Category Archives: Sussex

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 demised: Eastbourne Great Tythe feast

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

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

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

Thus was laid out a feast:

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

Chambers’ Handbook of Eastbourne, 1872 records

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom 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: Winning the cock, Horsted Keynes, Sussex

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Horsted Keynes - Then and Now pictures

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

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

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

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

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

The author relating

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

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

Custom contrived: The World Lawn mowing Championships Sussex

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One of those sounds of a long hot summer is the drone of a lawn mower strimming somewhere nearby but in July the whole air in specific Sussex villages one can hear even more but no grass is cut!

One man went to mow…

It was 1973 when down the Cricketer’s Arms in Wisborough Green, West Sussex over some drinks a discussion of a new motor sport was arisen. The man starting this conversation was one Jim Gavin, he was involved with rallying and bemoaned the influence of sponsorship. He clearly was not keen on it and wanted to create a sport which was both a motorsport, was not expensive, did not need sponsorship and could be accessible to everyone – but what could it be. It is said that they looked across the village green and saw a groundsman mowing a cricket pitch. They the realised that everyone had a mower in their shed and so they thought let us move them!

The first event was on Murphy’s field and 80 mowers turned up! The British Lawnmower Racing Association record on their website:

“The main objectives were and still are, no sponsorship, no commercialism, no cash prizes and no modifying of engines. The idea being, it would keep costs down and resulted in lawnmower racing being described by Motor Sport News as “the cheapest form of motorsport in the U.K.” The BLMRA still sticks to its origins as a non-profit making organization, any profits are given to charities or good causes.

Ready steady mow

The lawnmowing race rather grasped the zeitgeist locally and beyond as noted:

“Lawn Mower Racing takes place all over the country from Wales to Norfolk and Yorkshire to Sussex, appearing at Country Shows, Fayres and Steam Rallies. We generally start racing in May through to October, incorporating The British Championship. We also have The World Championships, The British Grand Prix, The Endurance Championship and the most famous of all, The 12 Hour Endurance Race.”

Not only that but the competition has not been short at attracting fame and despite the tongue firmly in the check genuine racers and even film stars have been involved:

“Over the years lawn mower racing has attracted motor racing legends and celebrities. Sir Stirling Moss has won both our British Grand Prix and our annual 12-Hour Race. Derek Bell, five times Le Mans winner and twice World Sports Car Champion, has won our 12 Hour twice and one of those was with Stirling. The actor Oliver Reed, who lived locally, regularly entered a team. We also feature in the Guinness Book of Records with the fastest mower over a set distance and the longest distance travelled in 12 hours. Other famous names who have been seen in the paddock are Murray Walker, Alan deCadenet, John Barnard (Ferrari F1 designer), Phil Tuffnell, Jason Gillespie, Chris Evans, Guy Martin and Karl Harris (British Super Bike riders), John Hindhaugh (Radio Le Mans commentator).”

Not letting the grass grow beneath their feet

Lawn mowers vary of course and we are not in the main talking the handheld ones we are talking about the large petrol monsters which parade up and down those large gardens of the country. Having said this the organisation notes:

“Drivers raced around the course in one of three vehicle choices –  a traditional push mower fitted with an added seat, a horse-and-cart-like lawnmower set-up or a more comfortable, sit-down grass cutter.”

As such there is plenty of opportunity to race them. In 2014 The Express newspaper noted that:

“Rattling around the quarter mile-long course, the racers topped speeds of 18miles per hour.”

With racer called Christopher Plummer explaining that:

“If you’ve got spinal problems, then it’s not a good idea, the wheel hits your knees all the time so you wear knee pads and then the banging, it’s just mad!”

The article goes on to speak to organiser John Lowdell about as it called ‘about winning the fierce, grass-based competition’  organiser John Lowdell said:

“I think there is a certain amount of kudos. People do like to say I am the current world champion. It takes more effort to win the British Championship because that takes place over the whole season, whereas the world championship is one meeting – but I think in terms of what people actually want, they want to be able to say they are the World Champion definitely”.

Mown down

Well I was slightly hesitant of attending this event being I have very little affinity for motor racing at the best of time. However, it is was clear that this was an enjoyable event for all the family but taken quite seriously. The air was thick in petrol fumes and it rung with the distinctive buzz of the motor. However, despite all the mower one could state the grass didn’t look very good indeed it looked more of a mud bath!

It is reassuring that over the years the event has remained true to its origins:

Unfortunately the British Lawn Mower Racing Association (BLMRA) does not offer any prize money or medals, so racers have to be satisfied with only the bragging rights of their John Deere driving.”

You could say its remained loyal to its grass roots!

Custom demised: Hanging St John’s wort above the door

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Hypericum perforatum - Wikipedia

It’s a very familiar plant, although the one generally grown in our gardens, is not strictly speaking the St John’s Wort of British tradition, its bright gold flowers beam out like the sun at midsummer. Across Britain its virtues were many but one seasonal application was that it once widespread was the placing of it across doorways. William Bingley in his 1800 Tour Bound North Wales records that:

“On the Eve of St. John the Baptist they fix sprigs of the plant called St. John’s-wort over their doors, and sometimes over their window’s, in order to purify their houses, and by that means drive away all fiends and evil spirits.”

In the 1972 Folklore of the Ulster People Sheila St Clair notes that there it protected against the evil eye. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw in their 1975 Folklore of Cornwall state that wreaths were placed at St. Cleer ‘to banish witches.’Maureen Sutton (1996) A Lincolnshire calendar a correspondent from Chapel Hill suggests that the custom was still remembered in the 1920s and 30s there:

“if you hang it up on St John’s Day it will keep away the Devil’.

Christine Hole in her 1977 Witchcraft in England writes of St. John’s Day:

“ the saint’s own golden flower, St. John’s wort-which is quite clearly a sun-symbol-was brought indoors to promote good fortune and protect the house from fires.”

However, the earliest reference shows how this was not just a country custom. In John Stow’s 1603 book on London he noted:

“On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with ….. St. John’s wort.”

It was not alone and other plants were also stuck there creating ‘a goodly show, namely in New Fish street, Thames street’. Whilst it is not clear why they were doing so it would seem that there was some reason for it. It would appear to related to Ella Mary Leather records in her 1912 The Folklore of Herefordshire:

“Antiquatis records that the practise of making midsummer garlands was common in Herefordshire in the old days, ballads were sung while weaving the garlands and the foliage used in their construction were for divination. Those in request were the rose, St. John’s Wort”

In this case it is clear it was for divination rather than protection but one would thing one arose from the other. Fran and Geoff. Doel and Tony Deane 1995 Spring and Summer customs in Sussex, Kent and Surrey note that it was worn to warn away witches.

Why Midsummer? Midsummer was thought to be when the evil spirits were abouts. But why St John’s Wort It is probably likely that this was related to its medicinal properties of the plant which may have scientific background as it has been proven that it has positive effects on nervous disorders such as depression which was often linked to devilish activity. I have not read of anyone who still hangs St John up at Midsummer so I imagine it is not long extinct.

Custom survived: Nicholas Smith’s Dole, Hartfield, East Sussex

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Hartfield is a charming village on the edge of Ashdown Forest. It is particularly famed for its association with A. A Milne’s famed Pooh Bear – the shop Pooh Bear remembering it. However, visit it on Good Friday and you will see another famed association Nicholas Smith’s Dole. I say see but perhaps I should add if you are unlucky.

Hart -felt story

A 17th Century local story tells how Nicholas Smith was an itinerant who had travelled around the Sussex countryside dressed in old clothes looking for food and shelter. At each placed he was treated poorly by the local inhabitants who thought he was a beggar and sent unceremoniously on his way. Finally he arrived at Hartfield where the local people gave him a friendly welcome. Thus he revealed himself to actually be a wealthy man. As a result he finally settled due to the friendliness of the locals at Cotchford farm. When he died in 1634 he left money to be given to the poor each Good Friday from his tomb which lies close to the south door of the church. The Reports of the Commissioners appointed…to inquire concerning charities and education of the poor in England and Wales (1815-1839) records:

Nicholas Smith of Hartfield, gentleman, in his will dated 18 October 1634 and proved in and proved in PCC on 29 April 1635 (PROB 11/167), gave a rent charge £5 on that part of the Manor of Cotchford, Hartfield in the possession of Lady Sherley, for the poor of Hartfield to be paid 21 days before 25 December and distributed at the discretion of the minister, churchwardens and overseers ‘upon the stone which should then be lying on his grave”.

It is claimed that Nicholas Smith was the son of a rich squire at East Grinstead. However, Jacqueline Simpson’s 1973 Folklore of Sussex:

“But the real origins of the custom remain obscure; some attribute it to an eccentric called ‘Dog’ Smith because he drove about in a cart drawn by dogs.”

Grave matters

The dole is distributed on the grave which suggests its founder remembers the tradition of sin eating and one wonders whether food may have been given out at some point. Now it consists of money in an envelope the amount distributed dependent on how many attend the custom. Although previously as Simpson notes in The Folklore of Sussex:

“The custom demands that immediately after the Good Friday service is over, the Rector and the churchwardens  walk to what they believed to be Nicholas Smith’s tombstone in the churchyard, and lay out the money on it, the churchwardens calling out the names of each recipient.”

Never a dole moment?

I had read of the custom in an old book and on the off chance I happened to be in this area of Sussex in around 1994 and decided to see the custom. I turned up just as the then vicar appeared and got dressed into the white hassock in the porch and was pleasantly surprised to see me. ‘Are you here for the dole? He asked ‘ I replied yes to film it not to collect it’ He looked a little crestfallen and said ‘well I’ve vicar here for many years and no one has ever come to collect it’. It did not seem positive but nether-the-less I awaited. And waited. And waited. And he was just about to disappear with his white envelopes when two elderly ladies appeared. Had they come for the dole? One of them said they were local residents and had read about and came to see if they were eligible. The vicar was clearly delighted and duly gave over the envelopes. Unfortunately, the two women were too embarrassed to being photographed having the envelopes handed over – although I did take some photos and believe I videoed it too – sadly I cannot find good copies of either at the moment! It was amazing coincidence that I should be there when it happened. Interestingly,  Averil Shepherd notes on her page on the ever excellent Calendar customs website:

The dole is given to local residents in the churchyard in a simple low-key ceremony, which is only publicised normally in the parish magazine. When we went in 2013, there were no claimants; we discussed the likelihood that even though there are probably local people in need of a helping hand, they won’t want to publicly admit it and be seen to be asking for money.”

Perhaps I witnessed the last collection. Of course in a largely affluent area such as the Sussex Weald there fortunately is not much demand for charity of this nature although it is surprising that it is not visited by some who might not exactly be financially eligible might well appreciate the tradition and a bit of pin money. Back when F. J. Drake Carnell’s 1938 Old English customs and ceremonies include a photo of it (though no reference in the text) it looked well attended and even Homer Sykes’ visit in 1975 showed attendees but clearly local demographics change. The Hartfield Dole asks the questions when does a custom become defunct? Perhaps the church could return back to the list and calling names as seen in the Pathe film Caught By Camera in 1935 it is successful in other affluent areas with such customs.

Custom survived: The Oranges and Lemon’s service at St Clement Danes

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“Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clements,

You owe me five fathings, Say the bells of St. Martins

When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey,  

When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch

When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney,  

I do not know, Says the great  bell of Bow, 

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,

And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!  Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead”

 

A well know London rhyme but what might be less well-known is that since 1920 it has been commemorated in the church first mentioned, St Clement Danes in the Strand, London. Each year in March school children process down to the church for a service. A more poignant date now.

The custom is associated with The Reverend William Pennington-Bickford who had the bells of the church restored so that they could play the tune of that rhyme. On the day they were blessed they were also dressed with garlands of oranges and lemons. He decided that to march the day the bells were fully restored, 31st March 1920, a special service would be arranged and at the end each child would get an orange and lemon distributed by the city’s Danish community with Danish children dressed in their national colours of red and blue.

For the 1923 service the rhyme was sung with music composed by Pennington-Bickford and his wife. The following year the broadcast became nationally famous as it was broadcast to the nation and the sung became a regular feature

In 1941 the church and its bells were damaged in a bomb blast. Yet despite this the tradition continued and in 1944 despite rationing, twenty-six children received only an orange among the ruined building. It is reported:

“In 1944, it is recorded that the then Priest in Charge of St Clement Danes, the Reverend P D Ellis, distributed oranges – no lemons were available – to 26 children in the bombed-out ruins of the church. Even then, the handbell ringers were present and a choir from the school sang Psalm 122”

when the building was rebuilt and the bells rehung in 1957 the custom was restored to a regular basis in 1959. An account noting:

“Garlands of oranges and lemons were hung above the new bells. For many years, the oranges and lemons were specially flown in from RAF bases on Cyprus. In recent years, the Amicable Society of St Clement Danes has generously funded the gift of oranges and lemons for the children of our school.”

Oranges are the not the only fruit

My one and only time attending the service was back in 1994, I turned up at the church and was warmly welcomed. One of the teachers said to be the best place to observe the ceremony was up it the balcony and from there I watched as the smartly dressed children processed in. The church bells were chiming that famous tune as they had processed holding hands from their church. At the start of the service a group of parishioners played the tune again on hand bells and the service begun.

To be honest I cannot remember much of the actual service but I do remember the children being involved in a presentation. It would have sadly been a special year in 2020 – its 100 anniversary. The school’s website reported it in 1999:

“Just as it had been for the children of St Clement Danes parish 99 years ago at the very first Oranges and Lemons service, today our service opened with the moving sound of handbells ringing the famous nursery rhyme. Continuing the century-old tradition, at the end of the service today each child was given an orange and a lemon as they left the church.”

This time the presentation was to remember the first landing on the moon and the children were suitably dressed as astronauts (not withstanding two dressed as oranges and lemons!):

“This year, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon. In celebration of this important moment in history, this afternoon the children of St Clement Danes took everyone on A Space Adventure. The children were absolute STARS and their performances were truly OUT OF THIS WORLD!”

Once the church service was finished all the children sensibly lined up to go outside where a table was set up. Upon this was the most memorable part of the service – certainly from the children’s view – for the vicar and church wardens handed out oranges to the children who gleefully took them! Although some had a problem peeling them!  They also gave lemons which did not go down as well as the orange. Some younger children looked very confused.

A pithy point

It is thought originally that the oranges and lemons St Clement was the St Clement Eastcheap but since 1920 it has been St Clement Danes. The first event had 500 children at it. The custom was a real hit with the media and Pathe covered it a number of times. Sadly, as noted in 2020 it did not see its 100th anniversary lock down happened too soon but I am sure it will with colour and spectacle.

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

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Image result for First footing

As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

Image may contain: drink and indoor

Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

Custom survived: Ebernoe Horn Fair

Standard

What could be more quintessentially English; a large village green, the sound of leather on wicket, cries of Owzat and a sheep roasting! The latter is perhaps not the most English but this game of cricket is not all what it appears either!

Ebernoe is a small village, so small it is difficult to define as a village which each 25th July since 1864, a revival after a long lapse, the village come together to celebrate the Horn Fair. A correspondent to Folklore recorded its popularity in an 1950s edition:

everyone goes, by car, bicycle, bus or push-chair, and on Shanks’ pony up the steep track through scrubby woodland to the hill-top common where the hamlet encircles the open ground.”

All’s fair in horn fair

The origins of the Horn Fair are difficult to pin down, particularly as the only places it is recorded is in this village and Charlton near London. In the olden days the day was one of considerable ribaldry as it is believed to be derived from a custom of celebrating cuckoldry which would happen at the fair as it was probably a more riotous affair with dressing up. All this has gone but it is the roasting of the sheep whose head was traditionally presented that is significant.

That’s not cricket!

Indeed it is an odd association – cricket and a sheep roast – but one which is closely protected. There’s only been one interruption from 1940 until 1954 although this didn’t affect the cricket and a pair stag antlers were used as a suitable replacement so its not really a break – the cricket must go on!

There is a fair, a fun fair albeit a small one . It was described in Folklore as:

“with roundabouts and swings, hot-dogs and china dogs.”

The China dogs have gone but everything else survives!

Turning up on the day what first impresses you is the normality of the custom the cricket and the roast could be like any village fete where roasts have become common place, but there is something curiously ancient about this sanitised custom. The scene today is no different than that described by Stanley Godman in his 1957 article Horn Fair in Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society:

“It is a specially fattened sheep, roasted whole. A pit is dug in the ground, four and half feet long, and three feet deep. A big wood fire is lighted inside this trench and kept burning until approximately one and a half feet of cinders and hot ashes have accumulated. The carcass is rubbed with salt, red pepper and oil . . . A long pole is driven through the carcass and fixed in such a way that the sheep turns with the spit . . . the sheep is cooked for at least four hours and turned once every fifteen minutes. It is basted with oil at least once every half hour .”

Round the horn!

At the end of the day all the attendees assemble by the club house. The horns are given to the highest scoring batsman although it is no longer the head of the sheep roasted on the spit rather a specially mounted one. The reasons for this maybe explained in an account by a Mr A.W. Smith, in Folklore he states that a:

“spectator’s dog…a year or two ago ran off with the head pursued by the butcher (in white coat and straw hat) brandishing his knife, and a string of shouting onlookers determined to avert a disaster.”

Although its more likely to be health and safety concerns! This notwithstanding organisation has not changed since it was reported in Folklore which recorded:

The head is presented by a local notability with a suitable speech, of which the most memorable that I myself have heard was made by the parson of the parish, a man of striking presence. Holding in one hand the head – a horrid object prudently provided with a wire handle – he proclaimed ‘We men of Ebernoe know where the men of – [who had won rather too often] are going – and jerking his free thumb over his shoulder, we are giving them the Horns to help them get there !”

Ebernoe had won the year I turned up too and its best turned up to collect the head from the local lord residing at Petsworth I believe. Then sheets are handed around and the Horn Fair song is sung:

As I was a-walking one fine summer morn,

So soft was the wind and the waves on the corn.

I met a pretty damsel upon a grey mare,

And she was a-riding upon a grey mare.

‘Now take me up behind you fair maid for to ride.’

Oh no and then, Oh no, for my mammy she would chide,

And then my dear old daddy would beat me full sore,

And never let me ride on his grey mare no more.”

‘If you would see Horn Fair you must walk on your way,

I will not let you ride on my grey mare today,

You’d rumple all my muslin and uncurl my hair,

And leave me all distrest to be seen at Horn Fair.

‘O fairest of damsels, how can you say No?

With you I do intend to Horn Fair for to go,

We’ll join the best of company when we do get there,

With horns on their heads, boys, the finest at the Fair.”

Stanley Godman in his article Horn Fair in 1957 for the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society attempted to find out more of the song’s origins he noted:

Thanks to the kindness of Miss Marie Slocombe it is now possible to specify the Country Magazine programme which led to the revival of the Horn Fair song at Ebernoe. It was broadcast on May 28th, 1950, and the song had been sung to Mr. Collinson two weeks before. As Mr. Collinson said, Jimmie Booker was a trug-basket maker. He had learnt the craft in East Sussex and carried it on until his death in 1951. In the broadcast the song was sung by Cyril Tucker. Mr. Morrish of Great Allfields Farm, Balls Cross, near Ebernoe, heard the broadcast and obtained permission for the song to be sung at the Horn Fair. In August, 1955, Mr. Morrish told me that when he first introduced it to the Ebernoe people in 1951, one of the company, Mr. Tom Stemp, then aged 75, said he could well remember it being sung by an old Ebernoe woodman, David Baker, who died in 1943 at the age of eighty. This was valuable confirmation of the song’s former association with Ebernoe, though, as will appear below, it cannot lay sole claim to it. Tom Stemp, who remembered the song, first played for the Ebernoe Horn Fair cricket team in 1900 and in 1954 his son was captain of the team. Such family traditions are still strong in this remote place, isolated geographically, with its school, church and cottages hidden behind a thicket, independent spiritually and (in normal times) to a great extent, materially. Another well-known Ebernoe family, the Holdens, have been associated with the Fair since 1876. Ephraim Holden, who died in 1954 at the age of 87, had attended every year since he was nine.”

Horn of plenty?

It is clear that there is some underlying belief in the horns. It is indeed recorded that even if the day was beset with thunderstorms that was thought to be good for the crops and that it was the day to sow cabbages!

In the piece on Another English Head luck custom notes:

“A horned sheep was roasted whole in a pit of embers with the head projecting over the end, so that the horns are not damaged. It was ‘lucky’ to baste the sheep which, when cooked, was de capitated. The rival cricket teams, from Ebernoe and a neighbouring village, dined on the mutton, while spectators had mutton sandwiches. After the match the winning team got the head which they hung in their favoured pub. In a letter to me Miss Dean-Smith commented: It is not a horn fair as the term is generally understood …. It is not a patronal feast… the presentation of the horns suggests something more significant.”

Of course, it could all be some Victorian vicar’s embellishment but in a way there’s no better way to spend a warm July day and think of its origins!