More Strange British Traditions: The Honiton Hot Pennies

Unlike Whoopity Scoorie, whose origin is so uncertain that it might date back to the beginning of time but also might date back to the nineteenth century, whichever came first, the Honiton Hot Pennies celebration has a clear beginning: It started in the thirteenth century, when Honiton was given a royal charter.

What’s a royal charter? It’s the oldest form of incorporation in the U.K., according to the Chartered Insurance Institute, which is an institute with a charter, not an institute that deals with chartered insurance. Having a charter of its own, it’s in a position to explain what that means. And also to explain why you should be impressed with them.

Irrelevant photo: Watching the sea in mid-February.

Charters are given by the monarch on the advice of the privy council.

The privy council? That’s–actually it looks boring. Let’s say it’s a topic for another time, when I’ll see if I can’t find a bit of spice for it.

The point of a charter is to “create and define the privileges and purpose of a public or private corporation such as a town or city. Although still occasionally granted to cities, today new Charters are usually conferred on bodies such as professional institutions and charities that work in the public interest and which are able to demonstrate financial stability and permanence and pre-eminence in their field.

So there.

You’ll notice (or you will now that I’m making a fuss of it) that the Chartered Insurance Institute capitalizes the word charter. It’s a British thing. You capitalize words you think are important. Especially Nouns. Charters are important. Because the institute has one. And because it’s explaining them.

That non-system of capitalization drives me Nuts.

The earliest royal charter in Britain dates back to 1066, which makes it sound like charters came over with the Norman hordes, but they didn’t. The first chartered town was in Scotland, which was cheerily Normanless in 1066 and remained so for some time to come.

The Normans? They invaded Anglo-Saxon England and became its rulers.


Oh, stop it. If you can’t find England on a map, go offer your soul to Lord Google and he’ll explain it.

The earliest charter in England was given to Cambridge University in the thirteenth century.

But I believe we were talking about hot pennies, which are not pennies that have been stolen but pennies that have been heated.

Why were they heated? Because it amused the hell out of the gentry to throw pennies to the peasants and watch them burn their hands trying to pick up as many as they could before someone else got them.

Desperation and poverty are so amusing.

By that way, that interpretation of the gentry’s motivation isn’t the product of my leftish mind twisting the available facts. It’s what the Honiton Town Council’s website says, although I’m responsible for “amused the hell out of.” The website says they “took great delight in seeing the peasants burn their fingers whilst collecting them.”

Whilst? It’s a British thing and completely apolitical. You’re not likely to find me using it.

These days, when we’ve all lost our sense of humor and become so fearful of being criticized, the pennies are warmed but not heated enough to burn anyone’s fingers.

Sad, isn’t it? That’s what political correctness brings us to.

The celebration is held on the first Tuesday after the 19th of July. Which is as convoluted a date as the one when the U.S. votes–the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The Hot Pennies celebration also involves a glove being hoisted on a garlanded pole. The town cryer announces, ““No man may be arrested so long as this glove is up.” The idea was to make sure no one would stay away for fear of being arrested for their (or as stated, his) debts.


My thanks to Bear Humphreys for sending me a couple of links about the celebration, which I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. 

61 thoughts on “More Strange British Traditions: The Honiton Hot Pennies

  1. In my former life, I was a member of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply. It was a big thing when it got its charter.

    I’m a bit worried by this whole hot pennies thing. The idea of wealthy people doing something just to watch others suffer feels more eighteenth or nineteenth century. If,as the town’s website suggests, the purpose was to attract people to a fair, why did they burn people when the picked them up? The would surely put people off. Fairs were special enough for people to want to attend anyway. In the 13th century the only affluent person would be the local lord of the manor, who would have jeopardised hs own survival by injuring his serfs. Perhaps the pennies were cold in the Middle Ages.

    Liked by 2 people

    • At this point, it would be hard to untangle the history, with all its contradictory threads. It could easily have changed over the centuries. But as far as the lord’s self-interest goes, I expect the pennies were hot enough to hurt but not hot enough to do long-term damage.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That still doesn’t feel right. Besides, why would such a thing become an annual tradition? The lords of the manor over the generations would have been away a fair bit fighting in crusades and civil wars. Who had the money to throw then and who got the pleasure? I should probably stop thinking about it.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. In the 1970’s (I stated the ’19’ just in case you thought I was time travelling) the pennies still seemed pretty hot to my younger hands. The ceremony marked the start of Fair Week, for which, as a young child, you’d need a fair amount of pennies to spend at the usefully concurrent visit of the travelling Fair. Which is a fair amount of Fairs and fairs altogether. Lucky there wasn’t a Fayre as well really.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This tradition is in a Terry Pratchett book, I didn’t know it was real. I should have done really when i think about it!

    I work with engineers who capitalise words willy nilly, more or less based on how much the like the word or if they think it is an important thing. I yell at them a lot, and seem to spend about 25% of my working life removing capital letter from things!

    Liked by 3 people

    • When I edited a small writers magazine, I had a series of things I changed so regularly in articles by the staff of the organization that published it that I wrote up a style sheet and cirulated it, thinking that would fix things.

      Nothing changed. But it was a funny style sheet and I had a good time writing it. Moral? If you can’t improve the situation, at least amuse yourself.

      The funny thing is that I can’t remember what they were anymore.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I have to wonder about the “no man may be arrested” thing. Is it like The Purge? Could you commit any crime you wanted and get away with it? I mean, I know this is the English we’re talking about, so no one would be willing to breach propriety like that, but in theory it seems like an alarming idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a hunch English (or British–take your pick) propriety is overstated in some ways. Not that it doesn’t exist, just that it has its limits. And my best guess is that it’s a relatively new addition to the culture.

      Since we’re in the realm of pure guesswork here, I’d guess that the amnesty related to past crimes, not on-the-spot ones. Sad, isn’t it? It would’ve been one raucous fair if it covered the commission of new ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We have something similar, it’s called welfare, where politicians throw out money and watch as people rearrange their lives to try and capture some of the free money. Most recently it has included raising the minimum wage in some cities which, contrary to intent, caused people to rearrange their lives (cutting down the number of hours they work) so they can make the most of the new money without sacrificing the freebies they would lose if they worked the same number of hours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Having known many people who depended on welfare at various points in their lives, I’m critical of but not opposed to it. If someone sat down a goup of people down and asked, “How can we set this up so the people who need it fail and the people who don’t get it hate the people who do,” they’d have been hard put to do a better job. Any decent society has to be able to support people at desperate times in their lives–and yes, sometimes those desperate times last a lifetime. But that’s a long, long discussion.

      In the meantime, I’ve got a fresh batch of coins just ready to come out of the oven. Want any?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have known, and have been, on that side as well. My problem with the system is that it is designed by politicians to only half-solve a problem, because if they solved it then they’d have nothing to use to get votes next time around.

        Back in the early days of this country, after the vote was given to everyone, politicians would pay people (with goods, services, or money) ahead of the vote to entice people to vote for them. Now that doing that is illegal, they do it the opposite way: promise to give them goods, services, or money, after they are elected.

        FDR, not my favorite politician, solved the problem with the creation of the CCC (Civil Conservation Corps) wherein people worked on jobs created by the government. Actual work for wages. Giving them pay for work that needed done, and skills they could apply to civilian jobs. Now, like the Plymouth Colony we give people money to stay at home and do nothing, then expect them to give it up when jobs become available. The US is in a unique situation, we have more jobs than we have people to fill them, yet we have created a society where people will not give up their free life to take those jobs. With our borders shut to “illegal” immigration we no longer have a supply of people looking for work to fill those jobs. Within a few years companies will have to fill those jobs with a robotic workforce, or move their production facilities overseas, either situation will then result in firing workers who are no longer needed.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree with much of what you say but not all of it. The system has to allow for people who can’t work, and not being able to work takes many forms. The UK government went on a tear here, trying to flush out the people they believed didn’t deserve disability benefits. The results have been cruel and grotesque, including informing people who were dying that they were fit to work, and demanding that people appear for assessments when they had to way to get there, no money to get there, or weren’t physically able to get there. The list of cruelties goes on, but I’ll stop. We–both the UK and the US–have a powerful underlying belief that there’s this mass of people on welfar who don’t deserve it. There are surely some, although how many remains unproven, but any number of cruel policies have been implemented in the name of curing the problem.

          The issue of forcing people into work itself raises some difficult issues. What jobs can a person legitimately turn down? How bad do the conditions have to be, or how inappropriate for the worker’s phyiscal and mental health, before we look at it and say, “Right, give that one a miss”? We’re currently in a situation where–from what I read–a sizable portion of not just the poor but also the homeless are working but are trapped in low-paid jobs. They work like hell, but work doesn’t get them ahead.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I understand the issue of people who cannot work, I had a son who was physically disabled and unable to do even minor work, I am not talking of them. But my wife works at a local fast-food restaurant, not for the money but the socialization, and has seen a number of people come through who are simply working because they are required to do so by the welfare system. I can’t tell the number of young women who are working until they get pregnant again so that the young-mother portion of welfare kicks in and they can, once again, afford to quit. Those who won’t identify the fathers so the guy isn’t forced to pay child support because they (the mothers) would then have to give up the welfare money that supports both parents. One even, proudly, runs a website that tells young people how to scam the system so that they don’t have to work.

            To the English system, shame on them if they did not provide a method for the government to visit those at home who could not make it to the office. Nor make allowances for the others. But they are right in forcing the able bodied to take a job, it is not right for everyone else to pay so that those who don’t want to work don’t. My 2-cents, or 2-pence.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I haven’t seen a system yet that someone won’t scam, be it welfare of government contracts to businesses, which skim huge amounts of money from the taxpayer and suffer very little in the way of consequences when they get caught. But I do think we have, as a set of cultures, been worked up about the one while we ignore the other, and the result has been the shred the support where it’s genuinely needed.

              Liked by 1 person

  6. My University still has a Royal Charter, and makes a big deal out of it. All the other Universities in America gave up their Charters when we declared Independence, except for one. And every year there’s a big “Charter Day” celebration, and there’s still a “Chancellor”, although that office is no longer appointed by the Crown.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. We still use charters a lot. Corporations, churches, schools universities all have chapters that state the purposes and rules. Charters and by-laws. Important part of our life.
    I used to read old documents and notice all the capital letters. And odd spelling. The spelling I noticed more that all the capitals. Glad you explained why they were there. My curiosity never was high enough to go beyond the thought that those people were odd stage.

    I can easily picture the hot pennies thing and see why it would be fun. I do not believe the pennies would not have been hot enough to cause a blister or a burn but enough to provoke an ouch. I can picture kids blowing on the pennies and dropping them after picking them up. And fighting over them perhaps. Not enough pain yo keep the kids from coming back for more. Nothing luge a bunch of excited and screaming kids to liven up a party or a fair.

    My reading of history leads me to believe people during those days took a lot of time off for holidays, fairs and festivals. I don’t think their life was quite as difficult as most people think it was. They did not have our modern medicine and life expectancy was shorter. Some people were able to live to an old age.

    Maybe I will spice up my writings with a sprinkling of capitals of Important words. Some old traditions need to be kept Alive.

    Looking forward to hearing more about the privy council. Sounds mysterious. The council must have some dark secrets and doings that need to be exposed.

    Thanks for the post and have a good week.


    • Bojana’s comment (above, I think) that German capitalizes all nouns. I think English stole the tradition from them. It’s a Germanic language–partly. Only we don’t have a rule about it. Instead, we just turn it into a chaotic mess. As an editor–or at least a former editor–I feel I have a right to foam at the mouth about all that random capitalization. It drives me nuts.

      Have a good week YourSelf.


  8. Perhaps this is the same logic as work requirements for benefits to people who are poor because they can’t find work. I can also see our dear president dispensing hot pennies from a machine for 10¢ each.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Gosh, when I hear the term Hot Pennies, I immediately think of stolen pennies, but then that would be silly these days to steal pennies when they are practically worthless and worthy of no Celebration.
    Leave it to an American to focus on the Value of Money.
    Oops – did I overdo the Caps?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Morning Ellen -Just thought I’d add my pennyworth! I was teaching in a primary school in Dunoon in Scotland in the very early seventies. When we married, all 37 children in my class were waiting outside the church to greet us. So sweet you might think, but they were chanting loudly,”Poor oot! Poor oot!”, waiting for us to throw all the pennies my family had been collecting for months. No mention of health and safety as we hurled out handfuls of old, predecimal, therefore very large pennies and the children scrabbled in the road to grab as many as they could. It was a very old Scottish tradition and not sure if it still continues? Probably not! Children of today would turn their noses up as pennies are not much incentive to tear them away from their screens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder what you’d have to throw today. Fifty-p pieces? Pounds? It would get expensive. Still, I prefer to think they were there because you were such a fantastic teacher.

      And a likely source of pennies.


  11. Hey Ellen, just wanted to let you know my blog is now private. Had some ‘problems’ I wanted to get rid of. Anyway, you’ll need to ask for permission so I can grant you access. It’s easy, you’ll see, just click on my blog.
    I have no idea any more who I granted access to, so you’ll excuse me if you already have it. It’s been pretty hectic these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. During the Great Depression, John Rockefeller threw dimes out the window of his limo because he was amused watching the people scramble to get them. I guess no one told him that it he heated them, he could have had even more fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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