Cumbrian custom, or Solway custom?
The following Cumbrian custom may not be unique to Bowness-on-Solway – or indeed be a uniquely Cumbrian custom. But in 1974, one elderly Bowness-on-Solway resident thought it worth recalling and recording.
John Topping Stafford
The letter was written on July 15, 1974, by John T Stafford, of The Cottage, Bowness-on-Solway.
John T Stafford was John Topping Stafford, who was born on August 28, 1893. He was the son of another John Topping Stafford (a Bowness fisherman, on the 1901 census), and his wife Mary.
In 1939, ‘our’ John Topping Stafford, was a ‘foreman in charge’, at Kirkbride Station.
Invitation to a funeral
The letter recalls how:
“At one time, at a death in the parish, it was the custom to have someone go round the houses and bid people to come to the funeral’.
John couldn’t fully recall the words, but they seem to have been pretty plain:
“You are requested to attend the funeral at such a time and date.”
If that sounds, well, a bit ‘hardly a Cumbrian custom – doesn’t everyone invite other people to funerals?’
Well, no, because John wrote that the last time he could recall the custom being practised was in June 1935, when a Richard Wills died at Claremont.
Which doesn’t mean no one in Bowness was invited to a funeral after 1935, because the key bit is:
“The bidder was James Rome, who himself died the following week”.
So the point of the Cumbrian custom was actually that Bowness-on-Solway had ONE person who held the ceremonial role of summonsing villagers to attend funerals.
That person was known as ‘the bidder’.
John’s letter goes on to mention a James Bristow, who died at home. Then ‘parish clerks or sextons… after William Wood, who I think served for a year, following his father John Wood, came James Anderson, who held the office until he died and William Hunter was appointed.’
‘When Mr R Liddle retired, John Daniel Jefferson took over, and after him Robert Rome for 17 years’.
The intriguing part about that part of the letter is in the postscript:
‘PS. There is a fair amount of comment regarding the latter two’.
The last bidder
James Rome the bidder looks to have been born about 1872. In 1911, he was a haaf net fisherman. Likely the son of John Rome, farmer, of Biglands House (1881), although the name isn’t uncommon.
John’s letter gives no clues as to why no one bade people to attend James Romes’ funeral. Did the custom die with him?
Richard Wilson Wills, who died on June 27, 1935, was a farmer. Born in 1853, it is possible he is the Richard Wills of Bowness who was mentioned in the Wigton Advertiser of November 17, 1934. The snippet says he was ‘the other day’ riding a five-year-old mare he bred himself to hounds, and that he is ‘very keen, despite his age’.
Which if it’s the same man, would have been 81.
Robert Rome – possibly son of James Rome the funeral bidder. If so, he was born 1909.
John Daniel Jefferson was at Biglands House in 1901, aged 5, with his parents and grandfather.
He was farming at Heads Nook in 1939 and had served in the Royal Artillery in the First World War, in Salonica in 1917-1919, with a few months in Russia in 1919 – surviving unscathed bar malaria.
R Liddle – could have been Robert Liddle, of Brough-by-Sands (born about 1867). There’s a William Hunter, born about 1861 Honiton, Devon, in Bowness in 1891 – another fisherman – still there in 1939. A James Anderson was 26 in 1881 (indoor farm servant, born India: actually John James Holmes Anderson, died 1919).
John Wood put ‘parish clerk’ (and grocer) on the 1891 census, when he was 58 and son William 14. In 1901, John was a coal agent and parish clerk. In 1911, he was a sexton.
Son William James Wood sought exemption from military service in August 1917. He was 40 and ran a one-man coal and oil business – and was also a fisherman and parish sexton.
His appeal was refused. Which probably explains why he only served as sexton for a year.
As I said, the letter (now in Carlisle Archives) was written in July 1974. John Topping Stafford died on November 25 that year.
So, was it a uniquely Cumbrian custom?
Google ‘funeral bidder’ and nothing comes up to indicate widespread appointment of people to the role.
Cumbrian Characters is always happy to hear from readers with interesting and reliable information. If your village had a funeral bidder, or had in the past, do let us know.
I am grateful to reader Pete Ross for the following information:
..in answer to the question raised in your article, it wasn’t uniquely Cumbrian, it had parallels in German Europe;
if you want to research further, their word for the profession was “Leichenbitter”.