St. Helen’s Well, Stainland

The eastern portion of the hilltop village of Stainland, above Elland, is known as Holywell Green, on account of St. Helen’s Well, a renown healing well the sad remnants of which can be seen beside Station Road. The well stood near a former Catholic chapel also dedicated to St. Helen, which by the 18th Century had been converted into a private dwelling, although a carved cross was still built into its walls.

In 1597, a charity inquiry recorded “St. Ellen Chapel, Stainland” as already “decayed”, suggesting it was probably abandoned during the Reformation earlier that century. The well itself was first recorded in print by Dr. John Watson in his 1775 work “The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax”, in which he also mentions record of a Henry de Sacro Fonte de Staynland (Henry of the Sacred Well of Stainland) living in the area in the 13th Century.

It is likely that the chapel was dedicated for the well, rather than the other way round as St. Helen was a popular patron of holy wells in Britain, and seems to have been imposed on those wells which already had a reputation for sanctity long before the coming of Christianity. The exact traditions of the well have been lost, although Watson records that Catholics were still making pilgrimages to it in the late 18th Century.

The Victorian fashion for spa-waters saw a resurgence in the popularity of the well, when crowds would gather at  such springs on the morning of Spaw Sunday (the first Sunday of May) to “take the waters” for therapeutic purposes. As a result of this revival, a spring beside Station Road was restored in 1843, although a late 19th Century woodcut shows that by that period it had once more been left to fall into ruin.

Today, this well is something of a pitiful prospect. Whilst it was again restored in 1977 and still stands today, the spring itself has long since dried up due to building work in the area lowering the water table. It is now little more than a trough used for flowers, whilst the views it once commanded across the valley have been disfigured by an ugly estate of modern bungalows. A hostelry named Holy Well Inn still stands nearby.

Curiously, however, there is no historical basis for the original holy well at the extant 1843 site, despite the name of this part of the village. Local antiquarian J.A. Heginbottom argues that the original site is more likely to have been just over half a mile away at Helen Hill Farm on Jagger Green Lane in the valley below. Here, there is a stone cistern with three compartments dating from approximately the late 18th Century, still fed by a spring rising nearby.

The Pace Egg Play

Whilst the Pace Egg Play in Calderdale is nowadays confined to the upper stretches of the valley, especially Midgley, Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall, the tradition was recorded in Brighouse, Hipperholme, Elland and Greetland during the 19th Century. The Play, a form of folk drama performed on the streets of such towns by a troupe of local actors annually on Good Friday, is a distinctive version of the Mummers Plays which have been performed across England for centuries during religious festivals, chiefly at Christmas or All Souls Day in many areas. The Pace Egg variant is found primarily in West Yorkshire and Lancashire and is characteristic in occurring at Easter, typically on Good Friday. Indeed, the name “Pace” is a corruption of the Latin word “Paschal” which is a liturgical term for Easter.

The basic structure of the Pace Egg narrative is consistent with mummers plays across the country. The hero, usually portrayed as Saint George, confronts a number of antagonists, represented in the Calder Valley by the Black Prince of Paradine, Hector and the Bold Slasher. George boasts of his prowess in combat but is nonetheless slain or mortally wounded in a duel with the Bold Slasher and subsequently resurrected by the medicine of the Doctor. There are also a number of incidental characters in the drama, including a Fool figure known as in the Calder Valley as Toss Pot, who rejoices when George rises from the dead and generally capers throughout the play. Following the performance, the participants circulate collecting donations from the onlookers.

A number of factors distinguish the Calder Valley version besides the date of its performance. The first is the elaborate costumes and headgear worn. The players are typically attired in red tunics and most uniquely, teetering hats garlanded with flowers, the design and construction of which is a matter of some pride. The second is the performance of the Pace Egg Song sung by the cast at the end of the play, the melody and lyrics of which are unknown elsewhere. Meanwhile, it is recorded that in the 19th Century, the Brighouse and Hipperholme presentation of the play was accompanied by dancing to an air known as the Kirkby Malzeard Sword Dance tune, a tradition which seems to be unique to those settlements in the lower valley and not documented even elsewhere in Calderdale.

The precise origin of Pace Egging is controversial. Throughout most of the 20th Century, folklorists under the influence of Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer believed the play to have pre-Christian origins. Prior to the circulation of a standardised text in chapbooks during the 1830s, the script of the play had been passed down orally and it was often assumed that such oral transmission could extend far back into the midsts of time in isolated communities. Moreover, the apparent theme of death and rebirth, echoing the cycling of the seasons, was – according to folklorists in the Frazerian tradition – a form of ritualised sympathetic magic, designed to ensure the continued coming of spring. This interpretation is still believed by many today, often including the players themselves, appearing in their promotional material.

However, more recently scholars such as Eddie Cass in his book The Pace Egg Plays of the Calder Valley have argued that such a reading is fanciful. Although the narrative of the play is thought to be based on a story in Richard Johnson’s 1596 work History of the Seven Champions of Christendom, no reference to the play has been found prior to the early 1700s. Whilst such references suggest it was already well-established by that time and it was not common for earlier commentators to discuss what they perceived as vulgar folk traditions, many social historians now doubt that it existed much before the 18th Century. Rather than a ritual drama, the play is now believed to be a “legitimised wealth transaction,” essentially a socially acceptable form of begging in a form enjoyed by both rich and poor and confined to appropriate times.

Such sober, deflationary accounts of calendar customs are very much in academic fashion at the moment and as academic fashion changes as often as the wind, the truth may be altogether more obscure. Even assuming the play doesn’t significantly pre-date the 18th Century, a continuity of tradition over three hundred years through such upheavals as the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars is not to be sniffed at. Whilst Pace Egging did substantially die out following the Great War, it was successfully revived in Calderdale during the mid-Twentieth Century and endures today. The play was still performed in Brighouse by the Brighouse Children’s Theatre from 1949 but alas faltered during the 1990s. However, in the upper valley it is still going strong in the hands of the pupils of Calder Valley High and should continue for years to come.

Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 21:35  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Brighouse Rush Week

The custom of rush-bearing, once widespread in north-west England in the 18th and 19th Centuries, was a religious festival in which rushes were gathered to cover the floor of local churches in preparation for the wet winter months ahead, typically on the date of the festival of the saint to whom the parish church was dedicated. The rushes would be elaborately thatched on a wagon dubbed the rush-cart which then processed through the district distributing rushes to the churches, accompanied by various festivities. Although the tradition largely died out in the early 20th Century, it has been revived in a number of towns in recent years, including Sowerby Bridge from 1977 onwards, where it is now performed on the first weekend in September.

Brighouse rush-bearing occurred on the first Saturday after the second Thursday in August and the celebrations traditionally lasted for four days, with maypoles, folk-dancing and probably a great deal of drunkenness. Curiously, the ceremony is known to have taken place long before a church was built in Brighouse (St. Martin’s was not constructed until 1831), yet there is no record of rush-bearing at Lightcliffe, Coley, Rastrick, Hartshead or Southowram, where churches did exist prior to this date. Given that there was no church to be dedicated to any particular saint, it is also unclear exactly how the remarkably precise date was arrived at. Nor is the exact purpose of the rush-cart obvious in the absence of a church, so it may be that Brighouse folk simply adopted the idea from neighbouring communities in Calderdale as an excuse to have a big party.

The original rush-bearing festival in Brighouse had died out by the middle of the 18th Century. However, a fair on the associated dates continued to be held in Swan Field, which lay alongside the still extant Black Swan pub. The feast would attract such an influx of gipsies, fortune-tellers and peddlers that by 1855 it had outgrown Swan Field and was moved to the Black Bull cricket field. Now all manner of attractions began to appear, including Hudson’s Waxworks, Claver’s Marionette Theatre, Wilde’s Australian Troupe and Calvert’s Exhibition of Automata. Meanwhile, in 1865 a rush-cart was built again for the first time in seventy years and paraded around the town led by a man wielding a five-foot long whip. Despite this brief revival, however, rush-bearing in the town seems to have died out again shortly afterwards.

The fair usually began on a Thursday and lasted four days until Thump Sunday, a name which apparently derived from the notion that it was permissible on this day to thump somebody who entered a pub and refused to pay for his drink. People from across the district would descend upon the town with the railway company estimating some three-thousand passengers alighted at Brighouse on Thump Sunday in 1859. The railway would also organise an outing by local Sunday school groups. Another Thump Sunday custom was the consumption of Thump Pudding, a dessert similar to plum pudding or Christmas cake which was consumed with custard.

As the years went on the fair began to extend beyond Thump Sunday into the following week, paving the way for Rush Week, the traditional “Wakes Week” in Brighouse which would take place on the Monday and Tuesday after Thump Sunday. Wakes Weeks were established in the 1880s when parliamentary legislation guaranteed mill workers two days holiday and so all businesses in the district closed. The tradition was not officially adopted in Brighouse until 1908.  Thump Sunday had became known as the day on which people would set off for seaside holidays and horns would sound at dawn to rouse those embarking on such journeys. However, by the 1960s Rush Week had all but died out as workers were guaranteed more holiday time across the year and local firms fell into the ownership of outside companies who did not recognise the tradition.

The custom of rush-bearing in general is thought to have developed in the late Middle Ages. Whilst it is not recorded until the Elizabethan Reformation, it was clearly already well-established by that time. In 1571, the Archbishop of York condemned the practice as irreligious and it was outlawed by local Justices of the Peace, with two spinsters in Lancashire prosecuted for “carrying garlanded rushes” in 1590. In 1617, however, King James I gave the custom his personal blessing and was expressly legalised in the “Declaration of Sports”. Inevitably, the tradition was again banned by the Puritan Westminster Assembly of Divinites following the Civil Wars of the 1640s but the prohibition lapsed in 1660 and so it continued. However, even at its 18th and 19th Century zenith, the festival was frowned upon by the social elite, who disapproved of the attendant debauchery.

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 21:38  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,