Today, the practice of mumming or guising is primarily confined to Halloween. However, in earlier centuries it was much more widespread. Writing in 1901, the Elland historian Lucy Hamerton recalled that on New Year’s Eve in her youth “unless we kept our doors locked, our houses were invaded by troops of mummers, who, dressed in various odd costumes and armed with brushes, came to ‘sweep the old year out'”.
Folklorist Bob Pegg records this as a popular tradition in the South Pennines during the 18th and 19th Century. and although Ms. Hamerton does not mention the fact, it is probable that the “sweepers” would demand a few pennies for their trouble once the custom had been enacted. Despite its ritual character, such behaviour was essentially a legitimised form of begging, rather like mummers plays such as the Pace Egg.
Mummers or guisers would’ve been a common site in northern Britain during the 18th and 19th Century at religious festivals, when it was considered acceptable for the poor to solicit alms from their wealthier neighbours. Their outlandish dress and coal-blackened faces were adopted as a disguise, designed to have a liberating effect and permit the wearer to behave in ways which in other circumstances would’ve been frowned upon.
However, such traditions were still regarded as a nuisance by the richer families, as is clear from Hamerton’s quote. Their sinister appearance led to them being regarded with fear by the children of such families and as the daughter of a wealthy physician with a grand house on Westgate, Hamerton would certainly have fallen into this category in her childhood during the 1820s and 1830s.
Meanwhile, a more benign popular tradition in Elland in the 1830s would see youths gathering on public holidays at The Cross in the centre of the town and pair off to stand side by side in as long a double line as could be formed by the numbers participating. Each couple would stand approximately five yards apart, holding a brightly coloured handkerchief or other piece of cloth between them.
At the signal, they would raise their arms so the handkerchiefs were held aloft forming a colourful arch and at a further signal, the rearmost couple would run hand-in-hand down the centre of the two rows beneath the garlands. When they reached the front, they would adopt a new position in the line and the whole process would start again from the back.
It thus formed a sort of running procession, with the outer ranks apparently stationary and a flurry of activity going on at its core. The practice was to travel all the way around the central streets of Elland up Ainley Road and finally return to the starting place at The Cross. The tradition is known as “garland dancing” and was popular in many Pennine mill towns during the Industrial Revolution.
Local mill owners encouraged the dance for the morale and health of their workers, and the event apparently attracted a large number of spectators who would cheer the parade on. It was clearly a very popular display and a writer in the Halifax Guardian in the early 20th Century recalled seeing “the colourful silk handkerchiefs, the girls’ comely forms and vigorous frames” with unsurprising fondness.