Traditional Drama Forum - No.4 January 2002

The Cropwell Ploughboy's Costume of 1893

On the 15th February 1893, T.Fairman Ordish read part two of his paper on English Folk-drama to the Folk-lore Society. To illustrate his paper, he exhibited two folk play costumes, and a number of photographs of Hampshire Mummers and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. One of the costumes comprised a Mummer's jacket and cap from Hampshire. The other, shown below, was a costume worn by the actors of a Plough Monday play from Cropwell, Nottinghamshire. Ordish's paper was subsequently published in Folk-lore (T.F.Ordish, 1893). Ordish presumably retained the costumes after his presentation, and subsequently they passed to the Folk-lore Society upon his death, along with his manuscripts. Later, probably during the Second World War, they were sent for safekeeping at the Cambridge and County Folk Museum. There they remained untouched until Arnold Rattenbury retrieved both costumes for an exhibition on "The Story of English Clowning" at Nottingham Castle in 1977. I also displayed the Cropwell costume at my exhibition "Guysers and Plough Bullocks" at the Brewhouse Yard Museum, Nottingham in 1993. The costumes are now curated by the Costume Museum, Nottingham.

Costume from Cropwell, Nottinghamshire, 1893 - Front Costume from Cropwell, Nottinghamshire, 1893 - Back

Description of the Costume

The costume is basically a white shirt covered relatively randomly with silhouette cut-outs of people, farm animals, ploughs and so forth. The cut-outs are made of red or black cloth. The words "In . comes . I" are written in cut-out capital letters on the front, with the "N" and "S" reversed, indicating that the maker was semi-literate. Red strips of cloth have been sewn onto the arms and round the collar and buttons. In addition, some curtain braiding has been used as trim around the bottom of the shirt and on the cuffs.

There is a group of seven men holding hands on the breast of the front, and a similar group of six below the shoulders on the back. These appear to have been made in one go by cutting the cloth when it was folded in a broad pleat. Also on the back, a pair of women with bustles appear to have been made the same way, along with an identical third woman, who presumably became detached during manufacture. There has been no attempt to keep everything to a standard scale. So we find, for instance, a song bird on the front that is the same size as a sheep and as a man.

Mrs. Chaworth Musters' Account

The following description is extracted from pages 166-167 of Ordish's paper:

"It is with great pleasure that I bring to your notice now a version of the Plough-Monday play which has been communicated to me by Mrs. Chaworth Musters, along with the most interesting dress worn by the actors of this version as repeatedly witnessed by Mrs. Chaworth Musters at her residence, Wiverton Hall, near Bingham. Nottinghamshire. The version wears a modern look, but, like the hobby-horse performances just noticed, it has its elements of archaism which persist. I should like first to read an extract from a letter I received from Mrs. Musters, as it is in effect a message to the Society, and brings before us the aspects of the play as they impressed themselves on an eye-witness:-

'I hope that if all is well another year, I may have the pleasure of seeing some members of the Folk-lore Society here for Plough-Monday, and I hope the play will not die out in this neighbourhood for long, as the actors this time were all youths who had learnt their parts by word of mouth. I had some difficulty in getting a copy of the words a few years ago, as it seems never to have been written down ; but I did get it, very ill-spelt and difficult to make out, except that I had heard it several times, and I had it printed in the appendix of a Notts story I wrote, so that it might be preserved. I enclose the book. The same version seems to be known in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire. I wish I could have got a photograph of the performers, but they could only come in the evening, being farm labourers. The man who is called ' Hopper Joe' has a basket slung before him, as if he was going to sow seeds, in which you put any money you like to give. The sergeant gets hold of any bit of old uniform he can meet with, and the young lady always has a veil, Beelzebub a blacked face, and either a besom of straw or a club with a bladder fastened to the end of it. The chief feature of the play is the raising to life of the old woman (who is knocked down by Beelzebub) by the doctor, who is always dressed in the smartest modern clothes, with a riding-whip and top hat if possible. This year the men had no cut-out figures on their shirts, only ribbons and rosettes and feathers stuck in their hats, and the brass ornaments of their horse's harness hanging down in front. But I have generally seen them with small horses, and ploughs in red and black, stuck on. They do not bring a plough with them here. Little boys with ribbons on come round begging in all the villages in the vale of Belvoir here, on Plough-Monday, but no women or girls ever seem to take part in it.'

Mrs. Musters subsequently sent me the dress exhibited. In a letter which accompanied it she said : 'The group of men are intended to represent the Plough-Monday boys. ........ The idea of the man who made it is that all the live creatures connected with a farm ought to be represented.' Mrs. Musters also sent me a copy of the verses sung on the occasion of the play. These have never before been recorded. I exhibit the MS. of the Ploughman who sang them on Plough-Monday last, and who wrote them down for Mrs. Musters."

Neither Ordish nor Mrs. Chaworth Musters' letter mention the village where the play was performed, so one finds cases where it is cited as coming from Wiverton Hall and/or Bingham. There can be no doubt that it was taken to Wiverton Hall for performance, but in her historical novel "A Cavalier Stronghold" Mrs. Chaworth Musters appends the full text of the play, and states that it came from Cropwell. (This text is available in our scripts collection at www.folkplay.info/Texts/89sk63cm.htm.) There are in fact two Cropwells in Nottinghamshire, Cropwell Bishop and Cropwell Butler. These lie next to each other, and are both close to Wiverton Hall. It is not clear if only one of these villages is meant, or whether the actors were estate workers drawn from both.

Mrs. Chaworth Musters weaves a performance of the play into Chapter XIX of her novel. The story is based around "Wyverton Hall" in the English Civil War. This is however an anachronism, since there is no evidence of any kind that Recruiting Sergeant plays of the type performed at Cropwell existed before the 19th century.

Original Correspondence regarding the Costume

The Ordish Papers held by the Folklore Society contain a manscript copy Mrs. Chaworth Musters' text and a couple of items of correspondence relating to the costume. However, the long letter quoted by Ordish in his paper is not present.

The first item is a note from H.Howell of Cropwell Butler to Mrs. Chaworth Musters, accompanying a paper cut-out of a horse about 10cm long. This is similar in appearance to the horses on the actual costume:


From H.Howell
Cropwell Butler
"Jan. 20th 1893
To Mrs. Musters
Wiverton Hall
Dear Madam
The enclose his the kind of horse which his used for Plough Monday. They are sewen on an old white shirt they are cut out in all colours.
Yours Truly H.Howell"

From this letter, it seems likely that H.Howell was the maker of our costume, unless he was simply giving advice. The second letter, which presumably is also dated 1893 is from Chaworth Musters to Ordish:

"Wiverton, Bingham.
Jan 24
My dear Sir. I enclose the shirt which I hope will reach you in time & be an illustration of what you describe. The group of men are intended to represent the Plough Monday boys, & the man who made it say that the words 'In comes I,' with which the play begins, ought to have been cut out too, but he had not the time to do it. The plough is I fancy rather difficult to cut out, so there is only one represented, but I have seen more on one shirt. The idea of the man who made it, is that all the live creatures connected with a farm ought to be represented I look forward to your paper with great interest.
Vy truly yours.
L C Musters"

Part of this letter was quoted by Ordish in his paper. A couple of the statements made in this letter are at odds with the current appearance of the costume. Firstly, the letter implies that the maker had not had time to cut out the words "In comes I" to add to the costume, and yet there they are. Similarly, Chaworth Musters states that there is only one plough represented, and yet our costume has three horse and ploughs - one on the front left shoulder and two on the lower back. This is difficult to explain. Clearly the costume was made specially by one of the performers for Mrs. Chaworth Musters, presumably at Ordish's request and at short notice. Perhaps the costume was completed after Ordish gave his paper, although if so, by whom? Howell stated that the horse shapes were of all colours, but the shapes on our costume are all either black or red, which tallies with Chaworth Musters' own memories. Could it be that she was responsible for the making of the costume?

The last thing to remark upon is the manuscript of the verses that Ordish says were sung on the occasion. At one time, I thought that this might have been a manuscript of the play, written out by one of the actors, but I now believe this not to be the case. The Ordish Papers are arranged by county, but one Nottinghamshire item was mis-filed under Surrey. This is a "Ploughboys Song" from Wm. Parnham of Tithby, Vale of Belvoir, dated 19th Jan. 1893. This is not a play, but a folk song such as would have been sung during the general partying at the end of the performance. Tithby is hamlet lying between Cropwell Butler and Wiverton Hall, so it does seem to go with the Cropwell play. The manuscript's appearance tallies with Ordish's description, and it therefore appears to be the one supplied via Mrs. Chaworth Musters.

References

L.Chaworth Musters (1890) "A Cavalier Stronghold : A Romance of the Vale of Belvoir"
   London, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1890

T.Fairman Ordish (1893) "English Folk-drama II",
   Folk-lore, June 1893, Vol.4, No.2, pp.149-175

Arnold Rattenbury (1977) "Clowning : June 11 to September 4 1977 : An Exhibition designed and catalogued for Nottingham Festival 1977 by Arnold Rattenbury"
   Nottingham, City of Nottingham Leisure Services, 1977

Peter Millington


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