Category Archives: Agricultural

Custom demised: Bradford’s St Blaise’s Day processions

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Hone in his Book of Days discussed the importance of St Blaise’s Day to the Yorkshire city of Bradford he states:

“The large flourishing communities engaged in this business in Bradford, and other English towns, are accustomed to hold a septennial jubilee on the 3rd of February, in honour of Jason of the Golden Fleece and St. Blaize; and not many years ago the fête was conducted with considerable state and ceremony.”.

The author continues to report the procession as in 1825:

“Herald bearing a flag, Woolstaplers on horseback, each horse caparisoned with a fleece. Worsted Spinners and manufacturers_ on horseback, in white stuff waistcoats, with each a sliver over the shoulder, and a white stuff sash; the horses’ necks covered with nets made of thick yarn. Merchants_ on horseback, with coloured sashes.

Three guards. Masters’ Colours. Three guards. Apprentices and Masters’ Sons_, on horseback, with ornamented caps, scarlet stuff coats, white stuff waistcoats, and blue pantaloons.

Bradford and Keighley Bands. Mace-bearer, on foot. Six guards. King. Queen. Six guards. Guards. Jason. Princess Medea. Guards. Bishop’s Chaplain. Bishop Blase. Shepherd and Shepherdess. Shepherd Swains. Woolsorters, on horseback, with ornamented caps, and various coloured slivers. Comb Makers. Charcoal Burners. Combers’ Colours. Band. Woolcombers_ with wool wigs, &c.  Band. Dyers, with red cockades, blue aprons, and crossed slivers of red and blue.”

Before the procession started it was addressed by Richard Fawcett, Esq., in the following lines:

“Hail to the day, whose kind auspicious rays Deign’d first to smile on famous Bishop Blase! To the great author of our Combing trade, This day’s devoted, and due honour’s paid, To him whose fame thro’ Britain’s isle resounds, To him whose goodness to the poor abounds. Long shall his name in British annals shine. And grateful ages offer at his shrine! By this our trade are thousands daily fed, By it supplied with means to earn their bread. In various forms our trade its work impart, In different methods, and by different arts: 

Preserves from starving indigents distress’d, As Combers, Spinners, Weavers, and the rest. We boast no gems, or costly garments vain,  Borrow’d from India or the coast of Spain; Our native soil with wool our trade supplies, While foreign countries envy us the prize. No foreign broil our common good annoys, Our country’s product all our art employs; Our fleecy flocks abound in every vale, Our bleating lambs proclaim the joyful tale. So let not Spain with us attempt to vie,  Nor India’s wealth pretend to soar so high; Nor Jason pride him in his Colchian spoil, By hardships gain’d, and enterprising toil; Since Britons all with ease attain the prize, And every hill resounds with golden crie, To celebrate our founder’s great renown. Our shepherd and our shepherdess we crown, For England’s commerce and for George’s sway Each loyal subject give a loud Huzza.   Huzza!”

There was apparently a town-wide celebrations in 1804, 1811, 1818 and 1825 as recorded above and by a Bradford Dr John Simpson who wrote about:

“by different individuals connected with the trade of the place’ and that Bradford ‘may expect a great influx of strangers, indeed great numbers have arrived today’. His diary entry for the 3rd February, Saint Blaise’s Day, recorded how there had been ‘wind. . . snow and rain’ overnight but it had cleared by morning – ‘the morning was beautiful . . . it seemed as of the weather had taken up purposely for the celebration of the Blaise’.

This apparently was the first festival although there were apparently a smaller scale event in 1857 and 1930 and then no more! However, there is a campaign for a revival of sorts. Local poet and writer Glyn Watkins has campaigned to revive the festival through a series of walks, talks and events in Bradford combined with one year with a Bring Back Blaise Wool Festival at Bradford Industrial Museum. But so far it has not encouraged a real civic ceremony being revived.

Custom demised: Biddenham Parish Bull on St Thomas’s Day

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Edwards in his 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes:

“An ancient annual payment of 5l. out of an estate at Biddenham, formerly belonging to the family of Boteler, and now the property of Lord Viscount Hampden, is regularly paid on St. Thomas’s Day to the overseers of the poor for the purchase of a bull, which is killed, and the flesh thereof given amongst the poor persons of the parish.”

This is an unusual bequest because it was usually St. Martin’s Day that spare cattle were slaughtered and this may have been an issue. It is recorded that the churchwardens overseers and principal inhabitants assist at the distribution of the meat the portions being given to those who have the families. The report considers:

“For many years past the annual fund, being insufficient to purchase a bull, the deficiency has been made good out of other charities belonging to the parish. “

Tunnicliffe, C. F. (1901-1979), 'The Chartley Bull', Wood Engraving, 1939/2007 £300.00 - Fine Art prints paintings drawings sculpture uk

 

It was noted that the value of the bull has varied in the 1800s from £9 to £14 which may have resulted in the customs disappearance however a suggestion was made:.  

It was proposed some years ago by the vicar that the 5l. a year should be laid out in buying meat, but the poor insisted on the customary purchase of a bull being continued, and the usage is accordingly kept up.”

 It was said that the money came from a transfer of £200 from the trustees. This is possibly linked to land bought in 1706 by Elizabeth Boteler. Sadly the custom did not survive the 20th century. 

Custom survived: Corby Glen Sheep Fair

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In 2021 the east midlands’ largest fair was again called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a few miles away the second oldest fair was still being set up.  Corby Glen dates back to a Charter granted by Henry III on 26th February 1238. This states:

“Grant to Hamo Pecche and his heirs of a weekly market on Thursday at his Manor of Coreby and of a yearly fair there on the Vigil, the Feast and the Morrow of the Feast of the Assumption. ”

An 1863 in the diary of George Bird states it was:

 “the largest shew of sheep, beasts and horses that has ever been seen on the ground before.”  

The next year 93 truckloads of sheep and other beasts arrived by train. Twelve thousand sheep were recorded in  1876, but the next year only 7,400. It would appear that the custom was in decline for in 1882 he wrote: 

“Corby Fair the poorest I’ve seen, not above 5,000 sheep penned.” 

However, by the turn of the twentieth century it had risen to 6,000 yet 13 years later it was only 4,000  with ” few beasts and foals either” Numbers never reached the heady heights of the late 1800s but the fair continued to trade despite the agricultural depression with the sale of beasts and cattle disappearing leaving only the ram fair. 

And indeed sheep are still the reason for it of course. Yet it soon developed into more than the sheep. The fair further changed after WWII when sheep which used to driven to the fair now arrived by train. However, this changed again in 1959 when the station closed and so all sheep now travel by road arriving in the early morning and leaving that evening. The website describes the scene today:

Early on Monday morning the familiar pens are erected on every available green space in the village in readiness for the day’s sale and by mid-morning the sheep have been trucked in for the auction. Expert eyes assess their qualities as owners wait anxiously for the bidding to begin and by late afternoon it is all over and the transporters head for home for another year. “

Fair sheep

At the point I arrived there was a very amusing demonstration on sheep breeds and sheep shearing which enthralled all with its mix of facts and amusing sheep. The highlight being what I gather appears to be an annual custom -sheep dancing. The disco music went on and the sheep swayed and moved back and forth to the music! After this amusing and informative show I explored the village more. Of course over time the custom had attracted the obligatory pleasure fair. This appeared in the 19th century when it was held in the Market Place with the traditional sideshows, gingerbread stalls, shooting galleries and boxing booths. Older residents can still recall the mass of stalls in the Market Place with swing-boats and roundabouts, skittling for a copper kettle and in some years, stalls for the sale of goods produced locally that would attract people from the village and the surrounding countryside. Today this is what attracts a large population to the village as it clothes the green swards and snakes through the village’s lanes and streets. Described as on the village website as:

Stalls are erected in the historic Market Square from Friday onwards with country crafts and memorabilia much in evidence and a fun fair with swings, roundabouts and sideshows is located on the green. There is also a horticultural show in the village school and a display of local produce together with jazz bands, Morris dancing and one year a mediaeval mystery play was staged by pupils of the Corby Glen primary school. Archery demonstrations, local history displays, art and photographic exhibitions, a wheelbarrow race, a conker competition, tug of war, a dog show and even a competition to guess the weight of a sheep – all have found a place in the festivities in recent years.

But the fair has in the past had another purpose, that of bringing together families who have been split when sons and daughters left the village to pursue marriage and careers elsewhere and this event was the catalyst for a weekend reunion, visits made possible by the coming of the railway which brought travel across counties within the reach of most people. Stuffed chine topped the bill of fare at family get-togethers and on the eve of the fair in October 1867, villager George Bird wrote in his diary: “Mother very busy making plum cakes, cheesecakes and such like.” The widespread increase in car ownership has to some extent diminished the tradition of such gatherings at fair time. 

The sheep fair mirrors the economic conditions of the district and the local farming industry in past centuries when the farmer’s financial year was organised around this event for at this time they were forced to sell sheep to settle rent arrears. The fair, like the village, was in relative decline towards the end of the 18th century but it picked up during the 19th century and in 1863 George Bird wrote in his diary of “the largest shew of sheep, beasts and horses that has ever been seen on the ground before.” He also mentioned that there was talk of making the fair a two-day event.”. 

The agricultural depression of the last quarter of the 19th century had a sudden but decisive impact on the Corby Fair but in the wake of this decline, the associated activities also suffered and by the 1930s the sale of beasts and cattle had died out but the ram fair remained. As a result, the Corby Fair continues today with vigour and enthusiasm and although numbers no longer reach the peaks of past times and market fluctuations continue, there is little likelihood that it will disappear in the immediate future. 

Custom survived: The Southwell Ploughing Match

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Plough a deep furrow

The Southwell Ploughing match is one of the oldest agricultural traditions in the country. It was established in 1855 by the Southwell and District Agricultural society consisting of four ploughing classes with the first ploughing match being undertaken in 1856. This was at Averham Park. Unfortunately the group folded in 1880 but was re-established in 1908 by the Southwell Farmer’s Club. The First World War put an understandable stop to such activities only being restored in 1922. Modernisation begun when in 1937 tractor pulling was added in 1936 but it did not last long stopping in 1938. Post war in 1947 it was re-started. It has not had an unbroken run since unfortunately with foot and mouth in 2001 stopping it, heaving rain in 2017 and the Coronavirus pandemic. 

To plough ahead

The ploughing remains central to the event. One can see the beauty in creating a straight furrow although how it was exactly judged was a bit of an arcane art. Being a few yards away from it also made it a bit difficult to follow. From the distance I stood it looked like a rather strangely staggered relay match with tractors. There were massive seed drills, old and ancient some looking like they had just out of a museum for the day. The tractors were centre stage of course in their many forms old and new. The smell and the sounds of threshing machines and old engines are very evocative. However, the event is more than just watching the ploughing and there is a whole range of country and rural related events and trade stands. These range from dog shows to farmer’s market. I spent a lot of time looking at the cheese available and admiring the dog’s agility.

Southwell Ploughing Match & Show

A deep furrow

These events are very much the stage and advert for the agricultural community so needed. An essential place for all to attend especially those who by our increasingly urban communities have been disconnected from the countryside.

Its position in the calendar of the year shows how calendar customs can be in tune with nature like a descent of the lost harvest homes; the event links to the end of the harvest and the necessary preparations of the land for the crop next year. Thus despite this being a ‘showing off’ of the ploughing communities best talents it is also a subtle way to show best practice. It has become as it has grown a way to celebrate the agricultural way of life and to stress the importance of these traditions to keep our rural communities alive.

 

 

 

Custom survived: Forest Chapel Rushbearing

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High above Macclesfield is Forest Chapel, reached through winding and narrow lanes you reach one of the most picturesque and unspoilt parts of the Peak District. The views here are stunning and a better place for an annual custom could not be found in my opinion. For hear on the Sunday nearest the 12th August – significantly tied in to attract the grouse shooting fraternity but now attracts the muddy boots of the walking community – is the Rushbearing service.

Rushing to get a spot

Rushbearing is an old tradition which provided churches with rushes which would keep the church clean and warm. Each year these would need to be cleared out and refreshed usually post harvest time and as such this changeover could be used as a day of celebration often seen as a symbol of spiritual renewal. Forest Chapel rush bearing is very popular and already when I had turned up a number seeing the weather fair forewent getting a seat inside for one outside.

The first mention of it is in 1848 in the church accounts which reads that a sum of five shillings was paid to:

“William Smith for repairing the windows at the chapel and school broken at Rushbearing.”

Whatever happened to cause this damage is unclear -one assumes some rather over exuberant alcohol fuelled dancing perhaps -today’s rush bearing is a much quieter affair

What is curious is that most churches abandoned the rushbearing for practical health reasons in Great Plague and they never returned. What is unusual here is that the chapel was only built in 1834 so why was it done here. 

Rush to the head

The effort made is remarkable especially for such a small community; the whole chapel floor is covered in plaited rushes with them interwoven with flower arrangement at the end of pews mainly using chrysanthemums, over the font, within the chancel and over the door and beyond – creating a very picturesque vision.   

The service starts inside with the sweet sounds of the harmonium playing ‘near my God to Thee’ and soon with the church almost literally packed to the rafters the choir entered dressed in their crimson gowns and as the organist plays ‘Angel voices ever singing’ the service begun. The Service followed a traditional route then after the fifth hymn there is a change of position as the vicar and invited bishop leave the church to complete the rest of the service outside standing on a table tomb in the grave. This was apparently introduced when the church was unable to accommodate all the visitors. Certainly there were a lot there, but not as many as were in the 1940s when 900 were recorded. Mind you the outside service part did make for a more atmospheric event and allowed those who may already be sitting down on their fold up chairs in the churchyard half listening, half enjoying the view to see the faces of the clergy.

The Bishop then introduced his sermon which was very light hearted and humorous and at the end we all sung “God be with you till we meet again” although it was a far more dour version than I was used to!

There is a real earthy, traditional and welcoming feel to the place and as a church custom even for those non-Christian it was very welcoming especially the biscuits and tea afterwards. Ironically with its outside service this was one of the few Covid ready calendar customs there was – the founders must have known something!

 

 

Custom demised: Eastbourne Great Tythe feast

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Lundens, Gerrit; Peasants Feasting in a Barn; National Trust, Melford Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/peasants-feasting-in-a-barn-171766

In Royer’s 1787 History of Eastbourne, 1787 a curious custom is described:

“On the three first Sundays in August a public breakfast, says  p. 126), is given at the parsonage-house by the tenants of the great tythes to the farmers and their servants, each farmer being entitled to send two servants for every waggon that he keeps. So that if a farmer have five waggons to do his necessary business he may send ten servants, and so on in proportion for a less or greater number.”

Thus was laid out a feast:

“The farmers are entertained in the parlour with a sirloin of hot roast beef, cold ham, Sussex cheese, strong ale, and Geneva; the men are entertained in the barn with everything the same as their masters except the beef. It is presumed that this custom had its origin from the time the tythes were first taken in kind in this parish, in order to keep all parties in good humour.”

Chambers’ Handbook of Eastbourne, 1872 records

“A petition to Parliament for the abolition of this custom was presented as far back as 1640, and, in 1649, an ordinance was enacted that 20l. per annum should be paid for the relief of the poor in lieu of the feast. “

It would be clear that during the Commonwealth the custom did stop but during the reign of Charles II:

“In 1687 the custom was revived; more recently an annual payment of 20l. for the education of poor children was substituted, and this amount now figures year by year in the accounts of St. Mary’s schools as paid by the Duke of Devonshire.”

It seemed that it was that the event encouraged poor behaviour rather than the custom’s cost. As summed up by the Sussex Archaeological society’s 1861’s Sussex archaeological collections relating to the history and antiquities of the county:

“That the Eastbourne Sunday is no matter of regret are dying out to which no good morals would be applicable.”

When it finally demised is unclear but it was certainly before the above account. It probably died out when many of the other harvest homes demised.

Custom demised: Alnwick Fair Watch

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Many people will remember the latest incarnation of Alnwick Fair revived in 1969 to 2007 which is sadly discontinued. However W Davidson the 1822 History of Alnwick tells of another curious custom associated with a more ancient fair he reports:

“On the Sunday evening preceding the fair, the representatives of the adjacent townships that owe suit and service to his Grace the Duke of Northumberland, and the constables of Alnwick, with several of the freeholders and tradesmen, attend at the castle, where they are freely regaled. The steward of the Court, and the bailiff with their attendants, then proceed from the castle to the cross in the market-place, where the bailiff proclaims the fair in the name of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, and calls over the names of the various townships that owe suit and service; viz. the townships of Chatton and Chillingham, four men, Coldmarton and Fowbury, four men; Hetton and Hezebrigge, four men; Fawdon and Clinch, four men; Alnham and Alnham Moor, two men; Tughall and Swinhoe, two men; Longhoughton and Denwick, four men; Lesbury and Bilton, two men; Lyham and Lyham-hall, one man; with the principal inhabitants of the borough of Alnwick. “

The role of these men was made clear that:

“The representatives who attend for the several townships in service are obliged to keep watch at different parts of the town the night before the fair, which has been a custom from time immemorial.”

It is also said that:

“On the fair-day the tenants of the Duke within the barony of Alnwick attend at the castle, when the steward and bailiff proceed from thence to the market, and proclaim the fair as before. They then go to Clayport Street, where the fair is again proclaimed, and from thence to the castle. The above townships, by their attendance, are exempt from paying toll in the borough for twelve months, but if they do not attend, they must pay the same till the next year.”

Custom demised: The Midsummer Letting at Congresbury and Puxton

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A curious lost custom is recorded by Thomas Collinson, in his 1791 History of the County of Somerset where he describes a unique custom that was celebrated on the Saturday before old Midsummer Day in the parishes of Congresbury and Puxton. T. F. Thistelton-Dwyer (1878) British Popular customs records that:

“At two large pieces of common land, called East and West Dolemoors. These, he says, were divided into single acres, each bearing a peculiar and different mark cut on the turf, such as a horn, four oxen and a mare, two oxen and a mare, pole-axe, cross, dung-fork, oven, duck’s nest, hand reel, and hare’s tail.”

He continues:

“On the Saturday before old Midsummer Day, several proprietors of estates in the parishes of Congresbury, Puxton, and Week St. Lawrence, or their tenants, assembled on the commons. A number of apples were previously prepared, marked in the same manner with the before-mentioned acres, which were distributed by a young lad to each of the commoners from a bag or hat. At the close of the distribution, each person repaired to his allotment as his apple directed him, and took possession for the ensuing year. An adjournment then took place to the house of the overseer of Dolemoors (an officer annually elected from the tenants), where four acres, reserved for the purpose of paying expenses, were let by inch of candle, and the remainder of the day was spent in sociability and hearty mirth.”

The origins of this custom are unclear  but its association with marks in the turf shows as shown above indicates perhaps an affinity to customs such as the scouring of the white horse however no authors appear to have noticed this strange aspect of the custom either.

F.W. Weaver wrote iin volume 12 of Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (September 1910) that these carvings may be Saxon in origin. Quoting Frederick Seebohm’s English Village Community’s one of the Laws of Ine:

“If ceoris have common meadow or other land divided into strips (gedal land) to fence and some have fenced their strip (doel) and some have not,” Seebohm remarks that ‘There is here in the smallest possible compass the most complete evidence that in the seventh century the fields of Wessex were common open fields the arable being divided into acres and the meadows into doles, and as the system is incidentally mentioned as a thing existing as a matter of course, it is not likely to have been suddenly or recently introduced.  The evidence throws it back, therefore, at least to the earliest period of Saxon rule.’

This letting of the Somerset Dolemoors is mentioned in William Hone’s Every-day Book, Vol. 2 (1878) where the above image is taken. Sadly when the moors were enclosed the custom was discontinued in 1811.

Custom demised: Winning the cock, Horsted Keynes, Sussex

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Horsted Keynes - Then and Now pictures

Sometimes a calendar custom is restricted to a single county or a village in that county in this case it appears to be one farm!

An article from a 1927 copy of the Sussex County Magazine stated that this custom was associated with the beginning of the ploughing season in January. This was called known as ‘winning the cock’. The account reads:

“This too place on the first Monday in the year, when spring ploughing began. The carter’s boy had to bring his whip into the kitchen on that day between sunrise and sunset and thrash the table well, counting from one to nine while doing so”

It would seem that this was probably arose as a sort of first footing game:

“If he could do this three times, and get in and out of the house without having water thrown of him he had ‘won the cock’ “

The author relating

“ Well do I remember the bowl of water that was kept ready, but only once was the lad successful. He was then solemnly presented with three shillings and sixpence, which he transferred to his pocket with great air of satisfaction.”

When the custom ceased is unclear, the correspondent states that he remembered it from his childhood but it is unclear how old they were. In a way it is similar to the Jack of Hilton so it suggests it may have more provenance that a private custom! Sadly we may never know. Especially as the author fails to mention the farm…so perhaps the custom continues at that farm..and we never know!

Customs demised: Blood letting horses on St Stephen’s Day

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“Ere Christmas be passed let horse be let blood,
for many a purpose it doth them much good.
The day of St. Stephen old fathers did use:
if that do mislike thee some other day choose.

Thomas Tusser, Five hundred points of Good Husbandrie

Boxing Day for the modern household may involve the Boxing Day sales, more Christmas food or sitting on the sofa but to those until at least the 16th century who had horses or cattle it was an important day for phlebotomy – or blood-letting. It was common enough a tradition in the late 16th-century for poets such as Truse, who was also a farmer whose work was a poetical book on agricultural advice.

The view was widespread across Europe at the time as a quote from German protestant pastor and playwright Thomas Naogeorgus evidences:

“Then followeth Saint Stephens days, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode as swiftly as he can
Until they doe extreemely sweate, and than they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time took charge of horses heare.”

Is blood letting a viable treatment for laminitis? | Laminitis : Understanding, Cure, Prevention

Why let horses?

The tradition of blood letting is based on the principle of the four humours. This being that there were four elements: fire, earth, water and air, and four had corresponding body fluids: yellow bile, black bile, phlgem and blood. From the ancient Greeks onwards it was thought that an imbalance of these caused sickness and thus if there was too much blood sickness could arise!

Why St Stephen’s Day?

The reasons why this was done on St Stephen’s Day is unclear. It is possible that he was thought to be the patron saint of horses. Hone in his 1826 Everyday Book suggests:

About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in for then they are commonly at house then spring comes on un being now coming back from the solstice and there are three or days of rest and if it be upon St Stephen’s day it is not the worse seeing there are with it three days of rest or at least two.”

The custom would appear to be widespread. An entry:

Item for letting our horses blede in Chrystmasse weke iiijd

Is in the Receipts and of the Canons of St Mary in Huntingdon  Hone suggests that his sources that the tradition was brought to Britain by the Danes and states a book called Wits Fits and Fancies states:

“it is the custome for all horses to be let bloud and drench’d A gentleman being that morning demaunded whether it pleased him to have his horse let bloud and drencht according to the fashion He answered no sirra my horse is not diseas’d of the fashions.”

In John Brand’s Book of Days he quotes John Aubrey who says:

“On St Stephen’s day the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart horses.”

The wisdom of blood-letting as medicine improved disappeared as people realised by draining the blood they were making the patient potentially more ill or prone to disease. Consequently did this most curious custom but one would imagine it survived in rural areas longer than one would have expected.