CCS Snapshots of Local History – Celebrating Holy Days or Holidays in Cirencester

Cirencester’s Whitsun Ale festivities, recorded by J. Carter in 1788 (Soc of Antiquaries of London)

In July 1871 the Wilts & Glos Standard told its readers that the ‘Bank Holidays’ Act provides that Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and the 26 December if a week day, shall be kept as close holidays in all banks, in the same was as Christmas Day and Good Friday’. All banks closed for the day, and tradesmen followed suit – so giving a holiday for all. Today Bank Holidays still provide additional days for relaxation, over and above the holiday entitlement we all associate with employment.

However, in previous centuries, it was Holy-Days within the religious calendar that provided a change from daily routine. Whitsuntide is second only to Easter in the festivals of the Christian calendar, and marks the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, Pentecost being the 50th day after Easter. So being aligned with Easter the actual day varies from year to year and can fall between mid-May and mid-June. Easter itself is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and therefore, can fall between 21 March and 25 April. So, it’s complicated!

But early summer is a favourite time and provides the opportunity to combine religious and secular traditions in a range of open-air events to mark the holiday with Morris dancing, wakes, cheese rolling, fetes, fairs, club walks, pageants, parades, wool-sack races, and excursions.

One tradition, recorded by Samuel Rudder in 1800, is that of the ‘Whitsun Ale’. The evidence is carved in stone on Cirencester’s parish church. Although not visible from ground level, an external string-course below the parapet of the nave is decorated with a series of 39 human busts and animal heads, representing this ancient festivity. Church ales such as these combined an opportunity to raise funds for the church whilst feasting allowed all to ‘Be Merrie’.

Festivities at Whitsun, organized by church or chapel, would call for the children and adults to be dressed in their smartest frocks and suits. A service would be followed by a tea, with sports and games. And, although today supplanted by the welfare state, early Benefit Clubs and Friendly Societies, with a small annual contribution from members, provided a ‘benefit’ in times of sickness and death, with the annual club feast the social highlight of the year.

The Wilts & Glos Standard was able to report on 21 May 1864 that: ‘The Cirencester (Benefit) Clubs held their feasts, as usual, on Whit Tuesday; and having attended Divine service in the morning, assembled at their respective Inns, where each landlord had bountifully provided for them. It would be invidious to mention names, but the members of the Bull Club were particularly enthusiastic in praise of their host, Mr Blackford.’

Much later in June 1911 the same paper took a slightly different tack: ‘Another relic was the custom of the various benefit clubs to ‘walk’ from their various headquarters to a morning service at the church, returning to their respective inns for dinner and an afternoon and evening’s carouse. The term ‘walk’ was possibly applied to the morning progress because the evening locomotion might hardly with truth be so described.’

Set days have obviously changed since 1871. A century later in 1971 the Spring Bank Holiday was created to fall on the last Monday in May. This year in 2022 the day itself will be part of four days of celebration and commemoration to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II, to run from Thursday 2to Sunday 5June. It will be part of a long tradition.

Linda & David Viner 

Cirencester Archaeological & Historical Society


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