Holy spirit: Steve Roud's book 'The English Year'

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Sat May 23 12:57:29 BST 2015

Steve Roud, in his excellent book The English 
Year, notes that in 1949 more than 12,000 
children turned up for the 143rd annual Whit walk 
in Manchester, accompanied by marching tunes from 
40 bands. This is an example of a new-blossoming 
custom that seemed immemorial.


Monday would have been a holiday, had it not been 
abolished in 1971, for it is Whit Monday. The 
holiday was moved to the end of May, and this 
year, innocently enough, to June 4, to make the 
bridge with the extra day for the Jubilee.

  There was no call to abolish Whit Monday, 
simply because it was a movable feast. We still 
manage Good Friday and Easter Monday without 
losing our sense of time and whatever work ethic 
we had. There was just a feeling in 1971 that to 
allot holidays by the Christian calendar was 
wicked. That was how people thought in the 
Seventies, just as they thought it depraved to 
have 12 pence in a shilling or to entertain feelings of fondness for Rutland.

  It is said that the name Whit Sunday comes from 
the white clothes that those who had been 
baptised at Easter wore. But did neophytes wear 
white on this day? Whatever the case, Pentecost 
is as old a name in English as Whit Sunday, being 
used by the Anglo-Saxons hundreds of years before 
even Thomas Malory told his tales of King Arthur 
and the wonder that dependably came along on 
Pentecost day as the knights sat at their round table.

  Not much survives by way of Whitsun customs. 
Even the brave people of Coopers Hill in 
Gloucestershire, who chase cheeses, pursued by 
insurance claims advisers and officials from 
Health and Safety, have transferred their activities to the bank holiday.

  In Lancashire there are still Whit walks. 
Again, these have been transferred to the bank 
holiday of June 4. They certainly did involve 
children dressed in white (like three-year-old 
Diane Pugh, pictured, with her dog Judy in 
Manchester in 1957), for in their modern form 
they grew out of the phenomenally popular Sunday 
school movement promoted by Robert Raikes in the 
late 18th century. By 1830, more than a million 
children were attending Sunday school.

  Steve Roud, in his excellent book The English 
Year, notes that in 1949 more than 12,000 
children turned up for the 143rd annual Whit walk 
in Manchester, accompanied by marching tunes from 
40 bands. This is an example of a new-blossoming 
custom that seemed immemorial. The older custom 
for Whitsun was the church ale.

  A church ale was a parish social gathering. Ale 
was consumed and so was food. They even managed 
to raise money towards the upkeep of the church. 
Eamon Duffy, in his fascinating new book, Saints, 
Sacrilege and Sedition (Bloomsbury, £20), gives 
details of how young people raised money at Salle and Cawston in Norfolk.

  They belonged to clubs called maiden-lights and 
plough-lights. The lights referred to the candles 
that they funded in the church, in devotion to 
God and his saints. By transference, 
plough-lights came to mean the association for 
young men, maiden-lights for young women. The 
latter raised money at dances, and the young men, 
on Plough Monday (after Epiphany, not Whitsun) 
would drag a plough around the district, raising 
money from householders on threat of ploughing up 
the ground outside their doors.

  This seems not to have antagonised the 
householders unduly, for several left money in 
their wills towards the plough-lights. On the 
bellringers’ gallery at Cawston church a beam is 
carved with a joky inscription: “God spede the 
plow and send us all corn enow / Our purpose for 
to make at crow of cock of the plowlete of Sygate 
[a place nearby]. / Be merry and glad / Wat 
Goodale this work made.” Wat Goodale was no 
beneficent testator but the beer at the church ale that raised their funds.

  It was not to last. The Church of England has 
its own canon law, and in 1604 Canon 88 
stipulated that “the Churchwardens shall suffer 
no Playes, Feasts, Banquets, Suppers, 
Church-ales, Drinkings to bee kept in the Church, 
Chapell, or Churchyard.” Some struggled on 
elsewhere until the 18th century, but the 
Victorians preferred weaker fare for fundraisers.
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"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."


"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic 
poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung

Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered 
that shall not be revealed; and nothing hid that 
shall not be made known. What I tell you in 
darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye 
hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27

Die Pride and Envie; Flesh, take the poor's advice.
Covetousnesse be gon: Come, Truth and Love arise.
Patience take the Crown; throw Anger out of dores:
Cast out Hypocrisie and Lust, which follows whores:
Then England sit in rest; Thy sorrows will have end;
Thy Sons will live in peace, and each will be a friend.
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