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Easter mayhem literally swept Black Country people off their feet

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: April 29, 2014

  • Simnel Cake - enjoyed at Easter as well as on Mothering Sunday

  • A rather fetching bonnet - as Eastertide was a traditionally a time to show off new outfits and headgear

  • Wenches "aivin" or "heaving" a chap - a traditional Easter Monday and Tuesday pastime

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OUR Black Country forebears worked hard and played hard. So whenever a holiday came round they made the most of it. And Eastertide was no exception.

Last week I looked at old fashioned Easter DIY and decorating. But once the work was done, fun and games, laced with a touch of mayhem, were part of the Easter festivities.

In the Black Country one of the most popular Easter pursuits was an activity known as "aivin" – or heaving.

It was nothing to do with feeling bilious – although strong drink often went hand in hand with this old custom – but about lifting people right off their feet.

In our region Easter Monday and Tuesday were known as "Aivin Days."

Mentioned in Roy Palmer's book, The Folklore of the Black Country (Logaston Press, 2007), the author says that this phrase was still in use in 1930, recorded in a glossary of old Black Country expressions published that year. The glossary says that "Aivin Day" was the day "when men have the privilege of lifting women ..."

Generally, this "lifting" involved two strong men joining their hands across each other's wrists and forcing their "victim" to sit across their linked arms. The person was lifted up two or three times, sometimes being carried several yards down the street. Once the victim was safely down on terra firma the "aivers" demanded a forfeit of money or "a great slapping kiss."

The practice was very popular in mining and ironworking communities.

On Easter Monday it was usually the men who went on the rampage, with the women trying to stay out of their way.

But it wasn't just the chaps who did all the "aivin."

On Easter Tuesday the wenches took their revenge, as this 1830s account from Wolverhampton relates: "Not bearing in mind the season of the year, we ventured on a short cut to Darlington Street through Townwell Fold. Until half way there were no signs of danger, but once fairly in the net, out pounced a bevy of "Nymphs" ... and one of the most stalwart seized and fairly heaved us off the ground ..."

The chaps were forced to cough up some silver before the "Nymphs" let them go on their way.

Another incident, this time at West Bromwich Heath Tollgate, was recorded in 1850.

Apparently "a band of sturdy viragos actually stretched a rope across the road to stop all vehicles, from which the male passengers had to alight and submit to be blackmailed on the approved Easter Tuesday plan."

"Aivin" was generally good natured, but sometimes got out of hand, with revellers ending up before the magistrate.

Roy Palmer includes another incident from Wolverhampton: "In 1861 two Irishmen in a Wolverhampton public house attempted to heave each other's wife, then became jealous and fought each other with pokers."

Even more unfortunate was Theresa Evans of Hill Top, West Bromwich. At Easter 1893 Theresa "attempted to heave the police officer who found her lying drunk in the middle of the road, in the hope that he would treat her to a quart of beer."

The constable failed to see the funny side and, "unable to pay her fine of 11s 6d," Theresa "was jailed for 14 days."

Occasionally things could get so unruly, many folk stayed indoors or planned their routes very carefully.

Roy Palmer also includes an account from 1901, by Amy Lyons, a well-known Black Country character.

Amy recalled how the chaps who went "aivin" demanded kisses only from their prettier victims, but demanded a shilling from older, less well favoured women.

No wonder the women wreaked their revenge!

Here's Amy's story about how the women took revenge on a chap who was desperate to escape their clutches: "Two fat ode wummen seed un a-cummin, an' tha started tow cotch 'im; he sees 'em, jest i' toime, an jumps oe'r a wall, ne'er lookin where he wor a-goin', and plump he drops intow a barrel o' pig wesh. My! Ow tha wummen did roar; tha laughed fit tow split theer sides! Tha cudna run wi' laughin' when he got out, covered an stinkin' o' pig wesh; an he runs wi' about twenty wummen ater 'im, but that cudna run fast for laughin, soo he got whum safe without gettin' heaved. I guess he ne'er went out agen on a Easter Tuesday..."

So don't say you haven't been warned!

Aside from sweeping folk off their feet, our forebears also enjoyed an "ommock o' caerke" over Easter.

Rich and fruity , with marzipan and saffron, the seasonal Simnel Cake was a Mothering Sunday and Easter treat.

Thrifty cooks would make two, or save some Hot Cross Bun dough for the Simnel Cake's pastry crust.

But making them was quite a palaver, as they had to be boiled and then baked. An early commentator notes: "They are made up very stiff; tied up with a cloth, and boiled for several hours, after which they are brushed over with egg, and then baked ..."

The writer's helping must have brought on indigestion, as he adds: "... the crust is as hard as if made of wood ...which has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have been treated by persons to whom they were sent as presents ... a lady taking hers for a footstool ..."

The cakes date from around the 17th century, and their critics, no doubt, felt they tasted like it!

They were also difficult to make and expensive to buy. Our 19th century commentator complains of "some large ones selling for as much as half a guinea, or even ... a guinea, while smaller ones may be had for half a crown." (Chambers' Book of Days).

You can see from the old engraving above how a large one could pass as a footstool!

It seems people either loved or loathed Simnel Cake. But, rather like Christmas Pudding, Simnel Cake was a fixture on the traditional seasonal menu!

In fact, according to a whimsical explanation for the cake's name, Christmas Pud may have been involved!

The story goes that elderly Shropshire couple, Sim and Nell, wanted to make a cake for the end of Lent.

A very thrifty pair, they decided to use leftover Lenten dough for the case and the hoarded remains of their Christmas Pudding!

So far so good! But when it came to the method, they fell out, big time!

Sim insisted the cake should be boiled while Nell insisted on baking it.

A major domestic ensued, with eggs being thrown, stools flying and brooms coming down on heads. Wisely they reached a compromise. The cake would be boiled first, then baked.

According to legend wooden furniture broken in the scuffle provided the cooking fuel. And, the shattered eggs retrieved to glaze the cake.

The new confection was christened "Simon and Nelly". But, ever since it has been known as "Sim-Nel" – or Simnel Cake.

Most likely, the name comes from the Latin word, "simila", meaning fine flour.

But, it's a good story, all the same.

What are your memories of old Black Country Easter customs? Write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email editor@black countrybugle.co.uk or log on to wwww.blackcountry bugle.co.uk

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