The History of the Marshfield Mummers

Whilst the origins of the ancient Marshfield Mumming Play, in common with other mumming plays still performed in England and Ireland – the practice having long since been extinct in Scotland and Wales – are shrouded in the mists of time with only sparse records. It must be borne in mind at this point that the tradition of the script only being handed down verbally throughout the generations of mummers performing the plays stems from a period when only a very few in a rural community could read or write, this being mainly the prerogative of the mediaeval clerics and ruling classes.

The Marshfield Mummimg Play, revived in 1930 and performed in the village – as most residents refer to Marshfield although it is actually a town – on Boxing Day mornings ever since (excluding those that fall on a Sunday, when it is then performed on the Monday) is one of the few remaining plays, if not the only one, that are unique in rigidly adhering to the true oral tradition in that every participant has learnt his part from another who has in turn learnt his part from an original Mummer without having resorted to any written text.

When the Reverend C S L Alford, then rector of the parish of Marshfield became both amused and intrigued by his old gardener, a gentleman by the name of Edwin Harding reciting some verses he remembered from his youth to entertain some visitors to the vicarage; “In comes I, Old Father Christmas etc…” he made contact with his sister, Miss Violet Alford. Fortunately she was at that time an eminent folk historian with a special interest in English folk rituals and as such was widely respected as an authority in such matters, (indeed her books and writings on the subject are still considered to be valuable works of reference even today) it was therefore not surprising that she was soon to visit her brother at Marshfield to investigate matters further.

With her specialist knowledge Miss Alford immediately recognised the verses for what they were, part of old traditional mummimg play and with assistance of the old vicarage gardener and some of his contemporary villagers – Mark Andrews, Ewart Beazer and Arthur Hope – all of whom had recollections of their activities as mummers in their youth the consensus amongst them being that the practice of Christmastide mumming in the Parish had died out half a century earlier around the mid 1880’s – she was able to reconstruct the play very closely to its original form, in which it still exists to the present day.

Miss Alford and her brother then encouraged some local led to get together and learn the various parts and the song which follows the play, (another unique feature of the Marshfield play that is unknown elsewhere) from the old villagers parrot fashion, taking great care that none had access to any written text thus ensuring that over the ensuing generations the play would be subject to subtle but none the less natural changes which was as she knew to be the reason why all mumming plays whilst having the same basic common themes, characters and similarity of structure have such a wide variety of regional structures.

The words and actions of the participating characters were thus learnt by heart and committed to memory, a tradition that all t he Marshfield Mummers uphold proudly even to this day – even going to the lengths of avoiding publications wherein the text has been published after performances have been recorded – and on Boxing day 1931 the Marshfield Mummers or as they are known locally, The Old Time Paper Boys owing to their practice of constructing costumes decorated with strips of old newsprint and coloured paper to conceal their identities in keeping with ancient rituals gave their first performance in the streets of Marshfield.
The actual first performance was a year earlier in 1930 in the vicarage to an audience consisting of the Alford family and their Christmas guests, on this occasion they were encouraged to “go public” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Two original members, Edwin Harding portraying Father Christmas and Ewart Beazer as Tenpenny Nit were assisted on these first occasions by A Tye as Little Man John, N Downs-Hall as King William, G A Morrison as Doctor Phoenix, J Beazer as Saucy Jack and E C Lewis as Old Father Beezlebub, the Town Crier being a later addition to the cast of performers.

Those villagers whose recollections enabled Violet Alford to faithfully resurrect the play that had lain dormant in their memories for half a century recalled that before this revival in the period before the practice had died out in the mid 1880’s, the play’s performance had not been on Boxing day but had been carried out repeatedly during the twelve days that preceded Christmas. Young would gather together, decorate their hats and coats with paper strips (coloured paper if possible although paper, even newsprint was quite a scarce commodity in those days) taking great care to disguise their features according to accepted custom – in some areas of Britain mummers actually more commonly known as ‘Guisers’, the word mummer is believed to be derived the Germanic root ‘mumme’ – to mask or hide – and then proceed to visit as many of the local gentry and farmers in the big houses of the area as they could. The main object of this exercise seemed to revolve around attempting, after gaining admission to the house and performing the play, to extract food, drink and possibly a few coins in reward; the final character in the play, Old Father Beezlebub recites “a little of your festive ale would make us boys dance and sing, a little of your money in our pockets would be a very fine thing” prior to the cast joining forces to sing the three verse song and chorus (which is another thing that makes the Marshfield play unique) that concludes each performance. To leave any house hungry, thirsty or empty handed was apparently unheard of in those days, the gentry knowing full well that a poor report on their hospitality could influence their social standing amongst the other household visited.

At this time in history, poverty was the order of the day for many in a rural community and the chance of a free drink or two, some fine nourishing food and possibly a little extra cash in the family coffers at Christmas would have been attractive to the young lads involved. It is highly unlikely that that these young lads re-enacting the ancient customs had much idea about or understanding of the significance of the plays dialogue, its rituals or of its ancient origins but were only carrying on the performances from a folk memory of times long past utilising the play as a means to their own ends.

The decline of this tradition, as is the case with so many others in the late 19th century can be attributed to a combination of factors affecting the way in which rural life was changing; the transfer of the population to the industrialised areas, the relative improvement in agricultural wages and conditions, the improvements in education and literacy amongst the lower classes, the greater mobility and intermixing between communities, the introduction of other forms of entertainment all influencing the manner in which many traditions and customs such as story telling and the passing down of family history and local rituals were considered and treated. Such traditional entertainers from which so many of our folk customs stem also hold true for a great many cultures throughout the world – and pastimes have been replaced by books, radio, television, easy travel the information technology revolution, often to be lost forever without trace.

Luckily for Marshfield there was Violet Alford to retrieve, record and revive this element of our local history in the nick of time, for within a few short years all those villagers that had their memories of mumming in the previous century were dead and buried, taking their first hand knowledge with them to the grave.
But for her and the fortuitous sequence of events leading to her involvement, that unique knowledge and experience would not have been bequeathed to those who so proudly now carry on the tradition of mumming Marshfield to this day.

Every Boxing day at 11 o’clock the mummers emerge from the church hall led by the Town Crier resplendent in his top hat embellished with bright yellow ribbon and rosette and ringing his hand bell, to proceed via Hay street to enter the market place to be greeted by the crowds assembled there eagerly awaiting their arrival ( for many years now the town silver band and local vicar conducting community carol singing have entertained those who have arrived early to ensure a good viewpoint) where they then form a circle around a tarpaulin that has been laid upon the ground.

The Town Crier with great dignity introduces the Mummers to those assembled and Father Christmas enters the circle to perform his part. He is followed by Little Man John who challenges, and subsequently fights with and is slain by the next character King William who having done this evil deed calls upon a doctor to tend to his victim. Doctor Phoenix, after some boasting about his powers and extracting a fee from Father Christmas proceeds’ to administer a potion of English turpentine to resurrect the stricken combatant who makes a remarkable speedy recovery. Saucy Jack complete with his family on his back and the local hard man Tenpenny Nit then in turn recite their parts whilst brandishing their wooden swords. They are followed by the final participant in the plays performance, Old Father Beezlebub who with a club on his shoulder and a money pan in his hand invites the audience to enjoy the performance and be generous with Christmas cheer. The play is then brought to a conclusion by all the Mummers and the Town Crier joining together to perform the unique three verse song, accompanying each chorus with a dance.

Proceeding westwards along the High street the whole performance is repeated at intervals at the junctions where the side roads – Sheep Fair Lane, Touching End Lane, St Martins Lane and George Lane join the High street until they arrive at the Alms Houses. After enacting the play at this westernmost point they retrace their steps eastwards to visit one of the three public houses (a different one each year in turn) to give their last performance of the day and to receive any seasonal hospitality that the Landlord may care to offer.
The years work done the Mummers then retire to the home of the original Old Father Beezlebub – the late Edgar Lewis – where for many years his daughter, Betty (now our honorary president following the sad loss of the Mummers first president and mentor, Dr Zeta Eastes ) has enthusiastically treated the performers to an excellent table of refreshments and patiently listened to the Mummers debates on the mornings endeavors, recollections of past Boxing Days and the greetings of retired Mummers and nostalgic memories of those who are no longer able to be part of this tradition so proudly upheld by all those who carry on to this day.

Although the Mummers are accompanied by collectors in costume (these members will in the course of time become performing Mummers, being a collector is in effect their apprenticeship until such time as a vacancy arises through retirement or death) rattling their collection boxes, the Mummers do not collect for themselves but after returning to the church hall the monies are counted and a date set for early in the New Year for everyone to meet and decide how to distribute the funds accrued. Many local people consider their donation to be a means of good luck for the forth coming year. The main criteria for the distribution of the money is that it should benefit members of the local community rather than national charities, hence over the years the Community Centre, Church Hall and School and organisations in the parish for both young and old have received donations.

Other than the occasional foray to events such as the Sidmouth International Folk Festival and the English Folk Dance and Song Society Annual Festival the performance of the play is reserved for Boxing day in Marshfield. The Mummers have resisted all the various entreaties to take place in fetes, flower shows and the like during the year as they feel that to do so would detract from the essential nature of their play and demean its authenticity.

They only meet to rehearse about twenty minutes before leaving the church hall every Boxing day

Copyright ; Bernard Fishlock 1999

This history was written by Bernard Fishlock who played King William between 1999 and 2000 and was our secretary for many years.
Bernard sadly passed away in 2008.
To bring this up to date, Betty Lewis who was our president also passed away in 2012 and we now retire to Inspector Peter Truch’s home where we accept his hospitality and perform to thank him for keeping us on the straight and narrow during our performances each Boxing Day.

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