Tag Archives: oxfordshire

Custom contrived: Corpus Christi Tortoise Race, Oxford

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Dreaming spires, gowns, academic prowess – all things associated with one of Britain’s greatest academic establishment. But tortoises? Perhaps not but for Corpus Christi college and a number of other colleges who compete it has been a strong tradition and bizarre break for the academic.

Tortoise’s cannot regulate their body temperature so it did not look good promising for a race when huge clouds appeared above those dreaming spires. But everyone was in good spirits awaiting the tortoise race at the college’s tortoise fair. Many were having picnics and many were adorned with face paintings which showed their affinity with our reptilian races.

What they tortoise at University

Founded by Richard Foxe, Bishop of Worcester and famed for its role in the translation of the bible into English. Tortoise racing is not necessarily appear to come to mind in this setting. However, back in the Trinity Term, local tradition states that a student called Steve Brand, who decided to raise money for RAG by organising a tortoise race as a ‘gentlemanly challenge to Oriel College. Surprisingly, so did Freda from BBC TV’s Blue Peter. According to the College’s journal, the Pelican Record in 1974 the night before the College’s tortoise Christi had disappeared. After much searching he was found in the Cloister’s quad. This moment of freedom, may have affected the result however, the Pelican Record noted:

“Christie, obviously off form after a harrowing night, came third after 21 gruelling minutes and 40 seconds.” 

Tortoises going missing appears to be a bit of a theme. In the 2000s, Balliol College’s Rosa, a winner of number of races was kidnapped the night before and never seen again! Trinity was blamed but nothing was ever proved.

Tortoise racing itself has some history. It was apparently done at the beginning of the last century in Greece being last recorded being done by bored British soldiers on the slope of Mount Olympus using lettuce and shade apparently as lures.

The Tortoise…and the hmmm…tortoise!

In those days tortoises were a bit more common, roll or perhaps, crawl back to the 21st century, and they are not despite this a good field of candidates were produced.

Some of the tortoises however have a long pedigree. Emanuelle from Regent’s College was bought in 1976. Originally thought to be a male and so gained an extra -le. As a regular winner in the 1980s and 90s and even starred in Blue Peter. Indeed it even had a cup named after it.

Over the years there have been tortoises coming and going from Oldham, Sampras, Percy, Archibald, Theodore, Zoom, Shelley. One year there was even a red-eared terrapin for Magdalen College School’s called George! This year there was a large Leopard tortoise which I felt was, being twice as big, quicker than the others as more powerful perhaps. The best name was Aristurtle – the Classic education showing through!

 

Clearly tongue firmly in cheeks as the Oxford Cherwell in 2013 Oxford in suspense for corpus tortoise fair reports:

Sampras, Christ Church’s tortoise. Kishan Koria, the tortoise keeper at Christ Church, says of Sampras: “An understated intellectual colossus (with an IQ of 160+) it has been rumoured that Aesop’s fable was indeed based on Sampras, as was Lewis Carroll’s academic paper on logic ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’.” Kishan adds: “He has been inspired by the Olympics towards a victory for the College who are right behind him.” 

Remember, slow and steady wins the race

Suddenly the bells of the nearby college chimed and everyone descended on an area to the back of the college. We had been watching the College’s cheerleading team – yes I was surprised too – but they were excellent – throwing a man dressed as a turtle into the air when people disappeared to form a large circle crowded around an open space, the arena. To one side were an array of boxes, wooden, cardboard and plastic stuffed with straw and hay in which resided preparing themselves the colleges the tortoises cared for by their devoted keepers. The role of the keeper is a formal elected role in the College and one not taken too lightly and it was clear they really cared for their carapaced charges.

Around the circle was placed lettuce leaves as the goal as this was a race of quickest to the outer circle rather than a flat race. One by one the tortoise racers were introduced with a few words from their keepers. Cheers went up for them from their respective fellow college members. They are very loyal to their tortoises. However, I couldn’t help think that Magdalene’s College’s Oscar d’tortoise was a bit of a cheat being it was a student in a suit! Worcester did apparently plan to bring two Zoom and Shelly but only Shelly turned up. There was Turtellini from St Anne’s, a cute small Aristurtle from St Peters, Percy from University, Emmanuelle from Regent’s Park and getting the biggest cheer Foxe from the home college. Once they add been introduced them and their keepers stood in the middle facing outwards and as the crowd counted down let go of their tortoises and they were off. I must say they moved exceedingly quickly Cheers and come ons boomed from the excited crowd. The tortoises were literally biting at each other’s hills and at one point two grunting tortoises had to be separated. Then only minutes after the whistle was blown Shelly went over the line and the race was finished. Shelly sat chomping his lettuce. Like all racers they then stayed around for photographs and adoration. It was over for another year and as the crowd dispersed so did the fine weather….a huge rain cloud befell the tortoises who were quickly spirited away for some post race fruit no doubt.

Custom demised: Valentining on St. Valentine’s Day

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A forgotten tradition associated with St Valentine’s day was very widespread in the last century was Valentining and whilst the obvious assumption was that it was to do with love, the love aspect was furthest to the back of the mind. No Valentining was another form of begging in response to sung doggerel.  A detailed account in the Cambridgeshire village of Duxford and other adjoining parishes. According to the Antiquary, the custom in 1873 was ‘is still in feeble existence’. The account states that:

“They start about 9 a.m. on their expedition, which must be finished by noon ; otherwise their singing is not acknowledged in any way. In some few cases the donor gives each child a halfpenny, others throw from their doors the coppers they feel disposed to part with amongst the little band of choristers, which are eagerly scrambled after.”

In Northamptonshire it is recorded that:

“In this county children go from house to house, on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, soliciting small gratuities. The children of the villages go in parties, sometimes in considerable numbers, repeating at each house the following salutations, which vary in different districts.”

The rhyme

In Cambridgeshire the rhyme would go:

“Curl your looks as I do mine. Two before and three behind. So good morning, Valentine. Hurra ! Hurra ! Hurra!”

In Oxfordshire the first rhyme indicates how a valentine was a random gift, later it was manifest itself as a person:

“Good morrow, Valentine, I be thine, and thou be’st mine, So please give my a Valentine.”

Another rhyme went:

“ Good morrow, Valentine God bless you ever I If you’ll be true to me, I’ll be the like to thee. Old England forever.”

or

“Good morrow, Valentine ! First it’s j’ours, and then it’s mine, So please give me a Valentine.”

In Kyburgh Norfolk it was a bit more specific going:

“God bless the baker ; If you will be the If you will be the giver, I will be the taker.”

One wonders whether the tradition of Jack or Father Valentine derived as a way to prevent unwanted begging. Interestingly in Hone’s Everyday book (1838) informs us that in Herefordshire:

“the poor and middling classes of children assemble together in some part of the town or village where they live, and proceed in a body to the house of the chief personage of the place, who, on their arrival, throws them wreaths and true lovers’ knots from the window, with which they adorn themselves. Two or three of the girls then select one of the youngest among them (generally a boy), whom they deck out more gaily than the rest, and placing him at their head, march forward, singing as they go along : “Good morrow to you, Valentine; Curl your locks its I do mine, Two before and three behind. Good morrow to you, Valentine.” This they repeat under the windows of all the houses they pass, and the inhabitant is seldom known to refuse a mite towards the merry solicitings of these juvenile serenaders.”

Interestingly this account suggests the evolution of more love related gifts given to the children and association of activities between the boys and the girls, but this form of Valentining is for another blog post.

 

Custom occasional: Hunting the Mallard at All Soul’s College Oxford

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Such elaborate junketing may sound a little odd to anyone unconnected with All Souls . . . But presumably, if Homer may be excused an occasional nod, a Fellow of All Souls may be allowed, once in a hundred years, to play the fool.”

Account from Cosmo Lang’s Biography

Back in 2001 I was invited to see a strange spectacle which by its rarity and unusual description I honestly didn’t believe actually existed, All Soul’s College Hunting the Mallard. Sadly in the end I could not go and missing out in a way cemented by desire some may say obsession to catalogue our curious and colourful customs. Why? Well because the Hunting of the Mallard is the rarest of beasts, as rare as the said Mallard, as it is only done every 100 years.

Interestingly Thistleton-Dyer in his excellent Popular customs past and present 1876 appears unaware of the 100 year cycle recording:

“This day was formerly celebrated in All Souls College, Oxford, in commemoration of the discovery of a very large mallard or drake in a drain, when digging for the foundation of the college ; and though this observance no longer exists, yet on one of the college ” gaudies ” there is sung in memory of the occurrence a very old song called ‘ The swapping, swapping mallard.”

Ducking and diving

As noted above the Mallard has a strong association with this venerable Oxford college; it is their mascot and can be seen on various objects around the college. But how did it all start? 1437 is the date given when during the digging of the college’s foundations the college’s founder Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Clichele, was indecisive of where he should build his college. But during a dream he was told that:

“…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele fattened and almost bosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college”

The location in the dream was next to the church and upon digging where he was directed and could hear in a hole: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes” reaching in he pulled a duck describe as the size of “a bustarde or an ostridge.” This was a the sign and as the bird flew away the academics who were to become the Fellows of All Souls chased it, caught and then of course ate it! And so immortalised the bird in the college’s history.

When the custom started is unclear but an account by Archbishop Abbott in 1632 is the earliest recording:

“civil men should never so far forget themselves under pretence of a foolish mallard as to do things barbarously unbecoming.”

It may have been thoughts like this which resulted it in being a 100 year cycle!

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Yes Mall’ord

On the night of January 14, 2001, some of Oxford’s most learned fellows could be seen marching around All Souls College behind a wooden duck held aloft on a pole. They were engaged in the bizarre ritual of hunting the mallard that occurs once every 100 years at the College. I was up at Oxford at the time, and one of my tutors was present and so I got the eye-witness account of the matter.

After a commemorative feast the fellows paraded around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by “Lord Mallard” carried in a sedan chair. They were in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built.

And so, during the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied. Originally it was a live bird, by 1901 it had become a dead bird, and by 2001 it was a bird carved from wood. The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101.

How many hunting the mallards there officially have been is unclear – one presumes six – as little is recorded. The only one to have been documented before the 2001 one was the 1901 custom. The Mallard Lord being Cosmo Gordon Lang, who recalled via J G Lockhart, his biographer:

“I was carried in a chair by four stalwart Fellows – Wilbrahim [First Church Estates Commissioner], Gwyer [later Chief Justice of India], Steel-Maitland [later Minister of Labour] and Fossie Cunliffe – for nearly two hours after midnight round the quadrangles and roofs of the College, with a dead mallard borne in front on a long pole (which I still possess) singing the Mallard Song all the time, preceded by the seniors and followed by the juniors, all of them carrying staves and torches, a scene unimaginable in any place in the world except Oxford, or there in any society except All Souls.”

The account related that in 1901 that:

“The whole strange ceremony had been kept secret; only late workers in the night can have heard the unusual sound, though it is said that Provost McGrath of Queen’s muttered in his sleep, ‘I must send the Torpid down for this noise.”

At the end of the event Lang notes that the dead mallard was thrown on a bonfire to which Lang noted:

“some of the junior fellows could not be restrained from eating portions of its charred flesh”.

Its all quackers!

As the procession hunted the duck the procession would sing the Mallard Song:

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon

Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on

And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,

But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.

CHORUS:

Hough the bloud of King Edward,

By ye bloud of King Edward,

It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

Some storys strange are told I trow

By Baker Holinshead and Stow 

Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things

That happen’d in ye Reignes of theire Kings.

CHORUS

The Romans once admir’d a gander

More than they did theire best Commander,

Because hee saved, if some don’t foolle us,

The place named from ye Scull of Tolus

CHORUS

The Poets fain’d Jove turn’d a Swan,

But lett them prove it if they can.

To mak’t appeare it’s not att all hard:

Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.

CHORUS

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,

Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh;

His swapping tool of generation

Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.

CHORUS

Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard

in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,

And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,

Let’s dabble, dive & duck in Boule.

CHORUS”

The song is not restricted to the Mallard and is song at events such as the Gaudy held annually.

Duck soup

In 1801 it was said that a live mallard was chased around, by 1901 it was a dead one on a pole and by 2001:

There will be a wooden mallard duck carried at the head of the procession on a pole.”

The History Girls blogsite accounted that in 2001 Dr Martin Litchfield West was the Mallard Lord it reported:

“Behind Dr West, fortified by the Mallard Feast and dressed in black tie and gowns, marched the other fellows of the college. Among those expected to participate were William Waldegrave and John Redwood, members of the last Conservative Cabinet, and Lord Neill of Bladen, former chairman of the committee for standards in public life and once warden of All Souls. All fellows taking part in the procession are expected to give full voice to the Mallard Song. …There will be 118 people, all fellows or past fellows, carrying torches. We shall go around the college and up the front tower and back again. We will then join the college servants for a lot of drinking and there will be a fireworks display.”

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An account of the custom first hand related to the blogger of the excellent History Girls blogsite notes:

“My tutor gave us the insider’s view of the Great Mallard Chase of 2001. She and the other Fellows partook of a 14 course dinner in the medieval Codrington Library, accompanied by superb wines (All Souls has the best cellar in the country – better than Buckingham Palace). I have reprinted the menu from 1901 below. Dr Martin Litchfield West as the Lord Mallard, and the Fellows sang, much as they have done for hundreds of years, the Mallard Song. The Victorians disapproved of the reference in the song to the Mallard’s “swapping tool of Generation”, mightier than any other in “ye winged Nation” (of birds) and dropped this verse from the song. It was restored in the 2001 ceremony, when the Fellows sat down to the Mallard Centennial Dinner, which did include a duck. When everyone was in an excess of good spirits, four of the younger fellows hoisted the Lord Mallard up in his special sedan chair (the same one used in 1901 – but we’re not sure if it was also used in 1801) and they chased a wooden mallard duck around the quad. In the days before Animal Rights (a very serious consideration in Oxford, given letter bombs to scientists and sabotage of laboratories), they chased a real duck. But this century, for the first time, a fake duck had to do. So, with the Lord Mallard hoisted high in his sedan chair the whole congregation of fellows chased this wood duck around the quadrangle bellowing out the Mallard Song. Now, given that he was not expending any energy and was the centre of attention, the Lord Mallard was anxious to repeat the experience. “Again, again” he cried, and he was carried around the quadrangle again, and then for a third time at his excited urging. But, when he said “Again”, wanting a fourth perambulation, the poor sedan carriers rebelled and dumped him on the ground. Then there were wonderful fireworks, including fireworks in the shape of a mallard. “

Sad to have missed it and not a single photo…ah well here’s to 2101!!

Custom occasional: Abingdon Bun Throwing

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Abingdon has a custom which has been undertaken rather on and off over 200 years. Principally associated with Royal events its irregularity means that it does not fit the categories on this blog so I have made a new category – custom occasional!

How did this curious custom begin? Abingdon claims its unique. In the way it does of course, but there are other bun throws such as that I recorded at Wath upon Dearne. It may not have started as bun throwing and it is suggested that it may have been a dole probably done to recognise the importance of the event it was associated with. During the 1760 for George III coronation, a John Waite records catching a cake thrown from the Market House. The Borough Minutes of 1831 record that 500 penny cakes distributed. In the Abingdon Herald’s it states that:

500 cakes … were thrown from the tops of houses into the dirt to be scrambled for, in accordance with ancient usage”.

From 1761 until 2016 34 bun throws have been done of these 27 have been for Royal occasions – 8 coronations, 6 jubilees, 5 birthdays, 4 marriages, 2 anniversaries of a marriage and one Royal visit. Other events have been celebrated by buns such as VE Day and its 50th anniversary and the end of the Crimean War or Charter days and even an International Day. In the museum can be seen evidence of the last 17 bun throwings, the earliest being from 1887 Golden Jubilee of Victoria. The museum was closed on the day unfortunately. The number of bun throws appear to have increased in the year, possibly as a result of a wise tourist drive – nothing wrong with that of course!

Bun time for all

I turned up a few hours earlier to see the town preparing. Abingdon is a classic town – a real life Trumpton and as such I expected Trumptonesque activities For of course it was not just bun throwing to keep the crowd happy the organisers had put on some other entertainments. Very Trumptonlike with Town Crier, band and Morris.

One of the attendees was morning about the need for signs for the ingredients of the buns and morning ‘EU regulation’. I smiled wryly…although I noted there wasn’t a sign saying ‘don’t eat the ones on the floor’.

As the crowds begun to assemble, the local band cheerfully entertained them from everything from Hope and Glory to Sex Bomb! As we approached nearer to launch time, it was time for the famed Abingdon Morris Men to appear with their Bull mascot, sword and pewter mug. They enthralled those assembled with their dances and this was a good advert for their more famous Mock Mayor custom the week after. The crowd looked very responsive to them and so no doubt that boded well for the following week!

Whilst this was going on Union Jack flags were enthusiastic delivered through the crowd with children leaping on the opportunity to give them a way and occasionally poke an eye out no doubt.

Then a small procession came to the town hall attended by the Mayor, the town dignitaries, local MP and the winners of a furthest bun throwing competition a few weeks earlier!

The band then struck up the National Anthem and the crowd sung. And yes in the crowd, there was that embarrassing moment where no one remembers the words to the second verse! Then there was a cheer as they turn around and ascended the town hall. A few minutes later they appeared on the roof.

Bun fight

In what appeared an aeon, peppered with false starts teasing the crowd, limbering up and chants of ‘we want buns’, the later could be misinterpreted Versailles style!

“please do not use upturned umbrellas’ You don’t see signs like that everyday do you? But it was clear that one of the greatest aspects of bun throwing is the chance to catch as many as possible. However, there was no unruly scramble, this was genteel Oxfordshire after all.

Then the clock struck 7 and we were off. And some off it was literally raining buns. There was no let off. Over 2500 were being launched and it felt like it. The sky was almost darkened over with buns! Catching them was another matter. One bounced off my shoulder and another with some force hit me squarely on the head ‘ouch’. Some people were clearly having greater luck. A girl behind had about eight and we were only four minutes in! Two children had baseball gloves..very ingenious!

Then I began having luck and soon caught a special celebratory bun with 90 piped onto it. I appeared to be the only one I found one I noticed in the same area, so I did not know how many were being released but I would imagine 90. So if so catching 1 out of 90 out of the 2500 was I suppose a bit of a chance happening. The sound of excitement was getting fever pitch and more and more buns fell from the sky and then 15 minutes in the sky cleared. No more buns. The crowd cheers and began to dispersed. Around me there were lots of grinning children clutching their happy hoards…and off everyone went…roll on the 100th?

Custom survived: East Hendred Shroving

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“Pit pat, pan’s hot,
Here we come a’ shroving
With a batcher up my back
A halfpenny is better than nothing.”

Ask anyone to name a custom associated with Shrove Tuesday – pancake making come top of the list, many say pancake racing, some may say football and a handful skipping…not many I would guess would suggest the oldest of shrove customs…the one more faithful to the reason for the day – Shroving.

Originally the purpose for Shrove Tuesday was to get shriven and be absolved of sins in preparation for Lent. One way in which you could absolve yourself of earthly desires was to give to charity and in many villages the less well off and often children would take advantage of this. As a result Shrove Tuesday became one of the begging days in the calendar and it became the duty of the local Lord of the manor to provide for the parishioners at this time.

Shrove off

Oxfordshire is fortunate to have a number of Shroving rhymes recorded by Percy Manning in his Stray Notes on Oxfordshire Folklore (Continued) for Folklore in 1904. He notes:

At Shrovetide, on the Tuesday, the children at Baldon go round the village begging pence, and singing the following song:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan’s hot,

I become a Shroving.

Catch a fish afore the net,

That’s better than nothing.

Eggs, lard, and flour’s dear,

This makes me come a-Shroving here.

If the singers do not get any money given them, they go on as follows:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan’s hot,

I be come a Shroving,

A bit of bread and a bit of cheese,

That’s better than nothing.

For eggs, lard, and flour’s dear,

So I be come a Shroving here. (1895.)

The following is from OAKLEY and ICKFORD, on the Buckinghamshire border of Oxfordshire :

‘Pit-a-pat ! the pan’s hot,

I be come a-Shroving;

A bit of bread, a bit of cheese

Or a cold apple dumpling.

Up with the kettle !

Down with the pan !

Give me a penny, and I’ll be on.’ (Circa 1897.)

At Islip in Oxfordshire, the children, on Shrove-Tuesday, go round to the various houses to collect pence, saying:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan is hot

We are come a-Shroving ;

A little bit of bread and cheese Is better than nothing.

The pan is hot, the pan is cold;

Is the fat in the pan nine days old ?

O. HALLIWELL, Popular Rhymes (1849), pp. 245-6.”

Another is recorded by Brand’s Popular Antiquities:

“In Oxfordshire the following version has been met with:

‘Knick, knock, the pan’s hot,

And we be come a Shroving;

A bit of bread, a bit of cheese,

A bit of barley dompling

That’s better than nothing,

Open the door and let us in,

For we be come a-pancaking.’”

Ironically despite a more detailed recording of the custom than many other counties it misses what is now a significant one; the only surviving locally and perhaps the least known survivor of this tradition being found in a little known Oxfordshire village of East Hendred.  Here the squire of the manor at Hendred House for 100s of years has maintained a custom with the rhyme similar of course to above:

“Pit pat, pan’s hot,
Here we come a’ shroving
With a batcher up my back
A halfpenny is better than nothing.” 

Schools out!

The custom of course is not exactly like those described above, the children do not beg around the village but evidently at some time the Squire wanting to provide for the parish but prevent begging, established the custom of giving. This may have even been for adults but now is for children. Clearly the presence of two faith based primary schools, particularly the Roman Catholic, significantly established by a previous occupant of Hendred House, has helped.

Interestingly, unlike many other Shrove Tuesday customs which now do not occur when the date falls in half-term, this continues, although the numbers are usually less.  The children snake from their school for noon, shepherded by their teachers and parents down the drive to the house and in the courtyard. At arrival they chant their rhyme whilst waiting for their gift. I wonder how many of them understand the words?

Mr Hine, a local historian, informed me that he remembered when he was a child in the 1950s that the Headmaster from his C of E school went along and would attempt to stop them singing the line ‘a halfpenny better than nothing because he thought it might upset the Squire! Now no such sensitivities no longer exist! The Hine family have a tradition with the village and Mr. Hine told me his father also attended the custom and it had not changed in that time!

Inflation hits!

Sitting on the pebbled courtyard is a table stacked with trays of sticky hot cross buns. They looked delicious. The children gleefully accepted these although some were probably a bit bemused by the monetary gift; a penny. Mind you they should be grateful they would have originally got a half-penny! Not that that either has any real buying power..unless the class teamed together to buy a packet of crisps. Let’s hope it went to charity.

A small but curious custom but a rare one and hopefully with the support of both schools and the community it should survive..although I was surprised when researching it to find some local people had never heard of it..but then when you work and were never a child there that is likely I suppose.

Custom demised: Porch Watching on St Mark’s Eve

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 “Tis now, replied the village belle,  St. Mark’s mysterious eve, And all that old traditions tell, I tremblingly believe; How, when the midnight signal tolls, Along the churchyard green, A mournful train of sentenced souls  In winding-sheets are seen. The ghosts of all whom death shall doom  Within the coming year, In pale procession walk the gloom,  Amid the silence drear.”

On this date curious people would wait up on the 24th of April, St. Mark’s Eve to see who would die in the Parish. The details varied a little according to location, but the basic idea was that you sat in a church porch and the spirits or wraiths of those who were to die that year ahead would be seen as ghosts. The watchers had to remain silent from when the church clock struck 11pm until the clock struck one, and a procession of the dead predicted that year would appear either leaving or entering the church.  In some places such as Yorkshire, the observer would have to be there for three days in a row and then only would be able to see it.

It was widespread custom, but particularly noted in north of England, although Briggs in their Folklore of the Cotswolds is wrong when they  note it was found no further south than Northamptonshire (it was recorded in Oxfordshire). In East Anglia those who would die stay in the church and those who would survive would be seen in other places it was the other way around. Ethel Rudkin (1936) in Lincolnshire folklore records:

“On St Mark’s Eve all those who are going to die, or to be married, can be seen by anyone who watches in the church porch at Midnight, as they come into the church in spirit on that night.”

Let us hope they could tell the difference! Another method recorded was according to Chamber’s 1894 Book of Days involved:

“ riddling out all the ashes on the hearth-stone over night, in the expectation of seeing impressed upon them, in the morning, the footstep of any one of the party who was to die during the ensuing year. In circles much given to superstition, great misery was sometimes created by a malicious or wanton person coming slily into the kitchen during the night, and marking the ashes with the shoe of one of the party.”

A colourful account translated by Steve Roud Book of Days (2008) from its broad Yorkshire is by Richard Blakeborough in 1898:

“I never watched myself, but one James How used to watch the dead go in and come out at Bon’inston church every St. Mark’s Eve as it came around. He had to; he was forced to it, he couldn’t help himself…ate, and he saw the spirits of all of them that were going to die that year, and all of them dressed in their natural clothes, or else how would he have known who they were? They passed close to him, but none of them gave him a nod, or anything of that sort.”

A noted account is given about a Liveman Rampaine, household chaplain to Sir Thomas Munson, Burton Lincolnshire to Gervase Hollis, a noted writer who records:

“In the year 1631, two men (inhabitants of Burton) agreed betwixt themselves upon St. Mark’s eve at night to watch in the churchyard at Burton, to try whether or no (according to the ordinary belief amongst the common people) they should see the Spectra, or Phantasma of those persons which should die in that parish the year following. To this intent, having first performed the usual ceremonies and superstitions, late in the night, the moon shining then very bright, they repaired to the church porch, and there seated themselves, continuing there till near twelve of the clock. About which time (growing weary with expectation and partly with fear) they resolved to depart, but were held fast by a kind of insensible violence, not being able to move a foot.

About midnight, upon a sudden (as if the moon had been eclipsed), they were environed with a black darkness; immediately after, a kind of light, as if it had been a resultancy from torches. Then appears, coming towards the church porch, the minister of the place, with a book in his hand, and after him one in a winding-sheet, whom they both knew to resemble one of their neighbours. The church doors immediately fly open, and through pass the apparitions, and then the doors clap to again. Then they seem to hear a muttering, as if it were the burial service, with a rattling of bones and noise of earth, as in the filling up of a grave. Suddenly a still silence, and immediately after the apparition of the curate again, with another of their neighbours following in a winding-sheet, and so a third, fourth, and fifth, every one attended with the same circumstances as the first.

These all having passed away, there ensued a serenity of the sky, the moon shining bright, as at the first; they themselves being restored to their former liberty to walk away, which they did sufficiently affrighted. The next day they kept within doors, and met not together, being both of them exceedingly ill, by reason of the affrightment which had terrified them the night before. Then they conferred their notes, and both of them could very well remember the circumstances of every passage. Three of the apparitions they well knew to resemble three of their neighbours; but the fourth (which seemed an infant), and the fifth (like an old man), they could not conceive any resemblance of. After this they confidently reported to every one what they had done and seen; and in order designed to death those three of their neighbours, which came to pass accordingly.

Shortly after their deaths, a woman in the town was delivered of a child, which died likewise. So that now there wanted but one (the old man), to accomplish their predictions, which likewise came to pass after this manner. In that winter, about mid-January, began a sharp and long frost, during the continuance of which some of Sir John Munson’s friends in Cheshire, having some occasion of intercourse with him, despatched away a foot messenger (an ancient man), with letters to him. This man, tramling this bitter weather over the mountains in Derbyshire, was nearly perished with cold, yet at last he arrived at Burton with his letters, where within a day or two he died. And these men, as soon as ever they see him, said peremptorily that he was the man whose apparition they see, and that doubtless he would die before he returned, which accordingly he did.”

Of course waiting up late especially for many rural people who would have laboured all day would be tiring and so tales tell of people falling asleep are noted. This would be an unwise action as it is said that anyone who did would die as well! The practice would appear to have been frowned upon by the church, perhaps the tradition told in Yorkshire that anyone who did watch must do so every year of their life is a way of discouraging. As Blakeborough again notes this may have been to comfort the watcher:

“But them as does it once have to do it. They hold themselves back. They’re forced to go every time St. Mark’s Eve comes around. Man! It’s a desperate thing to have to do, because you have to go.”

Understandably, such a custom was also ripe for abuse. Kai Roberts in their Folklore of Yorkshire (2013) tells of a woman Old Peg Doo who every year used to watch at Bridlington Priory and charge her neighbours for the information. Of course finding out that you were one of these wraiths would have been quite disturbing so much that it must have caused the death of the person predicted a self fulfilling prophecy! As Chamber’s 1894 Book of Days notes:

“It may readily be presumed that this would prove a very pernicious superstition, as a malignant person, bearing an ill-will to any neighbour, had only to say or insinuate that he had seen him forming part of the visionary procession of St. Mark’s Eve, in order to visit him with. a serious affliction, if not with mortal disease.”

An account in Lincolnshire Notes and Queries by a  J. A. Penny in 1892-3

“As Martin by Timberland over the river, I was told that many years ago there was an old clerk who church watched and once when a farmer grumbled at the rates he said ‘you need not trouble for you’ll not have to pay them’ nor had he, for he went home and died within three months of the shock.”

Of course there was also a bizarre final realism for the observer as Richard Blakeborough once again notes:

“Whah! at last end you see yourself pass yourself and now you know your time’s come and you’ll be laid in the ground before that day twelvemonth.”

Sometimes as Chambers notes it would be common to scare people on the day, he notes:

A poem from Whittlesford Cambridgeshire in 1826, describing the tale of when in 1813, four or five villagers would watch at the church to see if the ghosts appeared. His friends played a joke on them by hiding in the church, ringing its bell and scaring them and sending their scattering and in one case causing one of them falling into an open grave.

The church became very strict on the custom and it is noted as early as in 1608, indeed the earliest record of the custom, when a woman was excommunicated at Walesby, Nottinghamshire for:

“watching upon Sainte Markes eve at nighte in the church porche by divelish demonstracion the deathe of somme neighnours within the yeere”

 The tradition appears to have died out by the 1800s across the country as rational thought sadly took over. However, there was at least one survival into the 20th century in Oxfordshire as a report in the Oxford Times recorded the event in the north of the county. So next St Mark’s eve perhaps…or perhaps not…you’ll want to watch.

Custom demised: Jack of Hilton and his curious tenure

Standard

Jack (2)

In the Ashmolean museum in Oxford is a very strange effigy called Jack of Hilton. It was once the property of the manor of Essington between Wolverhampton and Walsall was subject to a strange feudal service custom from the neighbouring Lord of Hilton. An account by topographer Plot (1686) describes it as:

“a hollow brass image, about a foot high, representing a man kneeling in an indecorous posture. …..There were two apertures, one very small at the mouth, another about two-thirds of an inch in diameter at the back..”

Why the holes? Well the structure is what is called an Æolipile, named after Aeolus the Greek God of air and wind, for such a device would spin when heated due to the force of pressure by water. In a way it was the precursor of the engine. An account of one describes it as:

“an instrument consisting of a hollow metallic ball, with a slender neck or pipe, arising from it. This being filled with water, and thus exposed to the fire, produces a vehement blast of wind.”

Jack of Hilton would hold more than four pints of water, of which the Plot notes:

“which when set to a strong fire, evaporates after the same manner as in an Aeolipile, and vents itself at the smaller hole at the mouth in a constant blast, blowing the fire so strongly that it is very audible, and makes a sensible impression on that part of the fire where the blast lights, as I found by experience”

Plot (1686) adds:

“Now the custom was this. An obligation lay upon the lord of the adjacent manor of Essington, every New-Year’s Day, to bring a goose to Hilton, and drive it three times round the hall fire, which Jack of Hilton was all the time blowing by the discharge of his steam. He was then to carry the bird into the kitchen and deliver it to the cook; and when it was dressed, he was further to carry it in a dish to the table of his lord paramount, the lord of Hilton, receiving in return a dish of meat for his own mess.”

Whatever this custom was about is unclear, and it is certainly unique in the country. It is possible that the figure is quite ancient although the museum dates it to 1300. An author in the Mirror of the 18th century notes:

“Besides Jack of Hilton, which had been an ancient Saxon, image, or idol, Mr. Weber shows, that Pluster, a celebrated German idol, is also of the Aeolipile kind, and in virtue thereof, could do noble feats: being filled with a fluid, and then set on the fire, it would be covered with sweat, and as the heat increased, would at length burst out into flames….Some late authors have discovered the extraordinary use to which the frauds of the heathen priesthood applied the Aeolipile, viz. the working of sham miracles.”

So perhaps the custom has very ancient origins. Sadly no-one appears to have investigated. Similarly I question why he is so positioned if the steam only leaves his mouth at force and no where else!