Category Archives: Private

Custom demised: Gule of August and Lammas Towers, Lothian

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“The herdsmen within a certain district, towards the beginning of summer, associated themselves into bands, sometimes to the number of a hundred or more. Each of these communities agreed to build a tower in some conspicuous place, near the centre of their district, which was to serve as the place of their rendezvous on Lammas Day. This tower was usually built of sods, for the most part square, about four feet in diameter at the bottom and tapering to a point at the top, which was seldom above seven or eight feet from the ground. In building it, a hole was left in the centre for a flagstaff, on which to display their colours.”

Scottish traditions - Lammas Day - History ScotlandSuch records an unusual custom in the Trans. Soc. Antiq. of Scotland, vol. i.  It continues to state:

“From the moment the foundation of the tower was laid, it became an object of care and attention to the whole community; for it was reckoned a disgrace to suffer it to be defaced; so that they resisted, with all their power, any attempts that should be made to demolish it, either by force or fraud; and, as the honour that was acquired by the demolition of a tower, if effected by those belonging to another, was in proportion to the disgrace of suffering it to be demolished, each party endeavoured to circumvent the other as much as possible, and laid plans to steal upon the tower unperceived, in the night time, and level it with the ground. Great was the honour that such a successful exploit conveyed to the undertakers; and, though the tower was easily rebuilt, yet the news was quickly spread by the successful adventurers, through the whole district, which filled it with shouts of joy and exultation, while their unfortunate neighbours were covered with shame.”

There appeared to be some competition arisen which may have lead to some desire to knock over the rival’s effort there for it continues to state:

“To ward off this disgrace, a constant nightly guard was kept at each tower, which was made stronger and stronger, as the tower advanced; so that frequent nightly skirmishes ensued at these attacks, but were seldom of much consequence, as the assailants seldom came in force to make an attack in this way, but merely to succeed by surprise; as soon, therefore, as they saw they were discovered, they made off in the best manner they could.”

The night watch would have a horn and this was called the “tooting horn,” which was described as a “horn perforated in the small end, through which wind can be forcibly blown from the mouth, so as to occasion a loud noise” And it said that there was need for great dexterity and that “they practised upon it during the summer while keeping their beasts; and towards Lammas they were so incessantly employed at this business, answering to, and vieing with each other, that the whole country rang continually with the sounds.”

The custom was organised and the report continues:

“As Lammas Day approached each community chose one from among themselves for their captain, and they prepared a stand of colours to be ready to be then displayed. For this purpose they borrowed a fine table-napkin of the largest size from one of the farmers’ wives within the district, and ornamented it with ribbons. Things being thus prepared, they marched forth early in the morning on Lammas Day, dressed in their best apparel, each armed with a stout cudgel, and, repairing to their tower, there displayed their colours in triumph, blowing horns, and making merry in the best manner they could: about nine o’clock they sat down upon the green and had their breakfast.”

There would still be concerns over attacks from other parties and thus:

“In the meantime scouts were sent out towards every quarter to bring them notice if any hostile party approached, for it frequently happened, that, on that day, the herdsman of one district went to attack those of another district, and to bring them under subjection to them by main force. If news were brought that a hostile party approached, the horns sounded to arms, and they immediately arranged themselves in the best order they could devise; the stoutest and boldest in front, and those of inferior prowess behind. Seldom did they await the approach of the enemy, but usually went forth to meet them with a bold countenance, the captain of each company carrying the colours, and leading the van. When they met they mutually desired each other to lower their colours in sign of subjection. If there appeared to be a great disproportion in the strength of the parties, the weakest usually submitted to this ceremony without much difficulty, thinking their honour was saved by the evident disproportion of the match; but, if they were nearly equal in strength, neither of them would yield, and it ended in blows, and sometimes bloodshed. It is related that, in a battle of this kind, four were actually killed, and many disabled from work for weeks.”

However it then states that:

“If no opponent appeared, or if they themselves had no intention of making an attack, at about mid-day they took down their colours, and marched, with horns sounding, towards the most considerable village in their district; where the lasses and all the people came out to meet them, and partake of their diversions. Boundaries were immediately appointed, and a proclamation made, that all who intended to compete in the race should appear. A bonnet ornamented with ribbons was displayed upon a pole as a prize to the victor; and sometimes five or six started for it, and ran with as great eagerness as if they had been to gain a kingdom; the prize of the second race was a pair of garters, and the third a knife. They then amused themselves for some time with such rural sports as suited their taste, and dispersed quietly to their respective homes before sunset. When two parties met, and one of them yielded to the other, they marched together for some time in two separate bodies, the subjected body behind the other, and then they parted good friends, each performing their races at their own appointed place. Next day, after the ceremony was over, the ribbons and napkin that formed the colours were carefully returned to their respective owners, the tower was no longer a matter of consequence, and the country returned to its usual state of tranquillity.”

When this curious custom died up exactly is unclear it was still being described in the 18th century but as a possible more ancient pagan custom it is a shame and surprised in some format it has not been revived!

 

Custom demised: The Order of Free Gardener’s processions

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During the middle of the 17th century in Scotland the Order of Free Gardeners was established a fraternal society with its main aim was the sharing of profession knowledge linked and mutual insurance. Furthermore like other organisations, it would process in July.

James Haig in his 1825 History of Kelso stated

“The Society of Gardeners, on the second Tuesday in the month of July, the day of their annual general meeting, parade the streets, accompanied by a band of music, and carrying an. elegant device, composed of the  most beautiful flowers, which, on the company reaching the inn where they dine, is thrown from the window to the crowd, who soon demolish it in a scramble for the flowers.”

The group had also spread into England, in the border town of Berwick, John Fuller in his  1825 History of Berwick-upon-Tweed states that:

“The association of gardeners, which took place in 1796, had in his time a procession through the streets yearly. It was accompanied with music; and, in the middle of the procession, a number of men carried a large wreath of flowers. The different officers belonging to this institution wore their respective insignia, and the whole society dined together.”

Interestingly, some societies paraded with a costumed character usually one called ‘Old Adam’ or the Green Man but sometimes Jock in the Green a vernacular Jack in the Green. He was particularly seen during Haddington parade, where led the town piper and Jock carrying a bower of flowers representing the Garden of Eden.

Flowers were carried as indicated below:

“Free Gardeners’ Penicuik Centenary Year Walk 8th July 1922 Lady members who intend joining the procession and all children of Free Gardiners who are able to carry flowers, designs etc, are invited to attend a meeting….As the procession is to be filmed it is hoped Members will endeavour to make the Children’s Section a feature of this unique event.”

They carried also banners which hang from horizontal pole being held up by two vertical poles. These perhaps surprisingly were blue, rather than the more plant related green and had painted or embroidered decoration often with biblical scenes – Noah and his Ark or Adam and Eve. The members also wore highly decorative aprons as well as they processed.

When these processions demised is unclear, some friendly societies still process however. The two World Wars called up most of the members so is likely that this stopped the annual event. This and the economic crash of 1929 and the National Insurance Act of 1946 both weakened their monetary capacities and purpose, and thus by 1950s must had gone the last surviving into the 1980s. With them went the colourful processions and the flower scramble.

Custom demised: Rushden’s Mop and Pail Day

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Sergeant Thomas Richards | Murder at the StarRushden records a possibly unique rather antisocial custom which I have not seen recorded elsewhere. First recorded in Round House” Scene. (about 1821)

” “Mop and Pail Day” it appears that the younger inhabitants of the village adhered tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the Mop and Pail. On one particular night a host of them went in accordance with their annual custom to collect mops, pails, brooms and wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on. These they placed on the Green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport began. At an early hour the lady owners of the mops etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, where a merry scene ensues. Some of the gentle dames were tugging at one mop or doing ditto to a water vat, other wielding certain articles to the imminent danger of the heads or ribs of their neighbours. It was customary for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play “Happy Land”. The men said little, but one old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom. They got into trouble over this affair.”

Another account records this extinct Northampton Mercury, 23 May 1846 indicated why this custom died out with some discussion of perhaps what is indicated about ‘getting into trouble’:

“Three young men, and one old lady, of Rushden, stood charged [at Wellingborough Petty Sessions] with conducting themselves in a disorderly manner, on the night of the 12th inst., and setting at defiance the powers that be.”

It continues:

“It appeared that the younger inhabitants of this merry village adhere tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the mop and pail, which by the bye has been entirely overlooked by Strutt [Joseph Strutt, Dresses and Habits of the English People, 1796-9, and Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801]; on the night in question, viz., the 12th of May, when Morpheus had closed the eyelids of the more peaceable inhabitants, the defendants and a host of others went in accordance with their annual custom to collect the mops, pails, brooms, wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on; these they placed on the green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport begins; at an early hour the lady owners of the mops, etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, when a scene ensued which defies pen or pencil.”

The source of the problem and why it was probably stopped is indicated here:

“Half a dozen gentle dames might be seen tugging at one mop, two attempting to wheel one barrow in different directions, or doing ditto to a water vat; others wielding certain of the articles to the imminent danger of the head or ribs of their neighbours. It is customary during the hubbub for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play some appropriate tune, such as “Happy Land”. The male defendants said little or nothing in their defence, but the old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom; gently brushing aside her still raven locks, she gave a statement which might interest a society of antiquarians, but not the generality of our readers. They were each called on to pay the expenses, Ss., and bound over to appear at the Sessions if called on. On leaving, the old lady sighed, and gently brushing aside her hair and a tear, exclaimed “We shan’t be allowed to play at marbles next”.

I am sure it was a very comical custom to watch and in a way perhaps a fun one with permission to revive?

 

Custom survived: Making Simnel Cakes for Mothering Sunday

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Recently I have noticed that well-known bakery Greggs had been selling Simnel cakes around March time in memory of the tradition of making Simnel Cake which if the number of recipes on the internet is anything to go by is still a commonly made cake. Here is a clip of well-known Mary Berry making one!

The association with Mothering Sunday has been so great that it became alternatively known as Simnel Sunday. 

Nathan Bailey in his 1721 Dictionary states that:

“Simnel is probably derived from the Latin Simila, fine flour, and means a sort of cake, or bun, made of fine flour, spice, &c.”

Frequent mention is made of the Simnel in the household allowances of Henry the First.

“Cancellarius v solidos in die et i Siminellum dominicum, et ii salum, et i sextarium de vino claro, et i sext. de vino expensabili, et unum grossum cereum, et xl frusta Candell.”–_Libr. Nigr. Scaccarii,”

Why a cake should be firstly established with a religious custom is unclear but some have argued that it derived from a type of bread given out on the Sunday service. Indeed a bread called “simnel bread” is mentioned by Jehoshaphat Aspin, in his Pictures of Manners, &c., of England quoting from a statue book of the 51st of Henry III:

“A farthing symnel_ (a sort of small cake, twice baked, and also called a cracknel) should weigh two ounces less than the wastel_(a kind of cake made with honey, or with meal and oil).”

At some point probably to make it more commercially viable it manifested itself into cakes with the image of Jesus to know the traditional 12 apostles and Jesus made of balls of marzipan!

Edward Baines in his 1836 History of Lancashire records that:

“At Bury, in Lancashire, from time beyond memory, thousands of persons come from all parts, and eat “simnels” on Simnel Sunday.”

However the custom nearly fell afoul of the church:

“Formerly, nearly every shop was open, quite in defiance of the law respecting the closing during “service,” but of late, through the improved state of public opinion, the disorderly scenes to which the custom gave rise have been partially amended. Efforts have been repeatedly made to put a stop to the practice altogether, but in vain. The clergy, headed by the rector, and the ministers of all denominations (save the Romanists) have drawn up protests and printed appeals against this desecration, but, as just stated, with scarcely any visible effect. It is not a little singular that the practice of assembling in one town, upon one day–the middle Sunday in Lent, to eat simnel cake, is a practice confined to Bury. Much labour has been expended to trace the origin of this custom, but without success.”

Herrick in his Hesperides has the following:

“TO DIANEME. “A CEREMONIE IN GLOCESTER.    “I’ll to thee a Simnell bring, ’Gainst thou go’st a _mothering;  So that, when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give me.”

Hone’s Book of Days gives the origin of the name

“There is a story current in Shropshire, which is more picturesque. Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, but their surnames are not known. It was their custom at Easter to gather their children about them, and thus meet together once a year under the old homestead. The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough which had been from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they should use the remains of the lenten dough, for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there were still some remains of their Christmas plum-pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust. So far all things went on harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose, Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked. The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up, and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who, on his part, seized a besom, and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed as a compromise that the cake should be boiled first and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom. Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name was alone preserved and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel or Simnel.”

Well upon cooking my Simnel cake I took pains to boil the fruit and then add it to the mix bake it slowly..and then with the marzipan on carefully place it under the grill..and very nice it was too. My mother was very pleased with it as I arrived surprising her on Mother’s Day.

Custom demised: Wetting the block

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All about shoes: Cordwainer or Cobbler : What's the difference ?

Hone’s Everyday book records a curious lost trade custom which was recorded in Berkshire and Hampshire only it appears. As the two counties are adjoining it is quite possible that it was established here but a note by the author suggests that it other places it took place in Easter. The author writes: 

“The first Monday in March being the time when shoemakers in the country cease from working by candle-light, it used to be customary for them to meet together in the evening for the purpose of wetting the block.”

The custom appears to be one done by the master of the trade to recognise the workers:

“On these occasions the master either provided a supper for his men, or made them a present of money or drink; the rest of the expense was defrayed by subscriptions among themselves, and sometimes by donations from customers.”

The custom then would have a ceremonial end which is the wetting part which consisted of the following:

“After the supper was ended, the block candlestick was placed in the midst, the shop candle was lighted, and all the glasses being filled.”

Then at the end:

“the oldest hand in the shop poured the contents of his glass over the candle to extinguish it; the rest then drank the contents of theirs standing, and gave three cheers. The meeting was usually kept to a late hour.”

As shoemaking became industrialised one imagine this custom died out!

Custom contrived: Visiting St Valentine’s Shrine Glasgow

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Many of us may have heard of the term Glasgow kiss; but that does not have anything to do with love…whereas just on the outskirts of the city in the Gorbals is something truly connected with love – the remains of St Valentine himself!

But how did the saint end up here? 

Valentine was a 3rd century priest or bishop in Rome, who Roman emperor Claudius II jailed undertaking Christian marriages which the emperor had ruled against. According to tradition he finally befriended Claudius and his daughter – with letters signed off – your valentine, but when he tried converting them to Christianity he was beaten with clubs, stoned and beheaded and was buried in the Via Flamina cemetery in Rome. So how did he end up in Glasgow?

It is said that in 1868 a wealthy French family donated some relics of Saint Valentine to the Franciscan Catholic church. These French monks then brought the relics to Glasgow and donated them to the Church of St Francis a Gothic style church designed by Peter Paul Pugin and then when they moved to a new church in the Gorbals they brought the relic with them to Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in Ballater Street. This was in 1993 and then an examination 6 years later of a cardboard box sitting on a wardrove revealed the reliquary casket. Soon publicity of the possession of the relics was better known encased in a reliquary box. The outside of this box having carved “Corpus Valentini Martyris,” or “the Body of Saint Valentine” in gold lettering.

Be my Valentine

“Following extensive publicity, Glasgow proclaimed itself City of Love and in February 2002 launched to the City of Love Festival, an event which has been repeated in subsequent years.”

Glasgow has really capitalised on the relic’s presence. The church itself have encouraged a low key custom and as such a new pilgrimage has begun. Every year on the Feast of St Valentine, the casket holding the relic is bedecked with flowers and the friars say prayers for lovers who petition to do so. A statue of the saint is covered in red roses as is a sheet beside it

The Scotsman reports:

““Each year on Valentine’s Day, visitors—mainly couples—will visit the shrine,” Smulski says. “Some come to renew their wedding vows and, in one known instance, to make a proposal of marriage to his intended.”

Another account states on the proposals:

“They have done so, yes,” says Rev Edmund Highton of the impromptu marriage proposals at the church, “I’ve seen it happen while I’ve been here. They just come in, and you see one of them get down on the knee, and so on.

 

Over the day I attended in the early 00s there was a steady stream of curious onlookers some just curious, others more devout making blessings as they gently touched the casket. Its an organic custom, not much it seems encouraged by the church:

“Father Edmund’s shrug is quite audible when I ask him about St Valentine. “It’s not an important one for me. That’s just a matter of history. We’ve got these relics, people come in, and they have a devotion. They see it as a focus for themselves, that’s all. St Valentine was a martyr saint who gave witness to his faith, that’s all I’m interested in. That’s good.”

Despite this some couples did come to feel romantic in the casket’s presence and whilst it is not well advertised – there is no signpost unlike its nearest St Valentine shrine competitor in Dublin it has attracted people on the feasts day. I did see some couples kissed in its presence but I did not see any proposals sadly…mind you the fame of the casket has probably grown since then and its fame has developed into a more concrete custom and as such I am overdue a visit.

 

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 survived: Building bonfires for Guy Fawkes

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“Don’t you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
‘Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made’em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away.”

Charlton in Otmoor – 1742

Bonfires and Guy Fawkes Night are synonymous so much that the name Guy Fawkes appears to be disappearing and it is now called bonfire night. But why did bonfires become associated with a remembrance which you would think would not want to celebrate with the very thing which was avoided!

The association is early as soon after the King’s escape, his council encouraged the celebrate with bonfires which were “without any danger or disorder” in 1605. One of the earliest recorded being in Dorchester, by the 1670s in London it had become an organised fire festival by the London apprentices such that in 1682 London’s militia were forced to intervene in when violence ensued and such that the following year bonfires were banned in the capital. When James II came to the thrown, fireworks were banned and the government attempted to reduce the celebrations of the day. It was unsuccessful and when he was deposed in 1688, William of Orange actively encouraged its celebration except keeping the ban on fireworks. In Nottinghamshire earliest reference of Guy Fawkes celebrations appears to 1743 as noted in the borough records. The forest ground in Nottingham is still the location of one of the largest Bonfire night celebrations, and records in 1830 and 1890 record bonfires. Celebrations appear to often cause conflict. In 1834 two shots were shot into the Wing Tavern. A report also notes:

“The anniversary of Guy Fawkes was celebrated in Newark by the ringing of bells, a large bonfire in the market place and plenty of squibs, crackers etc. Blunderbusses, guns and pistols were let off….during the evening to the annoyance of everyone walking the street.”

In a diary written by a William Moss of Mansfield (who worked as a Cooper) is the following entry for 5 November 1841:  

“Gunpowder Plot; but I think it is almost forgotten at Mansfield.  I have neither seen squib nor cracker, nor anything of the kind.  There is one bonfire at the top end of Stockwell Gate and I know not of any more in the town”.

Going ‘chumping’ was a Nottinghamshire term for collecting sticks and deadwood from hedges called ‘chump’ for Bon fires. A Bill Morely recalls the rivalry between local groups which was focused on bonfire night antics, and it is worth quoting at length:  

“Bonfire Night, and the time leading up to it, had its rituals, amazing to look back on (no nonsense about Hallowe’en in those days; I don’t suppose I heard of it until my teens). When the lead-up to Bonfire Night started, the estate split into three gangs: us, that is those who lived on or near the top end of Danethorpe Vale, Collin Green and Edingley Square, a slightly more formal square near the bottom of Caythorpe Rise. Opposite our house, by the wall of the Firs where I was born, was Hooley Street (leading to the orchards which are now Elmswood Gardens), where Hall Street had their bonfire – another gang. So the four gangs built their bonfires, and guarded them against attack from the others. Usually it was the young ones like me who were left to guard the fires whilst the bigger kids went about their business of collecting, or scouting for the enemy, or maybe just clearing off. Sometimes you’d find when you came home from school that the entire bonfire had gone. It wasn’t other gangs though; it was the council, which didn’t want the fires on its property. The most infamous of these council raids was in 1945 or ’46. The day before, or actually on November 5, (incidentally, all bonfires were on November 5, no rubbish about spreading them over three or four weeks like today) the council took Collin Green’s bonfire away. Well, with the returned soldiers saying, according to legend and no reason to disbelieve it, stuff like, “we didn’t fight a war to come home and find our kids can’t have a bonfire”, and the like, they dismantled the garden gates round the Green – all council property, of course – and rebuilt the bonfire with them. And everyone approved, even my very respectable parents. But back to the gangs: there was always a hollow in the middle of the fire, and we sat in there, ready to ward off the enemy coming to nick our fire, or possibly set fire to it. Bit stupid being inside it, of course. And there were pitched battles on the streets of the estate. The members of the other Greens were often friends, but, for a couple of weeks, we’d fight them. The fights were always the same, throwing grass-sods and sticks at each other, and always on the roads of the estate. What did the adults do? Nothing. What did they think, especially those without children? I can’t remember anyone getting hurt, and we didn’t throw stones, so perhaps we unconsciously realised it was a ritual not reality, but there were real frissons of fear and aggression. Collin Green was our main enemy. In fact, as far as I remember, all our actual fights were with them. This was all on a ‘respectable’ estate; these days it would either be much worse and seriously violent, or it just wouldn’t happen. However, we were really frightened of the Hall Street gang (did it really exist?). Hall Street had some fairly rough older boys, or so we thought, but again some of the younger kids from there were friends of mine at school. Anyway, the real fear was that Hall Street would come, and we were seriously scared of that. Did they ever? We certainly never had one of the pitched battles with them. On Bonfire Night, all the boys (girls too) came to the bonfire (on which there’d be a guy) with long poles, on the end of which were tightly bound rags, in flames and we’d set the fire going by thrusting the burning torches into it. I remember the anguish of whether I’d get there in time for the start. My mother seemed to take ages to get the rags sorted out, as no doubt the other mothers did too. Again, there was no penny-for-the-guy stuff, round our way anyway, though the guy was probably another thing to defend in the last two days. The fire always seemed to burn very fast, the guy vanishing in a few minutes, and then it was more or less over, and, no, we didn’t put potatoes or chestnuts in the fire, it was just a fire, nice and primitive.”

These large informal street fires became a thing of the past when in the 1960s the police, local authorities and fire brigade combined to prevent them and in 1963 27 organised sites were provided. In the 1990s regular sites were established in across the country from those set up to raise money for preservation railways such as that done by the Quorn railway (Leicestershire) and various ones to raise money for scouts, WIs and schools. 

Why bonfire?

Historians have often suggested that Guy Fawkes Day served as a Protestant replacement for the ancient Celtic Samhain festival. Another theory is that it transferred from Crispin’s Day celebrations. Over time the bonfire has changed of course. In 2005 David Cannadine commented on the encroachment into British culture of late 20th-century American Hallowe’en celebrations, and their effect on Guy Fawkes Night:

Nowadays, family bonfire gatherings are much less popular, and many once-large civic celebrations have been given up because of increasingly intrusive health and safety regulations. But 5 November has also been overtaken by a popular festival that barely existed when I was growing up, and that is Halloween … Britain is not the Protestant nation it was when I was young: it is now a multi-faith society. And the Americanised Halloween is sweeping all before it—a vivid reminder of just how powerfully American culture and American consumerism can be transported across the Atlantic

Despite the changes there is something still attractive to people and very well attended. People still have the primeval need to feel the warmth of the bonfire.

 

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. 

Customs occasional: The ceremony of the Keys, The Tower of London

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Many years ago when I was younger my father rather excitedly gave me an envelope which I opened with a confused expression on my face – within were some tickets to see the Ceremony of the Keys in the Tower of London. He said it was quite difficult to get them and that they were a London tradition.

Key it all

This is possibly Britain’s most precise custom thoroughly prepared, executed and always on time.

How old this ceremony is is unknown it may have been established upon the building of the Tower. However a story is told about how the ceremony may have begun back in the 14th century. This is when Edward III tuned up unannounced one cold December night in 1340 and walked in straight in. Keen to beef up the Beefeaters after imprisoning the Tower’s constable for a bit he insisted that it be locked sunset and unlocked at sunrise. A few hundred years later and Mary I concerned that a Protestant plot could use the Tower as a secure starting point not only increased the number of Yeoman warders six patrolling at night and nine during the day, she also laid down precise instructions of how it should be performed:

“And it is ordered that there shall be a place appointed under Locke and key where in the keys of the gates of the saide Tower shall be laide in the sight of the constable, the porter and two of the Yeoman Warders, or three of them at the least, and by two or three of them to be taken out when the[y] shall be occupied. And the key of that locke or coffer where the keys be, to be kepte by the porter or, in his absence, by the chief yeoman warder.”

The final change to the flow of the custom happened in 1826. The Duke of Wellington was then the Constable of the Tower and ordered that rather than be an unspecified ‘sunset’ it should be fixed at 10pm. Since then it has been like clockwork only being disrupted when a bomb fell on the 29th December when the Chief Yeoman Warder was blown over just at the wrong moment!

Preparation is the key to success

I turned up on that cold wintry night to see at exactly seven minutes to ten, the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower emerges from the Byward Tower, wearing the traditional red Watch Coat and Tudor Bonnet. The darkest light by his single candle carried in a lantern. Its light illuminates his other hands and within them a set of keys – the Queen’s Keys.

Then he moves as measured pace to meet his military escort at the Bloody Tower. The military escort consists of two sentries, a sergeant and drummer with a bugle.

The custom follows:

“The Warder passes his lantern to a soldier, and marches with his escort to the outer gate. The sentries on duty salute the Queen’s Keys as they pass.
The Warder first locks the outer gate and then the gates of the Middle and Byward Towers. The Warder and escort march down Water Lane, until they reach the Bloody Tower archway where a sentry challenges the party to identify themselves:
Sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys”.
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys”.
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well”.
The Warder and escort march down to the foot of Broadwalk Steps where the main Tower Guard is drawn up to meet them. The party halts, and the officer in charge gives the command to present arms. The Chief Warder steps forward, doffs his bonnet, and proclaims:
Chief Warder: “God preserve Queen Elizabeth”.
Guard: “Amen!”
On the answering “Amen” the clock of the Waterloo Barracks strikes 10pm and the Last Post is sounded, marking the end of the ceremony.
The Guard is dismissed, and the Chief Warder takes the keys to the Queen’s House for safekeeping overnight.”

Key to success

The ceremony of the keys is a brief but very evocative custom which gives a glimpse of something ancient. There is a real nervous anticipation in waiting and a real feeling we are privileged in seeing it. It is also one of the few in which photography is forbidden!