Custom revived: Hal-an-Tow, Helston, Cornwall

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On the 8th of May – the picturesque town of Helston becomes even more picturesque. Doorways are adorned with masses and flowers and everyone is dressed immaculately in readiness for the famed Furry dance. However, for the folklorist and customs enthusiast get there early and one can experience two customs on the same day – the earliest the revived Hal-an-Tow.

In Tow!

The earliest account of the custom appears in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1790 which is quoted in Charles Knightly’s 1986 The customs and ceremonies of Britain:

“In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbours and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects, and of which I know no more than that there is a mention in it of the grey goose quill and of going to “the green wood to bring home the summer and the May-O”: and, accordingly, hawthorne flowering branches are worn in hats.”

John Bickerdyke’s 1889 The curiosities of Ale and Beer records:

“At Helston, in Cornwall, on the 8th of May, called “Furry Day,” may still be witnessed a survival of the old May Day festivities. Very early in the morning the young men and maidens of the place go off into the country to breakfast. About seven o’clock they return bearing green branches, and decked with flowers, they dance through the streets to the tune of the “Furry Dance.” At eight o’clock the “Hal-an-Tow” (Heel and Toe?) song is sung, and dancing and merriment fill the remainder of the day.”

THE HAL-AN-TOW.

Robin Hood and little John, They both are gone to fair O !And we will go to the merry green wood, To see what they to do there O !And for to chase O !To chase the buck and doe O !With Hal-an-tow, Jolly rumble O !

Chorus:

And we were up as soon as any day O !And for to fetch the summer home, The Summer and the May O !For Summer is a come O ! And Winter is a gone O !

Where are those Spaniards That makes so great a boast O !They shall eat the grey goose feather And we will eat the roast O !In every land O !The land where’er we go, With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c

As for St. George O !St. George he was a knight O !Of all the knights in Christendom, St. George he is the right O !In every land O !The land where’er we go,With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

God bless Aunt Mary Moyses, And all her power and might O !And send us peace in merry England,Both day and night O !And send us peace in merry England,Both now and evermore O !With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

Hal an Two, or three or four

What appears to be a unique custom may not be what it seems. Research suggests that it was found in other Cornish towns. Nicholas Boson of Newlyn records that it was said the maypole was set up with the men singing “Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbelow” in 1660.  

Hal – an Tow what it means?

One thought is that the word Hal derives from kalann meaning the first of the month which is changed to an H in some version and ‘tow’ means garland in Cornish. However, this is no believed not to be true as the tow is pronounced like cow and not toe and derives from the Cornish word ‘tew’ meaning fat. It is possibly that it refers to the eve of fattening time – ie the coming of summer!

What the Hal – an Tow is it about?

So what is Hal – an Tow about? To my mind watching it, it comes across as a way devised for the town to remember and teach its history in a lighthearted way. The song is associated with various tableaux of characters – Characters include Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, St. George, St Piran and St. Michael.

Knightly thinks that the custom, and the Furry Dance which takes place on the same day, is:

“a rare survivor of…the Robin Hood May Games once played from Cornwall to Southern Scotland”.

In Peter Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

The meaning of the title is disputed.  According to one theory it is “heave on the rope”, an adaptation by Cornish sailors from the Dutch “Haal aan het touw” (“tow” is pronounced to rhyme with “cow” in Helston today).  

 But it seems a pity with such a Cornish-sounding title to despair of finding a link with the old.”

Sabine Baring Gould 1890 Songs of the West suggested that the Hal an Toe formed part of an old English May Games which included the election of a May Queen and King, Morris dance performed by disguised sword-bearing men, the Hobby Horse and Robin Hood and thus was a sort of Mummer’s play. The Morris association is suggested in Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

Others think it might refer to the heel and toe dance of The Monk’s March, which is still danced in the English Cotswold Morris tradition.  

The work continues to note that Mordon stated that:

“has every sign of being a processional Morris dance even to the slow part at the beginning of the chorus in which, when its steps were still known and used, the dancers in characteristic Morris style would have spread out sideways for a few steps, waving their handkerchiefs before forming into line as before.” 

The first two verses are fairly typical of a Robin Hood mummer’s play song, with the addition of the invasion of the Spaniards remembering when there were many attacks on the coast such as the burning of Mousehole. The next verse refers to St George and the dragon, albeit referring to a Helston local variety perhaps. Interestingly it is believed that an additional verse by a noted Cornish poet, Robert Morton Nance in the 1930s:

“But to a greater than St George our Helston has a right-O, St Michael with his wings outspread, the Archangel so bright-O, Who fought the fiend-O, of all mankind the foe’

Interestingly, unlike other customs this indicates that the custom is more fluid then many and in 2005 the following was added:

“St Piran showed his care for us
And all our sons and daughters, O
He brought the book of Christendom
Across the western waters, O
And taught the love of Heaven above
For Cornishmen below.”

The last verse has been thought to possibly suggest a vulgarisation of the Virgin Mary, the Cornish word for ‘maid’ or ‘virgin’ being mowse like moses thus Mary Mowse, Mary the virgin, perhaps again it refers to Maid Marian

A similarity has been made to Padstow’s May Day in some of the wording seen in now unused sections of the song. Indeed there is a parallel between the character of Ursula Birdhood in their May song and Helston’s Mary Moses. Its singing at only the first and last place it is performed, echoes in away the Padstow’s Night song.

The revival

The custom was abandoned in the 19th century probably because it encouraged lascivious behaviour encouraging as it did the locals to enter the woods at dawn and collect boughs of plants with possible other diversions. Then in 1930 on the back of the Old Cornish Society wave of Cornish rebirth it was brought back.

Hal and back

I arrive on a Saturday when the sun was shining and the whole town sparkled. Map in hand I searched for the Hal-an-Tow’s first location which appeared to be a car park. Here a big crowd had assembled awaiting the players.  Oe read a proclamation and around them dancers covered head to toe in foliage, knights and a dragon. Following Hal an Tow is great fun and the players clearly are well practiced and take it very seriously as well as having great fun. Carrying banners and blowing whistles and horns they appear to be pushing out the evil spirits perhaps or waking up the locals for the main event! Their customs and tableaux are splendid and the dragon is particularly superb. The whole custom is very hypnotic and I you feel yourself singing along and the tune turning over and over again in your head…until that is your start hearing the Furry dance tune!!

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