Tag Archives: Local history

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot


Curry Rivel Somerset

“Wassail O Wassail all over the town,                                                         

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown,                                                   

The cup it is made of the good old ashen tree.                                            

  And so’s the beer from the best barley,

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O here we take this door held fast by the ring,                                        

Hoping Master and Missus will let us all walk in And for to fill our wassail bowl and sail away again.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O Master and Missus have we done you any harm                                          

Pray hold fast this door and let us pass along                                         

And give us hearty thanks for the singing of our song.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail

Wassailing is becoming all the rage in folk circles and beyond. It seems that like Morris dancing in the 20th century, wassailing is the 21st century revival equivalent. However these revived wassails appear to be those associated with trees, the original surviving one of which I discussed here, there does not appear to be a similar revival in house visiting wassailing, which one could claim probably was the original approach. Therefore when given the chance to experience one of the few surviving wassails one jumps at the chance. Such happened last Twelfth Night at the small village of Curry Rivel in Somerset.

Wassail in

Arriving at the King William IV I found a group of men standing around. “Are you the wassailers?” I asked “Yes” they replied “Do you mind if I join you and take some photos?” They were a bit perplexed by my enquiry but the reply was positive‘Yes that’s okay as long as you don’t mind being shoved in the back of the van?!”

Next minute I noticed I was in the back of transit van with six strangers. We were off to pick up the oldest member of the group, a sprightly 93 year old Harry Richards, one of them joking that the thud was the van knocking him over! A joke of course and no disrespect was intended as these men whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s had a great pride in their venerable leader.

Soon as he was in thou, sitting at the front, not crammed in the back, we were off. I had no idea where we were going and indeed at one point we appeared to go off-road, but that’s Somerset roads for you. A large crowd had congregated at the first house and as they assembled with their venerable leader at the front. Then they opened their mouths and the wassail song came out.

Curry Rivel Somerset

I was impressed how forceful it sounded considering this was the first time they’d sung it together – they had small wordsheets to help them but only one member appeared to be struggling to remember and it didn’t really notice.

The door opened with a warm welcome and the wassails entered. Inside across the kitchen table was a fine spread of food and drink. The Wassail evokes a party atmosphere in the village and to be one of the houses chosen is a great honour especially as it is thought that the wassailers would bring good luck as emphasised by the toast given by their leader

“God bless Master and Missus and all the family. Hoping they’ve had a Merry Christmas and wishing them a Happy New Year.”

After satiating themselves at the first house it was off to the next. Back in the van. Hold on as we swerved a tight corner. A makeshift light being provided by a blinking torch or on occasions someone’s lighter. When we arrived at the next house, we leaped out into the gloom of a remote house. Here an even warmer welcome and spread was available. Then off the next and the next. At each more and more food, and more and more alcohol was being taken. This meant that the groups ability to hold on to the string and sides of the transits less easy and some thought it was best just to sit down. .

The food was indeed quite exquisite and it was obvious that the great honour of being a wassailed house asked for more than just supermarket fayre! At one of the houses an actual wassail bowl was provided which the members took a sip readily from. The wassail bowl being of course mentioned in their song but surprisingly absent I thought! Despite the amount of alcohol imbibed the song did not waver in its nature and indeed appeared to get stronger and song with more vigour! The final stop was one of the younger members of wassailer where again like in all the houses I was warmly welcomed and treated.

Ashen faces

Back at the William IV pub faces were squashed against the windows awaiting the wassails. They were late – I was glad I had attended the wassails and not waited at the pub – then a window was opened and their final wassail was song

Despite accounts to the contrary the Ashen Faggot is not carried around by the wassailers but awaited them at the bar. The Faggot is a fine construction, made traditionally by the same family in the valley below the village.

It consisted of ash logs tied together neatly with ash withies, nine in all, a magical number. Walker in her Old Somerset Customs tells us that it was once as long as five feet and four oxen were employed to drag it to the hearth…no wonder it wasn’t carried! Now it’s a more manageable foot or so to fit into the rather small fireplace at the pub.

Curry Rivel Somerset

It is evident that the Ashen Faggot is an older custom, possibly pre-Christian. This is especially evident in Curry Rivel when it is claimed that its burning has happened for at least 200 years but the Wassailers only date back to 1900.

The Ashen Faggot is a Somerset and Devon tradition and Curry Rivel is not the only village to have one. In a way it is the local version of the Yule log but were as this has died out in Britain, the Ashen Faggot survives and indeed in some places has been revived.

Curry Rivel Village

Muriel Walker in Old Somerset Customs tells us that the Ashen Faggot was said to have been first made by the shepherds to warm the baby Jesus, another version tells that Joseph had collected the bundles and Mary had lighted it to wash the baby Jesus.

Ashen faced?

At the allotted time, Mr. Richards was assisted carrying the Ashen Faggot to the fireplace and saying a few words placed it in the fireplace giving it a ceremonial kick into place.

Willey notes:

“after it has been burnt none of the remains are saved for the next year’s faggot. Free food and drink go around once the faggot is on the fire; the food is bread and cheese etc. and usually the brewery to which the inn is tied supplies a free firkin of ale. The landlord makes up a hot punch based on scrumpy (rough cider) and a scrumpy and wine mixture – home-made wheat wine and scrumpy is particularly potent and highly recommended by the locals. Each time a band on the faggot burned through the landlord was expected to drain a pint of beer or cider.”

Curry Rivel Somerset

Apparently the brewery ceased the free beer a few years back. Yet despite this there was a real party atmosphere and as the embers flickered and faded from the old faggot I made my goodbyes and left. As Willey notes:

“In a village where, during the same period, other traditions, for example the annual ploughing match, the Silver Band, have completely disappeared as casualties of suburbanization, the survival of wassailing in any form is perhaps both curious and heartening.”

Indeed it is and it is evident from the warm welcome and full spreads from the houses that there is no fear of wassailing dying out any time soon in Curry Rivel. A tradition grasped by the younger community as well and a great tradition with some great people as well.

Curry Rivel SomersetCurry Rivel Village


Custom survived: Waltham Cross Bakers and Sweeps Flour and Soot Boxing Day Football Massacre


numbers are a bit down this year we usually like to have all around the pitch covered. Its because Tottenham are playing at home. I tried to get Pochettino to make sure they weren’t but he could manage it.”

So spoke one of the organisers wryly as I surveyed the pitch at this most bizarre seasonal custom. Football is long associated with Boxing Day, more of which in a future blog post perhaps, but this was something else. The crowds were indeed down but this would stop the enthusiasm for this bonkers boxing day bonanza!

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Self raisin

The custom begun as an amusing way to raise money for Cheshunt Cottage hospital. Although there appears to be no record of when exactly begun or who thought to establish it; the earliest date being 1905, however it is generally agreed that it begun in 1909. It soon became established as a popular event and in 1910 a souvenir postcard was even produced with all the players named and the score sweeps 2 bakers 1. An early account appear no different from the normal sports fixtures it would appear suggesting the distinctive craziness had not yet developed on the pitch but had on the run up to it as recorded in Andrea Gilbey and Les Wells’ excellent and much recommended history of the custom The Bakers and Sweeps Flour Soot and Mayhem:

“Football charity match – Bakers vs Sweeps – The annual interesting encounter took place on Boxing Day morning at Cheshunt recreation ground. The respective teams dressed at the Falcon Hotel and marched to the field of battle with brushes (Sweeps) flying; headed by the Temperance Band. The Bakers in their spotless whites, were a distinct contrast to the sweeps, who were indeed a motley crowd, with their tattered and torn garments and dirty shoes….the popular captain of the Sweeps caused endless amounts of fun on the march to the ground.”

Indeed, special silver medals were made. One such in 1928 showed a football between the feet or a short, fat baker, holding a baker’s peel, who’s head and body are made from a cob loaf and a tall, skinny chimney sweep, holding a dustpan and brush and who’s body is made from a bundle of chimney rods and brush.

The band was a regular part of the procession and whilst a procession before the match still occurs when the team members collect money from local businesses, houses and passers by the band has gone.

So did the custom nearly as the second world war caused an unwanted hiatus and it did not return until 1951 however by then the comedy was fully developed:

“when the play begun the fun started in earnest. All the rules of soccer were discarded and the game developed into a free for all catch as you can encounter with a mixture of rugger, hockey and football. In fact it was one of the funniest slapstick encounters we have ever witnessed since the game was first conceived….there were of course interventions of course when the players set off a smokescreen on the field, while the bursting of fireworks gave one impression that the somehow Boxing Day had got mixed up with November 5th.”

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Flour up

Like all great sporting fixtures the two teams lined up for the traditional meet the dignitary, not a member of the royalty but the town’s mayor. However this was a meet the team with a difference as one by one soot and flour was deposited on the head of the mayor.

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Indeed, this barrage of soot and flour is as much a tradition as the game itself and the team members took great pride in getting the Mayor dirtier and dirtier with one of the team captains gently guiding her to each assailant. A great article in Gilbey and Wells book states:

“Gangs of black and white hooligans posing as footballers savagely attacked the mayor of Broxbourne Cllr Gerald Cookson and his Mayoress wife Sadie as they went for a boxing day stroll over Waltham Cross playing fields. They pelted the Mayor with soot and flour and smothered the Mayor with shaving cream but nobody came to the rescue.”

This was all tongue and cheek of course!

Sooty and Sweep

The teams was made up of a wide range of bizarre customs – a carrot, an elf and bizarrely a blind baker complete with white stick and glasses – no one said this was going to PC! It was worse in 1977 with Bunny girls being made available to provide half time drinks…

After the line-up, the game appeared to start without even a ball, the participants simply enjoying covering each over with flour and soot. Then a rugby ball was tossed in, to0 much confusion considering this was supposedly a football game, but it was kicked causing it to spin around uncontrollably and at one point the ball disappeared under a scrum of every single member baker and sweep and a few bystanders as well by the look of it too!

But of course one ball wasn’t enough and soon two, three, four, five, six and seven balls of differing sizes were thrown onto the pitch, causing considerable confusion. But soon some goals were scored and cheers came from the crowd.

At one point cling film being wrapped around one goal to add comedy value as one if the participants surged into it and bounced back, but still scored a goal. At one point there appeared to be a foul and one of the bakers was then taken to the stocks, although for pedantry sake it was really a pillory. He was then ceremonially covered with as much soot and flour as remained.

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Half baked ideas

At some point the tricks and pranks became one of the central tenants of the custom. Over the years Gilbey and Wells tell us that they ranged from exploding tanks, cannons, Daleks to a Pantomime horse scoring a penalty. Finally in a concern that the game was becoming a bit too unruly (never) and attempt to orchestrate came about, especially as there might have been some concern, especially as fireworks might be used, that it might become unsafe and the pranks derail the game as such a script was written! Whether this idea stuck is unclear, but in 1983 a list of pranks was made including:

“smelly loo, Andrew Clayden running amok with an emu, A guillotine to cut off players heads and this to be used as a football (!)..obtain a grocer’s bike to ride the length of the pitch and score a goal.”

Then it was half time. No oranges (from the bottom of the stocking or not) this time but beers. It was a brief break and soon the game was on again. This second half being dominated by a space hopper used as the ball, which was kicked and rose into the air some considerable height considerably, but rather than being kicked was hopped over the line! At one point a member of the Sweeps caused the goalie to fall over and so this was a good enough excuse to have him gunged! Sadly the giant ball much beloved of the game did not appear. Apparently despite sitting deflated at the touchline it was so beaten and broken that it could now no longer be inflated I was told.

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A clean sweep

At the end the two teams were invited to a traditional tug of war which ended up with a rather uneven Bakers side loosing and being dragged across the mud. Then it was over for another year. This year it was a draw – not by my reckoning it was but I don’t anyone was really taking score.


With the sounds of Yakety sax blaring out the speaker appropriately I did feel I’d been dragged back to a more innocent time the 1970s; this was a very Tiswaz like event resplendent with gunge tanks and its mirth making mess makers. However, despite its 20th century nature it is difficult not to think that this has an even older origin. It is possibly that the custom was a resurrected earlier one which had been forgotten, a type of mob football often seen on holidays such as Boxing Day, which may have existed in the area and not been recorded by any local antiquarians. Indeed, even the procession beforehand has the feel of a mummers tour for largess. Whatever the true origins of the custom it is one to be cherished in this day of overproduced fare. Simple knockabout humour and great fundraising too. A local event indeed, but one which deserves to be better known.

Custom demised: Cattle kneeling on Christmas Eve


“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Isaiah Chapter 1, verse 3

It was once believed that at the bells rang at midnight, the cattle in their barns would kneel in honour of the occasion. The belief would appear to be an extrapolation of the account in Isaiah as neither St Matthew’s and St Luke’s gospel mention it and from this slight on how the people of Israel disregard Christ compared to the animals, grew into the belief immortalized in paints and illustrations. It became such a widespread belief that Thomas Hardy’s 1895 Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

 “Well, then he called to mind how he’d seen the cattle kneel o’ Christmas Eves in the dead o’ night. It was not Christmas Eve then, but it came into his head to play a trick upon the bull. So he broke into the ‘Tivity Hymm, just as at Christmas carol-singing; when, lo and behold, down went the bull on his bended knees, in his ignorance, just as if ’twere the true ‘Tivity night and hour. As soon as his horned friend were down, William turned, clinked off like a long-dog, and jumped safe over hedge, before the praying bull had got on his feet again to take after him. William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when he found his pious feelings had been played upon, and ’twas not Christmas Eve. …”

Indeed, Hardy was so interested in the custom that he celebrated it again in poetry in 1915 for The Times on Christmas Eve:

“Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. ‘Now they are all on their knees,’ An elder said as we sat in a flock By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where They dwelt in their strawy pen; Nor did it occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then. 

So fair a fancy few would weave  In these years! Yet, I feel, If someone said on Christmas Eve, ‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb, Our childhood used to know,’ I should go with him in the gloom,  Hoping it might be so.”

 John Brand in his 1849 Observations of popular antiquities of Great Britain was the first to record the folk custom, although as Steve Roud in his 2008 The English year states that it was extremely well-known in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Brand states:

“An honest countryman, living on the edge of St. Stephen’s Down, near Launceston, Cornwall informed me, October 28th 1790, that he once, with some others, made trial of the truth of the above and watching several oxen in the stalls at the above time, at twelve midnight, they observed the two eldest oxen only fall on their knees, and as he expressed it, in the idiom of the country, make ‘a cruel moan like Christian creatures’

Testing the belief

Of course, the first test of this belief would come when in 1752 the calendar was changed from Julian to Gregorian, but a contributor to Bentley’s Magazine in 1847 had a way of explaining it:

“It is said as the morning of the day on which Christ was born, the cattle in the stalls kneel down; and I have heard it confidently asserted that when the new style came in, the younger cattle only knelt on December 25th while the older bullocks preserved their genuflections fir old Christmas Day, January 6th

Despite this explanation many thought the event implausible, even Brand himself:

“I could not but with great difficulty keep my countenance; he saw this, and seemed angry that I gave so little credit to his tale, and walking off in a pettish humour seemed to marvel at my unbelief.”

Despite these early scoffs there may well indeed be people who believe this happens as Roud (2008) states and it is interesting to note perhaps that the belief was strongest in the USA.

Custom transcribed: Christingle


Around 20 years ago I started noticing reference to Christingle service back in the late 80s as a I travelled around visiting churches. There did not seem any pattern to when they were done. Some were done on the first Sunday in December, others at a random Sunday in the run up to Christmas, some Christmas eve. All of them in advent. So I tried to delve deeper. These were the days before internet and my searches failed. Unfortunately, I was not living near a church which had such a service at the right time.

Then finally I discovered that the Christingle was a curious structure used to represent Jesus consisting of an Orange as the base, a ribbon, sweets and most importantly a candle. But where did this custom come from?

The orangins of the custom

Marienborn, Germany, 20th December, 1747 is the birth date of the Christingle. The creator, the minister, John de Watteville. At a children’s service he explained to the children that Jesus was he:

“who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”.

To emphasis he gave them a little lighted wax candle, tied round with a red ribbon. He ended the service with a prayer:

“Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become”.

Interestingly it is recorded that Marienborn Diary stated:

“hereupon the children went full of joy with their lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed”.

This was of course just a candle and ribbon. Over the years it appears that the Christingle developed. Now the central object is the orange which represents the world, the lighted candle Christ, the Light of the World and the ribbon the blood he shed. The addition of nuts, raisins and sweets on cocktail sticks around the candle represent God’s bounty and goodness in providing the fruits of the earth. Red paper, forming a frill around the base of the candle, reminds us of the blood of Christ shed for all people on the cross at Calvary.

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The name itself is a curious one. According to the Moravians no one knows when it was first used or from where it is derived. Some believe it comes from German engle meaning angel, or the German for child, remembering the importance of the Christ child, ‘kindle’ or more likely perhaps the Saxon word ‘Ingle’ for fire!

A wide a-peel!

“The services are suitable for all the family. They include Advent hymns and carols, prayers for our work, and a purse presentation by children of the diocese. Children go forward to receive Christingle oranges and the Christingle hymn or carol is sung by the light of these alone.”

Gateway, Children’s society magazine 1970

So how did a custom associated with a fairly obscure Christian group get to be in so many churches? The reason comes back to The Children’s Society and a man called John Pensom. He saw in 1968 the Christingle as way to involve children and introduced it to the church of England. It soon grew, by 1969 seven churches adopted it, by 1970 around 18 were held. Then in 1989, Coventry Cathedral and York Minster had special Christingle services to celebrate 21 years of the adoption. A giant Christingle was lit and like the Olympic flame, this was used to light another and then another. I should add this giant Christingle did not use an orange. In 1997, Liverpool Cathedral was the place to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Christingle This prominence may have again helped its’ spread, for by the 1990s, thousands of such services were held. Today virtually every Anglican church has adopted it, from Cornwall to Northumberland and it has spread to the Church of Scotland and Catholic churches. Not bad for a custom whose membership is only just a million compared to the 85 million Anglicans!

One could cynically easily see the adoption of the Christingle as a clever awe and wonder fun device to get families back to church but it is evident that it is beyond that. The Christingle in this world of abbreviations and acronyms is a clever metaphor and symbol, not too preachy but fun, a way to get the message across in this world of quick messages. Long may in spread and bright light to those cold December evenings.


Custom survived: Loughborough’s November Fair


“The People of Loughborough are very proud of their ancient Fair, dating back to the thirteenth century and held in the streets and squares of the town.”

World Fair 1949

Fairly old

There are many seasonal fairs but few are as old and as visually imposing as Loughborough’s November fair. It has survived in its town centre location fighting against all attempts over the years to marginalise and send it to some park or outskirts of the town despite the complaints of ‘as a Fair with a mile of caravans’

Loughborough famous for its University, Ladybird books, bell making and the first package tour in that order; is perhaps not the first location for an ancient fair yet it is the fourth oldest in the country. The fair was granted back in 1229 by Henry III and has been continuing albeit in the format now of a fun fair ever since. The record stating:

“Of the Market Of Loughborough The lord the King grants to Hugh Dispenser that He have ,until his (Lawful ) age ,one market every Week, on Thursday, at his manor of Loughborough. Unless that market and the Sheriff of Leicestershire Is ordered to cause him to have that market. Of the Fair of Loughborough. The lord the King grants to Hugh le Dispenser that He have until the (lawful) age of the lord the King One fair at his manor of Loughborough every year In the vigil and in the day of St Peter ad Vincula And the Sheriff of Leicestershire is ordered to cause him To have that fair. Witness as above by the same(at Westminster,xxviith day of January in the fifth year of our reign).”

This was the third Charter fair for the town, given to Hugh Le Despenser Lord of the Manor of Loughborough. The fair was associated with the Feast of All Souls, perhaps an unusual date for a fair. However, when the calendar was changed in 1752 it moved to the 13th of November. Then finally local authorities in 1881 made it fall on second Thursday in November.

Open it fairly

Opening ceremony is itself a custom in itself, It is open like other fairs by the Town’s mayor but unlike other fairs where they are called to order by the ringing of the bell by a town crier, Loughborough does something fairly unique.

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The local Grammar School itself a mere youngster compared, starting in 1595, provides three or four, smartly dressed trumpeters in suits and red ties. First they announce the Mayoral party outside the town hall and then go to the steps of the Waltzer where the Mayor of Charnwood officially calls the fair open. It is a decidedly medieval feel to the opening and quite fitting.

A fair change

Originally a cloth fair and wool. Then horses, cow and sheep. By the late Victorian period the invention of steam powered amusements meant that these were slowly taking over the trading fair until today they dominate it.

Interesting shows over the years have been the Phantoscope, a sort of cinema, a boxing booth and a lion show. Making today’s dodgems, ghost trains and spinners sound rather boring!

By the 1920s after a spell when the November streets were quiet due to WWI the fair saw the arrival exciting spectacles such as the Wall of Death. Indeed, the 1929 Leicester Mail romantically reported:

“That most ancient form of diversion, the fair, is still attractive because it appeals to the people’s robust sense of fun … Thousands of people are attracted to the town to participate, much to their own and other people’s enjoyment … if they remove it from the centre of the town it would dwindle and decay as so many other fairs have done, and an old age channel that has brought grist to the town would be permanently closed. So Loughborough as a whole, is not only disposed to grin and bear it, but to welcome it somewhat in the spirit of the song that bids us `Come to the fair.”

By the 1940s the side attractions which once were the main attractions were gone and the establishment of Ghost trains and dodgems and the establishment of families such as Collins’, Proctor’s and Holland which gave the fair a real feel of an annual reunion. In 2014 according to the Loughborough Echo the fair:

The Star Flyer will be one of 20 massive rides brought along by the more than 100 show people along with other attractions, games, novelty stalls and refreshment stands. The fair, which spreads throughout the town centre, is organised by Charnwood Borough Council and attracts thousands of families. Pleasure rides this year include fairground favourites such as the Waltzers, Loop Fighter, Dodgems and Galloping Horses as well as more spectacular rides such as the Dominator and Extreme Ride. There is the ‘Kiddies’ Corner’ and perhaps one or two surprise attractions.”

And so it continues. The roads may have been closed off permanently now by pedestrianisation but this does not distract from the amazing site of these huge metal leviathans sitting cheek by jowl to the shop fronts. Every space is filled. Every side street. Like a maze and a cacophony of sound and blaze of light. The food. The lure of hook a duck, with a prize cheaper than that in the pound shop perhaps, but we still keep trying. All the fun of the fair is so true at Loughborough

Custom demised: Push Penny at Durham Cathedral, County Durham


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Penny scrambling customs have a tendency to survive and there exist widely across the country usually but not exclusively associated with fairs. Thomas Thistleton-Dyer in his Popular customs notes an example held in Durham. He states that

“Mr. Cuthbert Carlton, of Durham, gives in the Durham Chronicle, of November 29th, 1872, the following account of a curious custom called ” Push Penny.” He says: This custom, which has been discontinued nearly a quarter of a century, is thus referred to in the Derbyshire Times of Saturday last:—

“There is a custom which has been upheld from time immemorial by the Dean and Chapter of Durham on three days in the year—30th of January, 29th of May, and 5th of November, the anniversary of King Charles’ Martyrdom, Royal Oak Day, and Gunpowder Plot, which is known among Durham lads as “push-penny” On these days the Chapter causes twenty shillings in copper to be scrambled for in the college yard by the juveniles, who never fail to be present.’ The practice observed every 29th of May, and 5th of November, was to throw away within the college thirty shillings in penny pieces. Whether the custom dates from time immemorial, it is difficult to say, but the two last dates would seem only to point to the origin of the custom at the end of the seventeenth, or beginning of the eighteenth centuries, to testify the loyalty of the Dean and Chapter to the Throne, and their appreciation of the happy restoration of the ‘ Merry Monarch,’ and the escape of the King and his Parliament on the 6th of November. There was some such custom, however, during the monastic period, when pennies were thrown away to the citizens who were wont to assemble in the vicinity of the Prior’s mansion. At Bishop Auckland the bishop was accustomed to throw away silver pennies at certain times of the year, and it is even a peck of copper was in earlier times scattered broad-cast among the people. The Reformation, however, swept these and many other old customs away, but after the Restoration of Charles II., the Dean and Chapter no doubt considered the 29th of May and the 5th of November ought to be kept as days of rejoicing, and as one means of doing so caused one of their officials to throw a bag full of pennies to the people who met in the college. The duty was entrusted to the senior verger of the cathedral. For many years it was the practice for the children of the Blue Coat Schools to attend Divine service in the cathedral, who were drawn up in rank and file in the nave, for the inspection of the prebends, who minutely examined the new scholastic garments of the Blue Coat scholars. This being done they were ushered into the choir, and at the end of the service a regular pellmell rush was made for the cloister doors, in order to be present at ‘ push-penny.’ The scenes on these occasions were almost beyond description. For a few years the custom thus continued, the attendants at ‘ push-penny ‘ gradually diminishing; for twenty-five years, however, it has been discontinued, nor is it likely to be revived.”

And so, the reporter is correct, it has never been revived. Its extinction considering it existed on a number of separate occasions shows how a custom will die out if someone wants it to!

Custom survived: The Lion Sermon, St Katherine Cree, London


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“We pray and give thanks for the life and example of Sir John Gayer; for his deliverance from the lion and his endowment of this annual sermon in his memory.”

London is like many great cities a fascinating mix of old and new; ancient buildings exist cheek by jowl, and so do customs and ceremonies exist in the modern culture. St Katherine Cree is a church which typifies this juxtaposition between old and new. It lays in shadow of glass giants of the city such as the famed Gherkin. A church for the city. Such that it remembers one of the city’s own and his remarkable escape each year around the 16th October in a church which itself escaped the Great Fire unscathed.

Lion’s mouth

You might wonder what the prayer is talking about. In the 1894 Manners, Customs, and Observances: Their Origin and Significance Leopold Wagner informs us that:

“This is in commemoration of the miraculous deliverance of Sir John Gayer, an opulent City merchant, and erstwhile Lord Mayor, from the jaws of a lion in an Arabian desert, two centuries and a half ago. By some means this good knight missed his caravan, and while in search of it, a huge lion stalked up to him. Perfectly defenceless, he gave himself up for lost, and on bended knee offered up his soul in prayer to God. To his intense astonishment, the huge animal ‘eyed him, and gently walked away’”

Leopold Wagner continues:

“Shortly afterwards Sir John rejoined his caravan none the worse for his extraordinary adventure; yet so fully impressed was he with the peril he had passed through, and the Divine interposition on his behalf, that he resolved to make an adequate provision for an annual thanksgiving sermon at the church of his ‘beloved Aldgate,’ in which his mortal remains now rest.”

He was true to his word and then 368 years later we are still remembering this lucky escape. Each year this main sermon being given not by a member of the clergy, although I would imagine up until recent history that was the case, but by some London notable. In previous years it was Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti who I’d imagine would have a lot to say about dealing with adversity!

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However, unlike many customs which their historical founder, this is no founder forgotten in the midst of time, each year the descendants of the Mayor attend the service and give readings. This year two members of the family gave appropriate readings, of course Daniel 6 10-23 ‘Daniel in the Lion’s den’ and less well-known lion containing Peter 5 5-11:

“Be sober be vigilant because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about; seeking whom he may devour.”

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Lion’s share

Indeed, that could have been the subtext of ex Transport for London and Network Rail Chair Sir Peter Hendy CBE’s talk. In a time when the news is constantly discussing Brexit machinations and bearing in mind the church’s proximity to the city centre, I was expected to switch on my Brexitometer. However, he cleverly sailed past this and focused on his own career and how he avoided adversity, work together and how his adversary, a certain blonde haired mayor perhaps was a good analogy for a lion….he was not popular in the city. Indeed, I heard him described as the traitor of London…but Sir Peter eschewed any strong politics talk only to say how to work better! Discussion was made of TFL success of the Olympics and dealing with terror attacks all what he put down to team work  – a refreshing approach from a person in charge who has read those signs about bosses and leaders it seemed and did something!

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The service was peppered by suitable hymns including Who would true valour be, which has a sneaky ‘no lion can call him fright’ some sung by the Lloyd’s Choir in spine tingling joyfulness. At the end of the service we were all invited for a hot lunch and some drinks possibly part of the endowment to provide food for the poor…many appeared to have developed the appetite of a lion!