Mischief and merriment

Mischief and merriment

Hannah Spencer celebrates May Day, and the many other rural festivals

Hannah Spencer, researcher in rural history and author

Hannah Spencer

researcher in rural history and author

Everyone loves a party. Britain’s unique range of celebratory traditions have always been central to rural life, and these range from the practical to the quirky to the downright bizarre. Some were unique to particular villages, for example the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll in Gloucestershire, where participants chased two Double Gloucester cheeses down a precipitous hill. Others, such as May Day, Plough Monday and Rogationtide, were common across Britain.

Dancing and merriment as the plough is dragged through the village on Plough Monday
Dancing and merriment as the plough is dragged through the village on Plough Monday

Until the 20th century, the rural working classes lived in often deplorable conditions, up to a dozen people living in a two-roomed cottage, with adults and children struggling to earn enough to cover food and rent. The rare chance for a day’s holiday, coupled with the enticement of supplied food (and drink) meant these celebrations were as anticipated as Christmas today.

Plough Monday
Plough Monday, following Twelfth Night, the end of the Christmas celebration, was traditionally the day when ploughing began. The ploughs were blessed in the parish church then dragged around the village, the ploughmen collecting money for parish funds. One of the earliest references comes from Carlton-in-Lindrick in Nottinghamshire, where plough races were held in the 13th century.

The rather chaste proceedings of the medieval period gradually became rowdier. By the 19th century, it was tradition for the ploughmen to wear fancy dress or women’s clothing, and anyone who refused to donate money could find the plough dragged across their garden.

The money was spent on a feast for the ploughmen and boys, some as young as eight, who’d soon be working 14 hours a day of hard manual labour, often in bitter cold and driving rain, with little more than a slice of bread in their pocket to sustain them. A rhyme said at each house illustrates:

A hole in my stocking,
A hole in my shoe,
Will you spare a poor ploughboy
A copper or two?

Grinning through a horse collar. One of the absurdities frowned upon by the more genteel Victorians. A drawing from 1773
Grinning through a horse collar. One of the absurdities frowned upon by the more genteel Victorians. A drawing from 1773

The Wake
The Wake, also known as a Revel or Hopping, commemorated the parish church’s dedication. The all-night vigil was replaced by the 18th century by a feast accompanied by drinking, dancing, races to win ribbons, tobacco and smocks, and a competition to catch a greased pig, which could feed a poverty-stricken family for several months. In Alderminster in Worcestershire, the men bowled for a leg of mutton; the women for a currant cake. Kickshins was a common sport across the Midlands. Participants would don iron-tipped hobnailed boots and kick each other’s shins until a victor could be determined. Crueller sports such as bull- and badger-baiting and cock-fighting were also common.

The curate of Roborough in Devon complained that Revel Sunday was marked by fighting, bloodshed and drunkenness, and even his church services were interrupted by jocularity and brawling. A Birmingham writer complained in 1855 that ‘wakes were the scenes of the grossest absurdity and debauchery’, including grinning or pulling faces through horse collars, eating scalding porridge, and boys racing in a state of nudity.

This didn’t suit upper-class Victorian sensibilities and the wakes were curtailed.

May Day in Preston on Stour, Gloucestershire, c1908. The May Queen, May King and Maid of Honour are in the centre, the maypole behind
May Day in Preston on Stour, Gloucestershire, c1908. The May Queen, May King and Maid of Honour are in the centre, the maypole behind

May Day
May Day, traditionally 1 May, originated as the Celtic festival of Beltane which encouraged the land to flourish. The iconic maypole was a feature by the 14th century. They were typically huge affairs, needing several oxen to draw them into place. They were decorated with flowers, ribbons and leafy boughs, and followed by a procession of people carrying garlands of leaves and may blossom.

By the 19th century, maypole dancing was accompanied with games, wrestling, drinking and dancing. The upper classes frowned upon this as promoting ‘bastardy, dissolute life and many other mischiefs’ and, like the Wakes, the May celebration was curtailed. It commonly survived as a children’s festival. The rector of Whitchurch in Warwickshire complained in 1906 that ‘the May pole has become nothing but a dressed-up broomstick, and the May songs a nasal gabble sung entirely out of tune.’

The children of the Alscot Estate in Warwickshire spent weeks preparing for their procession around the local villages with their maypole, led by the May King and Queen, singing songs at the bigger houses for a few pennies. The procession was followed by a lavish tea including bread and butter and jam, rare treats for working class children, and games where lucky children could win a toy.

Morris dancers in Ilmington, Warwickshire, c1900
Morris dancers in Ilmington, Warwickshire, c1900

Rogationtide, which preceded Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter, involved blessing the crops and ‘beating the bounds’. The parish boundaries were perambulated to check for incursions and fix the bounds in the minds of everyone in the parish. The bounds were beaten with sticks to drive out the devil, and boys were also beaten to help them remember the bounds. An old Nottinghamshire man, asked his opinion on the location of the boundary, replied: ‘That it is. I were tossed into the water and paddled about there like a water-rat until I were half dead.’ The gospels were also read at key points – names such as Gospel Oak and Gospel Beech commonly survive in place-names today – and bread and ale were provided by the parish.

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The summer months saw the village Morris sides dancing on the village greens. The tradition dates to at least Tudor times. The dancers, adorned with scarfs, ribbons and bells, were accompanied by pipes and tabors and hobby horses skirmished in the crowds. Some dances represented harvest or bean-planting; others commemorated events such as royal jubilees. The dances and tunes were unique to each village.

Mummers also performed their popular farcical plays. These varied across Britain but featured a routine cast including St George or King George, Beezlebub, Father Christmas, a Turkish knight, a doctor and an old ‘ooman’, the latter being a man in a frock. The script was memorised by the largely illiterate performers and handed down word for word, often for several hundred years. Few original scripts survive today.

Reaping corn in the 19th century. The cradle on the scythe kept the stems together to aid binding
Reaping corn in the 19th century. The cradle on the scythe kept the stems together to aid binding

Harvest was culmination of the agricultural year and its completion, after several weeks slog under the scorching sun by every able-bodied man, woman and child, was celebrated by the Harvest Home feast, arranged by the farmers. The last load home was followed by singing, shouting crowds, the horses decked with flowers and boys perched on top of the laden wagon.

The last sheaf, which contained the corn-spirit, was saved and scattered on the fields in spring, returning the spirit to the fields. In some areas it was worked into a corn dolly or kern baby. In some villages it was tied into the shape of a cockerel and harvesters took turns throwing their sickles at it until the stems were severed. Similar traditions are found across Europe, illustrating their antiquity.

Men enjoying the cider at the Bidford Mop in Warwickshire, c1900
Men enjoying the cider at the Bidford Mop in Warwickshire, c1900

The Mop Fair
The Mop or Statute Fair, held in the local market town, was the highlight of the rural year. It was often the only occasion people left their village. Mops were hiring fairs designed to tackle the labour shortage following the Black Death, and were held around Michaelmas (29 September) after completion of harvest. In livestock areas such as Wales they were held in May, after the lambing and calving season.

Young people, ‘standing like cattle waiting for dealers’, displayed a token of their trade – whipcord for carters, crooks for shepherds, mops for housemaids – and waited for prospective employers to approach. Everyone else was free to enjoy the stalls, skittles and mechanical rides, lose money on fixed card games, and eat slices of roast oxen and pigs which were cooked on spits in the streets. Mop Fairs still survive as funfairs today.

Reading the Gospel during Rogationtide
Reading the Gospel during Rogationtide

On St Thomas’s Day, 21 December, widows, poor women or children would go a’thomasing or a’gooding. They toured the richer houses asking for money or food, appealing to Christian charity for a Christmas feast of their own. ‘Please, I’ve come a’gooding, to buy my mother a Christmas pudding,’ children would say. The poorer tenants of the Alscot Estate in Warwickshire were gifted blankets, shawls and flannelling by their landlords. When living conditions improved in the 20th century, the tradition declined.

Wassailing, from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘good cheer’, also took place around midwinter. People went from house to house singing wassail songs in return for liberal quantities of ale. This was collected in a wassailing bowl, a huge and often ancient wooden bowl kept by the king of the wassailers.

The wassailers lit their way with a lantern made from a hollowed swede carved into a face, reminiscent of Halloween pumpkins.

Songs varied from village to village, with examples recorded in English, Welsh and Gaelic. A South Warwickshire song began:

Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale is brown,
Our ale it is made of the best of barley,
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Apple trees were also commonly wassailed. Cider-soaked toast was hung in the bare branches, cider poured around the roots, much more drunk by the wassailers, and songs sung to encourage a good apple harvest for next year. Liberal quantities of cider was a requisite perk for farmworkers, and the wassail was arguably the most important event of the year.

The rich tapestry of rural tradition began to crumble in the 19th century. Young people left their villages for the industrial towns. Farming traditions dwindled following mechanisation. The final blow came in 1914. The generation of young men who would have danced, wrestled, chased greased pigs and dragged a plough across the vicar’s lawn lay in graves in foreign soil. Those who came home, physically and emotionally scarred, didn’t want to revive the traditions which reminded them of everything and everyone they’d lost. They were abandoned for good.

Later in the 20th century, people began to revive their village’s traditions. Some became a permanent fixture. Morris dancing was revived as the now-aged former dancers taught a new generation. In the 21st century we have gone full circle, and our heritage is as important as centuries ago.

Maypole dancing in the 17th century
Maypole dancing in the 17th century

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