Custom demised: The Ilford Dunmow Flitch


In this flitch year I thought it was worth detailing, a flitch tradition which may not be very well known. This is the Ilford Flitch. Ilford is a small town now virtually swallowed up by the greater London conurbation and now close to the Olympic site of course. However, after the First World War, Ilford Catholics decided to introduce the custom as part of their Whitsun fete. This is doubly interesting for a number of reasons, it occurred in a hiatus in the celebration of the real Dunmow Flitch, and indeed may have stimulated the organising reclaim the bacon so to speak and also that it was clearly a Catholic tradition encouraging marriage.

Of course, it received a fair bit of criticism from Dunmow and from the author Steer(1951) who said “you may as well take the Barnet fair to Southampton” or the “Varsity boat race to the Clyde” Yet despite this knocking the tradition was clearly not a one off and attracted a number of well known names, the most famous being Will Hay, Comedian, school teacher and astronomer.

The first flitch was apparently held in 1920 at the drill hall and the features of the true flitch are apparent: the counsel for the claimants (Mr C. E. Grigsby and Miss Maggie Buckley both regular attendees) and for the flitch (Mr W Vaughan and Mrs Petrie again regular attendees). It was overseen by an usher and judge and the winners had to receive the sentence kneeling on ‘pointed stones’.  It was claimed these came from Dunmow and were actually genuine. Before this the flitches of bacon would be paraded with the winning couple. That year it was a Mr. and Mrs. Gray.

In 1922 a Mr and Mrs Samuels won it, but the 1924 one was more memorable. This time having moved to a marquee held in Gordon fields and the noted Jeffret Farnol .novelist acted as judge counsel for the claimants being the Rev H Dunnico MP,  Mr. E.W. Tanner and Mrs Petrie with Mr. Grigsby, Mr. Jack Jones MP, Mrs  Ellie Porter for the Claimants. This time the counsel challenged the judge on two accounts stating that if he were married he would look with suspicion on any evidence of matrimonial bliss and second if he were single his lack of experience made him unfit to be a judge. A fact that questioned the very nature of the trial perhaps. To this claim, the judge fined the Rev Dunnico a farthing for contempt of court. He paid using a hundred thousand mark note which was accepted.  There is further confusing between the two Jones MP, when one of the claimants was also a Jones and an MP! In the end Mardy Jones of Pontypridd and Mr Harry Byford won the bacon despite the defending counsel claiming that if they did not produce marriage lines they could not be happily married and claim the bacon!

In 1928, the musical star, Charlie Austin was the judge and this generated a fair bit of hilarity with his antics. However by 1929 Major Sir George Hamilton JP was a more sober judge and all the claimants won and in 1931 in the presence of a heatwave! Little details appear to recorded of these occasions bar those in defending and claimants counsels.

1932 saw the appearance of Will Hay. Now I am great fan of Will Hay and it may come as a surprise to hear of his involvement. However, clearly he was an inspired choice and made much of the ceremony. He was making much play for the audience with his fellow ‘barrister’ Miss Buckley and would disappear together within the box to decide the outcome. At one point he himself claimed the bacon and grabbed it and dragged it into the box. His claim was unsuccessful! Mr Grigsby again for the claimants summed up:

“Man has many faults, women only tow there’s nothing right they say and nothing right they do!”

In 1933 three couples claimed it one of the winners a Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald were the winners from Bournemouth. In 1934 a claimant, Mr James O’Brien was asked to produce marital happiness evidence! He asked his eight children to stand up and claimed black-shirt being a member of the British Fascists. Indeed, the oncoming Second World War appears to have been the end of this bizarre stolen custom….but it does make you think knowing how much fun one can have with the ceremony it may be good one to encourage elsewhere!

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