Winslow old customs (1902)

Northampton Mercury, 4 April 1902

There are few towns in the Midlands, or perhaps in the country at large, where old customs are more kept up than in Winslow. Only a few years ago “Jack-in-the-Green” with his attendant sweeps, used regularly to put in an appearance on May Day.  Pancake Day is religiously observed as regularly as Shrove Tuesday comes around, the “Pan” bell sounds out at noon. On Palm Sunday the amount of figs consumed is, I am informed by grocers, quite remarkable and out of all proportion to the size of the place – in fact, the demand sometimes exceeds the supply, so that a fig cannot be purchased in the town. Another thing remarkable is the different bells which are rung on week days – in the morning there is the breakfast bell, at one o’clock the dinner bell and at eight o’clock at night the Curfew bell, so that the sexton, who bye the bye is over 80 years of age, has plenty of work to do. There is a tradition, and probably a well-founded one, that at one time there was a charity left to pay the sexton for his trouble, but, like some of the other Winslow charities, it has been lost. The tradition is that many years ago some man got lost in the woods, which at that time were so [extensive] between Winslow and Stony Stratford, and wandered about not knowing where he was until the sound of the Winslow Curfew reached his ear and so pointed out the direction for him to go. In gratitude, it is said, for this he left a sum of money to pay the bell-ringer a yearly salary. The custom of eating “hot-cross” buns on Good Friday is observed by almost everyone.


Notes by Ed Grimsdale

Jack in the Green was a participant in traditional May Day parades dating back many hundreds of years and beyond that to the “Green Man” of legends. The Jack in the Green wore a large, foliage-covered wooden framework, usually pyramidal or conical in shape which, in extreme cases, would envelope his body from head to foot. It’s unclear how Jack in the Green became associated with child chimney sweeps. In many parts of the country, Jack in the Green & his sweeps, who usually stirred up bawdy, noisy trouble, got banished as prim Victorians opted for crowning a sweet May Queen, but North Bucks, and, in particular, Winslow clung like ivy to Jack to its old customs.

Pan bells were common across the Shrove Tuesday “triangle” of  Buckingham, Olney & Winslow.

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter and is still celebrated in the palm crosses that are distributed in churches to commemorate Christ's entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. There was an oral myth that after entering Jerusalem, he feasted on figs, thus eating figs and sweets made from figs such as “figgy pudding” on Palm Sunday was a habit across England, and this custom lingered long in Winslow. In Wales the day is called Sul y Blodau or Flowering Sunday – showing a different association with the flowering of the fig tree. 

“The Curfew tolls the Knell of Parting Day”

Both Buckingham and Winslow retained a Curfew bell system long after other towns had abandoned it, despite protestations from new arrivals in North Bucks who found the morning bell particularly annoying. To ring or not to ring was the question, but the answer rested in the hands of the parish priest. 

“Morning dawned clear as a bell, but Peter wasn't awake in time to take note of its matutinal blushes.”
Charlotte MacLeod,  Something in the Water

Of course, the morning or matutinal bell should not be called a Curfew bell for that would be a misnomer, but Buckingham folk, unlike their Winslow brethren, did not discriminate. The morning bell was a relic of Catholic times when an “Angelus” bell would sound in the morning (for breakfast), another at noon (for dinner i.e. lunch) and a true Curfew bell in the evening – the latter both a time for bed and also the time to put out the hearth fire that had been started in the morning. The word Curfew comes from old French couvre-feu or cover fire, and the bell is thought to have been instituted by William the Conqueror to inhibit loss of property from untended fires. The Curfew would be sounded at sunset in the Summer but at 8pm or 9pm in winter (October-March), whereas the matutinal bell would announce “rise & shine” at 6am.  There are still older folk in North Bucks who observe an  “early to bed and early to rise” routine. They are following a tradition dating back to Norman times that expressed its hope through the following lines:

To rise at five, to dine at nine,
To sup at five, to bed at nine,
Makes a man live to ninety and nine.

The ancient woodland in which the man got disoriented was Whaddon Chase, a park and a hunting forest from Norman times. The forest contained 480 deer and 6,600 trees in 1608. It survived, but in vestigial form, thanks to the neglect of the Duke of Buckingham, until enclosure in 1840.

The one custom that has survived is the eating of hot cross buns. Whilst consumption has risen remarkably, the availability of the buns for many weeks before Good Friday in supermarkets has undermined their religious significance and the sense of occasion. Inflation has killed the street vendor's call:

Hot cross buns, Hot cross buns, 
One a penny, two a penny, 
Hot cross buns.

The sexton referred to in the Northampton Mercury was Edward Abbott of Sheep Street, aged 82 at the time.


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Copyright 30 July, 2015