On the 8th December 2018, the villagers of Charney Bassett reenacted a recently discovered mummers' play that had been noted down in their village in 1860.
Charney Bassett Mummers (L-R): Father Christmas, Duke of Cumberland, Slasher, Doctor,
Jack Winny & Molly/Beelzebub
Discovering the Play
In March 2018, Alison Minns was looking through some old family papers and came across a slim notebook containing a pencil drawing and handwritten text of a mummers' play. On the cover was written "Notes and sketch of Mummers at Charney, Berks, 1860 by G W W Minns." George Minns was a Church of England clergyman. The notebook had been passed down to Alison's late husband Christopher Colvile [sic] Minns (great grandson of GWWM).
On Googling "Charney, Berks", Alison found the excellent History of Charney Bassett website (now in Oxfordshire thanks to local government reorganisation of 1974). She sent them a set of scans, and Ian Graham, who runs the site with his wife Amanda, prepared them for the website. Ian in turn looked for folk play researchers and found me.
Pencil sketch of the Charney Bassett Mummers drawn by G.W.W.Minns in 1860.
(L-R): Father Christmas/Jack Winny, Duke of Cumberland, Slasher, Doctor & Molly/Beelzebub
The three of us - Ian, Alison and myself - set about transcribing the text (no easy task given the difficult handwriting), and researching the backgrounds of the named actors in genealogical databases, as well as Minns' association with Charney. We were able to make sense of all of the text, except for a few uncertain readings, and identified all of the original actors with only one ambiguous name. Minns was a newly ordained curate and was lodging with the local grocer and baker in 1860 when he wrote down the play. The mummers were all local boys aged 11 to 15 years and either agricultural workers or scholars. The results of our efforts are available on the Charney Bassett website at:
The text is similar to other plays collected in and around the Cotswolds, but is unusual for its vintage in having been written down at the time of performance, rather than being collected decades later, which is more usually the case. However it turns out that, at the time of writing, the sketch is the oldest known illustration of a mummers' play drawn from life. Earlier illustrations were artists' impressions, sometimes based on published descriptions, but more often showing idealised manor house scenes set in a mythical "Merrie England" verging on caricature, if not actually caricatures.
A page of the Charney Bassett Mummers's text from G.W.W.Minns notebook.
Reenacting the Play
Spurred on by the discovery, a group of villagers, including a descendant of one of the original actors, very quickly decided that they would like to reenact the play this Christmas. They received a lot of encouragement from Alison Minns who marshalled support from the Minns family. A date was duly set, and tickets soon sold out for a performance in the village hall, to be preceded by a couple of talks.
There was quite a buzz in the hall as villagers gathered, and there was a large contingent of Minnses, who had travelled especially from London, Brighton and Hampshire. In fact it was a joyous occasion redolent of a wedding with the families on either side of the aisle. Ian gave a talk on the historical context of the original play and its actors, and I gave a short presentation about our work on the manuscript and the significance of the drawing to folk play research.
There was general acclaim when the Mummers came on to perform, because they had made a superb effort to replicate the costumes shown in Minns' sketch. The performance stuck closely to the original text, with but a couple of modifications. In an atmosphere akin to attending a pantomime, there was lots of laughter and spontaneous applause, and it was an unequivocal success.
After the play, we took photographs, answered questions, and looked at the original notebook, which Alison had brought along for us to see. Despite the availability of excellent scans, it is always good to see such manuscripts in the flesh. This was also the first time that Alison, Ian and I had met face to face. Everyone then moved round the corner to the Chequers Inn where the play was repeated, and where we socialised before dispersing.
Alison Minns (left), Peter Millington (in jacket) and Ian Graham (next right)
talking with the cast after the play.
We wonder what G.W.W.Minns would have made of what has become of his notebook!
The reenactment was a special project, but people enjoyed it so much there is talk of doing it again next year. The Minnses are committed to preserving the fragile manuscript, and are considering suitable archives for it. Much of our research is available on the Charney Bassett website, but there is scope for publishing a formal academic paper. Watch this space.
Some of the Minns family (centre) enjoy watching the performance in the Chequers Inn.
More pictures of the event can be seen on the Charney Bassett website at:
There is a video of the performance at: