Shrovetide in Sussex

Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) is the day before Lent commences. ‘Lent is a corruption of the Old English word ‘Lencten’ meaning ‘Spring’

Our ancestors would have shrove (confessed) themselves of sins in the morning. At noon the Shrovetide bell would ring from Sussex churches which would indicate that it was time to stop confessing and start eating!  A Shrovetide bell was rung at noon at Midhurst well into the 20thCentury.

The afternoon of Shrove Tuesday was traditionally a time for playing sports and eating. Apprentices were given a half-day holiday and across the country games such as cock-fighting, football and skipping were held. Football matches could be held between dozens of players through the streets of the town – this rowdy game was still played in Dorking until the 1890s when it was banned by Surrey County Council (much to the annoyance of Dorking Parish Council). In 1897 about 2,000 people attended for the match which the police tried to prevent. (this photo from Dorking Museum appears to show the police trying to confiscate the ball!) The following year 60 people were fined for participating – including one local councillor who had kicked the ball to start the match.

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The Sussex Express of 3rdMarch 1900 reports ‘There were scenes of an extraordinary nature in the streets of Dorking when a determined attempt was made by local residents to observe the custom of playing football throughout the streets of the town.  The match lasted from 2pm to 6pm by which time the streets were impassable due to the crowds.’

Another pastime was ‘Throwing at Cocks’ where a poor cockerel was tied to a post and sticks and stones thrown at it until it was dead.  There is a record of this ‘game’ being played in Lewes as late as 1780 although it was still going on in other places 20 years later. The Sussex Advertiser of 1stMarch 1802 calls for this ‘barbarous custom’ to be abolished. Apparently cockerels were called ‘Shrovetide Martyrs’

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Children would also go from door to door in the hope of being given a spare pancake or two. The Sussex Express in 1893 reports children singing “Open the door and let us in – For we be come a Pancaking”  Because Shrovetide was a time for feasts, gatherings were held with food and dancing. A Shrovetide celebratory dinner was held in South Heighton as late as 1939. Shrovetide was also marked with dances and lectures.

Today the only part of the Shrovetide tradition that we still uphold is that of making pancakes. The first mention of ‘tossing’ pancakes dates from a poem of 1619 the end of which is ….

Every man and maid do take their turn,

And toss their pancakes up for fear they burn,

And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound

To see pancakes fall upon the ground.


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Pancake races are a relatively new phenomena, starting after the Second World War and there are reports of pancake races all over Sussex in the 1950s.   The pancake race through the streets of Battle mentioned some rules – ‘pancakes must be no less than six inches wide and must be tossed at least three times during the race’

An amusing instance occurred in 1958 when the Hassocks Evening Townswomen’s Guild challenged the Hassocks Afternoon Townswomen’s Guild to a floodlit pancake race on the AdAstra playing field. (I say floodlit – the race was to be illuminated by car headlights). When the Afternoon Guild declined, Mrs Wells, the Chairwoman of the Evening Group described the other group as ‘too old and decrepit’ to participate. This irked the afternoon ladies who decided to rise to the challenge and put up a team.   Opposition however was to come from the local Keymer Parish Council who advised the ladies that the Bye-Laws forbade sports on the playing field after dark. Mrs Wells responded by saying that young couples ‘played sport’ in the field after dark!   The race did go ahead but sadly I can find no record of who won.

Ash Wednesday follows Shrove Tuesday and was far more sombre than the previous day.  On this day leaves would be burnt in church and the ashes were mixed with holy water. The parish priest would then mark the forehead of each parishioner with a cross to remind them of their lent commitment for the next 40 days. They would then only be permitted to eat one meal a day after evening prayers.

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The practice of wearing ashen crosses was banned in 1548 as being too Catholic but the practice continued in Ireland.  I remember visiting Dublin a few years ago and was surprised to see many people walking around the street with ashen crosses on their foreheads.

There were many debates about what could and couldn’t be eaten for lent. Meat was forbidden but it was in order to eat fish. Local fishermen would celebrate by long-rope skipping.  This was the last time they would officially be able to have fun until  Good Friday.  I have found a reference to Brighton fishermen skipping on Shrove Tuesday and I am sure it would have occurred all along the Sussex coast.

There were some exceptions to the ban on meat. Beggars were allowed to eat meat and you could also obtain a licence from the local church. At All Saints Church, Hastings the parish registers in 1609 show that several licences were granted.Another exception was eating goose because the church declared that geese were fish!!!   Our medieval ancestors believed that geese were actually hatched from barnacles that had attached themselves to rocks and driftwood. They were therefore fish and could be eaten during lent! (This is where the barnacle goose gets its name from)

Sweet things were also permitted including Simnel Cake, a rather heavy but nutritious  treat.

Meanwhile inside churches depictions of Christ and also crucifixes were traditionally hidden from view by being covered in cloth called a ‘lenten veil’.  Sometimes the whole of the chancel would be hidden from view.  This practice has now mostly been forgotten (again it would have been thought of as too Catholic) although a couple of years ago I was able to gain access to the, usually locked, ancient church of Stone near Gravesend in Kent and was surprised to see a lenten veil in place.

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The Lenten Veil at Stone Church, Kent

If you read the Church guide for  St Andrews Church, Alfriston, (the Cathedral of the Downs) it will tell you that metal hooks in the ancient roof timbers in the chancel show where a large ‘lenten veil’ was fixed. Now this poses a problem – I have never ever seen these fixings I have even looked with a pair of binoculars and the churchwardens who have been unable to point them out to me.

Lib St Andrews Church Alfriston
St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston

The problem was solved a few years ago when I was showing a group of people around the church.  One old boy told me that I could never see the fixings!  He told me that in the early 1960s he was one of team that helped repair and restore the church. The ancient timbers above the chancel were removed and replaced with similar ones that had once been a part of a Thames sailing barge. The old timbers being rotten were burnt in the churchyard. No one however has changed the church guide, so for the past 50 years thousands of visitors to the church have been looking for something that just isn’t there!

Happy Shrovetide everyone and I hope your pancakes are delicious!



Dorking Museum

Seaford Library

Sussex Express (National Newspaper Archives)

Hidden Sussex Day by Day (Warden Swinfen and David Arscott 1987)

The Oxford Companion to the Year (1999)

The English Year (Steve Roud 2006)


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Vivienne VandenBegin says:

    Thanks Kevin. Tomorrow I shall be braced with frying pan at the ready. Best regards Vivienne Vandenbegin

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Sara Goddard says:

    Thank you Kevin, very interesting!


  3. George Chaney says:

    Very Interesting, thanks Kevin.


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