Palm Sunday & carlings

Palm Sunday may be a ‘big day’ in the Christian calendar, but ‘only’ in church. As a child, I remember walking home from Sunday school clutching a palm cross – handed out after we were reminded of the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

But that was ‘it’. And looking back in time, it seems it has always been that way. Probably because Easter, a week later, is ‘the big one’ for celebrations such as concerts and egg hunts and so on.

However, there is one Lenten tradition I’d not heard of: carlings (or carlins).

According to the Foods of England

Carlings are:

Black peas (Maple Peas or Pigeon Peas), boiled and then lightly fried in butter or beef fat, well seasoned. Eaten, or given away during Lent, 

The site puts carlings as belonging to:

North East, Lincolnshire, Nottingham

But it seems they were popular in Cumberland and Westmorland, too. And not just to eat!

(To be honest, the thought of peas fried in beef fat has me thinking: “No wonder kids used them as ammunition!”)

Carlings in 1899

The Penrith Observer, of March 28 that year, ponders that it would be:

“interesting to know how many parishes in Cumberland and Westmorland still keep up the custom of eating carlings on the Sunday before Palm Sunday.

NOTE: other sources say they were eaten ON Palm Sunday. 

“It would be even more interesting to know why or how the custom of having dried green peas (grey, really) soaked in water and fried in butter, eaten on that particular Sunday”

The Observer then says youngsters would carry the dried peas in their pocket and throw them at friends and acquaintancies.


Even in the 1890s, journalists weren’t enamoured at the thought of actually eating carlings.

The Carlisle Journal of March 29, 1898, refers to them as:

“boiled grey peas, rendered palatable by pepper and salt and butter”

(my highlighting).

The Journal then refers to ‘boisterous youths’ throwing peas at people walking in English Street and Scotch Street.

All the early stories I could find did, in fact, relate to the North East. Any reports in Cumbrian papers talk about the custom in the past tense.

A disorderly custom

However, it can’t have been that past, for early in April 1852, three men were charged with being disorderly on the streets of Carlisle. Joseph Toppin, Thomas Higgins and James Smith were fined 2s and 6d each, for throwing carlings at passers-by.

In 1863, four ‘young lads’ – William Gordon, Henry McGeorge, Henry Robinson, and John Irving – were similarly charged with being disorderly in Botchergate. They had thrown carlings at ‘several ladies and gentlemen’ on their way to church, and were fined 2s each and cautioned.

A deadly dish

Throwing carlings might land you with a fine, but eating them could be lethal.

In 1866, an inquest was held into the death of George Johnston Skinner, aged 12, in Carlisle. The poor lad had eaten nothing at home all day bar tea and bread. But while out, he had eaten a large quantity of carlings. Some of which he sicked up after tea that evening, before settling to sleep.

His mother went up about 10am next morning and found him dead.

The doctor wouldn’t say for sure, without a post-mortem, but thought ‘in all probability’ poor George had died from a surfeit of carlings.

In 1899, in New Hartley, Northumberland, a miner called Thomas May, 45, came home from work early ‘in severe pain’. The box of pills sent by the doctor (himself unwell and able to attend) proved no use and Thomas died in the early hours of the following morning.

This time, there was a post-mortem examination, which discovered ‘large quantities of unmasticated peas’ in his stomach and intestines.

The jury ruled his cause of death:

“gastritis and peritonitis, caused by eating an abnormal quantity of peas’. 

Britain’s ‘best-kept secret’

You can buy dried carlin peas (no ‘g’) in wholefood shops today. They are said, variously, to have aa superb nutty flavour and firm texture’, and to be ‘one of Britain’s best-kept secrets’.

But if you are tempted to try this traditional ‘treat’ –like all pulses, DO soak the dried peas overnight. And then rinse them and boil them until tender. Before frying them in butter/beef fat.

And then chew them properly. And don’t eat a large quantity.

And don’t blame Cumbrian Characters if you end up with stomach ache or worse.

Oh, and if you don’t mind the possibly consequences of throwing them at people, that strange custom involved the dried peas, not the cooked ones.