Peter Millington

Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the Folk Life Society, University of Nottingham, September 1992, and repeated at the International Conference on Traditional Drama, University of Sheffield, March 1998.

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Plough Monday Celebrations

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So much for the Plough Day Fair.  What of the Plough Monday customs themselves?

None of the historical records relating to the Plough Day Fair make any mention of the customs of Plough Monday itself, and vice versa.  The only link appears to have been the name, and even that was not sacrosanct since the term "Epiphany Fair" is also found. With so little information to go on it is difficult to be definite, but it seems likely that Plough Monday was merely a convenient annual landmark around which to base the definition of the timing of the fair.

The earliest record of Plough Monday customs per se in Nottingham is a reference in a lecture given by Professor Granger (Notts. Weekly Express, 1912). Apparently dated 1822, I have not been able to trace the primary sources for his references, and I therefore regard the date as suspect. However, the earliest accurately dated record is only a year later - being an extensive letter of complaint to the press (“Observer”, 1823). There are then about eight records that relatively evenly cover the rest of the nineteenth century, and after a gap at the turn of the century, the last references occur in 1924 and 1926. The 1924 record definitely refers to Nottingham (S.R., 1924), whereas the 1926 record may refer to Plough Bullocks visiting Nottingham (Nottingham Guardian, 1926). I believe the custom must have died out in the city not long after this, although Plough Monday survived until the 1950s in some Notts villages.

For an overview of how Plough Monday was celebrated in and around Nottingham, William Howitt (1838) gives an excellent description;

"...  Plough-Monday, here and there, in the thoroughly agricultural districts, [still] sends out its motley team. This consists of the farm-servants and labourers. They are dressed in harlequin guise, with wooden swords, plenty of ribbons, faces daubed with white-lead, red-ochre, and lamp-black.  One is always dressed in woman's clothes and armed with a besom, a sort of burlesque mixture of Witch and Columbine.   Another drives the team of men-horses with a long wand, at the end of which is tied a bladder instead of a lash; so that blows are given without pain, but plenty of noise. The insolence of these Plough-bullocks, as they are called, which might accord with ancient license, but does not at all suit modern habits, has contributed more than anything else to put them down.  They visited every house of any account, and solicited a contribution in no very humble terms. If refused, it was their practice to plough up the garden walk, or do some other mischief. One band ploughed up the palisades of a widow lady of our acquaintance, and having to appear before a magistrate for it, and to pay damages, never afterwards visited that neighbourhood.  In some places I have known them to enter houses, whence they could only be ejected by the main power of the collected neighbours; for they extended their excursions often to a distance of ten miles or more, and where they were most unknown they practised the greatest insolence. Nobody regrets the discontinuance of this usage."

William Howitt (1792-1879) was born in Heanor, Derbys. (about ten miles north west of Nottingham). In 1823 he took up residence near the Market Place, Nottingham as a chemist and druggist, eventually becoming an Alderman. He moved to Esher, Surrey in 1836, where he wrote his popular book "The Rural Life of England".

His description does not name the district or districts to which it applies. However, his experiences in Nottingham would surely have been freshest in his mind when he wrote the book. From Howitt we can identify the principal features of the custom, and the basic facts are all confirmed by other records relating to named locations in and around Nottingham.

The participants setting out on Plough Monday were called Plough Bullocks, and consisted primarily of men.  They wore elaborate costumes, at least one of which was a man in female attire. In this case, they trailed a plough, but the important thing - the main purpose from the participants' point of view - was to go from house to house collecting "contributions". However, another key feature of the custom was that the contributions were demanded under duress, and if nothing was forthcoming, then retribution was wreaked on the non-givers. The result was a degree of social conflict, leading to intervention by the local Establishment. The level of animosity that the custom could generate is exemplified particularly well by the following letter relating to Basford in 1823, which is worth quoting in full before proceeding with a more thorough analysis;

SIR - The revolving year has again brought us to that period of time called Plough Monday, and if you, or some of your intelligent Correspondents, would favour the public with some account of its origin, I think it would have a good effect, particularly in the country villages ; for I am confident it never was intended to be a public nuisance, at it now is.  I cannot but think, if the religious part of the community would seriously consider the bad effects it must produce on the morals of youth, they would, by all the means in their power, endeavour to stop so pernicious a custom. It is a well authenticated fact, that the Sabbath day and evening, previous to Plough Monday, are mostly spent in decking and besmearing the annual vagrants* (for they certainly are no better,) called Plough Bullocks.  The individuals, who thus disgrace themselves, generally sally forth, before day-light on the morning in question, amongst the peaceable inhabitants of the neighbourhood where they reside, and, in many instances, demand money with as little ceremony as the tax-gatherer.  This year, there have been no less than five or six parties of these idle and disorderly persons in this village, who, not being satisfied with wasting Monday for such a bad purpose, have also included Tuesday ; nor does the evil end here. for the money, which has been collected, is spent during the remaining part of the week in gluttony and drunkenness, and in nightly revelry and dancing.  In fact, it is impossible to pass along the street when what is called the fool and witch are about, without being grossly insulted ; and I have seen persons knocked down with a besom, besmeared with dirt, and even lamed by these impudent beggars ; yet it is said by the supporters of the system, there is no harm in it, it is all joking, and it must not be noticed at such a time of merrymaking as this ; but let any prudent person think of the indecorous and disgusting practices which take place in our streets, and see the number of young people, boys, and girls, (and women too, to their shame be it spoken,) following and admiring the persons who are the authors of these disgraceful scenes, and if such person does not see the impropriety of encouraging such wickedness, I really do not know what will convince him of it ; and I cannot but think, if our Magistrates have the power to stop this baneful custom, they would render an essential service to the community at large. Should these imperfect remarks be in the least way conducive to stop such a growing evil, it will give me both satisfaction and pleasure.   Sunday School Teachers would do well in exposing to the children the evil tendency of the custom, for though it may appear to be harmless in children, it will be found an increasing evil.
I am, Sir, Your's &c AN OBSERVER
Basford, January 14, 1823.
* We believe they are all liable to be taken up under the new
Vagrant Act. - ED."

You will note that neither Howitt nor “Observer” mention folk plays in their Plough Monday descriptions. This is no accidental omission, as I shall discuss towards the end of this paper.

We are now ready to examine the features of the customs of Plough Monday in the City of Nottingham in more detail., and where appropriate make comparisons with similar customs outside the city.  To avoid overburdening the list of references, I have drawn most of my comparisons from M.W.Barley (1953), and from the essays submitted to a competition run by the Notts Local History Council in 1960.  These are held in the Notts Archives Office.

Plough Monday the Day

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It is worth pointing out that the day for these customs was specifically called "Plough Monday" in Nottingham.  In other parts of the county, names such as “Plough Bullock Night” were used, that were based on the collective terms for the participants (P.T.Millington, 1980). Only one source provides a definition of the date - the first Monday after Twelfth Day ("Old Robin Hood", 1918).

"Observer" complained that the Basford Plough Bullocks had extended their activities to the Tuesday after Plough Monday.  This implies that the custom was normally restricted to the Monday only, although he says that preparations started on the Sunday.  Certainly, no other references to the Nottingham district suggest that the celebrations took place on additional days around Plough Monday. Elsewhere in Notts, where folk plays were performed, they were often taken to surrounding villages over a period of days, ending with the main day in the home village on Plough Monday itself. Several detailed itineraries illustrate this, for instance at Blidworth (Notts. Archive Office, 1960, A.W.Godfrey, DD121/1/9).

The participants started out before daybreak, according to "Observer", and presumably continued well into the evening.  If Howitt's Plough Bullocks were travelling distances as much as ten miles with a hand-drawn plough, it must undoubtedly have been an all-day affair. Other references do not indicate the time of day, except for an anonymous author writing about the St. Annes Well Road district of about 1884 (Nottingham Guardian, 1909). The Plough Monday custom he describes took place in the evening.

The Participants

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Where a name is given, the participants were universally called "Plough Bullocks", and their activity was termed "Plough Bullocking". This was a common name throughout Notts and parts of Leicestershire (M.W.Barley, 1953, p.80), and was used for participants in any Plough Monday activity, be it play or non-play. "Plough Boys" was the other common term in Notts., but this is not mentioned in any of the Nottingham accounts.

The participants were primarily men and boys. This male predominance was such that one or more men dressed in women's clothes where needed.  Howitt says there was one female character, unnamed, but likened to Witch and Columbine (a pantomime character).  "Observer", referring to "the fool and the witch" also implies that a single female character was to be found in each party. On the other hand, F.M.E.W. (1923) mentions four "Plough" men and four men dressed as women at Bulwell Kilnyards in 1870.  The number of men-women may therefore have been variable.

Although women and girls appear to have played no part in the Plough Monday activities per se, it is quite likely they may have helped prepare costumes and apply makeup. Some women certainly supported the custom actively, because "Observer" was outraged by the fact that along with boys and girls, women admiringly followed the Plough Bullocks around. A parallel situation exists with all-male morris dance sides and their followers today.

Only Howitt gives a clear indication what the occupations of the participants were (i.e. farm servants), apart from the mention of schoolchildren in other accounts. Where a plough was trailed, it is to be expected that the Plough Bullocks would have been farm workers, if not actual ploughmen, in order to have access to a plough.

The Plough Bullocks’ Costume and Dress

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Unfortunately, we have no illustrations or photographs of Nottingham's Plough Bullocks, and therefore we have to rely totally on verbal descriptions and parallels from outside the city.

William Howitt provides the most detailed description of the Plough Bullocks' appearance. Of course we do not know for certain that Howitt's description relates specifically to Nottingham, but fortunately, many of the details are corroborated by other accounts.

Facial make up is the most commonly mentioned feature.  This is usually black, but two writers, W.Howitt (1838) and Paul Herring (1926) say red ochre was an alternative, and Howitt mentions the use of white lead as well.  Black faces were also common elsewhere in the county, and are found with many folk plays too.

Howitt’s mention of “Harlequin guise” - presumably meaning some sort of patchwork - and a later comparison with Columbine, perhaps indicate attempts to mimic the costumes used in pantomimes of the day.  These were stylistic in nature.  The use of “plenty of ribbons” - corroborated by F.M.E.W. (1923) - is consistent with this style.

Wooden swords or sticks are mentioned by both Howitt and by Sydney Race talking about the boys’ custom around 1924 (S.R., 1924).  Race took these to have derived from a folk play, but they could equally have come from pantomime costume.  One of Harlequin’s key accoutrements was a wooden bat, and some of the lesser pantomime] characters also carried swords.

"Observer's" Witch, complete with besom, confirms the presence of men in female dress, and F.M.E.W. goes further by reporting four men dressed as women.

Otherwise, costume is only mentioned in general terms, with adjectives like "strange" and "grotesque" being used (e.g. S.Mottershaw, 1924).

Interestingly, the picture we draw from our descriptions is not unlike the much copied engraving of Plough Monday in Hone's "Everyday Book" (Plate 1). This hackneyed picture, first published in 1825, at least has the merit of being contemporary with "Observer's" (1823) letter.

Plate 1 - A Regency view of Plough Monday from W.Hone (1825)

Plate 1 - A Regency view of Plough Monday from W.Hone (1825)

The lack of visual material is regrettably also true of the non-play customs from elsewhere in Notts.  Although we have a plethora of photographs of Notts folk plays, all of which show the actors dressed according to character, there is but one photograph of a group of non-play Plough Bullocks.  (Plate 2).

Plate 2 - A non-play Plough Monday Custom (Nottingham Guardian, 1926)

Plate 2 - A non-play Plough Monday Custom (Nottingham Guardian, 1926)

This photograph was published on Tuesday 12th January 1926 (the day after Plough Monday) in the Nottingham Guardian.  The weekly version of the newspaper published a feature article about Plough Monday by Paul Herring (1926), which suspiciously appeared the previous Friday, only three days earlier.  Let us see what he says about the Nottingham custom.

"... Young fellows calling themselves 'plough bullocks,' their faces either blackened or covered with red ochre, went about the streets and yards of old Nottingham collecting money for drink and spending it at public houses as they received it.  Their only claim to be ploughmen rested in the collector, who wore an old smock-frock and carried a waggoner's lantern at night."

The photograph shows a group of four men, of uncertain age. At least three appear to have beards, and two seem to have darkened faces, in particular the second from the left, but I strongly suspect their faces are made up rather than natural.  Two are carrying old waggoners' lanterns, and one of these appears to be wearing a smock-frock.  He therefore corresponds to Herring's collector.

The men are dressed in a way calculated to look agricultural - the lanterns and pitchforks they carry, their slouch hats, their clay pipes, etc. One man is wearing a dairyman's white coat.  Another may be wearing a smock.  The others are dressed in normal clothes.  Two of the pitchforks have objects stuck on the ends, which look like swedes or mangels.  I believe they are likely to have been face lanterns, for which there is a precedent at Ruddington, south of the city. (Notts Archives Office, 1960, C.A.Hind, DD121/1/58).

Obviously, this photograph could not have been available to Herring when he was preparing his article.  However, the similarities between the picture and his description are to my mind too close to ignore. He does not refer to Southwell in his article, so how can we explain the striking similarities? I can envisage three possibilities;

Firstly there is direct cause and effect.  The people in Southwell could quite easily have read Herring's article on the Friday, and so been prompted either make the costumes of their own existing custom comply with his description, or used it as a model for an impulsive revival.

I think this is unlikely, because the Nottingham description forms only a very small part of Herring's article.  It would be strange had they only chosen to draw inspiration from this paragraph. One would have expected them to also draw from other descriptions in the article, or even from the illustration of Plough Monday that Herring included from Chambers' "Book of Days". Furthermore, Herring does not make any mention of pitchforks, although these could have been an extemporisation on the agricultural theme.

The second scenario is that the Southwell Plough Bullocks had travelled to Nottingham on a collecting trip, and been confused with a local group. Such a trip would not have been unusual.  We have already seen W.Howitt mention that parties often travelled ten miles or more - and that before the advent of decent public transport.

It does not stretch credulity too far therefore to speculate that Herring may have encountered this actual party in Nottingham while preparing his article. If this was the case, then it is possible that Herring himself could have commissioned the photograph to be taken. The main difficulty is in trying to explain why Herring refers to Nottingham rather than Southwell in his article.

The last option is that the similarity in appearance is purely coincidental, and this is the least arguable case.  In fact there could also be a cause and effect at work here. Someone must have tipped off the Nottingham Guardian about the photo opportunity, probably a reader observing the resemblance of the local Plough Bullocks to Herring's description

Whichever case one chooses to accept, we still come back to the conclusion that the Southwell Plough Bullocks pictured in the photograph closely resembled the latter day Plough Bullocks of Nottingham itself.


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The plough is a key motif in nearly all the accounts of Plough Monday in Nottingham. Its main purpose was as a means of punishing non-contributors, rather than as some symbolic focus for the festival. F.M.E.W. (1923) talking of Bulwell Kilnyards says that that the plough was specially decorated for the occasion. Yet the actual presence of a plough was not necessarily required.

Ploughs were clearly trailed and used in Howitt's description. On the other hand, "Observer's" account, which is roughly contemporaneous with Howitt's, makes no mention of ploughs. This is surprising, bearing in mind the degree of detail in the rest of his tirade. It seems reasonable to conclude therefore that ploughs were not trailed as part of Plough Monday in Basford in 1823.

Two other accounts are more explicit about ploughs not being taken round, even though the participants were threatening to plough up people's doorsteps.  The first of these relates to the early 1880s;

"... in some streets of Nottingham in the early '80's men with blackened faces calling themselves 'Plough Bullocks' went from yard to yard threatening to plough up doorsteps, although they had no plough, and demanding money for ale." "Old Timer" (1925)

This account is similar to an undated one published by "Old Robin Hood" (1918) - extract.

"[Plough Monday] This is the first Monday after Twelfth Day by the country almanack. In all agricultural districts the labourers used to drag the plough about and plough up your "doorstep" if you did not give them money.  I remember 'plough bullocks,' or lads with blackened faces, marching about St. Ann's Well road and singing doggerel for money on Plough Monday. They had no plough, although there were plenty of green fields about in those days."

F.M.E.W. (1923) states that the last time he had seen Plough Bullocks with a plough was at Bullwell Kilnyards in 1870.  If we consider the above two descriptions in conjunction with F.M.E.W., we can conclude that the trailing of ploughs probably ceased in the Nottingham area sometime in the early 1870s.  The real threat of ploughing up a non-contributor's doorstep was replaced by a symbolic threat, which in practice translated into some other form of mischief.

Soliciting Money

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The principal reason for Plough Bullocking was to collect money. Several sources say that the money collected was used for the purchase of ale.  “Observer” indicates that it was spent more or less immediately, and in mentioning gluttony and dancing, it would appear to be more accurate to say that the money was used for fund partying. The drink would certainly have added to the Plough Bullocks’ bad reputation.

The custom commonly involved house visiting, with the appeals for money taking place in doorways.  The threat to plough up doorsteps, mentioned in several accounts, underlines this. However, it was clearly also considered fair game to accost people in the street - one of "Observer's" main complaints.  S.Mottershaw (1924), writing of Old Radford and Kensington [sic] in 1849-50 described this activity as "appealing to the onlookers for money." E.B. (1921) on the other hand says that the Plough Bullocks "…used to come round like carol singers and collect money in Nottingham streets..."  Outside the City, the non-play customs nearly all appear to have entailed house visiting rather than general solicitation in the street. In all cases, the custom took place out of doors.

A recurring theme is that the methods the Plough Bullocks used were pretty intimidating. Both "Observer" and Howitt complain that the demands for money were fairly abrupt. Unfortunately, we have no record of the form of words used for solicitations in Nottingham.  (The possible exception is a speech in the S.Race Collection that may have been borrowed from a folk play.) "Old Robin Hood" (1918) mentions "singing doggerel for money", but does not give further details. In the Carlton Road district, about 1884, the solicitation was accompanied by banging on tin-pans (Notts. Guardian, 1909), however this is an unusual case, which I will be discussing later.

Elsewhere in Notts, a formula or rhyme was commonly used to ask for money. For instance, at Kinoulton (Notts. Achives Office Collection, 1960, J.Barnes, DD121/1/39), the formula was;

"Please to remember the Plough Boys."

This is fairly typical.  At Ruddington, four miles south of the City centre, two songs were sung (Notts. Archives Office Collection, 1960, C.A.Hind, DD121/1/58);

"Plough Bullock night,
The stars are bright,
Two little angels dressed in white,
Can you eat a biscuit,
Can you smoke a pipe,
Can you go a courting at 10/oclock at night."

Followed by;

"A hole in my stocking,
A hole in my shoe,
Please can you spare me a copper or two
If you haven't a penny a ha'penny will do.
If you haven't a ha'penny, God bless you."

These examples seem similar in spirit with the Nottingham city records, and therefore I think is likely that the Nottingham solicitations followed their pattern. Otherwise we can imagine perhaps a perfunctory "Remember the Plough Bullocks, or we'll plough up your doorstep."  Whatever was actually said, it is pretty clear that it was very much a question of demanding money with menaces.

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