Glossop Heritage Trust

Th’ Owd Wakes.

The article on which this page is based was written by Joseph Dempsey Doyle. It was originally published in the programme for Glossop's Great Hospital Carnival and Well Dressing Festival in September 1928.

Looking backward down a vista of a hundred years is not an easy matter. We live in an age of rush, hurry and bustle; an age of wonderful machinery, of marvellous transport, to which we are so accustomed that the wonders of travel through the air and under the sea leave us unmoved. Yet none of these things existed a hundred years ago.

What we ought to remember is that in the relatively short space of a hundred years the conditions of ordinary workaday life have almost unbelievably altered. To-day “th’ Owd Wakes” means to the present generation little more than a great fair of roundabouts on the Market Ground with, in these later years, the entertainment of a Carnival to add to the excitement. What did it mean just over a hundred years ago? There was then no factory holiday of a week; there were indeed no factories. What we call Glossop, and what the older folk term “Bridge End”, did not exist; this part of the town represents the growth of Glossop consequent upon the installation and development of factories in the early days of the cotton industry. Glossop just over a hundred years ago meant Old Glossop. The whole social life of the village centred round their then tumble-down little church; the Local Authority was the Church Vestry; the Chairman was the Vicar, and just as in Old Glossop all the old buildings seem in perfect mediaeval fashion to radiate from the Church, so would radiate the influence of the parson.

There were no factories and consequently no buzzers! Men worked on the Glossop estate, then owned by the Norfolk family; as land workers for tenant and freehold farmers, as carters and horsemen and so forth, but the principal industry would even then be textile. It was, however, a cottage industry; the looms were fixed up in the cottages of the working classes, sometimes in the living rooms, and it it safe to assert that every house of three storeys in Glossop that is over a hundred years old, in its early days housed hand looms in its top storey.

There were no Education Acts in those days, no compulsory attendance at school for children. There was indeed a school at Old Glossop as long ago as 1650, but this was for those who could afford school fees and the children of hand loom weavers could not, so all the family down to the youngest toddler had somehow to assist the weavers, and the men folk trudged to Stockport market with the result of their work, to seek fresh orders and to bring back groceries in a “bundil handkitcher”, and the principal grocery of those days was oatmeal for porridge. How general was the trade of hand loom weaving plied in Old Glossop may be gathered from the following entry in the Churchwardens’ accounts:- “April, 1768. Given for hire of apre of looms for James Beeley, 2/6”.

They worked hard for little pay; they lived hard, drank hard and probably swore hard! Their drink was ale, home brewed from malt and hops. It was the national drink for old and young, male and female alike, and every outdoor labourer received daily an allowance of ale in addition to his meagre wages. As their lives were hard so were their sports and pastimes. They knew no holidays save holy-days, they were bound by law to attend Church, and the principal festival was the celebration of the Saint to whom the Parish Church was dedicated. And this became the Wakes. They did not pack their traps and go to Blackpool - there were no railways! If they went out of the town, they must go either on foot, horseback or by stage coach, and the two latter were out of the reach of working folk, so they stayed at home and had a jollification - such a jollification, such a feasting and time of unrestrained merriment and good fellowship as is undreamt of to-day. Indeed Farey, who visited Glossop in 1817, declares in his Survey that the hospitality and good fellowship of the Wakes tended “to keep alive feelings and principles which otherwise the Poor Law might utterly extinguish”. There were also no Public Health Acts, no restrictions on keeping animals within a certain distance of dwelling houses, and so everyone with the least bit of land kept pigs and goats, and pigs were fattened for the Wakes feasting. Relatives and friends trooped in from surrounding villages over the hills. The housewife made an extra large brewing of ale, and a specially large baking of bread and “wood cake” or “saddle laps” and “backstun cakes” or “flannel”, huge jars of red cabbage and onions were put into pickle, and high festival was held as long as supplies lasted. Every house that had meat or drink dispensed the most open hospitality, and in readiness for the event every house was whitewashed throughout and every downstairs floor stoned and sanded. Working folk had no carpet squares then!

Glossop Parish Church before 1831
The "tumble-down little church" - Glossop Parish Church before 1831

The amusements were many and varied, and the principal was the procession of Morris Dancers and the Rush Cart. This was a solid four square pyramid of rushes; they were bundled in sheaves, stacked upon the cart and the four sides cut true and square, the whole being festooned and garlanded with flowers. On the top there usually rode some well known local character, who as each public house was reached - and there were a large number in these days open all day without restriction - let down by means of a rope, a pannikin so that he should not miss his share of “lowance”. The procession was always preceded by one or more men cracking long two handed whips to clear the way for the dancers, a performance that required both great strength and great dexterity. At the Church gate the dancers were met by the Vicar and Churchwardens and the ringers excelled themselves in ringing joyous peals of welcome. The Rush Cart was stripped of its burden as the men and maidens in festive attire strewed the fragrant rushes on the flagged floor of the Church to keep warmer the feet of worshippers during the severe snowy winters that then were so common, the old rushes having been cleared out of the Church in midsummer. In the accounts of John Robinson, of Jumble, clothier, and Thomas Garlick, of Dinting, husbandman, Churchwardens, there appears this interesting item, viz.: “1795. To cash given to Rush Cart people, 4s. 6d”.
And we can easily guess how the cash was spent.

With the unloading of the Rushes and the dispersal of the Morris Dancers, the Wakes may be said to have begun. One of the most popular of the events was the foot-racing for both men and women, these usually starting at the gathering place in Old Glossop - the Cross. The route was from the Cross, Manor Park Road, Rose Green, Mill Town, Howard Town, Ellison Street, Norfolk Street, Smithy Bar, Town End, through the churchyard back to the Cross. Climbing a pole, plentifully smeared with soft soap, and catching the greasy pig were both popular events, and there were trail hunts, and what was then a very popular sport of men in Old Glossop, Quoits matches For all these events the prizes were usually provided by the Vicar and the wealthier inhabitants; they usually took the shape of useful kitchen utensils made of coveted brass, copper or pewter, such as kettles, beer warmers, warming pans, candle snuffers, candlesticks, sugar scissors, and so forth, and they were hung around the Rush Cart as it paraded the village.

Trail hunting has for a long time been a popular Wakes sport, and it is clear that there would be no dearth of dogs to enter for the trails, either local, or in competition with notorious “trailing” places not very far away. There was an added inducement to the men of Old Glossop to keep hunting dogs, for the Churchwardens set a price upon the heads of all foxes captured, entries in the Churchwardens accounts like the following frequently occurring:
“Nov. 14th, 1788. To a foxes head George Bradshaw, 1s”. The wages of a labourer were then 1s 6d. per day; we can guess which would be the more attractive - hunting a fox for 1s, or working a day - of 12 hours for 1s 6d. And with such a price on the heads of foxes, there would not be wanting dogs to hunt them, and consequently, a lot of dogs for the “trails”.

But there were lustier sports than these There were bull baiting, bear baiting, badger baiting, and cock fighting, and when occasion offered, there was the wildly exciting entertainment provided by seeing a villager “Riding the Stang”, or wearing the Scold's Brank. These games, sports, and marlocks, as well as the Morris Dancing, would be organised from the Inns of Old Glossop, and of these - the oldest I believe in the town - the Bulls Head, is mentioned in the Churchwardens accounts as supplying ale to workmen engaged in the Church over 150 years ago. We have to remember that these Inns were the Clubs, the meeting places for working-men; there were no other places available, and though it would be in these public-house gatherings over their tankards of home-brewed ale that the Wakes festivities, Royal Oak Day Celebrations, and “Mischief Neet” affairs would be talked over, it was said by the late Mr. Robert Hamnett that he had read an account of how one of the Vicars of Old Glossop and his Churchwardens went to buy a bull for the Wakes so that his parishioners could have a good “do”!

There is not, of course, any doubt that bulls, bears, and badgers were baited in Old Glossop. The sport is said to have been introduced into England in the reign of Henry II, and was prohibited in 1835, and human nature being what it is, it is fairly safe to assume that the sport would last longer than 1835 in Old Glossop! In all probability, in those days there would be a large space in front of the Bulls Head, and if the road were excavated, the old Bull Ring would be discovered as was the case at Eyam a few years ago. The latter is now preserved.

Bull baiting was a hideously cruel sport, but it attracted crowds of men, women, and children, from whom collections were made, either towards the cost of the bull or for prizes for the owners of the dogs that baited the animal.

We must not, however, be too critical of the folks who, 120 years ago, indulged in this sport. They were hard days. Medical science as we know it did not then exist; it has developed as rapidly as the industrial system, and people then had to stoically suffer pain, to grin and abide, as was said, because there were no known remedies other than the herbs of the field, and if a limb had to be amputated, the patient had to suffer the pain, because there were no anaesthetics. Hence people who themselves had to suffer pain, would not scruple to inflict pain upon an animal!

The bull was chained or roped to a ring either leaded into a large stone, fixed flush with the surface of the ground, or secured to a stout oaken stake, the chain or rope being sufficiently long to allow the animal to describe a fairly large circle. When it was thus tethered, its nostrils were heavily soused with pepper, and this infuriated the bull to a state of great ferocity. Prior to this, each of the horns of the bull was tipped with a ball. Bull-dogs were then turned loose one at a time for a given period to savage the tethered beast. What the dog endeavoured to do was to seize the bull by the nose; if it succeeded the bull was pinned to the ground, the weight of the dog, and the pain inflicted by the biting teeth preventing the bull from rising. The dog that pinned the bull down longest and avoided being tossed, was adjudged the winner. If mutilated, the bull was slaughtered and sold. At times a particularly powerful and ferocious animal would break its bonds, and then the bull did the baiting! The man in charge of the baiting was termed the “Bullart” or “Bullard”, obviously a corruption of “Bull Ward”. We can imagine the scene. The crowd of onlookers all agog with excitement, the dogs darting between the legs of the bull, barking, yelping, snapping at his hind quarters; the bull at bay bellowing, snorting, pawing the ground, making wild rushes at the dog in an endeavour to toss it. Little boys with their age-old curiosity squeezing between the grown-ups to the front, little girls clinging to their mothers’ skirts, and above all the pandemonium of the cries of the spectators, the exhortations of the owners and backers of the dogs and the retaliatory shouts of the backers of the bull. What a scene it would be.

When bears were baited, the procedure was different. These animals were owned by men who travelled with them from village to village. In this case the bear was muzzled, secured to a stake, and the men who desired their dogs to have a “go” at the bear, had to pay the bear-master a fee for each attempt. In this case, what the dog had to avoid was being hugged by the bear, which would have been fatal for the dog!

Badger baiting was an immensely popular sport, because badgers could be trapped in the wilds, and it was consequently less expensive than either bull or bear baiting. The badger was confined in a long box so narrow that the baiting dog could not turn round. What the dog had to do was to seize the badger by the snout and drag it out of the box by a straight backward pull. Now a badger can be very savage, and what made it a more suitable subject for this kind of sport was the strength it possessed in its hind quarters, which made the task of the dog, even if it managed to seize the animal, not an easy one. Each dog had three tries.

No word of commendation can be written of these cruel blood sports. They were the sports of all classes of society; a bear and bull baiting garden in Southwark, it is recorded, was visited by Queen Elizabeth, whilst a bear baiting in Buxton in 1810, was so cruel that it was strongly condemned.

As we to-day see it, people were needlessly cruel to animals, but they were also cruel to their own kind. “Riding the Stang” was a great sport - for those who were not riding! It would obviously have to be secretly organized, and the hapless victim would be unaware of his or her fate until the actual moment of their seizure and discomfiture. It was a punishment publicly administered principally to adulterous women and wife-beating husbands. The victim was seized and very securely strapped to the centre of a short ladder. It was then hoisted and one man at each end pushing their heads between two staves of the ladder, it rested on their shoulders, and the procession set out around the village. The “Stang” and its rider were accompanied by a crowd of men, women, and boys, blowing whistles and beating tin cans, and the ringleader, having composed a doggerel rhyme about the victim, recited this en route. This particularly cruel sport was practised at times other than the Wakes, and ranks with the use of the “Scold's Brank’’ as a savage form of punishment. In this latter case, an iron bridle was fastened about the face of a woman known to be a “scold”. Protruding inward was an iron tongue with a downward bend, and this being placed, in the mouth, pressing downward on the tongue to prevent her scolding, the woman was led by a baiter through the streets whilst the “Jazz Band” of tin cans and whistles discoursed “sweet music,” and her misdeeds were recited. Visitors to Congleton may see a “Scold’s Brank” in the Town Hall of that place.

These were some of the sports of the “good old days”, and we may be glad that they have passed, never to return. If the 18th century could have possessed the more enlightened outlook of the 20th century, such affairs would have been no more possible than they are to-day, and we have to remember that if these things seem to us revolting and brutal, they were then in keeping with the spirit of the times. These people, our forefathers, were unlettered, but they carried on in their own way the traditions of their race. For us, “the schoolmaster has been abroad” since 1870, and in his wake has followed such a tide of invention and discovery, such an increase in the standard of comfort and decency of the whole nation, such a capacity to take our pleasures in an enlightened and rational and humane way, that even our fathers in their wildest dreams would not have considered possible. And so the world wags. Every age has its problems and pleasures.

No account of the Wakes festivities would be complete without a reference to the very ancient spectacle of well-dressing. Wells have been dressed from time immemorial in various parts of the country and at various seasons of the year, but in the older parts of Glossop, Whitfield, and Old Glossop, the wells always appear to have been dressed at the Wakes. It is not, inherently, a mere spectacle; it has a deeper significance. We have to go back to the years before public water supplies were ever dreamt of, when people were dependent for the water necessary for their continued existence, upon that which welled up out of the earth in springs. As we know, men collected this in wells for their greater convenience, and every drop was carefully used, for it had to be carried by hand. Wells have always been protected by man, and no one has been regarded with greater aversion than he who sullied or poisoned the well. But in those far away days, nothing that men could do ensured the continuance of the supply. Drought came; drought followed by dearth, sickness and pestilence. No sanitation, no medical service, literally no hospitals, there have been occasions during the long history of our land when these dread destroyers have swept the countryside, laying low the people, and, consuming them with such distress, that they have filled the churches and chapels and cried aloud to God for mercy. And so men and women dressed the wells at the end of the summer, not as a spectacle, but as a blessing to Almighty God for a continuance of that without which men may not live - water. And the custom has continued, and we hope it may not die!

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Page last updated: 27 April 2018.
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