ON ANCIENT CUSTOMS AND SPORTS OF THE COUNTY OF DERBY

BY LLEWELLYNN JEWITT, ESQ.
(Extracted from JBAA, 1852, vol. 7, pp. 199-210)

WHEN I had the pleasure of preparing a paper for the Chester congress on the ancient customs and sports of that county, I expressed a hope that a more extended interest might be felt in the remains of the habits and customs, the [200] superstitions and recreative sports of our forefathers; and that we might thus, by the more extended notices of the observances of different districts which we should receive, be enabled to clear up many points of historical doubt, and to supply much valuable and interesting information illustrative of mediaeval literature and the early domestic habits of those ages which have preceded us. Many communications since then have appeared in our own Journal, and in other publications, relating to ancient customs observed in various parts of the kingdom, and it is in the hope of adding still farther to the general stock, that I have prepared the following notes of some of the more curious ones remaining in this county, which have come under my own notice, and which in many respects differ from those of other localities.

Derbyshire appears to have been particularly rich in remains of ancient customs, and the inhabitants seem formerly to have clung with peculiar tenacity to whatever habits, sports, superstitions and legends had been handed down to them; many of these have now, however, fallen into desuetude, or are only observed in a modified form, and will soon be altogether lost. In speaking of the general habits of the inhabitants, Philip Kinder, who wrote about two hundred years ago, says:

"The common sort of people, of Derbyshire, out of a genuine reverence, not forced by feare or institution, doe observe those of larger fortunes, courteous and readie to show the waies and help a passenger : you may say they are lazy and idle in a better sense, for (except the grooves) they have not whereon to set themselves to work, for all theire harvest and sede tyme is finished in six weeks; the rest of their tyme they spend in fothering their cattle, mending their stone enclosures, and in sports. The country women here are chaste and sober, very diligent in their huswifery ; they hate idleness, love and obey their husbands, only in some of the great townes many seeming sanctificators use to follow the Presbyterian gang, and upon a lecture day put on their best rayment, and doo hereby take occasion to goo a gossiping. Your merry wives of Bentley will sometimes look in y e glass, chirpe a cupp merrily, yet not indecently. In the Peak they are much given to dance after the bagpipes, almost every towne hath a baggpipe in it.

Their exercise for the greate part, is the Gymnopaidia,1 or naked [201] boy, an ould recreation among the Greeks; with this, in foote races, you shall have in a winter's day, the earth all crusted over with ice, two antagonists, stark naked, runn a foote-race for two or three miles, with many hundred spectators, and the betts very small.

They love their cards. The miners at Christmas tyme will carry tenn or twenty pounds about them, game freely, returne home again, all the year after good husbands.

For diet, the gentrie, after the southern mode, have two state meales a day, with a bitt in y e buttery to a morning draught; but yowr peasants exceed the Greeks, who had four meales a day, for the moorlanders add three more; ye bitt in ye morning; ye anders meate, and ye yenders mcate, and soe make upp seaven, and for certaine ye greate housekeeper doth allow his people, especially in summer time, so many commessations.

The common inhabitants doe prefer oates for delight and strength, above any other graine; for here you may find jus nigrum, the Lacedaemonian pottage, to bee a good dish, if you bring a Lacedaemonian stomach. It is observed that they have for the most part fair long broad teeth, which is caused by the mastication of their oat bread."

From the preceding long and quaint description, we may naturally infer that one of the most universal customs in the county was that of good eating and drinking, and I believe that this is one of the few ancient customs which has been handed down from generation to generation unimpaired.

On new year's eve, a cold possett, as it is called, made of milk, ale, eggs, currants, and spice, is prepared, and in it is placed the wedding-ring of the hostess; each of the party takes out a ladle full, and in doing so takes every precaution to fish up the ring, as it is believed that whoever is fortunate enough to "catch" the ring will be married before the year is out. On the same night it is customary in some districts to throw open all the doors of the house just before midnight, and to wait for the coming year, as for an honoured guest, by meeting him as he approaches, and crying "Welcome".

The morris dancers who go about from village to village about the twelfth day, have their fool, their maid Marian (here generally a man dressed in women's clothes, and called the fool's wife), and sometimes the hobby-horse; they are dressed up in ribbands and tinsel, but the bells are usually discarded. On Plough Monday, the "Plough- [202] bullocks" are still occasionally seen; they consist of a number of young men from various farm-houses, who are dressed up in ribbands, their shirts (for they wear no coats or waistcoats) literally covered with rosettes of various colours, and their hats bound round with ribbands, and decorated with every kind of ornament that comes in their way; these young men yoke themselves to a plough, which they draw about, preceded by a band of music, from house to house, collecting money; they are accompanied by the fool and Bessy; the fool being dressed in the skin of a calf, with the tail hanging down behind, and Bessy, generally a young man in female attire, covered with a profusion of ribbands and other meretricious finery. The fool carries an inflated bladder tied to the end of a long stick, by way of whip, and which he does not fail to apply pretty soundly to the heads and shoulders of his team; to these personages are usually added two or more drivers, armed with similar bladders, and a ploughman with attendants. When anything is given, a cry of largess is raised, and a dance performed around the plough; but if a refusal to their application for money is made, they not unfrequently plough up the pathway, door stone, or any other portion of the premises they happen to be near. On Valentine's day, the customs are similar to those observed in other counties; and it is a belief, that the first of the opposite sex seen on that morning is the observer's Valentine, and will ultimately be united to her.

Thus Gay says:

"Thee first I spied, and the first swain we see,
In spite of fortune, shall our true love be."

The young women pin bay leaves to their pillows on Valentine's eve, in order to ensure their dreaming of their lovers; and many are their sly contrivances to insure the success of their divinations in water and sand. As the maid in the Connoisseur expresses herself,

"We wrote our lovers' names on bits of paper and rolled them up in clay, and put them into water, and the first that rose up was to be our valentine. Would you think it? Mr. Blossom was my man I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning till he came to our house; for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world."

The ancient sports of bull-baiting, cock fighting, and [203] throwing at cocks are now happily obsolete in this county; but there are other Shrove-tide customs which still prevail. The pancake bell is still rung in many villages, and the pancakes themselves are eaten with as much relish now as they were in former times. One of the most remarkable sports of this day is that of foot-ball. The game is still general throughout the county, but the Derby foot-ball differed materially from that played in other places. A writer in 1835 says:

"The inhabitants of Derby are born foot-ball players, the game seems interwoven with their existence, they have imbibed it with their first food, and it animates them through their lives. Enthusiasm is but a cold word for their attachment to it, on Shrove Tuesday it is a passion irresistible, which bears down before it every obstacle, and defies the law, the police, and the magistrates. Nor is it confined to the lower classes alone, the gentry, the respectable tradesmen, have all in some part of their lives been foot-ball players and they encourage it now by their subscriptions and by their presence."

The game, which is now happily discontinued, was a contest between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter's; the conflicting parties being strengthened by volunteers from the other parishes, and from the surrounding country. The bells of the different churches rang their merry peals in the morning, and gave rise to the following jingle on the five parishes of All Saints', St. Peter's, St. Werburgh's, St. Alkmimd's. and St. Michael's.

"Pancakes and fritters,
Say All Saints' and St. Peter's;
When will the hall come,
Say the bells of St. Alkmun;
At tivo they will throw,
Says Saint Werabo';
O! very well,
Says little Michel."

The goal of All Saints' was the water-wheel of the nun's mill, and that of St Peter's, on the opposite side of the town, at the gallow's balk, on the Normanton road; the ball, which was of a very large size, was made of leather, and stuffed quite hard with shavings, and about noon was thrown into the market-place, from the Town hall, into the midst of an assembly of many thousand people, so [204] closely wedged together, as scarcely to admit of locomotion. The moment the ball was thrown, the "war cries" of the rival parishes began, and thousands of arms were uplifted in the hope of catching it during its descent. The opposing parties endeavoured by every possible means, and by the exertion of their utmost strength, to carry the ball in the direction of their respective goals, and by this means the town was traversed and retraversed many times in the course of the day; indeed to such an extent has the contest been carried, that some years ago the fortunate holder of the ball, having made his way into the river Derwent, was followed by the whole body, who took to the water in the most gallant style, and kept up the chase to near the village of Duffield, a distance of five miles, the whole course being against the rapid stream, and one or two weirs having to be passed; on another occasion, the possessor of the ball is said to have quietly dropped himself into the culvert or sewer which passes under the town, and to have been followed by several others of both parties, and after fighting his way the whole distance under the town, to have come out victorious at the other side, where a considerable party having collected, the contest was renewed in the river.

On the conclusion of the day's sport, the man who had the honour of "goaling" the ball was the champion of the year; the bells of the victorious parish announced the conquest, and the victor was chaired through the town.

So universal has been the feeling with regard to this game, that it is said a gentleman from Derby having met with a person in the backwoods of America, whom, from his style of conversation, he suspected to be from the midland counties of England, cried out when he saw him, All Saints' forever; to this the stranger instantly retorted, Peter's for ever; and this satisfied them that they were; fellow-townsmen. The foot-ball is also played at Ashborne nearly in the same manner as at Derby.

On Palm Sunday the boys go out into the fields and gather the branches of the willow, which are vulgarly called palms; these are carried about during the day, and in some churches it is customary to use them for decoration.

On Easter Sunday the old custom of sugar-cupping at the dripping torr, near Tideswell, is observed; when the [205] young people assemble at the torr, each provided with a cup and a small quantity of sugar or honey, and having caught the required quantity of water, and mixed the sugar with it, drink it, and repeat a doggerel verse. In some parts of the county, a tansy pudding is eaten on this day; and it is a general belief, that unless a person puts on some new article of dress he will be injured by the birds, and have no good fortune that year. Pasch eggs are still to be seen beautifully ornamented, hanging in festoons over the chimney-piece, or put by carefully in corner cupboards of cottages, and they are religiously preserved, and handed down as heir-looms.

On Easter Monday, the custom of lifting still obtains in some of the northern parts of the county; on this day the men lift the women, and the day following the women return the compliment. For this purpose, a chair, gaily decorated with ribbands, is carried from house to house by a number of young women, gaily dressed up for the occasion, and having caught some luckless fellow and placed him in the chair, they lift him above their heads three times. On being released from the chair, he receives a kiss from each of the women engaged in the ceremony, and in return presents them with some money.

One of the prettiest customs of the county is that of Well Dressing on Holy Thursday, or Ascension day, at Tissington, near Dovedale. In the village are five springs or wells, and these are decorated with flowers, arranged in the most beautiful devices. Boards are cut into arches, pediments, pinnacles, and other ornamental forms, and are covered with moist clay, to the thickness of about half an inch; the flowers are cut off their stems and impressed into the clay as closely together as possible, forming mottoes, borders, and other devices ; these are then placed over the wells, and it is impossible to conceive a more beautiful appearance than they present ; the water gurgling from beneath them, and overhung by the fine foliage of the numerous evergreens and forest trees by which they are surrounded. There is one particular variety of double daisy, known to gardeners as the Tissington daisy, which appears almost peculiar to the place, and is in much repute for forming the letters of the texts and mottoes, with which the wells are adorned. The day is observed as a complete holiday, [206] and the festival attracts a considerable number of visitors from all the neighbouring towns and villages. Divine service is performed in the church, and on its conclusion, the minister and congregation join in procession, and visit each well in succession. A portion of Scripture is read at each, and a psalm or appropriate hymn is sung. The whole of the wells having been thus visited, and a prayer offered up, the company separate, and from the absence of public houses in the village, spend the rest of the day in temperate enjoyment.

May poles are to be seen in some of the village greens, still standing, and still adorned with garlands on May day. On this morning too the young village women go out about sun rise for the purpose of washing their faces in the May dew, and return in the full hope of having their complexions improved by the process.

On the 29th of May, branches of young oak are gathered and put up over the doors of many houses, and a small sprig of the same tree is commonly worn in the button-hole.

Derby having for many centuries been celebrated for its ale, which Camden says was made here in such perfection, that wine must be very good to deserve a preference; and Fuller remarks, "never was the wine of Falernum better known to the Romans than the canary of Derby is to the English": it is not a matter of surprise to find some remnants of the Whitsun ales in the neighbourhood. In a manuscript in the Bodleian Library is a record of the Whitsun ales at Elvaston and Ockbrook, from which it appears that they were formerly required to brew four ales of a quarter of malt each. Every inhabitant of Ockbrook was obliged to be present at each ale; every husband and his wife to pay two-pence, and every cottager one penny; the inhabitants of Elvaston, Thurlaston, and Ambaston, to receive all the profits and advantages arising from the ales to the use and behoof of the church of Elvaston. The inhabitants of Elvaston, Thurlaston, and Ambaston, to brew eight ales, each inhabitant to be present as before, or to send their money.

The Christmas festivities are well observed in Derbyshire; mummers or guisors go from house to house and perform a piny of St. George. They are dressed 'up in [207] character, and decorated with ribbands, tinsel, and other finery, and on being admitted into the house commence their performance by St. George announcing himself by lx ginning his oration:

"I am St. George, the noble champion bold,
And with my glittering sword
I've won three crowns of gold.
It 's I who fought the fiery dragon,
And brought it to the slaughter,
And so I Avon fair Sabra,
The king of Egypt's daughter:
Seven have I won but married noun,
And bear my glory all alone.
With my sword in my hand
Who dare against me stand?
I swear I'll cut him down
With my victorious brand."

A champion is soon found in the person of Slasher, who accepts the challenge. St. George then replies in a neat speech, when they sing, shake hands, and fight with their wooden swords, and Slasher is slain. The king then enters, saying, "I am the king of England, the greatest man alive", and after walking round the dead body, calls for "Sir Guy, one of the chiefest men in the world's wonder", who shows his wonderful courage and prowess in calling for a doctor. The doctor on making his appearance gives a long and quaint account of his birth, parentage, education, and travels, whilst perambulating around the fallen Slasher, and ends his oration by saying

"Here take a little out of my bottle
And put it down thy throttle."

The dead man is thus cured, and having received the advice of "rise, Jack, and fight again", the play is ended.

This remnant of the ancient plays and mysteries of our forefathers is very general in the villages of Derbyshire and the adjacent counties, and with but little variation in the words of the play.

At Christmas there are few districts where a more abundant display of festivity is made than in Derbyshire; the houses are all profusely decorated with evergreens the yule "clog" is burnt the large mould candles are lighted and the posset and furmety prepared.

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In some parts of the county the village choir meet in the church on Christmas-eve and there wait until midnight, when they proceed from house to house, invariably accompanied by a small keg of ale, singing "Christians, awake"; and during the Christmas season they again visit the principal houses in the place, and having played and sung for the evening, and partaken of the Christmas cheer, are presented with a sum of money.

Rush-bearing was formerly a general custom in the Peak, and is still observed in some localities. At Glossop, a cart or waggon was decorated with rushes in a tasty and elegant manner; a pyramid of rushes, ornamented with festoons of flowers and surmounted by a garland, was usually placed in the car, and surrounded by flags, ribbands, and garlands. The car was then drawn through the village, preceded by groups of dancers and a band of music, to the church, when the rushes and flowers were strewed over the floor and in the pews, and the garlands hung up near the chancel. At Whitwell, a nearly similar custom was observed, when the hay from a church field is mown and spread in the church on Midsummer eve.

At Baslow, the festival of kit-dressing is occasionally observed: the kits, or milk pails, are fancifully and tastefully decorated with ribbands, and hung with festoons of flowers and ornaments of muslin and silk, and with gold and silver thread. The kits are carried on the heads of the young women of the village, who, attended by the young men, and preceded by a band of music, parade the streets, and end the day's proceedings by a dance.

Garlands were formerly carried to the grave with the corpse of an unmarried female, and afterwards hung up in the church in memory of the departed; several of these memorials are still to be seen; white gloves were frequently suspended with the garland.

At Duffield, a curious remnant of the right of hunting wild animals in the forest there is still observed this is called the "squirrel hunt". The young men of the village assemble together on the wakes Monday, each provided with a horn, a pan, or something capable of making a noise, and proceed to Keddleston Park, where with shouting and the discordant noise of the instruments, they frighten the poor little squirrels until they drop from the [209] trees. Several having been thus captured, the hunters return to Duffield, and having released the squirrels amongst some trees, re-commence the hunt. At the same place, the right of collecting wood in the forest is singularly observed, for the young men in considerable numbers collect together, and having taken possession of any cart they can find, yoke themselves to it, and preceded by horns, remove any trees or other wood from the various lanes and hedge-rows; this is done almost nightly between September and the wakes, in the first week in November, when a huge bonfire is made of the wood collected, on the wakes Monday.

Many other interesting customs are still observed in this county, and the charms, the superstitions, and the beliefs in supernatural agencies, are many of them very curious. Ghosts, bargasts, and other apparitions, still start up in unfrequented places, to the great discomfiture and terror of the luckless traveller, sometimes in form of a beautiful lady in white, seated on a charger of the same colour, who rushing madly down the valley of the Derwent, plunges wildly into the stream, and is seen no more that night; sometimes in the shape of a "brown man" with a hideous countenance, who waylays those whose pleasure has kept them out at unseasonable hours; and sometimes in the shape of the father of evil.

Divinations by water, salt, and other substances, are still practised, and doggerel verses repeated to raise the spirit of the future husband. Of the latter, there is a curious instance at Ashborne, where a young woman who wishes to divine who her future husband is to be, goes into the church-yard at midnight, and as the clock strikes twelve, commences running round the church, repeating, without intermission

"I sow hemp seed, hemp seed I sow,
He that loves me best
Come after me and mow"

having thus performed the circuit of the church twelve times without stopping, the figure of her lover is supposed to appear and follow her.

Of the other customs of the county, time will not permit me now to give a notice. I trust, however, that the few remarks I have made will call attention to the sub- [210] ject, and that our friends in this locality will from time to time send up notices of such customs as may come under their observation.

The customs of various districts differ very widely from each other; and although upon collection and comparison many of them may be traced to one common origin, yet the modes of their observance in different localities vary so considerably, as to be of the highest importance in illustrating the literature and habits of the middle ages. It is but by this collection, arrangement, and comparison, that we are enabled to trace each to its proper origin, and thus to supply the places of some of the connecting links of history which time has rusted and nearly destroyed.

NOTES

1 The gymnopaidia, or naked boy race, is still a sport in some parts of the Peak, and until the last few years was also a favourite diversion in Derby, on  the feast of St. James.