Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.
Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.
The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.
In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the VINA would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.
Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.
The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.
The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and one of Europe’s most popular inland waterways. The area is managed as a national park and it is claimed that it attracts more than a million visitors each year from all over the World. Before the ‘Broads’ were known as such, its waterways made up an essential transport network for peat, thatching reed and marsh hay. Today, the ‘Broads’ is used for recreation, including such activities as sailing, motor cruising, fishing and enjoying the wildlife. Then there are the opportunities to visit the lovely villages that find themselves embraced by the Norfolk Broads, along with their medieval country churches.
Ranworth is just one such place with its Staithe, which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, fronting Malthouse Broad and aptly named after nearby malt houses. There are great waterside views around Ranworth and within the village with its pretty thatched cottages which makes for ‘chocolate box’ opportunities for photographers and painters.
Nearby, on higher ground, stands St Helens Church below which is a large nature reserve winding its way through woodland to the Norfolk Wildlife Conservation Centre; a floating thatched building right on the edge of what is Ranworth Broad . This is the information centre for the Broads and its history, including models of local scenes depicting peat digging, thatching and duck shooting. On the upper floor of the building there are facilities, including binoculars and telescopes, for bird watching.
This church, set on high ground and overlooking the village and the broads beyond, is well worth a visit for its furnishings, views from its tower, its history and its myths. There have been previous churches on the site but the present one on view was completed as far back as about 1450. Furnished by prosperous wool merchants, its walls were painted with biblical stories, its windows rich in stained glass and a great cross suspended above an elaborate rood screen.
Unfortunately, many of the church’s medieval treasures were damaged or destroyed during the Reformation, although a surprising amount did survive. The building itself also fell into a long period of decline and disrepair and it was only in the late 1890s that the church was restored to what can be seen today. Much of the original rood screen with its medieval paintings still survives, along with its stylized white roses of York painted on the back of the screen, one of the finest in England. The church also has a 15th century illuminated manuscript, the Ranworth Antiphoner kept in a steel case and on view to visitors.
The Church Tower
The tower dominates the Ranworth skyline and it would seem that visitors love to climb the eighty-nine spiral steps and two ladders to the top of the flint-lined tower for the wonderful views over the landscape. It is easy to understand why when from its heights, on clear days, one can see five Norfolk Broads and the impressive wind turbines of the wind farm at West Somerton.
In fact, much of the Norfolk Broads river system is visible, interlaced with boats that weave their way in a constantly changing pattern of light through farmland and marshes that grow traditional Norfolk thatching reed. A recent survey using a calibrated telescope listed nearly two hundred sites in the Cromer–Norwich–Great Yarmouth area, including 116 churches, numerous windmills and wind drainage pumps, Happisburgh lighthouse and even the top of Norwich Cathedral.
They say that, when conditions and timings are right, Brother Pacificus may be seen rowing either towards, or away from, the Church. For those who master the climb up 89 steps and two ladders to the roof of the the tower but fail to see Pacificus on the water below – just turn around and look up to the weathervain!
Ranworth Church and Patron Saints
Early Christians used the word ‘saint’ for all the faithful. In time though, a saint came to be a person of outstanding devotion. The earliest saints acclaimed by common consent were the apostles, John the Baptist, the Holy family and the first martyrs. As the Christian church became more structured, bishops took control of canonisations within their own dioceses. It was not until 1170 though that Pope Alexander III insisted that only the Pope could canonise.
Portrayals of saints dominated Christian art until the Reformation when many icons were destroyed. It is miraculous that so much of the rood screens in Ranworth and any of the lovely Upton screen survived the ravages of the 1500s when reformers believed that portrayals of human beings might tempt congregations to treat them as idols. The reformers’ passion led them to daub all bare flesh, feet, hands and faces with tar.
Ranworth Church is dedicated to St Helen, a popular patron of ancient English churches with perhaps 135 dedicated to her throughout the country. Some accounts say that she was a princess, the daughter of King Coel, King of the Britons and was born in Colchester where she is the patron saint of the City. Others say that she was born in York although most historians have it that she was born in 242 AD in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosporus Sea. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Despite her status as empress, she helped the poor and distressed and was known for her charitable acts. Helen had a great influence on her son Constantine.
Helen became a Christian late in her life and it wasn’t until she was an old lady that she made her famous pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Christ was crucified. The story is that she uncovered three crosses under a temple on Mount Calvary that she had ordered to be torn down on seeing smoke issuing from the ground. Helen recognised the one True Cross when it touched a dead man that miraculously resurrected. Helen built a basilica on Mount Calvary for the sacred relic and later, built two other famous churches in Palestine that celebrate the nativity and the ascension. She returned from the Holy Land in her 80s and died in Rome in 328.
Saint Helen, known also as Helena, is celebrated on August 18th and is the patron saint of treasure hunters, nail-makers and is invoked against theft and fire. She is usually shown holding a cross, just as she is outside Ranworth Church.
The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:
Those who do visit Ranworth Church should not leave before heading over to the cabinet just to the side of the main door; usually it has a cloth protecting its ancient contents – it is the Ranworth Antiphoner.
In medieval times, services were held 7 times a day and these would consist of prayers said or sung from a book of psalms. Lines were read alternately, ‘antiphonally’, between the priest and the choir. Ranworth Church still has one of its two Medieval Latin ‘antiphonies’; the other earlier and smaller one is in the British Library. The book dates from the 1400s and has 285 vellum (animal skin) pages illustrated with gleaming colour pictures and gold leaf edging.
In 1549, when services were first published in English in the Book of Common Prayer, antiphoners were banned. Ranworth’s somehow survived, reappearing in the reign of Mary Tudor when changes were made to its calendar (e.g. the feast of Thomas a Becket, which had been scratched out during Henry VIII’s time, was reinstated). The Holdych family whose family dates appear in the margins of the calendar probably hid the book during Elizabethan times. The Antiphoner eventually became part of a collection offered for sale at the beginning of the 20th century. Its link to Ranworth was soon traced and the Parish raised the money to buy it. The book is now on show inside a unique security case made by the inmates of Norwich Prison. Unfortunately maybe for some but the case cannot be opened to meet requests, but the pages are turned occasionally to display the illuminations and the plainchant music that the church choir sometimes sings.
The Rood Screen
The painted rood screen in St Helen’s Ranworth dates from the early 1400s. The Great Rood that was once above the screen was destroyed in the Reformation.
The Rood (from the Anglo-Saxon for cross) is a large crucifix usually placed above the entrance to the choir in medieval churches. Some were very large, carved richly in wood and painted or gilded. By the 13th or 14th centuries, the great rood had become a feature of almost every church. The rood, however, was often eclipsed by the screen over which it was placed. Paintings of apostles and saints including St George and St Michael both slaying dragons, survive on the screen in St Helen’s Ranworth.
LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):
Ranworth and Ranworth Broad are said to be haunted by a friendly ghost named Brother Pacificus. The early bird may be in the best position to catch a glimpse of the monk, though he may also be sighted on quiet summer evenings. Wearing his habit, he may be seen rowing a small boat across the Broad with a small dog standing in the prow.
The story goes that during the 1530’s the brothers at nearby St Benets Abbey undertook the work of restoring the rood screen of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.
One evening upon his return the Abbey, Brother Pacificus found to his horror that his brother monks had been murdered by the King’s Troops as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by Henry VIII. Devastated, Pacificus was to linger for years amidst the blackened ruins where he eventually died. The local villagers who knew of his devotion to Ranworth took his body across the Bure and lovingly laid it to rest in the shadow of St Helen’s, a church that he clearly loved and for which he had worked so hard.
To some, he still returns to carry out his work, accompanied by his little dog. They say that he also comes back to pray. Sometimes in the early hours of morning, when it is just light, his little boat may be seen moored up to the bank and sometimes his little dog asleep in it, just waiting. Inside, the aged monk will be kneeling in an attitude of prayer before the centre opening of the rood-screen, but with the approach of anyone he will simply fade into nothingness. On the other hand and if left alone, he may be seen returning at nightfall to his boat and rowing back to St Benet’s with his little dog sitting up perkily in the stern.
It is best not to laugh at such happenings as that which confronted Pacificus and his journeys to and from Ranworth centuries ago. For note, it is on record that a certain Reverend James Brewster, D.D. of Baliol, whilst on holiday in 1930 and about to enter a narrow waterway leading to Ranworth Broad, saw a boat being rowed towards him. Pulling into the side to make room, the visitor waited for it to pass by; as he did so he noticed that the rower was a monk in a black habit and although clearly aged, had the kindest face he had not previously seen on any man. The Benedictine smiled his thanks as he passed and before dissolving into nothing just a short distance on. Dr Brewster thought that there had been a small white dog in the boat, but he couldn’t be sure. Apparently, he was so moved by this experience that he felt he had to make enquiries hereabouts. At Horning he was simply laughed at whilst in Ranworth he was to learn:
‘That what he saw was our monastic friend, Brother Pacificus, going home after his labours and there is no real or known reason why it should not have been.’
LOCAL MYTHS 2 (Colonel Sydney and the Devil):
Summer visitors to the lovely Ranworth Broad may find it hard to imagine this beautiful spot being the scene of one of Norfolk’s spookiest legends, but so it is. In July the nights are warm and balmy, but the scene of this story is a wintry one, December 31 1770 to be precise. This tale is worth telling to children on the boats that chug the Broads there – they won’t forget it easily, and it may well keep them from venturing on deck in the dark. Ranworth then as now was an out of the way place, the church tower dominating the landscape. The east wind of the winter blows across the marshes and broads with seemingly little in its way from the cold North Sea.
In 1770 Colonel Thomas Sydney resided in Ranworth Old Hall. The former soldier was such a foul character that in spite of his wealth and position he was struck from the list of JPs. Sydney was a rake-hell: a drunkard whose already evil temper got worse when he was in his cups; a gambler; and perhaps worst of all for the English, a bad loser. Not that he got much practice at losing, for he was a noted sportsman, and his neighbours were wary of getting on his wrong side by besting him in a contest.
At the New Year’s Eve hunt meeting that year Sydney challenged a neighbour to a race, matching their horses over the fields. But much to the Colonel’s surprise his neighbour outpaced him, heading it seemed for an easy win. Not so damn likely thinks the Colonel, who draws his pistol and shoots the neighbour’s horse from under him. The frightened animal rears and sends its rider flying, his neck cracking just as the beast’s hooves trample the body. The evil owner of the Old Hall wins, and devil take the hindmost – though here he can claim the winner too.
With his neighbours too scared to act against him Sydney has no compunction about appearing at the hunt ball he is holding that very night, dressed in his finery, his brain still more befuddled by continued drinking. He roars at the top of his voice, totally without shame.
Crash go the doors to the Old Hall. At the threshold stands a tall and slender figure, dressed all black that merges his shape with the night behind him. No features of the face beneath the elegant black hat are visible. Sydney’s mouth gapes, for once he is silenced. The figure approaches and throws the helpless Colonel across his shoulder, marches him outside, and throws the frozen figure across his saddle. The head of the Wild Hunt has come to claim his own. With studied ease the devil mounts his black steed, and in a second he, the horse, and the terrified captive are racing across Ranworth Broad, steam rising from the water wherever a hellish hoof touches. Sydney finds his voice now, screams, begs, curses, but not a jot of difference will it make to his awful fate. He is bound for the pit. Colonel Sydney was never seen again, at least not alive. But every year on New Year’s Eve, or so it is said, the devil rides across Ranworth Broad, Colonel Sydney held across his saddle.
Do fishermen sing nowadays? They used to be great singers when they got together years ago in their favourite pubs or at the annual jollifications of the beachmen’s societies.’ So wrote King Herring in an unidentified news article about northern singers. Perhaps he should have paid a visit to the Norfolk fishing village of Winterton where the old songs connected with the fishing community, those with plenty of salt in them, were sung until relatively recently. It used to be said that “They were all singers at Winterton”, but foremost among them was Sam Larner, who knew dozens of such songs and whose extrovert performance style proved very influential to more recent singers. His impact was immediate and electrifying … and some thought that it was a privilege to be in the presence of such genuine greatness, a dominant figure due to his personality and extensive repertoire, in an area where singing was still commonplace in much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Samuel James Larner, (1878–1965) and known as Sam, was a fisherman because fishing was an almost inevitable occupation for one of nine children of a fisherman father and growing up in a village where, out of a population of 800 people, 300 were fishermen. Larner was once quoted as saying
“Why, for me and my brothers that was either sea or gaol, and that for my sisters that was service or gaol.”
Many Winterton families had been involved with the fishing industry for generations, most notably the Greens, Georges, Goffins, Hayletts and the Larners. All were inter-related, as was common in close-knit communities, and all had singers amongst them.
Sam was born into this community in 1878, into a family of bricklayers and fishermen. He first went to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing lugger at the age of 13 and in 1894 signed as a deckhand on The Snowflake, another sailing boat. It was a very tough existence as he later recalled, describing the dread when going to sea for the first time and that you’d be “on the knucklebones of your arse when leaving for sea.” Some of the older fishermen “didn’t care for nothing … cruel old men. You weren’t allowed to speak” and if you were sleepy they would “chuck a bucket of water on you to wake you up.” From 1899 he worked on steam trawlers and in 1923 married Dorcas Eastick who had hailed from Great Cressingham, near Watton. Sam met her when she was in service at the rectory in Winterton. Sam was to leave fishing due to ill health in 1933 and spent some time unemployed as well as doing whatever jobs he could find, including road mending and forestry.
Sam Larner started singing from an early age, learning the songs his grandfather and others sang in the pubs at Winterton, and earning pennies by singing them to the coach parties that visited the village. As a fisherman he learned the songs fellow crew members sang when pulling in the nets, as well as in singing sessions in pubs in fishing ports the length of Britain. He won a singing competition in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands in 1907.
Although some trips were ‘home fishing,’ meaning that the fishermen would return the same day, more often than not the trips would take them away for weeks at a time, sailing around the British Isles in search of the herring. This of course meant stopping for periods in various ports when there was opportunity for musical diversion whilst ashore, as well as the possibility of adding new songs to his repertoire. Indeed, Sam Larner recalled that he won a singing competition in Lerwick in 1907 with his rendition of Old Bob Ridley-O. As he recalled:
“There was a singing competition in the town hall at Lerwick – all among the fishermen though. And the Lerwick ladies, they had to judge; and the gentlemen had to judge the singin’. And I got the most encore of the whole lot for that song. They won’t let me sit down; I had to sing them another song. That was in 1907. These people all know it about here; I aren’t tellin’ stories. And I got the first prize.”
Unfortunately no Winterton singers, other than Sam Larner, were recorded extensively, but his detailed and lively accounts of both fishing and singing do give us a good indication that many of his songs were learned from fellow fishermen, many of whom were close relatives. One example was Butter and Cheese and All, a popular song in the village; Sam said:
“That’s my old dad’s song. I heard him sing it when I was a little boy. Used to sing all them songs, my old father did. Yeah, old ‘Bredler’ they used to call him; Bredler Larner; Bredler used to call him. Big man, about fifteen or sixteen stone. Big man, he was. Oh, and he could do the step dance.”
Sam’s father was George Larner, born in 1847, and another fisherman. From this song obviously heard as a young child at home, there were others learned at sea, again from a close relative. Of The Robber or The Rambling Young Blade, Sam recalled that “My Uncle Jimmy used to sing that when I was cook along of him at sea. That’s about nigh seventy year ago, and he used to sing that on deck.” Uncle Jimmy was James Sutton, (born 1858), a renowned singer in the village who seems to have passed many songs onto Sam Larner. His nickname was ‘Old Larpin’ and his grandson Ronnie Haylett remembers that this was a shortened version of ‘Loping Lugs’ as he had rather prominent ears. As can be seen, nicknames were very common indeed in the community, perhaps rather vital as surnames were relatively few and many families favoured the same first name for many family members. Sam Larner’s nickname was ‘Funky’ on account of his sometimes unpredictable moods. As regards learning songs from community or family members, Sam remarked when talking of King William and the Keeper, “I can recollect them a-singin’ on it. Oh, we all picked them songs up.”
If there was opportunity at times to add to a repertoire of songs whilst on these fishing voyages, the real outlet for performance seems to have been, unsurprisingly, when back home after a long voyage – such as “The Dogger Bank”:
Now we are the boys to make a noise, when we come home from sea,
We get right drunk, we roll on the floor, and cause a jubilee;
We get right drunk and full of beer, and roll all over the floor,
And when our rent it is all spent, we’ll go to sea for more.
An exaggeration maybe, but certainly the fishermen did adjourn to the village’s two pubs, The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners, for lengthy bouts of singing and step dancing during which time, complete respect was given to the singers so as to avoid the possibility of violence. Certainly the old songs and the performances were taken very seriously. Ronnie Haylett also remembers:
“Now, Boxing Day, the pubs closed at half past two legally, you know, but they’d open here until four or five o’clock. Policeman’d come in and have a look…….”Boys all right?” Well, they’re all fishermen, you know…… Yes mister, Boys all right. Do you want a pint, mister? No, I’ll leave you. He’d just go away and leave them.”
Sam Larner related more than once that “we used to have a rare old, good old time. We used to get in the old pub, and we used to have a song, a drink and a four-handed reel … That was all there was for our enjoyment.”
Other singers at the time was Dick Green (b1909), another Winterton singer and fisherman; he was Sam Larner’s nephew but eventually turned his back on both the sea and singing to become a policeman, ending his days in Harleston. In later years, he declined to be recorded singing the old songs as he felt his voice was not good enough to do so, but he was still able to recall such songs as Maid of Australia which he had sung in the village years earlier. Dick’s older brother Bob (1908-99) was another singer and fisherman, known locally by his nickname ‘The Devil’. He went to sea at fourteen as cook, working his way up to become a trawler skipper. He also served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War. He sang such songs as were popular locally such as The Maid of Australia, Cruising Round Yarmouth, and Henry Martin as well as comic songs such as The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore and Paddy McGinty’s Goat. The father of Bob and Dick Green, also Bob Green, (born 1882), was recalled as having regularly sung The Wild Rover which, apparantly, was his party piece.
Then there was Jack ‘Starchy’ George (1888-1975), another Winterton singer, fisherman and trawler skipper. Caister singer Tom Brown, who was on drifters with Jack George, described him as “a great singer” who would sometimes “lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he’d sing while he’d be on watch.” All of the male Georges seem to have been known as ‘Starchy,’ apparently from one former family member who favoured starched shirt collars. As well as the songs popular locally, many connected with the sea, such as Herring on the Griddle-O, to which men would dance as if flames were rearing up, and Jack Johnson which he also sang at weddings
In this fertile environment for song acquisition and performance, Sam Larner certainly stood out as an outstanding singer. With an extensive repertoire of traditional ballads, sentimental and comic pieces and, most of all, songs connected with the sea and fishing, all performed in a vigorous, exuberant style; it is easy to imagine him being the centre of any singing session in the village or whilst away fishing. As a natural entertainer, Sam would also recite Christmas Day in the Workhouse in the pub, with much histrionics.
As well as the singing, another part of the evening’s entertainment in The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners was step dancing. Sam was a good exponent of this, just like his father, George. As someone recalled, “The tables in there years ago, they had a bead round like this; a raised bead like that. They all had pints of two. Cause, comin’ out the old barrels, they’d all be wet, wouldn’t they? So they’d stand them there and somebody’d shift the pints and Sam’d come up and do a tap dance on the table. Beer’d all spilt!”
Often, there was no musician to play for the step dancing, so it was performed to singing and diddling. Sam Larner remarked, “I could do the Old Bob Ridley-O; that was a song and a dance. I hadn’t got the wind to do it now.” Whilst singing the song, he would pause half way through to comment “then they all step” which suggests something of a communal performance. Sam generally seems to have accompanied himself step dancing by diddling tunes such as The Sailor’s Hornpipe.
In the early 1960s, writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners, in company with fiddler Alan Waller: ‘The Larners live in a little semi-detached cottage not far from the sea, and we all sat round the small kitchen while Alan played the fiddle and Sam sang, and Mrs Larner looked on and beamed. And Sam could hardly restrain himself from jumping up and step dancing. In fact he failed to restrain himself once or twice, and he is over eighty. He kept challenging Alan as to whether he knew this jig or that step tune, and was absolutely delighted when he found that Alan knew them all.’
Sam Larner first came to wider public notice when Philip Donnellan, a radio producer for BBC Birmingham, happened to meet him in a pub in 1956. Donnellan was making radio documentaries about working people in Britain and Sam was exactly the sort of person he was looking for to provide him with information. He recorded about twenty five songs and some speech from him in 1957 and 1958. Sam appeared in two of Donnellan’s radio productions: Coast and Country: The Wash on Sunday 15th September, 1957, for which he was paid £1.1.0. Then there was Down to the Sea which was recorded on Sunday 15th February, 1959 with a rehearsal at a house in Happisburgh known as ‘Thatchers’. It was broadcast on Friday, 27th February, 1959 and Sam was paid £8.8.0. These were live performances and the sound recordings made by Donnellan have been deposited in the BBC archives.
Donellan also brought Sam Larner to the attention of Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker who were engaged in producing the first of the innovatory “Radio Ballads”, which used songs, sound effects and music combined with the voices of people involved in an industry or common experience. Sam took part in the third program in the series “Singing the Fishing” which was broadcast on 16th August, 1960, to great acclaim. The series was about the East Coast fishing industry. Ewan McColl’s song The Shoals of Herring, which describes a fisherman’s progress from cabin boy to deckhand, was largely based on Sam’s life and written for the program. Over a period of time, after editing Sam’s songs and anecdotes about his life, they were left, in MacColl’s words, with “almost thirty hours of magnificent talk and three hours of songs, ballads, stories and miscellaneous rhymes” from this ‘octogenarian’, ex-herring fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk. What a wonderful person he was! Short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life. His one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl.’
McColl and Seeger were to record even more material from Sam who went on to perform in their Ballads and Blues Club in London where, having been introduced by Ewan MacColl, Sam ‘sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word and gesture as through he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca. He never forgot it.’ “They liked them old songs, they did.” Also, in 1960, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl published a book of English and Scottish folk songs called The Singing Island. They included thirteen of Sam’s songs: Maid of Australia, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Maids When You’re Young, The Wild Rover, Henry Martin, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Bold Princess Royal, The Dolphin, The Dogger Bank, The London Steamer, The Ghost Ship, Jack Tar and Butter and Cheese and All. The copy they presented to Sam was inscribed: ‘Sam: a book in which your songs are not ‘written wrong.’ Many thanks for your songs and your friendship. Peggy and Ewan. 1960.’ Certainly the songs that Sam had picked up from his community and fishing expeditions and sang so exuberantly were now reaching a much wider audience.
This exposure to the world at large, or at least that portion of it interested in traditional song, reached a peak with the release of the LP Now is the Time for Fishing on Folkways Records in 1961. This featured nineteen tracks of Sam Larner singing and talking about his life and the fishing industry, taken from the recordings made by MacColl and Seeger. The interspersing of anecdotes amongst the singing put the songs in vivid context, with Sam’s rich dialect and turn of phrase, on what must surely be the first full-length LP issued of an English traditional singer. A radical approach, perhaps, in 1961, which still stands as a seminal recording today.
In 1962 Charles Parker filmed both Sam Larner and Catfield singer Harry Cox for BBC Birmingham, singing and talking about their lives for a programme entitled The Singer and the Song. As well as snatches of several old popular and comic songs Sam sang Now is the Time for Fishing, Clear Away the Morning Dew and The Wild Rover. It was broadcast on BBC Midlands in 1964.
By this time, Sam was a very old man of eighty six. He had lived in Winterton all his life, aside from the often lengthy fishing voyages away after the herring, of course. He had met his wife Dorcas there and had spent all of his working life at sea until ill health caused by the rigours of the fisherman’s life forced him to abandon this at the age of fifty six. This grand old man of traditional song died on September 11th, 1965. He left £857.
About a year after Sam Larner’s death, Suffolk agricultural auctioneer and song collector Neil Lanham happened to be in Winterton, trying to find out in the churchyard about a relative who had been lost at sea in the area. There he met retired fisherman Walter ‘Tuddy’ Rudd (1905-82) and asked him if he knew any of the old songs sung in the village. Rudd certainly did and arranged for several retired fishermen to get together at his house so that Neil could record them. This happened on 17th December, 1966 when Tuddy Rudd and Johnny Goffin (1909-77) sang a variety of songs. These, unfortunately, are the only recordings made of Winterton singers other than Sam Larner, but they do give a good indication, together with the wealth collected from Sam, of this once-vibrant tradition. Tuddy also told Neil Lanham that he got An Old Man Came Courting Me (Maids When You’re Young) from a fish-hawker in the village known as ‘Lame Jimma.’ Murray Noyes, once resident in the village, remembered Johnny Goffin’s father Roger, the gamekeeper on Lord Leicester’s Holkham estate, as a singer and learned Cruising Round Yarmouth from him.
In 1974, Topic Records released a selection of fifteen of Philip Donnellan’s recordings as LP A Garland for Sam. About the same time, collector Peter Kennedy issued his own selection of the Donnellan material as a Folktrax cassette (later CD) Sailing Over the Dogger Bank: Sam’s Saucy Salty Sailor Songs. Clearly, interest in Sam Larner’s singing and his songs continued strongly a decade after his death, and has certainly carried on doing so to this day.
Peter Kennedy was to claim that the rights to the Philip Donnellan recordings were signed by Sam Larner over to him in 1958. There’s no evidence that Kennedy ever went to Winterton but he may well have met Sam in London. Generally speaking, various relatives and others in the village felt that Sam signed away rights to the songs he sang far too easily, to others who may have wished to make financial gain out of them.
By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the fishing industry in the Winterton area of Norfolk was in serious decline and the formerly close-knit community was becoming increasingly less so. The song sessions also declined as a consequence, as the way of life which fostered them all but disappeared. Ronnie Haylett certainly had very vivid memories of the nights in the pub and could recall parts of songs, but never became a singer himself: ‘Sam, he said to me one day – my father’s name is Jack – “Boy Jack”, he said, – (it was commonplace in the area for somebody to be referred to by their father’s name, together with the word ‘boy.’) “why don’t you go up and sing like your grandfather? Your grandfather Larpin. Your grandfather larnt me a lot of these songs what I sing.” I say, “I can’t sing, old chap.” “You can. You’ve just gotta stand up and get goin’. Why don’t you come up and sing, boy?” Of the two village pubs where the fishermen would congregate for such entertainment, The Three Mariners closed in 1955; it reopened for a short while as The Wishing Well but then became a private residence. The Fisherman’s Return does continue as a public house but sadly is no longer host to such nights of song and step dance of which Ronnie Haylett said, “They were lovely times down the pub when I was a youngster.”
By Victoria Draper (Norfolk Record Office) 2 January 2018
Marriage licences were often favoured by families of high social class since they allowed the couple privacy, ability to choose their parish of marriage and were faster to arrange than banns. The marriage licence could also be a status symbol in itself, showing that the couple could afford to purchase it and although the cost of a licence was not exceptionally high, many people could not afford one. As a result, the names of several prominent Norfolk families are included in the bonds.
One bond relates to the marriage of Philip Meadows Martineau (1872-1829) to Ann Dorothy Clarke in 1811. The Martineau family were of Huguenot descent and Philip Meadows was a prominent member of the local French community. He was a distinguished surgeon specialising in lithotomy, the surgical method for removing kidney, bladder and gallbladder stones which were common medical complaints in Norfolk. Martineau was a surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and also served as a hospital governor.
The Martineau family were Unitarians and Philip Meadows Martineau attended the Octagon Chapel in Norwich. Following Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, 1753 (which attempted to curb secret and irregular marriages) Nonconformists had to marry in an Anglican church. There were exemptions for Jews and Quakers but Catholics and other protestant Nonconformists, including Unitarians, were not exempt until later. Sadly, the marriage licence bond does not tell us which church Philip and Ann Dorothy married in, which is quite common.
Martineau owned a large estate at Bracondale (the Norfolk Record Office and County Hall now occupy part of the site) and this marriage licence bond is dated around the time that he also purchased the adjacent property of Carrow Abbey.
Another bond relates to the marriage of Ann Margaret Coke of Holkham, aged 15 years, to Thomas Anson in 1794. Ann Margaret, born at Holkham Hall, became a painter and may have been taught by Thomas Gainsborough in Norfolk and London. Her husband, Thomas Anson, was a wealthy politician and heir to the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire. Since Ann Margaret was only fifteen at the time of her wedding, her father Thomas William Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, made a sworn oath of consent to her marriage which is noted on the marriage licence bond.
A.M.W. Stirling recounts in his two volume work, Coke of Norfolk and his Friends, that Ann looked very young at her wedding:
‘At the wedding breakfast she looked such a child that Dean Anson said mischievously to her: “Ann, if you will run round the table, I will give you a sovereign!” Scarcely had the words left his lips, then away went the delighted bride and, racing round the table, triumphantly claimed her reward.’
Stirling also notes that Thomas Anson, concerned about his wife’s young age, insisted that Ann sat at cards with the dowagers when attending dances which unfortunately gave her a taste for gambling!
Marriage licence bonds were not the preserve of the gentry and even those of more modest social status such as tenant farmers, trades people and military occupations are well represented in them. This particularly became the case as the cost of marriage licences fell relative to wages. For some couples they may even have been an aspirational choice to emulate the higher social classes and add some sparkle to their wedding day!
Obtaining a marriage licence bond was no guarantee of social standing and character. One bond relates to the marriage of James Blomfield Rush (who later became the notorious Stanfield Hall murderer) to Susannah Soames (named in the bond as Susan Soame) in May 1828. Rush, a tenant farmer who had got himself into debt, murdered estate owner Isaac Jermy and his son at Stanfield Hall on 28 November 1848. After a dramatic legal trial, Rush was hanged at Norwich Castle on 21 April 1849. A crowd of over 12,000 people gathered to witness the event and the Eastern County Railway Company even ran a special train from London to Norwich for the execution.
Rush was no stranger to trouble. In 1835, despite being married to Susannah Soames, a woman, named either Dank or Dack, brought an action against him for breach of promise of marriage. She claimed that she had been forced into the workhouse after Rush made her pregnant. When the case came to court at the Norfolk Assizes in the summer of 1839, the court convicted Rush and ordered him to pay costs of over £26.
On Thursday, September 10th, 1874, Norfolk experience both stormy weather and a rail tragedy. Two trains collided head-on near Norwich, in what became known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster. Passengers were killed and rescuers were faced with scenes of carnage as they struggled to help the injured and dying.
The evening of that Thursday, 143 years ago, was cold, dark and wet as the 8.45pm mail train left Great Yarmouth station for Norwich; it would pick up its Lowestoft connection at Reedham before heading on to its destination at Norwich. In the cab was 49 years old and experienced train driver, John Prior; beside him was 25 year old fireman, James Light of King Street, Norwich. As their train drew away from the station, there was nothing to suggest that this journey would be any different from any other. At Reedham, John Prior’s train waited whilst the carriages from the Lowestoft train were coupled on to the mail train before it continued on to Norwich. Behind the engine was mixture of first, second and third class carriages, a truck laden with fresh fish from the docks and two brake vans; totalling thirteen carriages in all. The carriages from Lowestoft were especially crowded with visitors, that day, to the town’s flower show. Amongst the crowd were the Reverend Henry Stacey and his wife who were returning home. Sergeant Major Frederick Cassell and Sergeant Robert Ward who were serving members of the West Norfolk Militia had been away on the fishing trip on the Norfolk Broads. Also amongst the train passengers were Robert Ward, who had been in the Coldsteam Guards before joining the West Norfolk Militia, together with his wife Elizabeth and their four children. Then there was John Betts, a 29 year old employee of the Great Eastern Railway Company who had been given a half day off to take his wife, Elizabeth, and two sons to the seaside. Passengers and train proceeded along the double track to Brundall, where the train normally waited on a loop to the single line to allow the scheduled express train through before carrying on its final stretch of its journey. Back at Thorpe Station, Alfred Cooper, night duty inspector for the last 15 years and of blameless character, arrived for duty at 9pm; by 9.15pm he noted that the express train from London was seventeen minutes late. In such cases, it was usual practice for a telegraph message to be sent from Wymondham station to alert Norwich of any train delays of at least fifteen minutes; none had been received. Punctuality was known to be poor and the London Express was more often late than on time. The night inspector, Alfred Cooper was, again, not a happy man.
He mentioned the delay to the Norwich Thorpe stationmaster, William Sproule, who replied: “All right, we’ll get her off.” Cooper hurried off thinking Mr Sproule meant him to send up the Brundall train. But the stationmaster intended no such thing – he wanted to send the express to Yarmouth. Cooper rushed to the station telegraph booth where he asked the clerk, 18-year-old John Robson, to prepare a message for Brundall. Railway rules dictated that such messages must be signed before despatch; however, Cooper’s usual ‘custom and practice was to leave some messages unsigned and let the telegraph clerk send them. The young clerk, Robson, assumed this was such an occasion and tapped out and sent the wire at 9.26pm. It read:
“Send the mail train up before the 9.10pm down passenger train leaves Norwich – A Cooper”
The stationmaster at Brundall was William Platford who had been in charge there for eight years. On that particular evening he was assisted by his twelve year old son, who regularly sent and received telegraph messages for his father. When the telegraph from clerk Robson at Norwich arrived, apparently signed by Alfred Cooper. Two minutes later the train pulled out of Brundall station and three minutes after that, at around 9.31pm the London express left Norwich on the instructions of Mr Sproule. A fatal minute elapsed before Cooper saw the express steam out. A witness at the time stated:
“Cooper then left his office. He could not have been there for more than two minutes. A few minutes afterwards, at 9.23, the witness heard the down express run in under the arcade. In 8 minutes, at 9.31, he saw the train start again while standing at the door of his office. He went in there again and heard, some few minutes after, a sharp click of the wicket opening at the telegraph-window. He wondered and listened, and heard something about the mail. He rushed out and said, “What about mail?” Cooper was then standing against the telegraph-window………. he had the appearance of a man paralysed and said “I have ordered it up,” or “the mail up”, the witness was not sure which; he was so unstrung that he hardly knew what took place. He felt for Cooper so much that he could hardly speak to him…”
It was also reported at the time that the Inspector’s reaction to such a shock was for him to shout at Robson, “Have you ordered up the Brundall train?”, to which the clerk replied that he had. Cooper immediately ordered him to send another wire to Brundall to stop the train. Both he and Robson waited anxiously while Brundall took the message and replied. That reply starkly stated “Mail gone!”
Apparantly, Cooper had also demanded of the clerk as to why he had sent the first telegraph requesting for the mail train to proceed when he had expressly told Robson not to. The clerk claimed that he had reminded Cooper that he had told him (the clerk) to send the message – if Cooper hadn’t, then why had he asked the clerk to cancel it!
No one will ever know how the fatal misunderstanding between Inspector Cooper and the telegraphist Robson arose and a further explanation, set out in an old letter that came to light many years later, would have muddied the water even more. It was from a Mr H O L Francis, a railwayman working on the Yarmouth section of the Great Eastern Railway network in 1874. In 1931 he wrote to a railway inspector, Oswald Cook of Cromer and his letter put the blame for the accident squarely on the clerk, Robson. “I had been on the Yarmouth section a few days before the mishap. I knew the guards concerned, with the Norwich inspector Cooper and Parker – also the telegraphist Robson. This latter person caused the accident by sending on to Brundall the unsigned message handed him by Inspector Cooper – ‘send the mail train up’ which Mr Cooper told him not to send till he came to him again. When Cooper saw Inspector Parker start the down express he went to tell Robson to send the message after an interval to allow down express to reach Brundall. To his horror he found the unsigned message gone. Robson saying he did not hear him say: ‘Wait till I come and sign it’.”
Whatever the facts and actual sequence of events, the end result was the same and there was nothing that the drivers, John Prior and Thomas Clarke, could do to avoid the crash. Its inevitability within minutes caused panic at Norwich Station where everyone had realised that they were powerless and there was no way of communicating with either driver or stopping the trains beforehand. According to eye witnesses, Cooper had frozen with fear, realising the consequences of his actions.
Thomas Clarke was driving the London Express train that evening, alongside him was fireman Frederick Sewell. Thomas, who was keen to make up lost time and believing that the Yarmouth mail train was waiting at Brundall, opened up the steam regulator. Coming the other way was the mail train with it’s diver, John Prior, also eager not to delay the Norwich train any further than necessary, building up considerable momentum. It was unlikely that Prior would have seen the approaching lights of the express train for there was a slight bend on the track at Postwick and there would not have been enough time to apply the brakes. The outcome was catastrophic. In the darkness and pouring rain both trains collided head at 9.45pm, just east of the bridge over the river Wensum and within 100 yards of the Thorpe Gardens public house, now the ‘Rushcutters’. Local people described the noise as being like a ‘thunderclap’ and ‘a massive peal of thunder’ with one eye witness saying: ‘The engines reared up into an almost perpendicular position , and the carriages mounted one upon the top of another, and gradually sunk down into an altogether inconceivable mass of rubbish and ruins. Carriages were piled one on top of the other; others had been thrown on their sides and had rolled some half dozen yards away from the line’. In fact, the first few carriages of both trains were ripped apart as they ploughed into the twisted wrecks of the locomotives; the momentum forcing the other carriages to rear up on top of one another. Some carriages split in two and some had the roofs torn off. Further witnesses stated that the highest most carriage was some 20 or 30 feet above the ground, teetering precariously. The drivers and firemen of both trains, John Prior, James Light, Thomas Clarke and Frederick Sewell had been killed instantly.
Darkness descended when the impact extinguished all the carriage lamps. One national newspaper described the scene as a “ghastly pyramid formed of hissing locomotives, shattered carriages and moaning, in some cases dying, passengers”. There had not been time for the drivers to turn off the regulators with the result that the steam was still emerging for some time afterwards. Those who could, scrambled out of the wreckage with many suffering from head wounds, having been catapulted across the carriages. All around was a scene of devastation, people were dead or dying. Villagers who had heard the crash rushed down to help. Dr Peter Eade, who had been in the first class carriage on the Lowestoft section of the mail train managed to crawl through the opening and out onto the marshland. Although he was cut about the face, he immediately rushed to assist those who were injured.
Black, one of the brake van guards, was thrown across the carriage but picked himself up, grabbed a lantern and clambered out. Although hurt, he insisted on carrying out his duty and made his way to the wooden rail bridge, which crossed the River Yare and where five or six of the Norwich carriages had come to a stop. Inside the carriages there was panic and confusion with terrified passengers screaming and crying, unable to get out because there were no guard rails alongside the narrow bridge. Cautiously, Black edged his way along the rails with his lantern, holding on to the steps of the carriages to prevent himself falling into the water below. He did his best to calm the occupants and urged them to stay where they were until rescued. Another of the van guards, a man named Read, staggered back along the line to alert Thorpe station of the disaster.
Back in Norwich, emergency procedures were already underway, supervised by the Station Master. A train was prepared to take men and equipment to the accident and cabs sent out to fetch every available doctor. The job of extricating the injured from amongst the wreckage was a difficult one as many needed to be cut free. The steam and the heat from the boiler complicated matters further. Light was provided by huge bonfires which were built beside the track, fuelled by the remains of the shattered wooden carriages. Makeshift mortuaries were set up in a boat shed beside the track belonging to Steven Field and in a room at the Three Tuns pub across the river at Thorpe Gardens. These were soon occupied by 15 bodies. The wounded were taken back to Norwich by train from where the most severe cases were sent to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Some comments from witnesses appeared in the local Press:
“In a corner lay the corpses of a man, a woman and a pretty little child, not more than four or five years old. On the opposite side were the mortal remains of a woman who appeared to be nothing but a chaotic mess of clothing.”
“Between these bodies lay the wounded, and the smile that continually overspread the features of one poor young woman as she looked up into the face of her nurse was a thing never to be forgotten. She seemed to be dying.”
“Another young woman next to her was evidently suffering acutely, her piteous groans giving ample testimony of this fact.”
A girl’s leg was amputated at the scene of the tangled wreckage.
The men worked long and hard throughout the night and by mid morning most of the wreckage had been cleared. The death toll had risen to 18. Surprisingly, there was little damage to the track itself. Two of the rails were slightly bent, but none of the sleepers had been dislodged. By 2.30 that afternoon, the track had been opened up to rail traffic once more. News of the accident spread quickly and it was the subject of some very graphic and sensationalistic reporting for several weeks. It prompted much discussion in both national and provincial newspapers over safety on the railways. The reports make for a harrowing read.
Over the next couple of weeks, the final death toll rose to 27, with over 70 suffering varying degrees of injury. It was estimated that there had been around 220 passengers in total on the two trains. Amongst those who died were GER stoker John Betts, his wife and their youngest son who was just six weeks old and hadn’t yet been named. He had been found lying in his mothers arms. Their three year old son Charles suffered a head wound but survived. Sgt Major Frederick Cassell and Sergeant Robert Ward also lost their lives and were buried with full military honours. The Rev. Henry Stacey and his wife Ann were killed along with Mr George Womack, a clothier from Norwich, Mrs Sarah Gilding from London and her four year old daughter Laura, Mr Stanley Slade, a London auctioneer, Miss Susan Lincoln a servant from Thorpe Hamlet and Mr J Hupton, a 45 year old harness maker from Great Yarmouth. The eminent Bungay botanist, Dr Bransby Francis, was another victim. They were people from all walks of life.
Surprisingly perhaps, there were some lucky escapes. One young couple had moved from the lead carriage, as they didn’t like the company in the front carriage and one young woman was thrown clear through trees into a nearby garden and suffered only a few cuts and bruises. Another was a young man sitting in one of the other carriages who escaped without a scratch or bruise, although his carriage had been pulled up into the air as the engines collided. The mail guard, who was in his van at the time of the crash, despite being bruised and shaken and the van smashed like a matchbox, picked himself and his bags up and succeeded in getting them to the post office in a cart. Refusing to go to hospital he was persuaded to return to his home in Yarmouth in a carriage. Alfred Cooper and John Robson were arrested and immediate investigations conducted. The Coronors inquest, held before a jury by Mr E. S. Bignold, considered the evidence and decided that both men were guilty of gross negligence and carelessness and should be tried for manslaughter. However, it was felt that Cooper was the more culpable of the two. At a separate inquest held by Captain Tyler of the Board of Trade, the jury concluded that both should be charged with manslaughter but that Robson, having sent the telegraph message to send the mail train up from Brundall was the guilty party. In giving evidence, both men tried to shift the blame on to one another. When the case reached trial in April 1875, John Robson was acquitted and released and Alfred Cooper was found guilty and sentenced to eight months imprisonment with hard labour. The Great Eastern railway Company paid out over £40,000 in compensation to the victims and their families, an unprecedented sum at the time. It was noted that the Thorpe accident could have been far more serious had it occurred just a hundred feet closer to Norwich the line. The engines and carriages would probably have ended up in the river and many passengers would have been drowned. The fact that there were three empty carriages and a horsebox directly behind the Norwich engine, and a cargo truck carrying fish behind the Yarmouth engine, also limited the number of fatalities as it was these which bore the brunt of the collision. Nothing seems to be known of Alfred Cooper after he had been sent to prison. From facts brought up during his trial it would appear that he was a man who had a history of mental health problems, although he was judged to have been of sound mind and sober at the time of the accident. Was it a momentary lapse in concentration or a serious error of judgement? Whatever the reason, the outcome was one of the worst railway accidents in Britain.
It seems right that this tale should end at the graves of the driver and fireman of the Great Yarmouth mail train, John Prior and James Light. They were buried side by side in a corner of the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich.
Footnote: Ironically, the company back then had recognised that the single line between Norwich and Brundall needed doubling and had laid a second line beside it which was awaiting Board of Trade approval – and surprise, surprise, it was duly approved a few weeks after the Thorpe crash and brought into use. There is a plaque commemorating this crash in Girlings Lane, off Yarmouth Road, which is very close to the site of the accident.
This accident which is known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster, along with two further rail accidents in the following months led to new safety measures being implemented to prevent similar incidents happening in the future. In particular, it led to the introduction of the Tablet System, where an interlocking token must be secured before a train may proceed along a single track:
Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet system is a form of railway signalling for single line railways used in several countries; it was first devised in Great Britain by engineer Edward Tyer after the Thorpe rail accident of 1874, which left 21 people dead. It was used in New Zealand for close to 100 years until June 1994. The system used a hard disk called a tablet, a form of token.
The purpose of the system was to use the tablet as a physical guarantee to the traincrew that their train had exclusive right of way on the single line section. Without this they could not proceed beyond the section signal which protected entry to the single line. With advances in electrical locking of the lever frame within the signal box, the tablet instrument also electrically locked the section signal lever. This was marked with a white stripe on the red background
The Tablet System is still in use, although the disappearance of the semaphore signal, and the closure of many signal boxes (where the tokens used to be exchanged) means that an electronic system of token exchange is now widely employed. The safety record of the railways is based on the fail-safe principle. It was the proud boast of the M&GN Railway (that ran almost entirely in the county of Norfolk) that during the 80 years in which it was in operation it never killed a passenger.
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 January, however the more traditional still insist in celebrating it on ‘Old Twelvey’, or the 17th January, the correct date; that is before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar messed things up in 1752.
There are two distinct variations of wassailing. One involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. The other form of wassailing is generally practiced in the countryside, particularly in fruit growing regions, where it is the trees that are blessed.
The practice of house-wassailing continued in England throughout the Middle Ages, adapting as a way by which the feudal lord of the manor could demonstrate charitable seasonal goodwill to those who served him, by gifting money and food in exchange for the wassailers blessing and songs;
“Love and joy come to you,
and to you your wassail to;
and God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.”
The house-wassailing tradition has evolved into what we now recognise as carolling, where groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Some aspects of the original practise however can still be detected in the words of these carols; listen carefully as the wassailers demands begin, “now give us some figgy pudding”, and then as those demands turn to threats “and we won’t go until we’ve got some”.
The wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. This ancient custom is still practised across the country today, and is particularly popular in the cider producing areas of England, such as Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent and Sussex.
The celebrations vary from region to region, but generally involve a wassail King and Queen leading the assembled group of revellers, comprising the farmers, farm workers and general villagers, in a noisy procession from one orchard to the next. In each orchard the wassailers gather round the biggest and best tree, and as a gift to the tree spirits, the Queen places a piece of wassail soaked toast into its branches, accompanied by songs such as;
“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”
The wassailers then move on to the next orchard; singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and even firing shotguns, generally making as much noise as possible in order to both waken the sleeping tree spirits, and also to frighten off any evil demons that may be lurking in the branches.
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.
The Gifts –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 Tree – Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert helped to make the Christmas tree as popular in Britain as they where in his native Germany, when he brought one to Windsor Castle in the 1840’s.
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!
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
In 1644, Christmas was banned by Oliver Cromwell carols were forbidden and all festive get-togethers were deemed against the law. With the restoration of Charles II, Christmas was 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. Food 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.
Hogarth’s ‘The Assembly at Wanstead House’, 1728-31
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’.
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 popular drink at assemblies was 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.
Detail from Hogarth’s ‘A Midnight Modern Conversation’, c.1730
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
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.
Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”
Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!
Whilst the term “Christmas” first became part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.
Winter festivals have been a popular fixture of many cultures throughout the centuries. A celebration in expectation of better weather and longer days as spring approached, coupled with more time to actually celebrate and take stock of the year because there was less agricultural work to be completed in the winter months, has made this time of year a popular party season for centuries.
Whilst mostly synonymous with Christians as the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus (the central figure of Christianity), celebrating on the 25th December was a tradition that was borrowed, rather than invented, by the Christian faith and is still celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike today. Indeed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centred on the Winter Solstice were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
The official date of the birth of Christ is notably absent from the Bible and has always been hotly contested. Following the instigation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the 4th century, it was Pope Julius I who eventually settled on 25 December. Whilst this would tie in with the suggestions of the 3rd century historian Sextus Julius Africanus that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox of 25 March, the choice has also been seen as an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan winter festivals that also fell on this date. Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signalling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today.
The medieval calendar became dominated by Christmas events starting forty days prior to Christmas Day, the period we now know as Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) but which was originally know as the “forty days of St. Martin” because it began on 11 November, the feast day of St Martin of Tours.
Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.
Many monarchs chose this merry day for their coronation. This included William the Conqueror, whose coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 incited so much cheering and merriment inside Westminster Abbey that the guards stationed outside believed the King was under attack and rushed to assist him, culminating in a riot that saw many killed and houses destroyed by fire.
Some well known modern Christmas traditions have their roots in the Medieval celebrations:
Christmas or Xmas? Although many people frown upon the seemingly modern abbreviation of Xmas, X stands for the Greek letter chi, which was the early abbreviation for Christ or the Greek ‘Khristos’. The X also symbolises the cross on which Christ was crucified.
Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. Similarly to the more modern mince pies we see today, these pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.
Carol singers. Some of us enjoy the sound of carollers on our doorsteps but the tradition for carol singers going door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carollers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.
Anyone for humble pie? While the most popular choice for Christmas dinner today is undoubtedly turkey, the bird was not introduced to Europe until after the discovery of the Americas, its natural home, in the 15th century. In medieval times goose was the most common option. Venison was also a popular alternative in medieval Christmas celebrations, although the poor were not allowed to eat the best cuts of meat. However, the Christmas spirit might entice a Lord to donate the unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal, which was known as the ‘umbles’. To make the meat go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, in this case the poor would be eating ‘umble pie’, an expression we now use today to describe someone who has fallen from their pedestal to a more modest level.
Boxing Day has traditionally been seen as the reversal of fortunes, where the rich provide gifts for the poor. In medieval times, the gift was generally money and it was provided in a hollow clay pot with a slit in the top which had to be smashed for the money to be taken out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies” and thus became the first version of the piggy banks we use today. Unfortunately Christmas Day was also traditionally a “quarter day”, one of the four days in the financial year on which payments such as ground rents were due, meaning many poor tenants had to pay their rent on Christmas Day!
Whilst the excitement and frivolities of Christmas make it easy to forget the more serious aspects of the festival, it can also be argued that the tradition started by the wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh continues today, although with perhaps slightly less exotic gifts!