Leicester’s outlawed Shrove Tuesday tradition

Posted by ap507 at Feb 28, 2017 10:09 AM |
University’s Special Collections discusses how to evade a flogging by the Whipping Toms during the 19th century

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 27 February 2017

Images of historical Leicester are available here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/fi9l6v0p3s0hvio/AAC1pjOnSc2zkVQ7oPCbHNIAa?dl=0

Shrove Tuesday – taking place this year on 28 February – often involves the flipping of savoury and sweet pancakes, but prior to 1846 the city of Leicester had its own very particular way of celebrating the event.

At this time Shrove Tuesday was an occasion for an outburst of eating, drinking and riotous entertainments. 

A letter written by ‘J.C.B.’ to William Hone, author of the Year Book first published in 1829, explained how on the morning of Shrove Tuesday, a fair was held in the Newarke, with stalls selling food and drink and musical entertainment.

At about midday, a game of ‘hockey’ or ‘single stick’ played by two teams of men and boys, began. However, this was only the prelude to the main entertainment of the day – the ‘Whipping Toms’.

By one o’clock, any of the more timid onlookers would wisely have made themselves scarce. At this hour, three men clad in blue smocks and armed with ‘a large waggon whip’ - a formidable weapon, capable of causing serious injury - appeared, attended by three other men, who carried a bell. 

These were the ‘Whipping Toms’, who, as ‘J.C.B.’ explains, ‘[claimed] the right of flogging every person whom they [could] catch, while their attendant bell-man [could] keep ringing his bell’.

Those who had remained in the crowd would therefore surround the bell-men and try to capture the bell, running the risk of a severe whipping by doing so.

The contests lasted for several hours and inevitably the game degenerated into violence, with many wounded or seriously bruised and frequent fights springing up between the participants.

The origins of this custom are uncertain – but the extortion of two pence from many of the fearful onlookers undoubtedly cemented its popularity with the main participants.

The custom was eventually outlawed by a clause in the Leicester Improvement Act of 1846.

Mrs T. Fielding Johnson reports that, in the following year, ‘a mob, some of whom carried brick ends in old stockings, again assembled to claim the ancient right, the Mayor … was compelled to enforce the law and some sharp fighting ensued’

The authorities were eventually victorious, however, and, from then on, the Newarke during Shrove Tuesday became a more peaceful place, ultimately helping to lead to the pancake-prolific day we know today.


Notes to editors: 

For more information contact Margaret Maclean from the University of Leicester Special Collections on mm219@le.ac.uk


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