Category Archives: Mayor

Custom occasional: Corby Pole Fair

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“At Corby near Rockingham, every twentieth year, the inhabitants assemble at an early hour, and stop up all roads and bye-ways in the parish, and demand a certain toll of every person, gentle or simple, who may have occasion to pass through the village on that day. In case of non-compliance a stout pole is produced, and the nonconformist is placed thereon, in a riding attitude, carried through the village, and taken to the parish stocks and imprisoned until the authorities choose to grant a dismissal. It appears that Queen Elizabeth granted to the inhabitants of Corby a charter to free them from town toll throughout England, Wales, and Scotland; and also to exempt them from serving on juries at Northampton, and to free the knights of the shire from the militia law. This custom of taking toll has been observed every twenty years in commemoration of the granting of the charter.—N. & Q. 3rd S. vol. i. p. 424.”

And much as the notes and queries records this is what greats the visitor today on Corby’s most important day.

Be fair

My first and at that time only experience of the Corby Pole fair was unsurprisingly 20 years previous in 2002. I had found out about it from Charles Kighty’s The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain which at the time was one of my sole sources for calendar customs and was curious to see this rare event. However, I must admit it did not impress; true there were the gates and the stocks, but no riding the stang, more of in a moment. It was to all intents and purposes it was just a big funfair sandwiched into a suburb. The sky was grey and the town busy. I did not find it an interesting experience. Thus 20 years later I was slightly wary of what I would experience. To be fair to the fair, I did not experience the traditional proclamation – which the book did not mention, and it was this I was particularly interested in experiencing!

Staying overnight within the village is to be recommended because then you can appreciate the rather surreal nature of being enclosed with a fair village. One of the traditions of the custom is the setting up of the barriers, the tolls, which are then covered with flowers. For 2022 these were set up in three places and decorated with foliage and children’s artwork. Being within the boundary of course also meant no toll!

Fairly early

Fairs like their proclamations and they are always colourful but I would say that Corby’s proclamation is one of the most interesting starting as it does at dawn with the chiming of the bells of St John the Baptist Church in Corby Old Village to gather all the village folk to hear it. I could not hear the bells but fortunately my alarm had got me up early enough and I made my way to the church following the then obvious chimes. There a fair sized congregation had assembled; many of which were press. At the foot of the church steps were three wooden sedan chairs as part of the tradition is the chairing of the proclamation party between the sites. This party consists of the vicar, the Mayor and the oldest resident of the village. Soon the bells stopped and a small choir appeared and started to sing; their sound magically swirling around in the air as the vicar read out the proclamation. Then Rev Paul Frost was given the honour of reading the Charter granted to the village in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth I. After it was read for the first time in public for 20 years of course; the three walked down and settled themselves into their chairs ready to be carried. There was a considerable amount of laughter and nervousness from all involved, as well as considerable press interest, as the volunteers grabbed each corner of the chairs and one by one, they lifted their charges up – first the oldest resident, an overjoyed June Thompson, then the vicar and lastly the mayor, Tafadwa Chikoto.

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The crowd parted and off they paraded down the street to the next proclamation point – a local pub, the White Hart, located at another entrance. Here standing on a wall the proclamation was again read and the party moved back to their chairs…noticing the lack of volunteers I opted to help. Well, it would be another 20 year until I have the next chance and I do not honestly think I’d be able to carry the vicar. Plus I noticed it was downhill from here and surprisingly it was quite easy…and I hoped that it put a good word in for me ‘upstairs’. At the final pub, the Jamb, it had been moved to accommodate the radio show, the chairs were lowered for a final time and the proclamation read for the final time. Then it was time for another Pole fair tradition, missed last time also – the free breakfast! Rather surreally attended by Vikings, knights and ordinary people…

Pole axed!

T. F. Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1875 British Popular customs present and past notes that:

“Why it is held every 20 years has never been discovered, nor why it is called a pole fair. But one theory suggests that when the Danes settled in the area, naming Corby village ‘The BY of Kori’, they brought many customs and punishments with them.

One such punishment, which lends itself to the theory, was ‘riding the stang’.

This involved men who had committed minor offences being carried astride an ash pole or stang. Insults and missiles where then thrown at the punished as they were carried through the town or village.”

Further ‘The Rutland Appendix to Almanacks for 1826’ states

“They went on to describe the demands for tolls from every person who passed through Corby that day with non-payers being made to ride through the town to jeers and shouts from the locals as penance, followed by a period of time spent in the stocks.”

This was one of the aspects I had missed in 2002 and despite seeing the stocks there was no-one in them and at the point of entry I was half minded not to pay so that that I would have to be carried ‘riding the stang’…but I don’t think that was the done thing or not! Photos of the custom show up – including in 1982!

Twenty years on and there were new stocks at Stock’s Lane and plenty of people queuing up to be put inside them for their amusing photo. But would there be a stang? Then by chance I was standing by the stocks when three people arrived two carrying a pole between their shoulders…and then as modern electro soundtrack blasted out the entered into a fluid dance, weaving in and out of each other and the pole in an interpretative dance the aim to avoid the stang! Then after much toing and froing one of them was captured onto the stang and was raised into the air and carried to the stocks. It was certainly a very interesting way of keeping the tradition alive and one which was certainly an improvement from 2002 (I could not be sure that they did this then to be honest)

There was also the traditional procession with large figures of important Corby people, including Queen Elizabeth of course and a colourful interjection of Romanian folk dancers – who indeed added a delightfully unique experience at one of the stages. Later in the afternoon was the pageant, and after a technical issue, was a splendid re-telling of the Elizabeth charter giving in wonderful custom.

There were other traditions associated with the custom which continued – the ox roast and the greasy pole – however, unlike 2002, the dreaded health and safety had prevented anyone attempting it and it was replaced by a photo opportunity…shame but also I thought I was glad that the healthy and safety brigade had not stopped the sedan chair carrying.

Fairly old?

The agreed account is that Elizabeth gave the fair but needless to say that no such charter can be found, but Charles II did confirm the fair in 1682, Furthermore, there is evidence of fairs in 1226. Henry III granted the right to hold two annual fairs and markets. Of the Pole fair first documented account is written in Latin which is said to be the charter authorising the event, which states the last time it was celebrated was the 11th of June 1821. Furthermore, The Mercury Herald of November 6, 1936 has an article recalling the memories of a Miss Collier recalls attending five Pole Fairs, the earliest being 1842, 21 years later!1862 appears to be the possible date when after which the 20 years was introduced…but why is unclear! Perhaps it was a cost thing? However, the pole fair is a real boost to the local economy and a joyful experience and as by Laura Malpas in an article for Northamptonshire surprise notes:

“The last five Pole Fairs have come at a time when the people of Corby most needed to be cheered and to celebrate life. In 1922, the effects of the Great War were still evident as the village had lost forty-one men, and the fragility of the peace in Europe was still a concern. In 1942, the country was still in the grip of the Second World War and so the Pole fair was delayed until 1947, when the celebration was sweet indeed. 1962 saw the growth of the new town and an increased population as Corby was strong economically, but the following fair in 1982 was very different. Corby had suffered dreadfully from hardship following the decision by British Steel to close the steelworks and let the blast furnaces go out. However, there was still steel inside the hearts of the people of Corby to survive and thrive. The 1982 Pole Fair was a much-needed boost to the locals, and in 2002, the most recent fair held was a great celebration by the newly revitalised town which even today is still experiencing spectacular growth.”

And one could add 2022 with the cost of living crisis and Ukraine conflict. With the fantastic Viking camp, jousting knights, Morris dancers and all the fun of the fair…2022 was one of those rare things for me; much much better than last time! See you in 2042!

 

 

 

Custom contrived: Queen’s Birthday service and procession, Southwell

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This year being a jubilee year the celebration of Queen has been everywhere, from shop windows to suburban streets, the country has been on full on royal revels and rejoicing. However, one town has been celebrating the Queen annually for much longer. This is Southwell. Southwell is a very picturesque small town which as I have said before should have more traditions especially considering the delightful ancient minster.

The Queen’s birthday surprisingly is not celebrated much in the United Kingdom, bar a gun salute and Trooping the Colour. However, in much of the Commonwealth it is annually celebrated and is indeed a national holiday in such places. Not so here, so Southwell’s tradition is on the Sunday closest to the Queen’s official birthday in June.

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It’s my birthday and I’ll have two if I want to!

Indeed although Elizabeth II’s real birthday is in April, the tradition of celebrating a set date irrespective of who the king or queen is, is older. This set monarch’s birthday has been celebrated in the United Kingdom since the reign of King George II in 1748 being subsequently determined by  at first the British Empire and then the Commonwealth of Nations and the date set by each country depends on that country although to make use of supposed good weather in the northern hemisphere June is set.

Originally Queen Elizabeth II’s was the same as her father the second Thursday but was changed in 1959, and since then her Official Birthday has since then been celebrated on the second Saturday of June. Southwell undertake it usually the day after.

Queening up for the day

The service starts with a procession of the dignitaries attending this civic event and in the bright June sunshine it is an eye catching spectacle. Just a way down from the entrance of the Minster, mace bearer lead the Queen’s representative in the county, the Lord-Lieutenant, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, officers of the local army and judges in their ceremonial robes. They processed through the Minster archway and were created by the dean and church officials for the final procession into the church for the service.

How long the service has been undertaken I have been unable to fully discover but one of the local attendees suggested since the silver jubilee, another said the 80s, however the earliest newspaper account I can locate is from 1994 but it is clear that it was already been established by then:

“SWORD CARRIED TO SERVICE TRADITION was broken on Sunday when Mrs Richard Abel Smith, the first woman High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, took part in the Queen’s official birthday service in Southwell Minster. Instead of wearing her ceremonial sword, it was borne in front of her by grand-daughter Amelia Beaumont (6), who travelled from Ireland for the occasion. The sword was used by Mrs Abel Smith’s father, General Sir Douglas Kendrew, when he was Governor of Western Australia. Preacher at the service was the Bishop of Southwell, the Rt Rev Patrick Harris, and prayers were led by the high sheriff’s chaplain, the Rev Keith Turner, Vicar of Linby-cum-Papplewick. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry were ushers and Nottinghamshire Constabulary Band provided music before and after the service.”

Little did I know but I was to attend the last one before the national Covid lockdown. The year after it went digital and was reported more than any time before by the press. An article on the Southwell Minster website, the Queen’s Birthday Service: A Unique Celebration of Public Service in Nottinghamshire, reported that the then High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Dame Elizabeth Fradd, explained that:

“The Queen’s Birthday Service is usually a grand occasion at Southwell Minster but this year, like so much else, it will take a very different form. It will also have a new significance as a result of the pandemic and the public’s renewed appreciation of the value and importance of public service in all its forms.”

The Queen’s representative in Nottinghamshire is the Lord-Lieutenant, Sir John Peace, who said:

“What I see in local communities, across Nottinghamshire and across the country is an unprecedented crisis; what provides room for hope is the commitment to work together for the common good. Front line workers of all kinds deserve the public’s praise and appreciation but it is just as important to recognise the immense contribution of those behind the scenes. As Her Majesty said in her speech to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day: ‘We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us’. Following Her Majesty’s lead, this online service will be an occasion for us to demonstrate our pride in all aspects of public service and common endeavour. I invite everyone to join us online for this special celebration.”

Southwell’s Queen’s birthday celebration may be a small custom but it is certainly unique and worthy of attending.

Custom revived: Lincoln Crying Christmas

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I’ve said this before but some towns and cities lend themselves to having a plethora of customs and traditions. Lincoln is such a place but with its challenging Steep Hill, towering cathedral and Roman ruins it should have collated a number of curious customs – but bar a couple of interesting church services and its Australian breakfast – unfortunately since I reported it in this blog now in abeyance – its rather lacking. That is why the revival of perhaps one of the city’s unique and certainly colourful customs is very welcome.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

Why should anyone by crying over Christmas you may ask? Not getting the correct present was it? Indigestion from too much stuffing and pudding? Or was it the inevitable argument with the in laws that did it? Not its not the emotional type of crying but crying out as in calling out and the aim of this custom was to inform the citizens of the rules surrounding on the on coming festive period.

I arrive and climbed that famous steep hill – well at least the custom was going downwards – to see a small group assembled dressed in medieval clothing and carrying banners and traditional instruments. The party were called Waites an old English name for such civic musicians.

Waites in themselves are a curious tradition. They were a sort of municipal musicians employed by the Mayor to play at civic ceremonies. Established by Henry III in 1253 in association with watching over the citizens during the curfew and as such they died out as the curfew became redundant and were officially stopped by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act although apparently they continued to 1857 in Lincoln.

Origin of crying.

“”Evere franchest man and dennyssen inhabite within this Citie schalle have free liberte and sayffegarde in honest mirthe and gam sportis to goo or doe what hym pleys”.

The aim of the crying event being to inform the cities that unless written permission was given by the King, during the 12 days of Christmas no man would be arrested by the city’s authorities. Thus at regular intervals through the evening of the 21st December verses would be delivered either sung or spoken by three Senatours appointed by the Mayor and possibly city Waites. In 1576 for example it was recorded that:

“Christmas myrthe to be proclaimed in ten or twelve places and every Alderman to ride with the Officers”

The first written record of the custom is the words “Crying Christmas” being written on a flyleaf of Entries of the Common Council (1565 – 1599) with the words

“Anno xxv. Officij Willelmi Hynde Communis Clerici Civitatis Lincolniensis”.

An account of 1572 records:

“The old robes which the Officers Cried Christmas withal to be made into decent cloaks for the said officers to cry the same yearly.”

One assumes the custom became obsolete as soon as the Waites died out and it was not until 2007 that it was revived.

Waite for it!

Once the Cathedral clock struck 6pm and the with the steady beat of the drum we were off down into Lincoln. Accompanied with the sound of flutes and trumpets the streets of Lincoln was immediately brightened by this archaic sounds. Understandably as the ground processed downwards they received some interest from onlookers who stopped to take photos and some joined the procession behind making it seem like a real life piped piper procession.

 

At the first place one of the Waites put a horn to his lips and blew and then another called a Senator, read a proclamation:

“The maker Allmyghtye the grounds of all grace, Save this Congregation that here be present and Bryng them all to the Celestyall place, That with paycens wyll here the effect of our intent.”

A further three times these Senators read out their proclamations

“Oure intent & purpose is Auncyent customes to declare that have ben Vsed in this Citie manye yeres ago and noew for to breake them we wysshe ye schuld beware for ther be grevous ponysshmentes for them that wyll do soo.”

and then

“At the tyme of Crystmas, mythe haith ben made throughout all nacyons, of the Crystian faith and styll so to keip it, ye nede not be affrayde for then, was our Savyour bourn as the Scripture saith.”

It was all a bit confusing for the onlookers and indeed this being Friday night there were a few rowdy characters who sought to interject with their views, some somewhat colourful and in all cases fell flat. Indeed the concern with the possible conflict with the large night time economy meant that one year when the 21st fell on a Saturday it was decided not to entertain the notion!

In the market square beneath the shadow of the cathedral some of the Waites then danced weaving in and out of each other. I continued with them until we reached the Mayors parlour when the musicians played and a final proclamation made by the city cryer:

“The eternall Lord, have mercy on your souls this day. vnto other place to bear our tidings we must now away power upon you that ye may do good, the Lord bestow he, that all thynges both good and evil doth well know.”

Then we were all invited in for some festive food and the procession ended for another year. The city informed of the coming of Christmas and their rights and the dark and cold December nights made much better for it.

Custom contrived: Tenby Boxing Day swim

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Boxing Day dips and swims have become a modern phenomena and the desire to throw oneself into the icy cold waters around Britain just as the Christmas excesses has worn off can be found all around the country. Perhaps the oldest now over 50 years old is that at Tenby. A local news website stated:

“Named as one of Britain’s top ten barmiest winter dips, TENBY’s famous Boxing Day Swim has been an institution in the small West Wales town for decades and has recently featured in the ITV Wales series The Harbour, which was filmed in Tenby and shows a year in the life of the seaside community.”

The Tenby Boxing Day Swim is organised by the Tenby Sea Swimming Association, which dates back to the early 1900s as the organisers website states:

” In 1910, Arthur Dickinson – Quaker, lay preacher, artist and keen swimmer – brought his family from Yorkshire to live in Ruabon House, South Parade. Arthur was a year-round swimmer, and family legend has it that he was the first person to swim to Caldey. His son-in-law, Ossie Morgan, who was appointed as headmaster of the Tenby Council School, carried on the family tradition of teaching children to swim. When Mr Morgan retired, his own offspring decided to get non-swimmers afloat, and in the 1960s, Idris Morgan, Gly Osborne, Alan Morgan and Ray Lowe formed the Tenby Sea Swimming Association (TSSA). The opening of Tenby’s first indoor swimming pool could have spelled the end of TSSA, but the organisation then took on a new lease of life in 1970 when Tenby’s publicity officer, John Evans, came up with the idea of a charity Boxing Day Swim to put Tenby on the map. “

And pandemic aside it has thrived every since with numbers reaching the high 100s with around 800 in 2019 all amassed on the town’s North Beach excitedly staring into the grey waters. The event is of course a charity one and one which attracts a fair bit of eccentricity! Lined up on the beach awaiting its less than inviting waters are a wide range of young and old, some just in shorts and bikinis, some in full body costume – giant bananas appear to be popular – an Father and more often Mrs Claus. In 2020 Wales online recorded that the theme was Climate change:

“Ahead of the mad dash into the ocean, swim chairman Chris Osborne said: “Our seaside environment, which we proudly treasure, is under threat so it seems absolutely right that we support efforts to raise awareness of climate change and its impact. We hope our swimmers’ imaginative fancy dress will help in this cause.”

Indeed they did as:

“People embraced the theme of climate change for what was the 49th event, with even a polar bear spotted marching into the water complete with a sign proclaiming “Lost home to climate change”….There was even a Swedish-style ark, complete with endangered species, inspired by teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg.”

Large crowds watch on with the compulsory local photographers who encourage the usual high activity types of photos – often with the more glamorous members of the local community! Boxing day swim was for many just a dip in, although some plunged deeper into the waters watched with eagle eyes by boats from the RNLI for safety sake, Sensibly a large bonfire was set up on the beach and hot soup handed out – which was very welcomed. Perhaps less out of place with their full regalia the town’s Mayor than presents each of the  swimmers with a commemorative medal which this year. In the year of recognising the impact of climate change these were made out of wood instead of plastic or metal. For the 50th the theme of Golden was chosen and with its triumphant post lockdown return the beach was awash with shiny yellow suits and yes more bananas of course.

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 survived: Hot Penny Scrambling on Mayor’s Day, Rye, Sussex

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Mayor Making, that is the enthronement of a new Mayor, in Rye is an old tradition at least dating back 700 years. There are of course lots of such ceremonies in the country and whilst they are delightfully high in pomp, ceremony and colour, they are not as unique as what happens after Rye’s mayor is made. For afterwards the Mayor party take to the Town hall windows high above the square and rain pennies down upon the crowd. 

I attended the Throwing of the Hot Pennies as part of my mad May day weekend dash – having already experienced Oxford May Morning, Lewes May Garlands and stopped here on my way to the Rochester May Day and finishing off the day with the Hammersmith Jack. It was a bit of mad rush and adventure!

Why did Rye do this and not other places? Penny throwing or scrambling is found in other places such as Driffield and Reach Fair but these were often done for commercial reasons to encourage local children to spend money. This may be the reason but why would Rye do this and not other towns?

Hot money!

Jacqueline Simpson (1973) Folklore of Sussex states that one of the main reasons was that this was because Rye had its own mint and one day she states:

“The town ran out of pennies on Mayor’s Day, and a boy sent to fetch new ones from the mint brought them back so fast that they were still hot.”

The other would be that once the Mayor of Rye was a member of parliament and so provided money to bribe the voters. To be honest neither really make sense! Tony Foxworthy in his Customs in Sussex adds further reasons:

“The reason the pennies are heated before being thrown is to make sure the bigger children dont get larger handfuls than the smaller children (very likely)

The simple reason for throwing heated coins is to instil on the young people of Rye’s mind the importance of the day when the Mayor of Rye is installed.”

Although again this does ask why Rye?

Coined a profit!

It was reported in 1967 that the local bank had supplied coins that were minted in 1951 which was extraordinary as in this year most of the coins minted were sent to British dependencies in the West Indies and so made them rare. It was reported that after throwing £2.10s worth of coinage it was worked out that each penny was actually worth £12 and as such the rest of the coins were valued and kept safe…cannot imagine this rather put a dampener on all the fun!

In those days the total thrown was £5 now it is £20 and at some times in the past the George Hotel was used. 

Scramble to get there!

I turned up just in time to see a large crowd of excitable children mass below the Town Hall and the new Mayor turn up flanked by two mace bearers. A sort of hush descend as the windows opened and the crowd looked up in anticipation. A gleeful Mayor with a shovel in his hand tossed it upwards and off the coins went flying into the air! Soon all the children fell to the floor desperate to pick as many as possible. There was clearly a lot of enjoyment and the children would certainly remember it in many years to come….clearly the reason they did it!

PLEASE NOTE THIS BLOG WAS IN A BIT OF OBEYANCE OVER THE LAST YEAR BUT AS A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION I AM DETERMINED TO COMPLETE ALL MONTHS BEFORE THE END OF JANUARY…THE BLOGS 10TH ANNIVERSARY!

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: London’s New Year Parade

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“Executive director Bob Bone started the event with his wife Geri in the 1980s after they had wanted to take their children out on New Year’s Day and found most museums, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and shops were closed.”

And thus was born what would become the world’s largest New Year’s Day street parade.

 

It was new year 2019 and I had a busy day ahead. I got up early to attend a rather empty local radio studio for a breakfast show about new day customs and so it was rather appropriate to take the opportunity to attend one of the few New Year Day customs – the London New Year parade.

New year new custom

It was in 1987 that the first New Year’s Parade was started under the name Lord Mayor of Westminster’s Big Parade..surprisingly this rather clunky and rather lacking in details (or perhaps too much detail) name survived until 1994. I am sure that someone in the organisation thought to themselves it does not really say anything about when it is…and who outside of London would care about the Lord Mayor of Westminster was. So clearly with an eye on its commercial survival and its familiarity with tourists…the more obvious New Year’s Parade was coined. A name which would have greater resonance.

Certainly the organisers have their eye on the tourists. For example probably when another member of the teams rightfully observed that the parade route missed the big tourist locations the route was wisely reversed in 2010. This was done to:

“appease US television broadcasters and give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster (The Houses of Parliament, also known as Big Ben) and Trafalgar Square”.

The article continues

“The reverse route will give the American audience the best views of the capital’s landmarks, such as Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. The annual parade is popular in the US and an estimated 100 million viewers are expected to tune in. Last year nearly 4,000 Americans took part, representing 24 different bands.”

A wise move with the event being televised now in 900 countries – although not broadcast live in the UK!

 

Parading about

I arrived around an hour before the parade was about to start and arrange myself in a place a mile or so down from the starting block. One could soon see the crowds awaiting and hear the sound coming of bands – that staple of all parades.

The event is certainly a big one with 32 London boroughs involved and all manner of commercial enterprises. At the head of the parade was a huge inflated Mayor of London and soon after an inflated red phone box! There was a clever nod to the other parades – yellow NYC taxis, a Chinese Dragon and some rather brave Brazilian dancers – a veritable smorgasbord of parade icons – through into this some classic cars, motor cycles and tickertape and reference to west end shows such as the Wicked! All in all on a rather dull January Day a bright and vibrant injection.

 

Whilst the New Year’s Day Parade is certainly an impressive and joyful event personally it is not one I hurry back to experience again. Why? The crowds surprisingly and perhaps not surprisingly because as the founder did state there is still little else to do in London on the 1st of January are a little intense. However, I have coped with crowds. No I feel it is more the overt commercial aspect of the event. It is an event purely for the tourists devoid of any real tradition. That’s fine the city needs to keep those tourists happy. However, I found it rather soulless! Loud, bright, engaging…perhaps fun…but soulless. I would certainly recommend it to anyone to see once and certainly if they in London over NYE but perhaps not to travel especially for..and indeed in 2021 one didn’t need to we all joined remotely!

Custom contrived: London Bridge Sheep Drive

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If you turn up on the last Sunday in September it is not just cars you have to dodge as you cross London bridge, no it will be sheep, liverymen, an odd celebrity and photographers! Yes for this is the annual London sheep drive – drive as in the sense to drive them across, as I mean a sheep drove, er no not with a car, you go behind them…oh well hopefully you will realise what I mean!

Pulling the wool over one’s eyes?

The event is organised by the Woolmen of the city, who claim that in medieval times, when sheep farmers drove their sheep across the bridge into the City of London to sell them at market, the Freemen of the City were excused the bridge toll that had to be paid by the others, as they were local traders and were  recognised as such. It is not clear when this sheep were last driven across but the appearance of the motor car would have made such a journey a bit perilous and unnecessary as well!

At some point in one of those conversations down the pub; this time presumably in the bar of the livery company of Woolmen, someone came up with the idea of re-instating the drove; as some sort of ancient right cum tradition, which of course there is little evidence it was despite what Bill Clark, Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, said: “Driving sheep over London Bridge by Freemen of the City is a tradition rooted in more than 800 years of the history of the Woolmen.

This notwithstanding, in 2013 wanting to uphold the tradition of Freemen’s rights, the Worshipful Company of Woolmen arranged:

“the first official Sheep Drive for Freemen of the City and their guests to ‘drive’ sheep across the bridge. The event has been so successful that it has continued ever since and with places selling out every year we are planning for over 700 pre-booked supporters for 2021.”

Being a bit sheepish!

However, this was not the first time in recent years. As in 2009 a group dressed as farmers had crossed the bridge – albeit in far less publicity as the recent establishment. Over the short number of years the company has attracted a colourful and impressive roster of celebrity drivers ranging from Alan Titchmarsh to Barbara Windsor; .

“Re-energising this old tradition provides a fun day out for Londoners but it is also a reminder of the City of London’s important trading history. Wool may have been replaced by stocks and shares but London is still the world’s centre of commerce.”

In 2016 it was reported that:

“Thirty sheep are provided for the event by a Bedfordshire farmer, with just ten at a time driven across the bridge by successive groups of Freemen.”

The event offers a colourful spectacle as the liverymen and the mayor officials and even Bo Peep stand by to drive in small groups with a sponsor the sheep across the bridge and back again..a real classic British custom colourful but largely if completely pointless! I do wonder what they sheep think of it! The assembled crowds loved it of course.

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.