Traditional Drama Forum - No.4 January 2002

Guisering in Somercotes, Derbyshire

The following recollections have been contributed by Jim Marsh of Vancouver, Canada, and extracted from email correspondence between him and Clive Bennett of the Merrie England Mummers, and Pete Willow of Coventry Mummers.

I performed in a mumming play as a kid in Derbyshire during WWII .. I'm guessing between the ages of around ten to maybe thirteen or fourteen. We called it 'guisering' at that time .. I imagine derived from the costumes and black faces (soot from up the chimney) we wore .. disguises???

Remember that this was wartime England, and clothing was not readily available. To the best of my recollection, a lot of it was cloaks made of .. I don't know what you call them now .. we just called them 'sack-bags' .. the kind of bags that potatoes were carried in .. burlap. St George had a helmet probably made of cardboard covered in silver paper. We would keep a weather-eye out all year for anything that might come in handy for costume. A couple of our mothers would help out by making alterations and adjustments.

Anything that didn't get used became materials from which rugs would be pegged for the home ... probably another dead art in this day and age .. strips of cloth perhaps 3" long and 1" wide, that were cut up from old suits and other fabrics and secured in a 'sack-bag' base by means of a 'pegger' .. a tool that gripped the piece of material and pierced the sack-bag and then pulled the strip through the sacking half its length, so that two tufts of material protruded from the sacking base. Some very intricate patterns were possible by people with experience.

But I digress ....

Outlandish hats fabricated from whatever we could come up with .. as the doctor I had a bag and a man's jacket as a topcoat, and for at least one year an old bowler hat we found somewhere. The swords were carved from wood .. probably split out of pit props .. the same with the club carried by Beelzebub.

Both combatants would use dustbin lids as shields .. the galvanised metal lids .. which led to great clanging and banging during the duel.

The black faces was mostly to simulate beards and mustaches, but Beelzebub was all blackface. Soot was available in abundance .. central heating in homes was unheard of at that time .. at least in pit villages in Derbyshire. Coal was king.

We would go around local pubs and some private homes over the evenings of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. It was strictly a night-time thing ... no daytime performances. It was great when the Yanks were in the pubs .. they always threw lots of money into the collection tin!!! The custom was handed down to us by a group of older boys who probably now considered themselves too old to be horsing around with this kid's stuff ... exactly as we subsequently did. How long the tradition had gone on, I know not .. I wasn't really interested at that time. All I knew was that we could make a substantial sum of money doing it ... at least it was substantial in that day and age to a bunch of Derbyshire pit kids.

There were five members in the cast .. the Enter-In, St George, Bull-Slasher, a Doctor and Beelzebub. I recall that I was usually the Enter-In and would rush into a room brandishing a sword, crying:

"I open this door, I enter in,
With my nose above my chin,
And whether I sit, stand, rise or fall,
I'll do my best to please you all,
A room, a room, a gallant room,
A room to let us in,
I not one of the ragged sort, but of the royal kin,
My name is William of the Great,
The greatest man of courage bold,
My blood is hot, so raging hot,
No man can turn it cold,
But ah . . . what is that that strikes my mind,
I killed my wife and left her behind,
Which causes my fluttering tongue to say,
"Step in St George and clear thy way."

St George would come in and say his piece, then Bull-Slasher would enter, a few insults would be traded between the two and a duel with swords (wooden) would then commence, to much shouting and eventually moaning as Bull-Slasher succumbs to the superior swordsmanship of St George and is mortally wounded.

A doctor steps in and I wish I could recall the part . . I remember taking the part one year . . one part was :

"I can cure the It, the Grit, the Grunt, the Gout,
Pains within and pains without,
If there be ninety-nine devils in this man,
I'll cast ye a hundred out."

Bull-Slasher dies in spite of the doctor's bold claims, and Beelzebub enters the room to claim the soul.

"In steps I Beelzebub,
Over my shoulder I carry a club,
In my hand a dripping-pan,
Don't you think I'm a jolly old man?
If you don't . . I do."

I also recall that as Enter In ... had a part as the father of Bull-Slasher.

I recall Bull-Slasher's line:

"Ooooh me back."

To which I as the Doctor would respond:

"What is up with thy back??"

I was just killing myself laughing at the thought of how we must have sounded to the Yanks in the pubs .. more than likely unintelligible ... but I suspect the Yanks had their minds on other things.

The whole thing occupied maybe ten minutes, and at the conclusion, Beelzebub works his way around the room making threatening gestures with his club at those who fumbled in their pocket too long, dripping pan extended for pennies and the odd threepenny-bit .. or shilling if it was a Yank .. and off we'd go into the blackout to the next pub.

We all lived on Sleetmoor Lane in the village of Somercotes ... about halfway between Derby and Chesterfield, however, even at that time, the villages of Somercotes, Lower Somercotes, Leabrooks and Riddings were pretty well one contiguous habitat. We went to most of the pubs in the three villages, although I think that a couple of landlords would not allow us in because of our ages. Certainly the Crown Inn on Sleetmoor Lane, the Sun Inn, Tiger Inn, Devonshire Inn, Old English Gentleman, Rifle Volunteer and Black Horse Inn in Somercotes and Lower Somercotes .. also a working men's club at Lower Somercotes; the Horse and Jockey at Leabrooks, and the Red Lion, Seven Stars and New Inn at Riddings ... possibly the Moulders' Arms as well. The Miners' Welfare at Leabrooks was another stop. The only private homes we attended were those of Messrs Charles Moore and Dan Taylor, both in the higher echelons of employment of the local Squire .. W. Palmer Morewood ... who owned the local coal mine, Swanwick Colliery. One was the estate agent, the other I think a sales agent for the mine. Both homes were located on Sleetmoor Lane, and were the site of annual Christmas parties .. dinner jacket and cocktail gown affairs.

The other lads' names were Jim Roberts .. still living in Alfreton, Derbyshire ... a retired GPO engineer; the other three were Alan Kerry, Tony Hunt and Charley Stringer. I know nothing of the whereabouts of these people now. Tony Hunt attained the rank of sergeant in the Metropolitan Police, and was living in Enfield, Middlesex, in 1970. There was no trace of him in the phone book when we were in London a couple of years ago. I heard that Charley Stringer emigrated to either Australia or New Zealand. The last I heard, his brother Alan still lived on Sleetmoor Lane and had been active in local politics for many years. Alan was one of the group that passed the flame on to us. I am 70 years old, so some of the other lads could easily have passed on.

I have an idea that the practice pretty much ended with my age group .. there weren't any kids around to hand it on to ... and that would be before the end of WWII. I have no knowledge of it ever being revived again in later years .. if it was, I never heard of it.

Jim Marsh, Vancouver


Folk Play Home Page   Traditional Drama Forum: Issue No.4   Cumulative Contents

© Copyright 2002, Jim Marsh. Webmaster: P.Millington (peter.millington1@virgin.net), Last updated on 20/12/2002