Whitsun (also Whitsunday, Whit Sunday or Whit) is the name used for the Christian festival of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples. Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of Whitsuntide, the week following Whitsunday, in his book ‘Dorsetshire Folklore’ published in 1922:-
“Whitsuntide was, no doubt, in the old days a time of some considerable festivity amongst a certain class of Dorset folk; although I cannot find that the old ” Whitsun Ales “(Or ” Ale-feasts “, which, according to Halliwell, were festivals or merry makings at which ale appears to have been the predominant liquor) so common in many counties, had—at least under that name — any prominence in Dorsetshire.
It appears, however, from a sermon made by William Ketlie at Blandford Forum in 1570 that it was the custom at that time for the “Church Ales” to be kept upon the Sabbath-day, which holy day ” the multitude call their revelyng day; which day is spent in bulbeatings, bearebeatings, bowling, dyeing, carding, daunsynges, drunkennes, and whoredom, in so much as men could not keepe their servauntes from lyinge out of theyr owne houses the same Sabbath-day at night “.
This does not afford a very pleasant picture of the way Dorset folk spent their Whitsuntide in Elizabethan times, and affords some evidence of the brutal sports that were practised amongst them at Whitsuntide as well as on Shrove-Tuesday. But whatever may have been the amusements which the Dorset “multitude” indulged in at that time, it is some satisfaction to find that their only survival to-day is that of the parish, or village, club-walking.
Nearly every village has, or, until recently, had its “club”. The old time club was not framed upon the modern provident type, such as those excellent institutions of ” Odd Fellows ” and other associations founded upon the Friendly Societies’ Acts, but ” broke ” every seven years or so, when the funds then standing to its credit were distributed amongst the members. It was customary in the old clubs that when a member died all the others were called upon to pay 2s. 6d., as a contribution for ” death-rate pay “. If it was a member’s wife who died the contribution was only a shilling.
This system, it can easily be seen, was far more favourable to the local tradespeople and shopkeepers than to the members to whom more extended credit was given as the time drew near for the ” breaking “. In most places now I think it will be found that the old club has been replaced by more benevolent institutions, which provide much better terms in case of the sickness or death of their members. In some parishes the old and new societies have amalgamated, though, of course, those members of the old club who were above a certain age would not be able to join one of the modern Odd Fellows’ Societies. They would often, too, join forces for the celebration of the Feast-day. In the parish of Symondsbury, in West Dorset, there has been no “club-walken “, or procession, for some thirty years or more.
There the old club day was the second Tuesday in May; but in most places Whitsun week was the favourite time. The members would don their sashes, rosettes, etc., and with flags and banners and preceded by a band would start about 9 a.m., walking generally four abreast in procession, the outer one of each four— usually an older man—carrying a pole, to call at the principal houses in the parish where they would be likely to obtain refreshments and sometimes money. Cider would be brought out to them in big jugs; and after being refreshed they would move on to some other farmhouse or kindly neighbour, taking care to be back in time for divine service in the parish church at noon.
The poles carried in these processions, generally painted blue with white bands running round them, are often handsomely ornamented with metal tops or points screwed on to a round wooden knob painted yellow, something in the style of the old halberds, and are much prized in the villages to which they belong. I am informed that an elderly lady living in a West Dorset village still keeps a couple of these poles at her house, which were formerly used in the local procession. If I remember rightly, too, the borough officials at Lyme Regis possess quite a number of them ; whilst a very fine collection of Somersetshire ones is preserved in the county museum at Taunton.
The “feast ” was provided in a large tent or marquee erected in a field usually lent by one of the principal farmers in the parish, at which a large company assembled, the rector of the parish usually presiding, with several of the local gentry and farmers in attendance.
The dinner — which was paid for by the members—over, the speeches usual on such an occasion followed, the loyal toasts always being heartily received. The rest of the afternoon was spent in various amusements, games for the children, and dancing for the young people. There were generally a few ” standings ” for the selling of cakes, sweets, and toys, together with an “Aunt Sally” or a shooting gallery rigged up for the occasion. The field was frequented by a large number of visitors, who looked forward to meeting once a year at this pleasant gathering.
I may add that though I have attended these ” feasts ” on more than one occasion I have not noticed anything in the conduct of the people such as is animadverted upon in the Blandford sermon. It is certainly significant of the improvement in rustic morals in this respect that the modern parson only deemed it necessary to warn his hearers against the possible occurrence of some of those very delinquencies which his Elizabethan predecessor roundly accused them of having committed. (Read Barnes’s poem ” Whitsuntide an’ Club walken “).
In his ” Fore-say ” (ante) William Barnes alludes to these festal gatherings, where he says that ” Whitsuntide is now a time commonly chosen for the yearly meeting of the Friendly Societies” club-walken ‘, as it is called in Dorset “, and mentions amongst the ” resources of mirth ” formerly existing at these celebrations ” the mazes or miz-mazes, to be threaded by such as thought they would guide their feet to a more speedy outcoming than they would always find; but the mazes are now levelled and lost with the May queens “. He continues:—
“The village wake, called in Dorset ‘ Feast’ (Festa) belonged mostly to the Christian seasons, as it was mainly holden at or near to the festival of the Saint to whom the village church was dedicated. At some of these feasts, however, there was cudgel-playing ; and I fear it cannot well be said that cudgel-fighting is the most fitting token of joy for the festival of St. Mary or St. John, albeit it be called ‘ play’; but the feast brought to some houses of the parish merry meetings of friends with kindred and friends from elsewhere.”
A fitting conclusion is afforded to this subject by Barnes’s very interesting dialect poem descriptive of what took place on these occasions – probably half a century before I ever saw them – which I here give in full:-
“WHITSUNTIDE AN’ CLUB WALKEN. “
Ees, last Whit-Monday, I an’ Meäery
Got up betimes to mind the deäeiry;
An’ gi’ed the milken pails a scrub,
An’ dress’d, an’ went to zee the club.
Vor up at public-house, by ten
O’clock the pleaece wer vull o’ men,
A-dress’d to goo to church, an’ dine,
An’ walk about the pleaece in line.
Zoo off they started, two an’ two,
Wi’ painted poles an’ knots o’ blue,
An’ girt silk flags,–I wish my box
‘D a-got em all in ceaepes an’ frocks,
A-weaeven wide an’ flappen loud
In playsome winds above the crowd;
While fifes did squeak an’ drums did rumble,
An’ deep beaezzoons did grunt an’ grumble,
An’ all the vo’k in gath’ren crowds
Kick’d up the doust in smeechy clouds,
That slowly rose an’ spread abrode
In streamen air above the road.
An’ then at church there wer sich lots
O’ hats a-hangen up wi’ knots,
An’ poles a-stood so thick as iver,
The rushes stood beside a river.
An’ Mr Goodman gi’ed em warnen
To spend their evenen lik’ their mornen;
An’ not to pray wi’ mornen tongues,
An’ then to zwear wi’ evenen lungs:
Nor vu’st sheaeke hands, to let the wrist
Lift up at last a bruisen vist:
Vor clubs were all a-meäen’d vor friends,
He twold em, an’ vor better ends
Than twiten vo’k an’ picken quarrels,
An’ tipplen cups an’ empten barrels,–
Vor meaeken woone man do another
In need the kindness ov a brother.
An’ after church they went to dine
‘Ithin the long-wall’d room behine
The public-house, where you remember,
We had our dance back last December.
An’ there they meaede sich stunnen clatters
Wi’ knives an’ forks, an’ pleaetes an’ platters;
An’ waiters ran, an’ beer did pass
Vrom tap to jug, vrom jug to glass:
An’ when they took away the dishes,
They drink’d good healths, an’ wish’d good wishes,
To all the girt vo’k o’ the land,
An’ all good things vo’k took in hand;
An’ woone cried _hip, hip, hip!_ an’ hollow’d,
An’ tothers all struck in, an’ vollow’d;
An’ grabb’d their drink wi’ eager clutches,
An’ swigg’d it wi’ sich hearty glutches,
As vo’k, stark mad wi’ pweison stuff,
That thought theirzelves not mad enough.
An’ after that they went all out
In rank ageaen, an’ walk’d about,
An’ gi’ed zome parish vo’k a call;
An’, then went down to Narley Hall
An’ had zome beer, an’ danc’d between
The elem trees upon the green.
An’ down along the road they done
All sorts o’ mad-cap things vor fun;
An’ danc’d, a-poken out their poles,
An’ pushen bwoys down into holes:
An’ Sammy Stubbs come out o’ rank,
An’ kiss’d me up ageaen the bank,
A saucy chap; I ha’nt vor’gied en
Not yet,–in short, I han’t a-zeed en.
Zoo in the dusk ov evenen, zome
Went back to drink, an’ zome went hwome.”