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.