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Customs & Superstitions of Old Wirral

by Gavin Chappell

Games and Celebrations

 

After harvest came the cake play. In those days, after reaping, people went gleaning – picking up the grain that had been left behind by the reapers. This grain was milled and the resulting flour was baked into cakes by the wife of “some respectable labouring man.” The cake play went on at a private house, never the local alehouse. The details of the game are not known, but the participants each paid a nominal fee and the winner received the cakes.

 

More is know about the prison bar play. This took place in open air and during the day, usually at open land that existed then at Meols, or Leasowe, or on Liscard Moor. Teams came from the local townships and played against each other as local cricket clubs of football clubs do today, for a prize which was usually half a barrel of ale, shared by both the winning side and the losers. During the game, one team stood in a ring, which was surrounded by the other team. They would go round in circles, and one by one, members of each team would pursue someone from the other, with the intention of “ticking” them. It is not clear from the records how the game was won.

 

Other amusements available include the horse races in the Big Croft, a field in Upton. Oxton also hosted races, but these were foot races or donkey races. Caldy had a Maypole. “Shows” were also popular, and these seem to have included clowns, since one is known to have featured a “Mountebag,” or mountebank. Indoors, there was “sewing,” although precisely what this was is unknown. Raffles were also popular. Outdoors there was cock-fighting, and a cockpit is still to be seen on Bidston Hill, and bull-baiting. “Murryneet” or Merry Night, was popular; this was a meeting where each of the guests contributed a sum for the benefit of the person putting on the entertainment.

Another popular game at harvest time was neck-cutting, which despite the gruesome name was something very similar to Harvest Home or Winning The Churn in other areas. The last few stalks of grain in a field were plaited into a band of three stands, and the reapers threw their sickles at it; the winner was the one who finally cut it down. Not surprisingly, there were frequent accidents, and it grew rare as a result.

 

As in many places, Shrove Tuesday was kept as a carnival, a farewell to meat. On the following day (Ash Wednesday), the fasting populace ate “furmenty”, or frumenty, which consisted of shelled wheat boiled in new milk with sugar and spice. It was popular at all Wirral festivities. Easter itself was celebrated with eggs, and a popular custom was pace-egging, examples of which will be mentioned later.

 

 

Churches

 

Various superstitions and customs were linked with local churches. For instance, it was believed that the spirit of the last person buried in the graveyard remained at the lych-gate and ushered new arrivals to their grave. The belief sometimes resulted in fights when more than one burial happened on a day, each side wanting to bury its dead first so it would be conveyed to the grave by the ghost. It was also seen as a bad omen for a bride and groom to pass through the lychgates.

 

It was held to be particularly unlucky for a burial to take place on the north side of a church. This came from a belief that the northern part was for the burial of unbaptized children, excommunicated people, and suicides. It was also where the bodies of strangers drowned during shipwrecks were buried, something that was seen as the duty of anyone who found a body on the shore; should they fail in this duty, the ghost of the drowned person would haunt them. At St Bridget’s in West Kirby, a special bier was kept for the purpose at the church, and the road to the shore was nicknamed “Corpse Alley,” since it was the way the bier went. Drowned corpses were a common occurrence on the shore, sometimes due to the nefarious activities of the wreckers.

 

Another belief relating to funerals was that anywhere a coffin had been carried automatically became a right-of-way, a notion that was exploited unsuccessfully by the customs men on one occasion, who tried to have a coffin taken through Mother Redcap’s so they could gain easy access to the notorious smugglers’ tavern.

 

Despite these gloomy customs and superstitions, churchyards were also the venue for games, dances and fairs. Cock-fighting, single stick and wrestling matches went on after Evensong. Another custom was the Church Ale, where the churchwardens brewed a “considerable quantity” of strong ale, which was sold in order to raise funds for the church building.

 

Another custom was rush-bearing. Rushes were used widely as a floor-covering before carpets became widely available, and the rushes for the church were carried in decorated harvest-wagons, drawn by the village’s best horses. The wagons were covered with flowers and ribbons, with the rushes stacked in them as high as possible, kept in place by “harvest gearing,” rails made of wood that were hidden by coloured paper cut into decorated patterns, just as the ropes that kept the rushes in place were covered in flowers.

 

 

Customs of Birkenhead

In nineteenth century Birkenhead, on Easter Monday, children would gather in the Park carrying baskets of coloured eggs. The child who had the biggest and most colourful won a prize, and then the children played a game with the eggs, rolling them down the grassy mounds near Ashville Road, known locally as The Bonks. Wickets were placed at the foot of the mounds, and the object of the game was to roll the eggs through the wickets without breaking them. The two best players were given prizes. Afterwards some of the children performed an Easter Egg Dance. The Bonks, which may have been prehistoric burial mounds, were later declared to be an eyesore by the town council and they had them demolished.

 

In the 1840s May Day was celebrated with a carnival, during which a procession went from Abbey Street, down from Chester Street, up Hamilton Street and to a green field, later Hinson Street, where the Maypole was erected and a collection was taken. The procession was made up of men dressed as women, wearing bright chintz dresses, including a male May Queen, sometimes bearded! When the procession reached the field, women joined the group and together they danced around the Maypole. Later, the parade consisted of lorries containing tableaux, bands, and dancers, with the fire engine at the back. This came to an end with the First World War, although, according to Norman ‘Nomad’ Ellison, as late as the fifties a “pathetic relic” could be seen in the poorer areas of Birkenhead, where children escorted a May Queen and asked for pennies, which Nomad regarded as a degeneration into “shameless cadging.”

 

At Christmas, the Mummers play was performed in Oxton and Claughton by mummers known as the Golloshons.

 

 

Customs of West Kirby

West Kirby was noted for its ghosts; one in the narrowest part of the lane between West Kirby and Caldy, while Mrs Glegg’s ghost was said to walk abroad at night on the Mount (the part of Caldy Hill near Kirby Mount). The most feared ghost was “he who walked in Highfield Lane… nobody was bold enough to encounter him when darkness set in…”

 

A popular belief among nineteenth century schoolboys, attending the grammar school, was that it was of vital importance to spit upon a rock known as the Cat’s Face. During Lent, the boys had to attend a service at St Bridget’s, but if only they were present the service was brief and there was no sermon. If adults attended, however, the service was as long as usual and a sermon was included. Spitting on the Cat’s face would ensure that adults stayed away, including “certain Miss Browns” who frequently attended church services. Should they appear, the boys knew that one of them had failed to make the traditional offering.

 

 

Customs of Greasby and Frankby

On Easter Monday, while the children of Birkenhead were rolling eggs down the Bonks, in Greasby and Frankby it was customary to go round the farms for eggs, chanting:

 

“Please, Mrs Whiteleg,

Be pleased to give us an Easter egg.

If you won’t give us an Easter egg

Your hens will lay all addled eggs

And your cocks lay all stones.

One for Peter, two for Paul,

And three for the One who made us all.

 

Frankby also had a Mummers’ Play at Christmas, and the mummers went round to kitchens, inn parlours and the houses of the gentry until 1937. The play went as follows:

 

Characters

 

Little Wit – Red pants and tails, top hat and big bow-tie

King George – old red military tunic, blue pants with red stripe down side; wooden sword, helmet

Bold Slasher – khaki uniform with wooden sword, helmet

Doctor Brown – tails, top hat, large portmanteau full of bottles etc

Beelzebub – old man with beard and hump on back: old hat: carrying dripping-tin. Long tail of plaited straw stiffened with a wire.

All have blackened faces.

-

Enter LITTLE WIT

 

In comes I that’s never been yet

With my big head and little wit.

Although my wit is very small,

I’ll do my best to please you all.

Stir up that fire and give us a light

For in this house there’ll be a fight.

If you don’t believe in what I say

Step in King George and clear the way.

 

Enter KING GEORGE

 

In comes I King George, the noble champion bold.

It was me that fought the fiery dragon and won £10, 000 in gold.

It was me that followed the fair lady to the giant’s gate.

The giant he almost struck me dead.

I drew my broad and trusty sword

And nearly cut off his head.

 

BOLD SLASHER shouts from outside.

Ha! Ha!! and enters.

 

The valiant soldier, Bold Slasher, is my name,

If I was to draw my broad and trusty sword, I’d surely win their game.

 

KG How canst thou win the game

When my head is made of iron;

My body’s made o steel;

My hands and feet are

Made of knuckle-bone?

I’ll challenge thee to fight.

 

BS Put out thy purse and pay.

 

KG Pull out thy sword and slay,

Or else we’ll have a recompense

Before we go away.

 

BS Right.

Both start to fight. KG stabs BS, who falls.

 

LITTLE WIT (shouts) Doctor! Doctor!

 

DOCTOR BROWN (shouts from outside) No doctor to be found.

 

LW Ten pounds for a doctor.

 

DOCTOR BROWN enters:

In comes I, Doctor Brown,

The best doctor in the town.

 

LW How came you to be a doctor?

 

DB By my travels.

 

LW Where did you travel?

 

DB Hickity, Dickity, France and Spain,

Back to Old England to cure the man that lives in the lane.

 

LW How much will you cure this man for?’

 

DB Ten pounds.

 

LW No less?

 

DB (feeling BD pulse) Nine,

And a bottle of wine.

 

LW Cure him.

 

Doctor opens portmanteau, takes out several bottles and mixes a concoction:

 

Now, Jack, open thy throttle,

Take three drops from this bottle.

Rise up, Bold Slasher, and fight a battle.

 

BS rises up and starts to fight KG.

 

LW Put up thy swords and be at rest,

For peace and quietness is the best.

 

BEELZEBUB enters:

 

In comes I, old Beelzebub,

On my back I carry a knob,

Under my arm I’ve a dripping pan.

I think myself a jolly old man.

I court the lassies plenty.

One by one and two by two;

But there’s none to come up to my fancy.

I’ve a little tin under my arm.

A copper or two will do it no harm;

A shilling or two will do it some good,

Please, ladies and gentlemen, put something in good.

 

 

Customs of Thurstaston

In the late 1890s, Easter was celebrated, as it was elsewhere, with “pace-egging.” A team of five went from house to house, four of them dressed as the characters mentioned in the verses they sand. They included a boy in female clothes as they lady, and old Tosspot dressed as a tramp. The verses went as follows:

 

1.Here come five hearty lads all of one mind.

We’ve come a-paste-egging if you will prove kind:

If you will prove kind and never will fail,

We’ll treat our young lassies to the best of X ale.

Fol di-diddle dol-di-day.

 

2.The next that steps in is Lord Nelson, you see,

With a bunch of blue ribands tied on to his knee;

With a star on his breast live silver doth show,

And he comes a-paste-egging with his jolly crew.

Fol di-diddle…

 

3 The next that steps in is the jolly Jack-tar

Who sailed with Lord Nelson during the war,

And has now come ashore Old England to view

And has come a-paste-egging with a juvenile crew.

Fol di-diddle…

 

4 The next that steps in is a Lady so gay

Who from her own country has run far away,

With red cap and feathers that look very fine,

And all her delight is in drinking red wine.

Fol di-diddle…

 

5 The next that comes in is old Tosspot, you see,

He’s a valiant old fellow in every degree,

He’s a valiant old fellow and wears a pig-tail

And all his delight is in drinking mulled ale.

Fol di-diddle…

 

6 The Master and the Mistress that sit by the fire

Put your hand in your pocket, that’s all we desire.

Put your hand in your pocket and pull out your purse.

And give us a trifle, you’ll ne’er be the worse.

Fol di-diddle…

 

7 Some eggs and fat bacon we’ll never deny,

For the eggs we can suck while the bacon doth fry.

Now all ye young lassies mind what you’re about

If you give naught we’ll take nought, so we’ll bid you good night.

Fol did-diddle…

 

 

Customs of Neston

Nineteenth century Neston had its own version of pace-egging which was known as Riding the Lord. On Easter Monday morning, a local “hardcase” was paid to ride a donkey from the top of High Street to Chester Lane, while the crowd jeered at him and pelted him with rotten eggs and rubbish. Cock fighting was also popular at this time, and brawling usually ensued in the town.

 

Another Easter custom was “lifting,” which took place on Easter Monday and Tuesday, with men lifting women on the first day, and women lifting men the next. The lifters would go from house to house and, unless given money, they would place the offending person in a chair, or the crossed hands of the lifters, and threw them upwards several times.

 

 

Customs of Heswall

Lifting also went on in Heswall. The lifters would meet in what was then the village square, at the White Lion Inn on the corner of Wallrake, now White Lodge, a private house. They would choose themselves a leader, place him on horseback and parade him round the village. The lifting itself was identical to that in Neston.

 

On Shrove Tuesday, schools had a half day holiday, referred to in the popular rhyme:

 

Pon-cake deay is a very 'appy deay'.

If you don't give us 'all-deays we'll aw run away.

 

As they left the school, they received oranges, provided by a shop in the village. Then they would play a game where they had to hit an object with sticks, the winner of the game being rewarded with gingerbread.

 

In Heswall, May 29th, what was elsewhere known as Oak Apple Day (celebrating the Restoration of the Stuart monarchs), was Nettling Day. Any child who did not wear a spring of oak was thrashed with nettles by other children.

 

 

Gayton Wake

In earlier days, ‘wakes’ were not connected with funerals but were festivals, usually held once a year. Gayton’s wake was so famous that in 1804 it was the subject of a long poem by a Welsh poet, Richard Llwyd, Gayton Wake, or Mary Dod, which describes a very fat women who sold cakes in Chester, and her visit to the fair.

 

Dancing booths were available, and there were pipers, fiddlers, dwarfs and giants, a “learned pig,” a dancing bear, and a stone eater. It also included races for men, women, ponies and dogs, a jumping match, catching a pig by the tail after it had been shaved of its bristles and soaped; bobbing for apples in ale; eating a quart of hasty pudding; and grinning through a horse collar. In the words of Richard Llwyd:

 

Gayton Wake

 

Villains, yes — our annals prove,

That this was long your name.

Though Scandal’s self, with all her eyes,

Could nothing find to blame.

The Muse now hails your happier days;

Delighted calls you friends;

And pleas’d, from Arvon's, cliff her views.

To you and Gayton bends.

She loves, the joys, of rural life.

The paths by peasants trod,

Partakes unseen their harmless mirth,

And sings of MARY DOD.

Up rose the sun — the sky was clear,-

And gently ebb'd the Dee :

The winds of Heaven were fast asleep,

Though Gayton all was glee.

The lads of Wirral came in crowds,..

The nymphets, neat and trim ;

To stay at home on such a day^

Is very near a sin.

And Love, who never miss'd a wake^

Brought quivers fill'd with darts ;.

He's much to do on all' such days,

And wound;} a world of hearts

And Cambria's youth from Edwin's shores-

An annual voyage take ;

What lass would stay on that side Dee,

When Love's at Gay ton Wake.

Nor ye despise a country wake,

Who crowd the fetes at Frogmore,

Who wheel from Brighton up to town,

And then wheel down to Bognor.

It much behoves you mighty folk,

Would hurry deign you leisure.

To think that life, your constant wake,

Be pass'd in harmless pleasure.

Youth, manhood, age, even childhood came;

To share this jocund day ;

The hedges shone with gaudy shops.

And Gayton ail was gay.

Dwarfs, giants, players, learned pig,

With other creatures odd ;

The Dee brought cargoes rich with cakes.

And with them Mary Dod...