Tag Archives: customs

Custom survived: Making Simnel Cakes for Mothering Sunday

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

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

Nathan Bailey in his 1721 Dictionary states that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Baines in his 1836 History of Lancashire records that:

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

However the custom nearly fell afoul of the church:

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

Herrick in his Hesperides has the following:

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

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

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

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

Custom demised: Wetting the block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then at the end:

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

As shoemaking became industrialised one imagine this custom died out!

Custom 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 survived: St. Ives Langley Bread

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“charged his lands in St. Ives with the payment of 40s. a year to be distributed to poor widows and fatherless children, and with a further sum of 6s. to the churchwardens to be given to the bellringers.

Robert Langley by will dated 24 Aug. 1656 Charity report 1909

St Ives is a delightful small town which is noted amongst those interested in calendar customs for its bible dicing, however there is another custom that the town has undertaken for the last 300 years or so which has failed to be recorded as far as I am aware in any books on calendar customs. So for the 10th year of blogging on calendar custom it felt appropriate that I experienced and being free on the day of its distribution the 5th of January, linking it to epiphany no doubt it felt this was the ideal opportunity. 

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Bread and Butter

The custom consists of a dole given out on or around the epiphany and fortunately being free this year. It was set up as stated above in 1656 by local philanthropic St. Ives man, Robert Langley and whilst there is no stipulations about fatherless children it is still distributed to poor widows (and grammatically now widowers). The tradition is known as the Langley Bread and continues as a giving practice once a year in January.

I arrived to see the truck outside the Corn Exchange loaded with Co-op bags drive off – hand I missed it – no for as I went into the main hall of the building to see tables bellowing under a pile of green Co-op bags crammed with food and the Mayor in his chain, the trustees of the charity and town council secretary awaiting the first of the applicants.

In 2022 there were 120 bags lined up on the tables. Around 45 being delivered each year to local nursing homes. The number had been adjusted to take into account the number of recipients who came the previous year and thus the number left over. 

All doled up

Soon the first applicants appeared and many of them for familiar faces who had come previously to collect their bag of goodies and as a local newspaper account records:

“Great care is taken to ensure that only widows and widowers who are residents of St Ives benefit. As people come in to the building, they give out their addresses which are checked on the electoral roll.”

Indeed the clerks asked for names and they searched carefully their electoral role and upon finding them crossed them off and gave the recipient a ticket. However it was only a few feet away where the Mayor was ready to collect the ticket and give over the bag.

Many of the recipients were ‘regulars’ and despite having to be checked on the role many had come for the chat as well – being lonely widowers this would of course make sense. Indeed there was a sort of melancholy to the custom typified by one recipient stating

“Last year I came with my friend and wasnt eligible and this year I can come and collect one myself”

Sadly we all know what that means. But on the flipside it also encouraged people to talk to each and help each other as recorded in the newspaper article which stated:

one person is authorised to collect for friends.

“Especially where the old folks’ bungalows are, the fittest one will come down and collect them for their neighbours,” said David Hodge, who as mayor is responsible for giving out the bags. “Hence, they come with a list and they then go back with some for all their friends. It is checked, honestly!”

One could see that for many lonely widows it was a good reason to get into town and perhaps socialise or in some cases challenge the Mayor on their policies.

The trustees stick very rigidly to the wording of the charity. A man turned up from nearby Reach and politely asked if he was eligible having been born in St Ives and was a widower. He however was refused as he no longer lived in the town. He seemed okay with that and it was interesting to see that the letter of the original bequest being undertaken.  

The bags soon went down. By 10 .45 85 bags were gone. By 11.40 107 had gone. And then by 11.45 only 13 were left. It had been a successful day the previous year they had had 150 bags left but nothing goes to waste as like the earlier ones they are delivered to those in nursing homes.

Now however very little of the original charity money goes to buy the dole and is donated by local companies. In 2022 it was donated for the third year from the Co-Op. Back in the 1800s it would have simply been bread like many other doles. However, now its full of other staples.  The bag consists of digestive biscuits, tea, bread, butter and sugar and were delivered by the company on the back of truck at 8 o’clock. Usually I was informed that it was topped up by the charity and this included orange juice or jam but this year they could not be sourced. 

Two for the price of one!

The Langley bequest is actually two customs in one as he left money for the bell ringers from St Ives’ parish church. The reason being because of a very familiar story seen elsewhere is bell tolling bequests. It is said that Langley was lost in a snowstorm on nearby Hemingford Meadow walking to St Ives. Upon hearing the parish church bells he was guided back to safety and thus in gratitude he left money for the bell ringers to ring a peel. This apparently also happens in January, however the trustees did not know when.

It is heartening to see Langley’s bequest continues to give support to those in need…although he clearly had little thought of mobility in snow ladden Januaries – perhaps not the best time for aged widowers to travel about!

Custom demised: Twelfth Night Moseley Dole, Walsall

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File:Walsall in Medieval Times (15th Century) Artist's Impression.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons

This demised custom had a great story behind it:

“Thomas Moseley, passing through Walsall, on twelfth eve, saw a child crying for bread, where others were feasting, and, struck by the circumstance, made over the estates at Barcott, &c., to the town of Walsall, on condition that every year one penny should be given each person on that day, so that no one might witness a like sadness.”

And as such established the Moseley Dole as recorded in An abstract of the title – of the town of Walsall, in Stafford, to valuable estates at Bascott, &c., in the county of Warwick, with remarks by James Cottrell, 1818. which reads:

“In 1453 Thomas Moseley made a feoffment of certain estates, to William Lyle and William Maggot, and their heirs, in trust, for the use of the town of Walsall; but John Lyle, son of William Lyle, to whom these estates would have descended, instead of applying the produce of the estates for the use of the town, kept them, and denied that the property was in trust, pretending it to be his own inheritance; but the inhabitants of Walsall not choosing to be so cheated, some of them went to Moxhal, and drove away Lyle’s cattle, which unjustifiable act he did not resent, because he was liable to be brought to account for the trust estate in his hands. At length a suit was commenced by the town against Lyle, and the estates in question were adjudged for the use of the town of Walsall. Accordingly, in 1515, John Lyle of Moxhal, near Coleshill, Warwickshire, suffered a recovery, whereby these estates passed to Richard Hunt, and John Ford, and they, in 1516, made a feoffment of the land, to divers inhabitants of the town of Walsall, in trust, and so it continues in the hand of trustees to this day.”

It is recorded that:

“In 1539 the first mention appears to have been made of the penny dole. On the twelfth eve, being the anniversary for the souls of Thomas Moseley, and Margaret his wife, the bellman went about with his bell, exciting all to kneel down and pray for the souls of Thomas Moseley, and Margaret, his wife; Thomas Moseley never gave this dole, either by feoffment or will; but, because he had been so good a benefactor, in giving his lands, &c., in Warwickshire, the town, by way of gratitude, yearly distributed a general dole of one penny each, to young and old, rich and poor; strangers, as well as townspeople; and this was the origin of the dole.”

However there is some discussion over where the dole really begun:

“The masters of the guild of St. John the Baptist, in Walsall, a religious fraternity, with laws and orders made among themselves, by royal licence, appear at this time to have been the trustees; for they received the rents of these estates, and kept court at Barcott. King John granted to every arch-deacon in England a power of gathering from every ‘fyer householder,’ in every parish, one penny, which were called Peter pence; therefore I am inclined to think this religious fraternity were the beginners of this penny dole, which would enable them immediately to pay their Peter Pence or, perhaps they might stop it in the same manner as the bellman does the lord of the manor’s penny.”

The author of the extract:

“It would be a good thing if this dole was given up, and the rents of these valuable estates, which are now considerable, were all applied to charitable purposes.”

The dole ceased in 1825 after some local resistance it is believed. Twelve alms-houses, were built with the money in the hands of the corporation with the money apparently.

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 demised: Ringing the bells on Guy Fawkes Night

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Ringing Photos

Across the country churches were expected to celebrate the foiling of the Gun Powder Plot. Nottinghamshire in particular has a large number of reported cases.  At East Bridgford, Gunpowder treason ringers would ‘clash or fire’ the bells in commemoration. Holme Pierrpoint churchwarden’s account notes in 1688 “payment to Gonpowder treason ringing” , and that in Gedling:

“22nd Nov 1708. Agreed that betwixt the three towns of the parish of Gedling that there be an allowance at the common usuage of ye parish for ringing of three shillings for ye fifth November”

In Worksop in 1617 it notes money was given “for ringing on ye gunpowther days”. In 1747 2s and 6d were given to Nottingham for ‘Gunpowder Treason with 6d given for candles for ringers.  Found in the Parish Constables accounts for East Leake, 1791: “5th Nov paid for Ale Gunpowder plott”

Rickinghall (Suffolk) churchwardens’ accounts of November 5th 1814 when beer was bought for the ringers, probably for ringing the bells for Guy Fawkes Nigh

In Backwell (Somerset) it is recorded in the church wardens accounts that:

“Spent upon ye ringers ye 5th November 1698 – 12/6d”

Little Cornard (Essex) records that in

“1731 when five shillings was paid to the bell ringers for their efforts on Guy Fawkes Night.”

The Penistone bell-ringers active on 5th March 1696 were paid eight shillings to ring the bells. That same year, 4s 6d was paid for ‘A bel-rop and 2d for bringing it home’.

When the last time any of these bells were rung is unclear but it may link to the removal of Guy Fawkes as a national holiday  

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 survived: Corby Glen Sheep Fair

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In 2021 the east midlands’ largest fair was again called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a few miles away the second oldest fair was still being set up.  Corby Glen dates back to a Charter granted by Henry III on 26th February 1238. This states:

“Grant to Hamo Pecche and his heirs of a weekly market on Thursday at his Manor of Coreby and of a yearly fair there on the Vigil, the Feast and the Morrow of the Feast of the Assumption. ”

An 1863 in the diary of George Bird states it was:

 “the largest shew of sheep, beasts and horses that has ever been seen on the ground before.”  

The next year 93 truckloads of sheep and other beasts arrived by train. Twelve thousand sheep were recorded in  1876, but the next year only 7,400. It would appear that the custom was in decline for in 1882 he wrote: 

“Corby Fair the poorest I’ve seen, not above 5,000 sheep penned.” 

However, by the turn of the twentieth century it had risen to 6,000 yet 13 years later it was only 4,000  with ” few beasts and foals either” Numbers never reached the heady heights of the late 1800s but the fair continued to trade despite the agricultural depression with the sale of beasts and cattle disappearing leaving only the ram fair. 

And indeed sheep are still the reason for it of course. Yet it soon developed into more than the sheep. The fair further changed after WWII when sheep which used to driven to the fair now arrived by train. However, this changed again in 1959 when the station closed and so all sheep now travel by road arriving in the early morning and leaving that evening. The website describes the scene today:

Early on Monday morning the familiar pens are erected on every available green space in the village in readiness for the day’s sale and by mid-morning the sheep have been trucked in for the auction. Expert eyes assess their qualities as owners wait anxiously for the bidding to begin and by late afternoon it is all over and the transporters head for home for another year. “

Fair sheep

At the point I arrived there was a very amusing demonstration on sheep breeds and sheep shearing which enthralled all with its mix of facts and amusing sheep. The highlight being what I gather appears to be an annual custom -sheep dancing. The disco music went on and the sheep swayed and moved back and forth to the music! After this amusing and informative show I explored the village more. Of course over time the custom had attracted the obligatory pleasure fair. This appeared in the 19th century when it was held in the Market Place with the traditional sideshows, gingerbread stalls, shooting galleries and boxing booths. Older residents can still recall the mass of stalls in the Market Place with swing-boats and roundabouts, skittling for a copper kettle and in some years, stalls for the sale of goods produced locally that would attract people from the village and the surrounding countryside. Today this is what attracts a large population to the village as it clothes the green swards and snakes through the village’s lanes and streets. Described as on the village website as:

Stalls are erected in the historic Market Square from Friday onwards with country crafts and memorabilia much in evidence and a fun fair with swings, roundabouts and sideshows is located on the green. There is also a horticultural show in the village school and a display of local produce together with jazz bands, Morris dancing and one year a mediaeval mystery play was staged by pupils of the Corby Glen primary school. Archery demonstrations, local history displays, art and photographic exhibitions, a wheelbarrow race, a conker competition, tug of war, a dog show and even a competition to guess the weight of a sheep – all have found a place in the festivities in recent years.

But the fair has in the past had another purpose, that of bringing together families who have been split when sons and daughters left the village to pursue marriage and careers elsewhere and this event was the catalyst for a weekend reunion, visits made possible by the coming of the railway which brought travel across counties within the reach of most people. Stuffed chine topped the bill of fare at family get-togethers and on the eve of the fair in October 1867, villager George Bird wrote in his diary: “Mother very busy making plum cakes, cheesecakes and such like.” The widespread increase in car ownership has to some extent diminished the tradition of such gatherings at fair time. 

The sheep fair mirrors the economic conditions of the district and the local farming industry in past centuries when the farmer’s financial year was organised around this event for at this time they were forced to sell sheep to settle rent arrears. The fair, like the village, was in relative decline towards the end of the 18th century but it picked up during the 19th century and in 1863 George Bird wrote in his diary of “the largest shew of sheep, beasts and horses that has ever been seen on the ground before.” He also mentioned that there was talk of making the fair a two-day event.”. 

The agricultural depression of the last quarter of the 19th century had a sudden but decisive impact on the Corby Fair but in the wake of this decline, the associated activities also suffered and by the 1930s the sale of beasts and cattle had died out but the ram fair remained. As a result, the Corby Fair continues today with vigour and enthusiasm and although numbers no longer reach the peaks of past times and market fluctuations continue, there is little likelihood that it will disappear in the immediate future.