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ENGLISH CUSTOMS

 

MAY the first does not have as much significance today as it did of old but you can still find towns and villages that have May Queens and maypole dancing - these activities being particularly based around schools. The tradition for many centuries involved young men and women wandering into the woods during the night and returning at daybreak of May Day morning with garlands of flowers or branches of trees.

 Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses, published at the end of the 16th century reported: "I have heard it credibly reported, and that viva voce, by men of great gravitie, credite and reputation, that of fourtie, three score, or a hundred maides goyng into the woodes ouer night, there have scarcely the thirde part of them returned home again undefiled."

 Slightly less scandalous is a record compiled by The Women's Institute in 1929. It records that it was customary on May Day to give every garland that was brought to the house, by children, the princely sum of one penny. (For Valentine's Day it was recorded that in 1751 the church gave all the children in the parish a halfpenny.) Chinnor In Camera, published by Octopus, adds that the following rhyme would be sung by children on May Day:

"Good morning, Young ladies and gentlemen,
I wish you a happy day,
I've come to show you my garland
On this First of May
For it is the first of May,
The first of May, is garland day,
So pleased to see my garland,
I'll call no more today."

(Chinnor is on the Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire border) With it is a picture of children with their garlands supplied by Jan Benham. Joyce Donald, in her short history of Long Crendon (Bucks), writes: "On May Day the children went round the village with garlands of flowers sometimes tied to a stick with a crown imperial lily stuck on top. In those days most gardens had a group of these lilies. The little girls wore their Sunday best and made the rounds of the larger farm houses collecting pennies. Mrs Beechy tells me that they sang:

"Please to see my garland,
Because it is the first of May.
Please give me a penny,
And then I'll run away."

While this form of begging has died out, collecting a Penny for the Guy on the days before bonfire night (November 5) continues to exist but is not as common as it once was. There also used to be an excuse for collecting money on December 21st. It was called Thomassing or Mumping and was practised only by women. It certainly was continued in Haddenham by at least one woman up until 1942 when Walter Rose published his classic book Good Neighbours. He writes: 

"On the twenty-first of December each year the old dames of the village, going about in pairs, canvassed those who could afford it for alms. Their attitude was not one of indigent poverty; they came in recognition of a time-honoured custom, a rite that needed no other explanation but the plan announcement, 'If you please, we've come a-thomassing' As a custom it was interesting and picturesque, but it was certainly evidence of an earlier poverty, and we may be glad that the granting of old age pensions brought it to an end. Yet one old lady (to her honour) still keeps the custom going to whom, if it be my last, my sixpence shall be given."

During the 19th century it was customary for the vicar of St Andrew's at Chinnor to dole out breed, cheese and beer to the poor. Apparently in the early days the bread and cheese was thrown from the tower to the poor waiting below! Not surprisingly a number of fights broke out in the churchyard. One beggar who seems to have benefited very well from the generosity of the people of Chinnor was rich enough to provide at Christmas the other poor of the village with blankets and clothes.

 A tradition revived in 1992 at St Andrew's, Chinnor, was the custom of the Boy Bishop. A young chorister was made a bishop and took the Communion service with the exception of the Absolution, the Communion and the final blessing. In 1992 the honour at Chinnor went to Bernard Keavy.

 Many villages in The Chilterns were famous for their cherries. Cherry picking was a great village event and it culminated with a Cherry Pie Fair (usually in August). There is record of a cherry feast being held near Princes Risborough and at The Leather Bottle, Lewknor.

 The custom of rough music is recorded in the History of Chinnor (The WI History of Chinnor, 1929) as taking place in the 19th century. An effigy of the criminal was borne around the village and taken to his or her house. Other villagers would provide rough music by hitting pots and pans before the effigy was either burnt or thrown in a pond. Joyce Donald also relates this happening in Long Crendon to 'unfortunate girls who had strayed from respectability, unpopular tradesmen or anyone who defied convention.'

 Thame in Oxfordshire had a town crier until at least 1918. Brown and Guest record that Richard Bouler was town crier in 1866, Joseph the grandson of the Earl of Abingdon was then crier until 1880 and he was succeeded by his nephew Harry. Harry died in 1981 at the age of 72 when the tradition of crying was said to have deteriorated into nothing more than the shouting of adverts for traders. It would be wonderful to see this post revived with honour.