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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The Carlton Road Custom

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The clashing of pans in the Carlton Road district (Notts. Guardian, 1909) is worthy of special treatment because of its similarity to rough music. This evening activity went as follows;

"... Bands of boys, the number immaterial, would black their faces and equip themselves with old tin-pans, or anything else calculated to create a din, and, with the impromptu instruments in full operation, would solicit contributions at shop-doors. This they probably did as much for their own amusement as from any expectation of gain.  At least I do not remember the clamour being other than unwelcomely received, and peremptorily dismissed, though the boys may have been, in some cases, bribed to pass on.  No doubt they also found it essential to keep a sharp look for the police, who would be unlikely to favour the sentimental aspect of the business." Notts. Guardian (1909)

As already stated, the clashing of tin pans is highly redolent of Tin Panning - the local version of rough music or charivari.  However, I believe the similarity to be superficial.

There are a number of references to Tin Panning in Notts. (C.Brown, 1874; C.Brown, 1891; S.R.Hole, 1892; P.Howat, 1991; D.Howe, 1984; Nat.Fed.Women’s Institutes, 1989; Notts Archives Office, 1960, A.E.Bealby, DD121/1/20 & G.R.Bostock, DD121/1/4, O.P.Scott, 1960/61).  None of these are mentioned in E.P.Thompson’s (1991 & 1992) extensive studies of rough music, but the principal features of the Notts customs are consistent with his treatment.

The apparent analogy with rough music is peripheral to the main focus of this paper. Therefore, my analysis will be brief, and I will let others pursue it in more detail if they wish. In Table 3, I have endeavoured to compare and contrast the main features of the two customs;

Table 3 - Comparison of Tin Panning with Plough Monday in the Carlton Road District

Tin Panning Plough Monday, Carlton Road
Noise on pans, etc. Noise on pans, etc.
Purpose: Intimidation & Stigma Purpose: Intimidation & Black Mail
Verse(s) chanted or sung Begging verse unlikely, but possible
Admonishing verse
(exposing wife beaters)
Possible begging verse/speech
Activity called: Tinpanning, Rantanning,
Riding the Stang, etc.
Activity called: Plough Bullocking
No name for participants Participants called: Plough Bullocks
All ages - men and boys (women too?)
Sometimes youths only
Boys only
No mention of face colouring Blackened faces
Single specific target
(errant man or couple)
Several/many indiscriminate targets
(Passers by)
Effigy No effigy
No collection Collection
Ad hoc on occasion of domestic or moral scandal - esp. wife beating Fixed occurrence - Plough Monday
Three consecutive evenings Single night
Probably evening Evening

I suggest that these two customs share very little in common, other than the banging of pans for the purpose of intimidation.  There are in fact some significant differences, for instance regarding facial colouring, effigies, the collection of money, and the periodicity of occurrence. I therefore conclude that the Carlton Road Plough Monday custom has no significant relationship with Tin Panning.

Inflicting Retribution

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There can be no doubt that the Plough Bullocks were prone to behave in an unruly fashion, and pan bashing could be seen to fit this mould. A report cited by Prof. Granger (1912) and possibly relating to 1822 says that “the mummers at Wollaton so frightened two horses that they ran away and killed two persons”.  Also, as they came up Lenton Sands (now Lenton Boulevard), they “kissed nursemaids, and made babies cry.”  All of this could have been general boisterousness and/or drunkenness. However, such behaviour was more predictable when no contribution was forthcoming.

The classic form of punishment, if a plough was trailed, was to use the plough to cause damage to property.  Howitt cites a specific, if unidentified case of palisades being ploughed up. In general terms, several other accounts mention doorsteps being ploughed up, which I take to mean using the plough to lift the stone out of place.  In cases where a plough was not involved in the custom, other forms of mischief took place. "Observer" mentions various forms of physical assault against the person - knocking down with a besom, besmearing with dirt, and laming. I suspect that misdemeanours such as these probably also occurred even when there was a plough.

Attitudes and Repression

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One would expect that the Plough Bullocks' intimidatory requests for money, vengeful acts against non-contributors and general unruly behaviour would not have won them many friends.  Nonetheless there was a degree of support for the custom.

Obviously the Plough Bullocks themselves enjoyed what they did, and the presence of five or six parties in Basford shows it was a popular activity. "Observer" points out that the Plough Bullocks could expect a large number of followers, including women and children.

However, their victims were clearly not so keen, especially if they had suffered the Plough Bullocks' vengeance.  Targets would probably have included a high proportion of the better off and influential. The result was a build up of opposition during the early Nineteenth Century.

Opposition and disgust turned into active repression. The report cited by Professor Granger, says that following the deaths caused by the Wollaton “mummers”, a bylaw was passed so that they “should never come quite to the top of Derby road”. This probably corresponds with the then Borough limits at what is now called Canning Circus. Unfortunately, despite extensive searching, I have been able to find neither the alleged bylaw, nor any primary sources relating to the alleged fatalities.

“Observer” called on the magistrates to do what they could to stop the custom, and Howitt indicates that at least one aggrieved party sought redress before the magistrates for damage caused to a fence by the Plough Bullocks. National legislation was also on their side. The Vagrant Act 1824 allowed the authorities to apply penalties, primarily intended for habitual beggars, which may have added stigma to any punishment.

Very probably, religious activists took up “Observer’s” call to trying and discourage the custom.  W.Antliff writing in 1885 describes a mission to Leicestershire by the Primitive Methodists which led to the abandonment of Plough Bullocking there.  This has been discussed by I.T.Jones (1980).

By 1851 the Nottinghamshire Guardian was able to report that the campaign of repression was having some effect;

"We are pleased to learn that this vulgar and demoralising festival of the lower grades of our community has, through the exertions of the police, supported by the magistrates and influential private individuals, passed over this year in the villages round about us generally, with fewer outrages on public decency than on almost any former occasion." Nottinghamshire Guardian (1851)

However, despite all these efforts, the later records of the custom testify that the repression cannot have been totally successful.

By way of contrast, the performers of the Plough Monday plays seem to have had a much better reputation.  But the key difference is that these teams often performed by invitation, whereas the attentions of the non-play Plough Bullocks were unsolicited.

Folk Plays in Nottingham

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So far, I have not mentioned folk plays, because few of my sources do so. However, they do appear in the records. For instance, after having given interesting information about Plough Monday at Bulwell Kilnyards, F.M.E.W. (1923) goes on to say;

"The last time I saw the guisers was at Christmas, 1872. They came to our house in Bulwell Kilnyards, and acted St. George. There was the Doctor, and Beelzebub, and Bess and Jack.  It was all great fun..."

This shows that F.M.E.W. was aware of what a folk play was, as was Howitt, who covered folk plays elsewhere in his book.  But they clearly saw them as something distinct from the Plough Monday customs.

One witness did not see this distinction.  In a long article about Nottinghamshire mummers' plays published in 1924, and clearly inspired by the works of Cecil Sharp and R.J.E.Tiddy, Sydney Race describes the vestiges of Plough Monday then current in Nottingham's suburbs, which he interpreted as degraded folk plays;

"… The relics of [the play] will be seen in the suburbs of Nottingham on Plough Monday in the bands of youngsters who parade the streets in strange attire. Their blacked faces or masks are a survival from some primitive religious custom, and are found all over the Continent among the actors in the counterpart of the English play.  So also the wooden swords or sticks which the boys carry, and the oddities of their dress are unwittingly an attempt to get near to the special garb worn by their predecessors of long ago. Sometimes the town boys repeat a few lines of the old rhymes, but the effort is usually a feeble one."

In Sydney Races's collection in Nottingham Central Library there is a scrap of paper bearing the lines of a Beelzebub speech.  This is his only unattributed manuscript, and I believe to be his note of the lines referred to above.  It reads;

"In comes I old Belsebub
Upon my shoulder I carry a club
In my hand a frying pan
Gentlemen and ladies do
yo not think me a clever man
The story done we must be gone
We cannot tarry here
But if you please before we go
We will taste of your Christmas pie"

In 1924, Sydney Race lived in Noel Street, overlooking the Forest recreation ground, and on the edge of Hyson Green.  Maybe the boys came from this area.

There is one last play record we should look at, from the collection of the Lincolnshire folklorist Ethel Rudkin (quoted here from a copy in the A.Helm Collection);

"1954, Basford, Notts (pronounced Baseford)

Story of the Doctor's bottle.

The team got to a house and the Doctor had not remembered his bottle - he borrowed one from the farmer's wife, which he thought was empty - but it wasn't - it still had some Worcester Sauce in it.  He said that he had never seen a man restored to life so quickly!"

The above items clearly relate to folk plays, but they beg the questions; were they Plough Monday folk plays, and were plays an integral feature of Plough Monday in the City of Nottingham?  Let us examine the evidence more closely.

Professor Granger's account of the incidents that allegedly took place in 1822 uses the word “mummers”.  This does not help either way, because there is no clear indication of what the so-called "mummers" custom involved. "Mummers" is not a name by which Notts folk play performers traditionally called themselves. The usual names are "Guysers", "Plough Boys" "Plough Bullocks" and similar names.  The term "mummers" also has other meanings, and therefore cannot on its own be taken to indicate that a folk play was performed.

The tirade from "Observer", and W.Howitt's description, both have such a wealth of detail that surely if plays had been performed there would have been some mention of them.  This is particularly so in the case of Howitt, whose book does refer to folk plays elsewhere in England.  In both cases therefore I am confident we are talking about purely non-play customs.

F.M.E.W.'s description of Bulwell Kilnyards is particularly interesting as it explicitly distinguishes between a non-play plough trailing custom on Plough Monday and a "Guisers" play performed at Christmas. The description of the Guisers is consistent with Christmas plays still performed in western Notts.

Ethel Rudkin's anecdote about Basford explicitly relates to an actual play performance. Crucially however, this account does not indicate the time of year when the play was performed, and both Christmas and Plough Monday plays have Doctors. Regrettably therefore, we have to eliminate this account from our discussion.

Except for S.Race's description of the town boys in 1924, the remaining brief descriptions of Plough Monday in Nottingham appear to be non-play customs which took place in the street or in doorways.  With Race, we appear to have a few lines from a play being recited, but not a dialogue.  Otherwise, the details of his custom are entirely consistent with earlier sources.

It remains feasible that these lines could have been all that was left of an earlier Plough Monday play.  However I think it is more likely that incomers from surrounding areas just took the solicitation speech from the end of a play and added it to the native non-play custom.

I do not discount the possibility of odd performances of Plough Monday plays taking place in Nottingham.  In fact this is quite probable, considering the influx of population from areas where these plays were performed, and the willingness of teams to travel ten miles or so to perform.  However, I conclude that the indigenous Plough Monday customs in the city of Nottingham did not include folk plays.

Comparisons with Folk Plays

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If we accept this conclusion, it is worthwhile comparing the plays with the non-play customs, because this may help in distinguishing them elsewhere, at least in Nottinghamshire.

They share a number of features in common.  Both customs are perambulatory and involve the collecting of money. They may occur at the same time of year - even coexist. In the case of Plough Monday, the participants are referred to by the same collective names. Facial disguise is common to both customs, and there may be some similarities of dress. However, the play actors tended to dress in part, whereas the non-play participants dressed more anonymously. In both cases, female roles were played by men.

The differences are perhaps few, but significant. The obvious defining difference is that the plays possessed dialogue, whereas the non-play customs did not.  Less obvious is that  fact that the non -play customs took place out of doors.  These outdoor locations contrast with the venues of folk play performances. I have not yet come across a Notts folk play which was performed outside.  Most accounts are explicit about inside performances, often specifying the kitchen as the room of choice.  The very words of the plays reinforce this;


Here I come, who's never been before,
There's four more actors outside the door.

I therefore propose that occurrence out of doors is one of the main features that distinguishes the non-play customs from the folk play customs on Plough Monday.

The last difference is that the play performers generally appear to have had a reputation for better behaviour than the non-play participants. I think that this is because the actors had to be better organised, and often performed by invitation.  The non-play participants on the other hand were more opportunistic.

I contend that the plays were a relatively late addition to Plough Monday. A.Howkins and L.Merricks (1991) argue persuasively that Recruiting Sergeant plays did not come into existence until the early Nineteenth Century, when they were added to existing customs - in Lincolnshire.

The oldest Plough Monday play in Notts is an unlocated South Notts play of the hero/combat type, published by C.Brown in 1874.  The next plays appear as an explosion of Recruiting Sergeant plays in the late 1880s and 1890s (P.T.Millington, 1980).  Although absence of evidence is not a safe foundation on which to build an argument, it does lend support to the view that the plays were a late addition to Plough Monday.

As this peak of popularity coincides with the decline of the non-play customs, it is interesting to speculate whether the plays may have been deliberately introduced to Plough Monday in an attempt to calm the custom down. If so, by whom, or was it just a change of fashion?


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In this paper, I have touched on three activities; the Plough Day Fair, Plough Monday plays, and non-play Plough Monday customs.

The Fair stands alone.  It draws its name and its time of occurrence from Plough Monday, but otherwise no records have yet been found to indicate any interplay between the trade Fair and the customs of Plough Monday.

I think I have successfully shown that Nottingham's own Plough Monday customs did not include folk plays.  They were instead a colourful mixture of plough trailing, cross dressing and house visiting - not to mention plain blackmail, vandalism and grievous bodily harm.

I do not think I personally would have liked to run into a group of Plough Bullocks down a dark alley.  So I could not unreservedly support Professor Granger's view that Plough Monday was one of "the most wholesome parts of our national life."

Let me end by paraphrasing (and correcting) the words recorded by S.Race;

The story done, I must be gone,
I cannot tarry here,
But if you please before I go
I'll taste of your Conference beer.


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I wish to thank the ever-helpful staff of the Local Studies Section at Nottingham Central Library and the staff of the Nottinghamshire Archives Office for their assistance in locating the sources used in this paper. I was glad to be able to draw on the material found by Idwal Jones and Dave Crowther of Nottingham's Owd Oss Mummers during a systematic trawl through microfilms of various Nottinghamshire newspapers. Last but not least, I would like to thank the fellow enthusiasts who have encouraged me in my research over the years, in particular Paul Smith and Steve Roud.


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Many of my facts have be gleaned from the pages of local newspapers - especially the "Local Notes and Queries" column of the Nottinghamshire Guardian. These are collected in a handy shelf full of scrapbooks at Nottingham Central Library.

W.Antliff (1885) The Leicestershire Plough-Bullocks
Nottingham Guardian, 7th Jan.1885, No.9028, pp.6 c

E.B. (1921) Local Notes & Queries : Origin of Plough Monday
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 14th Jan.1921

J.H.Bailey (1971) Markets and Fairs in Nottingham [a historical perspective]
in:- Nottingham Markets : The Official Handbook of the Markets and Fairs Department of the Nottingham Corporation
Cheltenham & London, Ed.J.Burrow & Co.  Ltd., [1971], pp.36-41,44

M.W.Barley (1953) Plough Plays in the East Midlands
Journal of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, Dec.1953, Vol.7, No.2, pp.68-95

J.Blackner (1815) The History of Nottingham, embracing its Antiquities, Trade, and Manufactures, from the Earliest Authentic Records to the Present Period
Nottingham, Sutton and Son, 1815, pp.61

C.Brown (1874) Notes about Notts. : A Collection of Singular Sayings, Curious Customs, Eccentric Epitaphs, and Interesting Items, Historical and Antiquarian
Nottingham, T.Forman and Sons, 1874, pp.81-85

C.Brown (1891)  A History of Nottinghamshire
London, Elliot Stock, 1891, pp.265-280

Creswell's Nottingham Journal (1763) [No title - Advert for date of Epiphany Fair]
Creswell's Nottingham Journal, 24th Dec.1763, Vol.II, No.152, pp.3c
Repeated; 31st Dec.1763, Vol.II, No.153, pp.3b

D.Gray & V.W.Walker (1947) Records of the Borough of Nottingham : being a series of extracts from the Archives of the Corporation of Nottingham : Vol.VII : 1760-1800
Nottingham, Thos. Forman & Sons Ltd., 1947

D.Gray (1953) Nottingham Settlement to City
Nottingham, Nottingham Co-operative Society Ltd., 1953
Later edition; Leeds, Amethyst Press, 1983, ISBN 0-904293-07-6

E.L.Guilford (1914) Records of the Borough of Nottingham : being a series of extracts from the Archives of the Corporation of Nottingham : Vol.VI : 1702-1760
Nottingham, Thos. Forman & Sons, 1914

A.Helm, Alex Helm Collection
Manuscripts Department, University College Library, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT - Ref.A1/23 pp.35

P.Herring (1926) Plough Monday Revels in the Midlands
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 9th Jan.1926, No.4208, pp.1 a-b, e-f

S.R.Hole (1892) The Memories of Dean Hole
London, Edward Arnold, 1892, p.191

W.Hone (1825) The Every-day Book, Vol.I
London, Hunt & Clarke, 1825
Later edition; London, William Tegg & Co., 1878, pp.36-37

P.Howat (1991) Tales of Old Nottinghamshire
Newbury, Countryside Books, 1991, ISBN 1-85306-160-3, pp.102-104

D.Howe (1984) The Story of Holbrook
Cromford, Scarthin Books, 1984, ISBN 0-907758-05-3, p.75

W.Howitt (1838) The Rural Life of England
London, Longman and others, 1838, & 3rd ed.  1862, pp.471-472

A.Howkins & L.Merricks (1991) The Ploughboy and the Plough Play
Folk Music Journal, 1991, Vol.6, No.2, pp.187-208

I.T.Jones (1980) Plough Monday and the Primitive Methodists in Leicestershire
Roomer, Dec.1980, Vol.1, No.2, pp.7-8

P.T.Millington (1980) An Interim List of Nottinghamshire Folk Plays and Related Customs
Long Eaton, P.T.Millington, 1980, 44pp.
Reprinted; Sheffield, Traditional Drama Research Group, 1984

S.Mottershaw (1924) Local Notes and Queries : "Plough Bullocks" and "Body Snatchers"
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 10th Oct.1924

National Federation of Women’s Institutes (1989) The Nottinghamshire Village Book
Newbury, Countryside Books, & Newark, NFWI, 1989, ISBN 1-85306-057-7, pp.41-42

Nottingham Evening Post (1879) Nottingham Plough-Day Fair
Nottingham Evening Post, 17th Jan.1879, No.222, pp.3 e

Nottingham Guardian (1888) Melton Mowbray Plough Day Fair
Nottingham Guardian, 25th Jan.1888, No.9978, pp.8c

Nottingham Guardian (1889) Plough Day Fair at Melton
Nottingham Guardian, 22nd Jan.1889, No.10287, pp.8c

Nottingham Guardian (1926) "Plough Bullocking"
Nottingham Guardian, 12th Jan.1926, No.21776, pp.10d-e
Repeated; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 16th Jan.1926, No.4209, pp.5 c-d

Nottingham Review (1820) [No Title - Plough Day Fair at Nottingham]
Nottingham Review, 21st Jan.1820, Vol.XII, No.603, pp.3 a

Nottingham Review (1822) [No Title - Plough Day Fair at Nottingham]
Nottingham Review, 25th Jan.1822, Vol.XIV, No.711, pp.3 c

Notts. Archives Office Collection (1960) "Memories of a Villager" [Essay competion entries]
Nottinghamshire Archives Office, County House, Castle Meadow Road, Nottingham, NG1 1AG - Ref.DD121/1

Notts. Guardian (1851) Plough Monday
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 16th Jan.1851

Notts. Guardian (1909), Plough Monday : Plough Monday in East Nottingham
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 23rd Jan.1909

Notts. Weekly Express (1912) [No title (?) - Prof. Granger's lecture mentioning Wollaton and Lenton Sands],
Nottinghamshire Weekly Express, 20th Dec.1912

"An Observer" (1823) Plough monday,
Nottingham Review, 17th Jan.1823, Vol.XV, No.759, pp.2 b

G.Oldfield (1990) The Nottingham Borough Boundary Extension of 1977
Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, 1990, Vol.XCIV, pp.83-91

"Old Robin Hood" (1918) Local Notes and Queries : No.237 : Plough Monday
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 12th Jan.1918

"Old Timer" (1925) Local Notes and Queries : Notts. and Derbyshire "Guisers."
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 7th Feb.1925

J.Owen (1720) Brittania Depicta ; or, Ogilby improv'd ; being a correct coppy of Mr. Ogilby's Actual Survey of all ye Direct and Principal Cross Roads in England and Wales.
London, Tho. Bowles & Em. Bowen, 1720

S.R.(1924) Plough Monday : The Mummers' Play : Relic of an Old Custom : Nottinghamshire Versions
Nottingham Guardian, 7th Jan.1924, No.21151, pp.3 b-c

Retford & Gainsborough Times (1892) Sleaford Plough Fair
Retford & Gainsborough Times, 15th Jan.1892, No.1134, pp.6 f

E.H.Rudkin Collection [see A.Helm Collection]

O.P.Scott (1960/61) Memories of a Villager : Cropwell Butler
Nottinghamshire Countryside, 1960/1961, Vol.21, No.4, pp.20-23

E.P.Thompson (1991) Customs in Common
Merlin Press, 1991, pp.467-538

E.P.Thomson (1992) Rough Music Reconsidered
Folklore, 1992, Vol.103, No.1, pp.3-26

F.M.E.W. (1923) Local Notes & Queries : "Plough Bullocks" at Bulwell
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 26th Jan.1923

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