Tag Archives: travel

Custom revived: Old Man’s Day, Braughing


There are many picturesque Hertfordshire villages, but few have many surviving traditions and none have a custom as peculiar and nonsensical as Old Man’s Day. A tour of village churches will reveal the frequency of benefactor and charity boards…and indeed I have catalogued a few in this blog…but whilst doles and gifts are pleasantly quaint and common place..none have survived with such a strange stipulation.

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My Old Man’s a dead man!

Why is it so odd? Well that is due to the legend of the titular benefactor, real name Mathew Wall. The local legend tells that when he died in 1571 it was not the end. For as the pall bearers carried his coffin down Fleece Lane on its way to burial the church, a leaf got in the way. A bearer slipped. Bang. The coffin was dropped. Everyone was apparently aghast in horror…but the level of horror was about to rise. For once the shock of dropping the coffin was got over there was a knock. An audible rap on the coffin. The undead? A zombie? No Matthew had woken up…he was alive! The account does not attest the response of the villagers then but Matthew was released from his coffin alive. Indeed he lived for another 24 years!


Dying to be remembered

When he did die in 1595, it is said that a thankful Wall then gave money to the village and stipulated that the 2nd of October the event should be remembered. Of course the church would not be reluctant to remember a story of a dead man resurrected! Local people often frightened of premature burial – the diagnosis of comas not being particularly successful back in the 16th century, would be happy to oblige too.

A clean sweep

One of the most curious aspect of the custom, the nonsensical aspect, is the most colourful. As the church bells toll the Death knell – a Will stipulation, children from the local school are prepared. Armed with brooms…they sweep Fleece lane. Now whilst one would expect them to sweep leaves onto the path…they sweep them off. It doesn’t make sense…if someone had done that the day of his ‘funeral’ it would have remained that his funeral…no legend no custom. Did he regret his survival? Did he become a bitter old man? Did he want to be the only one resurrected? Or did some busy-body moan that sweeping leaves onto the path would be problematic and pointless!? As the present enactment arises from the mid-20th century perhaps it was changed then by mistake? Whichever the children relish the job and the path is thoroughly swept and very few see it as an opportunity to play fight..with 50 odd students that’s quite an achievement.


Death duties

Of course money is involved. Although the sums have changed over time. Wall’s Will is a typical one in many respects and amongst the ‘eighteen pence for the crier of Bishop’s Stortford for announcing on Ascension and Michaelmas Day in the market place that as long as the world shall be endure be it known that the Testator left his Estate to one Matthew Wall.’ records:

One shilling and eight pence each to the vicar and both churchwardens; a small sum of money to 20 virtuous poor children and 10 aged and poor parisoners, that all might bless his memory; two shillings and 10d to the sexton to keep his grave in order and another shilling to ring the bells on October 2nd, the anniversary of his remarkable escape from death; one shilling to a poor man to sweep the path from Wall’s house to the church gate….and finally eight pence to either Matthew or William Wall.”

One can see there have been a few changes over the years. The twenty poor children are clearly the school children…although they don’t get paid (well not exactly) and they replace the poor man to sweep the path – poor men being difficult to define and unlikely to turn up – children are numerous and willing of course. It is interesting that the owner of a house on the main road called Quilters is asked to contribute £1. Why? The house is apparently where Wall lived. However it does not appear to be mentioned in the Will. Perhaps the money goes to pay the vicar who traditionally gets the same money for organising the event. Perhaps the Will contained little money.

Once the lane is sweep, the children gather around Wall’s grave. A simple earth mound, well it was in the 1500s. Here prayers are said and the children sign a song, the words being held up, so they don’t forget. As soon as the song is sung, the church rings a joyous wedding peel. A celebration of his survival. Only one thing remains to thank the children with sweets…surely a modern twist to keep the children on board. Then the children return to the classes or go home accordingly…and Matthew is forgotten for another year. I am sure he would be very pleased to see his tradition has survived where many have been lost – surviving in memory through Reformation, War and Charity commissioners…a clear device considering how many 16th century commoners graves survive today to be seen. Setting up a custom has certainly allowed his name to continue..and with such a curious and comical custom I am sure it will continue.

Custom revived: Halloween Guisering or Trick or Treating



Damn American custom…Japanese Knotweed of festivals

Ask any person on the night of Halloween and many will be against Halloween’s most famous tradition; Trick or treat. Many will give the reason as being that it has no basis in English tradition, but of course they are wrong…trick or treating did begin in Britain.


In the US, the first record of children Guisering is recorded in a newspaper in 1911 from Ontario, but interestingly by 1919, an author directly references that the customs undertaken are Scottish, as visiting other people’s homes to collect cakes, fruit and money was recorded in 1895 in Scotland.  However, the first reference of the term was in 1927 in Alberta. I have been unable to find the earliest English record of the import, it would be nice to think it came over with the American service men during the war, but as the custom itself was still not widespread in the US, being restricted to the western states, by that time this seems unlikely. The only hint of this is in Maureen Sutton’s excellent Lincolnshire Calendar, where a correspondent speaking on their childhood in the Stamford area in the 1950s notes:

“There used to 20 of us, going around one of the bigger houses of the village…we used to spend the day before hollowing out pumpkins: we used the inside to make pies and put candles in them to show a face through the hole. And we used to decorate witches hats and broomsticks and hold competitions for the best…”

The making of lanterns still continues in Somerset with Punky Night, and appears to have widespread being also recorded in Hertfordshire. However, none of these accounts explicitly refer to Trick or Treat. As regards this as a custom, it was certainly it was established in the 1970s and well established by the 1980s.

Pagan origins of the day

There is no debate on the ancient origin of the custom, a Christianised tradition based on the pagan Samhain, a Celtic celebration which was their equivalent of New Year’s Eve, when the end of the summer was recognised and winter begun. As such livestock were slaughtered and consequently the date was associated with death and the date was seen as a gateway between living and dead. It is believed that often Celts would wear animal skins and skulls and this disguise may have been the origin of the dressing up aspect of trick or treat. It was also believed that when the elementals were free to travel the real world, they dressed as beggars and asked for food door to door. It was thought that those who gave food were rewarded but if they did not the elementals would punish them, and this appears to be the origin of the trick or treat itself. However, the true origins of the custom appear after the establishment of All Saint’s Day by Pope Gregory IV on the day after the pagan tradition and thus hoping to deflect from the practices on that day. This was not successful so it appears that an establishment of Old Souls Day, honouring the non-saintly dead resulted in converting Samhain to All Hallow’s Eve and Hallowe’en was born.

But what about the Trick?

The Trick aspect of the tradition, appears to have arisen also from a Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire tradition of Mischief night. In this tradition generally associated with the day before Guy Fawkes Night is clearly has origins in the ancient Hallowe’en and perhaps was shifted when the calendar was moved in 1752. Alternatively the custom is associated with the mischief caused by the Gunpowder Plot perpetrators. Whatever its origin the rather structureless custom of tying doorknobs together, removing signs to slightly more destructive shoving fireworks through letter boxes or defacing public property clearly is the Trick of the custom

What about the treat? 

A custom established in this Christian period was providing food and drink for the spirits of the dead, this was called souling and local people would go door to door, asking for soul cakers, food for the dead. This would assist the souls of the dead through Purgatory and it is clear that after the Reformation, the practice befell the children who in Sussex they begged for a spiced bun, milk or ginger beer. Their begging song went:

“Soul! Soul! For a Soul-cake! Pray good mistress for a Soul-cake! One for Peter, two for Paul, Three for Him who made us all!”

However, it would appear that in Cheshire, the last place where this tradition has survived in England, that in exchange for the food a play would be enacted. However, in other areas the custom was a simple form a begging except for in Sheffield where the night became Cakin night. This without a doubt is the where the modern Treat tradition begun. Children would move from house to house in disguise, if they were recognised they gave a cake, but if they were not they received pennies or perhaps sweets and as such the treating was born.

A remix!

It is clear that something happened to those colonists who got their traditions mixed up, Guisering for cakes or money predates that in the USA. It is significant that many of these colonists came from Lincolnshire and Somerset where Mischief  and Punky night were still undertaken.  Thus the traditions of Mischief Night mixed with that of Soul caking, probably in a big bowl of pumpkin soup!


Custom survived: The Preston Guild


“Yeah about every Preston Guild”

A local Northern expression which was said to be earlier this year and made me think when was the next one. A bit of research quickly revealed it was 2012 and so I made my arrangements to witness the start of this unique custom.

The history

A guild is an organisation of all traders, merchants and craftsmen in the town. Originally established to establish support many went on to monopolise and control all trade in the town. This prevented others from working there and subsequently new comers were frequently not made welcome and rarely became members of the guild. To ensure that the town controlled membership, all members periodically were called to a court where they swore loyalty to the Guild and Mayor. During this they were checked and renewed membership allowing them to trade in the town after giving a fee and then admitted admitted as a Burgess (the special name for its members.) It was soon noticed that the need to renew and check membership would only be needed once a generation and such from 1542 it was held every 20 years. First records of its celebration dates from 1387, but the origins of the custom date from 1179, when the town was given a Royal charter by King Henry II granted Guild was an organisation of traders, craftsmen and merchants. As it had a monopoly of trade in the town and only its members could carry out a craft or business. Newcomers could only trade here with the permission of the Guild, and such approval was not given lightly.

With the renewing of membership being every 20 years soon, this soon became a celebration of the city and people would take the opportunity to meet socially, feast and undertake processions and such it continues today.

The proclamation

You knew something was in the air, there was hustle and bustle of people in the town, barriers were being put up and a party of people began to assemble outside the museum where the proclamation was to be read. Unfortunately the height of the museum meant that one could not see that proclamation well although fortunately a large display screen relayed it. After what seemed to be an age of rather strange lounge music covers of popular rock songs a choir assembled, the burgesses, invited guests, the bell man and of course the Mayor of the Guild. This was a temporary Mayor who oversaw the whole affair and considering how rare the event was a considerable honour. After a delightful rendition of the Guild Hymm sung admirably by the quire and sung well by some in the crowd too, surprisingly considering it cannot be sung more than three or four times in a person’s lifetime, the Mayor was introduced and to cheers the Guild was announced.

The Trades Procession

Unsurprisingly, the longest running event associated with the Guild is the Trades Procession. Records suggest it has been undertaken at least since the 1600s. Of course the members in this procession have changed, cotton for example rose in Lancashire in the 19th century but is now defunct, and today along with more traditional trades, are a number which I still was not sure what they did.

I overheard someone in the crowd say that they thought no-one would be interested in the Guild this year, but clearly Jubilolympic fever had spread and this was clear in the thousands who had congregated to see the procession and final proclamation.

The procession was the largest the Guild had ever done consisting of just under 100 floats and members. Some had done a considerable amount of effort with people dressed as giant sofas, drinks, a wedding party and one of the largest shopping baskets I have ever seen. The floats were associated with the stirring sounds of a number of brass bands. Perhaps the most evocative of processions were the trade unions carrying their vibrant and brilliant banners and underlining still the importance of protecting one’s livelihood in modern times. Free gifts were given out aplenty – balloons, free pencils, free water bottles, sweets, bracelets…when the funeral directors appeared I was worried at what they would hand out for free! The procession continued without break for virtually two hours, a continuous serpent like, through the town. At one point, a lady pushed her head from the back of the crowds and asked for a policeman, everyone thought someone had had an accident but apparently she was asking if there was some way to get across the procession to go to a shop on the other side!!?

Entertainment for all-Wot no Rave?

As if a time machine had landed in the delightful grounds of Avenham Park, three tents over two nights boasted the ability to take you back to the parties of Guild past. Dance the Charleston in 1922, remember the War with 1942, relive the 70s soul (and especially local specialicity Northern Soul) in 1972 and experience a bit of a mish mash for 1992. Surely 1992s music was the Rave and it was hinted at, but perhaps a Rave all-dayer is a bit too madding for the gentile folk on Preston. The eerie sounds of music past resonated around these parks and back streets like those ghosts of Guild’s past creating a very special atmosphere. Indeed being every 20 years there is a rather melancholic feel to the Guild and these events built rather successfully upon that.

The procession to the church

The next day the Guild Mayor and members of the Corporation wore their finest robes of office, attended by trumpeters, mace bearers and sergeants in traditional costume and all the other professions of note in the town, judges and service personnel, process from the Guild Hall to the Minster church to give thanks for the return of the Guild. The spectacle although not as considerable as the Trades procession gave some idea of what the Civic and Church parades of the following week may have been like, as sadly I could not stay to see the Civic, church or torch procession…however, the local press was very complimentary calling it ‘The Best guild ever’ and I for one were very pleased to have been able to get involved. Especially as I may not be around to see the next one.

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom revived: Wirksworth Clypping the church


Wirksworth is a proud ancient mining town lying not far from its more famed Peak district relatives Matlock and Matlock Bath, despite the proximity of these towns, Wirksworth appears to have a different feel about it and unlike the other two retains its customs. Well dressing thrives here, its ancient mining history is not forgotten with the biennial Barmote and a more recent tradition of church clypping.

Whether it has an older origin is unclear but it is known to have been undertaken every year since 1921 on the Sunday nearest to the 8th of September, but it’s association with the patronal day is doubtless medieval in origin. The word clyppan being Saxon for embrace. Today the ceremony is associated with the town’s festival, which is rather a quaint irony,considering that  the church would have been central and the reason.Midway through the service, the congregation poured out of the church, like ants, following the clergy singing a hymn. More and more people poured out and as the clergy moved around the circle was slowing formed like some sort of human strand of string. They leave singing the church’s one foundation and as the clergy circle around, the human chain, like a giant hokey cokey gets more formed people awaiting outside being drawn to it like paper clips in a chain held by a giant magnet.Even a baby in a pram was involved!

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What is clypping?

The purpose of clypping is to show affection to the church and show the love they have for their mother church. Watching the custom one cannot help feel that this is a much more ancient ritual and replacing this mighty church with a stone circle is not beyond credibility. Its great to see this perhaps millennia old custom surviving and being enthusiastically embraced (sorry!)

copyright Pixyled publications

Custom demised: Newcastle Under Lyme’s Mock Mayor


Mock mayors appear to be a common feature in English towns, indicating perhaps the joint characteristics of the English people a disregard for authority and a good sense of humour. In Staffordshire there were a number, of which that of Newcastle is the best known.

The custom was centred on the real mayor making ceremony, for as soon As soon as this had finished, the free man of the town, those not involved in government, gathered in the Market cross and chose a Mock mayor in a ceremony which resembled that which had gone on to select the real one!

Described by Joseph Mayer in 1850-1 in Proceedings of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire:

“His Mock Worship was, with all the gravity befitting such an occasion, summoned by the shrill sound of a Nanny goat’s horn, to appear before his brother town’s men and show cause why – always provided if he had any objection to that most devoutedly to be desired and that most glorious and honourable elevation to the state of Mayor of the Borough, with all the customary privileges of getting drunk, and finding himself publically as an example, &c,. Then with great stateliness of step, and severe magisterial countenance some well beloved fellow townsmen was conducted to top step, and there invested with those most  becoming and costly robes of state and that magic wand of office so capable of doing justice, on the person whose head it knocked.

The Mayor then introduces his wife to the gathering and commanded silence and the Town crier read after calling all to order with the ringing of his bell:

“O Yes, O Yes O Yes! This is to give Notice, First that by the advice of my Beadle, Mace bearers and Bum Bailiffs, I do hereby declare and proclaim that it shall be lawful for any man or set of men to put their hands into their breeches pockets if there be their purses and give and pay over to our exchequer any sum less than one hundred guineas, that shall deem to him or them fit in order that we may drink his or their jolly health in a quart of ale a –piece for which we as well our part as on yours promise him or them the distinguished honour of three huzzas, and may they live to do the like again next year.

Secondly- That we, after mature consideration, do allow any grocer – so he do it handsomely and pleasantly to his own feelings the never-to-be-appreciated and valuable privilege (which must be thought a sufficient reward unto him and his children for ever) of giving unto our revenue collectors, as much tobacco as he pleases; provided always and it is hereby declared, that the amount must not exceeded one hundredweight, but shall, at the same time be enough to serve all the old women, as well as our worthy selves.

Thirdly-that Morgan, the pipe maker, as his hereditary right, which he hereby acklodge may if he likes furnish us with saggar pipes to smoke the aforementioned tobacco with, in consideration whereof, we pledge our honour (here two squeaks from the nanny goat horn) that nobody else shall.

Fourthly-Our worthy Mayor giveth notice and commandeth that all canting, gin-drinking women he brought before him, that he may punish them with the bridle, kept by him for that purpose; and he recommendeth his brother freemen to eat plenteously of roast beef and plum pudding, to gain which they must work more and drink less; and further, that all persons found drunk in the streets after this notice will be put in the stocks for one hour and thirteen minutes.

Fifthly- and lastly- We do hereby say, as commanded by our beloved wife, for the benefit of all young maidens (after painful experience on our own part), that it is better to be married than single; and in proof of our firm conviction of the same, we do thus publically declare sign, and seal this our proclamation with a kiss. ‘

A long flourish on the Nanny-goat’s horn at the close of his performance, after which the procession had formed, and with her ladyship enthroned on a donkey, his Worship and the ‘goodlie companie’ marched through the principle streets of the town, collecting the revenue with jollification at the market cross in the evening.”

The nature of the proclamations clearly being aimed to ridicule the self importance of the Corporation, caused irritation which lead not only to the banning of the custom in 1830s but the putting of the mock mayor in the stocks.

However, the day was a big event and very popular with local school children, who would bar out their teachers or those in work claim a holiday. However, in 1833 the ceremony was revived, and in that year they were described by Mayer (1850-1) as:

“His worship is arrayed in a calf-skin tunic, fastened with a skewer around the neck, a black Staffordshire bull’s hide for a gown, and a sheepskin wig. In his dexter hand he holds his wand of office and his civic chain and glass are represented by horses’ s manes and the prison-door key, the latter emblematical of the reign of bailiffs. His worship is supported on the right hand by the Town clerk, a person of very knowing look, and quite alive to the tricks of the law, as is fully indicated by the expressive position of his left thumb. Under his other arm he holds the Charter of the Borough, which the good Burgesses, fearing parchment would not be lasting enough, have inscribed on the hide of leather. On the left side is the Bum bailiff alias Head Constable, which his truncheon about to dislodge a sweep, who in return is about to powder his Worship’s wig with his soot bag. The two figures right and left are Macebearers, as seen by the splendid cabbages which they carry; and the Bellman in his Phrygian cap and shaggy skin dress, is reading the proclamation.”

However, this revival was a final hurrah, as in the end the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 swept away all the rottenness associated with the real Mayor and the need for the custom and so it quietly died.