but whether this was to do with the Ripley Morris men or not is unclear. Interestingly, there are also records of play being played in Riddings and Somercotes, areas where the modern play is toured. That in Somercotes was performed in the early 1940s, Ridding by children into the 1970s. The Morris team was established in 1924, but fell into abeyance in the 1950s to be revived in 1981, so it seems unlikely to have been in this team. The present team, which has had obvious changes in the 30 years had provided 1,100 performances and raised £28,000 for the local hospital which is a considerable feat. The end song was particularly interesting, I have been told that part of it comes from a local playground chant from Hammersmith and part from a music box, and both came from Percy Cook  rather than a fusion of two sections one from the Hammersmith play and the other from Selston where the Guisers also circuit, which I had read elsewhere. It goes

“one stormy night in winter, the snow was falling pretty hard, I went to get some flea powder for the dogs in my backyard. I met a married maiden whose dark eyes were green, and when I noticed her wash her dirty face her hands smelled of ice cream…. You should have seen her eat brown bread, you should have seen her stand on her head. You should have seen her drop down dead in our backyard last night…”

What on earth, the song was about I cannot be sure, but I was told that it was amalgation of the Hammersmith and Selston script and that they team played around until they cound music that matched. It sounded unique, I haven’t heard anything similar and it sounded almost musical hall like. I continued my tour with the team and later arrived at the Marquis of Ormonde. I was not a 100% sure they would be there, so I thought I’d check. No idea was the reply! Looking around I was bemused that this pub thick with parties dinning on their work’s Christmas dinners would soon be subjected to a very strange scene indeed. Sure enough, in came the bell man pushing through the queue for their Christmas carvery was greeted with an odd mixture of humour, a reference to Avatar, confused faces and in some cases indifference, as if that happens every day, there’s no impressing some folks. The team is a very professional and hard working, and were word perfect if one of their characters did miss a cue and arrived early. In places I observed them at, they were very well received, although apparently the week before they were thrown out of one pub on their circuit. All in all it’s great to see this tradition continuing into its 30th year long may they continue but as Long (1930) states:

“if this book, by increasing interest in the subject, encourages more young fellows to give their scanty leisure to learn their parts.”

I too would be glad if the blog did!

thanks to Graham Clarke for the corrections

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Custom revived: The Warburton Soul Cakers

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There's a fight in the pub

Folk plays are a fascinating pieces of traditional custom and one which is surviving well in the 21st century. One particular strand of this tradition is the Cheshire Souling or Soulcakers. Presently, there are a number of groups which enact this strange ritual usually from 1st November (All Souls Eve) until the 4th November in pubs, inns, houses and sometimes churches in the Cheshire and Lancashire region. Although the Antrobus Soulers may disagree, all of the groups are revivals (this means there has been a break in the last 100 years). The second oldest revival group is that which tour with the Warburton Play.

I decided to track them down in the picturesque town of Knutsford, I had read of their website, a very informative site where I found some of the information for the blog, which gave the name of the first pub in the town. I turned up and enquired behind the bar “Are the Soulcakers arriving tonight”. The “What?” said the manager; she appeared to be blissfully unaware. They planned to do a quiz at 8 when the group arrived. However, her younger colleague did seem to know what I was on about, so 50% was good enough for me! I sat down with my drink and some free sandwiches. Later a couple arrived and the manager pointed over to me, at least this was some support for the fact I had arrived at the correct destination.

What is a Souling Play?

Souling in the strictest form is a custom associated with the souls of the dead’s journey through Purgatory. This would involve the collection of money or the giving of cakes, soul cakes, hence the name soulcakers. To eat such soulcakes would then involve the eating of the sins of those unable to get to heaven. Of course you may ask “but that means the consumer gets the sins!” Yes, but by continuing the tradition ad infinitum there would always be someone eating sins for those just departed. Of course as the custom faded to be replaced largely by Hallowe’en’s trick or treaters, those who were the last to buy the soulcakers must have never left purgatory so heavy the burden of the sins they inherited!! You may of course look scornfully at the custom but this is the origin of the funeral wake.

What’s this got to do with a play?

Good point. It appears at some point to warrant the giving of money or cakes, some bright spark either the receiver or giver thought they wanted something a bit more substantial and so the play was probably born. This may account for the similarity to the Christmas Mummer’s Play, because it’s easier to convert something to write from scratch. Indeed, to the uninitiated there does not appear to be much difference between the Soulers and the Plough Monday play. Indeed, both share a similar plot, both being about death and revival, and share in some cases the same characters: the quack doctor, Beelzebub, and the familiar drag-act, so to speak. However, there are differences, the Sergeant is replaced by King George, the Tom Fool replaced by the Turk and there’s a decent bit of sword play in it…and there’s the Horse.

A horse, a horse….

The horse is a unique feature of the Soulers and one which has created the most interest amongst folklorists. In the present guise, the horse is an old hunt horse befitting its trainer in hunting pink and treated with upmost almost quasi-religious respect, it being hidden from view when not in the play almost as if this might detract from its powers.

Close up of the HorseTaming the Wild Horse!

Perhaps the horse survives in Cheshire plays because of the proximity of the Welsh boarders with their Mari Lwyd horse tradition existed (or vice versa), although of course there are the Poor Old Oss traditions and to some extent Derby Tup traditions surrounding it to the east. Many folklorists have commented that the Horse was an important figure in Celtic paganism, which is significant being that All Souls Day replaced the ancient Samhain. Certainly the horse is no Hobby Horse, but a dark rather sinister creature, a skull on a stick with a black cape beneath hiding is manipulator. In response to key phrases, its mouth opens and closes with a menacing clap! It is interesting to note that there is record in the 1930s that the Warburton horse was buried in the grounds of the pub at the end of the performance. This is referenced once it appears and perhaps this was a ceremonial aspect, rather than an end point, emphasizing the death and resurrection aspect again.

In comes I…

The only one drinking!

Around 8, these plays never seen to be on time, we heard the rowdy chorus of the soulers and soon after in bursts Big Head, much to the amazed and giggled bewilderment of the table nearest the door. The plot was as follows…in comes the Turk who does a bit of boasting, to be challenged by King George, there a fight, Turk dies, in comes his mum (that old standard a bit of drag), calls for the doctor who revives in, in comes Beelzebub who steals a drink from those bewildered beer drinkers and the Horse with its rider.

The revival

There may have been many different local variants of the play perhaps every village had one, but as the 19th century came to close the numbers began to dwindle, the final nail in the coffin being the First and Second World Wars. Indeed the Warburton play was last performed in 1936. However, after only a gap of 42 years, it was revived, thanks to being written down before its demise. The revived play centres around the Saracens Head in Warburton where the play is performed for the first time that year and then after 4 days ends there.

A group called the Bollin Morris revived the play in 1978 and continued to be the preserve of this group until the 1990s, when the group became a mixture of Morris and non-Morris, and then finally in the 2000s the group began unconnected with Bollin Morris. The establishment of set characters for each member of the group appears to have introduced a degree of professionalism and the play was delivered word perfect and with great vigour and enthusiasm despite in some cases the paucity of punters. I was impressed by the fact they took notes and appeared to be organised to get the best performance each time like a real play and this was not some amateur effort.

So if you find yourself next year around Cheshire, I suggest following the Warburton play, it will be enjoyable evening.

Come here oftenThe Doctor deals with the dead TurkThe Doctor deals with the dead Turk (2)

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