Tag Archives: Suffolk

Custom demised: Carlow’s dole, Woodbridge



Candlemas is often associated with charities especially doles. Whilst most of these appear to have died out around 100 years ago, one survived until recently and indeed may soon return. This is Carlow’s Dole. Carlow’s Dole is also one of those customs which is repeatedly referred to it folk custom almanacs and now online lists as a surviving custom – however that is far from the truth. Even Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 school resource British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide state:

“a dozen loaves are still distributed each Candlemas by the rector and churchwardens of St. Mary’s parish church.”

What makes the charity stand out is the nature of bizarre distribution and the origins of its founder.

George Carlow was a member of a religious sect long extinct called the Separate Congregation who’s chief belief was keeping Saturday sacred it seems. Being not accepted for burial in the church or chapel, he therefore was interred in his own private tomb in his garden. As the year’s passed this garden became the property of the Bull Hotel. Arthur Mee (1939) in his Suffolk notes:

“…we come upon the tiny walled garden of the Bull Hotel, the old coaching inn on Market Hill where Tennyson stayed… Through the hotel yard we come to the grave of George Carlow, who owned the inn in 1738, when he died and was buried here. He left the inn a small charity to distribute bread each year to the poor, and the bread is still distributed at his grave.”

The will stipulated that whosoever lived in his house paid for the loaves. As the Bull Hotel’s annex covered this property for many years they took responsibility for the tomb’s upkeep and helped with the charity. Homer Sykes (1975) who chose the custom to feature in his excellent Only Once a Year notes that the hotel had a room called Carlow’s and that those involved would be served sherry by the hotel. Landlord Neville Allen noted in Ben Le Vay’s Eccentric Britain:

“we mark it some years with children coming from one of the local schools to get rolls which we have baked. Of course, they’re not that poor nowadays but it’s very educational.”

The some years is a clue of how the custom appeared to die out but not the full story which I will explain in a moment. What makes this dole so interesting is the tomb of course on which is inscribed:

“Weep for me dear friend no more for I am gone a little before. But by a lite of pity prepare yourself to follow me. Good friends for Jesus sake forbear. To move the dust entombed here. Blessed be he that spares these stones. Cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Now Mr. Carlow being not associated with a church realised he would not be able to display his bequest on a Charity board as many others still do and did, so he also cleverly had the instructions carved also into his tomb:

“Twenty shillings worth of bread to be given on this stone to the poor of the town on the second of February forever.”

These loaves were purchased from the two poorest bakers in the town for the town’s poor, by doing so helping both parts of the community. Interestingly, St. Mary’s Church were charged with organising this distribution being done by the verger and two church wardens.

Interestingly, unlike other customs which clearly don’t pay for themselves, Carlow’s dole was not subsidised. Sykes (1975) notes in 1975:

“At present, since loaves cost more than two pence, only twelve loaves are purchased and distributed…”

Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide also astutely note:

“whereas once 20/- (£1) would have provided the 120 ‘two-penny loaves’ originally intended, today it would buy but one large loaf.”

Interestingly Sykes appears to show the dole being given to elderly people but by Brian Sheul’s (1983) time in the 1980s it was children.

The dole was clearly also an attempt at sin eating where the sins of the incumbent would be passed onto the living. This was done by eating food off the grave. This is still enacted at Butterworth’s Dole at Smithfield’s London and of course is one of the concepts behind the Wake. Of course within recent times of the dole it was more hygienically distributed on a table near the tomb.

Carlow’s Grave, Woodbridge where the dole should have been distributed. Copyright Richard Wisbey Flikr


As stated Carlow’s dole is often described as being still extant but it sadly has now become lost. Why? The reason is rather pathetic to be honest – and that is not meant to be a criticism of St. Mary’s – but the owners of the land in which the tomb is enclosed. For although it is often noted that the tomb is in the Bull Hotel garden this is no longer true. Houses were built on land adjacent to the Hotel and the tomb was incorporated into one of the house’s private gardens. According to the Rector Canon Kevan McCormack access was prevented by the owner of the land but this appears to have arisen from a dispute regarding who owned the small piece of land, a dispute which had apparently been going on for several years. Promisingly he noted that the previous owners believed that if it was resolved there would be no problem reinstating the tradition. The owners were very gracious to Richie Wisbey who managed to get access and take a recent photo of the grave now overgrown in the garden. Back in 2012 I was told:

“A brief response is that we ceased a few years ago from giving out bread at the tomb, because the owner of the land where the tomb is would not allow us to do it.  However, there has now developed a dispute as to who owns this small piece of land and if this is resolved it may be possible to reinstate this next year.”

2013 I was told:

Sadly this dispute has been going on for several years and we just have to wait.”

2016 and I think we are still waiting. A shame that such a dispute could stop the custom and we hope that it either has now been revived or will be soon.

Custom survived: A visit from Father, Jack or Mother Valentine

Click the image for a great account!

Click the image for a great account!

Multi-channel TV, the World Wide Web, international trade: all these things and other have brought us closer together, allowed us to share ideas and thoughts. Homogenised us and made us all very similar. Yet every now and then one comes across a custom or tradition whose very survival flies in the face of this globalisation. Jack or Father Valentine is one. Why? Because for some inexplicable reason it is largely restricted to two counties: Norfolk and Suffolk, and not only this it is restricted largely to Norwich and Lowestoft?

Normal for Norfolk?

Across the country in Victorian times, Valentine’s Day was an important day in the calendar. I have already described how the giving of cards was revived across the country on another post, but apparently whilst the sending of cards died out, in this obscure part of the country, Valentines was not forgotten.  Porter (1974) in the Folklore of East Anglia notes:

“Norwich is still known for the enthusiasm with which, by the sending of cards and gifts, the inhabitants celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on 14th February. The gifts should, traditionally be delivered in person, and the rat-tatting of door knockers was a familiar Valentines sound. “

However, despite this clearly describing the custom, the name is missing. This name Jack Valentine can metamorphose into Old Father Valentine, or Old Mother Valentine. Descriptions of the custom first arise in the mid 1800s. A lengthy note given by a John Wodderspoon is described in the first series of Notes and Queries:

“ST. VALENTINE IN NORWICH—. The day appropriated to St. Valentine is kept with some peculiarity in the city of Norwich. Although “Valentines,” as generally understood, that is to say billets sent by means of the post, are as numerously employed here as in other places, yet the custom consists not in the transmission of a missive overflowing with hearts and darts, or poetical posies, but in something far more substantial, elegant and costly—to wit, a goodly present of value unrestricted in use or expense. Though this custom is openly adopted among relatives and others whose friendship is reciprocated, yet the secret mode of placing a friend in possession of an offering is followed largely,—and this it is curious to remark, not on the day of the saint, when it might be supposed that the appropriateness of the gift would be duly ratified, the virtue of the season being in full vigour, but on the eve of St. Valentine, when it is fair to presume his charms are not properly matured. The mode adopted among all classes is that of placing the presents on the door-sill of the house of the favoured person, and intimating what is done by a run-a-way knock or ring as the giver pleases.”

 Despite the late recording it is clear from the account that the custom must have been well established as the author continues:

 “So universal is this custom in this ancient city, that it may be stated with truth some thousands of pounds are annually expended in the purchase of Valentine presents. At the time of writing (February 2.) the shops almost generally exhibit displays of articles calculated for the approaching period, unexampled in brilliancy, taste and costliness, and including nearly every item suitable to the drawing room, the parlour, or the boudoir. The local papers contain numerous advertising announcements of “Valentines;” the walls are occupied with printed placards of a similar character, and the city crier, by means of a loud bell and an equally sonorous voice, proclaims the particular advantages in the Valentine department of rival emporiums. All these preparations increase as the avator of St. Valentine approaches. At length the saint and his eve arrives—passes—and the custom, apparently expanding with age, is placed in abeyance until the next year. I am inclined to believe that this mode of keeping St. Valentine is confined to this city and the county of Norfolk.”

 A well written account in Thiselton-dyer’s (1900) British Popular Customs Present and Past reads

“Norfolk. As soon as it is dark, packages may be seen being carried about in a most mysterious way; and as soon as the coast seems clear, the parcel is laid on the doorstep, the bell rung, and the bearer runs away. Inside the house is all on the qui vive, and the moment the bell is heard, all the little folks (and the old ones too, sometimes) rush to the door, and seize the parcel and scrutinize the direction most anxiously, and see whether it is for papa or mamma, or one of the youngsters. The parcels contain presents of all descriptions, from the most magnificent books or desks, to little unhappy squeaking dolls. These presents are always sent anonymously, and nearly always contain a few verses, ending with the distich:

‘If you’ll be mine, 1’11 be thine, And so good morrow, Valentine.’

 The Opies (1959) in the Lore and Language of Schoolchildren note:

 “From Heydon and Stalham in the north-east to Loddon in the south, young children played ‘Jack Valentine’ and knock on the doors or windows of houses and leave little gifts on the doorsteps.”

The Opies (1959) also record rhymes, common at Valentines across the country, but included mention of Mother Valentine, such as Ingoldisthorpe, Norfolk:

 “Good Mother Valentine, God bless the baker!, Who’ll be the giver? I’ll be the taker. The roads are very dirty, My boots are very clean, And I’ve got a pocket, to put a penny in.”

However, this is more common frequently encountered sounding like a begging rhyme once found across the country under the name of ‘valentining’ And Tuttingham near Aylsham reads:

“Good morning, Father Valentine, Trim your hair as I do mine: Two to the fore and two behind, Good morning Father Valentine.”

At Mundham they chant:

“Old Father Valentine, Draw up your window blind; If you wish to hear us sing, come down and let us in.”

Sadly, not living in Norfolk I have failed to witness this custom in person, but a search of the internet clearly reveals it to be alive. Much of what can be gathered about the tradition is from entries to fora and websites, there appears to be no modern literature I am aware of about it. A typical view is that of a Dave Tong who described that:

“We felt as you do at Christmas – both excited and almost sick, waiting for the knock on the door and the present of marbles, plasticine or maybe even gun caps if you were really lucky. A neighbour knocked on our door and later my dad did the same for their family. This was in the 60s and we still carry on the tradition with our own children today. The reason some in Norfolk haven’t heard of it is I think because it came out of Norwich where my parents lived and so has only spread slowly outside the confines of the City.”

 A Leanne Tink notes:

“We used to look forward to Father valentine visiting more than Christmas day!It was always so exciting. I always used to think oh mum has missed him coming again!! I carried on this lovely tradition with all three of my children up until a few years ago and still do get them a small gift.”

 A good account from a Paul Gray noted:

“Coming from Gorleston, near Gt Yarmouth, I can remember the loud ‘knock’ on the front door on Valentine’s evening after dark. There was always a small bag containing sweets and maybe a book, game or model plane to build. This was in the 1960’s. Usually a neighbour was coerced to knock and deliver. My wife and I carried on the tradition in exactly the same way for our twins (Good ol’Reg!)- but as Reg was not as sprightly as he once was, we had to hold the twins back for a few seconds to allow Reg to slip into the shadows. As far as I was told, the custom doesn’t extend the Norwich-Lowestoft-Yarmouth area.”

Bullet for a valentine!

 An Amanda Woodhouse adds:

“Although my brother and I would get some good presents and some bad ones as our parents always said he was ‘naughty’”

With every custom which appears to welcome goodwill, there is always the other darker version. This custom is clearly no exception and the name ‘snatch Valenine’ is used. This concept of a bad presents or mock presents is recorded by Porter (1975) who adds:

“In Lowestoft, and in many places too, the gifts were left on the recipients’ doorsteps and were preceded by ‘mock’ presents such as boxes filled with nothing but paper, a custom which encouraged mischievous boys to leave such offerings as dead herrings and other unsavoury objects.”

Thistleton-Dyer (1900) using Hone’s Everyday Book as his source also notes

“At Swaffham, also, Valentines are sent on this evening. Watching for a convenient opportunity, the door is slyly opened, and the Valentine attached to an apple or an orange, is thrown in; a loud rap at the door immediately follows, and the offender taking to his heels, is off instantly. Those in the house, generally knowing for what purpose the amusing rap was made, commence a search for the juvenile billet-doux: in this manner numbers are disposed of by each youth. By way of teasing the person who attends the door, a white oblong square the size of a letter is usually chalked on the step of the door, and should an attempt be made to pick it up, great amusement is thus afforded to some of the urchins, who are generally watching.”

The Opie’s (1959) note that such pranks were common place amongst their correspondents and quite clever:

“Sometimes the older children take advantage of gift giving and play tricks. They attach a piece of string to a parcel and jerk it away from the doorstep when someone stoops to pick up.”

 Considering the time of year this could be quite unpleasant:

 “they lodge a broom or bucket of water against the door before they knock, so that when the door is opened it falls into the house.”

Love is all around

Although geographically to the Norfolk and north Suffolk, it probably has spread as people have moved away, Australia being probably the furthest! On the website an Elizabeth McManus describes:  

 “I was born in north Norfolk and always had a visit from father valentine, I am in my 50s now and always kept up the custom with my children even though I moved to Wisbech Cambs Now I do it for my grandchildren, in fact they are coming to visit today and the presents are all ready .”

A Tim Williamson also noted:

“Now we’ve bought the tradition to Brighton.”

Another, Angie Porter:

“I now live in Henley-on-Thomas and carry on the tradition for my Grandson but no one here has heard of it.”

It has spread even further afield as correspondent Matthew Benns notes:

Long live Jack Valentine. I remember the terror and excitement of Jack Valentine’s knock as a child in Norfolk so well. Now in Australia the custom has been transported here for my daughters – although with the warmer weather snatch’s repertoire has been expanded to include various other tricks involving buckets of water and the garden hose!”

 Pranks aside, Jack Valentine appears to have now been adopted by a Norwich shopping centre, the Lanes with cleverly staged CCTV footage, the report notes:

“The mythical figure of Jack Valentine has been caught on CCTV wandering around the Norwich Lanes over the last few days. In one of the stills, he’s spotted strolling around Pottergate with an urban fox. For several centuries, Jack was famous for delivering gifts to families on Valentine’s Eve, a tradition which is synonymous to Norwich and Norfolk. One local historian believes he may have returned after hearing of interest from the curators at the Bridewell Museum about his long term absence. Here in the Lanes we are incredibly excited that rumours of his return are true. If anyone else spots Jack on his travels, we urge people to contact us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #JackValentine.”

 With this sort of publicity perhaps the custom will spread. That would not be a bad thing, as I rather like this tradition for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is largely localised and defied the trend for globalisation and secondly, that it is clear that the character is someone that might be known to the recipient those avoiding the Father Christmas conundrum parents have.  So this year, for my resident Norfolk diasporas I made a little visit…and left their young son something or should I say Jack did..spread the word!


CCTV1_low-230x230 Find out when it’s on:

It’s not on Calendar customs yet, but it is always the 13th February or 14th February morning and in the Norwich-North Suffolk region.

http://www.gentlemanswalk.co.uk/?p=1350 for some more footage!