Custom survived: St. Ives Langley Bread

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“charged his lands in St. Ives with the payment of 40s. a year to be distributed to poor widows and fatherless children, and with a further sum of 6s. to the churchwardens to be given to the bellringers.

Robert Langley by will dated 24 Aug. 1656 Charity report 1909

St Ives is a delightful small town which is noted amongst those interested in calendar customs for its bible dicing, however there is another custom that the town has undertaken for the last 300 years or so which has failed to be recorded as far as I am aware in any books on calendar customs. So for the 10th year of blogging on calendar custom it felt appropriate that I experienced and being free on the day of its distribution the 5th of January, linking it to epiphany no doubt it felt this was the ideal opportunity. 

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Bread and Butter

The custom consists of a dole given out on or around the epiphany and fortunately being free this year. It was set up as stated above in 1656 by local philanthropic St. Ives man, Robert Langley and whilst there is no stipulations about fatherless children it is still distributed to poor widows (and grammatically now widowers). The tradition is known as the Langley Bread and continues as a giving practice once a year in January.

I arrived to see the truck outside the Corn Exchange loaded with Co-op bags drive off – hand I missed it – no for as I went into the main hall of the building to see tables bellowing under a pile of green Co-op bags crammed with food and the Mayor in his chain, the trustees of the charity and town council secretary awaiting the first of the applicants.

In 2022 there were 120 bags lined up on the tables. Around 45 being delivered each year to local nursing homes. The number had been adjusted to take into account the number of recipients who came the previous year and thus the number left over. 

All doled up

Soon the first applicants appeared and many of them for familiar faces who had come previously to collect their bag of goodies and as a local newspaper account records:

“Great care is taken to ensure that only widows and widowers who are residents of St Ives benefit. As people come in to the building, they give out their addresses which are checked on the electoral roll.”

Indeed the clerks asked for names and they searched carefully their electoral role and upon finding them crossed them off and gave the recipient a ticket. However it was only a few feet away where the Mayor was ready to collect the ticket and give over the bag.

Many of the recipients were ‘regulars’ and despite having to be checked on the role many had come for the chat as well – being lonely widowers this would of course make sense. Indeed there was a sort of melancholy to the custom typified by one recipient stating

“Last year I came with my friend and wasnt eligible and this year I can come and collect one myself”

Sadly we all know what that means. But on the flipside it also encouraged people to talk to each and help each other as recorded in the newspaper article which stated:

one person is authorised to collect for friends.

“Especially where the old folks’ bungalows are, the fittest one will come down and collect them for their neighbours,” said David Hodge, who as mayor is responsible for giving out the bags. “Hence, they come with a list and they then go back with some for all their friends. It is checked, honestly!”

One could see that for many lonely widows it was a good reason to get into town and perhaps socialise or in some cases challenge the Mayor on their policies.

The trustees stick very rigidly to the wording of the charity. A man turned up from nearby Reach and politely asked if he was eligible having been born in St Ives and was a widower. He however was refused as he no longer lived in the town. He seemed okay with that and it was interesting to see that the letter of the original bequest being undertaken.  

The bags soon went down. By 10 .45 85 bags were gone. By 11.40 107 had gone. And then by 11.45 only 13 were left. It had been a successful day the previous year they had had 150 bags left but nothing goes to waste as like the earlier ones they are delivered to those in nursing homes.

Now however very little of the original charity money goes to buy the dole and is donated by local companies. In 2022 it was donated for the third year from the Co-Op. Back in the 1800s it would have simply been bread like many other doles. However, now its full of other staples.  The bag consists of digestive biscuits, tea, bread, butter and sugar and were delivered by the company on the back of truck at 8 o’clock. Usually I was informed that it was topped up by the charity and this included orange juice or jam but this year they could not be sourced. 

Two for the price of one!

The Langley bequest is actually two customs in one as he left money for the bell ringers from St Ives’ parish church. The reason being because of a very familiar story seen elsewhere is bell tolling bequests. It is said that Langley was lost in a snowstorm on nearby Hemingford Meadow walking to St Ives. Upon hearing the parish church bells he was guided back to safety and thus in gratitude he left money for the bell ringers to ring a peel. This apparently also happens in January, however the trustees did not know when.

It is heartening to see Langley’s bequest continues to give support to those in need…although he clearly had little thought of mobility in snow ladden Januaries – perhaps not the best time for aged widowers to travel about!

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