Category Archives: Trade

Custom survived: Lee Gap Fair, Yorkshire

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“Stallions proud and ribbands prancing

Joyous fiddling and dancing

Isaac Horsfield who was there

He made sport for all the fair.

A handsome show of china ware

Of much variety was there

Cheesecakes plenty might be got

Gingerbread and good tom-trot.”

 

Lee Gap Fair was founded over 800 years ago been chartered by King Stephen in 1139, thus it can rightly claim to be England’s oldest horse fair only the local church is older and the two are linked.  Traditionally the fair took place on the Feast of the Assumption (15th September) and finished on the Nativity of the  blessed Virgin (8th September) and thus was linked to the church.

Making leeway

The fair became a major event People travelled vast distances to attend the fair. In the Middle Ages Lee Gap Fair attracted merchants from France, Spain, Florence and the low lands of Germany. Not only Horses bur cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock were sold at the fair.

Such was the occasion that people attending are said to have married or got their children baptised and hence the fair was good revenue for the church who had a priest on call the whole fair. Miracle plays were also performed to bring the faith to the masses.  The fair was owned by Nostell Priory until the Reformation when it was granted to a Dr Leigh and the fair moved to West Ardsley and took on his name although written as Lee and I am unsure where the Gap came from. However, there is some confusion over whether the Nostell Priory Fair and the current fair are the same continuation as their fair was five days starting on St Oswalds’s feast day on the 9th not 24th and early writers state that it was discontinued ‘centuries ago’.

Interestingly, the Charter does not tie the fair to one site only that it be held in the parish of Woolkirk or West Ardsley. Which is good because its most traditional site was lost to building many years back forcing a new location to be held. However, not only is its location fluid but its function too. Originally it was wool fair only becoming a horse fair as the need for horses through increasing warfare and agriculture forced the necessity.

Fairly well met

On first arrival you think there cannot be a horse fair here its too urban as you survey the neat gardens, hedges and waxed cars in their drives. And indeed, the first site was built upon a few years on. However, soon there appear to be see a parade of cones and then a small handwritten sign Lee Fair at the side of a farm lane. Going down here past some rather large houses the lane snakes down into a small, enclosed field and here 100s have gathered. A detailed sign at the gate informs me of what I can and cannot do there – no racing of horses and silly string stand out!

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A fair assessment?

Attending a horse fair is one of those rare experiences. A completely unvarnished natural organic custom devoid of any tourist pretensions. Indeed, at one point I think I am the only non-traveller there! Certainly, the only one with a camera around my neck which makes me self-conscious as I snap away but despite one boy asking for a photo; I appear invisible and inconsequential to those assembled. Such events always appear to be associated with problems

The horse fair is a window on another world. A world within a world. A world divorced from the mainstream. The stalls mainly sell materials which only suit its close clientele – metal churns, horses’ bits and various nick-nacks. There are of course cloth stalls but again in the main their apparel appeal to those who are there particularly the young girls who view these events as both a fashion parade and an opportunity to meet boys. Indeed, I came across and listened in on one such approach by a boy who runs over and asks ‘excuse me but my friend really likes you will you talk to him?’ None of that grabbing that was parade in the populist media a few years back.

Standing on the corners one comes across groups of old men. They had seen it all before. They appear the more traditionally dressed in their tweeds and barbers catching up with old friends and looking on at the young folk and their courting. Unlike a more formal selling environment with an arena and animals paraded in and out it is in these huddled groups that the horse trading is done. So often seeing or hearing a deal can be a rarity.

Walking around I noticed lots of strands of green, pink, blue materials and soon come across some younger kids attacking each other with kit and then looking like they immediately regretted it and set about removing it from each other’s hair! The silly string! Looks good they heeded then warning!

Every now and then a horse rushes by ridden, trotted or on occasion on its own! The crowd parts and everyone watches – again I am sure they said there was none of this-but I am glad there is because it adds some degree of excitement and authenticity.

Occasionally there are some other animals – chickens and caged canaries seem to be popular, and I see a number wandering around with the birds in colourful quaint wooden cages. The community are keen to maintain their traditions but unlike other customs where such things are kept up, here it seems natural and functional, rather than tradition for its own sake.

A fair representation?

Sadly, fairs and antisocial behaviour seem always to go hand in hand. One only need to delve into the records to see. The earliest being the 1315 Wakefield  Court Rolls which records three complaints brought against John  de Heton. He was accused of assaulting a man and a woman and overturning a stall, causing the owner damages and injuries totalling a loss of forty shillings. Regular accounts in the local press record thefts, selling of stolen horses and pick pockets litter the 19th century press accounts. Fairs always attract all types and certainly over the years drunkenness, damage to property and indeed bloodshed forced the local residents in 1656 to petition the West Riding justices to have it abolished stating that it was a nuisance and Wakefield market could provide their needs. It did not work of course, especially as the local community had not grasped that the fair whilst open to them was not really for them. By end of the 18th century the fair did indeed last from 24th August (St. Bartholomew’s) until 17th September. As the twentieth century developed it was moved to have the fair only on the starting date- 24th August and its last day and thus gave the name early Lee and Later Lee.   Alcohol was highlighted as a cause for much of the issues and as such there is no license to sell it at the fair.

Fairly well remembered

Julia Smith in the excellent 1989 Fairs, Feasts and Frolics spoke with a Mr J A Rawson, who she met at the ‘latter Lee’ in 1985. She said that he remembered when the fair was on the Baghill site. She says:

“He had been coming regularly for almost sixty years, and was only fourteen when he bought his first pony there for £4. 10S. He recalled once buying a foal and taking it home on the bus! He had spent his working life down the local pit and drove a pit pony when he first went underground. In order not to miss the fair, he would work the night shift and so have the day free. In the past a Welsh dealer had brought ponies and kept them on the moors at Hartshead to fatten them up for a few weeks prior to the fair, and Mr Rawson had often helped to drive them from there to Lee Gap. A Welsh dealer had been at the fair last year but had not returned this year, much to the disappointment of many of the visitors. Forty or fifty years ago, Irish traders also came to the fair bringing crates of geese and pullets, and the locals would buy a goose from them to fatten up for Christmas.”#

Little appears to have changed over the years since Smith’s description although gone have the:

“big chromium-plated gypsy caravans with their displays of Crown Derby china and their owners sitting on the steps, ‘as if they were showing off their homes and vying to outdo each other’.”

But the display of traditional wooden caravans appears to have increased in their absence as the community looks to continue its traditions. Everything else is almost identical to what greets the curious today she states that:

“the edges of the field were lined with horse boxes, vans and trailers. Horses for sale were tethered at the sides of them and tack, leather and ironwork were displayed on the tail-gates which were turned into makeshift stalls. Some of the traps and carts were decorated with delicately painted designs, I saw little actually changing hands, apart from a pedigree pup and a painting. Men huddled together in groups, deep in earnest conversations; it was here the real trading was done. At various intervals a shout would go up, a path would be cleared down the middle of the field and a horse would come galloping through the crowd, its bareback rider putting it through its paces. Buyers and sellers appeared to know each other, and there were shouts of encouragement or criticism as horse and rider sped by. Two minutes later and warning shouts would proclaim the presence of a huge shire horst being trotted, its owner running furiously alongside. Things would

quieten down for a little while and the huddles be reformed, but before long there was the crack of a whip and a pony and trap would dashdown the field.”

Interestingly unlike other fairs Lee Gap has not been swallowed up by its fringe activities and whilst Smith could watch:

“a man swallow and regurgitate a seven foot long chain! In the afternoon he escaped from a series of bonds and chains, accompanied by a good line in patter.

The business of the day was decidedly the buying and selling horses; four small swing-boats and a couple of slot machines were only concession to entertainment, apart from the escapologist of course.”

Today there are no fringe entertainments, certainly no miracle plays, only than the entertainment of meeting old friends, making new ones and silly string.

Of this buying and selling despite the lowkey nature of trading, I was fortunate to watch a number of deals which involved much too-ing and fro-ing, bluff and counter bluff, persuasion and the final slap of each other’s hands in a motion quite rhythmic and poetic. The deal being sealed and the horse sold.

It is a privilege to be able to see the Horse Fair, one which has remained unbroken for 800 years and whilst it may have its detractors its function being so pivotal to its community means it is a custom that on its own is in no danger of dying out as long as it is protected from those outside forces with their blinkered ways of looking at it!

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 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 demised: Bradford’s St Blaise’s Day processions

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See the source image

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

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

The author continues to report the procession as in 1825:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Custom contrived: London’s New Year Parade

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

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

 

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

New year new custom

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

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

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

The article continues

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

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

 

Parading about

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

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

 

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

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

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

Thomas Tusser, Five hundred points of Good Husbandrie

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

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

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

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

Why let horses?

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

Why St Stephen’s Day?

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

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

The custom would appear to be widespread. An entry:

Item for letting our horses blede in Chrystmasse weke iiijd

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

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

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

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

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

Custom contrived: London Bridge Sheep Drive

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

Pulling the wool over one’s eyes?

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

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

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

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

Being a bit sheepish!

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

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

In 2016 it was reported that:

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

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

Custom survived: Swan upping on the river Thames

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Swan-upping: a royal tradition | Vet TimesThe delightful mute swan, gliding majestically down the river, its pure white plumage shining in the summer, has always been thought to be a Royal bird. The monarch owning all birds but in the past ownership was granted to certain groups and since the medieval times to two livery companies – The Vintners and Dyers. These two companies have what is called the royalty of swans. Margaret Brenthall in her 1975 Old Companies and ceremonies of Britain:

“The Thames swans have always been protected birds, and to kill one was a crime which once earned dire punishment. As late as the mid-nineteenth century transportation for seven years was the penalty, and in 1895 it was seven weeks’ hard labour.”

Swanning about

Cleverly because it would be impossible to catch all swans so all those which were marked belonged to the monarch. As T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1875) suggests:

“Formerly the members of the Corporation of London, in gaily-decorated barges, went up the Thames annually in August, for the purpose of nicking or marking, and counting their swans. They used to laud off Barnes Elms, and partake of a collation. This yearly progress was commonly but incorrectly called ” swan-hopping : ” the correct designation is shown by the ancient statutes to be ” swan-upping,” the swans being taken up and nicked, or marked. A ” swan with-two-nicks ” indicated, by his second nick, that he had been taken up twice.”

His account suggests that it might have been a revived custom but as Brenthall notes:

“in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Swan Voyage as a purely practical affair. It was in the eighteenth century that a festive element was introduced. Guest accompanied the Liverymen in the Companies state barges, musicians were engaged to play during the voyage, guns were fired in celebration, and a vast amount of food and drink was disposed of. As the nineteenth century progressed the mood changed, for the state barges disappeared from the scene.”

Thus it appears Thistleton Dwyer is referring to this. However, as Brenthall notes:

“But a festive atmosphere still prevails today as accompaniment to the sheer work of rowing, catching the swans and cygnets, marking and pinioning; and on two days of the Swan Voyage the Court of each of the Livery companies; together with their guests; follow by launch in the wake of the swan uppers.”

Brenthall (1975) notes:

“For this task the three respective Swan Herdsmen and their teams of Swann Uppers set out each July on a week-long Swan Voyage from Temple Stairs to Henley…the Swan Herdsmen at the time of writing are: John Turk, Queen’s Swan Keeper; Michael Turk, the Vintners’ Swan Marker and Bargemaster and Harold Cobb, the Dyers Bargemaster.”

The author states there were strong hereditary links within the ancient river appointments and I believe a Turk was my contact when I decided to find out more.

Swan with two necks

With a start at Temple the barges move down to Henley, regular stopping points are provided by the livery companies involved but I thought to be honest I was more than likely to see them gliding by and that was it – although at one of the locks I had the opportunity to see them do the loyal toast. Unfortunately, I missed the loyal toast and after deciding to picnic by the river could see in the far distance the swan uppers thinking this would be my opportunity to at least photograph this colourful watery procession as they gently skiffed the river in their three barges adorned with the banners of the Queen, Vintners and Dyers in a dazzling array of red and white.

Then their colourful red coats loomed closer in to view and a shout went out – they had seen some swans. Then with their boats they created a block to prevent the swans from escaping and the Vintner’s bargemaster leant over and grabbed the swan. It was then hoisted on to the bank and another presumably swan marker reached to get their marker and the swan was weighed, checked over and marked accordingly. Nowadays much of the process is to check on the health of the swans and since 1998 no nicking is done to the beaks rings being placed on the legs instead – which means that they cannot now be easily identified. It is a simple but colourful affair. I was amazed to be present at such close hand to see the process close up. I haven’t been back since but I was interested that for the first time in centuries Queen Elizabeth II the ‘Seigneur of the Swans’ attended the Swan Upping ceremony for the first time. It’s a simple custom only being partially cancelled due to high river flows in 2012 and 2020 due to Covid-19 social distancing measures – although one could argue being in the middle of the Thames they would be pretty socially distanced!