Lancashire's weird and wonderful Pancake Day traditions

Pancake tossing in the 1830s

Pancake tossing in the 1830s

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Pancake Day is upon us and local historian Keith Johnson reveals the strange Lancastrian rituals once celebrated at this time of year

In Lancashire in olden days ‘Shrovetide’ meant the three days before Lent got under way, being known as ‘Collop Monday’, ‘Pancake Tuesday’ and ‘Fritters Wednesday’.
It meant an extremely busy time for the cooks who made those appetising dishes. The collops were at first merely slices of bread, later rashers of bacon, and the fritters were cakes made from batter in which sliced apples were placed.
Shrove Tuesday this year is on the last day of February and some of its customs and traditions are still part of Lancashire life in both town and country.
Shrovetide got its name from the custom of people going to be ‘shriven’ or to confess their sins before fasting began on Ash Wednesday. Long gone are the days when folk throughout the land were obliged to confess their sins individually to the parish priest. And for this purpose the great bells in churches throughout the Kingdom were rung to call the sinners to confession. They spent their time after confession in such pastimes as cock-fighting and bear-baiting.
In ancient times schoolboys brought their cockrels to the schoolmaster. The pupils sat around the classroom, which became a makeshift cock-pit and the master directed proceedings. Burnley Grammar School was one such place where the master gained quite an income from the indulgence. Pancake Tuesday on the Fylde was always a time for great celebration. The clanging of the pancake bell in early morning at Poulton Church signalling the beginning of the merry making.
Shrove Tuesday is a day steeped in the history of Preston and the day was often marked by members of the corporation, led by enthusiasts waving flags and playing music as they took a tour of the town’s boundaries. They started by going down Fishergate and along the path where Strand Road is now until they came to a place known as the colt hole. This was a dam of water and the new members of the corporation were obliged to leap over it or nominate a substitute to do it for them.
The willing participant would receive a couple of shillings if he failed to clear the water, and two shillings more if he had a safe landing at the other side, which was a rarity. Generally they were advised to seize some persons as they ran up to leap and plunge them into the brink also.
Then as those drenched attempted to get out they would try to pull others into the water and often there would be a dozen wet through by the end. The colt hole was on the Preston side of the river and from there they walked to a watering trough that stood by the Wheat Sheaf Inn by the Marsh. Here they would dam the water off and throw coppers into it. This always led to an almighty scramble from boys and men to grab the coins and inevitably the participants ended up soaked to the skin.
The next move was past the old canal aqueduct and up the hill to Old Horse Lane, where Messrs. Haslam’s mill stood in those days. In that area members of the corporation and locals alike could be seen dancing around the trees as pipers played music.
It was also a tradition on this day to inaugurate the town’s new bailiffs’ and they were unceremoniously ‘broken in’ by being whipped round the town pumps.
Of course the pumps were not scarce, being dotted around the town. Of iron construction there were three in Friargate, a couple in Church Street, one on Fishergate and others in Crown Street, Moss Street, Peter Street, Albert Street, New Hall Lane and Park Road and perhaps, not surprisingly, one in the aptly named Pump Street worked by a small steam engine.
The pump generally favoured on Shrove Tuesday was the one near the Waggon and Horses public house at the top of Lord Street, where the Tithebarn Inn now stands. Unfortunately, as the years passed by, those keen to administer the whippings began to indulge themselves in handing out some regrettable beatings of the bailiffs undergoing initiation.
Over enthusiastic blacksmiths who worked close by would rush out with rods of iron and apply them with much vigour to the backs of the distraught bailiffs.
Not surprisingly that part of the Shrove Tuesday activity had to stop before great mischief befell the bruised and bloodied bailiffs. The official party would then head down St John’s Street and on to the King’s Arms and there an unruly skirmish would take place as coins were thrown from the windows of the inn.
Trouble was the coins were either cold or burning hot and many a grasping hand had burns to tell the tale of the Shrove Tuesday boundary walk.
This custom was perhaps wisely discontinued in the 19th century because it had a habit of making the day into one when all manner of wild behaviour seemed to be allowed, with apprentices in particular running wild.
At one stage badger baiting was enthusiastically encouraged and many an hour was spent in the barbarous practice of bull and bear baiting in the Market Place.
Fifty years ago, back in 1967, the Mayor of Preston, Joseph Holden, a leading Conservative known as the ‘Top Hat Tory’, decided to mark his year in office by reviving the ancient tradition of beating the bounds. With his entourage he visited each corner of the town boundaries before eating pancakes in the Town Hall.
The other, perhaps more familiar name, these days for Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday is Pancake Tuesday. It was the custom to use up all your rich food before the fasting of Lent was observed. Back in 1933 the Post provided a recipe for pancakes that were perfect for tossing, a common practice as were pancake races through the streets in many a town and village.
Generations of Lancashire folk have rushed to feast when they heard the chimes of the ‘Pancake Bell’.