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SRFN: Miscellany:
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" carol

From 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.

Engraving: Christmas day morning carol by children in Yorkshire. Chambers Book of Days, 1879. Vol. II p. 750 "Well-a-day! well-a-day!
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,
Well-a-day! well-a-day."

"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 Bough

From Lucy E. Broadwood and J. A. Fuller Maitland, English County Songs, 1893, pp. 14 - 15.

The Wassail Bough: staff notation and link to midi file: click to play

Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves of green;
Here we come a-wandering, so fairly to be seen.
Our jolly wassail, our jolly wassail,
Love and joy come to you, and to our wassail bough;
Pray God bless you, and send you a happy New Year.
A New Year, a New Year,
Pray God bless you, and send you a happy New Year
.

We are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours' children, whom you have seen before.

I have a little purse, it is made of leather skin;
I want a little sixpence, to line it well within.

Bring us out the table, and spread it all with cloth;
Bring us out the bread and cheese, and a bit of your Christmas loaf.

God bless the master of the house, and the mistress too;
Also the little children, which round the table grew.

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 Dragon

From 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 Mummers' Song: staff notation and link to midi file: click to play

Come all ye jolly mummers
That mum in Christmas time,
Come join with us in chorus;
Come join with us in rime.
And a mumming we will go, we'll go,
And a mumming we will go,
With a white cockade all in our hats
We'll go to the gallant show
.

It's of St. George's valour
So loudly let us sing;
An honour to his country
And a credit to his king.
And a mumming we will go, we'll go,
And a mumming we will go,
We'll face all sorts of weather,
Both rain, cold, wet, and snow
.

It's of the King of Egypt
That came to seek his son;
It's of the King of Egypt
That made his sword so wan (sic).
And a mumming, &c.

It's of the black Morocco dog
That fought the fiery battle;
It's of the black Morocco dog
That made his word to rattle.
And a mumming we will go, we'll go,
And a mumming we will go,
With a white cockade all in our hats
We'll go to the gallant show
."

Engraving: Mummers: St George and the Dragon. Chambers Book of Days, 1879. Vol. II Addy printed no tune for the song, but the form is very recognisably that of the popular Nut(ting) Girl (Roud 509). A-Hunting we will go was sung to that tune, and it was also used for a number of topical and political pieces during the 19th century, the best known perhaps being With Henry Hunt We'll Go from the time of the Peterloo Massacre, itself based on With Wellington We'll Go. A form of it was also known in Ireland as The Jolly Ploughman, which Percy French used for his song The Lowback'd Car.
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 Horse

From 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:—

The Poor Old Horse: staff notation and link to midi file: click to play

We've got a poor old horse,
And he's standing at your door,
And if you'll only let him in
He'll please you all, I'm sure.
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.


He once was a young horse,
And, in his youthful prime,
My master used to ride on him,
And thought him very fine.
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

But now that he's grown old,
And nature doth decay,
My master frowns upon him,
And these words I've heard him say—
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

His feeding was once
Of the best of corn and hay
That grew down in yon fields,
Or in the meadows gay.
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

But now that he's grown old,
And scarcely can he crawl,
He's forced to eat the coarsest grass
That grows against the wall.
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

He's old and he's cold,
And is both dull and slow;
He's eaten all my hay,
And he's spoilèd all my straw.
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

Nor either is he fit to ride,
Nor draw with any team;
So take him and whip him,
He'll now my master's...
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

To the huntsman he shall go,
Both his old hide and foe, (sic)
Likewise his tender carcase,
The hounds will not refuse.
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

His body that so swiftly
Has travelled many miles,
Over hedges, over ditches,
Over five-barred gates and stiles.
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

(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:—

The man that shod this horse, sir,
That was no use at all,
He likened to worry the blacksmith,
His hammer and nails and all.
Chorus— Poor old horse, poor old horse.

"These lines are sung to an interesting tune, and with great noise and histrionic display. Young women pretend to be frightened at the way in which the horse opens his wide jaws, and the awful manner in which he clashes them together. There is a poem in Reliquiæ Antiquæ, ii. 280, entitled 'Lyarde,' which begins thus:
Lyarde es ane olde horse, and may noght wele drawe,
He salle be put into the parke holyne for to gnawe."
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:

Poor Old Horse.


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