The Dorsetarian

Dorset Ghost Walks

If you are looking for something different this year, then ghost tours can provide some great entertainment, especially if they're ghost tours after dark.
Alistair Chisholm's Dorchester Ghost Walks
Weymouth Ghost Walks
Haunted Harbour Tours
Granny Cousin's Ghost Walks of Old Poole Town
The Bridport Ghost Walk

The Little Green Dragon Hand Painted Gifts

The Symonsdbury Mummers

Location: Symonsdbury, near Bridport.


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In Comes I

Towards the end of the last century many English villages had their Yuletide mummers. A number of young men would form themselves into a company, usually of five to eleven members, according to the size of the play. Some plays were much longer than others.

The Symondsbury Mumming Play is the most complete of any of these plays. This play has eleven characters, Father Christmas, Room, King of Egypt, St. George, St. Patrick, a Doctor, four warriors, Servant-man, Dame Dorothy and Tommy the Pony. The traditional dress of the warriors was usually a soldier's uniform (see photo), decked with ribbons, streamers and sashes. The head-dress was in the form of a helmet with ribbons falling to mask the face completely from view.

Symondsbury Mummers are still in existence today, their play being performed on New Year's Day every year in the car park of the local village inn The Ilchester Arms at 8.00pm.


Staffordshire born, John Symonds Udal who lived at the Symondsbury Manor, took a keen interest in Dorset's folklore, customs and traditions. He wrote the following article printed in Folk-Lore Record, (Vol.III Pt. I, 1880, pp.87-116) and later reprinted in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' (published in 1922), with regards to the custom of mumming including a transcript of the play that is performed at Symondsbury.


CHRISTMAS MUMMERS IN DORSETSHIRE.
[Read at the Meeting of the Society on 13th April, 1880.]

To the Christmas number of Notes and Queries (5th S. ii.505) I contributed what was little more than the list of the characters in two several performances given by mummers at Chrismastide, in two distinct parishes in the south-west of Dorset, the full rendering of which would necessarily have taken up too much valuable space.

Since then the Folk-Lore Society has sprung into existence, and offers an opportunity of preserving one of the most interesting forms of our national folk-lore - folk-lore, indeed, which before the rapid march of education and beneath the iron hand of the School Board bids fair to rank ere long amongst the things of the past.

As to the derivation of the word " mummer," the principal authorities seem to be agreed. Strutt, in his Sports and Pastimes (ed.1831, p. 251), says: " In the middle ages mummings were very common. Mumm is said to be derived from the Danish word mumme, or momme in Dutch, and signifies disguise in a mask, hence a mummer."

Brand, in his Popular Antiquities (ed. 1841, vol. i. p. 250), says that " it is supposed that mummers were originally instituted in imitation of the Sigillaria or Festival Days added to the ancient Saturnalia;" and in a note appended (p. 250), "Mummer signifies a masker, one disguised under a vizard ; from the Danish mumme, or Dutch momme. Lipsius tells us in his 44th Epistle, book iii. that momar, which is used by the Sicilians for a fool, signifies in French, and in our own language, a person with a mask on."

Again, Fosbroke in his Encyclopedia of Antiquities (ed. 1843,vol. ii. p. 068), sub voice " Mummers : These were amusements derived from the Saturnalia, and so called from the Danish mumme, or Dutch momme, disguise in a mask. Christmas was the grand scene of mumming, and some mummers were disguised like bears, others like unicorns, bringing presents. They who could not procure masks rubbed their faces with soot or painted them. In the Christmas mummings the chief aim was to surprise by the oddity of the masks and singularity and splendour of the dresses. Everything was out of nature and propriety. They were often attended with an exhibition of gorgeous machinery. It was an old custom also to have mummeries on Twelfth Night. They were the common holiday amusements of young people of both sexes ; but by 6 Edward III. the mummers or masqueraders were ordered to be whipped out of London."

So, too, Chambers (Booh of Days, ed. 1864, vol. ii. p. 739) gives the same derivation. In Hone's Every Bay Booh (ed. 1866, p. 823) are given the words of a performance that took place at Whitehaven, entitled " Alexander and the King of Egypt ; a mock play, as it is acted by the Mummers every Christmas," which, in two acts, runs to rather more than a hundred lines or verses, and which contains the following characters :

    Alexander.
    Doctor.
    King of Egypt.
    Actors.
    Prince George.

Again in Brand (p. 251) there appears a neatly executed wholepage engraving of "Riding a Mumming," in which a goodly party,consisting of men, mounted, some on real and some on dummy horses,surrounded by a motley gathering on foot, is depicted about to enter the courtyard of a fine old Tudor house. In Chambers's Booh of Days (vol. ii p. 739) is a capital drawing by A. Crowquill, of a "Party of Mummers," with all the orthodox performers represented in character. The words of the drama (of about seventy lines) there given are stated to have been already printed in Tales and Traditions of Tenby, and the characters consisted of,-

    Old Father Christmas.
    Doctor.
    St. George.
    Oliver Cromwell.
    Turkish Knight.
    Beelzebub.

In Notes and Queries (2nd S. xi. 271) "Cuthbert Bede" gives the Worcestershire version of the play of St. George, called the "Mummers' Masque," in which the characters are more numerous than in the ones I have before alluded to, and comprise:-

    Little Devil-Doubt.
    Turkish Knight.
    Old Father Christmas.
    Valiant Soldier.
    The Noble Captain.
    Doctor.
    King George.
    Beelzebub.
    Bold Bonaparte.

In Notes and Queries (4th S. x. 487) a correspondent sends a version that obtains in the North of Ireland, in which " the lads dress themselves for the occasion by putting white shirts over their clothes,and wear tall caps of white paper pointed at top, and with the front flat, something like the conventional bishop's mitre, with scraps of gilt and coloured paper pasted on for ornament. They are also provided with swords of hoop iron." The characters sustained in this version were,

    Leader.
    St. Patrick.
    St. George.
    Oliver Cromwell.
    A Turk.
    Beelzebub.
    Doctor.
    Devil Doubt.

It concluded with a song of four lines only, in which all joined. Another correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th S. iv. 511) calls attention to the fact that the contents of the Peace Egg (the title of a pamphlet published at Sheffield and Leeds, sold and performed only at Christmas time) were almost identical with the old Christmas mummers' play of St. George, as given in Halliwell's Rhymes and Tales, pp. 300 310, the dramatis persona consisting of -

    Fool.
    Prince of Paradine.
    St. George.
    King of Egypt
    Slasher.
    Hector.
    Doctor.
    Devil Doubt.

 Again in the Christmas number of Notes and Queries for the last year (5th S. x. 484), a coresspondent mentions the capital account given of the Christmas mummers in 'The Return of Native', by Thomas Hardy, in which the whole scene is put extremely well before the reader. Futher, at p.489, are given the words of a short play, acted at Christmastide in the neighbourhood of Hastings.

Come nearer to our own subject Rev. W. Barnes, ("the Dorset poet,") in his Grammer and Glossary of Dorset Dialect, (published for the Philogical Society, 1863) s. v. "mummers, " describes them as "a set of youths who go about at Christmas decked with painted paper and tinsel, and act in the houses of those who like to recieve thema little drama, mostly, though not always, representing a fight between St. George and Mohammadan leader; and commemorative therefore of the Holy Wars. One of the characters, with a hump back and bawble, represents old Father Christmas."

And he goes on to say, that "the libretto of the dorset mummers is much the same as that of the Cornish ones, as given in the specimens of the Cornish Provincial Dialect, published 1846."

On referring to this publication of Mr. Sandys, (who wrote under the pseudonym of "Uncle Jan Treenoodle,") I find that some portions of the dialogue are certainly much the same as that in the earlier parts of my libretti.

In the Cornish play, however, are introduced two characters - the Dragon, who fights with, and is defeated by, St. George - and the king of Egypt's daughter - both of whom are strangers to my version.

The above description by Mr. Barnes, however, will fairly apply to my characters; which are again more numerous than the Cornish ones; to which I may add the one I gave in Notes and Queries (5th S. ii. 505,) and which forms the subject of this present paper,where Father Christmas is represented as being sometimes mounted on a wooden horse covered with trappings of dark cloth, from which the old man is generally more than once thrown. The character of his wife, Old Bet, was taken by a boy with a shrill voice, dressed as a very old woman in a black bonnet and red cloak.

The rest of the party was decked out as befitted the character each was intended to assume, garnished with bows, coloured strips of paper, caps, sashes, buttons, swords, helmets, &c. The representation of the play concluded with a song.At the same time I had ventured to claim as peculiar to the Dorsetshire mummers the introduction of the character of " Old Bet," the wife of old Father Christmas, as no other rendering with which I was acquainted had included it, but since then a correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th S. iv. 511), writing from Belper, has claimed her also as taking a vigorous part in a representation given by the neighbouring lads in his kitchen.

Another peculiarity to be noticed in the Dorsetshire versions is, that whilst in nearly all the others I have quoted the actors are represented as asking for " room " to perform in, in these, one of the actors assumes the character of "Room " itself.

The two versions I have, and which I now propose to lay before my readers, being performed in the same county, naturally bear, as will be seen, a strong resemblance to each other ; and, indeed, in all the different accounts I have above referred to, an unmistakeable family likeness is visible. I will now proceed to give the entire rendering of the first version as it was obtained for me some few years ago by an old Dorsetshire lady, who is now dead, and in this the dramatis persona are as follow :

    Old Father Christmas.
    Gracious King.
    Room.
    General Valentine.
    Anthony, the Egyptian King.
    Colonel Spring.
    St. George. Old Betty.
    St. Patrick. Doctor.
    Captain Bluster.
    Servant-man.



[SCENE:-The servants' hall or kitchen of the mansion or farmhouse in which the performance is to take place. The actors are grouped together at the back of the stage, So to speak, and each comes forward as he is required to speak or to fight, and at the conclusion falls back upon the rest, leaving the stage clear for other disputants or combatants. This is the "enter" and "exit" of the mummers.]

[Enter OLD FATHER CHRISTMAS.]

Old Father Christmas

Here comes I, Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not,
I hope Old Father Christmas will never be forgot.
Although it is Old Father Christmas
he has but a short time to stay I am come to show you pleasure and pass the time away. I have been far, I have been near,
And now I am come to drink a pot of your Christmas beer;
And if it's not your best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest.
If it is a pot of your small,
We cannot show you no Christmas at all.
Walk in Room, again I say,
And pray good people clear the way.
Walk in, Room.

[Enter ROOM.]

Room

God bless you all, ladies and gentlemen,
It's Christmas time, and I am come again.
My name is Room, one sincere and true,
A merry Christmas I wish to you.
King of Egypt is for to display,
A noble champion without delay.
St. Patrick too, a charming Irish youth,
He can fight or dance, or love a girl with truth.
A noble Doctor I do declare,
and his surprising tricks bring up the rear,
And let the Egyptian King straightway appear.

Symondsbury Mummers

[Enter EGYPTIAN KING.]

Egyptian King


Here comes I, Anthony, the Egyptian King.
With whose mighty acts all round the globe doth ring
No other champion but me excels,
Except St. George, my only son-in-law.
Indeed that wondrous knight whom I so dearly love,
Whose mortal deeds the world dost [well?] approve,
That hero whom no dragon could affright,
A whole troop of soldiers couldn't stand in sight.
Walk in St. George, his warlike [ardour?] to display,
And show Great Britain's enemies dismay.
Walk in, St. George.

[Enter ST. GEORGE.]

St. George

Here am I, St. George, an Englishman so stout,
With those mighty warriors I long to have a bout;
No one could ever picture me the many I have slain,
I long to fight, it's my delight, the battle o'er again.
Come then, you boasting champions,
And hear that in war I doth take pleasure,
I will fight you all, both great and small,
And slay you at my leisure.
Come haste, away, make no delay,
For I'll give you something you won't like,
And like a true-born Englishman
I will fight you on my stumps.
And now the world I do defy,
To injure me before I die.
So now prepare for war, for that is my delight.

[Enter ST. PATRICK, who shakes hands with ST. GEORGE.]

St. Patrick

My worthy friend, how dost thou fare, St. George?
Answer, my worthy knight.

St. George

I am glad to find thee here;
In many a fight that I have been in, travelled far and near,
To find my worthy friend St. Patrick, that man I love so dear.
Four bold warriors have promised me
To meet me here this night to fight.
The challenge did I accept, but they could not me affright.

St. Patrick

I will always stand by that man that did me first enlarge,
I thank thee now in gratitude, my worthy friend St. Gearge;
Thou dids't first deliver me out of this wretched den,
And now I have my liberty I thank thee once again.

[Enter Captain BLUSTER.]

Captain Bluster

I'll give St. George a thrashing, I'll make him sick and sore,
And if I further am disposed I'll thrash a dozen more.

St. Patrick

Large words, my worthy friend,
St. George is here.
And likewise St. Patrick too;
And he doth scorn such men as you.
I am the match for thee,
Therefore prepare yourself to fight with me,
Or else I'll slay thee instantly.

Captain Bluster

Come on, my boy! I'll die before
I yield to thee or twenty more.

[They fight, and ST. PATRICK kills CAPTAIN BLUSTER.]

St. Patrick

Now one of St. George's foes is killed by me,
Who fought the battle o'er,
And now for the sake of good St. George,
I'll freely fight a hundred more.

St. George.

No, no, my worthy friend,
St. George is here,
I'll fight the other three;
And after that with Christmas beer
So merry we will be.

[Enter GRACIOUS KING.]

Gracious King

No beer or brandy, Sir, I want my courage for to rise,
I only want to meet St. George or take him by surprise;
But I am afraid he never will fight me,
I wish I could that villain see.

St. George.

Tremble, thou tyrant, for all thy sin that's past,
Tremble to think that this night will be thy last.
Thy conquering arms shall quickly by thee lay alone,
And send thee passing to eternal doom.
St. George will make thy armour ring;
St. George will soon despatch the Gracious King.

Gracious King

I'll die before I yield to thee or twenty more.

[They fight, ST. GEORGE kills the GRACIOUS KING.]

[Enter General VALENTINE.]

St. George.

He was no match for me, he quickly fell.

General Valentine

But I am thy match, and that my sword shall tell,
Prepare thyself to die and bid thy friends farewell.
I long to fight such a brave man as thee,
For its a pleasure to fight so manfully.
[N.B. Udal in a footnote states this line is missing]
Rations so severe he never long to deceive [receive?]
So cruel! for thy foes [are?] always killed;
Oh! what a sight of blood St. George has spilled!
I'll fight St. George the hero here,
Before I sleep this night.
Come on my boy, I'II die before
I yield to thee or twenty more.
St. George, thou and I'll the battle try,
If thou dost conquer I will die.

[They fight. ST. GEORGE kills the General.]

St. George.

Where now is Colonel Spring? He doth so long delay,
That hero of renown, I long to show him play.

[Enter Colonel SPRING.]

Colonel Spring

Holloa! behold me, here am I!
I'll have thee now prepare,
And by this arm thou'lt surely die-
I'll have thee this night beware.
So see what bloody works thou'st made,
Thou art a butcher, Sir, by trade.
I'll kill, as thou didst [kill?] my brother,
For one good turn deserves another.

St. George.

Come, give me leave, I'll thee battle,
And quickly make thy bones to rattle.

Colonel Spring

Come on my boy, I'll die before
I'll yield to thee or twenty more.
St. George, so thee and I
Will the battle try.

[They fight. ST. GEORGE kills the COLONEL.]

St. Patrick

Stay thy hand, St. George, and slay no more;
for I feel for the wives and families of those men that you have slain.

St. George.

So am I sorry.
I'll freely give any sum of money to a doctor
to restore them again.
I have heard talk of a mill to grind old men young,
but I never heard of a doctor to bring dead men to life again.

St. Patrick

There's an Irish doctor, a townsman of mine,
who lived next door to St. Patrick, he can perform wonders.
Shall I call him, St. George?

St. George.

With all my heart.
Please to walk in Mr. Martin Dennis.
Its an ill wind that blows no good work for the doctor.

[Enter DOCTOR.]

St. George.

If you will set these men on their pins,
I'll give thee a hundred pound, and here is the money.

Doctor


So I will my worthy knight,
and then I shall not want for whiskey for one twelvemonth to come.
I am sure the first man I saw beheaded,
I put his head on the wrong way.
I put his mouth where his poll ought to be,
and he's exhibited in a wondering nature.

St. George.

Very good answer, Mr. Doctor.
Tell me the rest of your miracles and raise those warriors.

Doctor

I can cure love-sick maidens,
jealous husbands,
squalling wives,
brandy-drinking dames,
with one touch of my pepble [triple?] liquid,
or one sly dose of my Jerusalem balsam,
and that will make an old crippled dame dance the hornpipe,
or an old woman of seventy years of age conceive and bear a twin.
And now to convince you all of my exertions,
rise Captain Bluster, Gracious King,
General Valentine, and Colonel Spring!
Rise, and go to your father!

[On the application of the medicine they all rise and retire.]

[Enter OLD BET.]

Old Bet

Here comes I dame Dorothy,
A handsome young woman, good morning to ye.
I am rather fat but not very tall,
I'll do my best endeavour to please you all.
My husband he is to work and soon he will return,
And something for our supper bring,
And perhaps some wood to burn.
Oh! here he comes!

[Enter JAN or OLD FATHER CHRISTMAS.]

Old Bet

Well! Jan.

Old Father Christmas

Oh! Dorothy!

Old Bet

What have you been doing all this long day, Jan?

Old Father Christmas

I have been a hunting, Bet.

Old Dorothy and Nobby The Horse

Old Bet

The devil a hunting is it!
Is that the way to support a wife?
Well, what have you catched to-day, Jan?

Old Father Christmas

A fine jack hare, and I intend to have him a-fried for supper;
and here is some wood to dress him.

Old Bet

Fried! no, Jan, I'll roast it nice.

Old Father Christmas

I say I'll have it fried.

Old Bet

Was there ever such a foolish dish!

Old Father Christmas.

No matter for that.
I'll have it a-done;
and if you don't do as do bid,
I'll hit you in the head.

Old Bet


You may do as you like for all I do care
I'll never fry a dry Jack hare.

Old Father Christmas


Oh! You won't, wooll'ee? [will you]

[He strikes her, and she falls.]

Oh! what have I done! I have murdered my wife!
The joy of my heart, and the pride of my life.
And out to the gaol I quickly shall be sent.
In a passion I did it, and no malice meant.
Is there a doctor that can restore?
Fifty pounds I'll give him, or twice fifty more. [Some one speaks.]

Oh I yes, Uncle Jan, there is a doctor just below,
and for God's sake let him just come in.
Walk in, Doctor.

[Enter DOCTOR.]


Old Father Christmas

Are you a doctor?

Doctor

Yes, I am a doctor - a doctor of good fame.
I have travelled through Europe, Asia, Africa, and America,
and by long practice and experience I have learned the best of cures
for most disorders instant [incident?] to the human body;
find nothing difficult in restoring a limb, or mortification,
or an arm being cut off by a sword,
or a head being struck off by a cannon ball,
if application have not been delayed till it is too late.

Old Father Christmas

You are the very man, I plainly see,
That can restore my poor old wife to me.
Pray tell me thy lowest fee.

Doctor


A hundred guineas I'll have to restore thy wife.
'Tis no wonder that you could not bring the dead to life.
Old Father Christmas

That's a large sum of money for a dead wife!

Doctor

Small sum of money to save a man from the gallows.
Pray what big stick is that you have in your hand?

Old Father Christmas

That is my hunting-pole.

Doctor


Put aside your hunting-pole, and get some assistance to help up your wife.

[OLD BET is raised up to life again.]

Old Father Christmas

Fal, dal, lal! fal, dal, lal! my wife's alive!

[Enter SERVANT-MAN, who sings.]  

Servant-Man

Well met, my brother dear!
All on the highway
Sall and I were a walking along,
So I pray come tell to me
What calling you might be;
I'll have you for some servant-man.

Old Father Christmas

I'll give thee many thanks,
And I'll quit thee as soon as I can;
Vain did I know
Where thee could do so or no,
For to the pleasure of a servant-man.

Servant-Man

Some servants of pleasure
Will pass time out of measure,
With our hares and hounds
They will make the hills and valleys sound;
That's a pleasure for some servant-man.

Old Father Christmas

My pleasure is more than for to see my oxen grow fat,
And see them prove well in their kind,
A good rick of hay and a good stack of corn to fill up my barn,
That's a pleasure of a good honest husbandman.

Servant-Man

Next to church they will go with their livery fine and gay,
With their cocked-up hat and gold lace all round,
And their shirt so white as milk,
And stitched so fine as silk,
That's a habit for a servant-man.

Old Father Christmas

Don't tell I about thee silks and garments
that not fit to travel the bushes.
Let I have on my old leather coat,
And in my purse a groat,
And there, that's a habit for a good old husbandman.

Servant-Man

Some servant-men doth eat
The very best of meat,
A cock, goose, capon, and swan;
After lords and ladies dine,
We'll drink strong beer, ale, and wine;
That's a diet for some servant-man,

Old Father Christmas

Don't tell I of the cock, goose, or capon, nor swan;
let I have a good rusty piece of bacon,
pickled pork, in the house,
and a hard crust of bread and cheese once now and then;
that's a diet for a good old honest husbandman,
So we need must confess
That your calling is the best,
And we win give you the uppermost hand;
So no more we won't delay,
But we will pray both night and day,
God bless the honest husbandman.
Amen.

[Here follows a Song, after which exeunt Omnes.]

The play over, and the actors regaled with such good cheer as the hospitable hearts of the Dorsetshire folk seldom refused, the Mummers passed on to the next parish, where to a fresh and ever-delighted audience they went through a repetition of their performance; and though, if the night were wet, and the wind cold, they experienced rough usage at times, yet their welcome was all the warmer at their next halting-place, so that none could doubt for a moment but that they came in for no small share of the delights of a " merry Christmas."

J. S. UDAL.