Custom survived: St Bartholomew’s Founder’s Day and Bun Race, Sandwich Kent

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Sandwich is a town where you would expect there to be many traditions. One of the Cinque ports, many traditions have arisen from its long association with sea. In a small chapel and its associated almshouse community is one of the most enjoyable.

Legend has it that on the 24th August 1217 the town received a considerable amount of money from a sea battle held off the coast. This they used to build St Bartholomew’s Chapel and a hospital for sixteen men and women to inhabit. It would probably have been envisioned as a place of refuge for pilgrims latterly as it is today becoming an almshouse for the elderly.

Sandwich did not forget this great sea battle’s bounty and it appears that St Bartholomew’s Day became a day of importance in the town with the Mayor and civic dignitaries processing to the chapel for a special patronal founder’s day service – a founder’s day with a difference.

A prickly decision

One of the roles of the service is the selection of a new Master for the coming year. This is called pricking out. During this process a list of all those living in the almshouse – called brothers and sisters – is laid out and a silver bodkin  is used to run over the names and selects the person who will be in charge for the next twelve months. However the role of the Master is fairly mundane being a sort of care taker!

Typically you might say for August, the weather was wet and horrible. I arrived to watch a rather soggy civic procession arrive at the chapel to meet the brothers and sisters within. I slipped into the chapel, just about finding some room, to see the pricking out ceremony and hear the oath which went:

“I – (insert name) will me as I ought to be true and faithful unto the hospital and all things shall do, to my best of my power, for the most weal, proper and commodate of the same hospital and at the end of the year, a true and just account shall make all of things, wherewith I shall have to do belonging to the hospital for this year following.”

Not a bun fight!

After the ceremony as Charles Kightly records in his 1986 Ceremonies and customs of Britain:

“The ceremonies then conclude in livelier fashion, with local children racing around the chapel for a reward of a currant bun a piece.”

Outside there were a fair number of parents and young children waiting the race – the chapel could never have accommodated all of them and I wondered how the race had arisen. Did it arise as a way to encourage a well behaved congregation or to encourage more attendees? Both struck me as odd as it was clear that the service had a rather private feel about it and large numbers of children may have equally ruined the atmosphere I would imagine!

The dampness and drizzle did not put the participants. They lived up in the designated place beside the chapel. As it began to rain, the Mayor blew a whistle and the kids were off

The mayor protected by an umbrella gave out the buns to an out of breadth congregation of grateful children of many sizes. Many covered in mud and soggy! The adults who attended were given a hard paste biscuit with the hospital’s seal and the date 1190 – it did not look as nice as the bun! It was over as soon as it started and the crowd dispersed for another year.

How did the Bun race originate? The bun race is an interesting custom. A bit like those no winners or losers sports day everyone gets a prize! Everyone gets a bun! Why a race? Perhaps the custom arose as a dole for wayfarers and as these slowly disappeared some one came up with the idea of a race. The race symbolising the race to Canterbury’s St Thomas’s shrine. When it arose is not clear either and I have been unable to find it out. Kightly suggests it can only be less than a hundred years old – but that was in 1986 – with 34 years elapsed I imagine it qualifies now!

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