Back when I lived in the New World, we imagined that Olde Worlde Britain was made up of lords and swords, decorated with a picturesque handful of peasants in thatched-roof hovels, not to mention some overstuffed upper-class accents and many unnecessary letters at the ends and in the middle of words. It’s not a coherent picture, but you’ll understand, of course, that all New World inhabitants think exactly the way I did and that I would never bullshit you about the inner workings of my mind.
What we didn’t imagine was the ancient art of shin kicking.
Welcome to the absolutely true and wonderful world of British traditions.
Shin kicking can be reliably traced back to the seventeenth century, although that’s not to say it didn’t start centuries earlier. For all we know, it dates back to King Arthur, who got so tired of his knights kicking each other at dinner that he ordered a round table from Ikea so they’d pay attention to the business at hand, which was getting drunk enough to convince each other they’d actually had the adventures we know them by today.
But that’s all legend. We don’t know that Arthur even existed, and Ikea itself may be mythical. We do know that shin kicking was documented in the early seventeenth century, when a contest took place as part of a larger event, the Olimpicks, on Dover’s Hill in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.
By the 1830s, 30,000 people are said to have attended the Olimpicks and the event continued into the 1850s, when it was outlawed becasue it was associated with rowdiness, thuggery, and all-around no-goodness. (See below for an alternative explanation of why it was stopped. When you write about a subject as improbable as this, accuracy is important. Not to mention impossible.)
Robert Wilson, an organizer of the more recent event by the same name, said about the original games, “It was vicious in those days, there was a lot of inter-village rivalry and lads used to harden their shins with hammers and were allowed to wear iron-capped boots.”
I’m not convinced about the hammers, but you’re welcome to believe what you like. As if you needed my permission.
An 1883 New York Times article documents a New World shin-kicking contest. They called it purring and the article says that “heroic Englishmen of a certain class” considered it a sport.
What class is that supposed to be? Off the top of my head, I’d say a class the reporter felt free to look down on even while he (and I use the pronoun advisedly) wasn’t too grand to show up and trade fleas with the onlookers.
Okay, the reference to fleas was uncalled for and can’t be substantiated by any reputable source. I apologize.
The article also claims that shin kicking originated among Cornish miners, who may or may not have considered themselves English. The Cornish language had died out by then, but I don’t know if Cornwall’s sense of itself as a nation had.
I bring that up because you might put it on one side of the scales when you weigh up the accuracy of the reporting. The New York Times of that era wasn’t the grand lady we know today.
That gives us two documented–or at least authoritatively alleged–origins for shin kicking, Gloucestershire and Cornwall. Since shin kicking isn’t on the list of things that most record-keepers kept track of, I’m inclined to think shin kicking may have been more widespread and older than can be documented. Recording what ordinary people do got respectable only recently–especially what people of, ahem, a certain class do, or women or other despised and out-of-power groups.
These days keeping track of it isn’t only respectable, it has a name, social history, and it makes great reading.
The shin-kicking fight that the Times reported on ran for 23 rounds and lasted from midnight to 2 a.m. By the time it ended, the loser couldn’t walk anymore. He would have quit earlier, but “was forced to continue under violent threats from the gang of ruffians who were betting on him,” the reporter wrote with glorious objectivity.
And a good time as had by all.
Shin kicking was revived in Gloucestershire in the 1950s, but it’s a milder sport these days. Contestants pad their shins with straw and wear soft shoes. The organizer reports bruises but no broken bones.
Oh for the old days, when you could tell a real man by the blood running down his legs.
The judge, by the way, is called a stickler, a word that dates to the sixteenth century and means umpire. It’s from an Old English word meaning “to set in order.”
The modern shin-kicking event is part of a larger revival of the original event, now called the Dover’s Hill Olimpicks, and for this I’m relying on The English Year, by Steve Roud. I recently bought the book, thinking it would come in handy for the sort of insanity I throw at you each Friday, and I’m happy to have found a use for it so quickly.
Robert Dover (1582-1652) started the first games in 1611 and he may have been riding the coattails of an older feast or event. Dover seems to have been a skilled bullshit artist (Roud calls him a self-promoter) and his Olimpicks took on a much higher profile than most local events of the time. Contests included sledgehammer throwing, fencing, dancing, chess, and horse racing. Roud doesn’t mention shin kicking. Silly man.
Dover’s Olimpicks started just as the country was debating what sort of sport was decent, especially on a Sunday, with Puritans increasingly wanting to ban all sports because the participants might accidentally have fun. By that standard, I’d have thought shin kicking was farily safe, but I admit I haven’t tried it. I know some people whose shins I wouldn’t mind kicking. It’s the prospect of them kicking back that slows me down.
The games stopped during the Civil War (1642-1651) but were started up again by Dover’s grandsons.
In Roud’s version of events, the Olympicks ended not because people were having too much thuggish fun but because the area was enclosed. (You can get a quick history of enclosure in an earlier post. Scroll about halfway down to the “History” section.)
In 1929, the National Trust became the owner of the land and in 1951 the Olimpicks started again, but near Weston-sub-Edge (is that an English place name or what?) instead of Chipping Campden. Chipping Campden had its own smaller celebration, called Scuttlebrook (god, I love English place names) Wake. A wake is an annual festival, not a watch over the dead. It sounds like an unremarkable event: a May queen, a procession, rides, and so forth. Then in 1966, the bigger event moved to the smaller place, bringing (how could it not?) shin kicking with it.
If you think spelling olimpicks with an I is easy, do try it. My fingers are convinced it’s wrong and I’ve had to go back through the entire post and change most of the mentions.
Just to prove shin kicking isn’t an isolated bit of insanity, in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, they weigh the incoming and outgoing mayors and members of the corporation (I think that translates to the local government) outside the Guildhall every May, in front of a crowd. The macebearer (well, of course they have a macebearer, silly; who else would carry the mace?) compares the outgoing officials’ weight and calls out the number, saying “and then some more” if they’ve gained weight or “and no more” if they haven’t.
If they’ve stayed the same or lost weight, they’re cheered. If they’ve gained weight, they’re booed.
This isn’t some modern-day bit of fat-shaming. The theory is that if they gained weight it came from good living at the taxpayers’ expense and if they haven’t it’s because they’ve been working hard while they were in office.
The custom dates back, according to one source, to medieval times, according to a second at least to the nineteenth century, and according to a third to the Victorian era. Take your pick. (The last two overlap but aren’t identical.)
The scales are an elaborate brass tripod with a seat, and the macebearer is dressed in traditional costume. Some mayors do traditional dress as well.
Traditional to what century? Not ours and not any of the medieval ones either. Beyond that, I’m out of my depth.
Want photos? Of course you do.
What else do people get up to? In Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, if the town council votes to mark a royal occasion or the occasional extra special non-royal occasion, the councillors all have to put on their ceremonial robes (of course they have ceremonial robes; what else would they wear to ceremonies?), climb to the top of County Hall, and throw currant buns at the crowd. If you follow the link, you’ll find a video.
The tradition can be reliably traced back to 1809, when it was done to celebrate George III recovering from an illness (probably one of his sporadic fits of craziness). Go back any further than that and all the records say is that buns were distributed, with no mention of how.
When Victoria took the throne, a thousand buns were launched. In contrast, four thousand were thrown to celebrate the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the borough being granted its charter. Take that, queenie.
Since the 1980s, the number of bun-worthy occasions has increased enough for bun-watchers to notice and comment on it. Maybe they bring in tourist dollars. If I was close by, I’d go. How often do I have a bun thrown at me from the top of a tower?
The Abingdon museum has a collection of buns that you can go and see. Admission is free, and no, I have no idea how (or whether) they preserve them or how old they are. Maybe they use the same system that keeps Lenin intact in his tomb and maybe they’re replicas of currant buns. You can probably go to a bakery and see the same thing. They won’t be free but at least they’ll be edible.
The world gurning championships are held at the Egremont Crab Fair, which dates back to 1267, although–carelessly–no one recorded whether or not it included a gurning contest. The first record of that is from 1852.
The fair has nothing to do with crabs. Egremont’s near but not right on the coast, at least if we trust the map instead of the town website, which says it’s coastal. But wherever the town is, the fair is about crabapples. Traditionally, crabapples were thrown at the crowd around noon, but these days they’ve been replaced with apple-type apples, which have got to hurt more than currant buns. And more than crabapples. There’s also a greased pole contest (the winner not only climbs it but brings down a sheep’s head or leg of mutton that’s tied on top) and a pipe smoking contest. The winner, um, smokes a pipe. I have no idea how you win or even how you lose, never mind how you judge it or whether the judge is called a stickler.
There’s also a ferret show where you can show your ferret.
That’s all well and good, Ellen, but will you shut up and tell us about gurning? Happily. It’s a country custom where you compete to make the most horrible a face you can. The winner is often someone who can take their teeth out. You can see photos of people gurning here. Someone snuck in a picture of Donald Trump.
Towns and villages across Britain also host events that we’ll have to call latecomers. Bonsall, Derbyshire (pronounced, for no apparent reason, Darbyshire), holds a hen race. The event’s only been going for a hundred years. Fighting between the hens is strictly forbidden and any hen violating the rules will be given a severe talking to. Bog snorkling in Llanwrtdyd, Wales, started in 1976. That’s so recent I won’t say anything about the event, but since I had to go and bring up the subject of pronunciation I’ll tell you that I can pronounce the first syllable of Llanwrtdyd (and only the first syllable) fairly credibly for a non-Welsh speaker (in my own, non-Welsh-speaking opinion), but I’m convinced that it can’t be spelled in English so I won’t offer a guide. The first syllable wouldn’t be much use to you anyway.
Wasn’t that helpful?
Moving on, worm charming dates back only to 1980. Barely worth a mention.
Something about living in this country draws people into a competition to create the looniest event and convinces them that it’s the most natural thing in the world to do that.
My thanks yet again to Deb C., this time for links that led me to this insanity.