William Alfred Dutt was born at Ditchingham, Norfolk, on 17 November 1870. Later in life he became well known as an author and journalist, writing about wildlife in East Anglia and many other East Anglian topographical works. His 1901 book “Highways and Byways in East Anglia” is particularly interesting for it refers to local myths and legends, but it also highlights the following which provides a fascinating insight into the Norfolk Broads of the early 20th century: its people, their environment and their distinctive way of life, particularly of the wherrymen (river sailors) and the marsh men who made their living by farming, hunting and fishing on the swampy land:
“Then, too, there are the wherrymen and marshmen whom you meet in the evenings at the marshland staithes and ferry inns. Approach them without displaying that ridiculous condescension which is characteristic of too many visitors and amateur yachtsmen and you will find them able and willing to impart much curious information concerning the river life and wild life of Broadland. For these men are not simply fair-weather voyagers; they are afloat on the rivers from January to December, and see the broads and marshes under all aspects and in all seasons. Many of them have known no other life than that which is spent in cruising between the East coast ports and the inland towns; but it has taught them many things of which the world that lies beyond the borders of the marshes has little knowledge.
Join a group of them some summer night when they are gathered in the low-ceiled bar-room of a riverside inn, or lounging about a lock or staithe in the midst of the marshes. Hear them talk of the voyages they have made when the ” roke ” (fog) was so dense as to hide even the windmills on the river banks; of the days when their wherries were icebound and the snowdrifts rose higher than the river-walls; of the marsh-fires (Will O’ the Wisp) which used to flicker over the festering swamps; and of the mist wraiths and phantom fishermen of the meres and marshes. Watch how their faces assume a fixed expression and their pipes are allowed to go out while some old man among them tells of a strange sight he saw one autumn night when his wherry was moored near the ruins of St. Benet’s Abbey”:
Behind all this is the Norfolk accent, which was and remains very distinctive, not one which many outsiders will often hear. The passage from Dutt’s book will allow you to get a taste of the accent, but only if you pronounce the words as you see them written. Do that a few times over and you will have an idea how it sounds. It really does work:
“There wor a full mune, an’ you could see th’ mills an’ mashes as clear as day. There worn’t a breath of wind, not even enow to set th’ reeds a-rustlin’; an’ for over an hour arter sunset you couldn’t hear a livin’ thing a-movin’ either by th’ river or on th’ mashes. I wor a-settin’ in my cabin along wi’ my mate Jimmy Steggles (him as used to hev th’ owd Bittern), an’ we wor a-talkin’ about one thing an’ another for a while afore turnin’ in for th’ night. All of a suddent we heered th’ quarest kind o’ screechin’ a man ever heerd, an’ lookin’ out o’ th’ cabin I seed a man a-runnin’ towards th’ wherry as hard as he could put foot to th’ ground. He soon got alongside on us, and I axed him what he wor a-screechi-n’ about. `It worn’t me, bor,’ he say ; ‘it wor suffin’ what come outer th’ shadder o’ th’ owd abbey. I wor a-goin’ home to Ludham, arter lookin’ arter some bullocks what are on a mash yonder, an’ I thowt I heard suffin a-movin’ about agin th’ ruins.”
“Thinks I, that must be one o’ them there cows what wor browt down here from Acle yesterday forenoon. So I went outer my way a bit to see if anything wor amiss. When I got within about twenty yards o’ th’ walls suffin come a-wamblin’ outer th’ shadder o’ th’ owd mill,’ (you know there wor a mill built on th’ owd abbey years agone) ` an’ started screechin’ like a stuck pig. I never stopped to see what it wor, but jist come for yar wherry like hell in highlows ! “
“He wor a chap I knew well-his father had an eel-sett up th’ Thurne River-an’ he wor a-tremblin’ all over like a man wi’ th’ ayger. Both I an’ my mate went ashore, an’ I took my gun chance I’d wantin’ it; but all we seed wor an owd harnsee (heron) go a-flappin’ away acrost the mashes. An’ it worn’t a harnsee what made that screechin’, I’ll stake my life; though what it wor I never knowed. Whatever it wor it give that Ludham chap a funny fright, an’ he wouldn’t hear o’ goin’ home that night. So we had to find a berth for him aboard th’ wherry, an’ he went on to Wroxham Bridge wi’ us in th’ mornin.”
JOHN BALE (1495-1563), was born in the little village of Cove, near Dunwich in Suffolk, on 21 Nov. 1495. The village was so named after the deCove family who had held land there in the 13th century – today, the place is named Covehithe) because the village once had a hithe, or quay, for loading and unloading small vessels.
Covehithe’s nearby beach and ruined, St Andrew’s Church.
Photos: (c) Paul Dobraszczyk
Bale’s parents were of humble rank and at the age of twelve he was sent to the Carmelite Whitefriars Monastery at Norwich, where he was educated, and thence he passed to Jesus College, Cambridge. He was at first an opponent of the new learning, and was a zealous Roman catholic, but was converted to protestantism by the teaching of Lord Wentworth. He then laid aside his monastic habit, renounced his vows, and caused great scandal by taking a wife, of whom nothing is known save that her name Dorothy. This step exposed him to the hostility of the clergy, and he only escaped punishment by the powerful protection of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.
Bales held the living of Thornden in Suffolk, and in 1534 was convened before the archbishop of York to answer for a sermon, denouncing Romish uses, which he had preached at Doncaster. Bale is said to have attracted Cromwell’s attention by his dramas, which were moralities, or scriptural plays setting forth the reformed opinions and attacking the Roman party. The earliest of Bale’s plays was written in 1538, and its title is sufficiently significant of its general purport. It is called ‘A Brefe Comedy or Enterlude of Johan Baptystes Preachynge in the Wyldernesse; openynge the craftye Assaults of the Hypocrytes (i.e. the friars) with the glorious Baptyme of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Harleian Miscellany, vol. i.). Bale wrote several plays of a similar character. They are not remarkable for their poetical merits, but are vigorous attempts to convey his own ideas of religion to the popular mind. When Bale was bishop of Ossory, he had some of his plays acted by boys at the market-cross of Kilkenny on Sunday afternoons.
Cromwell recognised in Bale a man who could strike hard, and Bale continued to make enemies by his unscrupulous outspokenness. The fall of Cromwell brought a religious reaction, and Bale had too many enemies to stay unprotected in England. He fled in 1540 with his wife and children to Germany, and there he continued his controversial writings. Chief amongst them in importance were the collections of Wycliffite martyrologies, ‘A brief Chronicle concerning the Examination and Death of Sir John Oldcastle, collected by John Bale out of the books and writings of those Popish Prelates which were present,’ London, 1544; at the end of which was ‘The Examination of William Thorpe,’ which Foxe attributes to Tyndale. In 1547 Bale published at Marburg ‘The Examination of Anne Askewe.’ Another work which was the fruit of his exile was an exposure of the monastic system entitled ‘ The Actes of Englyshe Votaryes,’ 1546.
On the accession of Edward VI in 1547 Bale returned to England and shared in the triumph of the more advanced reformers. He was appointed to the rectory of Bishopstoke in Hampshire, and published in London a work which he had composed during his exile, ‘The Image of bothe Churches after the most wonderfull and heavenlie Revelacion of Sainct John’ (1550). This work may be taken as the best example of Bale’s polemical power, showing his learning, his rude vigour of expression, and his want of good taste and moderation.
In 1551 Bale was promoted to the vicarage of Swaffham in Norfolk, but he does not appear to have resided there. In August 1552 Edward VI came to Southampton and met Bale, whom he presented to the vacant see of Ossory. In December Bale set out for Ireland, and was consecrated at Dublin on 2 Feb. 1553. From the beginning Bale showed himself an uncompromising upholder of the reformation doctrines. His consecration gave rise to a controversy. The Irish bishops had not yet accepted the new ritual. The ‘Form of Consecrating Bishops,’ adopted by the English parliament, had not received the sanction of the Irish parliament, and was not binding in Ireland. Bale refused to be ordained by the Roman ritual, and at length succeeded in carrying his point, though a protest was made by the Dean of Dublin during the ceremony.
Bale has left an account of his proceedings in his diocese in his ‘Vocacyon of John Bale to the Byshopperycke of Ossorie’ (Harleian Miscellany, vol. vi.). His own account shows that his zeal for the reformation was not tempered by discretion. At Kilkenny he tried to remove ‘idolatries,’ and thereon followed ‘angers, slaunders, conspiracies, and in the end slaughters of men.’ He angered the priests by denouncing their superstitions and advising them to marry. His extreme measures everywhere aroused opposition. When Edward VI’s death was known, Bale doubted about recognising Lady Jane Grey, and on the proclamation of Queen Mary he preached at Kilkenny on the duty of obedience.
But the catholic party at once raised its head. The mass was restored in the cathedral, and Bale thought it best to withdraw to Dublin, whence he set sail for Holland. He was taken prisoner by the captain of a Dutch man-of-war, which was storm driven into St. Ives in Cornwall. There Bale was apprehended on a charge of high treason, but was released. The same fortune befell him at Dover. When he arrived in Holland he was again imprisoned, and only escaped by paying £300 – about £80,000 in today’s terms. From Holland he made his way to Basel, where he remained in quiet till the accession of Elizabeth in 1559. He again returned to England an old and worn-out man. He did not feel himself equal to the task of returning to his turbulent diocese of Ossory, but accepted the post of prebendary of Canterbury, and died in Canterbury in 1563.
Bale was a man of great theological and historical learning, and of an active mind. But he was a coarse and bitter controversialist and awakened equal bitterness amongst his opponents. None of the writers of the reformation time in England equalled Bale’s sharpness and forthrightness. He was known as ‘Bilious Bale’. His controversial spirit was a hindrance to his learning, as he was led away by his prejudices into frequent mis-statements. The most important work of Bale was a history of English literature, which first appeared in 1548 under the title ‘Illustrium Majoris Britanniae Scriptorum Summarium in quinque centurias divisum.’ It is a valuable catalogue of the writings of the authors of Great Britain chronologically arranged. Bale’s second exile gave him time to carry on his work till his own day, and two editions were issued in Basel, 1557-1559. This work owes much to the ‘Collectanea’ and ‘Commentarii’ of John Leland, and is disfigured by misrepresentations and inaccuracies. Still its learning is considerable, and it deserves independent consideration, as it was founded on an examination of manuscripts in monastic libraries, many of which have since been lost.
The plays of Bale are doggerel, and are totally wanting in decorum. A few of them are printed in Dodsley’s ‘Old Plays,’ vol. i., and in the ‘Harleian Miscellany,’ vol. i. The most interesting of his plays, ‘Kynge Johan’, was printed by the Camden Society in 1838. It is a singular mixture of history and allegory, the events of the reign of John being transferred to the struggle between protestantism and popery in the writer’s own day. His controversial writings were very numerous, and many of them were published under assumed names. Tanner (Bibl. Brit.) gives a catalogue of eighty-five printed and manuscript works attributed to Bale, and Cooper (Athenae Cantabrigienses) extends the number to ninety.
Creighton, Mandell. “John Bale.”
The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol III. Leslie Stephen, Ed.
London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1885. 41-42.
Dating back to the late 15th century, the first Monday after Epiphany marks the start of ploughing for spring sown crops and was once the traditional day of agricultural workers returning after the Christmas period. Historic documents however, tell of plough candles being lit in churches during January in the 13th century.
Customs of the day varied nationwide, but the most common feature was a plough (blessed in church the previous day) to be hauled from house to house in rural communities. As the continued, an army of villagers collected money for the parish during a passing street procession. Apart from dancers and musicians, an old woman called “the Bessy” or a boy dressed as such and a man in the role of the ‘Plough Fool’ often headed of the procession. Some participants paraded a Straw Bear and not surprisingly, the event also attracted much drinking, merriment and mirth throughout the day. In Eastern England, ploughs were taken around by Plough Monday mummers and Molly Dancers and were sometimes even used as a threat. If householders refused to donate to the money collectors, their front paths would be ploughed up!
A festive Plough Pudding was also eaten on the day. Originating and also ‘invented’ in Norfolk, this was a suet pastry-topped boiled pudding filled with pork sausage meat, chopped bacon and onions with sage and sugar added. It could be eaten alone, or served with boiled potatoes, vegetables and gravy. One recipe suggested a Cooking time of 3 hrs 30 minutes, but today’s microwaves would reduce that!! A similar item is still sold today by major supermarkets.
At its height, Plough Monday was most commonly celebrated in the East Midlands and East Anglia, until the English Reformation caused its slow decline. In 1538, Henry VIII forbade “plough lights” to be lit in churches, before Edward VI condemned the “conjuring of ploughs”. Ceremonies revived during the reign of Mary only to decline again during Elizabeth I’s reign. Some processions survived into the 19th century and in 1810, a farmer took his case to Derby Assizes, claiming that refusal to donate money, those pulling the plough, immediately ploughed up his drive, his lawn and a bench, causing twenty pounds worth of damage. Plough Monday customs continued to decline but were revived in some towns in the 20th, with remaining events mainly involving Molly Dancers. Some Plough Monday events were still recorded in the 1930’s before a “folk revival” in the ’60s and ’70s partly returned it to some communities.
This year however, being 2019, Plough Monday falls on the 7th January – which means, for this year at least, it clashes with St. Distaff’s Day!!
Before factory-made cloth was invented, spinning was considered one of the most demanding female chores as before the Spinning Wheel arrived, this activity was slowly and tediously done on a Drop Spindle. One pound of woollen yarn might take a week to spin and a pound of heavy cotton yarn, several weeks. Women of all ages spun threads and when normal activities resumed, they would also spin at home in the evenings, after daytime working in the factory. Spinning was the only way to turn raw wool, cotton or flax, into thread, before it became cloth.
Several times recently, readers have enjoyed descriptions of certain dates connected with historic events, famous people and more. We’ve just had New Year’s Day and next month, comes St Valentine’s Day. But there are other “named” days relating to unusual, forgotten or bygone customs and the following is one example:-
In England, as well as other European countries the days from Christmas through Twelfth Night were once considered a time of rest from the labours of spinning. The maidens returned to their work on St. Distaff’s Day, January 7th. This day was also known as Rock Day, which is derived from the German word rocken, which means both distaff and woman’s. Robert Herrick’s poem about St Distaff’s Day comes from the anthology, Hesperides, and was published in 1647:
St. Distaff’s day, or the morrow after Twelfth-Day
(from Hesperides by Rober Herrick)
Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.
The general suggestion of the poem seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul. The command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia. Little it seemed was therefore taken too seriously on the first day back at work; it became a joke holiday and they called it St. Distaff’s Day. Of course, there never was a real St. Distaff, the “distaff” was, in fact, a principal spinning tool – a rod on to which flax was tied and from which, thread was pulled.
Although women resumed work on January 7th, men still stayed free until Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th Jan). If that fell on a Tuesday, they wouldn’t return until Monday, 12th January! As it was, the Plough Monday celebrations were a great deal more popular in the days leading up to the 19th century when England still had a sizable rural, agricultural population. A large number of rural customs that flourished in England in the mid-19th century were dying or dead by the beginning of the 20th as people migrated from the country to cities and lost their ties to rural life. Antiquarians and, later, folklorists and anthropologists took to the task of recording the remains of these customs, as well as hunting down snippets of information from archives. As for the plough-boys when the festival was at its height, well they used this discrepancy to no good by playing pranks on the busy spinners. The most popular of these pranks was to set fire to the tow and flax which was awaiting processing. The spinners in turn would quench the fire with buckets of water, drenching both fire and firebug.
Large and small St Distaff’s Day gatherings of the fibre-based community were held nationwide on 7th January, with little work being done that day. Records suggest that in England, St. Distaff’s Day was only ‘celebrated’ between the 13th and 17th centuries.
Some people are not really ‘with it’ when it comes to walking and/or bird watching – even exploring local history, myths etc. etc. However, the County of Norfolk is famous for all these activities and one small example is along the coast to the west of Sheringham. So we thought we might encourage you to join us to sample some of these delights, after a little research on our part. If it worked out, you would have the chance to mentally discover a few little facts and secrets from this little corner of Norfolk……..Well, as it happened things did work out, with the result that we can offer the following narrative which comes in the form of a ‘circular’ journey away from and return to our choice of Weybourne.
Our stroll covers some 5.5 miles (8.75kms). If you were to actually do the walk yourself, without showing any interest in the views or items of interest and information, it would take approximately two hours. But, we do not expect you to do that – not unless you have an insatiable urge to put your walking boots on. For now, we will just take you on this relaxing mental ramble and point out the interesting bits and show you a few photographs – starting with Weyborne itself.
Weybourne is a small fishing resort of delightful old brick and flint cottages situated in what is known as ‘the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. The village straddles the A149 coast road and is three miles west of Sheringham and close to the historic market town of Holt. The village population is less than 600 and consists largely of a mixture of local Norfolk residents, retirees and visitors. It is mentioned in the Domesday book and in that survey, it is called ‘Wabrunna’. Today, there remains ruins of an old priory which was founded as a house of Augustinian canons towards the end of the 12th or at the beginning of the 13th century by Sir Ralph Mainwaring. The monument also includes the remains of the priory church dating from the early 13th to the 15th century but incorporating parts of an earlier Saxon church which dates from the 11th century. Within this monastic site, there are also remains of more conventual buildings to the north of the church, together with associated buildings and water management features. Even more interesting is the fact that the 13th century Priory swallowed an earlier Saxon cruciform church, and the remains of the tower of this church can still be recognised to the north of the modern chancel.
Probably the best starting point for taking us away from this delightful village would be from its ruined Priory and along Beach Lane which would take us down to Weybourne shingled beach and a watery shoreline that is named on the map as ‘Weybourne Hope’. From here one has a choice of two sensible options, turning left or right. Our choice is to turn left and travel in a westerly direction along the beach part of the North Norfolk Coastal Path, close to the perimeter fence of the Muckleburgh Military Museum. The area covered by the present-day museum was, during World War 2, an anti-aircraft Artillery training range and, along with a complementary camp at Stiffkey a few miles further along the coast, represented the main live firing training ranges for ACK-ACK Command during that war. Weybourne was also considered to be an ideal enemy invasion target due to the deep-water access. However do not think that the area’s history has little else to offer for it is worth noting that Weybourne also has a history of smugglers and ghosts and a vanished hotel. We’ll pause for a while while you take a look at these Links – we promise to wait.
Just about the point where we pass by Kelling Hard – definitely smugglers here – some wooden rails rise forth along with lifesaving equipment, plus the remains of a small boat. Here we turn left on to a track which moves away from the shingle sea defence and, at first, passes a large lump of unmissable rough concrete before turning right and taking us towards and around a bird-watchers haven – the Kelling Quags. Yes, at first we were foxed too! So, the obvious step was to reach for the dictionary for a definition of ‘Quag’ – well its not there really, but Quagmire is – ‘a soft wet area of land that gives way under feet’ A little more research did confirmed that ‘Quag’ is indeed an abbreviation for a Quagmire, which doesn’t sound very encouraging does it. But stay with us – it gets better! Kelling Quags is marked ‘The Quag’ on OS maps and is immediately to the north of the Water Meadows; all of which is owned by the Norfolk Ornithologist Association.
A walk past the Quags is on reasonably level ground and surprisingly dry during summer months; and very picturesque. The Quags themselves consist of one rather large fresh-water lake, inside the sea defence and rather lower than sea level one would think. It is beautiful spot to visit and should you actually come here then come prepared with binoculars etc. for it is possible to see wrens, mute swans, redshanks, oystercatchers, numerous gulls, male and female mallard plus numerous finches and tits among the hawthorn. Of course, if ‘twitching’ is not for you then climb on to the huge shingle sea barrier and sit in the watery sunshine and watch the waves lap at the shoreline; a warning of undercurrents tells you not to venture into the sea. Rather, have in my mind a walk, just like ours, to Kelling perhaps which is above the lake and on the A149 coastal Road.
Kelling nestles in an extraordinarily pretty part of the country. The local flintstone is the dominant building material and tiny roads, bordered by immaculate hedgerows, meander through undulating land dotted with copses, many of which were planted with shooting in mind – and the Kelling Hall Estate is all about shooting! It is that sort of area where, every now and again, small villages pop up round the inevitable bend and it is very easy to forget about the modern world as the peaceful pace of life here takes over.
The hamlet of Kelling is not only a delight but also so small that it is possible to be completely disregarded on the basis that you are through and out the other side of the village in a minute! The 20mph signs are difficult to stick to but, for those who are patient, the signs do bring the village into focus. It has a rather splendid old bookshop that doubles as a café on the radar; it is positioned just right to prepare oneself for further forays in any direction you may wish to take.
At the coastal road we use the permissive path along the field edge and past a boarded-up house and onwards towards a large gap in the hedge before turning right to cross the road on to the gravel track opposite; this becomes a green lane and then a footpath, which passes the very pleasant Pheasant Hotel on our left as it ascends gently up to the top of Kelling Heath. At the top we have chosen to go straight over a crossing path then, at a fork wo go right and at the next fork we continue straight ahead. Keep going, for at the road Holgate Hill road we cross over on to a track that takes us to the railway crossing over the North Norfolk Railway Line. Now, this is the thing, we were fortunate enough to have arrived just as a steam train passed by on its way back to Sheringham – see above!
With the ‘coast clear’ we cross over the railway crossing and turn immediately left to walk along the footpath, following closely to the railway track and passing the very useful Kelling Heath Information Board. We continue alongside the railway line before dropping a little steeply downhill to a footpath and again towards the railway which is now above us on the left – on an embankment. At this point, the footpath rises to the Kelling Heath Park platform. All is quiet.
The platform was built to enable the visitors to the Kelling Heath caravan site to use the North Norfolk Railway to get to Sheringham or to Weybourne or Holt. There are two seats on the platform for those among us who would perhaps like to have a brief rest and admire the view over toward Weybourne. Once rested, we can walk along the platform and back onto the footpath which takes us alongside a fishing pond, which also has a few seats – but we’re confident no one will want to make use of these.
Continuing along the footpath, still with the railway track close by on the left, we head towards Weybourne station, skirting around Springs Farm just before we get there. Now, given Weybourne’s current geography, it might seem hard to believe that in 1900, plans were in place for a proposed large building, variously known for a time as either the ‘Weybourne Springs Hotel’ or the ‘Weybourne Court’ Hotel. It was to be located next to Weybourne railway station, for reasons that are explained if you follow the Link; however, it was on the opposite side of the road. This building project was, at the time, financed by a Mr Crundle, owner of the nearby gravel pits. His dream was that guests staying in the five-storey upmarket establishment would come from the upper classes – and at that time there were plenty of them around!
Putting that piece of information asided for a moment, we must cross over the road and through a gateway, turning left alongside the horse paddocks towards Weybourne station and on to the platform. At this point we will find that all the facilities we now desperately need are on the other side – some say that this is so typical of Norfolk! We are given no choice but to use the footbridge to cross the railway tracks to the other platform where there are indeed refreshments and toilet facilities. This makes for a nice spot to have a well earned rest and have a look around the station.
Weybourne Station: This is another local attraction on our tour, along with the North Norfolk Railway, otherwise known as the Poppy Line. This well-preserved steam railway cuts through the countryside to the east of Weybourne and passes through this carefully preserved country station on its way from Sheringham through to Holt. For the enthusiasts, this station also houses a locomotive shed with a carriage maintenance and restoration centre.
Weybourne railway station is about 1,000 yards from the village centre, signposted from the coast road opposite the church which, by the way, will be our arrival point at the end of this circular tour. The main station building, which was built in 1900 and opened in 1901, is largely in its original form. Whilst the majority of the station buildings on the M&GN were built in a number of standard styles, Weybourne station was unique. This may be because of the large ‘Weybourne Springs Hotel’ which was built next door and in the same timescale. The hotel was a baroque building and was, as already mentioned, intended to cater for the ‘upper class’. Other structures of that era, such as the signal box, waiting room and footbridge, have been imported from other locations. On the closure of the line, British Rail lifted the track and razed the station, apart from the main station building. It was used as the location for the filming of a Dad’s Army episode, ‘The Royal Train’, and is still frequently used by film-makers and artists.
Having been refreshed and entertained, we can now leave and walk towards the road bridge, turning right and through the car park to the road where we walk the last 1000 yards (or there abouts) back towards the village of Weybourne and its church…….Did you enjoy that?
For centuries, folk have told tales of a large black dog with malevolent flaming eyes (or in some variants of the legend a single eye) that are red or alternatively green – take your pick – and they are described as being ‘like saucers’. Not only that but according to some, the beast varies in size and stature from that of simply a large dog to being the size of a calf or even a horse. Sometimes Black Shuck, or Old Shuck is recorded as having appeared headless, and at other times as floating on a carpet of mist!
According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, but particularly in and around Norfolk. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia described the creature thus:
He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So, you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Shuck you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.
That enigmatic, legendary creature, in the form of a large black dog, crops up over and over again in the annals of East Anglian Folklore. From Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast, down through Broadland and the heart of Norfolk, through the Waveney Valley and down further along the Suffolk coast and into Essex – this creature has, from time immemorial, struck fear and terror into the hearts of our forebears. His name may vary between “Old Shuck”, “Black Shuck”, “Owd Snarley-how”, “Hateful-Thing”, “Galley-Trot” or “Shug-monkey”, but this infamous creature is indeed well known. Norfolk in particular, can justifiably claim to have the strongest connections with such an animal. Whilst the towns of Bungay and Blythburgh are very closely linked with stories of Black Shuck, or Old Shuck – or even Shuck, there are other places such as Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and Salthouse, on the north Norfolk coast, that have also staked their claim. Today, it is this latter place which will have pride of place with the following Tale:
Back in the 1970’s a certain Walter H Barrett wrote that some sixty years previously (shall we say around 1910) he was passing through the village of Salthouse, which lies on the North Norfolk coast road, between Cromer to the east and Cley-Next-The -Sea to the west. There he came across the Dun Cow public house which happened to be conveniently placed to afford him some liquid refreshment at a moment when he really needed it. As he entered, he noticed an aged man sunning himself near the door and feeling rather hospitable bought him a drink and joined him on his seat “Nice and warm in the sun” he enquired. “Tis today, but you want to be here in the winter when a Nor’ Easter is blowing in from the sea – that’s the time when this place is known as the Icehouse, he replied. Walter Barrett gathered that this chap’s name was Sam Rudd and that he had lived in the village all his life; also, he still got a fair living digging lug worms for bait.
Sam Rudd sat quiet for a short spell, and then asked Walter “Ever heard of Old Shuck, the ghost dog? “Yes I have,” said Walter “but several places around this county claim they have an Old Shuck. “Huh! They may do” was Sam’s reply “ but there is only one ghost dog – and he is only seen between here and Cley……. Now, sit you down quiet and I will tell you: I have not only seen him, but I have had to run like hell when he chased me home one night when I was very much younger” ….. Sam eventually continued, having composed himself for the task in front of him: –
“That night, I had been bait-digging as usual, but just as dark was falling I had to give up because the tide was rising fast. I started on my four miles’ walk back home along the beach, keeping a sharp eye on the high-water mark to see what had been washed up. That was in the days of sailing ships, and often drowned sailors from wrecks would be left high and dry when the tide turned. Sometimes I would find one. Sailors in those days wore gold rings on one finger. This I would remove; turn out his pockets. Anything there was mine. If he had come ashore in the parish of Salthouse, I would, after relieving him of anything worthwhile, drag him back into the water where the ebbing tide would carry him out to sea; there, the current would carry him along the coast, until he came ashore near Cromer. Now – the reason for me doing this was because all washed-up dead sailors were buried by the parish in whose boundary they were found. That was all right for the parson, undertaker and grave-digger, who each took their cut, but it was hard luck on us folks who had to find the poor rate levied by the churchwardens to pay for the burial, – and beside this, Salthouse had only one churchyard. Cromer, on the other hand, had a large cemetery with plenty of room to plant those men. As it was, I did not find anything that evening and having reached the beach road which led to the village, I clambered over the shingle bank and was no sooner on the road when a heavy sea mist came swirling down – then a pitch-black darkness set in.”
“I then heard a dog howling some distance behind me. It was so loud it drowned the roar of the sea pounding the shingle bank. I was wearing a pair of heavy thigh boots and after kicking them off I ran like a greyhound in my stockings. The faster I went, the nearer came the howling. When, at last, I reached my home, I opened the door; entered and bolted it as quickly as I could. When my father asked me where my thigh boots were, I told him not to worry about those but to listen to that big dog howling outside.”
“Father heard and got up out of his chair right quick like; took his fowling gun off its hooks on the wall; put in the barrel a double charge of gunpowder; rammed it down with a wad of paper. He then put about half a pound of heavy lead shot on top, and having put a firing cap on the gun nipple, went upstairs; opened the window; saw the dog squatting on its haunches; took aim and fired – but that did not stop the dog howling. When father came downstairs, he said that he had pumped swan shot into that dog but it did not fall over nor stop its howling. That was Old Shuck right enough! In the morning we went outside. There was no sign of the dog but the ‘privy’ door, some distance away, was riddled with shot holes, which proved to my father that the heavy shot had gone right through this ghost dog of ours – just as water would run through a sieve.” With these words, Sam Rudd suddenly stood up, thanked Walter Barrett for the drink and left.
Shortly afterwards, this Walter Barrett also took leave of the Dun Cow and retraced his steps back to Cley-Next-The-Sea to call on the Rector there, the Reverend Everett James Bishop, who informed him that the story he had heard at Salhouse was nonsense; the telling of such tales is the usual ruse that Cley and Salthouse fishermen use to ensure that the locals kept indoors whilst they, the fishermen, were making a smuggling run. This comment further increased Barrett’s interest and he thought he would get a second opinion from a local old fisherman, who was also a wild-fowler; his name was Pinchen. Pinchen scoffed and told Barrett, in no uncertain terms, to pay no regard to what the Rector had said – because he had not been in the parish very long; one had to have his roots in Cley for many years to really understand folk, their traditions and folk tales. Pinchen then remarked, “I can tell you the ‘true’ story of our Old Shuck – from its very beginning. Listen carefully because I have to take you back some 200 years!”:
“The night of 28th January 1709 was one of those which seafarers dreaded when they tried to sail their boats through the unpredictable waters which still keep these shores in check – particularly between nearby Blakeney and as far as Mundesley just south east of Cromer. The waves that night were twenty-feet high, rising foaming white and threatening as the result of a howling gale that tore at the sea surface and land like a screaming spoilt child. Almost in unison, these foaming waves flayed everything in their path before crashing on to these raised shingled beaches; beaches that are here to protect the marshes and villages hereabout. The inevitable rush of water breached the shingle on that occasion and rush headlong over the marshes to cause havoc among the trees and undergrowth and close to houses and churches which nestled on a slight rise in the land at the edge of the marshes. I can tell you – local folk prayed for God’s deliverance whilst some more hard-headed individuals anticipated the pickings from an unfortunate wreck……”
“And there was such a shipwreck at Salthouse that night and it was a Brigantine – some did say afterwards that it was the ‘Ever Hopeful’ but I tend to think that its name, if indeed it did survive, did not register with those who were there for the salvage only; the ship’s name that crept into the original tale may well have reflected someone’s sense of humour. Be that as it may, that Brig., registered in Whitby, had been caught by that storm whilst returning to Yorkshire from London and carrying a cargo of fruit, spices and other foodstuffs. Apparently, the Captain and crew tried hopelessly to control their small craft but were carried towards the shallow shoals just off the coast; a coast which was in almost total darkness, save for a couple of flickering beacons at Cromer and Blakeney. Inevitably, the ship was driven on to the shingle bank at Salthouse, followed by wave after wave which shattered her timbers and breaking up, spars, doors and rails, throwing everything aloft and into the waters.”
“The screams of the doomed crew added to what must have been a nightmare and they, together with the Captain had abandoned ship, collectively making a desperate bid for life. Seizing his large wolf-hound pet by the collar, the Captain followed the crew and, like them, was swallowed up by the sea and drowned – every last one of them. Their bodies were washed ashore and in the calm of the morning the villagers came amongst them and the scattered remains of the once proud ship, its cargo and crew. Whilst salvaging the valuable wood and flotsam they saw the dead, but particularly the Captain who still had a firm hold on the dog’s collar – and the dog’s jaws still clamped tightly to the Captain’s reefer jacket in their desperate attempt for survival. Those of Salthouse’s folk who were present debated the fate of the wreckage and the crew in a hushed tone as if they did not want the dead to hear. One thing that was certain, they decided to bury master and pet separately. A hole was dug in a rare patch of sand that lay amongst the shingle and the wolf hound was thrown in – such was the treatment of animals, as for the Captain, he was taken to Salthouse Church, on the hill overlooking the village, and buried in an unmarked grave. One wonders what say the rector had in the matter! However, and more importantly in this tale, no one thought of any possible consequences of disregarding the latent thoughts and feelings of an animal who must have loved his master to the point of never wanting to leave him.”
“Within a very short time, people hereabouts had claimed to have seen a very large black dog sniffing about and howling as if calling for his master. As the years passed, they say its appearance became more grotesque as if in increased frustration, grief and anger! He now has large red eyes; his coat as black as ebony; shaggy and the size of a calf. Many have sensed a hound padding silently behind them as if in two minds as to whether or not to vent its perceived anger. But I can tell you that over the years there has never been a story of anyone who has escaped the jaws of Old Black Shuck when that apparition had chosen its victim. Apparently, our Shuck is most active on those nights around the 28th January and whenever the sea is stormy. Then, his terrible howl rises above the wind and crashing waves. It is at that particular time when those who disbelieve should look over their shoulder!
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there there is no witness around, does Shuck still walk regardless?
Reference Sources: East Anglian Folklore and other tales, by W H Barrett and R P Garrod, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Folktales & Legends of Norfolk, by G M Dixon,Minimax Books Ltd, 1980.
Photo: (Feature Heading): Royal Museum Greenwich
Today’s Christmas traditions may seem to have been with us for ever, but they are, in fact, cobbled together from numerous centuries and countries. Some rituals have survived for millennia, but others, such as the instructions for peacock served in its plumage, dating from 1430, have fallen from vogue. – i.e:
‘Take a peacock, break its neck and cut its throat,” the recipe begins. Then “flay him”, being careful to “keep the skin and feathers whole together”, the better to reclothe the peacock’s flesh once cooked. For maximum effect, you should gild the beak.
The wreath on your front door is a remnant of the ancient practice of bringing evergreen foliage into the home, symbolising everlasting life and renewal at the darkest time of the year. The early Christians cleverly re-appropriated the existing Pagan mid-winter festival, deciding that it should instead celebrate Jesus’s birthday, and making it the occasion for a special “mass for Christ” as well as a party.
Medieval Christmas lasted for 12 days, and New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night were just as important as December 25. However, Christmas Day was the first day of feasting, made doubly enjoyable because Christmas Eve was a fast. Masques and entertainments whiled away the holiday in grand households. Edward III even staged a Christmas tournament in 1344, in which “the fierce hacklings of men and horses, gallantly armed, were a delightful terror to the female beholders”.
A Christmas banquet for Henry V included dates, carp, eels roasted with lamprey, and a leach (boiled milk jelly, a bit like Turkish delight). This 15th-century feast concluded with “subtleties”, edible sugar sculptures depicting figures such as St Katherine, or a tiger. Medieval bellies were not used to refined sugar, a rare and expensive food, so smashing up and eating a subtlety must have provided a sugar rush that felt rather like being drunk.
The 12-day holiday sometimes saw the normal social hierarchy reversed, not unlike the Roman feast of Saturnalia, where the masters waited on the slaves. The “Lord of Misrule”, a lowly servant, might be crowned master of ceremonies and japes. The tradition survives today in our wearing of the paper crowns, with which the Lord of Misrule was identified.
Then, what do you think happened in the 16th century; – along came the Puritans to spoil the fun. These extreme Protestants “protested” against the ossified, superstitious rituals of the Catholic Church. To the Puritan mind, these included the degenerate celebrations at Christmas.
An early example of Father Christmas in literature appears in Ben Jonson’s play of 1616, Christmas, His Masque, which was really a diatribe against the killjoys. In comes a bearded old man, old because he personifies the ancient feast of Christmas. “Ha!” Father Christmas says, “would you have kept me out?” Introducing his sons and daughters, Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Minced-Pie and Baby-Cake, they all celebrate “a right Christmas, as of old it was”. Father Christmas comes down the chimney because this, rather than the door, is the traditional entrance to the house for Pagan trespassers such as witches or evil spirits.
Also – nowadays, clever and compassionate adults never say silly things like “Santa doesn’t exist” because (a) they know deep down that he does – sort of , (b) they know that life would be just too prosaic if he didn’t, and (c) they know that kids know that adults would say that because they can’t be bothered to leave a glass of whisky and a mince pie out for him on Christmas Eve. Grown-ups are so….ooo lazy!
However, the Puritans did have the last laugh. Swept to power in the Civil War, their zealot governments of the 1640s and 1650s forced shops to stay open on Christmas Day and punished anyone caught celebrating. In Oxford, in 1647, this led to “a world of skull-breaking”; in 1657, John Evelyn was taken prisoner by soldiers for taking the Holy Sacrament at Christmas. Some people still celebrated in secret and when Oliver Cromwell died and King Charles II was restored to the throne, Christmas returned. But it remained a lower-key, domestic affair throughout the 18th century. “Much harried by the Poor of the Parish who come for Christmas Gifts,” wrote the miserable Reverend William Holland, a real-life Georgian Scrooge. Someone once wrote, “Apparently not the most charming man–but honest in his political and social views, and detailed about his daily life.”
Christmas dinner, served at home, was usually beef, venison or goose with plum pudding. The turkey, although introduced into England in Tudor times, did not catch on as a Christmas essential until the late 19th century. The killing of a deer might induce a generous nobleman to give the offal or “umbles” to his dependants, who would encase them in pastry to make an “umble” or “humble pie”. On the same plate as your meat, you might have enjoyed plum porridge or plum pudding. This boiled mixture of suet, flour and fruit was the origin of Christmas pudding, but palates still relished sweet and savoury mixed together. Samuel Pepys loved “a messe of brave plum-porridge”, and also mentions giving tradesmen the “boxes” containing gifts of money, explaining the name of Boxing Day.
Pepys also enjoyed mince pies, and his 17th-century “mincemeat” really did contain meat. Mixed with fruit and alcohol, the shredded flesh of beasts slaughtered in the autumn could thus be preserved in stone jars for the Christmas feast. Ann Blencowe’s 1694 recipe recommended a boiled calf’s tongue, chopped up and mixed with beef suet, “raisins of ye sun”, lemon rind and spices. Other food sounds half-familiar, too: Diana Asty, in 1701, celebrated with the recognisably modern “ham & chicken, & sprouts”, and “out landish sweets” (French bonbons).
Georgian houses were still “decked with laurels, rosemary and other greenery”, and the later 18th century saw the German Christmas tree imported by the Hanoverian royal family. Teutonic trees had been decorated with apples, nuts and paper flowers since the 16th century. While the German-born Prince Albert didn’t import the idea of the tree (as often claimed), he did indeed popularise it, setting up trees for his own children in an attempt to recreate the magical Christmases of his youth.
It was a single but influential engraving, published in the Illustrated London News of 1848, that made the tree central to British Christmas culture. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children are shown gathered around their decorated tree at Windsor Castle. Attended by just one maid, they present a paradigm of a normal, respectable family, and the nation rushed to emulate them. Albert’s trees were furnished with fruits, gilded nuts and gingerbread, but over time, these perishable items were replaced with glass or, eventually, plastic. Crackers, too, evolved from the simple twists of paper that originally protected sugared almonds. But the pleasures of Victorian Christmas weren’t for everyone. Hannah Cullwick, an overworked cook, was frightened that the tree set up in the kitchen by one of her fellow servants would be “too much for Missis, who won’t allow us 6d worth of holly”.
The Christmas card was another Victorian innovation. Henry Cole, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is usually given credit for “inventing” the mass-produced card. So popular did these become that, by 1880, the Post Office advised people to “Post Early for Christmas”. However, this merely meant the morning, rather than the afternoon, of Christmas Eve.
The 1880s saw a curious trend for cards depicting dead robins. Helpless birds, killed by the December cold, appealed to the sentimental Victorians, who had also revived the charitable side of Christmas. Charles Dickens, of course, did more than anyone else to spread the good cheer with A Christmas Carol (1843). The Penny Illustrated Paper began to run Christmas charity campaigns in aid of the unemployed Lancashire mill operatives; one reader sent them a thousand plum puddings. But Christmas was fast developing a consumerist side as well. “10,000 Penny Toys” shouted an advert for a shop in Oxford Street in 1863. Rocking horses and “walking dolls” were promised to those who braved the crowds.
Christmas 1939 was the last for five years to be celebrated with butter and bacon, as food rationing began. The card game of Blackout was launched, and a popular gift was the Take Coverlet, a sleeping bag and coat combined, to wear on your way to the bomb shelter. The Ministry of Food implausibly claimed that nobody needed tropical fruit at Christmas because “vegetables have such jolly colours. The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich crimson of beetroot… looks as delightful as it tastes.”
Dead robins, decorative beetroot, eels and offal in your mince pies are festive traditions safely buried, but even today you may still encounter the odd Puritan or Scrooge. Don’t let them spoil your Christmas!
This is the last in the Christmas Series, so may we wish each and every reader a very Happy and Contented festive season; along with our best wishes for 2019.
Anglo-Saxon tradition dictated that at the beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning“be well” or “be in good health”, to which his followers would reply drink hael, or “drink well”, and so the New Year celebrations would start with a glass or two, or perhaps even a drop more! It is likely that such celebrations were being enjoyed many years before Christianity began to spread thoughout Britain from around 600 onwards.
Depending upon the area of the country where you lived, the wassail drink itself would generally consist of a warmed ale, wine or cider, blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two, all served in one huge bowl and passed from one person to the next with the traditional “wassail” greeting.
The Wassailing celebrations generally take place on the Twelfth Night, 5th…
It’s hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognise today.
For thousands of years people around the world have enjoyed midwinter festivals. With the arrival of Christianity, pagan festivals became mixed with Christmas celebrations. One of the leftovers from these pagan days is the custom of bedecking houses and churches with evergreen plants like mistletoe, holly and ivy. Apparently, as well as their magical connection in protecting us from evil spirits, they also encourage the return of spring. No era in history however, has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas, quite as much as the Victorians.
Before Victoria‘s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Sentimental do-gooders like Charles Dickens wrote books like “Christmas Carol”, published in 1843, which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor – Humbug! These radical middle class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor as well.
The holidays: The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Boxing Day, December 26th, earned its name as the day servants and working people opened the boxes in which they had collected gifts of money from the “rich folk”. Those new fangled inventions, the railways allowed the country folk who had moved into the towns and cities in search of work to return home for a family Christmas.
The Scots have always preferred to postpone the celebrations for a few days to welcome in the New Year, in the style that is Hogmanay. Christmas Day itself did not become a holiday in Scotland until many years after Victoria’s reign and it has only been within the last 20-30 years that this has been extended to include Boxing Day.
At the start of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to those “rich folk” again. With factories however came mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Affordable that is to “middle class” children. In a “poor child’s” Christmas stocking, which first became popular from around 1870, only an apple, orange and a few nuts could be found.
Father Christmas / Santa Claus: Normally associated with the bringer of the above gifts, is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. The two are in fact two entirely separate stories. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th Century. From the 1870’s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.
Christmas Cards: The “Penny Post” was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced as a result of the efficiencies brought about by those new fangled railways.
Turkey Time: Turkeys had been brought to Britain from America hundreds of years before Victorian times. When Victoria first came to the throne however, both chicken and turkey were too expensive for most people to enjoy. In northern England roast beef was the traditional fayre for Christmas dinner while in London and the south, goose was favourite. Many poor people made do with rabbit. On the other hand, the Christmas Day menu for Queen Victoria and family in 1840 included both beef and of course a royal roast swan or two. By the end of the century most people feasted on turkey for their Christmas dinner. The great journey to London started for the turkey sometime in October. Feet clad in fashionable but hardwearing leather the unsuspecting birds would have set out on the 80-mile hike from the Norfolk farms. Arriving obviously a little tired and on the scrawny side they must have thought London hospitality unbeatable as they feasted and fattened on the last few weeks before Christmas!
The Christmas Tree: The Victorian age placed great importance on family, so it follows that Christmas was celebrated at home. For many, the new railway networks made this possible. Those who had left the countryside to seek work in cities could return home for Christmas and spend their precious days off with loved ones. Family life was epitomised by the popular Queen Victoria, her husband Albert and their nine children. One of the most important Christmas traditions, the decorated Christmas tree, was a custom introduced to Britain by Prince Albert.
The idea of an indoor Christmas tree originated in Germany, where Albert was born. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a tree bedecked with ornaments. The popularity of decorated Christmas trees grew quickly, and with it came a market for tree ornaments in bright colours and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter in the candlelight. Mechanisation and the improved printing process meant decorations could be mass-produced and advertised to eager buyers. The first advertisements for tree ornaments appeared in 1853. Victorians would often combine their sparkly bought decorations with candles and homemade edible treats, tied to the branches with ribbon.
Today, candles on the Christmas tree have been replaced by fairy lights, printed cards may be substituted with e-cards and we’re more likely to find plastic knick-knacks in our crackers than jewellery. Our Christmas customs continue to be shaped by technological advancements and modern changes in society. How many of us do our Christmas shopping online, or Skype our families across the world on Christmas Day? But these new traditions are still rooted in the spirit of the Victorian Christmas – an integral part of the Christmas we celebrate today.
The Crackers: Invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (motto’s), paper hats, small toys and made them go off BANG!
Christmas Cards: One of the most significant seasonal traditions to emerge from the Victorian era is the Christmas card. It was Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A, who introduced the idea of the Christmas card in 1843. Cole commissioned the artist J.C. Horsley to design a festive scene for his seasonal greeting cards and had 1000 printed – those he didn’t use himself were sold to the public. Later in the century, improvements to the chromolithographic printing process made buying and sending Christmas cards affordable for everyone.
Carol Singers: Carol Singers and Musicians “The Waits” visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols;
1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 – Away in a Manger
It was often assumed that during the Georgian period (1714-1830) Christmas was not celebrated with as much gusto as during the Victorian era. Although traditions, foods and celebrations differed, Christmas was, in fact, actively celebrated by the Georgians. We know that Christmas was banned by the Puritans in 1644, Christmas completely abolished and shops and markets kept open during the 25th of December. People were expected to continue going about their normal business and not partake in holiday celebrations or face fines and imprisonment. Puritans disliked Christmas because of its heathen origins and because of its association with extravagance and excess. This gave rise to the belief that Christmas fun and frivolity was not rekindled until the Victorian period. This was not stictly true for with the restoration of Charles II, Christmas was, in fact, re-instated – albeit in a more subdued manner. By the Georgian period (1714 to 1830), it was once again a very popular celebration.
When searching for information on a Georgian or Regency (late Georgian) Christmas, who better to consult than Jane Austen? In her novel, ‘Mansfield Park’, Sir Thomas gives a ball for Fanny and William. In ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the Bennets play host to relatives. In ‘Sense and Sensibility’, John Willoughby dances the night away, from eight o’clock until four in the morning. In ‘Emma’, the Westons give a party. And so it would appear that a Georgian Christmas was very much all about parties, balls and family get-togethers. The Georgian Christmas season ran from December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) to January 6th (Twelfth Night). On St. Nicholas Day, it was traditional for friends to exchange presents; this marked the beginning of the Christmas season.
Christmas Day was a national holiday, spent by the gentry in their country houses and estates. People went to church and returned to a celebratory Christmas dinner. But what of the food? Well, agriculture had come a long way since the Tudors, and so it was more likely than ever that every house could afford some kind of bird for the table. For the wealthy, venison was still the order of the day and a real indicator of status to show off to those invited to dinner. Another departure from Tudor tradition was mince pies which, under the Tudors, contained real mutton to honour the shepherds. During the Georgian era the mince pie recipe would include spices, dried fruit and suet, essentially a mixture we’d recognise today. Food indeed played a very important part in a Georgian Christmas. Guests and parties meant that a tremendous amount of food had to be prepared, and dishes that could be prepared ahead of time and served cold were popular.
For Christmas dinner, there was always a turkey or goose, though venison was the meat of choice for the gentry. This was followed by Christmas pudding. In 1664 the Puritans banned it, calling it a ‘lewd custom’ and ‘unfit for God-fearing people’. Christmas Puddings were also called plum puddings because one of the main ingredients was dried plums or prunes.
In 1714, King George I was apparently served plum pudding as part of his first Christmas dinner as a newly crowned monarch, thus re-introducing it as a traditional part of Christmas dinner. Unfortunately there are no contemporary sources to confirm this, but it is a good story and led to his being nicknamed ‘the pudding king’.
Traditional decorations included holly and evergreens. The decoration of homes was not just for the gentry: poor families also brought greenery indoors to decorate their homes, but not until Christmas Eve. It was considered unlucky to bring greenery into the house before then. By the late 18th century, kissing boughs and balls were popular, usually made from holly, ivy, mistletoe and rosemary. These were often also decorated with spices, apples, oranges, candles or ribbons. In very religious households, the mistletoe was omitted.
The tradition of a Christmas tree in the house was a German custom and apparently brought to Court in 1800 by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. However it was not until the Victorian era that the British people adopted the tradition, after the Illustrated London News printed an engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around their Christmas tree in 1848.
A great blazing fire was the centerpiece of a family Christmas. The Yule log was chosen on Christmas Eve. It was wrapped in hazel twigs and dragged home, to burn in the fireplace as long as possible through the Christmas season. The tradition was to keep back a piece of the Yule log to light the following year’s Yule log. Nowadays in most households the Yule log has been replaced by an edible chocolate variety!
The day after Christmas, St Stephen’s Day, was the day when people gave to charity and the gentry presented their servants and staff with their ‘Christmas Boxes’. This is why today St Stephen’s Day is called ‘Boxing Day’. Then there was the popular drink at assemblies of the Wassail bowl. This was similar to punch or mulled wine, prepared from spiced and sweetened wine or brandy, and served in a large bowl garnished with apples.
January 6th or Twelfth Night signalled the end of the Christmas season and was marked in the 18th and 19th centuries by a Twelfth Night party. Games such as ‘bob apple’ and ‘snapdragon’ were popular at these events, as well as more dancing, drinking and eating.
A forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, the ‘Twelfth Cake’ was the centrepiece of the party and a slice was given to all members of the household. Traditionally, it contained both a dried bean and a dried pea. The man whose slice contained the bean was elected king for the night; the woman who found a pea elected queen. By Georgian times the pea and bean had disappeared from the cake.
Once Twelfth Night was over, all the decorations were taken down and the greenery burned, or the house risked bad luck. Even today, many people take down all their Christmas decorations on or before 6th January to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year.
Unfortunately the extended Christmas season was to disappear after the Regency period, brought to an end by the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of the rural way of life that had existed for centuries. Employers needed workers to continue working throughout the festive period and so the ‘modern’ shortened Christmas period came into being.
To finish, it seems only fitting to give Jane Austen the last word:
“I wish you a cheerful and at times even a Merry Christmas.” Jane Austen