Tag Archives: London

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 survived: Signor Pasquale Favale Bequest

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I should say just survived as just before the pandemic hit the City of London were proposing re-allocating the moneys to other charitable purposes; however I am unclear whether this has happened…

Calendar customs are not always very evident some are small and rather private affairs; Signor Pasquale Favale bequest is one of these. My attention was first drawn to this by accident reading notices outside of a church and was curious to find out more.  The bequest reading:

“poor, honest, young woman, native of London, aged 16 to 25 who has recently been, or are about to be married”

A marriage made in heaven.

Favale was an Italian married a London girl and was married for many happy years with her in such that when he died in 1882 he stipulated in his Will of the 25th March that 18,000 Italian francs (around £720) should be used to provide a yearly dowry to three girls as his wife ‘was a native of the city’ and that ‘he had many happy years in the city’. Like all such bequests there were stipulations. Firstly that they should be born in the city that they should be born in the City., be poor, honest young women. They should be aged 16-25 and who had recently been, or were about to be, married. Thus be doing so he set up Britain’s most unusual bequest and custom. Thus every July the trustees of the charity decide upon the beneficiaries. Of course finding these beneficiaries is not easy – hence the sign on that church door -doubtlessly multiplied across the city. 

Outside St Botolph Without Bishopgate copyright David Brown via Flickr

18000 Italian francs was around £720 which after expenses needed to set up the foundation he required; the residue was too small for the interest in it to be enough to put the bequest until effect until 1914, but for over a hundred years it has been given.

When the money was left dowries were common practice from the bride’s families to her husband and perhaps he was concerned that many prospective women lost out because of the lack of money or was he bitter that his wife’s family never provided him with one?  

For richer or poorer?

Of course wording of the bequest has been problematic. When the City of London became the trustees the necessity that recipients be born in the City was removed. Very few are more within the square mile of the city, especially since St Barts closed its maternity unit and those that might be are unlikely to be ‘poor’ but I’d hope they were ‘honest’!

Such that since 2000 the bequest states that it should award:

“Marriage Portions to poor honest women who were born within the City of London or have resided therein for the period of at least one year, and who either have been married within the period of twelve calendar months next preceding the date of award or who are about to be married”.

As a report by the City of London states:

“Although the terms might make bestowing the gift difficult – finding a ‘poor’ resident of the City probably poses as much of a challenge as determining whether she is ‘honest’, the tradition continues.”

One of the most recent recipients has been Lorna Emmett a 31-year-old chartered accountant, Lorna Emmett, who married her husband in Hampstead in May. She received the £150 dowry. Another recipient stated:

 “It was actually the concierge at my building who pointed it out. I thought it would be nice to be part of such a romantic tradition and it will also make a small contribution to the wedding expenses!”

Indeed £150 probably does not go far these days and this is what is probably behind the move to consolidate the charity with others and use the moneys elsewhere. Interestingly, there are many poor and honest brides outside of the city boundaries who would no doubt benefit but it does not seem that that method of changing the bequest has been explored!

One do hope that the bequest does not disappear into an amorphous charity pot and that brides still benefit for years to come…despite its rather antiquated idea behind it.

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!

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

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

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

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

When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch

When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney,  

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

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oranges are the not the only fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pithy point

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

Custom demised: St Paul’s Day Weather predictions

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For many say the 25th January and the acknowledgement would be Burn’s Night, but country folk also identified the day, St Paul’s Day or St Annanias Day, as one of the days of the year in which the weather for the rest of the year could be predicted. The earliest version of this is a Latin verse from monks quoted  by John Brand’s 1841 Popular antiquities

“Clara dies Pauli bona tempera denotat anni;
Si nix vel pluvia, designat tempera cara;
Si fiant nebulae, pereunt animalia quaeque;
Si fiant venti, designat praelia genti.”

There are several French and English translations of these lines in to appropriate verse such as:

“If St. Paul’s day be fair and clear,
It does betide a happy year;
But if it chance to snow or rain,
Then will be dear all kind of grain;
If clouds or mists do dark the skie,
Great store of birds and beasts shall die;
And if the winds do flie aloft,
Then war shall vexe the kingdome oft.”

Or

 “If Saint Paul’s Day be faire and clear,  It doth betide a happy year; If blustery winds do blow aloft,  Then wars will trouble our realm full oft; And if it chance to snow or rain, Then will be dear all sorts of grain.”

Or

“If St Paul’s Day be fair and clear We shall have a happy year.
But if we have but wind and rain dear will be the price of grain.
If clouds and mist do mark the sky Great store of birds and beasts will die.”

Some counties have recorded local versions such as Devon:

“If St Paul’s Day be fine expect a good harvest, If it wet or showery be expect a famine. If it is wind expect a war.”

The predictive nature of the verses thus is three-fold. Firstly it predicts the weather for the year, then its affect on agriculture and then its effect on the war!  But why the 25th?  However, fair weather on St. Paul’s day predicted a prosperous year ahead. snow or rain betokened an unprofitable and clouds suggested death of cattle; and winds predicted war.

Brand again remarks:

“I do not find that any one has even hazarded a conjecture why prognostications of the weather &c for the whole year are to be drawn from the appearance of this day.”

Yet as Brand (1841) states that it is

“article of constant belief in Western Europe, during the middle ages, and even down to our own time, that the whole character of the coming year is prognosticated by the condition of the weather on this day; and this is the more singular, as the day itself was one of those to which the old prognosticators gave the character of a dies Ægyptiacus, or unlucky day.”

John Gay in his 1716 Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, also notes:

“All superstition from thy breast repel Let credulous boys and prattling nurses How if the Festival of Paul be clear tell Plenty from liberal horn shall show the year rain When the dark skies dissolve in snow or The lab ring hind shall yoke the steer in vain roar But if the threatening winds in tempests Then War shall bathe her wasteful sword in gore He concludes Let no such vulgar tales debase thy mind and wind Nor Paul nor Swithin rule the clouds.”

The author of the excellent weatherwithouttechnology.co.uk notes that:

“This is a good guide for the first six months, but after that tails off somewhat. However, it has been known to be 90% correct and in one year, 100% correct.”

And adds a person note:

“Having religiously followed the following instructions by Uncle Offa for 15 years, the best result was 80%, and I found that up to the last week of June it is quite reliable, alas, after that it does tail off rapidly”

Should anyone want to revive this custom widely and publish predictions they state that:

“When following the weather on this day, it is necessary to observe and note down its phases hour by hour, or even every half hour throughout the day from 6am until 6pm. This is due to the belief that the hours of the day will reflect the weather month by month throughout that year. Generally such signs are dependable to the end of July, but diminish thereafter.”

This year on the 25th where I was, was fine and clear. Further north there was snow. Thus that may influence the relevance of the method its geographical scope!

Custom demised: St Bartholomew’s Eve Scholar debate, Smithfield London

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Before schools closed for August, scholars and schoolmasters from the different London schools met at the St. Bartholomew’s’ Priory for disputations on grammar and logic, and wrangled together in verse These were the days when much of the learning was oral  based rather than written and such a debate would really stretch the minds of the student and test their knowledge. John Stow in c1525-1605 Survey of London book recalls that:

“the arguing of the schoolboys about the principles of grammar hath continued even till our time; for I myself, in my youth, have yearly seen, on the Eve of St Bartholomew the Apostle, the scholars of divers grammar schools repair unto the churchyard of St Bartholomew, the Priory in Smithfield, where upon a bank boarded about under a tree.”

He describes the method as:

“one scholar hath stepped up, and there hath opposed and answered till he were by some better scholar  overcome and put down; and then the overcomer taking his place, did like as the first. And in the end, the best opposers and answerers had regards, which I observed not but it made both good schoolmasters, and also good scholars, diligently against such times to prepare themselves for the obtaining of this garland.”

Stow continues to discuss who attended. And it is clear that there was a fair bit of debate and some schools, as today, had a better reputation:

“I remember there repaired to these exercises, amongst others, the masters and scholars of the free schools of St Paul’s in London, of St Peter’s at Westminster, of St Thomas Acon’s hospital, and of St Anthony’s Hospital; whereof the last named commonly presented the best scholars, and had the prize in those days. This Priory of St Bartholomew being surrendered to Henry the Eighth, those disputations of scholars in that place surceased; and was again., only for a year or twain, revived in the cloister of Christ’s Hospital, were the best scholars, then still of St Anthony’s school, howsoever the same be now fallen both in number and estimation, were rewarded with bows and arrows of silver, given them by Sir Martin Bower, goldsmith.”

Image result for St Bartholomew's church old print

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the custom also encouraged disputes of a non-scholarly kind which Stow again explained:

“The scholars of Paul’s, meeting with them of St Anthony’s, would call them Anthony’s Pigs, and they again would call the other Pigeons of Paul’s, because many pigeons were bred in St Paul’s church, and St Anthony was always figured with a pig following him; and mindful of the former usage, did for a long season disorderly provoke one another in the open street with “Salve tu quoque, placet mecum disputare?” – “Placet.” And so proceeding from this to questions in grammar, they usually fell from words to blows with their satchels full of books, many times in great heaps, that they troubled the streets and passengers; so that finally they were restrained with the decay of St Anthony’s school.”

Interesting how the use of ‘would you like to debate or discuss?’ became a stimulus for a fight and it appears when it comes to children nothing is new. Indeed, sadly, like a number of school based traditions the reactions of the students curtailed the success of the custom which Stow appears to indicate. The rewards and prizes were not always enough to encourage a positive opinion of the custom:

“The satchels full of books, with which the boys belaboured  one another, really were the weapons that had put an end to the old practice of incessant oral disputation. Schoolmasters and men of learning, years before, had also taken to the thrashing of each other with many books; and books scattered abroad “many times in great heaps” were the remains also of their new way  of controversy. If a man had learning, society no longer made it in any degree necessary for him to go bodily in search of the general public to a Fair, or in search of the educated public to the great hall of a University. Writing was no longer a solemn business, and writing materials were no longer too costly to be delivered over to the herd of schoolboys for habitual use and destruction. Written, instead of spoken exercises, occupied the ‘pigs’ and ‘pigeons’ who ran riot over the remains of a dead system.”

Of course the Reformation was also a final block on the custom and it was never revived. Such great Independent schools still exist in London, they still do Latin of course, but its more book based. Perhaps it would be interested to encourage a more oral based debate again. Time for a revival?

Custom survived: The Worshipful Company of Vintner’s Installation Day Procession, London

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It’s hardly one of the longest processions in fact my conversation to the wine porter as we awaited the assembled group was longer, but if you want to get a feel of medieval London, the Worshipful Company of Vintner’s procession to install their new Master, or Installation Day fits the bill.

The City of London has many livery companies and many processions but despite its shortness the Company of Vintner’s procession to the local parish church from their Livery Hall is certainly unusual .

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Making a clean sweep of it

The procession is to bless the inaugurated new Master of the Vintners and to ensure that the journey is both a safe and pleasant one two additions are required. Firstly, ahead of the procession is the Wine Porter who carries a broom with a top hat and white smock. This is ceremonially brushed from one side to another in front of the procession traditionally to remove any detritus from the Medieval world which lay in front of them. He uses a birch broom which would have been that available to his medieval forbearers rather than a flat headed modern broom which might have been a bit more successful removing the chewing gum and sweet wrappers. Originally there were two who were employed with:

‘full besoms…that the Master, wardens and his warden and brethren of the Court of Assistant step not on any foulness or litter in our streets’

No new broom sweeping clean

The history of the Company may go back to the Norman Conquest although as its first formal charter was signed in 1363 which gave them a monopoly of trade with Gascony. As wine was an important and valuable commodity in the medieval world the Vintners were a very important although its importance waned when like many companies their monopoly was removed in the Victorian period. The Wine porter has exclusive rights to handle wine in the Pool of London, as the Hall which doubled as a warehouse backing on to the Thames, but they were disbanded in 1963 as numbers dwindled as wine arrive by other means. Today it is more of a charitable organisation. Indeed Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“Harry Darude, the last surviving Wine porter, was wielding his broom for the twenty-fifth time while a,l the other present were wondering who would be doing it if he passed on.”

However it was and despite their reduction in role the Wine porter survives if purely ceremonially. Behind the Wine Porter are the outgoing and incoming Master and three Wardens, Bargemaster, Beadle with their mace, Stavemens, members of Court of Assistants, Clerk and the vicar. Appearing like they had stepped out a Holbein painting they wear furred gown, Tudor caps and carry posies of flowers.

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A good nose for a wine

These posies or rather nosegays are not flowers to be laid at some grave or tomb at the church but had a functional purpose. In the medieval period the streets smelled bad, sewage line the footpath and fires filled the air. The posies made of strong smelling flowers and herbs were thought to keep the air fresh around the carrier and:

“their nostrils be not offended by any noxious flowers or other ill vapours.”

In those days thought to prevent diseases caused by bad air! Mind you it would have been made worse surely but the broom sweeping it up into the air! One wonders how good they are at covering car pollution!

When the time came the police appeared and stopped the traffic. Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“It was in this year, 1982, that Harry was much disconnected to find his normal route barred by impenetrable roadworks, causing him to improvise a long diversion. Furthermore it was pouring with rain, necessitating the addition of large black umbrellas to the usual regalia.”

The weather was thankfully fine and despite a strange journey over a bridge it was uneventful as they arrived in good time at St. James Garlickhythe. Once the service was over it was repeat performance sweeping back to the Livery Hall. Hopefully for a celebratory glass of wine. It’s taken me longer to open some wine bottles to be honest. However, one cannot perhaps find a more accessible procession.

Custom revived: Chestnut Sunday Bushy Park

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One of the great joys of Maytime is the blossom that abounds. Hedgerow, fields and parks. The simple desire to appreciate and experience such natural beauty was behind the most curious of London customs; Chestnut Sunday

In a sort of homage to the tradition concept behind the northern Spa Sunday perhaps, London developed the custom soon after Queen Victoria opened the Royal Park to the public. Soon people recognised the grandeur of the chestnut trees that lined the drive in.

Bushy plants

It was during the reign of William and Mary that the mile long avenue lined by horse chestnut trees was planted by Sir Christopher Wren (not personally of course). These trees reached their zenith in the Victorian period and people, including members of the Royal family, would descend on the park on the Sunday nearest to the 11th of May when the blossom was said to be at its greatest. Thousands attended, records show that one Chestnut Sunday in 1894 over 3500 tickets were collected at Hampton Court railway station alone. Over the time it was so popular that even bus companies would organise special excursions. Although it World War I suspended any formal organisation to see the chestnuts, advertising went overboard once peace had returned. The Transport for London museum has a number of evocative posters made during the hey day of the custom – the 1930s showing people picnicking, promenading and playing amongst the trees.

Load of old chestnuts

The coming of World War II and the use of the park as a military headquarters curtailed Chestnut Sunday and it slowly disappeared. However it was not completely forgotten for a revival was coming. In 1977. Colin and Mu Pain, Hampton Wick residents came across details of the custom doing research about the suburb. The year was a good one for a revival being the Silver Jubilee of the Queen and so together with the Hampton Wick Association a one off celebration again on the Sunday closest to the 11th of May was planned. From this it grew and grew.

From tiny chestnut…

That initial revival has developed and developed that it has become a festival. I visited in 2008 to be greeted by thousands of people lining the avenue to see a parade which went from Teddington Gate to the Diana Fountain. The procession was the usual mix of vintage cars, marching bands and cavaliers…but no Morris…except from Morris Minor that is. A nice distraction although the smell of the vehicles did rather overpower the natural beauty of the avenue. Indeed Roy Vickery in his excellent Plant Lore blog notes:

Today, and one assumes throughout most of the event’s recent history, very little, if any attention is paid to the trees, a small number of local charities have stalls, there are a small number of food stalls, and a small funfair, the main attraction being a parade which starts at 12.30 p.m.  But the event is very popular with families, many of whom bring picnics.  In 2019 the parade consisted mainly of veteran vehicles – military vehicles, cars, bicycles, scooters and motorbikes.”

With a fun fair, local stalls and re-enactments, there is plenty to entertain the Londoners who attend…although one wonders how many spend time to admire its principle asset!

Custom contrived: Kew Gardens Clog and Apron Race

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Kew is a delightful retreat in west London. Its splendid glasshouses, incrediable arrays of perrenials and peaceful vistas. That is unless you happen to be there when the Clog and Apron race is on. For a few minutes only one of the main paths in the gardens thunders to the sound of wooden clogs and cheering!

Clogged up

But why clogs and aprons? Well clogs were traditionally the footwear of all gardens long before crocs and wellies appeared.They were better than leather boots to keep one’s feet dry Aprons being used for holding garden tools. Each year first year horticultural students are given a pair of wooden soled leather clogs and an apron in a ceremonial way as symbols of their profession. Whilst the aprons may be worn by these students, the clogs are purely symbolic most preferring those rubber shoes.

Runners (but not beans or strawberry)

The exact origins of the race are unclear as records have only been kept since the 1950s but it is thought to have started in the 1920s. It was one of a whole range of running events such as one which was between rival RHS Wisley and all around the garden race – must be all that propogating demanding some serious leg stretching.

The clog and apron race was a way of the older students to welcome the newer ones without any form of reward but glory.; more recently the Student Union has provided medals for first, second and third place.

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One of the earliest records in is the 1952 version of the Kew Journal where the extracts below are taken, which was the first after the interregnum that the second world war had enforced. The Clog and Apron Race was again held this year after a long interval, as the last race was run in 1939. Interesting it was held in the early summer:

“The race was held in fine weather on Friday, May 25th and the number of runners was so large that the field had to be divided into two heats. The first hear was run in the time of 59 seconds, being won by Mr P. Nutt ( -pixyledpublications honestly that was his name!) whilst the second heat, which like the first consisted of thirteen runners, was won by Mr. G Fuller. The first four from each heat lined up for the final and in this a very exciting race resulted. The ultimate winner, Mr Nutt, went into the lead very early, and despite all the efforts of the other runners, continued to gain until he ran hime an easy winner in a remarkable time of 49 seconds. Having regard to the fact that the course was from the Circle in the Broad Walk to No 3 Museum, measuring 375 yards and in view of the handicap of clogs and apron, the time is one which will be very difficult to beat in any future race.”

59 seconds seemed to be the model average. Nine runners in 1951 with a D. Hubbard gaining that time. It seems a few years later this Hubbard, becoming Dr Hubbard who in 1955:

“who started the race, gave a bottle of sherry and also cider to the winners. It was an exciting finish. J Eaton just beating A Keevil in 57 secs with D. Coleman third. J. Eaton also received the Pearce Cup, presented for the first year by Mr Pearce for the winner of the Race. Cynthia Warner also received a bottle of cider for being the only girl brave enough to challeng the lads. Mr Pearce provided cider to revive all the competitors. “

Then in 1976, the race then being held in October recorded that:

“The race started in failing light and finished up in almost total darkness. A record time was established by a second year student, Miss Sally Vernon, who became the first female to win the face but also claims the honour of breaking P. Nutt’s record time which was 49.0 seconds in 1951, by a clear 4 seconds. Sally with the speed of a 8.30 Trident, zoomed in at 45.9 seconds. “

However there were some recriminations

“Paul Potter, who came second in 55.0 seconds a clear 10 seconds behind speedy Sall, says that the girls should have been given only two little bins start, instead of the four they were allowed this year. I think that Paul knows that Sally would have still burnt him out if she had not been given any start at all. “

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In 1979 the race for the first time was organised so that members of the public could experience it. The Press release read:

“The Clog and Apron Race Thursday 27th September 1979 for the first time ever, the annual Clog and Apron Race wil be staged whilst the Gardens are opens so that those members of the public who wish can witness the special occasion. The race is held on Thursday 27th September and will start at approximately 5.00 pm and the activities should be finished by 5.45pm”

It adds;

“The event recaptures some of the ancient apprenticeship traditions and colour of the former days. The Race competitors, all dressed in horticultural aprons and heavy clogs, pound the full length of Broadwalk a wide 375 yard long avenue (running from the Palm House Pond and Orangery)….Lady students are given a 50 yard start.”

Alan Titchmarsh in his Knave of Spades notes the event, failing to mention this was perhaps his sole sporting success:

“The clogs were used competitively each autumn in the Clog and Apron Race, which took place o the Broad Walk that runs from Kew’s Orangery to Palm House Pond, a distance of perhaps a hundred and fifty yards. Clad in this traditional apparel (both still worn by Kew students in the late 1960s) those who were rash enough to enter would clatter their way down he wide Tarmac path, sparks flying from their footwear and their denim aprons billowing like kites. The prize was a crate of beer, which was shared round anyway, so it mattered not who won or lost, but how they clattered down.”

Clogging on

It was a very fine evening with the warmth of the fading sun on my face, I awaited on the grass verge the runners. Running in clogs must be a strange experience. The weight of the wooden shoes suggesting the need for some strength in those gardening muscles. I don’t think it would be an event you would want to do every day. Fortunately it was quick for them for in less than a minute the first runner appeared. One could hear them approaching before seeing him or rather them as there was he was closely followed behind by the rest. The winner made a respectable timing and looks very happy to hold aloft the prize. Then it was back to the hard work of horticulture.