Tag Archives: Local history

Custom revived: The May day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland dance

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“Many people must still remember the milk maids garland and dance now quite extinct The garland which was very splendid was at first carried by one of the milk maids but afterwards by men accompanied by the dancers and a fiddler In a scarce tract printed in 1623 eating cakes and cream at Islington and Hoxton is also mentioned as a custom on May morning To Islington and Hogsdon runnes the streame Of giddie people to eate cakes and creame.”

Hugh F. Martyndale 1831’s A familiar analysis of the calendar of the Church of England

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During my attempt to attend as many May Day customs over the weekend of 2015, details of which are available in an article for the Company of the Green Man, one firmly in my sites was the New Esperance Morris’s May Day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland. Why? One because the team, a women only one is historically important, secondly because this was no ordinary Morris dancing but a reconstructed milkmaid’s dance and third and finally it was only done on the 1st of May and as this time the 1st fell on Bank Holiday it was an ideal opportunity.

My milk dance brings…

The Milkmaid’s dance is quite well described by early writers. Thistleton Dwer (1900) Popular customs notes that the Milkmaid’s Dance. On the first day of May, was described in the Spectator (vol. v.):

“the ruddy milkmaid exerts herself in a most sprightly manner under a pyramid of silver tankards, and, like the virgin Tarpeia, oppressed by the costly ornaments which her benefactors lay upon her.”

Shaken not stirred

Timings were working well so far on the day. I had attended the May Day morning at Oxford, came into to London and made my way to north-east of the city where their guide suggested they would be present. This is not always the best guide as Morris groups can often be late or else early on a tour and missed. I placed my luck on the former being true. However on arrival at the allotted pub I found the group mid-dance at the side of a pub with a group of bemused on lookers. Light hit off their buckles and bows and made them look majestic in their dance. However, when I arrived the first I noticed was the decorated milk pail, it was a faithful reproduction of what Thistleton Dwer in his 1900 Popular customs notes:

“These decorations of silver cups, tankards, and salvers were borrowed for the purpose, and hung round the milk-pails, with the addition of flowers and ribbons, which the maidens carried upon their heads when they went to the houses of their customers, and danced in order to obtain a small gratuity from each of them. Of late years the plate, with the other decorations, was placed in a pyramidical form, and carried by two chairmen upon a wooden horse. The maidens walked before it, and performed the dance without any incumbrance.”

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Pail into insignificant

Strutt in his 1801 Sports and Past times notes:

“Sometimes in place of the silver tankards and salvers they substituted a cow. The animal had her horns gilt, and was nearly covered with ribbons of various colours, formed into bows and roses, and interspersed with green oaken leaves and bunches of flowers.”

In a set of prints called the Tempest Cryes of London, one is called the Merry Milkmaid, whose proper name was Kate Smith. She is dancing with her milk-pail on her head, .decorated with silver cups, tankards, and salvers borrowed for the purpose, and tied together with ribbons, and ornamented with flowers. Misson, too, in his Observations on My Travels in England, alludes to this custom, lie says:

“On the 1st of May, and the five and six days following, all the pretty young country girls that serve the town with milk dress themselves up very neatly, and borrow abundance of silver plate, whereof they make a pyramid, which they adorn with ribbons and flowers, and carry upon their heads instead of their common milk-pails. In this equipage, accompanied by some of their fellow milkmaids and a bag-pipe or fiddle, they go from door to door, dancing before the houses of their customers, in the midst of boys and girls that follow them in troops, and everybody gives them something.”

Of course these women are no milkmaids and are not dressed like milkmaids but traditional Morris and the group espoused the carrying of these pails on their heads. However they do carry on a platform a splendid pail adorned with cutlery.

In Head’s Weekly Times, May 5th, 1733, occurs the following :

“On May-day the milk-maids who serve the Court danced minuets and rigadoons before the Royal family, at St. James’s House, with great applause.”

Pepys in his Diary, May 1st, 1667, says,

“To Westminster; on the way meeting many milkmaids, with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly [Nell Gwynne] standing at her lodgings’ door in Drury Lane in her smock sleeves and bodice, looking upon one; she seemed a mighty pretty creature.”

Milk gone sour

Hone accounts for their demise in his Every Day Book of thirty years ago. He described them then as :

“ Themselves in comely colours dressed, Their shining garland in the middle, A pipe and tabor on before, Or else the foot-inspiring fiddle. They stopt at houses where it was ‘I’heir custom to cry ‘ milk below ! And, with the music play’d, with smiles join’d hands and pointed toe to toe. Thus they tripp’d on, till —from door to door The hop’d-for annual present sent — A signal came, to courtsey low, And at that door cease merriment. Such scenes and sounds once blest my eyes.”

He then notes:

“And charm’d my ears ; but all have vanished. On May-day now no garlands go, For milkmaids and their dance are banish’d.”

Why? I am not sure they were banished in the real sense but I would imagine changes in London’s urbanisation slowly pushed out this rural pursuit and as such it lay lost for over a hundred years.

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Someone else’s churn

The revival of this old custom is intrinsically linked with the development of female Morris dancing. Unfortunately Morris dancing and women are not something which is linked in most peoples mind when Morris dancing is mentioned. Yet early accounts do mention women Morris indeed some of the earliest mentions of Morris involve women. Will Kemp, a Shakespearian actor danced the Morris from London to Norwich in 1600 states that:.

“In Chelmsford he met “ a Mayde not passing 14 yeares of age… made request … that she might dance the Morrice with me in a large great roome. …I was soone wonne to fit her with bels… and to our jumps we fell. A whole houre she held out…”

Later on in Sudbury he came across:

“a lusty country lass …saying “If I had begun to dance, I would haue held out one myle though it had cost me my life. … if the Dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles,  ile venter to tread one mile with him my selfe. (sic)”

Fast forward several hundred years to a pioneer named Mary Neal who set up the first women’s Morris, Esperance Club, which was a social club for London’s working-class in 1896. Encouraged by Cecil Sharp the great collector of Morris and other traditional dances in 1905 who provided dances he had recorded from his notebook. The Esperance girls were soon displaying at schools and other places up and down the country and to teach the dances in schools and other places. However, differences in ideas and a fear that Neal’s views on the dances will taint the traditional aspects of the dance, Sharp and Neal parted company. Neal became involved with the suffrage movement and the group disbanded around the First World War. Morris fostered and developed by the Morris Ring became a male preserve and everything died down on the women’s front.

However, the 70s folk revival saw the birth of new women’s Morris and then finally in 1975 a London group named after that founding group the New Esperance – named for the original women’s team and practicing in the same area (of which I was proud to with them came the revived milkmaid’s dance which has continued ever since. And so they do a great effort to keep Morris in the city and raise the profile of the women’s essential role in the development of Morris and it is good to hear in this celebration of the Suffragette movement and consideration all things equality that finally the Morris ring has allowed women teams to join. Long long overdue!

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

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

St John of Beverley’s anthem

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

Well established tradition

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

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

Well dressed

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

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

Well remembered

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

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

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

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

The followed the Collect for St John of Beverley

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

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

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

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

Custom survived: Biddenden’s Chalkhurst Dole

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

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

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

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

Two’s company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two’s a crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom demised: Fleas return on the 1st March

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Image result for Victorian flea

It appears to have been common belief across the country that on the 1st of March the fleas arrived back in the house. Accounts according to Steve Stroud (2005) are first made in print in late Victorian times. This belief even added geographical reference in Somerset, for a Yeovil it is said that they came marching down Hendford Hill, and at Crewkerne similarly down Cemetery Hill! Similarly, an c1890 account in Devon:

“A house-maid advised Mrs Hewett not to open her bedroom window on 1st March and aid that she had heard that the black army always came down Exeter Hill, in Swarms.”

This black army not only described the flea’s appearance but made them synonymous with the Devil for it was also said that:

“The Devil shakes a bag of fleas at everybody’s door on 1st March.”

Therefore it as advised that housewives should be careful early in the morning their front door steps to drive away any invasion or else not open one’s windows.

According to Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of Sussex:

“If the fleas you would be free, let all your doors and windows open be”

She also recalls that a West Sussex tradition would be to get up before dawn to fling their doors and windows open and cry welcome March and sometimes the children would be given brushes and told to sweep away all dirt from  thresholds and windowsills. In the eastern areas of the country they recommended:

“If from fleas you would be free, on the first of March let your windows closed be”

Bizarrely converse of course! An informant from Littleton told Simpson

“The reason why the windows were always kept shut in March because it was believed that the winds blew the fleas out of the thatch.”

People of Arundel on that date would shake themselves on Arundel bridge in the belief this would keep them free from fleas. Interestingly, Violets will bring fleas into the house in March according to an article in 1993 in Folklore called Plants used for pest control; some 20th century examples by Roy Vickery suggesting that being collected in 1985 there might have been some recent belief in the custom at least at Langtoft in Lincolnshire where it as collected.

In truth it was probably the change in climate that allowed cocoons laid in dust and fabrics to hatch and fleas to appear in great number. A similar event happens in houses which have been unoccupied for a period of time, in this case vibrations awake fleas from their torpor. Of course, no one remembers the 1st for its association with fleas – the human flea the scourge described in this folklore accounts in virtually if not entirely extinct in the British Isles a victim of the vacuum and temperatures of our homes are warm enough to allow cat and dog fleas to be active all year…I’d still watch up for some fleas coming down your street on the 1st of March.

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot

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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

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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

Standard

“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.