Tag Archives: customs blog

Custom contrived: Nottingham’s St Patrick Day parade

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No photo description available.

“Nottingham has a growing Irish community which is very apparent on a day like today”.

Patrick’s Day has been celebrated by an annual procession in Nottingham since 2000 which may surprise you that means it is only slightly younger than that help in Dublin and thus rightfully should be remarked upon as a custom in its own right.

The week starts when a ceremonial shamrock is given to the Mayor at the town hall which is then blessed at a Mass of St Patrick at Our Lady and St Patrick’s Church in Robin Hood Way, The Meadows. This starts the festivities which really do showcase the Irish community and its importance to the city. Each year a city from Northern Ireland or the Republic is chosen to lead the procession flanked by impressive Irish wolf hounds. The impartial reporter of

“FERMANAGH will be represented at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Nottingham tomorrow (Friday). The 10 day festival finishes with a city centre parade led by local representatives, including chief marshalls Eileen Dowling and Siobhan Begley, both of whom were born in Fermanagh. Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have been invited to attend the event as part of an initiative each year in which the city hosts a different county from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Marching bands from across the city will take part and there will be a selection of Irish food on offer and a chance for Nottingham residents to learn about Fermanagh from SDLP Councillor John Coyle, Sinn Fein’s Thomas O’Reilly, Ulster Unionist’s Chris Smyth, Tourist Development Officer Edward McGovern and Tanya Cathcart of Fermanagh Lakeland Tourism.
A civic reception will take place at Nottingham Council House hosted by Lord Mayor Mohammed Saghir.” 

No photo description available.The procession is lead by a member dressed as St Patrick dressed as a Bishop and starts at the Forest ground just outside of the city. Behind him were symbols of the day and many children taken from schools across the city and of course the compulsory band. Once in the square there are speeches and a detailed events programme of Irish music and dancing. As one looks around seeing a sea of green, leprechauns, shamrocks and lava bread on stalls it is evident that the city has gone all out for St Patrick. Many people had coloured their hair or wore green hats, some had hats of Guinness pints or even harps.

 

Some may ask is St. Patrick’s Day just another excuse to go to the pub? Well drinking was on many people’s minds especially as all the pubs around the square were heavy with green glad people (some may have been pretending to be Robin Hood of course it is Nottingham after all) and their doorways with green balloons aplenty. Asked this question by the Nottingham evening post it is clear that the event superseded any desire in many to drink:

 “I have two choices, go to the pub and drink all day, or come out and see all the different events and parades with my kids, the answer is a simple one, it isn’t all about the Guinness”.

Nottingham’s St Patrick Day parade is a great day out devoid of the embarrassment that might sadly associate itself with St George’s Day implied or subconscious. A real day to celebrate Irish culture and identity. A good day to people watch and find the most Irish cliched dress. A day awash with green so much that even Robin Hood joins the start of the procession!

No photo description available.

No photo description available.

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 survived: Some Kentish Curfew bells

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Curfew bell - Wikipedia

‘Solemnly, mournfully,

Dealing its dole,

The curfew Bell,

Is beginning to toll,

Cover the embers,

And put out the light,

Toil comes with the morning,

And rest with the night.’

The ringing the curfew bell was once a commonly heard sound across the English countryside, calling workers to down tools or all villagers and citizens to damp down fires. Although the first law regarding curfews was passed in Oxford by Alfred the Great in A.D. 972, ( requiring all fires to be covered at night when the bell was rung ), it was only extended to the whole of England, after the Norman conquest. It was then that it gained the name curfew, deriving from the name for a metal cover which ensured that the embers did not ignite. This was called a ‘Couvre feu’. This, thus can be translated as to cover ( couvre ) and fire ( feu ). 

Although, the order to ring curfew bells was abolished in 1100, many churches still continued the custom, at least to the Second World War. Indeed there are a number of recorded examples of curfew bells or curfew ringing in Kent, which have never been collated together and are worth discussing, particularly because close examination reveals some interesting reasons for their foundation or rather continuation.  

One of the most interesting reasons is recorded at St. Margaret at Cliffe, Dover. Where the ringing was endowed by a shepherd. An account relates this endowment or possibly re-endowment ( it is not exactly clear which ), in the minutes of the vestry book of September 1696. It states:

“Whereas there has been, and is at this time, a parcel of land in this parish, called by the name of curfew land ( corfeu ), consisting of five rods more or less, which for some time hath been given by a shepherd, who one night fell over the cliff, yet lived so long as to make the said bequest for the ringing of the curfew bell every night for the winter half year…, and now finding the great neglect for some years past in the due ringing of the same, and to prevent for the future any danger which may ensue to travellers and other being so near the cliff for the want and due of constant ringing, if possible the like sad Providence may not befall any other, we, the minister, churchwardens and others, the parishioners whose names are underwritten, in reference to the donors good intent, herein do hereby order and decree that the said curfew bell be hereafter rung every night in the week, all the aforesaid winter half year, for the full time of quarter of an hour at least without any exception of a Sunday or Holy Day Nights; and he that rings is to have and receive the benefit and profit of the said curfew land, provided also that he whosoever he is or shall be clerk of the parish shall have the refusal of it before any other…And in case it shall not be constantly rung it shall be lawful for the said minister and churchwardens to receive the rent from him who occupies the said land, and to deduct from it every night it shall not be rung twopence ( and any commission ), which shall be given to the poor that come constantly to the church.

In testimony whereof we have hereunto set our hands Wm. Barney, S. Marg. Vicar, John Chittey, Churchwarden’

The bells at St Margaret at Cliffe were recast into a small set of eight bells in 1977 and now the curfew has subsequently been programmed into the electronic bell system, being chimed by electronic solenoids attached to an electronic keyboard. 

A similar piece of folklore is believed to be the origin of Cowden’s curfew. The historian, J. C. L. Stahlschmidtt ( 1887 ) in his ‘The Church Bells of Kent; their inscriptions, Founders, Uses and Traditions’, notes that:

‘..that the donor had lost his way in the Forest and was guided home by the Cowden bells.’

Beneath the bells at Cowden is a board which reads that a Richard Still bequest 20 shillings a year from Waystrode Farm for the ringing of the ‘Great Bell’ at five in the morning and eight at night from Michaelmas to Lady Day for ever.’

It is possible that this was a survival of the morning and evening ‘Ave’ bells. Records suggest that Richard Still gave the rent as remuneration for a duty which the clerk or sexton has been performing for centuries. Certainly he did not originate the payment; for a William Jackson was paid £1 ‘for Ringing ye eight a clock bell’ in 1671.

The five o’clock bell ceased in 1875, as ‘the amount not being considered sufficient pay for the double work’. Presumably, the evening bell, was not kept up after the First and Second World Wars, when by law, such activities were curtailed.

Sandwich’s curfew bell does not appear to have any traditions, but it still continues to be tolled. Sandwich’s Curfew bell appears to be alluded to in historian Boys’ ‘History of Sandwich’:

“The sexton is appointed by the parishioners and he has a salary from the parish of 40/- for the tolling the tenor, whenever the service requires, the likewise rings the tenor bell very night at eight  o’ clock, unless there to be a burial at the church and again in the morning at four o’ clock from a fortnight after Michaelmas to a fortnight before old lady day, except on Sundays and in the twelve days of Christmas, for which he has from the corporation annually £3 and an allowance of 6s 8d for candles and oil.”

The sexton had around an annual allowance of four shillings from the Corporation for ringing at the church ‘Bromelyese bell at one and the curfu at eight o’ clock’. The bell is still rung every evening at eight by the Sandwich Curfew Ringers. Apparently, they each take it in turn to ring the bell, with one date per month!

Another surviving curfew bell ringing is that rung at Canterbury Cathedral every night between five to nine and nine o’clock in the evening when the gates of the precincts are closed. The bell, called Bell Harry, was named after Prior Henry of Eastry, and was cast in 1635 by a Kentish Bellfounder, Joseph Hatch of Ulcombe. This is now electronically chimed after being rehung in 1981 as part of the overhaul of all the cathedral bells. 

 

Curfew bells and their establishment are an interesting but neglected topic for folklorists. Hopefully, this article will produce more interest in the subject and bring forth more examples.

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

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See the source image

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

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

The author continues to report the procession as in 1825:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom contrived: Guildford Twelfth Night celebrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were more cheers. 

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

Phil Gorton noted in the Guildford gazette

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

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

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

The local newspaper recording:

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

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

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

Custom demised: Biddenham Parish Bull on St Thomas’s Day

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Edwards in his 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes:

“An ancient annual payment of 5l. out of an estate at Biddenham, formerly belonging to the family of Boteler, and now the property of Lord Viscount Hampden, is regularly paid on St. Thomas’s Day to the overseers of the poor for the purchase of a bull, which is killed, and the flesh thereof given amongst the poor persons of the parish.”

This is an unusual bequest because it was usually St. Martin’s Day that spare cattle were slaughtered and this may have been an issue. It is recorded that the churchwardens overseers and principal inhabitants assist at the distribution of the meat the portions being given to those who have the families. The report considers:

“For many years past the annual fund, being insufficient to purchase a bull, the deficiency has been made good out of other charities belonging to the parish. “

Tunnicliffe, C. F. (1901-1979), 'The Chartley Bull', Wood Engraving, 1939/2007 £300.00 - Fine Art prints paintings drawings sculpture uk

 

It was noted that the value of the bull has varied in the 1800s from £9 to £14 which may have resulted in the customs disappearance however a suggestion was made:.  

It was proposed some years ago by the vicar that the 5l. a year should be laid out in buying meat, but the poor insisted on the customary purchase of a bull being continued, and the usage is accordingly kept up.”

 It was said that the money came from a transfer of £200 from the trustees. This is possibly linked to land bought in 1706 by Elizabeth Boteler. Sadly the custom did not survive the 20th century. 

Custom contrived: Chocolate advent calendars

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Advent calendar - Wikipedia

Each year in November parents run around the shops preparing for Christmas and the first thing perhaps that needs to be purchased is the advent calendar. However these are not the card board ones which I remembered and are worthy of a separate discussion, no these are the chocolate ones. But how did the paper ones turn into the chocolate ones and when?

It is thought that advent calendars first started in German around the early 1900s although the company which first made these appeared to cease production during the Second World War but it was revived in 1946 and by the 1950s it had arrived in the US.

A date for the choco-holic?

It was not long into the 1950s that some had the idea of replacing the images in the advent windows with chocolate and secularisation begun. The first chocolate Advent calendar appeared in 1958. These continue to be made during the 1960s but it did not appear to catch on and I remember in the 1980s in the UK the advent calendar we purchased just had the scenes of the nativity in it – and to be honest I was quite excited to see them as well.

The beginning of the dominance perhaps could be traced to 1971 when chocolate giant Cadbury introduced one in the UK. However, they still not catch on and they were only produced intermittently between 1972 and 1986. They were not put into continuous production until 1993. By the 2000s they appear to have become the mainstay and the excepted. Such that it is now difficult to find the original none chocolate ones. Indeed, Martin Johnes in his Research notes and resources on the histories of Wales and popular culture blog notes:

“It is tempting to see the move to giving children a chocolate every day as another sign of the commercialisation of Christmas and ever growing levels of festive consumption. The emergence in of the past few years of luxurious calendars with toys and even food, drink and gifts aimed at adults has added to this sense and led to accusation that religious ideas are being colonised and trampled.”

Of course one could criticise the commercialisation of the original cardboard ones but somehow the addition of chocolate is somewhat more commercial. However, like the original card one, the countdown to Christmas day is still the principle role and children still get excited to see the windows open and see that they are one day closer to the big day itself and the joy that that brings.

For the folklorist the fact that it was not until the 1990s and 00s that this custom became established and then becoming the expected tradition just shows how quickly a custom can establish itself and become part of the smorgasbord of Christmas. Of course, that is if you can stop your children from eating them all in one go! Perhaps they are trying to win the record set by Kevin Strahle. He holds the record for eating the advent chocolates for the fastest time: 1 minute 27.84 seconds. A record which definitely flies in the face of the spirit of the custom!

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 contrived: Battle of Hastings re-enactment

Standard

‘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.