Custom demised: Burning Judas


“Judas is short of a penny for breakfast”

Such was the begging cry of children on Good Friday morning in a unique custom. Oddly, in one city and in one small area of that city, the urban areas surrounding the dock area of that city, was one of the county’s most fascinating and incendiary customs. As Carole Sexton in her 1992 book ‘Confessions of a Judas Burner’, notes:

“Mrs Lympany who lived in Lothian Street recalls her two elder sisters going out at 4am around 1914 carrying a burning torch and running through the streets shouting ‘Burn Judas’.” Children would parade the Judas as they ran through the streets asking for contributions with the cry of ‘A penny for Judas’s breakfast.’ The Judas would then be burnt on a local waste ground.”

This was a local event mainly for local children and had features which combined the older ‘Jack O’Lent’ and the more recent Guy Fawkes and as such it was not popular with the authorities. Indeed, most of the reports recall its suppressing, such as this from the Glasgow Herald on the April 2nd 1931:

The Burning of Judas –Police stop old Liverpool Custom

The observance of the annual burning of Judas, a custom in the south-end of Liverpool, was frustrated yesterday by the police, No one knows the origin of this old custom. In times gone by adults took part in the ceremony, but in recent years it has been observed or attempted to be observed, only by the youngsters of the district. Much in the spirit of Guy Fawkes Night, they make effigies of Judas out of old clothes stuffed with straw, and in the early hours of Good Friday morning parade the streets, make bonfires and burn the effigies in the streets. In the early hours of yesterday morning before the children got up, the police searched backyards and entries, and confiscated over a score of Judas effigies and material for bonfires. Some children did later attempt to burn several effigies, but as they had been left out all night in the rain, they failed to blaze and the police coming along seized these and removed them to the destructor.”

The origins of the custom appear to underline the international nature of the city and the importance of its port for it can be found still in existence in Spain, Portugal and particularly Latin America where the video clip below hails from and understandably was picked up by the Roman Catholic community around the docks in the south end of the city around the 1800s.

Interestingly, the beating of Judas was also involved. This would need a pig’s bladder obtained from the butcher, inflated and then tied to a stick.   It is a well remembered and thought of custom of which the locals were naturally reluctant to let go. A report from 1954 records:

“It is comic to see a policeman with two or more Judases under his arm striding off the Bridewell and 30 or 40 children crowding after him crying Judas!”

Putting the fire out

According to notes on the Liverpool History website, Toxteth St was supposedly the last focus of the custom. On this website a Brenda Robson records:

“We were brought up in the tenements in the Dingle, and every year on Maundy Thursday the boys from the blocks would go around and collect wood for the ‘bommy’  they would stay up all night protecting their hoard, and on Good Friday, the fire would be lit with an effigy of Judas onto the fire. We used to sit on the steps watching the fire, eating hot cross buns. Happy memories”

A Stan Cotter who lived on Homer Street

“I am 74. I lived in Stopford street in Dingle. On Judas day we burnt wood we collected days or weeks before. Just after the War there were lots of bombed houses we played in and in the debies (bombed sites). Also wood was rationed and had to be applied for and stated why it was wanted. So sometimes we pinched some from peoples back yard going down back entries. The streets had cobbles fixed together with tar which we collected and put on end of stick to which we put matches and throw so that they went bang. We also put burning ember into tin cans hung by wire we wurled them round and threw at other gangs. On Judas day we got up early and went around the street showing “e are john” and other names of gang members to get them up. The cops tried to stop us and chased us on their bikes. They could not catch us and we taunter them to get them to chase us. After the fire the street floor was well burnt The practice ended when the corp sent police and fire engines’ think It finally ended when Hutchinson Methodist hall hire buses and took the kids out for the day . I remember going to church ground in Penyffod north wales where we were given cakes and lemonade. I think it was 1951 the practice ended.”

It lived longer than that. Although a search on Good Friday morning by Brian Shuel failed in the early 1980s, it is thought that the last burning was in 1970-1 by an Alan Rietdyk on waste ground between Prophet Street and Northumberland Street.  With the the disappearance of his relative Guy and the demonization of youths, it is unlikely that this unusual custom will ever be revived!


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