Shrove Tuesday customs

Shrove Tuesday = Pancake Day. That is pancakes as in crêpes, not American-style. Served with sugar and lemon juice. Or maybe Nutella, if you have a sweet tooth. Or flambéed with alcohol, for the grown-ups. Shrove Tuesday is also possibly the ONLY day Brits bother to mess up their kitchens making pancakes. And is followed by Ash Wednesday, when a lot of us start to give up something for Lent, possibly trying to reboot the New Year’s resolution that only lasted a fortnight.

This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. No comment on that one!

But pre-chocolate spread and ‘just add water’ batter mixes, what was Shrove Tuesday like?

Poor poultry

In the Westmorland Gazette, in January 1820, ‘a correspondent’ asks:

From whence arose that inhuman and barbarous custom of throwing at cocks on Shrove Tuesday?

No one seems to have replied, or explained how wide this custom was. I found a later detail that the poor cock was tied to a stake. But not what it was that was thrown at the innocent birds.

However, a year later, the Gazette did inform readers that the custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday originated in London, in 1446, when the Lord Mayor – a shoemaker called Simon Eyre – made a pancake feast for all the apprentices in London.

Well, it makes as much sense as the idea of ‘using up forbidden foods’ ahead of Lent. Given that pancakes are made from flour, eggs, and milk – cows don’t stop producing milk in March, so giving up milk would mean pouring it down the drain. Ditto hens/eggs.

Collop Monday

The day before Shrove Tuesday is called Collop Monday. Collops are thin slices of meat, and you can read about this tradition here.

But, got to say, it’s a tradition that hasn’t exactly stood the test of time.

Back in 1834, however, collops were served up to around 50 children in Westmorland – along with pancakes – by a Mrs Nowell. This would appear to have been at Underley Hall, at Kirkby Lonsdale, which was then owned by Alexander Nowell and his wife Charlotte. (They both died, she a few months before him, in 1842).

The ‘primitive church’

In 1836, one A Campbell ‘inserted at the request of a friend’ an article on The Christian Religion into the pages of the Kendal Mercury.

Campbell wrote that the first churches ‘had no festivals’ – and didn’t do politics, or divisions. I suspect Campbell’s lecture on ‘the pure and undefiled religion’ tells us more about the author than old customs. But the claim is that:

 ‘in the primitive Church, they had no Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Monday, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, nor Preparation Saturday. All days were alike good’.

‘Thanksgiving Monday’ and ‘Preparation Saturday’? The former seems to have been a very moveable feast, as searches (1840s) pull up dates in December, January, May, June and July. The latter doesn’t seem to have been a universal ‘thing,’ either.

Plough Monday

Ah, the good old days. If A Campbell was sniffy about the present, a year later a writer in the Gazette was looking back at ‘Customs and Superstitions of the Good Old Times’.

Including Plough Monday. Which is still a thing in some places.

But by 1837, it had already lost one custom, whereby:

‘If the ploughman… came to the kitchen with his whip in his hand and cried: “Cock in the pot” before the maid could say: “Cock on the dunghill,” he gained a cock to throw at on Shrove Tuesday’.

Shrove Tuesday celebrations

Other than isolated stories about pancake-eating contests (a winner ate 25, the loser 23) in Barnsley, and ‘the vulgar’ in London devoting the day to ‘idleness, oranges and gin,’ there don’t seem to have been any widespread events in the 1800s. But in individual homes, pancakes were whipped up. And it seems they were especially popular in Barnsley, for it was reported in 1850 that such was the demand for milk to make them that:

‘so much as a halfpenny and a penny a pint above the usual price was offered for it’.

As for Cumbria, there was an annual hunt at Wreay for many, many years (bar 1866, when it was called off due to cattle plague in the county). This included sports such as ‘racing and leaping’. And a substantial dinner later, at which a new mayor was chosen. 

It wasn’t a great day to be a local fox. But at least the cockerels could sleep easy on Collop Monday.

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