Notes on Some Rural and Trade Initiation Ceremonies in the Eastern Counties Author(s): Leslie F.

Newman Reviewed work(s): Source: Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), pp. 32-42 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd. Stable URL: . Accessed: 15/01/2012 18:57
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Read at the Folklore Society's Meeting, 7une 17th, 1936 ALTHOUGH the initiation ceremonies of primitive peoples have been fully investigated and a considerable mass of data accumulated, very little work has been done on the subject in England. This is due to the fact that the rituals have almost completely died out during the past sixty or seventy years, and it is difficult, in many cases impossible, to obtain the information required to make a comparative study of the subject. So that any addition to the scanty material at present available may be of interest and point the way to further investigations. Initiation ceremonies in Britain may be divided into three main groups : (I) Admission into membership of something very much like a trade union, and accompanied by a series of symbolic actions. These are combined with instruction in the duties of a guild member so that the initiate may appreciate the relative positions of the senior and junior units of the corporate body. An example of this is the ritual still fortunately existing in the City Livery Companies where the pleasant old term, " mystery," is used to describe the secrets of the craft. (2) Initiation into secret societies with the communication of words and a ritual analogous to the reception of a neophyte into the ancient mysteries. In English rural districts the words are often magical in character and membership of the society confers special powers.

Initiation Ceremonies in the Eastern Counties 33
(3) Initiation from boyhood into manhood. This group of customs is very difficult to define, and the available data are so extremely scanty that any generalisation is impossible, but the rituals are, as far as they are known, especially interesting from their resemblance to those of primitive peoples. In many cases the ceremony is mixed up, and confused with, the guild initiations and guild membership. The few examples which have been provisionally identified as survivals of manhood initiation still require the support of additional evidence and although confirmation may be forthcoming as a result of future work the gap in tradition is probably too long to be bridged. Ceremonies of all three kinds were, until comparatively recently, prevalent over most of rural England, especially among the agricultural communities (as opposed to the town craftsmen). The curiously furtive methods of the countrymen and their secretive nature, creates barriers which isolate and divide communities, not only in the county areas, but even between parish and parish. Each of the latter must have its own wise woman; its own local gathering place; its own customs and places of religion. Also the mentality of the groups varies from one area to another and still further hinders the exchange of ideas. This parochial feeling not only tends to encourage a large number of variants of any ceremony-the Mummers' play affords a good example of this-but leads to strange feuds between districts and the evolution of a strong class feeling.1 Of late years a revival of interest in apprenticeship customs has taken place among the trade unions and recently there have been several newspaper reports of these ceremonies being carried out. They are, admittedly, modernised and often vulgarised but still they are undoubtedly based on the medieval customs of the guilds. Two or three years
1 For examples see the late Knyvet Wilson's Norfolk Stories and More Norfolk Stories.


Notes on Some Rural and Trade

ago an apprentice in the cooper's trade was, when his time was out, received into the craft, as a freeman, with a fairly elaborate ceremonial, and the event was duly recorded in the Press. The ex-apprentice was obliged to make up a cask-this was the test of ability in his trade-and to stand in it a brazier with the drying fire. Then he was placed in the barrel and the other men danced round while water was sprinkled over the victim's body to prevent any injury from the fire. Finally, the new cooper was released from his barrel and thrown out into the cooperage.2 No doubt newspaper publicity and the theatrical element played a part, but it seems clear that the ritual was founded on the nearly-forgotten traditions of the trade. It must be remembered that these picturesque events had no connection with legal apprenticeship formalities. They usually marked the start or the end of the period of servitude and were carried out by the workmen themselves quite independently of the formal sealing or cancelling of the indenture. Some fortyfive years ago, the writer was privileged to witness a somewhat similar " freedom " ceremony of admission into another trade. The details were apparently quite well established, and were carried out at the beginning instead of the end of the apprenticeship period. The ritual included a short oath with some ceremonial of reception, but the closing events were unedifying and scarcely suitable for publication in detail. They consisted, in the main, of daubing the initiate with some of the requirements of his trade. In another recent ceremony the indecencies practised resulted in such physical injuries being sustained that the victim carried the affair to the Courts in an action for damages.
The ancient ceremony of " crossing the line " may be

considered as an analogous custom which was once a serious religious initiation into a new life as a seaman, but
2 The Evening



Initiation Ceremonies in the Eastern Counties 35
in a similar way has now degenerated into mere buffoonery to amuse passengers. Almost within living memory the ritual was carried out with some earnestness and sometimes resulted in damage to the candidate. The details have been frequently described: Father Neptune visited the ship with wife, servants and retinue, and was received by the Captain. The novices were called up by Neptune's assistants and were shaved, bled, physicked and finally ducked in a canvas tank of sea-water, each process being carried out as roughly as possible. This universal custom has not been traced to its origin, but is known to have been practised early in the seventeenth century. Initiation ceremony it certainly was, but why the " physicking," "bleeding " and " shaving " were established as part of the ritual is unknown. There is some resemblance to the Mummers' play and there may be a connection between them. Esquemeling gives a graphic picture of the line ceremony in a French ship and in this instance it was a parody of baptism. Each novice knelt down in turn and the sign of the cross was made on their foreheads; they received the accolade and the lookers-on finally threw buckets of water over them. The proceedings concluded with a carouse. The drink being provided by the victims.3 Descriptions of the Sabbat and details of the ritual carried out at the reception of candidates into the various degrees of witchcraft was at one time a favourite theme of writers of sensational fiction. It has been rather neglected by modern authors probably because folklorists have dealt fully with the subject, and it is now so well-known, tha novelists cannot add the lurid details required by their readers. There is some evidence that a definite initiation ceremony is in existence and is still carried out at the present time. It is accompanied by the ritual appropriate to admission into any craft; with the vesting of the candidate with
3History of the Buccaneers Eng., Trans. 1684.


Notes on Some Rural and Trade

the regalia of the order and the communication of words of power, spells, charms, knowledge of simples, and other stock-in-trade of the profession. This does not in any way imply the existence of the " coven " or afford evidence of such an organised body but only that there is some survival of an ancient ritual of " passing on " the witches' power to a successor or apprentice. The writer has investigated one case where it appeared that a new member had to be rather hurriedly selected to take the place of an old woman who was dying. In this case the initiate received the regalia of the cult which was a collar of fur pelts with another hanging from it in front and lying between the breasts of the wearer. It was worn next to the skin. The details of its construction could not be ascertained with certainty nor could the ritual be obtained. The larger group of ceremonies are those connected with agriculture. From the earliest time countrymen have handed down a series of initiations of which only mutilated fragments remain. But there is enough material available to show clearly that each branch of agriculture had its own secrets and that these were communicated in the form of an admission into the craft. One at least has come down in a degraded form and is still occasionally practised-the " Swearing on the Horns ". In districts where large cattle fairs or markets were held, the drovers and cattle dealers assembled at one of the inns and formed a loosely associated body rather like a trade union. It is assumed that these casual fraternities, as a rough test of membership, insisted that any stranger alleging himself to be a drover should show his skill by holding a bullock by the horns. Later on a ritual was developed and the ceremony became symbolic, but a pair of horns were still used for the admission. The ritual in vogue at one of the old hotels at Highgate is well known, and is still occasionally practised as an after-dinner custom for the entertainment of visitors to the inn. It has

Initiation Ceremonies in the Eastern Counties 37
appeared recently in several periodicals.4 A similar practice at Weyhill fair in Hampshire was carried out until the end of last century; it now appears to be moribund although tourists are sometimes put through a parody of the original ceremony, and the horns are, or were till a few years ago, preserved in the bar of the local inn at Weyhill. The ritual, which is in doggerel rhyme, is well known.5 The ceremony, once carried out in all seriousness, degenerated into mere buffoonery during the second part of the last century, but is probably one of the best examples we have of an agricultural trade initiation. It must be remembered that the ancient profession of cattle drover was a very important one in the middle ages, and continued almost unchanged until the railway and the abattoir altered the old system. " Stores " (that is young cattle) were driven from the grass farms of Wales, Scotland and the North Midlands, where they were bred, to the Eastern Counties, and sold, either privately, or at fairs and markets. The local farmers purchased these store animals and fattened them on the roots and hay of the arable land farms. Even in these days the drovers still survive, and form an unofficial or casual guild, loosely organised but united for mutual support. The writer can well remember the old fair grounds and the crowd of excited drovers all able and willing to fight out their differences on the spot. Weyhill was one of the largest stock fairs in England, but is now mainly concerned with sheep. At some of the old inns in the country towns, especially the coaching rests and stages, similar ceremonies were carried out, sometimes for the amusement of travellers, but usually restricted to farmers and local workers in one or other branch of agriculture. Details of these puerile rituals are entirely lost. They were probably never written down and the ceremonies degenerated from initiations to mere frolics intended to bring custom to the house. At one such
Se.g. Wheels, 16. iii. 1898. 6 Notes on Weyhill (Local pamphlet).


Notes on Some Rural and Trade

inn, " The Cross Keys " at Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire, the custom persisted until the early part of the last century and part of the equipment for carrying out the ritual-a large wooden key-was known to exist until much later; it disappeared during a change of tenancy and was probably destroyed. A relative of the writer actually saw the key about 1850, but the ceremony had then fallen into abeyance. The details were familiar to several people living at that time, and who had been admitted to the society, but they would not divulge any fragments of the ceremony they remembered. The ritual provided by the church authorities of touching for the King's Evil, was regularly practised by the Stuart kings and by Queen Anne. Belief in the efficacy of the Royal touch survived in country districts long after it had been discouraged in the towns and the ritual was printed in the Church of England prayer book as late as 1712. The Roman Catholic ceremony, which was very similar, is given in full by Thompson.6 Some years ago there was a newspaper report of a mysterious society existing in Scotland, and it seems to have been brought into the Eastern Counties probably with the influx of Scottish farmers during the second part of the last century. It was known as the Society of the " Horseman's Word " and membership was limited to farm servants and to carters. The secret word was imparted between the " Collar and the Hames," and although a good deal of buffoonery seems to have crept into the ritual, the power of healing sick and injured was conferred by membership and magical cures formed part of its activities. It may be noted that the " collar " is a cushion of leather stuffed with straw or fibre and fitting the horse's neck. The hames are iron or brass rods curved to fit the collar and strapped to it. The traces or shafts of carts or implements are secured to the

C. J. S. Thompson, Mysteries of History,


Initiation Ceremonies in the Eastern Counties 39
hames which grip the collar very closely and this implies secrecy. Three farm servants were summoned for cruelty to a mare in trying to cure her with the magical rites of the society, and were duly fined. Such details as were disclosed during the court hearing seemed to be well known in the district and caused no surprise to the spectators or to the magistrates before whom the case was tried. In the Eastern Counties there is some evidence of the existence of another, and indigenous, fraternity which frankly employs magical cures. In practice, this probably only implies the use of common plants for secret healing, but there is also the possession of a word of power known as the " Whisper " by which fractious or vicious horses can be rendered docile. It is said that injured animals can be cured of extensive traumata or of serious diseases. The possession of these secrets was claimed in the past by many country people and probably spread originally from the gypsies to their country clients and friends. There are, however, records of ordinary farm servants not of gypsy descent who claimed the power of using the " Whisper " for the control of horses in training. The close corporation of gypsies as unofficial veterinarians and horse copers of the countryside has been broken up by police action, by legislation and by the development of modern veterinary science. This has reduced the employment of the old " horse doctors " and unqualified practitioners to such an extent that the profession is no longer profitable. The country ceremonies of initiation similar to those of a time-expired apprentice took place when the farm boy started work for the first time-there was no regular apprenticeship in agriculture-and again when he was considered knowledgeable enough to be a fully fledged labourer. Each branch of farm work was quite separate; the ploughman, shepherd, stockman and thatcher, each kept to his own speciality and left other jobs for the lower


Notes on Some Rural and Trade

grade general labourers. The performance took the form of a practical examination in craftsmanship, followed by a number of symbolic actions. A plough-boy, for example, was passed over the back, under the belly, between the legs and then under the tail of one of the plough team. The ritual was often degraded by various unseemly details and was followed by a mild carousal. The last movement under the horse's tail was to ascertain if the boy was " plough-boy high." In the case of farmers' sons the ceremony was more elaborate. It was performed when the boy was very young and usually in the summer when either the hay or the corn harvest was being carted. The child secured in a sack or bag, was lifted over the back of a horse, and then the bundle was transfixed on the " tines " (prongs) of a pitchfork. The implement with its living load was carried to the side of a stack, passed from man to man on to the loaded cart and so by the " pitchhole," to the top of the stack. The " pitchhole " was a ledge left in the side of a stack as it was built up. A man stood on the ledge and as the stack grew higher, the sheaves were passed up from man to man to the top. The child was given a handful of ears of corn to hold in one hand and an onion (or possibly some other " root ") in the other. He was then carried round the stack and some doggerel verses repeated. Of these latter no record can be obtained. This ceremony made the boy a " free farmer," and one of the last recorded cases occurred about sixty years ago on an Essex farm. Even then the rite was archaic and its revival in full form was intended as a special compliment to the eldest son of a well-liked and popular employer. It should be remembered that in some of the Eastern Counties the owner or occupier of a farm is known as " the master " and usually attends to the financial side of the business. His son, or whoever helps him in the actual arrangement, is known as " the farmer " if he is of the social standing of the family. Other.

Initiation Ceremonies in the Eastern Counties 41
wise he is the " steward," the " foreman " or the " bailiff " according to the nomenclature of the county or district in which the farm is situated. Of surviving customs derived from initiation rituals into manhood, there are the very pleasant ones of "blooding " the young sportsman or sportswoman in the field. The best known and most commonly practised were the hunting and shooting ones. Both were in general use until recent years, and are still occasionally carried out. The custom of " blooding a boy " or girl on the first occasion of their being "in " at the death of a fox is well known to countrymen and countrywomen, and the writer saw the ceremony just before the war of 1914. The girl's face was smeared with blood from the fox's brush which was afterwards presented to her, and she will probably never know so proud a moment as when she appeared in the field and, later on, at dinner, with the blood marks on her face. Girls were blooded up to the age of sixteen or seventeen, but boys were considered ineligible at about fourteen. In the case of girls the ceremony was accompanied by congratulations and kisses from all present. The equivalent shooting initiation was observed with the first bird killed on the wing in a full day's shoot. The grouse, partridge or pheasant's skull was crushed by the officiating adult between his teeth. (This is still the classical method of killing wounded birds.) The mixture of blood and brains was smeared over the cheeks and across the forehead of the young sportsman, with an appropriate brief oration to the effect that the boy was, from that moment, a " full-blooded " game shot. Feathers from the bird's wing were worn in the hatband and this was probably the origin of the now vulgarised habit of wearing tufts of feathers from a game bird in " sporting " hats. A similar ceremony also obtained with otter packs and among wild-fowlers with the first goose or duck killed in flight at night.


Notes on Initiation Ceremonies

Up to the middle of the last century ribald ceremonies took place among dairymaids, conferring membership of what would nowadays be called the Guild of Dairymaids. Until this requirement had been complied with, girls were not considered eligible to take a dairymaid's post or to " wear the nosegay " and stand at the hiring fair. There farm servants who had completed their year's engagement carried the distinguishing badge of their occupation, a scythe, a whip, a curry-comb or a milk pail as evidence that they were free and ready to be hired for the usual period of one year. A special decoration often worn by ploughmen was a strip of straw plait very much like a miniature corn maiden. There also appears to be some evidence, although the details are extremely obscure, that local groups of poachers carried out a fairly elaborate ceremonial of admission to their particular band, and the ceremony was probably a serious one and carried out in real earnest. Knowledge of the ways and means for disposing of poached game, of the names of the game receivers and of other friendly groups of poachers really did carry a very great responsibility. It must be remembered that a hundred years ago the punishment for poaching was not merely a fine of a few shillings, but might be imprisonment or even transportation on a second conviction. The subject of rural initiation ceremonies is of great interest and would well repay detailed investigation. Unfortunately rituals have been allowed to lapse, and details of the ceremonies to fade into the obscurity of the past, so that accurate information will in all probability never be obtainable. These brief notes are presented in the hope that folklorists may be sufficiently interested to piece together and to record any information available before the last scanty details of interesting ceremonies are lost. The collection of all existing data may allow us to reconstruct some of the older customs and to make a critical study of them,

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