Seasonal House-visiting in South Yorkshire

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It's good to see the unabated growth of the open access movement, which encourages academic authors to deposit electronic copies of their publications and theses in institutional repositories so that anyone in the world with an internet connection can download them for free.

One recent addition to White Rose eTheses Online has been Ruairidh Greig's MPhil thesis entitled Seasonal House-visiting in South Yorkshire, awarded by the University of Sheffield in 1988 (PDF Downloadable from:

This is a thesis that anyone with an interest with folk drama would do well to read. Ruairidh was among the first people in the UK to study folk plays in their social and performance context, investigating their function in the society which fosters them. In doing so provided a reality check on some of the flawed theories that were current at the time, which were primarily focused on nebulous origins.

He did his field work in an area north of Sheffield, encompassing Barnsley, Penistone and Rotherham, and uncovered a wide a range of house-visiting customs. His contents page lists fifteen different traditions, most of which were winter traditions, and involved some sort of performance in the expectation of a reward. All the sections reproduce a veritable cornucopia of primary source information, including the tunes where appropriate.

He classes eleven of the traditions as "simple visits", i.e. of short duration and involving little preparation or planning. They may be performed by an individual or by a group of indeterminate size, but there is no interaction between the performers. These include: Letting in the New Year, Plough Bullocks, Collop Monday, Whitsun, Caking, Penny for the Guy, Jolly Minering, Letting Christmas In, Carol Singing, Wassailing, and Mumming.

By contrast, "complex visits" entail significant interaction between performers, and folk drama falls squarely into this category. However, Greig records three species of folk play - The Hero Combat play, The Old Tup, and The Old Horse - as well as The Sword Dance.

It is a salutary lesson that the "mumming", "mummering" or "mummying" traditions that Greig describes entailed simple house-visiting in disguise, without the performance of folk drama - although the play performers were also called "mummers". This illustrates the dangers of theoreticians focussing too much on the name "mummers".

Texts and fragments of the folk plays Greig collected are given in a separate section. Most of these are Derby Tup plays, which seems to have been the dominant "complex visit" in the area. There is however some information for Hero-Combat plays, the scripts for which came from the chapbooks published in various northern English cities. The corresponding chapter describes the social context and history of these plays.

I would like to finish by quoting Greig's view on how traditions evolve, which I think summarises the situation succinctly:

"It is my contention that [traditions] are not, as has often been thought, in a state of continual decline, but develop, spread, contract, die out and are in turn replaced by new developments or revivals of older customs..." (p.220)

If you have a thesis or academic publication that you would like to make available via open access, you should be able to find details of the relevant university repository in OpenDOAR - the Directory of Open Access Repositories -

Peter Millington

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Readers' Comments

Stephen Miller - 26-May-2010

Thanks for this, just downloaded it though the server has all of the speed of a modem! It is topic close to me at present as a I am working on a compendium of source material to do with "Hop-tu-naa" so it all grist to the mill.
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Paul Davenport - 26-May-2010

Excellent resource. I read this in Rotherham Library some time ago and lost my copy (made with Ruaridh's permission) so it was great to be able to 'dip in' again.
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