Plough Monday

Early Plough Monday Festivities

Most Plough Monday festivities have a religious origin: there are records of ploughs being blessed and ‘plough lights’ (candles) kept burning in churches specifically to bring the Lord’s blessing on those farmworkers wielding the plough during the coldest, harshest weeks of the year. We know that from the 1460s onwards the plough lights and ploughs were taken round parishes to raise money for the church. We have no evidence that this was taking place in Turvey, but it was certainly happening in nearby counties such as Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. With the Reformation, these customs lost favour, being regarded as superstitious and even ungodly.

18th Century

By the late eighteenth century, however, numerous references again begin to surface, and this time the festivities seem to have taken on a flavour that is far from godly. In some villages the plough was simply driven around the village (sometimes with a threat that a lack of generosity might lead to a villager’s garden being ploughed up). Other groups would dress up, sing and dance, or even perform a Plough Play. Sadly there’s no evidence that Turvey’s plough festivities stretched to drama, but we do know there was dressing up, singing and music.

Typically, the younger ploughmen and boys would put on women’s skirts and stuff straw down their clothes to make themselves look like women or hunchbacks; there’s also evidence that they would black their faces. This doesn’t seem to have had any racial undertone; it was a way for the men to remain anonymous so that they couldn’t be berated for their revelries in the cold, sober light of the subsequent days.

19th Century

The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 23 January 1866 takes an altogether disapproving tone, implying that such ‘degenerate’ behaviour was a ‘curse’ on rural districts, even prompting criminal activity:

James Panter, Lavendon, and Henry Smart, Yardley Hastings, were charged with stealing a flannel shirt, belonging to General Elliott, of Turvey, on Jan, 8. The day in question being Plough Monday, the accused and other men paid a visit to Turvey and neighbourhood for the purpose of levying contributions to enable them to have a fuddle. In the olden time this particular day, so called because it was the first day after Christmas farmers resumed the plough, was generally observed as a festival: innocent amusements were provided, and the occasion was made a means of alluring youth to their duty. However, like most ancient customs, the observance of Plough Monday in process of time sadly degenerated and became a curse to many a rural district. Happily it has now died out, with the the exception of a few districts, widely scattered, where it still lingers in a form by no means calculated to improve the social condition of its votaries ; but there is no doubt that even from those few remaining haunts the degrading custom will soon disappear before the inevitable march of the schoolmaster. It happened that on the present occasion the accused called at General Elliott’s residence and obtained some coppers. Soon after the flannel garment was missing from the drying yard. Information was given to Police-officer Mardlin, who immediately set about making inquiry. A few little facts convinced him that the thieves were to be found in the vicinity of Yardley Hastings, Northamptonshire. Thither he went and soon succeeded in taking both men into custody. Panter was wearing the General’s shirt, and parted with it very reluctantly, having, as he said, found it very comfortable in the cold windy weather prevailing. The account they gave of the property was that Smart picked it in the street of Turvey, and gave it to his fellow rogue, who put it in his pocket. Both prisoners were convicted, and sentenced to a mouth’s hard labour each.

20th Century

But by the early twentieth century, the customs are regarded more with humour than disapproval.  In 1903 in Turvey:

The usual custom of Plough Monday was kept up with vigour on Monday last. Several groups of young men dressed up and paraded the village with music during the evening.1

And in both 1924 and 1931 there is still a sense that the custom is here to stay:

Plough Monday was observed as usual, and during the afternoon and evening the village was kept lively by men and youths parading the streets dressed in fantastic garments to the strains of crude music. The old custom shows little sign of dying out.2

The tradition of Plough Monday was kept up this year, when groups of lads and schoolchildren dressed in grotesque costumes, paraded the village all the evening, soliciting coppers at every house. An old age pensioner, taking advantage of the day, preceeded many of the younger generation and reaped a good harvest.3

A Dying Tradition

But of course Plough Monday depends to a certain extent on there being plough boys to celebrate it. And with the increasing mechanisation of farms in the middle of the twentieth century, plough boys were a dying breed throughout the whole of the local area, as this article from 1933 bemoans:

  • The Disappearing Ploughboy – “If you haven’t got a Ha’penny”
    The old customs associated with Plough Monday are slowly but certainly passing into oblivion. Only a few schoolchildren now observe the occasion (the second Monday in January) in the Harrold locality. They parade the village in the evening with blackened faces, dressed in strange garments, rattling tins and sticks, and shouting ‘Think of the poor old ploughboys!”
    Although the local area of land in Harrold and Odell is over 6,000 acres, it is doubtful whether there are more than a couple of boys under the age of sixteen who are engaged at driving plough.
    Plough Monday customs linger also at Turvey, and this year bands of youths again paraded the village most of the day soliciting coppers.
    Our Riseley correspondent, describing the Plough Monday proceedings there, gives the following version of the doggerel chanted by the lads of the village:
    “Give us one ha’penny (boom!)
         If you haven’t got a ha’penny
         A penny will do,
         Nobody knows what a poor old ploughboy
         Has to go through”
    The “boom”, presumably, is a bang on the drum!4

And in 1937, the same nostalgic concerns are raised again in Harrold:

The first Monday after Twelfth Day is Plough Monday, but with the disappearance of the ploughboys many of the old customs have fallen into disuse. However, as this photograph taken at Harrold shows, a few schoolboys in Bedfordshire villages parade the streets with blackened faces and dressed in fancy garments. Some of them still knock at the doors and chant a crude formula whose burden is appeal for halfpence, but all not meet with a good-humoured householder who is prepared to have light-hearted scuffle with them as these Harrold boys experienced this week.5
Year by year finds fewer boys observing old customs. Our Turvey correspondent, however, reports that a small number paraded the village singing their quaint songs and playing their weird musical instruments this year.
Plough Monday appears to have received its name from the fact that in olden days this was the date after Christmas on which the husbandmen resumed the plough. Bands of ploughboys, accompanied often by lads out of work, used to parade with blackened faces and attired in fancy dress. Ploughboys have nearly died out, and some time ago our Harrold correspondent reported that although the parish of Harrold has 3,218 acres of land, there was only one boy employed as a plough driver. Domesday recorded that Harrold then “had sixteen plough-teams in demesne and three plough-lands and one can be made, and there are ten villeins with seven plough lands and other six can made . . . . A plough-land was as much land as a plough could plough in a year. 5

Plough Monday festivities were still taking place in Turvey in 1938, but this is the last time it is mentioned in the newspaper:

Plough Monday was observed as usual in the village on Monday last, when groups of lads, chiefly school age, paraded the streets and houses soliciting coppers.6

Memories of Plough Monday in Turvey

It’s likely that World War Two only sped up the demise of the plough and its customs. Plough Monday was still remembered late into the twentieth century, even if it wasn’t practiced, as an article from Turvey News in 1983 shows.  I wonder if ‘Johnny Dump’ from Jack’s Lane is the same OAP  who ‘reaped a good harvest’ in 1931? He must have cut quite a dash in his net curtains and his wife’s hat, standing at the window until someone paid him to move on.

And in the same article, someone recalls a clash between old time customs and modern regulations:

One year, Turvey had a new policeman who didn’t know the place; some lads came round on Plough Monday, blacked up and dressed up, and he locked them up and rang Bedford to ask what to do with them. Luckily, it was our old policeman who answered the phone, and he said, “You don’t know how they go on in Turvey. Give ‘em a tanner and let ‘em go”.7

1 Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 16 January 1903
2 Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 18 January 1924
3 Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 16 January 1931
4 Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 13 January 1933
5 Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 15 January 1937
6 Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 14 January 1938
7 Turvey News, Edition 57, 1993

Early Plough Monday celebrations
Modern day Bedford Morris Men performing a plough play at Odell
Image courtesy of Bedford Morris Men
Plough Monday in Harrold

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