Monthly Archives: June 2020

Custom revived: Chipping Camden’s Cotswold Olympicks, Gloucestershire

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He [Dover] spares no cost; this also doth afford
To those that sit at any board.
None ever hungry from these Games come home,
Or e’er made plaint of viands, or of room

Nicholas Wallington

When one thinks about Olympics one thinks of Greece and the four yearly major events that travel around the world. But like the Japan Olympics the Coronavirus crisis cancelled the Cotswold one as well. Unlike the ‘real’ Olympics – the Cotswold Olympicks has an older pedigree.

The name of the game

The Cotswold’s games is a new name for what was and is called Dover’s Olympicks. Robert Dover who was a local lawyer is said to have started the games in 1612. Why is unclear but it may have been that he felt that physical exercise was important or that he wanted to bring all classes together in a single enterprise and as such the events included a wide range of county pursuits ranging from horse-racing to wrestling, hound coursing to sledgehammer throwing. The games would take place on the Thursday and Friday of Whitsun usually lying in mid June or late May. These games took place in the amphitheatre of a hill fort called now Dover’s hill. One of the features of the custom would be the erection a wooden Dover’s castle where small cannons would be fired to start the event off and fireworks at the end.

The custom soon attracted fame. Prince Rupert is reported to have attended the Games in 1636 and at the same time a collection of poems celebrating it was also produced called Annalia Dubrensia (Annals of Dover). The poetry called it “an occasion of social harmony and communal joy” and was written by noted poets Thomas Randolph, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood and Michael Drayton. The common theme was that the games were celebrating and reviving English social life, stating that it was peaceful and well behaved and contradicted views that it allowed “drunken behaviour and sexual licence”. By this time the Games had acquired their title of “Olimpicks” which was approved by Dover especially as it secularised the events. It is thought that because Dover was brought up in a Catholic family he was reluctant of course to let people know and make people especially Puritans to think he had revived the pre-Reformation church ale.

The games outlived their founder – although there has been some debate that he may not have founded it but re-founded it. This was despite some disapproval of the event from 17th Century Puritans who disliked the event being associated with Whitsun and many local landowners forbade their workers to attend it. As the custom had support from James I, it was perhaps not that surprising and especially when the English Civil war broke out it was stopped.

However, you cannot keep a great custom down, especially one which was centred around fun and frivolities and thus coming of the Restoration it too was restored. Sadly Robert died in 1652 and so did not see its revival. It was his son Captain John Dover took it over, but he died in 1696 and it based onto one of his sons , Dr. Thomas Dover.

Game over!

However, the Games were not secured, perhaps without its guiding hand, they soon become associated with drunk and disorderly behaviour. Despite Thomas’s great interest in his grandfather’s Games, by this time he had moved away and let the organisation be done by others only having an honorary presidential capacity.  After his death in 1742 the Games were held a further 220 times over the intervening years through various promoters gaining the name Dover’s games although the family had no longer an association.  Poet William Somerville described it in 1740 as “just another drunken country festival” where chairs, and forms, and battered bowls are hurled/With fell intent; like bombs the bottles fly” and writer Richard Graves in the Spiritual Quixote of 1773 as a “heathenish assembly’ with: “six young women began to exhibit themselves before the whole assembly, in a dress hardly reconcilable to the rules of decency.”

After Thomas. Dover’s death in 1742 the Games continued under a variety of promoters, right through the 18th as this advert from 1812 states:

“On Thursday in Whit-week, On that Highly-renowned and universally admired spot called Dover’s Hill, Near Chipping Campden. Glos. The sports will commence with a grand match of Backswords for a purse of guineas, To be played by 9 or 7 men on a side. Each side must appear in the ring by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Or 15s. each pair will be given for as many as will play. Wrestling for belts and others prizes. Also Jumping in bags and dancing. And a Jingling Match for 10s. 6d. As well as divers others of celebrated Cotswold and Olympic games, for which this annual meeting, has been famed for centuries.”

By 1845 the reputation of the Games was calling for their demise. The local rector Reverend Geoffrey Drinkwater Bourne, claimed that the 300000 attendees were all drunk and disorderly and that it attracted the lowest scum between Birmingham and Oxford. The event by that point was organised by local publican, William Drury, who would have been very keen to get alcohol sold there in return for his £5 fee for the event. It may have been that there were underlying reasons for local people to have it curtailed as the hill which was common land and oddly enough the consent for enclosure was given to the very same rector in 1850. Lo and behold in 1852 it was stopped this was despite very little record in court papers for any prosecutions associated with the event.

Thus by the time of T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1875) he reports:

“The vicinity of Chipping Campden was the theatre of the Cotswold Games, which, in the reign of James I. and his unfortunate successor, were celebrated in this part of England. They were instituted by a public-spirited attorney of Burton on-the-Heath, in Warwickshire, named Robert Dover, and like the Olympic games of the ancients, consisted of most kinds of manly exercises. The victors were rewarded by prizes, distributed by the institutor, who, arrayed in a discarded habit of James’, superintended the games in person for many years. The meetings were annually held on Whitsun Thursday, and were frequently attended by an immense number of people.”

It was a dead custom the land was portioned by local land owners and enclosed. Dover’s hill might change forever and with it gone his games

Back to the game

The way back to its survival happened when fortunately the land was acquired by the National Trust opening up the possibility of public access to what had become known as Dover’s Hill. Then in 1951 someone thought of reviving the games for the Festival of Britain, amazing just under 100 years since its cancelation. However, its celebration again was sporadic; foot and mouth disease in 1952, the Coronation in 1953 prevented regular observation and it was not until 1966 that it was regularly organised. Its significance in the history of the Modern Olympics was recognised  by the British Olympic Association as the ‘first stirrings of Britain’s Olympic beginnings’ when they made their 2012 bid for London.

The organisers excellent website state the various games played:

King of The Hill One of the traditional events at the Games, this antecedant of modern events like the pentathlon involves individual competitors competing at 4 separate events (in the lower arena). These events are: Static Jump (jumping as far as possible from a standstill), Spurning the Barre (an old English version of the Scottish tossing the caber), Hammer Throw and Putting the Shot. The combined total for all four events decides the winner. Entries for this event open at 6.30pm on the night of the Games. Entry is open to all adults over 16.

 Championship of the Hill A true crowd pleaser! The traditional team challenges of ancient rural Games, updated for the 21st century! Teams of 6 participents (many from local pubs or other groups) compete against each other in a series of ever-more-frantic, and ever-wetter games! These games vary from year to year, but generally include relays involving wheebarrows, dustbins, hay bales, slippery running surfaces and lots of water!  Very limited team entries are available for this event, but you must notify us beforehand. We reserve the right to refuse entry if this event reaches its maximum of 6 teams.

 Running Races After a few years’ absence, the running races will be back this year.  The course will be entirely cross country and entirely on Dover’s Hill.  There will be a 1 lap (c. 1 mile) and a 3 lap (c. 3 miles) race.  

 Tug O’ War One of the traditional rural sports, (and former Olympic sport), and still taken very seriously. Teams of 8 people pit their strength against opposing teams, in a series of ‘pulls’ culminating in a final in front of Dover’s Castle on the Lower Arena. A limited number of team entries may be available. Please let us know your intention to enter before the Games.”

and then finally the most famed:

“Shin Kicking The media’s favourite (for some strange reason!). One of the sports which took place in 1612, and we’re still doing it to this day (although we’ve made it a bit safer since those days – Steel toe caps are banned, and we allow the use of straw to pad shins).”

This later as they suggest has taken on a life of its own and indeed could be seen as a custom within a custom.

Game set and match

I experience the Cotswold Olympicks back in the mid 1990s. Chipping Camden is a delightful village and the modern Cotswold Olympicks as they are now known is a great addition. Like the origin games, Robert Dover dressed in his ceremonial coat, hat, feather and ruff (the original a donation of James I) albeit this is now an actor starts the event. He then rides in to ceremonious applause. A reconstruction of Dover’s castle is set up on the hill’s amphitheatre. The event started with some Morris dancers – Chipping Camden a traditional team – although there was no real evidence the Morris were originally involved but they sort of come with every rural event these days.

There was a real fun atmosphere there and watching the events was both exciting and amusing. For those who miss It’s a knockout its zaniness and bizzareness will be very familiar. Special interest was the shin-kicking event of course and although no days its much safer the contestants – perhaps I should say combatants – there was determination on their faces. After adorning their white coats and stuffing their socks with a shin pad and then with straw and then more staff and even more straw they were off. It was intense and rather comical as so stuffed with straw a number of times they went to take a kick and fell over together. The competition was difficult to work out who was winning to be honest as they held on to each other and started kicking – it was like a weird ballet! Their coats being more and more dirty until one fell and they were the winner!

The event ended with a huge bonfire being lit and we were all given wooden torches and encouraged to light them. A horn sounded and we were encouraged to start our journey down into the town and as it swayed through the streets in the darkness a dragon on light. It was a magical ending to a great revived event.

Custom contrived: Broadstairs’ Dicken’s festival, Kent

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Broadstairs is one of those old fashioned genteel seaside towns, with picturesque views across the beach one can just imagine genteel Victorian ladies and gentlemen promenading along the road overlooking the bay. Well one does not have to imagine it come June time and one can see them!

What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens one great Victorian writer stayed in 1837 when he was 21 after the fame of Pickwick Papers, lodging at 12 High Street. After writing this he purchased a house, now part of the Royal Albion Hotel, where he finished Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens clearly loved the place he stayed at Lawn House where he wrote part of Barnaby Rudge and then finally Fort House. Here he wrote three works ‘David Copperfield’, ’The Haunted Man’ and ‘American notes’. He visited Broadstairs for many holidays finally writing ‘Our English Watering Place’ his homage to the town in August 1852.

Great expectations

With such an affection shown for the town it was not surprising that there was a great proud and love for the writer such that in 1937 a Broadstairs Dicken’s Fellowship was formed. Gladys Waterer, the resident of Dicken’s House then had the idea of celebrating the 100th anniversary of his first arrival in the town. This consisted on putting an production of David Copperfield which was advertised via people dressed in Victorian dress. Such was the Dicken’s festival born. It has continued with the exception of the World Wars and the Coronavirus ever since with some Victorian themes added to it. The fun includes readings, a Dickensian cricket match, a Victorian bathing party, and vaudeville acts.

Christopher Trent in his 1966 Festivals and events in Britain records:

“The centre piece of the week’s celebration is the performance of a play adapted from one of the novelist’s works. In Miss Waterer’s own words: ‘The festival is unique that it is the only Dicken’s festival in Europe. It is a completely local effort. The whole town joins in. In 1936 we put on the first Dickens play. After the war I wrote Christmas Carol and that was really the start’ It was a very good start.”

Of course other Dicken’s festivals have developed over the years such as Rochester, doubtlessly based on Broadstairs’ success

Trent continues:

“For many years a different play was staged each year. In 1964 the wheel turned full circle and a Christmas carol was staged again. In 1965 Our Mutual friend. The players are members of the Broadstairs Dickens Players’ society.”

The plays take up a considerable amount of dedication as he continues:

“the adaptation and rehearsals take on average nearly eight months. The result is the modest Festival Theatre is always satisfying, throwing a new and original light on the novelist, who is still one of the favourite writers of hundreds of thousands of people, young and old.”

What begun as a play developed into fringe entertainments doubtlessly in some cases there to advertise the play, became more and more and more and more imaginative. Trent noted that:

“Gradually the scope of the festival has been extended, though the play remains the most important part. Bleak House and Dickens House are open to the public throughout the week. There is Dickensian garden party in the grounds of Bleak House, with prizes offered for the best costumes. There are concerts of Victorian music, talks on Dickens and his work and a Victorian exhibition. A festival dance s organized in the grand ballroom, and the proof of Miss Waterer’s assertion that the whole town joins in is well illustrated by the number of  shops and the number of people, especially shopkeepers, who wear Dickensian costume in spite the difficulty in modern times of moving about in crinolines! A stage coach on he front is a sign that the festival is in progress. It is a replica of a coach in which many of Dickens’ characters travelled, and in which he must have made many of his journeys to Broadstairs.”

Dolby and son and son and daughter and grand children!

In 2017 it celebrated its 80th anniversary and the press said locally:

“Expect top hats, bonnets and billowing dresses as the community gathers for events including the grand parade, Dickensian picnic and beach party. Other activities includes a traditional Victorian country fair and theatre production of Dombey and Son – the author’s novel follows the fortunes of a shipping firm, whose owner is frustrated at not having a son to follow him in the job, and initially rejects his daughter’s love, eventually becoming reconciled with her before his death.”

Over the 82 years the theatre productions were still a focus on the event. However, back in 1994 I arrived to see two of its more custom like events – the Victorian bathing and the Grand parade.

The former was bizarre as if I had been sent back in time only the camera and the boats on the horizon reminded me I was back in the 20th century as there on the beach ready to dive in a collection of people dressed head to toe in Victorian bathers. Although this was June the water did not look that inviting and warm and a head to toe ensemble might not be too bad an idea. They all rushed to the water to have a paddle and the obligatory photo and some slipped away. Other rushed headlong and dived in.

The parade was a much more spectacular affair and it was clear that a lot of effort had been put in by those involved. Fronted by Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble with his ‘comforting’ arms around him with a pipers band. Behind them every character Dicken’s fertile imagination had concocted appeared to be there for David Copperfield to Pickwick. A great entertainment could be had trying to name the characters and some had really gone to town even affecting their characteristics. There were a few non-dressed entrants like the Brownies as well which rather broke the illusion. Each carried banners and shields. One of the most impressive was the stilt walking ghost from Christmas carol! But of course the most were in Victorian day wear and one could even hear the sound of crinoline!

Custom demised: Hanging St John’s wort above the door

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Hypericum perforatum - Wikipedia

It’s a very familiar plant, although the one generally grown in our gardens, is not strictly speaking the St John’s Wort of British tradition, its bright gold flowers beam out like the sun at midsummer. Across Britain its virtues were many but one seasonal application was that it once widespread was the placing of it across doorways. William Bingley in his 1800 Tour Bound North Wales records that:

“On the Eve of St. John the Baptist they fix sprigs of the plant called St. John’s-wort over their doors, and sometimes over their window’s, in order to purify their houses, and by that means drive away all fiends and evil spirits.”

In the 1972 Folklore of the Ulster People Sheila St Clair notes that there it protected against the evil eye. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw in their 1975 Folklore of Cornwall state that wreaths were placed at St. Cleer ‘to banish witches.’Maureen Sutton (1996) A Lincolnshire calendar a correspondent from Chapel Hill suggests that the custom was still remembered in the 1920s and 30s there:

“if you hang it up on St John’s Day it will keep away the Devil’.

Christine Hole in her 1977 Witchcraft in England writes of St. John’s Day:

“ the saint’s own golden flower, St. John’s wort-which is quite clearly a sun-symbol-was brought indoors to promote good fortune and protect the house from fires.”

However, the earliest reference shows how this was not just a country custom. In John Stow’s 1603 book on London he noted:

“On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with ….. St. John’s wort.”

It was not alone and other plants were also stuck there creating ‘a goodly show, namely in New Fish street, Thames street’. Whilst it is not clear why they were doing so it would seem that there was some reason for it. It would appear to related to Ella Mary Leather records in her 1912 The Folklore of Herefordshire:

“Antiquatis records that the practise of making midsummer garlands was common in Herefordshire in the old days, ballads were sung while weaving the garlands and the foliage used in their construction were for divination. Those in request were the rose, St. John’s Wort”

In this case it is clear it was for divination rather than protection but one would thing one arose from the other. Fran and Geoff. Doel and Tony Deane 1995 Spring and Summer customs in Sussex, Kent and Surrey note that it was worn to warn away witches.

Why Midsummer? Midsummer was thought to be when the evil spirits were abouts. But why St John’s Wort It is probably likely that this was related to its medicinal properties of the plant which may have scientific background as it has been proven that it has positive effects on nervous disorders such as depression which was often linked to devilish activity. I have not read of anyone who still hangs St John up at Midsummer so I imagine it is not long extinct.