Category Archives: Costumed

Custom survived: Ickwell May Day

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Bedfordshire does not feature often in books on calendar customs but looming large is Ickwell May Day, a colourful injection of textbook May day. Centred around their distinctive permanent May pole on the green in the village’s centre; the custom has everything envisioned in a May Day – Morris men, maypole dancers, garlands and the May Queen. However it has some unique aspects as well which I shall come to later. 

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Merrie Month of May

The earliest reference to the custom is in churchwardens’ accounts from the 19 May 1563 where a list of “charges for all our Maye” is made. It shows that money was spent on making the Morris coats, shoes and bells as well as for a minstrel,: spice and fruit for baked meats; hops to brew beer; wheat; and three calves. Money was also spent on gunpowder suggesting the day ended in a bit of bang. Indeed these charges cost 55s and 3d and a hefty £4 19s 4d receipts was recorded. The customs survival between then and the late 1800s is unknown although it was doubtlessly stopped during the Commonwealth it is unknown when it was revived for the next record is not until 1872. 

When it is said that Squire John Harvey paid for a permanent Maypole which was erected in 1872, beforehand the Maypole was set up the day before and removed thereafter. Locally believed to be a ship’s mast set up to celebrate the birth of his son. However, the Bedfordshire Times of 5 May 1899 states however that the tree had come from Warden Warren and was a larch, 67 feet high and four feet around at the base. The pole had been embedded in six feet of cement for stability. The Will of 1877 records that the said John Harvey of Ickwell Bury leaves £2/10/- to the Northill churchwardens “to be expended yearly in keeping up Mayday at Ickwell as has been done during my life”.  

As the 1800s came to a close a revival or rebirth perhaps of May Day was happening courtesy of John Ruskin which saw the introduction of the May Queen through his introduction at Whiteland’s college and one of his students, Headmistress of Northhill School, Mrs Hodges, introduced this aspect of the custom and an Evelyn Woodward became the first Queen.  The custom began to grow and expand when schools in the nearby village of Caldecote were given a half day holiday and to watch the May day and later Old Warden joined in..now of course it is a bank holiday.

An account in the 1911 Bedfordshire Times for 1911 describes the scene not dissimilar to what one can see today including the surprising reference to the camera!:

“At Northill School we found them lining up for the procession. Behold a regal chariot bedecked with coronals and festoons of spring flowers in blue and gold and white; and drawn by a milk white steed! Enthroned on a flower dais, on the aforesaid chariot, were the May Queen for 1910-11, Mary Law, and the May Queen elect, Agnes Woodward, attended by a full retinue of squires, pages and maids of honour. Nice, chubby little girls were delightfully arrayed as spring flowers. The country dancers from Caldecote were charming Quaker costumes of blue and brown, the boys with three-cornered hats and the girls with snowy coifs. The Morris dancers from Northill were resplendent in the quaintly flowered muslin of a bye-gone day, and, honouring tradition, there wore bells on their ankles. There was the usual charming bevy of dairymaids, rosy, plump, sweet-voiced, and pig-tailed, at the rear. In front of the car (we beg their pardon for leaving them so late), were the pretty little girls and boys who perform the cobweb dance, the girls in blue frocks and Dutch bonnets, and the boys in smart white sailor suits, and last, but certainly not least, the merry maypole dancers themselves, the girls in simple white dresses, flower garlanded, and with glowing faces that surely were washed in May dew that morning; and the boys in smock frocks. At the head of all marched the Biggleswade Brass Band, making brave music, though, alas! there was no fiddler there. During its marshalling, the troop faced a heavy fire of camera clickings with conspicuous coolness, and presently a move was made for the sister hamlet, half a mile distant. A vast concourse of people was waiting on the Green, and a reverent hush was maintained while the Coronation of Queen Agnes was performed with all due ceremony. Truly, it was Queen’s weather, the sun shining kindly from a dappled sky on the idyllic sward, surrounded by cottages that were picturesque enough for stage scenery, snowy orchards, and magnificent trees. The ring was packed many deep, chairs inside were captured in a twinkling, and there was an outer circle of motors and carriages”.

The permanent Maypole did not last beyond the new century for the Victoria County History noted that in 1912 that Ickwell did not have one. An account in 1911 Bedfordshire Times noting that:

“As all the world knows, May day was not celebrated at Ickwell last year owing to divers reasons, including the alleged unsoundness of the Maypole, which had dominated the Green for over thirty years. The new pole, a present from Warden Warren, is broader but not quite so tall, and considerable difficulty was experienced in planting it owing to the presence of a subterranean spring. However, the obstacle was finally overcome, and the pole was a goodly sight in its brave coat of red and white paint, surmounted by a great Union Jack.”

In 1945 a committee was established which continues today to organise the event and in 2000 50 former May Queens assembled with a special locket being given to the then May Queen, Stephanie Turner which was made by the May Queen of 1920 and presented by her, then a Vera Wagstaff.

The day begins with some splendid Morris dancing and after the judging of the garlands the main event begins. Soon the road is closed, and a procession from Northhill to the green much as described above with Morris dancers, a band, garland carrying girls, Moggies and the outgoing and incoming May Queen with attendants and a large concourse of dancers, the Mayers with their Lord and Lady. This in itself was a very colourful site as it lead to the green for the festivities.

One of the most unique aspects of the custom are the moggies, a group who are blackened up and often cross-dressed. They go around soliciting money and mischief and dressed in ragged clothes and carrying besom brushes. Their origin is unclear and it was suggested to me that these represented the devil, the darkside of the year as the Morris represented the summer months. I was not sure of this and it seemed like trying to inject some pagan into the procedures. To my mind it is significant that in the 1800s and early 1900s nearby Northhill had a plough monday tradition where blackened faces used to disguise begging and mischievous behaviour are recorded. At the demise of this it would seem sensible that the Moggies translated to May, although why they were called Moggies was unclear. Another likely theory is that they represented Chimney sweeps and of course sweeps have a long association with May day adopting it in urban areas as a holiday. Of course I last went in 1996 the colour of their faces may well have changed since!

The Maypole dancing unusually is taken up by all ages and was splendid; with the repertoire of classic dances – formal plait and spiders web being the most intricate. It is perhaps particularly unique to Ickwell to see adult dancers, called the Old Scholars (perhaps a name nodding to John Ruskin’s academic re-invention but of course referring to the fact that they were ex students of the nearby schools). Dressed in white smocks and dresses these adult dancers were In fact  so good that one wonders why there were not more adult may dancers! The day ends with all being invited to surround the Maypole and so I joined in as we all joined hands and and did the the Circassian Circle, moving in and out around the Maypole probably as those 16th century Mayers did.

As I said there may not be Bedfordshire customs but as Ickwell is one of the best May days in the country it more than makes up for it

Custom contrived: Dancing in the May at Laxton

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“Dawn jig on misty mount – walking through the mist towards Castle Hill, Laxton, and hearing bells jingling in the distance at 5.15 am on Tuesday, it was easy to imagine you had stepped into a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel.”

Newark Advertiser Friday 04 May 1990 by Samantha Pease

Arriving in Laxton the only indication anything is going on is the sign at the top of the lane down to the castle with its instruction to remember to not disturb the neighbours – riotous bunch these Morris…mind you I say only indication…when I turned up a man appeared carrying a horses head over his shoulder and realising he must know the way…I followed him! Due to a rather dodgy gate I missed the exact start of the custom but in a way that added to it; the sounds of the assembled teams singing a May song as the first glints of the Sun arose tentatively on the horizon, was magical…as the author alludes to above.  The custom established on this old castle mound with its extensive views across Nottinghamshire and beyond has the feel of some older custom and so I was interested to know more of its origins and despite a splendid book which has brought the forgotten Morris traditions of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire greater acknowledgement the more recent history of this customs appears to have been forgotten about!

May be older than it looks!

Another newspaper cutting from 2002 is interesting for it states that:

The dancing was done at Castle hill after a two year absence because of the foot and mouth crisis.

But also:

“It was also the first time at the event for the newly-formed Rattlejag Morris from Retford.”

A year later:

“Dance return – Morris dancers return to Castle Hill, Laxton on May Day, after the foot and mouth crisis prevented them from performing there last year. The event, hosted by the Rattlejag Morris Dancers of Retford, starts at sunrise at about 5.29 am, and finishes with a cooked breakfast.”

Thus indicating that the custom predated the Rattlejag Morris and further digging was required. In 2007 the Newark advertiser stated that 

“The welcome has been performed by morris dancers at the village’s motte and bailey castle site every May 1 for 35 years.

It was carried out by Broadstone Morrismen for many years but Rattlejag Morris took over 15 years ago.”

 

This would date it back to 1972 but so far I cannot find any information recording this fact and the Broadstone Morris appear to be extinct. The earliest reference I can found is from the Newark advertiser which records for the Friday 28 April  1989:

Members of Retford based Broadstone Morris Men plan to dance at sunrise on Laxton Castle Hill. The dancing is due to start at 5.32 am and will be followed by a cooked breakfast”

The year later on The Retford Gainsborough and Worksop Times of 1993 record:

“The Broadstone Morris Men begin their summer programme on May 1 when they will be up early to see the sun rise at 530am and celebrate in traditional dance style The public are warmly invited to join them at Castle Hill Laxton “

Then on the 12th May 1994:

“May Day dancers On May Day the Broadstone Morris Dancers came and danced at sunrise on the hill of the castle ruins at Laxton It was a lovely morning and breakfast was served for anyone who wanted it “

On the 30th April 1999 Tiggy Trotter gives a vivid account of the custom for the younger readers of the Newark Advertiser Retford based Broadstone Morris as the following account informs us.

“Early risers mark start of summer Dear boys and girls, Have you ever thought about getting up at 4.30 m to watch the Morris dancers welcome in the summer of May 1st. I can tell you that it is a most memorable experience for those who can muster the enthusiasm to rise at such a time…..if it is fine the scene at Laxton is spectacular. As the sun begins to rise above the mote, the head of the team, known as the squire starts by singing an unaccompanied solo, Summer is a comin’un.

Whatever happened to Broadstone I do not know, but what is excellent to know that rather than let this custom die, that team who made their 2002 debut would be one day running it!

May I have this dance?

A 2002 newspaper account describes the costume and it what can be seen today:

“Dancing started at 5.30 am. Traditional costumes of flat caps with ribbons, open-necked white shirts, black waist-coats with ribbons and black trousers and shoes were worn.”

Each dance accompanied by a fiddle or a squeezebox has its own meaning and this year the team discovered more traditional local dancers. The clashing of sticks in the air represents the warding off of evil spirits, and the sticks are also used to strike the ground to initiate the dibbing action used by farmers when sowing their seeds.”

The dancing was memorising weaving in and out the sound of bells and squeezebox filling the air. At certain times another May carol was sung again filling the air with tingling melodies on this very crisp dawn. Each year following on it would appear from the Broadstone Morris tradition other teams were invited. Joining the Rattlejag in white with green and blue were local team the Trentside Holmes Morris who stood out in their glaring white in the darkness. They put on a great show of Cotswold Morris dancing and clearly enjoyed being involved.

 

Standing or rather looming rather ominously over the proceedings was that man with his horse’s skull, forming a large owd oss, covered in greenery with its ‘owner’ hidden under a cloak. It added some mystery to the event, especially when upon asking about it, the members of Rattlejag did not know who he was or where he came from! At the end everyone assembled was encouraged to do an en-mass Morris dance and dutifully everyone did! A fair size crowd clung to the top of the old castle and looked on. It was evident that Laxton’s May is becoming a regular ritual for its attendees as well many of whom had made the effort in dressing ‘in the May’ and they stood cheek by jowl with locals who also felt compelled to get up so early!

One cannot agree more with the summing up The Newark Advertiser‘s piece from 2002:

The sun now well up and the dancing nearly done, the sound and smell of sizzling bacon brings on a healthy appetite…what a way to start the day.”

Laxton’s May Day is a splendid custom, very evocative, and should be on anyone’s list of customs to experience.

 

 

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

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See the source image

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 contrived: Guildford Twelfth Night celebrations

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Guildford’s Twelfth Night celebrations, always held on the night is a great smorgasbord of the customs associated with the old celebrations associated with the day and a more rousing and enjoyable twelfth night celebration you couldn’t find I’d say.

The Twelfth Night at Guildford founded by Pilgrim Morris founded in 1972. The groups dressed as characters from a plough or Mummer’s Play tour a number of Guildford’s pubs injecting a necessary shot of jollity into a drab winter’s night. As they tour around a fair number of followers are attracted to their infectious fun. Their costumes in themselves were a riot of craziness and eccentricity covered with ribbons and adorned with Chrimbo iconography one even included a miniature Father Christmas!

I arrived at the first pub having travelled across the capital from the Jeffrey’s museum’s Twelfth night and came across them mid mummer’s play as St George was being speared by a Saracen in such a rather cramped location that I feared as he feel he would hit his head on a table.

At the play’s conclusion seeing the revival of St George to cheers one of the Morris mean appeared with a cake and urged people to eat. Some were rather reluctant whereas others upon finding the purpose dived in and took a piece hoping to find the pea and bean. The pea and bean, hidden in the cake, being a Twelfth Night tradition, whosever would find it would be King or Queen of Misrule. The taker was unsuccessful. However, soon a partaker looking like they’d swallowed something a bit odd, reached into his mouth and extracted a hard bean – a cheer went out and he was celebrated as the King for the night.

There was then a sword dance again in the rather small area and it was perhaps thankful the swords were not the sharp kind.  One of the Morris then moved a chair and upon standing on it began to chalking the beam as traditional for epiphany. Their version slightly different:

“Finally, at each place, three crosses are chalked onto the beams to protect the house and bring good luck for the next year.”

There were more cheers. 

Off we went to another pub and hear the wassail bowl was out. This a wooden bowl filled with spiced ale and was being offered around and drunk enthusiastically like a communion wine and in a way this was the intentions.

Phil Gorton noted in the Guildford gazette

“In each of the five places that we visited, the Guildford Mummer’s play was performed followed carols and wassail songs – not the boring standard issue ones but traditional versions, some of which are local to Surrey.”

These songs were particularly uplifting at their final pub The Royal Oak where gathered around the stairway and up on the balcony the Morris dancers and accompanied impromptu choir sung their hearts out in their mixture of traditional and not so familiar carols. The custom is so well established now that it has its own followers who regularly attend and know the words of the more obscure and localised carols much as they do around Sheffield.  As noted by Phil again:

“There are always plenty of singers who come along to bolster the unofficial choir and, as happens each year

The local newspaper recording:

“Up to 150 wassailers, traditionally celebrating twelfth night, toured some of Guildford’s pubs last night (Jan 6th) causing merriment at every venue.

One of the celebrants, morris man Phil Gorton of Farncombe said: “The pubs were packed and it was a riotous night!””

If you are in Guildford or perhaps not and are free on Twelfth Night join the wassail at Guildford for a great experience – second to none as it has something customwise for everyone – including free food and drink!!

Custom contrived: Battle of Hastings re-enactment

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‘I don’t want to spoil the end but Harold loses in the end!’

Britain is proud of its history and indeed it is a great money spinner – thousands travel to see sites associated with historical events and sometimes these historical events come to the visitors and barring a time machine – the only way is via the battle re-enactment. The Battle of Hastings is perhaps the most famous of these and well-known. 

1066 and all that!

The very first re-enactment was organised back in 1932 and called a pageant. It was organised by a Gwen Lally and impressively attracted 2600 re-enactors. In an article for the Sussex Agricultural Express Lally told the that she and her partner Mabel Gibson:

“had felt definite psychic influences in the Abbey grounds at late rehearsals…I think that the monks were probably not displeased with us, for we were doing them no dishonour in making those lovely scenes live again”.

This was apparently a one off and is remembered by a commemorative pamphlet displayed at Battle Abbey. A regular re-enactment would not begin until understandingly English Heritage saw the commercial possibility in a regular event. This would take place at first every two years and then annually since 1984 on a weekend date closest to the 14th  October; the date closest to the actual event. Then every five or six years  it has been the site of major re-enactments. At the 2000 re-enactment, called “Hastings 2000”, about 1000 reenactors on foot 100 cavalry and between 50 and 100 archers from 16 different countries took part. That year was nearly a washout as the BBC website attests:

“She said: “Fortunately the battleground – on Senlac Hill – is high ground and in no danger of flooding.”

Not that a bit of rain would affect anyone I’d say and it would add to the reality of it. Certainly the participants really take the re-enactment serious. The air is awash with the sound of clashing swords and maces. Bodies flung against each other as the arrows flew over head. This event is heavily choregraphed but there is a real authentic feel to the conflict. Of course we are all know the outcome but that does not detract from the excitement of the event. Those doing are doing it for real almost it seems. However, not as much that the time I watched that Harold would have a chance to win…oh no this is strict to script Harold will be losing!

Walk to Victory…er defeat

There has become over time at the big events a re-enactment of the walk from Stamford Bridge to Hastings as recorded by the BBC in 2006:

“Members of a group called The Vikings, who call themselves Britain’s largest Dark Age re-enactment society, preceded the battle by restaging Harold’s dash back to Sussex.

They left York on 21 September in full period costume, passing through Nottingham, Leicester, Luton, London and Kent, before arriving in Battle on Friday.”

Again adding to the realism of the event the re-enactors being tired as were Harold’s men on the actual event.

Eye eye!

Of course we know what is going be the key thing to look out for and so does the re-enactor playing Harold as the BBC website recorded in 2006

“Roger Barry, who faced inevitable defeat as King Harold II, said he had studied the Battle of Hastings for a long time.

On acting out his character’s death, the 49-year-old soldier from Salisbury in Wiltshire said: “I have down my person somewhere an arrow or part of an arrow.

“On cue, I will clasp my eye with the arrow over it and fall gracefully to the ground.

“It’s a bit of bummer really, but sadly that’s the way it is. It’s fun, win or lose.

As I say we all know the outcome like watching a movie over and over again, there is some comfort in seeing how that inevitable end will happen! Certainly the crowds of 30000 would agree and has become one of the largest re-enactment of its kind. 

 

 

Custom revived: Chester Mystery Plays

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“The Aldermen and stewards of every society and company draw yourselves to your said several companies according to Ancient Custom and so to appear with your said several Companies every man as you are Called upon pain that shall fall thereon”

 

In the busy streets of Chester this cry might not be as effective as it was in the mediaeval streets in which the Mystery plays were originally performed. Such dramas were common across Europe since the 10th century in some cases and by the late 12th century they were performed outside churches and unlike much of the church services would be spoken in the vernacular language – in Chester that would be English – this meant it was far more accessible and easier way for the populace to learn the biblical stories in the Old and New Testaments. 

The introduction in 1264  of the Feast of Corpus christi appeared to be a catalyst for the mystery play expansion; combined with an expansion of towns and cities and associated guilds who were often responsible for it. The skilled labourers in such communities would common together to build stages and props for the plays and as such they become increasingly sophisticated. By this time the Mysteries were fully developed with a tableau of biblical scenes. One of the first recorded was a biblical history of salvation performed in York by 1394 and as commercial trade benefited from the visitors came to see the play other towns such as Chester adopted them. 

No Play days

However, the Reformation was to slowly stop the plays. They were banned nationally in the 16th century and interestingly, Chester was the last to concede. In 1562 the cathedral still paid for the stage and beer; 1568 a play cycle was performed and again 1572 which was despite the protest by an Evangelical minister and again were performed in 1575. The later resulted in the Mayor being called the Star Chamber in London to answer to why but he escaped prosecution. A record of play for the 4th June 1600 suggests it dragged on further before the protestant forces won. 

Mystery revealed

Despite the toleration act and the increasing acceptance of what had been seen as Popish practises; the Chester Mystery plays were not revived until 1951 for the Festival of Britain. Since then they have been performed every  five years.

I attended in 2001 and soon found the performers in the stage in front of the Town Hall. It was simple but effective set up with a backdrop of the cityscape painted on the back high above it in a raised stage was God beneath a rainbow. I was considerably impressed with how this simple set up was so effective and loud. A large crowd begun to gather and listen carefully. It was an interactive performance with the cast quick to call out to the audience and solicit appropriate responses.

Since then the Chester Mystery plays have become more and more polished and now moved to the Cathedral which creates a fantastic backdrop but perhaps detaches it from its original intentions.

Custom revived: Hemswell May Day, Lincolnshire

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A cursory glance of a book on Calendar customs will find no mention of the Hemswell May Day. This is a shame for although the present celebration is not of a great vintage, it is claimed that Hemswell maypole dancing celebrations in the world dating significantly back to 1660, the year of the Restoration. However, the earliest record of the Maypole is from the street name first recorded in 1841.It is noted that the weathervane was added in 1859, Gutch and Peacock (1908) in their work on Lincolnshire folklore notes:

“Hemswell Maypole. — On a recent visit to the neighbourhood of Gainsborough, I went to Hemswell, a village at the foot of what is termed ‘ The Cliff,’ in the northern division of the county of Lincoln. In the centre of the village I was surprised to see a Maypole. The pole proper stands between two stout posts about fifteen feet high. Near the top of them a strong iron bolt is passed through the whole. The posts are fixed firmly in the ground, while the pole between is loose at the bottom, but kept in place by a second transverse bolt near the ground, which is drawn out when the pole is wanted to be lowered; which is done by getting a ladder and fixing a rope high up on the pole, by which it is pulled down, swinging on the top transverse bolt as on a pivot. It is steadied by another rope at the bottom. When decorated it is raised to its place again by pulling the bottom rope, and it is fixed by reinserting the lower transverse bolt.”

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The authors do not appear to describe any use of the Maypole and the earliest record of its use being pictures of the early 1900s. It is known that it was lowered and repainted in 1919 by the village carpenter, a Charles Love at the cost of 25/-. However, by the time Rudkin (1936) describes it, the correspondent appears to suggest such events were a thing of the past:

“Feast week was in Maytime (ie Mayweek first week in May) and there used to be stalls all in the street round the maypole. There was ‘good-stiff’ stalls and sweetmeat stalls and aunt sally a rare fine show it was!As a little ‘un I remember it and id 4d to spend so I spent it all in halfpence – and I did buy a lot with that 54d! We danced at nighttime round the Maypole, but only ordinary round dances, none of those dances with ribbons attached to the pole – I never heard tell of that being done pers Mrs H of Hemswell.”

She is more emphatic in the County Magazine (1934-6), as Rudkin notes:

“Hemswell is our only village that can boast of a Maypole still in position..but all traditions about dances or other doings are now dead in the village itself.”

May be old or Maypole be not!

Allen (1994) in her work The Hemswell Maypole notes however and a Mr. Senior in 1977 could remember a youth climbing it to put some briads on it. Allen (1994) suggests that the attempt was unsuccessful as he could not recollect any dancing. It appears if a Mrs Edith Bamford is correct with her recollection in 1986 when 87 that the tradition of Maypole dancing was kept alive by the school having a portable maypole. Certainly photographs from the 1950s show this. Despite this repairs were made in 1957 and 1964. It appears probable that the custom was revived in 1976 when the Lincoln Folk Dance society asked if they could use it.  They brought their own braids and a May Day was established and now dancing and a small fete is held around the Maypole area and parish hall on the May Bank Holiday.  The braids due to the difficulty of reaching the top of the pole are set mid way up.  Now the children wear a special costume with boy’s smocks patterned to denote their work and girls with long cotton skirts, aprons and fen-bridle style cotton bonnets.  Over the years Allen (1994) notes:

“Sometimes a May Queen has figured in the celebrations; the Lincolnshire Morris Men have often joined us, and other visitors have included the Lincoln Folk dance society, the Tatterfoals, and Dukes Dandy Clog Dancers, all bringing their particular brand of tradition.”

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The Hobby Horse and the rider

Only a hobby

One of the most interesting aspects of the day is a hobby horse – more horse like than others, which collects money and appears from all accounts to be a familiar feature although it is isolated from the dancing and appears to not to be associated with a Morris team. He wanders around with a note asking for money for his stable – the village hall! One wonders the origin of it, of course Obby Oss are associated with three West Country May events and certainly Rudkin refers to one in nearby towns of Grimsby where a sadly colourful defunct May pole day records: 

“And there was also Robin Hood, the Friar, the fool, the dragon and the Hobby Horse, all robed in character.”

Such a cavalcade of characters may suggest similar disguises where undertaken at Hemswell, but only the Hobby Horse remains, a person completely covered with a  sheet with a horse’s head on top carved out of wood. A bonus as the Hobby Horse is certainly a unique feature to Hemswell and one which looks vert old.

From the revival in the 1970s this quiet local celebration has continued. In 1992 when the pole was weathered for 5 years previous and a new brass fox placed on the top of its 17th feet, ensuring perhaps at least another 100 years of May days…so long may this remote location celebrate the May with their very own Maypole.

Custom demised: Gyst-ale in Ashton-under-Lyne

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A lost festival was associated with Lady Day in Ashton-under-Lyne. Its first mention is in a rental of Sir John de Assheton, compiled a.d. 1422:

“that twenty shillings were paid to him as lord of the manor for the privilege of holding this feast by its then conductors. The persons named in the roll as having paid 3s. 4d. each are: Margret, that was the wife of Hobbe the Kynges (of misrule) ; Hobbe Adamson ; Eoger the Baxter; Robert Somayster; Jenkyn of the Wode; and Thomas of Curtual.”

What does Gyst-ale mean?

The meaning of the term gyst-ale is involved in some obscurity—most probably the payments above were for the gyst, or hire, for the privilege of selling ale and other refreshments during the festivals held on the payment of the rents of the manor. These guis-ings were frequently held in the spring, most probably about Lady Day, when manorial rents were usually paid; and, as the fields were manured with marl about the same period, the term marlings has been supposed to indicate the rough play or marlocMng which was then practised. This, however, must be a mistake, since the term relates to merry pranks, or pleasure gambols only, and has no connection with marl as a manure.”

Thistleton-Dwyer goes on to explain:

“These gyst-ales, or guisings, once ranked amongst the principal festivals of Lancashire, and large sums of money were subscribed by all ranks of society in order that they might be celebrated with becoming splendour. The lord of the manor, the vicar of the parish, the farmer, and the operative, severally announced the sums they intended to give, and when the treasurer exclaimed ” A largesse,” the crowd demanded ” from whom ?” and then due proclamation was made of the sum subscribed. The real amount, however, was seldom named, but it was announced that ” Lord John­son,” or some other equally distinguished person had con­tributed “a portion of ten thousand pounds” towards the expenses of the feast.”

One of the important aspects on the custom was the construction of an immense garland:

“which contained abundance of every flower in season, interspersed with a profusion of evergreens and ribbons of every shade and pattern. The framework of this garland was made of wood, to which hooks were affixed, and on these were suspended a large collection of watches, jewels, and silver articles borrowed from the richer residents in the town. On the day of the gyst this garland was borne through the principal streets and thoroughfares, attended by crowds of townspeople dressed in their best attire.”

The custom appeared to have inherited some characters from a mummer’s play. Indeed R.T. Hampson’s 1841 Dates, Charters, and Customs of the Middle Ages,states:

“In Lancashire we find the term gyst-ale, which seems to be one of the corruptions of disguising, as applied to mumming. Gyst-ale, or guising, was celebrated in Eccles [England] with much rustic splendor at the termination of the marling [field-dunging] season when the villagers, with a “king” at their head, walked in procession with garlands, to which silver plate was attached, which was contributed by the principal gentry in the neighbourhood.”

Thistleton-Dwyer continues:

“These were formed into a procession by a master of the ceremonies, locally termed the king. Another principal attendant was the Fool, dressed in a grotesque cap, a hideous grinning mask, a long tail hanging behind him, and a bell with which he commanded attention when announcements were to be made. In an early period of these guisings the fool was usually mounted on a hobby-horse, and indulged in grotesque pranks as he passed along—hence we obtained the term ” hob-riding,” and more recently the proverbial expression of “riding one’s hobby to death.”

Sadly all this uniqueness has now gone around the beginning of the last century!

Custom contrived: King Harold’s Day at Waltham Abbey

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King Harold Day is a good example how a custom can be made to capitalise on a local areas famous offspring and in a way question why it had not been done before. Waltham Abbey is the sort of small town nestled on the outskirts of the great conurbation of London which could easily be overlooked, lose its identity to a dormer satellite of that great city. A place where its own identity and the celebrating thereof is largely overshadowed by its larger neighbour.

King Harold, the loser of the famous battle of Hastings is perhaps an obvious choice – a victim of fortune and the sort of ‘loser’ the British oft like to celebrate and remember. However, despite the marking of his grave in the ruins of the local abbey, the first time it would appear Harold was celebrated in 2004, being developed from various sources as the event website describes how:

“Elaine Fletcher and Tricia Gurnett, who both used to work in the area, decided they would like to do something to promote the rich history of this ancient town.   They soon found that Isabelle Perrichon, owner of the historic tearooms in the town and a French national, had the same idea, and had spoken to the Rector at the Abbey Church, who had asked Dave and Sheila Giles to represent the Church on the group.   The sixth person who joined was Garth Gregory, a local amateur dramatics enthusiast.   This little group put together the first event.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnKDwUsSWnA

2016 was a big year for the festival marking the 950th anniversary of 1066 the events were as follows:

“ We began with Compline for a Coronation in the Abbey on the 6 January 2016. During the year we went on to have a major exhibition at the Museum on King Harold II, his Life and Legacy. We welcomed English Heritage’s 1066 March to the town when armoured horsemen rode at some speed through gridlocked traffic to the Abbey and we then re-enacted King Harold praying at the Holy Cross of Waltham before continuing his journey to Hastings. Then we had the 2016 King Harold Day. This was followed by a Day Conference held at the Town Hall, and organized by the Museum, which attracted renowned speakers on King Harold, the Bayeux Tapestry and the 1066 story. Finally there was a talk on King Harold at the Museum.”

The event is a colourful addition to the roster of commemoration and re-enactment types of events which the British do so well. With the march through the town and the King praying at the cross one could clearly see in these busy modern streets how Waltham Abbey’s great history was a rich one.

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Dr Johnson’s Birthday commemoration

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The picturesque city of Lichfield could win a prize for the most traditional calendar customs and ceremonies a number of which I have detailed in this blog. One of these is an annual celebration of their most famous son, the poet, essayist, lexicographer and all around scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson. The man who gave the world the first real dictionary A Dictionary of the English Language.

Born in 1709 it too nearly 200 years for the city to formally recognise him however when in 1903 the Lichfield City Council first started their September birthday celebrations. A society was founded in 1910 the year after the bi-century of the author’s birth which was remembered with a big celebration.

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

In 1909 it was reported in Lichfield Mercury that;

“From Wednesday , Sept . 15 , to Sunday , Sept . 19 , 1909 , Lichfield gave itself up with great enthusiasm and éclat to the celebration of the two – hundredth anniversary of the birth of its most illustrious citizen , Dr . Samuel Johnson . 

For months before the preparations had been going on , and they culminated in great and brilliant gatherings which will without doubt be historic in the annals of the ancient and loyal City”. 

The order of the day has not changed much over the years:

12  Noon .  Great gathering of citizens in the Market  square , when the Children of the schools of the City will assemble to take part in the celebra tion .

Tableaux illustrative of the genius of Dr . Johnson will be placed in prominent positions in the Market square , representing  Literature ,   Poetry ,   and the  Drama . 

Address by the Sheriff .

Presentation of silver and bronze medals to the scholars of the respective schools in the City . The medals will be awarded for proficiency in the English language , English history and biography , general knowledge , and good conduct . 

Two hymns of Joseph Addison , the famous essayist , son of Lancelot Addison , Dean of Lichfield , and one of the eminent scholars of Lichfield Grammar School , will be sung on the occasion .

4 p . m . to 6 p . m . – Reception by the Mayor and Mayoress in the Guildhall . ”

7 30 p . m . – The Anniversary Johnson Supper , at the George Hotel . Speaker , Mr . W . Pett Ridge .

A man may be so much of everything that he is nothing of anything.

However, despite the big celebration for the 220th anniversary the Mayor of Lichfield stated that:

‘He was a great a man, and he was still a great man today: but there were so many who knew so little about the greatness of their fellow citizen.”

And it goes on to state that not many people knew of him. However, one cannot say that now as the town on Saturday morning was buzzing with people in the town perhaps encouraged by the free birthday cake available in the Birthplace museum. As noted in the 300th anniversary the events were:

On Friday September 18, Dr Johnson’s birthday, there will be a spectacular light and sound show in the Market Place, with live performances suitable for all the family.

The celebrations continue on Saturday with a ceremony in Market Square with live music, followed by cake at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. A special book fair will also take place at Wade Street Church Hall on Saturday in honour of Dr Johnson’s love of books.”

When I arrived the Mayor and various other dignitaries and a group of local children assembled around the statue of Johnson on his plinth where a metal step ladder was also placed.

The assembled group of children begun to sing and the Mayor and guest of honour came forward to a podium and drew the audience to the importance of the great man and came forward with a wreath which was placed on the moment. Then the city celebrated with some local bands and of course…some Morris dancers.