Geographical Distribution of Folk Play Times of Appearance - Work in Progress

Compiled by Peter Millington

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Distribution map showing the times of appearance of British and Irish folk plays
Click on the map for a larger image.


It has been well-known for a long time that times of appearance of British and Irish Quack Doctor plays vary according to region. For instance All Souls is known to be the preferred date in Cheshire, and Plough Monday in the East Midlands. However, I am not aware that anyone has ever tried to plot a national distribution map for times of appearance. This is surprising, given that substantial data has been available since 1967, when the lists in English Ritual Drama [ERD] were published (E.C.Cawte et al, 1967). Instead, maps have been plotted for types of play. The only regional distribution map I am aware of is one plotted by Brian Hayward (1992) for Scottish times of appearance.


The data for this survey is being drawn from a a variety of sources, which are listed in the next section. Information was extracted into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for processing. This had columns for the following fields:

  • 4-figure National Grid map reference
  • Place Name
  • County
  • Country or Nation
  • Time of Appearance
  • Code Letter
  • Source of data
  • Bibliographic reference for the primary source, where readily available

Some places are listed in more than one source. I have listed all of them, but they only produce one point on the map. For a few places, two sources give different grid references (usually to an adjacent grid square). In these cases, I have checked the location on the Ordnance Survey maps and corrected the grid references accordingly. Otherwise, grid references have been taken on trust.

Code Letters have been assigned to group together related names of appearance - e.g. P = Plough Monday, Ploughboy Night, etc. However, Code Letters were only assigned for the more common times of appearance - i.e. Christmas, New Year, Plough Monday, Easter, Halloween and All Souls. Odd villages here and there have other times of performance that appear to be unique to them - perhaps the local village feast day. These have been excluded from the map, but would be worthy of further investigation in a separate study.

The map itself has been prepared using a method based on 10km National Grid squares, often used in biological surveys. If at least one place within a 10km grid square has the required feature, the whole square is coloured in. This makes it easier to spot general patterns.

A macro was used to plot the map on an Excel grid. A distinctive background colour was set in the relevant geographical cell for each code letter, as indicated in the key - e.g. yellow for C for Christmas. Of course, a given square may feature two or more different times of appearance. Ideally, such a square should be bi-coloured, but this is not possible using Excel. I have therefore used the colour appropriate to the less-common time of appearance (i.e. the colour lowest down the list in the key), and added the code letter for the alternative time of appearance. These letters are more readily discernible in the original spreadsheet. This approach adds visual weight to the non-Christmas dates, while still indicating the alternatives.

Plays where the time of appearance is not explicitly stated, but which have the character Father Christmas have been assigned to Christmas. This applies mainly to records from southern England, especially those from the James Madison Carpenter Collection. To test the validity of this approach, I plotted a special map for just the Christmas and Father Christmas records. This showed that nearly all the Father Christmas records occurred in 10km grid squares that also had records explicitly performed at Christmas. The assumed link between Father Christmas and Christmas performance therefore appears to be valid.


This is an ongoing project. My basic approach has been to start by processing the lists of plays in ERD, and then add records from other sources, especially sources that are already in a digitised format. These are the sources I have used so far:

  • English Ritual Drama: A Geographical Index (E.C.Cawte et al, 1967) - probably still the key reference guide to information on British and Irish folk drama, although more comprehensive guides have been published for particular counties
  • Corrections and additions to English Ritual Drama published in three parts by E.C.Cawte in Roomer (1981, 1982 & 1985).
  • Steve Roud & Paul Smith's (1993) MumBib and MummInd databases.
  • My own bibliography of Nottinghamshire folk plays and related customs (P.Millington, 1999).
  • Chas Marshall & Stuart Rankin's The Return of the Blue Stots (2003)
  • The James Madison Carpenter Collection Online Catalogue (J.C.Bishop, 2003).

The other sources I anticipate adding are given in the following rough list, in no particular order:

  • Further data from my Nottinghamshire Bibliography
  • Brian Hayward's Galoshins (1992)
  • Lists for southern English counties, published by Steve Roud at al (1980-1991)
  • Eddie Cass's book The Lancashire Pace-Egg Play (2001)
  • Any other lists that come my way


It has been noted before that the distribution of Quack Doctor plays in the British Isles is uneven (e.g. E.C.Cawte et al, 1967), and this is evident in this map too. It is difficult to say whether areas are blank because the plays were never performed there, or because no one has looked for information there. After all, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Wherever people have made a systematic effort to gather all the available information on the plays of a particular region, the number of known plays has always increased significantly. In Ireland for instance, only a handful of plays were known before the investigations of Alan Gailey. Helm’s first checklist (1954) had only 6 plays for the whole of Ireland, but by the time ERD was published (Cawte et al, 1967), this number had grown to over 130 locations, and the concentration of the plays in Ulster and Wexford had become evident. Similarly, Helm’s 1954 list had only 8 plays for the whole of Scotland. By 1967 this had grown to a still sparse 35. B.Hayward (1992) increased this number to 105, which only then was sufficient to permit the identification of distribution patterns. Within England too, the number of records for many counties has shown equally impressive growth.

The conclusion I draw from this discussion are that whenever people have looked for evidence in a particular area, they have usually found it. It is therefore not sufficient to state that plays do not occur in a particular area unless it is possible to demonstrate that an assiduous search for evidence has been unsuccessful. Cawte et al may have demonstrated this for Shropshire and Herefordshire (E.C.Cawte et al, 1967, p31). It also seems probable that the voids in northern Scotland, East Anglia, most of Wales and the bulk of southern Ireland are real.

The new map confirms the regional variations that are already known. The red area shows that Pace-Egging at Easter is concentrated in the northwestern counties of England - Lancashire, Cumbria and parts of West Yorkshire. South of that, the blue patch indicates the Souling plays of central Cheshire (actually often performed a few days earlier at Halloween). Scattered blue squares show Halloween performances in Scotland, with purple squares indicating the other Scottish date; New Year. The green patches show the concentration of Plough Monday performances in the English East Midlands and to a lesser extent in Yorkshire. Elsewhere, and very much in the majority, performances took place at Christmas.


Christmas performances occur to a greater or lesser extent throughout the whole geographical range of the plays. To my mind, the other performance dates seem to overlie the Christmas distribution. This suggests that Christmas may have been the original performance date, and the regional variations may have developed later. There is some evidence for this in the East Midlands. The earliest known Plough plays were performed in the 1820s at Christmas (C.R.Baskervill, 1923). It was only later in the 19th century that Plough plays were acted on Plough Monday.

My gut feeling is that the present map is already fairly representative. As data is added from other sources, I think the distribution patterns will be further consolidated, and that nothing new will emerge, although I will keep an open mind. Other interesting distribution maps have been plotted for folk plays, notably for particular characters and/or lines (e.g. P.T.Millington, 2003, and M.J.Preston, 2003). However, a map I would particularly like to see, but for which the data is not readily available is a map showing the distribution of the collective names used for the actors and their activities- i.e. Mummers/Mumming, Guisers/Guising, Plough Jags/Plough Jagging, Pace Eggers/Pace Egging, etc. This is a project for another day.

Peter Millington


Charles Reed Baskervill (1923) Mummers' Wooing Plays in England
Modern Philology, Feb.1924, Vol.21, No.3, pp.225-272

Julia C.Bishop et al (2003) The James Madison Carpenter Collection Online Catalogue
Internet URL:, 2003, Accessed 19th Feb.2005

Eddie Cass (2001) The Lancashire Pace-Egg Play: A Social History
London, FLS Publications, [2001], ISBN 0-903515-22-9

E.C.Cawte, A.Helm & N.Peacock (1967) English Ritual Drama: A Geographical Index
London, Folklore Society, 1967

E.C.Cawte (1981) Amendments to 'English Ritual Drama'
Roomer, 1981, Vol.1, No.5, pp.23-26

E.C.Cawte (1982) Amendments to English Ritual Drama - Part 2
Roomer, 1982, Vol.2, No.2, pp.9-16

E.C.Cawte (1985) Amendments to 'English Ritual Drama': Part 3
Roomer, 1985, Vol.5, No.2, pp.9-22

Brian Hayward (1992) Galoshins: The Scottish Folk Play
Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1992, ISBN 07486-0338-7, pp.????

Alex Helm (1954) The English Folk Play: A General Survey
Manchester, E.F.D.S.S., 1954

Chas Marshall & Stuart Rankin (2003) The Return of the Blue Stots: An Aspect of Traditional Drama in Yorkshire
London, Dockside Studio, 2003

Peter Millington (1999) Bibliography of Nottinghamshire Folk Plays and Related Customs
Internet URL:, 1999

Peter Millington (2003) Textual Analysis of English Quack Doctor Plays: Some New Discoveries
Folk Drama Studies Today: The International Traditional Drama Conference 2002, ed. by Eddie Cass & Peter Millington
Sheffield, Traditional Drama Research Group, 2003, ISBN 0-9508152-3-3, pp.97-132
[PDF Download - 841 kB]

Michael J. Preston (2003) Reading Chapbooks Closely: Gleaning Evidence about their Composition, History, and Relationship to Oral Traditions
Folk Drama Studies Today: The International Traditional Drama Conference 2002, ed. by Eddie Cass & Peter Millington
Sheffield, Traditional Drama Research Group, 2003, ISBN 0-9508152-3-3, pp.133-176

S.Roud (1980) Mumming Plays in Berkshire
Andover, S.Roud, 1980

S.Roud (1981) Mumming Plays in the Isle of Wight: Preliminary Listing
Andover, S.Roud, 1981

S.Roud (1984) Mumming Plays in Oxfordshire
Sheffield, Traditional Drama Research Group, 1984

S.Roud & M.Bee (1991) Berkshire Mumming Plays: A Geographical Index and Guide to Sources
London, Folklore Society, 1991, ISBN 0-871903-25-4

S.Roud & P.Marsh (1978) Mumming Plays in Wiltshire
Andover, S.Roud, 1978

S.Roud & P.Marsh (1980) Mumming Plays in Hampshire: 7th Edition
Andover, S.Roud, 1980, pp.16,25-30

Steve Roud & Paul Smith [eds.] (1993) Mummers’ Plays: Electronic Subject Bibliographies 3 Enfield Lock, Hisarlik Press, 1993, ISBN 1-874312-10-9

© Copyright 2005 by Peter Millington (, Last updated: 10-Apr-2016