Relics of the Past observed at Torquay, Devonshire (1873)


Author(s): Pengelly. William Origin: DA Transactions
Topic(s): folklore Year published: 1873
Location(s): Torquay Pages: 266-269

By W. Pengelly, F.R.S., F.G.S., etc. (Read at Sidmouth, July, 1873.)

Without sighing for a return of the “good old times” I have occasionally regretted that the extension of the Railway system is so rapidly hunting down, killing, and burying the Past; and though unprepared to object to “compulsory education”, I cannot lose sight of the fact that its tendency will be to bring us so near one uniform level as to render individuality of character a startling phenomenon, and the observance of an ancient usage as something like an attempt to keep the dead too long unburied. Whilst honouring those employed in diffusing knowledge, and, still more, such as are doing their best to extend its boundaries, I must confess to pleasure in reading a collection of epitaphs, or old proverbs, or songs, or ballads, or nursery rhymes, or words and phrases hastening to extinction, or legends, or traditions, or stories of ghosts or fairies, in short, of anything and everything known as “Folk Lore”; and I entertain the hope that our Transactions may sooner or later be the repertory of everything of the kind to be met within our confines, whether peculiar to the county or not. They have their roots in remote antiquity, towards which they are so many steps.

Under the influence of the feeling just confessed, and in the hope that others may be induced to cooperate, I take this opportunity of recording, as a first instalment, a few relics of the past which I have observed at Torquay.

The “Apple Tree Charm”.

Whilst walking from Tor to Torquay about 10 p.m. on January 5th, 1849, I was surprised to hear repeated sounds of fire arms in the direction of the hamlet of Upton.*

* Upton, as well as Torquay and Tor (or Torre), is in the parish of Tomoham (or Tomohun).

On enquiry, I learnt from one who had frequently taken part in it, that the sounds were connected with a ceremony, then annually performed in the neighbourhood, for the purpose of securing a plentiful crop of apples in the coming season. It seems that on the evening mentioned (Old Christmas Eve), the farmer and his labourers assemble in the kitchen, and proceed thence to the orchards, taking with them a pitcher of cider, and all their fire-arms, charged with gunpowder only; on reaching the first apple tree they drink a cup of cider, and repeat the following words:

“I drink to thee
Old sour apple tree,
To bear and to blow
Apples enow;
This year, next year,
And the year after too;
Pocketfulls, hatfulls,
And Tor Abbey Great Barn Full!”

After which the fire-arms are discharged amongst the trees generally, and the party returns to the house. During their absence, however, the ladies, having made preparations for supper, have locked the door, nor will they allow the shooting party to enter the house until one of them has guessed what is on, or before the fire; this done, the ceremony is ended. The remainder of the evening is generally spent convivially.

The custom is mentioned in Hone’s Every Day Book (1826) and in Chambers’s Book of Days (1864); being copied, in each, from the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1791.

The following account is from Hone:

“In certain parts of Devonshire the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cider, goes to the orchard this evening [Jan 5]; and there, encircling one of the best bearing trees, they drink the following toast three times:

“Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Hence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow!
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
Bushel-bushel-sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

“This done, they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all entreaties to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing, difficult to hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open, and the lucky clodpole receives the tit-bit as his recompense.”

Brand (1743–1806) relates it as a custom with the Devonshire people to go after supper into the orchard, with a large milk-pan full of cider, having roasted apples pressed into it. Out of this each person in the company takes what is called a clayen cup, that is an earthenware cup full of liquor, and standing under each of the more fruitful apple trees, passing by those that are not good bearers, he addresses it in the following words:

“Health to thee, good apple tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
Peck-fulls, bushel-bag fulls!

And then drinking up part of the contents, he throws the rest, with the fragments of the roasted apples, at the tree. At each cup the company set up a shout.”

It is obvious that the toast-masters were not bound to the rigid observance of any particular formula; of the three versions given above, no two are alike, yet they are clearly differentiated forms of the same original.

It may be inferred from the foregoing statements:

1st. That the custom was not confined to this district. It was observed in “certain parts of Devonshire”.
2nd. That the formula was modified, by addition or otherwise, in different localities. “Tor Abbey Great Barn” is not mentioned by either Hone or Brand.
3rd. That the custom is probably more ancient than the common use of fire-arms. The latter are not mentioned by Brand.

So far as I have been able to find, the ceremony is no longer observed near Torquay.

The “Ashen Faggot”

I was present on Christmas Eve, 1836, in the old Torwood Manor House,* Torquay, then occupied as a farm house by the late Mr. John Madge, when the “ashen faggot” was prepared and burnt. It was “made” in the farm yard, and bound together with as many “binds” of withe as could be well put on it. When ready, it was, as orthodoxy required, drawn to the front door of the house by four oxen, though a single ox would have been fully sufficient for greater labour, and taken thence and placed on the blazing hearth. Cards and other amusements occupied the juniors of the very large party, whilst the seniors, “fast by the ingle bleezing finely”, talked of “old times”. All, however, were attentive to the fate of the “binds”, and as each was observed to “give way” a demand for a gallon of cider was made on the farmer, who promptly supplied it.

* The old house has been torn down, and four modern villas now occupy the eminence it once crowned.

The consumption of cider was certainly large, but so was the party; and no one seemed the worse for his or her potations.

At that time the custom was observed in all the principal farm houses of the district, but it appears to be now a thing of the past.

The “May-Dolls”

On the last day of April, May-day eve, the proprietors of all flower gardens in the Torquay district annually receive a succession of visits from a great number of young girls of the artisan and labouring class, who blandly solicit “some flowers for the May-doll, sir.” This is usually complied with very readily, partly perhaps because flowers are commonly abundant then, and partly because, if not given, they might be stolen during the following night.

Soon after nine o’clock on May-day morning, or on the day following, should the first of May fall on Sunday, as it did in 1870, each of the aforesaid girls, having in her hand a thin box about eighteen inches long and covered neatly with a white napkin, may be observed visiting every house in the town and neighbourhood, or boldly stopping on the Queen’s highway the wayfarers she may chance to meet. Having secured a victim, she drops a hasty curtsey, and asks ” Will you please to see a May-doll?” Suiting the action to the question, she removes the napkin and displays a prettily dressed doll lying on a bed of gay flowers tastefully arranged. As soon as the beholder is satisfied with the show, and, what is not less important, the exhibitress is made happy by the receipt of one of the current coins of the realm, the parties separate; the latter to secure other sight-seers, and the former to encounter further visitors, and, perhaps, to reflect on the fact that paganism still lingers amongst us – for there can be no doubt that the Torquay May-dolls are a relic of the worship of Flora, which Christianity, though established in our island for so many centuries, has not utterly exterminated.

P.S. – I shall have great pleasure in acting as Editor, if members of the Association will be so good as to send me descriptions of any “Relics of the Past” they may have observed or heard of in their respective districts. W. P.


Other writings by William Pengelly