Luck-visiting in the Old South Riding
South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire have long been known for their tradition of Village Carols. Here we have some material relating to the sister tradition of the luck-visit, in which parties toured the district with carols, wassail songs or mummers' plays during the Christmas - New Year period; generally with a view to collecting money or, at a pinch, food.
Luck-visiting in the Old South Riding
A Yorkshire "Gooding" carolFrom Chambers' Book of Days, 1879. Vol. II pp. 749 - 750.
"The next carol, which we proceed to quote, is of a very different character, being one of those doggerel rhymes sung by children, when they go on a gooding excursion on Christmas-morning. An explanation of the term in italics has already been given in our notice of St Thomas's Day, to which such expeditions are more strictly appropriate. The carol, as subjoined, is sung on Christmas-morning by children in Yorkshire, who bear along with them, on the occasion, a Christmas-tree as a badge of their mission. The scene is also pictorially delineated on the following page.
Christmas too soon goes away,
Then your gooding we do pray,
For the good time will not stay —
We are not beggars from door to door,
But neighbours' children known before,
So gooding pray,
We cannot stay,
But must away,
For the Christmas will not stay,
"Christmas carols are sung on Christmas Eve as well as on the morning of Christmas-day, and indeed the former is regarded by many as the more appropriate occasion. Then the choristers, attached to the village-church, make their rounds to the principal houses throughout the parish, and sing some of these simple and touching hymns. The airs to which they are sung are frequently no less plaintive and melodious than the words, and are often accompanied by instruments."
The Wassail BoughFrom Lucy E. Broadwood and J. A. Fuller Maitland, English County Songs, 1893, pp. 14 - 15.
Words and tune were provided by H. M. Bower, Esq. "This song is sung about Anston, in South Yorkshire, and about Galphay, near Ripon. The children carry green boughs, and wave them over their heads, asking for a New Year's gift. The version given is that sung at Anston." Number 209 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
St George and the DragonFrom Sidney Oldall Addy, A Glossary of Words used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield, Part I, 1888, p. 153.
"In the villages about Sheffield a play called St. George and the Dragon is acted at Christmas by mummers. They have rude swords, made apparently by the rudest of village blacksmiths, and they are dressed in all sorts of bright colours and ribbons. The play which they act is contained in a little chap-book printed at Otley in Yorkshire, the title of it being 'The Peace Egg'. In this neighbourhood the following verses, which do not appear in the printed chap-book, are always sung at the end of the play:—
The tune here is adapted from a fragment of Henry Hunt that Frank Kidson got from a Mr James B. Shaw of Cornbrook, Manchester (Traditional Tunes, 1891, 163); but of course it's only a guess at what might have been; we don't know how it was really sung in Sheffield.
A number of broadside editions of the Nut Girl can be seen at Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads:
The Nut Girl.
The Otley chapbook text can be seen at the Traditional Drama Research Group:
W.Walker's Peace Egg Chapbook (between 1840 and 1877)
There is also a chapbook text published in Sheffield by J. Pearce & Son, between 1837 and 1849:
The Mummers' Act; or, Morris Dancers' Annual Play of St. George
The Poor Old HorseFrom Sidney Oldall Addy, A Glossary of Words used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield, Part I, 1888, pp. 163-4.
"At Christmas mummers bring with them a representation of a horse. It has a wooden head, the mouth being opened by strings from the inside. The mummers sing the following lines:—
(Here the horse falls down apparently dead.)"Then follows a prose conversation amongst the mummers, which is not worth preserving, because it has been modernized so as to have lost all its interest. The end of it is that the horse gets a new lease of life and attempts to worry a blacksmith who is called upon to shoe him. The play is ended by the following stanza:—
Lyarde es ane olde horse, and may noght wele drawe,Again, the tune was not quoted. Although Addy refers here to a wooden head, it seems more usual to have used the skull of a small horse or pony, painted black and with bottle-ends inserted for eyes. Various decorations were attached and its operator was partly concealed by a blanket. The practice persisted locally until fairly recently; in 1970, Ruaridh and Malvina Greig discovered it still being performed around Dore on New Year's Day, at two private houses and at two pubs, the Devonshire Arms and the Hare and Hounds. The singers, Billy Palmer and Chris Ralphs, and the horse (Reg —) were from Dronfield, and had in the past been part of a much larger group. A full account appears in Lore and Language I (1973) 7-10, and the song is in The South Riding Song Book. We have set Addy's text to that tune here, though there is no guarantee that the melody he heard was anything like it.
The custom was formerly to be found in a band stretching from North Yorkshire down through Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Cheshire into Wales. It belongs in the main to the Christmas/New Year period, though in the Antrobus (Cheshire) area it became attached to the Hallowe'en Soul-Caking custom. Rival bands of soulers would frequently ambush each other and fight for possession of the horse, and there seems at one time to have been a number of captured heads buried around the district.
A text sung at Richmond, Yorkshire, was published in Robert Bell's Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England (1857), and can be seen at:
The Mummers' Song; Or, the Poor Old Horse
Accounts of the custom in the Gower area, and several texts, can be seen at the Celfyddydau Mari Arts site:
Gower animal head customs.
The Welsh Mari Lwyd also uses a mast-horse made with a skull, but the associated customs are rather different, and conducted in the Welsh language. Other hobby-horse customs, such as the Hooden Horse in Kent, use wooden heads and lack the song and implied death-and-resurrection motif, and are probably best considered as quite separate.
The song was printed quite widely on broadsides, and has as a result been found in tradition in areas where there is no evidence of the horse himself. It is number 513 in the Roud Folk Song Index. Examples can be seen as The Old Horse, Poor Old Horse and Lamentation of an Old Horse, at Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads:
Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved. Built for South Riding Folk Network by Malcolm Douglas.