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Pan-demonium

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 11, 2014

By Gail Middleton

  • Hundreds of players could be involved in the old Shrove Tuesday matches

  • The traditional pancake races apparently originated in the village of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Legend has it that a housewife was so busy making her pancakes she forgot about the customary church service. When she heard the 11 o'clock bells, she dashed off to the church, pancake-filled frying pan in hand.

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HOPE you all enjoyed trouble-free pancakes on Tuesday. Sadly, in our house, everyone takes cover as pancake tossing has never been one of my strong points.

I've had them land on the ceiling, worktop, and on one occasion, the dog!

But, I don't give up.

In days gone by, Shrove Tuesday was a day when you had to watch your step - and caggy handed pancake cooks like me would have been given very short shrift.

In Medieval times, Shrove Tuesday wasn't just about pancakes.

In the Christian calendar, Shrovetide was the period immediately before Ash Wednesday, when people went to church to be shriven of sin.

It was also a last chance to indulge and let your hair down, before the 40 days of abstinence known as Lent.

Before the Reformation of the English Church, Lent was when you abstained from almost everything that made life pleasurable – rich food and drink, fun and games and sex.

No wonder mischief and mayhem was the order of the day on Shrove Tuesday, just as Carnival is in Latin countries.

At mid morning, church bells rang out to summon you to confession.

Afterwards, all hell would break loose, workers, apprentices and school kids demanding the traditional half-day holiday.

Over time the day lost much of its religious meaning, the 11 o'clock church bells alerting folk to get beating the batter and frying pans at the ready.

In many parts of the Black Country, people had their own Pancake Day rhymes to accompany the bell ringing. In Wolverhampton people sang:

Pancakes and fritters say the bells of St. Peter's;

Let them fast who will, we'll have our fill.

Presumably, to the tune of the old song, Oranges and lemons ...

Wednesbury folk said:

The pancake swells say the Wedgebury bells

And, in Willenhall, the message was:

You can he we miles, say the bells of St. Giles;

The frying pan's on and the pancake's done.

Pan on.

With general indulgence in mind, even servants were allowed a lie in and a pancake brought to them.

But woe betide anyone lying in too late after the bells. Such offenders could find a pancake stuck to their front door, or worse!

In his book, The Folklore of the Black Country (Logaston Press, 2007), Roy Palmer quotes from Wednesbury historian G.T. Lawley's recollections of this odd Pancake Day custom. The events in Lawley's memoir occurred during the mid Victorian era, when he was 12:

"I remember seeing this curious custom put into practice in the year 1857.

"The pancake was carried on a plate by a middle aged woman ... accompanied by all the ladies of the locality, who, as was their wont, castigated the unfortunate "lie-abed" with a cataract of offensive epithets, being encouraged to "keep it up" by a bodyguard of vagabond boys with tin cans, kettles and old pieces of iron, which they beat unmercifully with sticks ... on which occasion a riot nearly ensued through some of the "lie-abed's" acquaintances taking her part; during which hubbub the precious pancake disappeared."

As with many old holiday customs, there was a very thin line between harmless fun and out and out mayhem.

If school children were denied their half day holiday, they took matters into their own hands.

Turning to the time-honoured tradition of "Barring", the pupils turfed their teachers out and staged a sit-in.

On their way to and from school, it was common to hear Black Country kids chanting:

Pancake Day is a very happy day. If they don't give us a holiday we'll all play away.

Reminiscent of school chants I recall from the early 1960s when we were breaking up for the holidays. On those days we'd go around mob handed, shouting:

We break up, we break down, we don't care if the school falls down.

No more English, no more French, no more sitting on the old school bench ...

It was enough to give parents and other adults in the vicinity a breakdown, too.

But it was mostly harmless fun and everyone expected us to run wild a little.

You never hear school kids doing that now. Maybe we're all too rule-bound these days.

In G.T. Lawley's day, people knew that some holidays, including Shrove Tuesday, were classed as "mischief" days - when a certain amount of unruly behaviour was tolerated, and even condoned.

Generally, customs like "Barring" were good natured. But, there were times when things got out of hand and teachers were injured.

Pancakes aside, the main legacy of our ancient Shrovetide customs survived in seasonal sports and games.

In earlier, more bloodthirsty days, cockerels were on the receiving end, with cock fighting and cock throwing on the agenda.

Less bloodthirsty were the traditional pancake races, the custom, apparently originating in the village of Olney, Buckinghamshire.

Legend has it that a housewife was so busy making her pancakes she forgot about the customary church service.

When she heard the 11 o'clock bells, she dashed off to the church, pancake-filled frying pan in hand.

The famous Olney pancake race survives to this day – no doubt still involving a fair amount of tactical "manoeuvring" by competitors.

Much more dangerous and unruly were the tactics employed in traditional Shrovetide football matches.

In one form or another football has been played in England since at least the 12th century.

Although the word "play" implies a more sedate activity than the real thing!

If you think modern behaviour, on and off the pitch leaves a lot to be desired, at least our modern game is confined to a proper pitch!

And, players and spectators don't normally get killed!

In earlier times, hundreds of players could be involved in these Shrove Tuesday matches.

It was literally a free for all, totally unhindered by any rules.

Games were often held in the middle of towns and villages, with shopkeepers barring up their businesses, and bystanders fleeing to safety.

Fatalities occurred frequently and there were constant campaigns to suppress the sport.

Rules and regulations didn't appear until 1863 when certain clubs formed the Football Association or FA.

Several Shrove Tuesday matches survive today, notably at Asbourne in Derbyshire and Atherstone in North Warwickshire.

The Ashbourne game has been known as the Royal Shrovetide Football Match – ever since King Edward VII got a bit too close to the action, incurring a bloody nose.

It's a two-day marathon, players continuing the match on Ash Wednesday.

The Atherstone game is known simply as "The Ball Game".

But, don't let that fool you! It's a free for all, played with a type of medicine ball.

Anyone can take part – if they are mad enough! It's literally a massive brawl with a ball.

The only rule being that the ball can't be taken outside the town.

Apart from that, anything goes, the winner is whoever has the ball at 5pm.

You'll have to wait until next year, now, if you'd like to experience the mayhem. But, at least you'll know what to expect!

What are your memories of Shrove Tuesday? Did you ever take part in the games on Pancake Day? Email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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