Some of the old English customs that Peter Hempson Ditchfield describes in this fascinating late Victorian book are still familiar today. Carols and plum pudding for Christmas, hot cross buns on Good Friday, the maypole on May Day remain familiar features, if not of common English experience, at least of nostalgic imagination. But many other customs will be completely unfamiliar to twenty-first-century readers. Ditchfield’s description of the Christmastime tradition of “the Claire” — practiced in Burghead, Elgin — would be thought of as magic realism if found in a contemporary novel:
The seamen... meet at the west end of the town, carrying an old barrel, which they proceed to saw in two. The lower half is then nailed to a long spoke of firewood, which serves as a handle. The half barrel is then filled with dry wood saturated with tar, and built up like a pyramid, leaving a hollow to receive a burning peat. Should the bearer stumble or fall, the consequences would be unlucky to the town and to himself. The Claire is thrown down the western side of the hill, and a scramble ensues for the burning brands, which bring good luck, and are carried home and carefully preserved till the following year as a safeguard against all manner of ills.
The book abounds with similarly intriguing snippets of local lore and tradition. On Valentine’s Day, in East Anglia, we learn “it is customary to leave small presents on the doorstep, to ring the bell violently, and then run away”. In Yorkshire, “it is customary after a death to send to the friends of the family a bag of biscuits, together with a card bearing the name of the deceased”. On the Isle of Man, “according to custom, the laws of the island are read publicly on the Tynwald Hill once every year in Manx and in English”.
Ritual violence, mischief, and penalty fees play a major role in old British customs. During harvest-time in certain parts of Scotland, anyone who visits the harvest field and does not pay “head money” is “lifted up by his or her ankles and armpits, and the lower part of his person is brought into violent contact with the ground”. Butchers “in some few places keep up the custom of serenading a newly married couple of their own trade with the ‘marrow bones and cleavers’” until they are paid a fee to depart. Some of the more violent customs are not at all charming, and one could not be happier to think they have passed from the earth — above all, perhaps, the ritual stoning of wrens on St. Stephen’s Day.
Most of the customs Ditchfield records are rural — from the “obscure nooks and corners of our native land”. But a few old traditions were still lingering on in turn-of-the-century English cities, such as the strange and remarkable municipal custom at Huntingdon, where “the whole of the freemen of the borough assemble in the market-place on the morning of September 15th.”
The skull of an ox, borne on two poles, is placed at the head of a procession composed of the freemen and their sons, a certain number of them bearing spades and sticks. Three cheers having been given, the procession moves out of the town, and proceeds to the nearest point of the borough boundary, where the skull is lowered. The procession then moves along the boundary-line of the borough, the skull being dragged along the line as if it were a plough. The boundary-holes are dug afresh, and a boy thrown into each hole and struck with a spade. At a particular point called Blackstone Leys refreshments are provided, and the boys compete for prizes. The skull is then raised aloft, and the procession returns to the market-place, and then disperses after three more cheers have been given.
Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time is a wonderful resource for learning about Britain’s bygone local practices. It’s also a useful book for learning about the roots of some of these practices, including those that have persisted. Who knew that those “hot cross buns” so many of us were taught to sing about as children had their origins in the Roman practice of dividing their “sacred cakes with lines intersecting each other at right angles”, which they then presented to the gods? When the inhabitants of Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire — a part of England crisscrossed by Roman roads — became Christians, they reinterpreted the old custom and adapted it to new purposes. And so it goes.