Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Shrove Tuesday - some old Devon customs

A view of Hound Tor, taken last summer.

Shrove Tuesday today. I have a lovely old book called Old Devon Customs by J R W Coxhead, which I think I probably brought in one of the Hay-on-Wye bookshops. I shall try and abridge the comments a little, but they make such fascinating reading – I hope you agree.

Shrove Tuesday was always one of the most popular movable folk festivals of the year in Devon, the name of the festival deriving from the verb to shrive – in Medieval times penitents received absolution before preparing themselves for the forty days of the Lenten fasting.

Many of the customs celebrated in days of yore date back to very early times and were once celebrated all over Devon, accompanied by “considerable mirth, rough practical jokes and feasting during Shrovetide.”

Here is an account of what used to take place in Tavistock in 1833:

“Shrove Tuesday is a noted day in our town, though not so much kept as it used to be many years ago. The farmers considered it a great holiday, and every person who was in their employ feasted on pancakes. The great sport of the day was to assemble round the fire and each person to toss a cake before he had it for his supper. The awkwardness of the tossers, who were compelled to eat their share, even it if fell into the fire itself, afforded great diversion. Lent-crocking is a similar sport, still practised in some of the old houses. Parties of young persons would during Lent go to the most noted farm-houses, and sing in order to obtain a crock (cake), an old song beginning:

“I see by the latch

There is something to catch;

I see by the string

The good dame’s within;

Give a cake, for I’ve none;

At the door goes a stone,

Come give, and I’m gone.” (Sounds like an early form of Trick or Treat!)

If invited in, a cake, a cup of cider, and a health followed; if not invited in, the sport consisted in battering the house door with stones, because not open to hospitality. Then the assailant would run away, be followed and caught and brought back again as prisoner, and have to undergo the punishment of roasting the shoe. This consisted in an old shoe being hung up before the fire, which the culprit was obliged to keep in a constant whirl, roasting himself as well as the shoe, till some damsel took compassion on him and let him go; in this case he was to treat her with a little present at the next fair.

Another Shrovetide custom known as Lent-sherd night or Dappy-door night took place on the Monday evening before Shrove Tuesday.

In the neighbourhood of Bridestowe near Okehampton, in the year 1852, the children were in the habit of going round to different houses in the parish on Lent-sherd night, in twos and threes, chanting the following verse in the hope of being given eggs, flour, butter or money as contributions to a feast on Shrove Tuesday:

“Lent crock, give a pancake,

Or a fritter for my labour,

Or a dish of flour, or a piece of bread,

Or what you please to render.

I see by the latch,

There’s something to catch;

I see by the string,

There’s a good dame within,

Trap, trapping throw,

Give me my mumps* and I’ll be go.”

*The "mumps" referred to in the last line comes from the old Devonshire name for a beggar - a 'mumper' and the alms he managed to get became known as 'mumps'. (Many thanks to Legendary Dartmoor - Mystery & History website for this explanation).

About the year 1886, Lentsherds used to be thrown in many of the villages and hamlets of North Devon. The doors of houses of unpopular folk were battered by a shower of pot-sherds which the children had been collecting over the previous twelve months.

Children would also call at farmhouses, singing the following rhyme:

“Tippee tappee toe, tippee tappee toe,

Gie me zom pancake, and I’ll be go.”

If pancakes were given, all went well, but if not a shower of pot-sherds would be accompanied by the children shrieking:

“Skit scat, skit scat;

Take this and take that.”

In Ilfracombe, Lent was ushered in by the observance of “Dappy-door night”. (Shrove Monday). On this night the more unruly spirits of the town were in the habit of going round ringing door-bells or knocking loudly at doors and then running off swiftly before the summons could be answered. The fury of the inmates of the houses can well be imagined when they opened their doors and found nobody in sight.

A further tantalising prank of these “dappy-doorers” was to tie a long length of strong string to a door handle, knock and the door, and then hide. When one of the inmates of the house opened the door, the string would be given a sudden pull, with the result that the handle of the door would be jerked violently from the grasp of the householder. I might add, that this custom was alive and well in the 1920’s when my dad was a lad growing up in Bovey Tracey. He and his pal would do just this, and then run away. One day they got caught by the village bobby and grabbed by the ears and marched back to their homes for a telling off!!!

There is more I could write, but enough is as good as a feast. Enjoy your pancakes tonight.

1 comment:

Kelli said...

Very interesting customs! Our church used to have a pancake supper. Yum!