Strange British Traditions: The Tichborne Dole

March 25 is Tichborne Dole day, although if you get too far from the village of Tichborne not many people will have heard of it.

The tradition started in the thirteenth century with what we can pretty safely assume was a miserable marriage between the unfortunate Mabella and the insufferable Roger Tichborne. 

Am I biased? Of course not. I’m just telling you how it was. But we should probably call the unhappy couple Lady Mabella and Sir Roger at least once, because that’s what other people would’ve called them. 

Good. Now that we’ve done that, we’ll go back to plain ol’ Mabella and Roger. But as long as we’re correcting my carelessness, let’s add that the tale may start in the twelfth century, not the thirteenth. From this distance, it doesn’t much matter, but it should remind us to take the story with something between a grain of salt and a cup of it. Good storytellers are seldom to be trusted with the truth, and this story was good enough that it stuck around. Let’s tell it as if we trusted every last detail:

Irrelevant photo stolen from an old post: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

Mabella was dying of a wasting disease, and she worried what would happen to the poor of Tichborne village without her charity, so she asked her husband to give them food every year. He pulled a piece of wood out of the fire and said he’d hand out the grain from as much land as she could crawl around before the chunk of wood stopped burning.

Why did she have to crawl? The disease had left her crippled. Although in another version of the tale, she walked. Like I said, storytellers.

Either way, she made the circuit of a twenty-three acre field, now known as the Crawls. But she knew her husband, so she laid on a curse on top of the request. If the dole was ever stopped–even after his death–first the family would have seven sons, then in the next generation it would have seven daughters and the Tichbourn name would die out. Plus the house would fall into ruins.

Take that, Roger. 

It’s worth noting that rogering is British slang for having penetratiive sex. No one claims this story as the origin of the word–it probably comes from the name’s link to spears and lances–but all the same we could say that Roger got rogered.

Anyway, Sir R. was intimidated into keeping his end of the bargain. He had bread handed out every Lady Day–March 25. And that went on until 1796, when local magistrates decided that vagabonds and vagrants were taking advantage of the situation. How? By not being local. This was a time when the deeply settled in place distrusted vagrants–people desperate enough to take to the road. Think of vagrants as the era’s equivalent of refugees: the folks no country wants to take in. No one knew them, no one trusted them, and if they’d had any decency they’d have stayed where they were born, even if it meant dying there.

So rather than waste good bread on them, the dole was ended. Because you know what its like when you give good food to the desperate: They’ll only go and eat it. And desperation’s such a disturbing sight.

Or that–without my editorial comments, of course–is the Historic UK version. The link’s above. In the Alresford Memories’ telling of the tale (that link’s also above), the dole had become rowdy, attracting the dissolute, the dishonest, the (horrors!) Gypsies.

How much distance lies between those two versions? It’s hard to say. A third version  involves vagabonds and paupers from neighboring villages instead of Tichborne. What stays the same in all versions is the distinction between the local poor who the great and good knew and felt (once every a year) good about feeding and the undeserving poor who they didn’t know and don’t like and were afraid they’d be overwhelmed by.

In fairness, the number of poor really could be overwhelming. From 1791 house accounts, it looks like 1,700 loaves of bread were handed out, and the tradition was that if it ran out people got two pence instead. One year, that came to £8–equal to £1,214 in 2020 by one estimate. By another, it was the price of one cow (probably with some left over), or 53 days’ wages for a skilled tradesman. Not, you’d think, an overwhelming amount for an aristocratic family, but the dole’s end followed two bad harvests. The family may have been–or felt, which isn’t necessarily the same thing–hard up. Travelers did record that the house looked like it wasn’t being kept up, and in 1803 part of it collapsed. 

It was rebuilt on a smaller scale. The definition of hard up is relative.

The bad harvests also meant more people and needing bread, so that just when the need was greatest, help stopped being available.

As usual, you can chase up alternative explanations of why the dole ended. It wasn’t that the family was hard it, it was because magistrates demanded that it end. (There’s no record of it, however.) It was because local landowners demanded etc. (There’s no record of that either, but there’s no reason why there would be.)  

Whatever the reason, the dole stopped and a generation of seven sons was followed by a generation of seven daughters, which is convenient enough to make this old cynic wonder if the story wasn’t edited after the fact. 

In the absence of a son (don’t be silly: of course a daughter couldn’t take on such a heavy responsibility), the estate went to a nephew, but he was from a branch of the family that had changed its last name to Doughty. They re-started dole in 1835, but it was restricted to residents of three parishes–Tichborne, Cheriton, and Lane End.

At some point they started handing out flour (a gallon to each person, and recipients had to bring something to carry it in) instead of bread. 

The house is now owned by a family name Loudon–yes, they’re related; the aristocracy keeps its possessions close–and they’re continuing the tradition, but since it is now, they say “a fairly affluent part of the country, we would do something more in keeping with the nature of Lady Mabella’s cause. We decided to ask for a voluntary donation from the villagers for charity, usually collecting about £100.”

I can’t find a date for that quote, but it’s from a 2016 post, so I’m guessing it’s recent. And Lord Google flags Tichborne’s county, Hampshire, as above average in education and income. That’s as close as I could come to data on Tichborne itself, but even so I doubt raising £100 is enough to keep Lady Mabella happy. Especially since the family buys the flour in bulk and says it’s not that expensive, and since the event now involves tourists, who could be persuaded out of a coin or three by a determined fundraiser.

The minute I figure out how, I’m letting Mabella know. 

77 thoughts on “Strange British Traditions: The Tichborne Dole

  1. Haven’t heard of this before, but I can imagine how people would have taken advantage of free food. Probably the modern equivalent of some of London’s ‘homeless beggars’ going back to their council flat at the end of a day’s ‘work’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The thing is, nobody claimed, as far as I can see, that the people who came for the food didn’t need it, only that they weren’t the right desperate people–or weren’t quite desperate enough. As for people begging who have flats, I suspect that’s been overplayed. Yes, you’ll find a few, but those are the ones we (and the media) focus on. And even they aren’t doing it because they’re rolling in cash. How desperate does a person have to be to be legitimate? And why are we as a society letting things get to that point?

      Sorry–rant over.

      Liked by 2 people

        • When we first moved to Britain, we were so impressed that we didn’t see food banks, and that you didn’t need them. The US had had them for years. Now they’re everywhere, and the local one here is always just scraping together enough food to give out.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I assume it’s single mothers who are suffering the most? How can they earn a decent wage if they have to look after children as well? With the rising cost of childcare it makes no economic sense to work. Even if mothers want to earn money looking after children as I did back in the 1980s, they now have to pay to gain qualifications I think.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’d guess you’re right, but I know the local food bank people were shocked to find couples who are both working coming in. Between the minimum wage being low, rent being astronomical, it’s tough. Plus people are coping with zero-hours contracts and mythical self-employment and have no idea from one week to the next what sort of income they can count on.

              Crazy times we live in.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. It strikes me that, if they had grown the right grain, they could have met the demands of the dear lady by brewing beer and giving that away on Tichborne Dole day. The people would still be hungry, but for one day, maybe two, they wouldn’t care.

    Thanks for the entertaining history lesson. I always enjoy these bits of forgotten history. Meanwhile, on this edge of the ocean in 1,100-1,200, well, we got nothing. Actually, we probably had native folk living off the land, in harmony with nature and all that. They didn’t have anyone to give them bread (one day a year) but they didn’t know they were poor, so…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I find this to be one of your most fascinating examples of the importance of retelling human history. Seriously, I see parallels in politics centuries before Mabella and Roger (whether 12th or 13th) in biblical stories, “the poor you will always have with you,” as well as after “you know our family always had to pull up by our bootstraps so why should we be handing out free food to people who are too lazy to work and keep having babies to stay on welfare?”
    I believe “the poor you will always have with you” was a quote from the New Testament made by Jesus to encourage his disciples to focus on him and worry about the poor later.
    I know for sure the second quote was made by one of my Texas cousins in response to my second book in which I outed myself as a liberal Democrat. She was cool with my outing myself as a lesbian in the first memoir, but the idea of the importance of social justice for all was a bridge too far.
    And don’t even get me started on what she thought about the refugees in detention camps along the border.
    Poor Mabella would have her work cut out for her even today should she be interested in encouraging Roger to offer Coronavirus testing kits for the poor.
    Karma’s a bitch, though.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I reached a point–oh, it must’ve been decades ago, where I decided that sometimes you have to stop discussing things rationally and even arguing heatedly and simply start throwing things.

      That aside, though, I do agree: People rewrite their histories, their families’ histories, their countries’ histories, all to support their existing beliefs. One of my aunts–the daughter of immigrants, mind you–went off on a rant once about people speaking Spanish in public. I reminded her that her parents spoke Yiddish, and she said something along the lines of, “Oh, but only at home.” And my grandfather, mind you, was a Yiddishist, dedicated to preserving the language. (I don’t know if my grandmother was or not–I never thought to ask. She was very political but the demands of raising eight kids in a cold-water walk-up might, just possibly, have pushed abstract ideas into the background.)

      I didn’t think to ask my aunt what she thought was wrong with speaking Spanish in public. Sometimes I just can’t get my head around the fact that I’ve heard something fully enough and quickly enough to really take it on. I’ve been rerunning the argument ever since–probably so I can win. Decisively, mind you.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. At the risk of shifting the subject I will never again be able to watch a tv show without a chuckle when they say ‘roger that.’ However I do think you might have possibly stretched the bounds of good story telling when in less than 2,000 paragraphs you credited Roger of holding up his end of the bargin. How totally and completely risque ! And well calling it a bargin. This should be the place where I leave in a huff. Next week we can discuss the getting in and out of a huff. Thanks for a right stirring story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ll look forward to the huff discussion. Please keep in mind that it’s infinitely more complicated if you have to do it in a narrow skirt. Or a long one. Or–well, any kind of skirt. I haven’t worn one in 50 years or so, but I do have vague memories of it.

      I was going to apologize for ruining your movie watching, but on second thought I won’t. I probably enriched it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A dying crippled woman crawled around twenty three acres of land carrying a piece of wood from a fire before the wood stopped burning. I have trouble getting past that. Amazing feat.
    Did they say what kind of wood it was?

    Nice tradition though. In the old testament landowners were to leave one tenth of the grain in the fields to be gathered by the poor. Who was the landowner who spotted Miss Good looking gathering in his fields and married her. Can’t remember her name. They wound up with a bunch if kids I believe and then he died.

    Never know how these things will work out.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I looked up the story. The woman was Ruth, she married the man, Boaz, and they had a son, Jesse, who was the father of David. Nothing in the story about Boaz dying, although I assume he did eventually, as did Ruth. The Boaz dying part I had confused with some other story.

        All these old stories get twisted around as the years go by. And some new ones. Some get twisted sooner than others.

        We are hunkered down here avoiding crowds. One of my daughters was exposed to someone who was at church with someone who was diagnosed with Covid-19. Scary times.

        Liked by 2 people

        • They are indeed. We’re not locked in yet–the virus has taken a while to reach Cornwall–but it will happen, I think. My partner was going to spend a few days in London and has canceled, which is a step.

          Like

  6. In the early 1980’s, when Margaret Thatcher was laying waste to the various industries of the country, if you were out of a job and claiming Unemployment Benefit, you called it being ‘on the dole’. Until reading and enjoying the above I hadn’t even wondered why but it sparked the connection. This link to the origin of the idiom (https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/266900.html) gives it as originating around the first world war, but it appears to have much deeper roots.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Another example of humanity’s ambivalent attitude to inequality and the relief of poverty. It seems too many of us are afraid that if we give too much away we will end up being poor ourselves. And if we don’t take more than we need we will be outsmarted by our neighbours – hence panic buying and the cute bunch in Dublin this morning who bought up all the bread in one supermarket and began selling it at a profit in the car park. (That one maybe apocryphal, but it was broadcast on local radio this morning.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • As long as we all consider ourselves in competition, it’s going to be ugly. I’ve heard about people selling hand sanitizer online for silly prices, but the bread story’s new to me. I wonder how long they think bread stays fresh.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That was an interesting story. There’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing going on here I think in terms of whether an old tale compelled future generations to support some version of charitable giving or whether the story was crafted after the act of charity had become a tradition. My only awareness of the Tichborne family is through the saga of the Tichborne Claimant. This family seems compelled to be connected to fibs and fabrications.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. All this sounds vaguely familiar…like closing businesses and promising payroll tax cuts when no one is working and they can’t get paid, or get food, and all the child care centers are closed and…no no…I’m confused. That was your LAST post about the Plague. My bad. Carry on.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yup. When resources are that sharply divided, it becomes very important for the haves to justify the limits they set on their charity. If they can find a a small category of people who deserve help, then the help can be safely circumscribed.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I believe there may be other places with a similar tradition of seigneurial largesse (=chucking buns or pennies to a mob – come to think of it, something similar is a time-hallowed element in panto).

    You might also care to look up the Tichborne Claimant, and/or (should you be looking for something Easter-related) The Widow’s Buns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did run into the tale of the Tichborne Claimant, but it took the story off in a whole ‘nother direction, so I left it out. But the Widow’s Buns–how can I resist? I’ll go searching. Thanks.

      Like

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