Fortean London: An Alternative Easter

By Scott Wood Last edited 169 months ago

Last Updated 01 April 2010

Fortean London: An Alternative Easter

Easter Monday chair lifting by skitster
Easter, in our experience, usually means something beginning with a c: chocolate, crazed clubbing or Christianity. Or chicks and cute rabbits. Or 'chucking it down with rain'. Anyway, “there must be some alternative” you plead. “Drink? Beards? Something different to do with all these bloody hot cross buns? Or, if nothing else, the chance to throw myself down a hill. Please?”

Let's start at the Widow's Son pub on Devon's Row in Bow. During the Napoleonic wars, sometime in the early nineteenth century, the son of a poor widow went to sea to fight, promising he would be home for Easter. His mother baked a hot-crossed bun in anticipation but he did not return. She was never officially notified of his death so every year she baked another bun for him, adding it to the mouldering pile.

In the 1840s the pub was built on the site of the widow's house. A member of the Royal Navy delivers a fresh bun to the dry and blacked ones hanging from a net over the bar on Good Friday. Then drinking happens. Folklore writer Christina Hole attended the ceremony in 1943 and counted 177 buns which skews the Napoleonic dating. However, most were destroyed in a fire, leaving the few buns now hanging above the bar.

Another origin for the Widow's Son custom comes from the folklore of buns baked on Good Friday being kept for luck, protection from illness or, ironically, from fire, and hung from the ceiling.

Over to Greenwich and those fabulous beards at Blackheath Morris Men will be grabbing women on Easter Monday to sit them in a flowery chair, lift them up and turn them round three times. Easter lifting or heaving was popular toward the end of the nineteenth century with a chair decorated with ribbons and flowers.

One explanation for the ceremony, aside from the obvious spring-time girl bothering, is that the three-times lifting celebrates Jesus' resurrection after three days, though other quarters suggest the custom was considered a mockery of the same. The tradition declined until in 1883 a bloke in Cheshire took two men to court for lifting his wife. Bleedin’ health and safety gone bloomin’ mad. Luckily in our more enlightened age and city men can drink, dance and elevate women on our streets on Easter Money. Blackheath Morris' website is a year out of date but I have been assured that they will be out there come Monday afternoon.

Greenwich Park is just above the pubs so it's a short trip to try another Greenwich Easter custom, ‘tumbling’. During Greenwich Easter Fair (last one in 1857) men would drag women to the top of Observatory Hill and then run down again, tumbling down the hill “greatly”, records Dickens with a twinkle in his eye, “to the derangement of their curls and bonnet-caps”.

Dickens goes on: “In rows the men and girls lined up across the park and arm-in-arms ran down the slope: some kept their feet, some rolled to the bottom.” It must have been like egg rolling or cheese rolling, except using people instead of breakfast. Legs and necks were broken, of course but you can't really have a proper London folk custom without breaking a few bones. Or deranging bonnet-caps at least.

By Scott Wood