Customs revived: The Hercules Clay or Bombshell sermon


A real bombshell

This one of the country’s more interesting surviving customs by virtue of its origin is that which takes place on the sunday nearest to the 11th March. Brown’s work of Nottinghamshire (1891) tells the story:

A worthy resident, Hercules Clay, some time Mayor of Newark, resided in a house at the corner of the market-place not far from the Governor’s mansion. For three nights in succession he dreamt that the besiegers had set his place on fire, and he became so impressed with the circumstance that he and his family quitted their abode. They had no sooner done so than a bomb, fired from Beacon Hill, occupied by the Parliamentary forces, and believed to have been aimed at the Governor’s house, fell on the roof of Clay’s dwelling, and, passing through every floor, set the whole building in flames. The tradition is that a spy, blindfolded, and bearing a flag of truce, came from the army on the hill to the Governor’s house, and was able on his return so accurately to describe its situation as to make the shot all but successful. To commemorate his deliverance, Mr. Clay left a sum of money to be distributed in charity (it. is given away annually in penny loaves), and the memorial to him in the parish church testifies in a lengthy and curious inscription to the miraculous nature of his escape: ‘Being thus delivered by a strength greater than that of Hercules, And having been drawn out of the deep Clay, I now inhabit the stars on high.’”       

It is an unusual tradition, although endowed sermons are not rare in England, surviving ones are and certainly the association with the Mayoralty and colourful nature of its legend, its name Bombshell sermon, kept it well known. I am attended the ceremony on warm Sunday 11th, the exact day of the incidence. The delightful parish church of Mary Magdalene rang out at 11 o’clock to call the assembled Mayor, local dignitaries and those in local business to the sermon. They processed with great solemnity from the Town hall next door to Clay’s residence and led by a bible bearer, said to carry Clay’s bible or a replica. As we entered the church, two trays could be seen with bread buns wrapped in cling film, the penny loaves noted above. The vicar welcomed the assembled congregation, with the bible presented at the altar and the readings had a bread theme, the sermon on the mount, being the obvious one….

Born and bread

Whilst on the matter of food, it is worth considering these penny loaves, or now as it seems buns. The provision of penny loaves was established from the profits of the £100 given by Clay. Penny doles were often used to attract attendance to the sermon, (as well perhaps a vestige of the old idea of sin eating lost at the Reformation) gave the day in Newark another name, Penny Loaf day. Reports in the Mercury for March 1828 records that 3654 loaves were given out and it reports understandably with scorn:

“some gentlemen amused themselves by kicking the bread around in the streets.” They noted that they believed that they would “regret the waste if in the future they are hungry”.

Certainly the size of the dole and its misuse had an effect on how it was delivered for in 1832, for the parishioners met that year to discuss the fact the dole ‘cost more than was left for that purpose’ and deemed it necessary to restrict it to 80 poor and needy families by giving 1 shilling loaves. However, this agreement did not appear to have had an impact as in 1833 it is reported:

“On Monday last, being the anniversary of the deliverance of Mr. Clay from Oliver Cromwell’s fury, a sermon was preached in the morning of Newark church and in the afternoon a penny loaf was distributed in the Town Hall to all who chose to accept it by the church warden according to the tenor of the will of Mr. Clay three thousand eight hundred and sixty four loaves were delivered.”    


It appears at some point, the sermon died out to be re-established in 1974 when the current Mayor decided to commemorate again this most famous son. Varying reports suggest that the bread dole disappeared (probably because of the enormous sizes of the doles of the 19th century), or it was replaced by money. Interestingly, in recent years the trend has been reversed and although it is reported in various books that members of the choir receive the loaves (in the Newark advertiser in 2008-2011 particularly), the present ceremony invites local charities to do a presentation and it is to that chosen charity that the loaves are given. In 2012 it was Newark Foyer who provide for the homeless and they took the twenty loaves and deciding to add Bacon to them would give them to anyone who came looking for help at the desks on the following Monday.

So I am sure that Clay would be happy to hear that the needy are once again receiving the dole.

4 responses »

  1. Pingback: A Nottinghamshire March | A Nottingham Calendar of folk customs and events

  2. Pingback: A Nottinghamshire March | A Nottinghamshire Calendar of folk customs and events

  3. Pingback: Custom survived: Samuel Jobson bread bequest and sermon | In search of traditional customs and ceremonies

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