Kentish History Scrapbook
PUBLISHED: 09:28 28 November 2015 | UPDATED: 09:28 28 November 2015
From plum puddings to the very first Christmas card, Kent Life's history sleuth has been uncovering tales of December's past.
The Plum Pudding Riots
The taste of Christmas pudding, like Marmite, divides families and that’s before the discussion about whether it should be served with brandy butter, cream, custard or even all three.
Yet regardless of tastes, Christmas puddings, or plum puddings as they were known, have been part of seasonal festivities for centuries and indeed in 1647 their lack of availability caused a riot in Canterbury.
At this point of the Civil War, the Roundheads were in charge of the Government. Their Puritan beliefs were severe and the merriment surrounding the Christmas period was regarded as sinful, ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.’
Discussing your plans for the festive season was therefore not something you should do in public, especially if you lived under the austere eye of William Bridge, the Puritan Mayor of Canterbury.
Kent’s own support for the Puritan government was strongly divided, with many remaining loyal to Charles I and thus placing themselves in the Royalist camp.
When William Bridge proclaimed, by order of Parliament, that Christmas Day and all other superstitious festivals ‘are utterly abolished,’ he was asking for trouble. He even added that as Christmas Day was falling on a Saturday, the usual Saturday market was to be held and all shops were to be open.
As for anyone hanging ‘rosemary, holly, or bayes or other superstitious herbs’ at their door or making ‘either plum pottage or nativity pies,’ they would be going against the government as well and would be punished. Celebrational church services were not permitted either and when Mr Aldy, the minister of St Andrews, preached as normal, local Puritans protested loudly and tried to interrupt his services. In other parts of the city, Royalists were trying to intimidate any shopkeeper who had dared open by damaging their wares while, at the same time, the Mayor and his followers were going around demanding they remain open.
It was mayhem and having physically assaulted one shopkeeper, the Mayor found himself pushed into the gutter. By nightfall the Royalists had barricaded three of the city’s gates with timber. On Boxing Day the Mayor, not to be outdone, raised a small army and placed a watchman on the gates.
Their leader, a barber named White, took exception to being called a Roundhead and shot one member of the crowd, provoking yet another riot. Mr White was eventually imprisoned but the fighting continued and the Mayor fled as his house was attacked.
The chaos continued for several days until, finally, the Justices of the Peace persuaded the citizens to lay down their arms with the promise that no retribution would be forthcoming.
The Mayor had other plans and brought in 3,000 Roundhead soldiers who imprisoned all the Justices. Some rioters were also imprisoned but when they came to trial, the jury threw out all charges and drew up a petition demanding that the King and Parliament come to an agreement to settle the peace.
Parliament responded with a threat to hang two petitioners from each parish, which led to a Royalist uprising culminating in a battle at Maidstone, where they were defeated in what became known as the ‘Plum Pudding Riots.’ Christmas, and the eating of Christmas puddings, remained banned until the Restoration of King Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’, in May 1660.
The First Christmas Card
How do you feel about writing your Christmas Cards? A chance to sit down and spend a few hours revisiting treasured memories or a time-consuming chore where you face the annual dilemma of whether you should send a card to the couple you met on holiday five years ago but haven’t seen since?
The entire festive season is filled with emotional challenges but we should be grateful that, in 1843, Henry Cole (later Sir Henry Cole, the Founder and First Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum) decided he didn’t have time to write the usual festive letters to all his acquaintances and commissioned, what would become, the first commercial Christmas Card.
Having presented his idea to his friend, the famed painter and Cranbrook Colony Artist, John Calcott Horsley RA, Henry Cole approved a triptych design featuring the Victorian ideal of Christmas, good deeds, good food and time spent with the family. The left and far right-hand side portions of the card portray the charitable acts of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry while the centre panel shows three generations of a family enjoying a delicious spread and toasting the card’s recipient with a glass of wine.
One thousand cards were printed in black and white before being painstakingly hand-coloured by professional ‘colourer’ William Mason. Now, Mr Cole was above all an innovator and a business man and he had the cards published by Felix Summerly’s Home Treasury Office at 12 Old Bond Street in London which he just so happened to own and, not having a need for all of the cards, he decided to sell the surplus copies at one shilling a piece.
A price equivalent to an average weekly wage which ensured they would only be sent by those moving in the highest circles and cards have been discovered across the world.
Not everyone was a fan, however, and the design of the card drew strong criticism from the British Temperance Movement for promoting drunkenness. Which is a little ironic as the artist later acquired the nickname of ‘Clothes Horsley’ for his prudish, public protests against the fashion for painting and using nude models.
Original copies of this first card are now highly sought after and a reproduction is on display at Cranbrook Museum where you can see some of John Horsley’s extremely lifelike domestic paintings and find out more about the Cranbrook Artists’ colony. www.cranbrookmuseum.org
Have you seen the Hooden Horse?
Once upon a time, Father Christmas’ sleigh wasn’t filled with technological gadgets requiring endless batteries and impossible to open plastic wrapped, presents. It was full of wooden toys and hand-made goodies and people had to create their own festive entertainment.
The long, dark winter evenings were filled with storytelling, singing and parlour games and, particularly in East Kent, the Christmas period could bring an unexpected visit from the Hooden Horse.
The hooden horse is a snapping, frisky creature which, according to a description dating from 1825 in Percy Maylam’s The Kent Hooden Horse, is made from ‘the head of a dead horse (although in later years this became a carved wooden head) which is affixed to a pole about four feet in length; a string is tied to the lower jaw; a horsecloth is also attached the whole, under which one of the party gets, and by frequently pulling the string, keeps up a loud snapping noise.’
The party referred to is the accompanying group of entertainers, originally made up of local farm workers, who would take the hooden horse from door to door clapping, singing and generally larking about in the hope of gaining food and drink in return for their jovial efforts.
The custom probably has pagan roots and has similarities to traditional Mummers’ plays. Performances are documented, somewhat sporadically, throughout the 19th and 20th century and the practice is firmly tied to Kent’s rural farming community who, before the use of tractors, relied heavily on horsepower.
The custom’s popularity seems to have waned with agricultural depression and some believe the death of Susanna Crow may also have been partly to blame. Susanna was 21 years-old and heavily pregnant at the time of her death in 1828, or 1839 depending upon which source you read.
Her death was reportedly due to ‘severe contusion from a fall, occasioned by a fit of apopolexy which … seemed to have been accelerated by fright, occasioned through a party from Margate, who paraded Broadstairs on Christmas Eve with music’. Although tragic it has to be said that on this occasion, the ‘animal’ causing the offence was a bear but the incident resulted in offending ‘apprentices’ being warned that they would be prosecuted if any repetition took place and Susanna’s death has been linked to the folklore of hoodening ever since.
Since the 1950s, the custom has been enjoying a revival across the county and it’s thought that at least six pre-war hooden horses have survived. Others, such as the giant 14ft high horse used at the Folkestone International Folklore Festival in 1961, have simply disappeared from sight. Rumours suggest that it was carried around on a shopping trolley and that it still exists somewhere but no one knows for sure.
Instead of providing improvised joviality, Hoodening, Mummers and Morris Dancing Groups now perform pre-scripted plays and tend to use the same main characters which interact with ‘Dobbin’ the hooden horse who, in the Thanet area has also been called Black Beauty, Young Dobbin, Scarlet and Satan.
Dobbin tends to be seen as a ‘poor old horse’ exhausted from the hard labour forced upon him by his boss and he is usually accompanied by a ‘Waggoner’ wearing a top hat, a ‘boy’ or ‘rider’ who tries to mount the horse numerous times without success and, ‘Mollie’, a matronly figure played by a man carrying a broom.
All of these are, of course, accompanied by a musician who ensures that everyone can enjoy some traditional hoodening songs and join in with any carols. As with all local customs, different areas and groups have their own traditions and ways of performing but they all aim to give entertainment and a glimpse into the past. Kent’s Hoodening groups now perform at pre-booked venues and collect money for charity.
That’s not to say that they wouldn’t still welcome the odd festive drink or two for their efforts and you can find out if a group is performing near you by doing a quick google check or visiting these links: www.hoodening.org.uk www.tonbridgefolkclub.org