Throwing at cocks and other pastimes: Shrove Tuesday in the Georgian Era

The person, Sir, who I informed you had last year swallowed a fork on Shrove Tuesday, discharged it by the anus the same year, (1715) on the 25th June.

Ahem! Now we’ve got your attention, today being Shrove Tuesday, we’re taking a look at some of the events which occurred on the day in the Georgian era. Often celebrated as a half-holiday with bell-ringing and games, we all know of the custom of pancakes; today pancake races are still often held. But, what about other traditions? And no, fork swallowing wasn’t one of them; that was just an accident which occurred on the day. Mind you, some of the customs were just as awful…

Woman Baking Pancakes, Adriaan de Lelie, c. 1790 – c. 1810
Rijksmuseum

An old custom around the mid-1700s was to throw sticks at cocks on this day… no, we don’t know why either. One theory, given in a letter in the Stamford Mercury of 1768 said that:

Gallieide, or cock-throwing, was first introduced by way of contempt to the French, and to exasperate the minds of the people against that nation: but why should the custom be continued when we are no longer at war with them?

Shrove Tuesday all the year round - a cock wot every one throws at.
Shrove Tuesday all the year round – a cock wot every one throws at. © The Trustees of the British Museum

A cockerel would be tied to a post and then coksteles (weighted sticks) thrown at the bird until, inevitably, it died. In 1763, the mayor and justices of Bath printed an appeal for this practice to end, it being ‘barbarous, and therefore doubtless offensive to Almighty God’. They asked the country folk who lived nearby the city not to bring their cocks to market and sell them for this purpose. Possibly their plea went largely unheeded, as they were forced to repeat their appeal the following year too. In 1753, a riot broke out in Dublin when some soldiers, who were watching the proceedings, expressed their distaste at the practice.  In 1766, at Blackburn in Lancashire, some of the local lads were throwing sticks at a cock in the churchyard, but their aim was off and instead they hit a woman walking past.

The stick flew into her eye, and up into her head, which put her into very great torture, and after languishing some time, she died.

The First Stage of Cruelty by Hogarth
The First Stage of Cruelty by Hogarth via Wikimedia

Mind you, with the custom of throwing at cocks all but forgotten by the end of the eighteenth-century, the Justices of Derby worried instead about the practice of:

…playing at Foot Ball on Shrove Tuesdays; a custom which whilst it has no better recommendation than its antiquity, for its further continuance, is disgraceful to humanity, and civilization; subversive of good order, and Government, and destructive of the morals, properties, and very lives of our inhabitants.

Foot Ball played at Market Place, Barnet by Robert Dighton, c.1784.
Foot Ball played at Market Place, Barnet by Robert Dighton, c.1784. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The year before, it seems, one John Sneap had lost his life while indulging in the game on Shrove Tuesday. Rowdy ‘mob football’ games were yet another odd Shrove Tuesday tradition. And so the city of Derby:

… being fully satisfied that many public and private evils have been occasioned by the custom of playing at FOOT BALL in this Borough on Shrove Tuesdays.

We have unanimously resolved, THAT SUCH CUSTOM SHALL FROM HENCEFORTH BE DISCONTINUED.

Some towns in England still continue this tradition. A much more satisfactory custom was gathering for drinks and a feast.

An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago by William Powell Frith, 1846.
An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago by William Powell Frith, 1846. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In Bury, on 24 February 1762, 72 people who all lived within a mile of the town met at the Old Hare and Hounds, to drink the health of the royal family. Amongst the crowed were 38 elderly folk, whose ages amounted to ‘upwards of 3040 years’. Adding the combined ages of those gathered to celebrate Shrove Tuesday seems to be of national interest. The following dates to 1759.

At an entertainment given by the Master of the Talbot Inn, at Ripley in Surrey, on Shrove Tuesday last, to twelve of his neighbours, inhabitants of the said parish, and who lived within five hundred yards distance, the age of the whole amounted to one thousand and eighteen years. What is most remarkable, one of the company is the mother of twelve children, the youngest of whom is sixty. She has within the fortnight walked to Guildford and back again (which is twelve miles) in one day. Another has worked as a journeyman with his Master (a shoemaker, who dined with him) forty-nine years. The all enjoyed their senses and not one made use of a crutch.

And, let’s not forget the poor fork swallower. He was reputed to be a Spanish officer who had accidentally gulped down the fork (it was only a small implement) while cleaning the root of his tongue with the end of the handle. And, the account we have read suggests he came to no permanent harm.

Sources:

Derby Mercury, 16 March 1753, 7 March 1766 and 18 February 1796

Manchester Mercury, 6 March 1759 and 2 March 1762

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 10 February 1763 and 23 February 1764

Caledonian Mercury, 12 November 1766

Stamford Mercury, 18 February 1768

2 thoughts on “Throwing at cocks and other pastimes: Shrove Tuesday in the Georgian Era

  1. Alison Hughes

    Good morning
    Just a quick message from me to let you know how much I enjoy reading regular emails on All Things Georgian from you.
    I have had an interest in the Georgian era for some time now which has sparked my latest efforts to build a twelfth scale Georgian townhouse. It’s a very amateur effort, but something I’m enjoying immensely which leads me to ask: Do you have any articles or photographs of townhouse interiors that you have previously published that you could signpost me to? I have failed to find many useful references to kitchens and stoves/ovens that would have been typical in a middle class (not super wealthy) town house.

    Regards
    Alison Hughes

    Sent from Alison’s iPhone

    Like

    1. Joanne Major

      Thank you for your kind comments, and you project sounds ever so interesting! We do have a few images on our article ‘One can never have enough saucepans‘ although I’m not quite sure they’re what you are looking for. Perhaps one of our readers might spot this and be able to help further? Also, while it’s a little more ‘high status’ than you’re looking for, the Regency Townhouse in Brighton might be of use? They do have a floorplan of the servants’ quarters: http://www.rth.org.uk/local-history/brunswick-town/tour-of-house/servant-quarters

      Like

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