Sunday, April 26, 2009

London Lore

A report on yesterday's 'London Lore' conference at the Bishopsgate Institute, sponsored by the Institute, the Folklore Society and South East London Folklore Society:

'London Lore' was a great success, with a sell out audience of 250 suggesting that there is a growing interest in 'exploring London's traditions, customs and folklore, old and new' (as the conference was subtitled).

Sarah Crofts began the day with a talk on the Fowlers Troop and the Deptford Jack in the Green. The starting point was an Edwardian photograph by Thankfull Sturdee, the Deptford based photographer of a local May Day scene (below). This inspired members of the Blackheath Morris to revive the custom on May Day in the mid-1980s, building a the Jack (a green foliage covered frame) in the back of a local pub - accounts differ about whether it was the Dog & Bell or Wickham Arms. Over the years they have staged May Day processions in Deptford, Greenwich, Borough, Bankside and the City of London.

Sonia Ritter discussed The Lions Part seasonal festivals in Bankside and Borough, particularly Twelfth Night, St Georges Day and October Plenty. They have been combining processions, seasonal customs, music and street theatre since 1995.

Doc Rowe gave a broad overview of London Seasonal Celebrations. He argued against an ossified view of 'calendar customs' as survivals from the past, looking instead at people marking times in the year very much in a continuous present according to the needs and interests of the period. He covered May Day, Halloween and more specific local events like the annual Clown service in Dalston.

Animal folklore was the subject of Paul Cowdell's talk 'Rats, redstarts and ravens: animal-identified London'. He discussed new and old legends - or as is often the case with folklore the former masquerading as the latter. For instance the 'ancient legend' of the ravens having to stay at the Tower of London to prevent its destruction seemingly only dates back to the 1950s and may have been invented by tour guides. He also traced the history of the slogan - 'Rats, rats we've got to get rid of the rats', starting off as an advertising jingle for rat poison, adapted by fascists as an anti-semitic slogan and then used by anti-fascists breaking up Mosley's meetings in Clapham and Battersea.

In discussing London fox-lore, Noel Rooney suggested that the fox was assuming a more positive identity, becoming seen as an icon of willderness in the city rather than as a pest - a fact perhaps linked to the decline of Londoners keeping chickens. The cat owners' fear of foxes killing their pets was dismissed as another legend - they generally coexist peacefully - a fact borne out by own observations a few years ago of a fox and a cat sitting happily in the sun on a sofa on derelict land in Camberwell Road.

Richard Barnett's talk on 'Folklore, medicine and the body in London's history' covered executions and the uses of the bodies of the victims - such as the notion of the Hand of Glory, the candle-bearing hand of an executed prisoner said to be used to ensure that burglars could enter a house without being observed since the inhabitants would remain asleep.

Scott Wood discussed a modern urban legend, The Helpful Terrorist - the tale that warnings had been given to people to avoid places threatened with terrorist attack as a result of them helping out a suspicious generally foriegn looking man. Various versions of this storu - inevitably happening to a friend of a friend of a friend - have spread in the context of 9/11 and the July 2007 London bombings. But Scott traced similar stories back through the IRA campaign to the First and Second World Wars. In 1915 a mysterious helpful German is said to have warned a nurse who had saved his life to avoid the tubes in April of that year.

Several presentations covered the life and work of Edward Lovett (1852-1933), a pioneer collector of London folklore in the early twentieth century. Steve Roud gave an overview of the life of the Croydon-based folklorist, while Ross MacFarlane focused on the relationship between Lovett and the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. Neil Gordon-Orr discussed the Lovett collection relating to London superstitions held at the Cuming Museum in Southwark. This includes lucky charms and amulets to protect from disease, such as this blue bead bracelet warn by children to protect them from bronchitis:
Mark Pilkington spoke on the Brompton Cemetery time machine- a Victorian mausoleum around which stories have been woven involving egyptology and time travel - a tale seemingly made up by a mischievous screenwriter in the 1990s.

John Constable introduced The Southwark Mysteries and the Crossbones Shrine - the latter the site in Redcross Way, Southwark of a burial ground believed to be the last resting place of prostitutes denied a Christian burial as well as of paupers. Up to 15,000 people are still buried there, disturbed by the Jubilee Line Extension in the 1990s. Every halloween since 1998 people have gathered at the gates to honour the outcast dead.

It was almost time to retire to the pub, which Anthony Clayton set up with a talk 'Strange brew- the folklore of London pubs'. Pubs mentioned included The Widows Son in Bromley by Bow where a hot cross bun is hung from the ceiling every Good Friday. Numerous pubs have legends attached to them stating that they have secret tunnels, usually leading to landmarks such as a palace or monastery. Clayton mentioned the Hoop and Grapes in Aldgate and the Nell of Old Drury in Covent Garden in this context, but of course in our area a similar legend applies to the Old Nun's Head.

All in all, an interesting day prompting lots of ideas for future research.

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