The Golden Flitch
by J R Ashby

In bygone times life for the everyday person in the street was hard and winter was looked on with dread as it was common for many to go hungry, none so than the appalling winter of 1811/12 when many starved to death. Winter supplementary feed, such as turnips, from which to feed farm animals over those cold bleak days of winter was unheard of, and therefore on St Michaelmas Day, 29th September, it was customary to herd all the animals into the local pinfold and decide which were to be kept and which were to be sent to market or slaughter.
It was also at this time that the family pig would be killed and butchered, to ensure that there was enough meat available to last the family over those lean winter months.

During this process the carcass would be divided lengthwise into two, half being used as fresh meat and the other, after salting, would either be hung, high in the chimney over a log fire or placed in the smokery, where it would be cured over the sweet smelling smoke of apple wood, until it took on the beautiful golden hue of autumn leaves. This is when it became known as a Golden Flitch.

From the Victorian Era, until the street was widened and straightened in 1928, high up on Bank Street on the edge of Dolcliffe Common, opposite the Royal Electric Theatre stood a small, stone built, public house. It was owned, for much of its life, by the Mexborough Bolsover Brewery and was named the Golden Flitch. In my naivety I have always presumed that the name derived from a former building on, or near, the site. A pork slaughterhouse or where sides of bacon were cured perhaps? I couldn’t have been more wrong!

It appears that a golden flitch was a fertility symbol which goes back into antiquity possibly to pagan times. The belief being that if a husband and wife began the winter with a golden flitch they would avoid the riggers that winter could throw at them, and have enough to live on to begin Spring in a healthy manner. Therefore more able to conceive and have live children and many parishes, held a celebration every four years on Whitsuntide Monday, in honour of the holy state of matrimony this being known as the Golden Flitch Trials.

There is now only one existing parish where this ceremony survives, this being at Great Dunmow, Essex. Here a mock trial is held and a golden flitch is awarded to the married couple, who can convince a judge and jury, consisting of six maidens and six bachelors that they have not quarrelled since they were married and have been happily wed for at least a year and a day.

The court is held in a meadow, once common land, named Talberds Ley and couples, or claimants as they are called, who have been married for “twelvemonth and a day” come from far and wide to claim a golden flitch. The ‘Claimants’ are represented by their ‘Council’ who pleads their case to the judge and jury. While the ‘Donors of the Flitch’ employ a ‘Council for the Defence’ who will vehemently put a case forward to dissuade the Jury that the couple have been happily married and thus prevent the jury from granting the couple a flitch.

All the couples who claim the flitch could be successful but only those who the judge and jury believe to be truly happily married win. The successful couples are carried, it turn, shoulder high by eight burley, smock clad, yokel, farm workers, in the ancient carved oak bench known as the ‘Flitch Chair’ followed by another four hefty men carrying their prize, a golden Flitch. The group are accompanied alongside by huge cheering crowds until they arrive at the Market Place where, in the centre, can be seen a plinth bedecked in gaily coloured swags of silk. Here the couple are summoned to kneel on pointed stones while they take an oath, similar to the old marriage vows, before taking their golden flitch.

Whilst watching the crowds of people on T.V., all with happy smiling faces, I began to wander, at some time in our dim and distant past, could such a scene once have been played out on the streets of Mexborough and could this ceremony be the reason why our small ale house, on Bank Street, got its unusual name. Maybe built over or near to the site of the ancient ceremony of the Golden Flitch, from which it took its name.

After much research the evidence seems quite favourable.In bygone times all parishes held festivals, from Egg Rolling and Cock – Fighting at Easter to Harvest Home in the autumn. Mexborough during this time was no exception with the feast of St John the Baptist on Midsummer’s Day followed by a Trade and Jollities Fair the following day.

In Great Dunmow the festival of the Golden Flitch is held in a field known as Talberds Ley. This name in itself gives us our first clue as to whether this ceremony could have taken place here. A Ley is arable land owned by the people, better known as common land. This has something in common with the Golden Flitch Ale House as this was situated on the extreme edge of Mexborough’s main common, Dolcliffe Common.

The item went on to state that a mock court is held during the Golden Flitch Trials with Counsel necessary to argue cases. As Mexborough’s Ley Court, at this time, was situated on land to the rear of what is now, the Royal Electric Theatre and was adjacent to the site of the ale house, it would take little or no time for Council to make the short journey from the Ley Court to the ceremony.

As you have read, in Great Dunmow successful couples are carried to the Market Place, where the ceremony is completed. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century Mexborough Market Place was situated in the Green Yard, now the site of the ‘Old Rectory’ and ‘The New Vicarage’, Church Street, east of the parish church. The Green Yard was also the site of summer church services, the Whit Teas, the Feast of St. John the Baptist and the Trade & Jollities Fare. As the Green Yard was but a short step from Bank Street and the edge of Dolcliffe Common, it would seem logical to presume that the two occasions of Whit Tea and the Golden Flitch Trial should be blended together.

It is therefore evident that prior to industrialisation, when Mexborough was a small agricultural village, that ceremonies such as this were a common sight on the streets of Mexborough. It is therefore my belief that in 1860 when the enclosure of the commons of Mexborough began, and were later divided into lots, and sold by auction. A brewery, purchased the lot where the ceremony of the Golden Flitch Trials took place and later when they constructed an ale house on the site they named it after the ceremony which once took place on this spot.


Information obtained from:
Trade Directories of Mexborough 1822 – 1927
Various Internet Sites including www.dunmowflitchtrials.co.uk



News From the Local History Room

A Stage Play and Film for the BBC
This summer your heritage society has been involved with many projects. In 1992 Julia, our Chairperson/Researcher, wrote a small booklet, which has been very popular and has sold to
all quarters of the globe; by the title of ‘An Everyday Story of Mexborough Folk’ one of the stories in contained was ‘Jim Rownsley – The Horse Marine’. A few weeks ago she was contacted by a script writer by the name of Richard Cameron, who requested our help, as he had used a portion of that story as inspiration for the writing of a play. ‘The Horse Marines’, as he has named the finished play, is a modern day story of four people in a rehabilitation centre, one of which uses the wartime story of his father as therapy for the others and they re-enact- the epic journey, which was made in reality, walking from Goole to Liverpool none stop, by Tommy Norman. Rehearsals for this play began on Mon. 8th Oct. 08 and it went on stage at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth on the 6th Nov. 08. It is hoped that it will soon be transferred to London and the script is, at the moment, being re-written for the BBC.

The Royal Engineers and Another Monument for Sapper Hackett V.C.
Your society has also been working with the Royal Engineers. As many of you will know Sapper Hackett V.C. who was so tragically killed in Belgium during the 1st. W.W. was a resident of Mexborough. A few weeks ago we were contacted by the Royal Engineers, which was his regiment, to inform us that a monument, costing between Ł20,000 -Ł30,000 is to created and placed over the spot where he was so heroically killed, in Belgium. They are also to create a unit, named after him. Your society has been working with them, to provide information on his life, this to be used to educate the young people, entering the Engineers and being placed in the Hackett Unit. We have provided information on: what he was like as a man; what his life was like before he became a Sapper; why he received the V.C. and the reason why he stayed in the tunnel and was buried alive, along with his comrade; the effect of his bravery on the town he lived in; and how, even though the citizens of Mexborough were very poor, they collected money to provide him with a monument. Ron James has also provided them with a DVD showing the rededication of the Sapper Hackett Memorial.

Working with Weatherspoons
As you know Walkers Bingo, purchased the Old Market Hall a number of years ago. They then closed and this old building was bought by Weatherspoons, another entertainments consortium, to be turned into a restaurant and bar. A display, illustrations provided by your society, is to be placed in the entrance of the building. This will show: famous residents of Mexborough and well known old buildings.

Change in the Opening Hours of the Local History Room
Opening times for Mexborough Library are now as follows:
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday – 9.00a.m. – 6.00p.m.
Wednesday & Saturday – 9.00a.m. – 1.00p.m.
Due to the alteration of the Library’s closing times the Local History Room will no longer open on Wednesday & Saturday.

Our Next Talk
Provisional arrangements for our next talk are as follows:
7.15p.m. on Tuesday 24th Feb. 2009 at Mexborough Working Mans’ Club & Institute.
Graham Oliver with inform us of famous entertainers of the past, who have visited and played at Mexborough. It is hoped, during the talk, that we shall have the pleasure of hearing him play.

(Copyright: this newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety without the permission of Mexborough & District Heritage Society.)