Circular Issued to Superintendents – Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire – from the Chief Constables Office, Cambridge 2nd January 1865
“Numerous complaints having been made as to the drunken disorderly, and in some cases, intimidating conduct of the Mummers on the last year’s Plough Monday, the attention of the respective Superintendents and Inspectors is directed to the suppression of the same … [the mummers] are liable to be treated as vagrants, rogues and vagabonds”
The Origins: Pagan and Christian
The origins of Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany, on January 6th) are not entirely known. The tradition is found almost everywhere north and nowhere south of the border which divided Danish England from Saxon England. Plough Monday could have originated as a pagan tradition to ensure good harvest. It has also been suggested that the origins could be a tax gathering custom as the plough was taken house-to-house to ensure that the tariff was paid by all who used the communal plough.
This communal plough would often be kept within the parish church. During the medieval period “plow lights” are recorded, these were candles burning in parish churches to seek divine blessings on farmers, fields and their equipment (most obviously the communal plough). By the 15th century ploughs were being led around communities in a procession ending in a church service (similar perhaps to Rogation Sunday where Parish boundaries are walked and blessed). Needless to say the Reformation and Puritan leanings of the 17th century did away with these “superstitious and Papist customs”, and yet, the custom did not fall away…
Whether the traditional giving of pennies, parish procession and church service (with or without plough) continued with the secular and ecclesiastical authorities turning a blind eye is unknown.
There is an account of manslaughter in 1684 where the defendants argued their ancient right to charge a 1d toll on Plough Monday! Almsgivings by local landowners occurred sporadically on Plough Mondays throughout the long eighteenth century, at Kimbolton, Stonely and over the border in Barnack. These are the only hints that the custom was not entirely extinct.
The Raucous 19th Century
The first reference to Plough Monday in the local press was in Godmanchester in 1840, where an
assemblage of six “ploughboys” (with an average age of 78.5 years!) met at the Wheatsheaf. No further details are given and so whether the celebration of Plough Monday or the great age of these individuals was the newsworthy item is unknowable.
Plough Monday celebrations in the 19th century seem to have reached a heyday; generally speaking the Huntingdonshire celebrants were ‘Plough Witches’, although on the Northamptonshire border ‘Plough Bullocking’ also occurred. Both required those taking part to be in disguise, usually in female attire with soot blackened faces, it was also normal to fashion grotesque humps and breasts with straw stuffed under clothing.
The Plough Bullocks would fasten themselves into a Plough team and drag the plough through the town soliciting “donations” from passersby and businesses, most of which would end up being reinvested into the local ale houses before days end, if the local press can be believed!
The Plough Witches would carry brooms and likewise drag their plough through towns, knocking on the doors of houses and businesses, and asking for donations of money. In the event that these donations were not forthcoming the front gardens or paths would be ploughed up before the witches proceeded to their next victim – a form of agricultural trick or treating!
By the 1850’s the celebrations in Godmanchester were being repressed, with the local press discouraging people from giving donations or taking part; in 1858, constables arrested some of the Plough Witches. During the 1860’s the actual participants seem to have no longer been farm labourers for whom “the thing don’t pay” and instead were itinerant workers, and increasingly truant school children. The only exceptions to this were years which are reported as being hard winters; the coldest of these were 1888, 1892 and 1897. On these occasions the celebrations seem to have been much larger and presumably included labourers struggling to make ends meet or without work as the weather was not good enough to work the land.
To add to the spectacle of their Plough Monday processional, the Ramsey Plough Witches borrowed heavily from the traditions of Whittlesey over the border in Cambridgeshire and brought one or more “straw bears” along. This was a member of the troupe bedecked out in a bear suit made from straw, first recorded in 1880 and attending every Plough Monday until 1893. These straw bears “grotesquely dressed in straws” were accompanied by older men who would play instruments for the bears to dance to, in the way that bears would have done for entertainment in the medieval period.
By the very late 19th century, the traditions of Plough Monday were in an almost terminal decline, the exception being only the harshest winters, which saw “a slight revival of these moribund practice[s]”. By the turn of the century the sight of a plough being taken through the streets on Plough Monday was unknown and even the straw bears so popular in Ramsey were no longer to be seen.
The Plough Mondays of the early 20th century were the sole remit of school boys. The celebration in Godmanchester in 1904 saw a dozen boys with neither disguise nor plough begging house to house, the final Godmanchester Plough Monday in 1914 saw; “a few farm lads going the rounds with a collecting box soliciting donations”.
Generally speaking the First World War saw the final end to this custom in most corners of the county. The final recorded Plough Mondays in St. Ives, Alconbury, Kimbolton, Yaxley and Farcet falling in the decade before WW1. Some places maintained the custom longer yet with children leading Plough Monday celebrations at Great Gidding (1928), Holme (1931), Ramsey (1934), Earith (1934) and Warboys (1937). The children still dressed garishly, blackened their faces and begged passersby and homeowners for copper pennies with cries of “Remember the poor Ploughboy” or “Just one copper, just one” shaking their tins and driving their plough.
The final nail in the coffin was the Second World War, although one enterprising group of Plough boys from Holme in 1940 used Plough Monday as an opportunity to raise 11s donated to the “Comforts to the Troops Fund”, the final hurrah for a centuries old tradition.
Throughout the latter decades of the 20th century there were abortive attempts to reinstate Plough Monday within Huntingdonshire. Events were held in St. Neots, Gravely and Fenstanton with Morris Dancers, Plough processions, Plough blessings, Traditional Folk Songs and donations gathered for local good causes. Ramsey (with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund) held a series of Plough Monday celebrations from 2008 including reintroducing traditional Ramsey folk songs.
The best known Plough Monday celebrations in the region are over the old county border in Whittlesey, where the annual Straw Bear Festival is celebrating its 41st year in 2020!
All the details can be found here if you wish to attend: http://www.strawbear.org.uk/
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
Cambridgeshire County Council, “An Introduction to Plough Monday”, 2019, via: http://www.enidporterproject.org.uk/content/cambridgeshire-traditions/plough-monday/plough-monday, Accessed: 28th December 2019
Frampton, G,. “Vagrants, Rogues and Vagabonds: Plough Monday Tradition in Old Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough”, 1996, George Frampton Publishing, Tonbridge, First Edition
Hunts Post, “Ancient Plough Monday custom remembered in Ramsey and Hail Weston”, 2012, via: https://www.huntspost.co.uk/news/ancient-plough-monday-custom-remembered-in-ramsey-and-hail-weston-1-1173104, Accessed: 28th December 2019
Irvine, R. D.G., “Following the Bear: the revival of Plough Monday traditions and the performance of rural identity in the East Anglian Fenlands”. 2018, EthnoScripts: Zeitschrift f ̈ur aktuelle ethnologische Studien, 20(1) pp. 16–34
Ridgway, C., “Plough Monday”, 2016, via: https://www.tudorsociety.com/plough-monday/, Accessed: 29th December 2019
Roud, S., “The English Year”, 2006, Penguin Publishing, London, First Edition
Whittlesey Town Council, “Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival”, 2019, via: http://www.strawbear.org.uk/ Accessed: 29th December 2019