Tag Archives: Nottinghamshire

Custom contrived: Brinsley Coffin Walk

Standard

Many remote hamlets and small villages before the 1800s had no church and so it was not unusual to see a group of men winding their way through paths carved into the landscape carrying a loft a coffin. These coffin or funeral paths can be seen preserved in the place names and folklore across the country. They lay remembered but used say for recreational walkers adopted into the public footpath system. Brinsley in Nottinghamshire had one from its Chapel of Ease to the older medieval church of Greasley some three miles away. But whereas the others are unused, Brinsley for one day of year remembers the toil of its pallbearers in its annual Coffin Walk

Putting the fun in funeral?

The customs started some 14 years ago as an interesting way to remember Brinsley’s local history and celebrate its patronal day, St. James, as a consequence the custom is held on the Saturday nearest 25th July. What might sound a solemn affair is not and intend it wasn’t back in the 1800s when the parties would stop for a rest on specific resting stones on the route and drink to the memory of the occupant. It is said they could often turn up too late to the church for the funeral and find it locked up and vicar at home! Although now a more sober affair the walk was not solemn either but a good chance for local people to get some exercise and have a chat away from the hustle and bustle of daily life…albeit following a coffin! The website said wear lilac – but as the only lilac I had was a 70s disco shirt and fuzzy minion wig I thought that might be taking it too far!

Dying to find out more

I’d discovered the custom by accident searching for another event for my forthcoming book on Nottinghamshire customs and ceremonies – unfortunately the week after it had happened.

I woke up on the allotted Saturday and looked outside, the premise for a three mile walk-starting at 9.30 – did not seem promising as outside it was raining and raining heavily! Then around half seven the clouds appeared to disappear and so I thought I’d risk it. Turning up just before the 9.30 walk off at the church I came across a small group of local people and members of the local funeral directors Gillotts and Steve Soult Ltd, coffin makers who may not equally had been looking forward to the walk through the rain. The weather had certainly put off the attendees, the year previous there was 28, this year around 7. After a brief blessing by the church warden and a group photo the curious cortege was on its way…without  a drop of rain!

The custom started when local historian, Stan Smith, researched the route of the funeral procession and thought it would be an interesting exercise to walk it. The first walks included a small doll’s house coffin with its doll. In an article in Nottinghamshire Post Stan Smith noted:

“Believe it or not it came from a dolls house catalogue!….It’s about four inches long and there’s even a body in a shroud inside it if you look closely enough. We really can call it a coffin walk now that we’ve got a coffin!”

Then local coffin maker Steve Soult offered to make a bespoke one. An altogether more authentic if heavier option. This coffin being a fine piece of workmanship having ‘Brinsley Coffin Walk’ on the side and the village’s famous headstocks, relics of its mining heritage, splendidly carved on the other side. Leading the coffin was the funeral director wearing a splendid period suit and top hat and lilac flower.

The year previously had been a sad event for it remembered also its founder local historian Stan Smith Yet despite the thought that the custom may end with him, a not uncommon occurrence with revived or contrived customs, it has continued – and I am sure he’d be happy to know that.

Walk of death?

Of we went out of the church and along the road to the bemusement of drivers who must have thought ‘there appear to be going the wrong way the church is behind them!’, then across the road and into the fields. The first gate was a fairly easy affair but after a while it appeared how arduous a task this would be. At one stile, the pallbearers had to propel the coffin akin to a basketball player through the narrow gap, gingerly guiding it through a narrow gap in the hedge. It didn’t rain but the evidence was there to see and feel, a flooded pathway resulted in the coffin being carried along a thin ledge under a railway arch! At one point the carriers zoomed off into the distance to overcome the only incline we had surprisingly in the journey. Finally, we were in sight of Greasley church where tea and biscuits awaited. The walk again garnered pace and the pallbearers naturally sweaty and worn out awaited those much-needed refreshments! A tiring exercise but think what it would have been like with a body inside! At the church, a sort service was given with a suitable walk based hymn sung and we gathered around the Rev John Hides who was the first joint vicar of the two parishes which finally in 1869 Brinsley was allowed to bury its own dead. All in all a great little unique tradition attended by friendly and helpful individuals…a great walk albeit a bit unusual but recommended!

Custom survived: Gopher Ringing Newark on Trent

Standard

dsc_0002

Anyone who has lived in Newark and or those who have been in the town at dusk in October and early November on a Sunday evening will have heard the peel of Mary Magdalene’s church…but I wonder how many would have known why.

Lost and found!

Newark is not unique in having an established annual ringing, often called ‘lost in the dark’ bells. In this case they are wrung from the twelfth Sunday before Christmas and then six Sundays after at between 5 and 6 pm basically from October to November.

At Newark it is called the Ringing the Gopher Bells. It has been broadcast on national radio in 1936 and featured on School’s Radio in the 1980s. The name is a curious one. It is believed to derive from a Dutch or Flemish merchant some say engineer. The story relates that he was crossing the marshes around Kelham, which at this time of year were well known for the mists which swirled around the Trent. As a consequence he became lost and strayed from the same route…and soon his horse fell into the marshes and began to get stuck. Fearing that his fate would either be the same or else murdered by robbers, he prayed for help. Then across the mists he heard the muffled sounds of Newark Parish church and his deliverance. Hearing the bells ringing for Evensong enabled him to find his direction and he arrived in Newark safe and relieved. Local tradition states that he provided money for the annual ringing before Evensong ever since.

dsc_0019

Name rings a bell?

The date and original benefactor have been disputed over time as any physical evidence has been lost. There are no papers, no benefactor board. We are unclear where it was money or land he gave. However, it was known that Flemish merchants did live in the town and research in Belgium has revealed evidence of the possible benefactor. Interestingly for although there has for over 60 years been an annual bell ringers’ feast which has toasted Gopher the meal again is not directly linked to the bequest.

In the History of Newark by Cornelius Brown does indeed mention names and trading associations in the city and notes the importance of Flanders as a trade route, often in exporting wool to Ghent and Bruge.

Indeed, research by Brenda Pask in Bruges has revealed a document recording the presence of a Janne Goffrays, an Englishman trading in Bruges in 1371 with Flemish merchants. Although, the fact he was an Englishman may be at odds to the story his location, name and associations suggest he may be the founder.  His trading association is not known and he may have been an engineer involved in dykes. More importantly the date is plausible because it is known that there was a spire which could hold a peel of such bells at that date. Of course his name you will notice is slightly different but that’s due to Anglicisation and bad spellings over the years. But perhaps we shall never know.

For whom the bells tolls

Apparently, except for the Second World War when all bells were silenced, it has been rung ever since the mid Nineteenth Century and probably ever since the late 1300s but again there are no clear records. It is easy to understand why this tradition continues if the present team are anything like previous – a dedicated group of seven enthusiasts who clearly really do enjoy and appreciate the opportunity. Organised by Mr John Raithby, the son of the Captain from the 1936 broadcast, a tradition within a tradition perhaps, his enthusiasm and pride is clearly very evident.  They certainly are put through their paces and watching was tiring enough. Mind you I would add it did look quite enjoyable and good for keeping fit – so if you do want to loose a few pounds get trim and preserve heritage they would love to hear from you – they do have bells free to ring! Then as Evensong arrived the bells were let down tied up and a cross was marked to mark the number of bells rung.

dsc_0011

Custom contrived: All Souls Service of Homage and Remembrance

Standard

One of the most interesting aspects which results from immigration is the introduction of customs. In some cases these are completely new, such as the colourful Divali, in others they are re-introductions. Parts of Newark’s unique All Souls ceremony is one such re-introduction.

 

On the last Sunday in October (rather than the 1st November – All Souls) the Polish community from Nottinghamshire and beyond congregate at Newark Cemetery to remember the contribution of their ancestors. Indeed, Newark cemetery is testament to the sacrifice that the Polish community gave to the greater good and the ceremony is very moving.

Organised by Newark Town Council on behalf of the Polish Air Force Association, it is a moving remembrance. Why is it here? Newark is one of the largest UK cemetery which contains non-national service graves. The graves are centred around the Polish airmen’s memorial cross associated with the former grave of Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish wartime leader General who was killed in a plane crash in 1943 and could not be buried on home soil. He was repatriated in 1992 however. Around this time the ceremony was instigated I believe.

The custom starts with the slow silent procession behind the priest carrying a cross and current and old military men and women carrying their standards. Heads are held down in deference as the congregation move slowly to the centre of the cemetery.

Here the service collects around the memorial cross. Here local dignitaries such as the Newark Mayor and, and the chairman of Newark and Sherwood District Council, and national figures – the chairman of the Polish Air Force memorial committee, Polish ambassador and Polish Consular Services. All here to give their thanks.

The service is undertaken in both English and Polish, with local Catholic priest Father Krzysztof Kawczynski saying prayers for fallen after which a roll of honour was read. Wreaths were laid at General Sikorski’s former grave. I was struck by the poignancy of the Last Post, whose one-minute’s silence was broken by a soft rain, falling like tears for the fallen.

Of course the service to this point is similar to every other remembrance service. However then the most amazing part of the custom begins; the congregation place candles – some in specially made jars around the monument and the individual graves. With 400 Polish service men buried here the effect is incredible and very thought provoking. Recently other service personnel, fatalities of bombings and war victims of both wars have been remembered resulting in the awe inspiring flick of more than 600 candles as the evening falls.

Why candles? Catholic belief stated that souls were in purgatory and could spend many years there before eventing heaven. Thus of this day prayers of remembrance would be said for those who died on this day. This would help those poor souls to move on. As such on All Souls in Britain, before the Reformation, it was marked by prayers for the dead, visiting graves of the ancestors and the lighting of candles. The Protestants do not believe in purgatory and as such a custom fell out of usage. However, it continued in Catholic countries and as such was brought back into England via many Catholics and in particular in Nottinghamshire the large Polish community and their descendents.

 

Once the service is over, many proud Polish men light flares and sing the National Anthem. For the custom is an opportunity for Polish pride and also affixed to the railings are banners of local Polish football teams and groups.

If ever there is a need to give evidence of the considerable contribution the Polish gave for freedom and democracy, no better illustration can be given than this poignant custom…a small token of our eternal gratitude.

 

 

Custom revived: Poor Owd Oss

Standard

 image

Neigh Neigh!

Was it raining? It appeared that a month’s rain fell on Kimberley that evening as I made myself to an obscure pub in an out of the way part of the town. It was heavy..cold rain which gets in through your coat, under your skin, chills you…what did I expect it was the week before Christmas and there I stood in watching for the arrival of the Owd Oss…in a small typical suburban pub. Perhaps not the most likely one to see an old custom, but with it’s no nonsense decrepit decor, seats with the leather torn exposing their stuffing and mock Tudor woodwork, perhaps the most evocative. Arriving there early, I enquired if I had arrived at the correct place..yes they said they’ll arrive a little later and asked if I’d like a drink. I did a tea please….it was all I could have to warm me and for once a large mug was produced without any form of tutting or eye rolling! It was clearly a local’s pub, although unlike some local ones, it was in no way intimidating, but I did wonder what they would think when the Owd Oss would appear. Then through the rain appeared the team…running to avoid the wet from their car!!

image

A kingdom for a horse!

Mayfield (1976) in his Legends of Nottinghamshire records a rendition done in the Mansfield area. Although called a mummer’s play it contains the least amount of dialogue and is mainly sung. The Owd Oss or Old Horse consisting of a painted horse’s skull on a stick which was often set up for it to snap shut.  The play itself describes a worn out horse. A report of the custom notes:

“A group of men would enter a pub or house and after reciting three verses of a prologue, would bring in Owd Oss which consisted of a man draped in a dark cloth with a carved horse’s head fastened to a stick. Rough music invariably followed the blacksmith’s attempt to shoe the horse, while the rest of the company played their parts. Then drinks were called for and the question was put could the Owd Oss manage to drink? The jaws of the horse were so arranged that a bear glass could be inserted and the moment of truth-and achievement- for the player performing the Owd Oss depending on the ability to take his drink without removing a scrap of his gruesome equipment.”       

Horse whispers…

Poor Owd Oss distribution was a north Midlands – Yorkshire one, with the longest continued tradition appearing to be in the 1970s in Dore on the outskirts of Sheffield. It appears to have been common in Nottinghamshire, particularly in Mansfield in the 1870s, but played until 1914, although as noted there is record in 1921 for the children of the village at school party. The local newspaper Mansfield Chad recorded a revival in 1984, but this appears to be a one off. Nothing appears recorded of the custom in the midlands for over 20 years. Then Dave Mooney, member of the Black Pig Morris and one of the Oss’s musicians apparently had the idea to revive it reading a book on folklore and customs in bed once, which noted that the Poor Owd Oss was enacted in Kimberley written by Mason (1902). He at the time was the member of a local Morris team and thought he would do some research. Lo and behold he found a script that was done in Kimberley and so getting a small group of musical friends together resurrected it in 2005. At first the Oss consisted of a papier-mâché skull, then one made of railway sleepers and finally a real horse’s skull. This skull is painted red, has LED eyes and other lights. Unlike the first skull this structure does not open and close its jaw – which is a shame. All skulls are attached to a pole and carried by a man cloaked and wearing a silver death mask. The reviver of this custom was Dave Mooney who informed me that he came across the custom whilst idly reading a book on traditions in bed! That year, after the discovery of the above script recorded by Mason in 1902 and information that is was done in Kimberley, with some musician friends and Morris men revived it. They custom is only undertaken one night, usually the week before Christmas and involves visiting local pubs usually three or four a night, including in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and mainly Kimberley in Nottinghamshire.

Take a horse to water…

It is also tempting to link the custom with the view of Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore in the 7th century Liber Poenitentialis who complained about tribes dressing in animal skins at the Kalends of January (the 1st) stating:

“whoever at the calends of January goeth about as a stag or bull; that is, making a himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, putting on the heads of the beast, whose who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.”

Perhaps the Poor Owd Oss is a survival of this Winter solstice observation with this custom being a continuation of a form of pagan animal worship. However, it could have equally arisen in the Industrial period as a response with something to do with the skulls of pit ponies to raise some money!

image

Horse play

With traditional blackened, reddened and whitened faces, alone the musicians and the Introducer shocked some of the pub’s regulars. Then the Introducer began to sing:

“By leave, you gentlemen all,   Your pardon I do crave, For making bold to come, To see what sport you’ll have. There’s more in company, They’re following close behind; They’ve sent us on before, Admittance for to find. These blades they are but young; Never acted here before; They’ll do the best they can, And the best can do no more.”

At this point the Old Oss arrives and the music is started and the introducer starts the main part of the song. As he does so the Oss parades through the crowd causing mischief: The opening verses were song with great vigour and the arrival of the Oss, a real horse’s skull painted red, accompanied by its stirring banjo, trumpet and drum was very impressive. The song goes:

“This is my poor old horse, that has carried me many a mile, Over hedges, over ditches, over high-barred gate and stile; But now he has grown old, and his nature does decay, He’s forced to snap at the shortest grass that grows along the way;”

At the end of each verse the crowd would cry:

“Poor old horse! Poor old horse!”

 The song would those continue:

“His coat it was once of the linsey-woolsey fine, His mane it grew at length, and his body it did shine, His pretty little shoulders that were so plump and round, They’re both worn out and aged; I’m afraid he is not sound; Poor old horse! Poor old horse!

His keep it was once of the best of corn and hay, That ever grew in cornfields, or in the meadows gay; But now into the open fields he is obliged to go, To stand all sorts of weather, either rain, or frost, or snow; Poor old horse! Poor old horse!

His hide unto the tanner I will so freely give; His body to the dogs; I would rather him die than live: So we’ll hang him, whip him, strip him, and a-hunting let him go; He’s neither fit to ride upon, or in the team to draw;
Poor old horse! Poor old horse!”

Then the team got themselves together and off to the next pub. Here there was a bigger crowd and some of them happily joined in with the verses. Then after their third pub…it was into the night, back to the stable for another year.

Stable revival

What I enjoyed about this revival was it was done for the right reasons, for the need to continue something unique to the area. Richmond, Yorkshire has similarly revived theirs, but with its attendance to proper pubs and working men’s locations, there is something earthier and working class about this revival and more in keeping with its origins I feel. The Poor Owd Oss is a Nottinghamshire – Derbyshire tradition and it is great to see that local people recognise this. The Owd Oss is done because it should be done and long may it continue quietly to be enjoyed in the obscure areas of Nottinghamshire.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom survived: Selston Tower Service

Standard

DSC_0057

Search in a book of calendar customs for the tower service at Selston and I doubt you’ll find it, but it has a long history, certainly over 100 years and has a perplexing origin as a many others.

A Tower of Strength

What possessed the then vicar, a Reverend Charles Harrison to start the sermon is unknown. It is thought that he did so to attract local travellers, who camped on Selston Green and would visit the grave of Boswell, the King of the Gypsies, often with their new born babies. He may have done it to commemorate its restoration in 1904/5 and the date was thought to coincide with their Wakes week, although this would suggest another date as such weeks were often developed from the patronal festival.

DSC_0087

Tower records

From the top of the tower one can see over twenty church and right across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and even into Leicestershire. So it is not surprising that the sermon has attracted many visitors. I was informed by Mr Tew, the present church warden that one year an estimated congregation of 1000 attended, although they must have spilled over the churchyard wall and into the street!  Now it is has become traditional to invite a guest preacher to preach from the tower.

Stairway to heaven

Of course part of the uniqueness of this sermon was that it was conducted from the tower and so it joins a small group of better known tower sermons and services. As I thought it be fascinating to see both sides of the event, I contacted the church enquiring whether I would be able to view the sermon from the tower itself and fortunately they agreed. I could see why they did not encourage visitors as I clambered up the very worn and weathered 70 steps. Then across the rickety metal frame over the bells and squeezing up the ladder and through the trap door and onto the hot metal roof. It took a while to orientate myself and I had to be careful not to lean on the parapets too hard or lean back thinking there was one – it was a long way down! In the early days the quire also mounted the roof, now they are safely on ground level under a shelter. Now there is only the curate, their guest, a traditional feature of the sermon and the church warden.

DSC_0114

Despite the precarious nature of the event, no accident has ever been recorded…except for one incumbent who never made it almost. When thirty years ago, the Rev Vic Simmons, was about to read his final tower sermon set his foot alight with weed killer (accidentally). He was determined to do it stating:

“It was the highlight of the church year. I didn’t want to miss it.”

So a chair was carried up and no doubt he made a slow and rather tender climb to the top.

The 100th anniversary in 2007 saw the presence of the Rt Rev Anthony Porter, Bishop of Sherwood. When I visited it was the extremely jovial figure of the Rev. Liz Murray having a local association with the church but was currently the curate of nearby Eastwood, Brinsley and Underwood joined the equally charming Revd Pauline Key. They  made such a natural ‘pious’ pair that it surprises me that the Church of England fought against women clergy for so long…so natural did these two fit in the role.

With some well known and uplifting choices for hymns as well an obvious punning song with the chorus ‘my strong tower’. Now of course the sermon has amplification, one could not imagine, how difficult it would have been to hear it before its use for it was difficult to hear the choir beneath without it…presumably earlier vicars had big voices.

DSC_0101

Mr Tew doubted that the tower service was enacted every year since, but I had the fortune to speak to a 90 year old parishioner who remembered being taken ‘babe in arms’ to the service and regularly attended from her infant years. I asked her whether she had climbed to the top…No, and I don’t think many had making me realise how honoured that they allowed me to join in on such a venerable custom.

Clearly the curate and their regular guest got a buzz…dare I say a ‘high’ from the experience and enjoyed it enormously. Indeed, I felt it was all in all a rather jolly and joyous experience.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom survived: Mary Mallatratt’s Dole

Standard

Good Friday is traditionally a time for giving doles and a number are noted around the country. One tradition which is still maintained, although little known, and not even recorded in any countrywide volume on customs, is Mary Mallatratt’s Dole.

The Buns make their journey

A sad memorial

The dole was established in 1894 in Mary’s will, and is said that dole established to remember Mary’s child who died as an infant of brain damage aged 7 months in 1876, although this is not explicitly stated. Certainly the Mansfield and North Notts Advertiser (1931) stated that even before Mary’s death it was customary to give free buns out at Easter to children at the Blue Boar Inn, so clearly Mary wanted to see this custom being perpetuated in perpetuity. After the death of her son, Mary became increasingly involved with the affairs of the meeting house and so after her death it was not surprising that she gave monies for school books for the Meeting House, money for a stained glass window and the bequest of £100 to the trustees of the Meeting house to provide buns annually.  It appears to have survived an attempt to amalgamation with similar charities and the two world wars when it ceased to be given out and is consists of ‘hot cross buns’ given to children as they go about their business on Good Friday.

The Buns await

A Bun fight!

As Alan Mallatratt (2003) notes in his article for the Nottinghamshire Historian on the custom (he himself being a descendent) each year the distribution grew in size. The largest distribution being in 1912 when a local coal strike happened and 2000 buns were distributed! (And it still was not enough!) The Mansfield reporter noted:

“The magic of the Good Friday Bun drew a crowd of over a couple of thousand of Mansfield’s poor children to the Old Meeting House on Friday morning. For the past 14 or 15 years in accordance with a bequest it has been the custom to distribute buns in the grounds of this place of worship, the number usually being given usually 1200. This year in consequence of the coal strike, some additional funds were obtained from private sources, and the number of buns increased to 2000. The distribution is a popular annual event and on the Friday morning children began to gather as early as seven o’clock, three hours before the specified time in Rooth Street. By 10 o’clock a long queue of youngsters from babies of 2 and 3 years of age in the arms of big brothers and sisters, to boys and girls of 10 and 12 years old, stretched the whole length of the street and overflowed into Rosemary Street. It was a miserable morning-the first one known to be wet in the distribution-but the children stood patiently in the long line and at 10 o’clock when the big doors opened, two thousand shrill voices cheered. Police officers let them in by batches and the little ones filed past the table, each received a bun from either Mr. J.H. White, Mr. Birks or Mr. Roper or one of the several ladies who took part in the distribution. So great was the number of applicants that the supply ran short, and about 200 were disappointed.”

So popular was the custom that it created its own tradition. For local tradition records to earn a bun you had to complete a circuit –out of the gates of Stockwell gate, right to Rosemary Street, along and right into Rooth Street, through the meeting house main gates and into the hall.

Some children partakeA curious resident

Have a tea-cake and eat it!

Unlike similar charities, the Mallatratt Trustees missed the opportunity during the last war to commute the buns for cash and although the original gift no longer covers the expense the Chapel Trustees subsidise the distribution, it does continue. Times have changed and the size of the distribution is not as daunting. The Guardian Journal in 1973 noted that only 73 turned up to collect 200 buns (which appeared to the children to be a good ratio no doubt) which was down on the previous year and the author of the piece suggested this was due to demolition of housing in the area. It notes that:

“First in line was 13 year old Christopher Simpson, Richard Street, Mansfield who arrived at 8.50 am 10 minutes before the gates opened. In the past children where queuing up as early as 7.30 to get the buns.”         

In 1994 they were joined by the decedents of the Mallatratts, and to celebrate the 100 anniversary of the distribution an exhibition on the history of the custom was established, and perhaps indicating how cultural views have changed Rev Michael Joyce:

 “Now days it’s pretty hard work trying to get children to accept them”

Despite the decline, the Old Meeting house still distributes their dole, but no one lines up for it now. The distribution time has changed to now 10.30 am and rarely is it distributed in the Meeting House itself unless the weather dictates it.  It is now presented on a trolley outside. For many years it was rolled down to the high street, Stockwell Gate, below but in 2013 it was taken across the street to outside ASDA.

Last few!

The size of the dole has also changed from 200 to three dozen. Even since my first visit in the early 2000s, the focus has changed slightly. Then I watched the members of the Unitarian church attempt to give out their dole, much to the bemusement and sometimes mistrust of the local children and scepticism of parents perhaps. Now, they had out their buns still free of charge to all takers, although children are still their aim, but subsequently the distribution disappears quicker. Of course I made sure I had the last one! Hopefully since it is now recorded on their website more interest in the custom may be generated and individuals like me may attend to see the continuation of this curious and little known custom.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

All gone!

Custom survived: The Beeston Carollers

Standard

Beeston Carols (6)A door step challenge

I was only relating how it had been many years since I have heard a group of carol singers at the doorstep. Whilst it is true that carol singing is still a common custom, often done across the advent period, in churches; schools, market squares it is rarely down in the streets and doorsteps, Beeston still upholds the custom. Also whilst many carol services sing the nationwide familiar carols, in some parts of the country the carols are local variants, South Yorkshire being a stronghold.

Yorkshire tradition

Oddly, Beeston a small town now part of the Nottingham conurbation has its own tradition of unique carols said to have been passed down from generation to generation from Yorkshire weavers who settled here in the 1800s. The Beeston Chilwell road Methodist carol choir have continued the tradition since 1870, at first as a male only choir and then after First World War including women.  Despite being part of the so-called Yorkshire carol tradition, recent research has revealed the carols to originate from Leicestershire, Derbyshire as well as Yorkshire. Indeed, one of these carols, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, is the most local being written by William Matthews a Nottingham composer in c.1820. Originally there were probably a number of groups by the 1900s there were apparently two that of the Beeston Methodist and a private group ran by Bill Spray. Furthermore, they would probably only sing on Christmas Eve, done through the night as a Bill Spray recalls in the 1900s from an article on the custom:

They didn’t start to 8 o’clock and they went on to 2 in the morning. I used to go with my father and my brother and sister who were both older. Mother stayed at home and finished off the Christmas baking. Some of the singing was done in the streets, but in the main it was at the big houses, of which there were very many in Beeston at the time. We usually sang at least two carols at every place we visited. After midnight we would probably do no more knocking on doors, but one of our members would go out the next morning to the houses which we hadn’t collected. One feature was that immediately after midnight we always sang Christian’s Awake. We always finished in Beeston square and always sang an anthem. The words were from the Book of Isaah Behold the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son…there were about 20 or 30 of us.”                                                                                                                      

It is interesting that in later years the proclamation of the Gospel was more important than collecting money, today perhaps there has been a reversal, where money is collected for charity. In the days of Bill Spray the money collected was for themselves noting:

“My father and grandfather belonged to a carol choir in Beeston called the Combined Choir and they used to go out mainly to the large houses and they collected for themselves…In those days wages were very, very low. There was no paid holiday. So when Christmas was coming they knew they would lose. They would have a short week for Christmas week. And so they used to go out and collect their poor wages and compensate for the lack of any wage over the Christmas period.”

Interestingly, despite the black out, the carollers continued during World War II although they did make note of the locations of all the air raid shelters. Again as in the World War I, the male section was reduced but older men were utilized to ‘balance the harmonies’.

Beeston Carols (12)

Hark..mine’s a pint!

One of the main fixtures of the carol season is their singing in a local pub, currently the Crown. This may seem an unusual place for a carol service, but despite a few bemused looks and it was only a very few, the idea appeared to be a popular one. I arrived there with one minute to go to the starting time and with a whisper around about the choice of carol, the pub erupted in song. An incredible melodic sound filled the pub as the majority of people there joined in. Fundamental to this performance was the choir master who sat central to the group and like a conductor of a grand orchestra was fully enraptured by the experience and his arms flailed about with great gusto. At the start of each carol, he produced a rough piece of paper with the running order and a harmonica to set the pitch and sending the message around often like a strange code with special words being used for the arrangements. In some cases the names were very cryptic, but the carols would be well known if he tunes not, as I explain below. The group were a mix of different ages and voices. One main said he was a new comer and then related he had been in the group since the 1990s such perhaps is the strength of the choir’s continuity. With some announcements came comments such as Palmer’s Street anthem for popular carols relating the fact that every household would want this to be song down the street. Indeed as mentioned earlier the choir’s main focus is still to travel the streets. I was informed that the singing in pubs was a fairly recent invention, starting only a few years since in another pub, the Hop-pole, as a warmer alternative to the street walks.

Beeston Carols (2)

A local remix

“Although many of the carols of today were sung in the past for example Hark the Herald Angels sing and While Shepherds watched different tunes were used.                            

Nothing is new. Modern popular music often steals older baselines or instrumental tracks, fuse new songs onto them, and make new tracks, others re-arrange popular songs in a remix fashion. This in a way describes many of the well known carols song by the choir. On paper we all know ‘Whilst Shepherds watch’ or ‘Hark the Herald angels’ but in the dulcet voices of the choir local variants were song. Like some obscure Northern soul track, such carols are not called by their well known name but terms such as Liverpool or in this case Cranbrook, named after the Canterbury author of the tune. In the case of ‘While shepherds..”, it is sung more enjoyably, to the tune of the well known ‘Ilkley Moor bar tat’, although it was this popular folk tune which stole the carol’s tune not vice versa. There are at least six versions of this carol by this carol, prompting one listening to comment that’s not the proper tune and miss the unique nature of the custom. Interestingly, of these carols, as the Chilwell Road Methodist website notes, were only transcribed as late as between 1976 and 1980 by a Bert and Andrew Taylor stating, before hand they were learnt by heart from generation to generation:

“In order to preserve for posterity the traditional tunes and harmonies sung by the Choir …, we have now set down rationalised versions.”

What makes such local variants an enjoyable experience is the use of the Gallery style of singing, named after where the songs were song in the church and often thought to be a bit too earthy and rough around the edges for church. In these carols different parts of the choir, particularly the men and women took different sections of the carol to an anthemic result. Immersed in the centre of this wall of sound this made the performances unforgettable.

Keeping them on the streets

The website also notes that by the late 1980s, a regular pattern had been established. The Carol Choir visited local Care and Nursing Homes on Sunday afternoons during December, sang one Saturday lunchtime in Beeston Square or High Road, and then spent three evenings (including Christmas Eve) singing around the streets, covering an area between Wollaton Road, Beeston, and Grove Avenue, Chilwell. I had planned to join the choir again for one of their street walks but sadly the weather and previous engagements prevented me…assuming the choir went out during the horrendous weather! Hopefully another year I’ll manage it. copyright Pixyled publications