There is an old saying that 'old customs die hard in Derbyshire'; indeed it would be hard to find another county where so many annual festivals, both spiritual and secular, take place.
The events described in the following pages are an essential part of Whitwell's history although most of them have now, rather sadly, disappeared.
Feast Sunday has long been a tradition in the parish and is celebrated on a Sunday in August, never before the 4th and never after the 10th. For many years Feast Sunday was synonymous with the High Hill service but, alas, this has been allowed to lapse in recent years. The tradition dates back to 1879.
Apparently when Canon Mason became Rector of Whitwell in 1874, he inherited a children's service, which was held on the afternoon of Feast Sunday. This continued for a year or two then, when Feast Day and Feast Sunday coincided, we learn that 'the children of the Sunday School walked round the parish' before the usual service in church. People gathered at various vantage points, the favourite one being the High Hill. Eventually it became the traditional stopping place for singing the ballad-hymn of St Lawrence and listening to the story of their patron saint.
Over the years, music became a part of the tradition with the organ, violins and cornets all providing the accompaniment. In later years the brass bands of Hasland, Shireoaks, Welbeck and Whitwell headed the parade - in some years the parade was long enough to require two bands. Occasionally the music was continued in Mr Walker's vineyard.
Many people will have their own particular memories of Feast Sunday, of visiting preachers, of meeting with friends visiting the village - many will hope for the tradition to be revived.
Rogationtide is celebrated on the Sunday and the following three days preceding Ascension Day. Locally the tradition has lapsed, but for many years the parish priest, choir and people would 'beat the bounds of the parish', visiting a different section each day, to bless the crops.
A local newspaper article for 1923 reads:
'The pious and picturesque ceremony of invoking a blessing on the fields and on those engaged on industrial work, has again been observed this Rogationtide at Worksop, Whitwell and Harthill. The custom has long been revived at Whitwell and this year was deemed of sufficient interest to engage the attention of a well-known agency, which supplies interesting photographs to the Press - in all probability, the pictures will find their way onto the films. This suggests that the observance of Rogationtide appeals to the public sentiment, as being a worthy and a proper proceeding. Indeed, it is as seemly to pray for a blessing on the newly sown fields, as it is to hold a thanksgiving service for the harvest reaped.'
In the old Rogationtide processions, prayers were offered, not only for a blessing on the crops, but for the preservation of the rights and properties of the parish and parishioners. It must be remembered that the first processions were held when serfdom was fast dying, and when most of the villagers were, in a sense, landed men, for nearly all of them had some rights in the soil, either as freeholders or copy-holders. The arrangements for the processions were usually made at the Vestry meeting; the parishioners themselves paid for the banners. The only necessary official was the parish priest.
Plough Monday is the Monday in the first full week after the Feast of Epiphany and marks the return of farm labourers to work in the fields.
Quaintly dressed farm labourers, known as 'Stots', performed their uncouth dances in the village; they consisted of young men and boys.
In earlier years, they dragged a plough as they went from house to house, asking for bread and cheese, and threatening to plough up the ground in front of the door if anyone refused.
Their full number was twelve, they were fantastically dressed and well disguised; one carried an inflated pig's bladder and another was dressed as a woman called the 'Betty'. Anyone who didn't contribute to their collection regretted it.
A 'fastening penny' was given when a farm labourer was hired; this sealed the contract between employer and employee. Single labourers and maids were acquired annually at the hiring fairs held in market towns such as Bolsover, Retford and Newark.
In 1859, the annual wage for local farm labourer William Beech was £16:10s. and the fastening penny was 3s:0d. ~ presumably he was a foreman. Tom Laking received £2:10s. and a fastening penny of one shilling.
For many years before the first seating was installed, rushes were used to carpet the floor of the Parish Church. Once a year, these were swept out and replaced by clean, sweet smelling sheaves of fresh rushes, mown from the marshy meadow by the Dicken Dyke, and left to dry in the sun. Often meadow sweet was mixed with the rushes to give a sweeter fragrance.
Later, when rushes became scarce, hay mown in the Church Field was used as a substitute. One historical record shows that 'there was a singular custom in Whitwell, of strewing the church with new hay on Midsummer Sunday and the following two Sundays. The hay was provided from the Home Farm, which was then discharged from the tithe of all kinds of fodder.'
Hospital Sunday was an annual event, when a large procession paraded through the village to join with hundreds of people assembled on the Cricket Field. The purpose was to raise money for local hospitals, which were dependent on private subscription in those days.
Worksop Victoria Hospital opened as a cottage hospital on 29th March, 1900 with five beds and staffed with a House Surgeon, two Honorary Surgeons, a Matron and three Probationer Nurses -there were 59 patients during the year, the income was £487:12s:6d. and the expenditure £505:4s:3d.
Thirty years later, 812 patients were treated, the income was £7,326 and expenditure £6,751. A 'penny in the pound' workers' contributory scheme raised £4,300 while the 'Gloops Club' donated a cot to the childrens' wing.
While hospitals are now funded by the National Health Service, contributory schemes are concerned with private health care.
May Day for many years was recognised as a holiday and was often celebrated with school tea-parties. The crowning of the 'May Queen' was a regular feature of the occasion as was the children dancing round the maypole, which at various times was erected on The Green, High Street and in the grounds of the Old Rectory.
THE DERBY TUP
The Derby 'Tup' was an ancient Derbyshire custom observed in Whitwell before and after the Second World War. A group whose chief characters were a Blacksmith with hammer and tongs, a Butcher with knife and apron and someone dressed as the 'Tup' (usually draped with a blanket and using a broom for the head), would tour the inns and institutes before Christmas in their fund-raising efforts.
Each performance consisted of singing one of a number of versions of the Derbyshire Ram; some versions ad as few as six verses, while others had many more. The highlight was always the slaying of the 'Tup'.
One popular introduction starts:
'Here comes me an' ahr owd lass, short o'money an' short o' brass: pay for a pint and let us sup,
Then we'll show yer the Derby 'Tup'.
Well dressing is the most widely-spread custom in Derbyshire. In Whitwell, the present tradition was started in 1972, making this year the 17th anniversary. Four tableaux are erected by the Scout and Guide Group; one in the Square, one on Butt Hill, and two on The Green. One frame is done by the Scouts, one by the Guides, one by the Venture Scouts and one by the Leaders and Committee.
The custom has its origin in the ancient practice of blessing the wells, and calls for a combination of artistic sense and great skill. It is a form of folk art indigenous to Derbyshire, nowhere practised with more skill, which has been handed down through families for centuries.
PIT PONY RACES
Pit pony races were first held in Whitwell in August, 1930 after which they were intended to be an annual event.
The first meeting was in the Church Field around a 'horse-shoe' shaped course. The field was set out with a paddock, enclosure and bookies stands: one old gent was sadly disappointed when his sixpence on a pony at 2-1 was refused. Over 2,000 visitors supported the event, the proceeds being for the joint benefit of the Whitwell Colliery Cricket Club and the British Legion Band.
There were six events including the Pitman's Derby and the Cabin Plate: two of the ponies 'Jack' (Steetley) and 'John Dory'(Shireoaks) were outstanding, while 'Nippon' was the only successful Whitwell pony - his jockey was 'Knocker Thorne.'
An open show of ponies was judged by Mr R. Baxter, H.M. Inspector of Ponies - the awards were: 1st 'Chris' (Manton), 2nd 'Smoker' (Steetley), 3rd 'Nobby' (Shireoaks).
The course judges were: Captain Ward-Jones (Harness Grove), Mrs L. Ward Walters, H.J. Atkinson, C.A. Longbottom, R. Ellis, H.J. Wilson, H. Newhold, D. McIntyre, T. Fullard and Dr Lawson.
Whitwell Whippets, which has catered for the enjoyment of adults and children since 1908, was formed at the Mallet and Chisel Inn. An explanation of how the name was derived, comes from Mrs J.S. Mycock, daughter of Charles Ellis, for many years licensee of the Mallet and Chisel.
She explains how there was little entertainment in the village and how the family were encouraged to bring home their friends. Twice a week they enjoyed dancing and games, and considered themselves a kind of club. Mrs Mycock was the pianist.
One night during a noisy game, her mother came into the room. Bruce Ellis asked, 'Auntie, can we have some shandy?', to which Mrs Ellis replied, 'You do look a lot of whippets; you can only have lemonade.' Somebody said 'Goodie! We will call our club the Whippets'.
Alas the Whippets have now disbanded and the annual Christmas dances for the adults and parties for the children are no longer held.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the children of the village used to be taken, in wagonettes, on outings to Edwinstowe and Markland Grips. Before and after the Second World War, there used to be a much bigger exodus of holidaymakers on summer Sundays, when the children enjoyed the Club and Welfare outings. As many as three excursion trains or more than twenty coach loads of members from each club would travel to Cleethorpes, Mablethorpe or Skegness. Their day of fun making by the seaside was in marked contrast to the subdued mood of those left behind.
THE NAKED BOYS OF DERBYSHIRE
Miss May Lowe quotes from the writings of one of her ancestors, a Mr Forrest:
'I was riding from Chesterfield to Worksop one winter's day in the year 1755, and upon entering the township of Staveley, I was surprised by the great crowds gathering in the highways and lanes. I was informed that the Naked Boys were about to race a distance of three miles. I was astounded to hear of this, as the earth was encrusted with thin ice and the northerly wind cut to the marrow. However, learning it was the custom, and determined to see the race, I dismounted.
The excitement had been intense, and when I heard a similar race was to be run at Whitwell the following day, I made haste to arrive at the village, which I did in good time and laid overnight at the George Inn, where the race was to start on the morrow. The crowds were even greater than on the previous day. People came from as far a field as Sheffield, Derby, Mansfield, Chesterfield and Worksop. I was told the village of Whitwell has a population of some 700 souls, but here was another thousand added to the total.
Six boys were taking part today, and when I learned the same lad was running here, who had won on the previous day, I made an unsuccessful attempt to place a bet on him winning again. It was plain to see he was expected to win again and no betting man would place on any other boy. I heard his name was Flaxey Rotherham, a native of Whitwell. It had been freezing overnight, but no one paid the slightest attention to the freezing weather. At length, the contestants came into line, and a finer set of lads I had never before beheld. Their nakedness did not seem to embarrass in any way the many womenfolk, who were almost as numerous as the men; in fact they cheered as heartily as any of us.
Flaxey went on to win the race, six strides ahead of his nearest rival and was paraded shoulder-high round the village. After this came a feed at the George Inn.'
Research showed that Flaxey's real name was John Rotherham and was nicknamed 'Flaxey' because his father cultivated flax in certain meadows somewhere between Whitwell and Creswell (near the Crags). His father owned a 'Round Flax Mill' at Whitwell, where he and his entire family, about 20 in all, wove the flax into linen. It was then bleached on the high hills surrounding the village and sent to Nottingham market.
The race died out because of its vulgarity: the clergy had denounced it, as early as the 15th century, and this may well have been the last race to be run.
As stated in an earlier chapter, the Poor Law was the only legal relief of the poor, but for many years charitable bequests were a traditional way of helping the needy. Some of those instituted were:
- A Mr Edward England (Southfield Farm), who died in 1695 and left £1200, the interest of which should be divided equally at Christmas and Whitsuntide among those children belonging to a family of five or more, who were pestered with consumption.
- Mistress Ann Drew (well-known for her herbal remedies) died in l708 and left £2,800 to ensure that every poor woman over the age of 70 was provided with a flannel petticoat, a warm woollen shawl and a silver florin, annually.
- Mr George Porter, harness maker and tanner left £1200 in 1721 to be divided among poor women confined to bed by childbirth, any time during the twelve days of Christmas - to each a silver crown.
- Mr Peter Fox, a brewer of Fox House in 1732, left £1000 to ensure that every man and woman, aged over 70, received a silver florin at Christmas and a silver shilling at Whitsuntide.
- In 1745, Mr Joseph Bright, a miller, who lived at the pump house in the Square, left £800 to provide a Christmas dinner and a silver sixpence for all old people over the age of 70.
Thomas Pilkington in 1756 left £1500 to provide a shilling a year for every child in the village, aged under 10 years, and to provide them with a proper Christmas dinner.
- The Gisborn Trust, bequeathed to Staveley and Whitwell, provided flannel for poor ladies.
Apart from football, cricket and use of recreation ground equipment, most of the traditional games have fallen out of favour. The popularity of television, transistor radios and more freely available pocket money are the major reasons for the decline.
While space does not permit a detailed description of all the pastimes, which were once a traditional part of 'childhood' life in the first half of the 20th century, the following list though by no means exhaustive, will evoke some happy memories:
One or two of the pastimes were somewhat roguish, but the culprits, when caught, suffered little more than some firm chastisement.
The stories under this heading may appear to some to be bizarre and too far-fetched but perhaps we should not discount them altogether.
We know of people in the village who have experienced a 'presence' in their homes and have been sufficiently disturbed to seek an exorcism; such events were personal to those concerned and are not recorded here.
Nevertheless we should not dismiss the possible psychic and supranormal explanations that may attach to these events. At least someone, somewhere, experienced something unusual, which they felt a need to retell.
THE MANOR HOUSE
An account of the Old Manor House by Mr Tilley, an early 19th century writer, tells of:
'a chamber which, when discovered, had neither window nor door, and was simply (incidentally) found from the insufferable noise of birds congregating on the roof and utilising an apartment unknown to the occupants. When entrance was effected, there was found within a lady's slipper and a gentleman's sword. On the steps, which lead to the cellars are dark marks, which no cleansing has obliterated; those marks, they say, are those of blood, and life blood too, of Dorothy's third son, when his servitors were seeking to hide him after a disastrous fight of the Royalists with the Roundheads on Whitwell Common'.
The Manor House is probably the most fruitful source of ghost stories. Some people, for instance, believe that the marks on the cellar steps (if they ever existed) were drops of blood spilled by Sir Roger Manners 'killed in the Civil Wars'- but, as Sir Roger died on 16th July 1632, fourteen years before the Civil War skirmishes, this story cannot be true.
One lady who lived at the Manor spoke of a ghost there but said that it never bothered anyone. The first time she reluctantly mentioned the ghost to her daughter, the girl replied, 'Oh yes, I have known of our visitor for some time. He comes through that door into my bedroom, but he doesn't bother me!'
The ghost is alleged to be a glow that fades, and is reputed to have woken one person who slept like a log.
Several people are reported to have felt someone near, but they all agree he looked so kindly that he never frightened anyone.
Sir Roger was not the only nocturnal visitor. In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, part of the old manor was used as billets and one night a section of the Cheshire Yeomanry arrived. They were mostly Merchant Taylor boys. During the night one of them could not sleep, and taking a quiet stroll, he saw a glow in the old banqueting hall -
'It was set out for a feast. Rushes were on the floor with dogs also lying there. The long trestle table was weighted with good food, but the amazed and somewhat frightened soldier dashed back to his colleagues to waken them and tell what he had seen. Some of them, through bleary eyes, caught a glimpse of the spiritual repast before it faded into a glow and disappeared'.
While these stories are regarded as legend, one true story concerns the Rev. John de Barley, Rector of Whitwell in 1385. He was slain inside the Parish Church by a member of the De Rye family, Lord of the Manor at that time.
A Ghost Passenger
Mrs Sternberg, wife of a former Rector, told the following story:
'The last service bus left Whitwell Square one Saturday night in winter and travelled up High Street towards Chesterfield. The rain was pouring down as a lone traveller requested the bus to stop by the Parish Church. A man boarded the bus and as he ascended to the top deck, the driver was intrigued that he had no overcoat and his suit was still dry despite the wet weather. When the conductress went to collect his fare, she couldn't see her new passenger and when she inquired of others on the bus, they confied that he had gone right to the back.
She never found the passenger and the shock kept her off work for a long time'.
One of her sons confirmed this to be a true story and added:
'Returning home late one Saturday night, in bright moonlight l was placing my motorcycle at the rear of the Rectory when I saw my mother leaning out of the window - I spoke to her but there was no reply; I inquired if she was alright but there was still no answer. I immediately dashed upstairs and found her fast asleep'.
Rather amazingly one of her daughters added still more:
'I entered mother’s bedroom and she had her back to me, sat at the dressing table, brushing her hair - I returned to the kitchen, moments later and mother was in there working.'
GREMLINS AT WHITWELL COLLIERY
A more recent 'happening' concerns Whitwell Colliery, known as the Whitwell Phenomenon or more locally as the 'Gremlins', it occurred between November 1969 and November 1974.
Despite visits from senior engineers, managers, directors and maintenance men, no explanation could be found for what was happening. All that could be said was that the conveyors did keep stopping for no apparent reason. One observer noticed that a typical visit from the 'Gremlins' always took place on the day shift, beginning at 6.45 am. First the high tension conveyor would stop, then the trunk conveyors, so that all had to be restarted on manual control, when the stopping sequence would be repeated, requiring an 'emergency run' procedure to be devised.
Another puzzling aspect of the 'Gremlins' behaviour was how they always departed around 12.45pm, probably for lunch. They were definitely 'in the band' because they never came on the afternoon or night shifts. A thankful electrical engineer was able to announce in November, 1974 that they had just reached the first anniversary of the 'Gremlins' departure.