In the United Kingdom we are lucky enough to have some very interesting traditional customs. And the county of Leicestershire has its fair share. Ranging from Bottle-Kicking (a very large maul between two rival villages over a cask of ale) to holding an annual service in celebrating the arrival of the Bluebells in Swithland Woods.
But one of Leicester’s more bizarre traditions concerned the Whipping Toms. A group of men, armed with cart-whips, who were let loose upon the people to flog anyone in the precincts of the Newarke. This happened once a year on Shrove Tuesday.
Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, is the traditional feast day before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Lent – the 40 days leading up to Easter – was traditionally a time of fasting and on Shrove Tuesday, Anglo-Saxon Christians went to confession and were “shriven” (absolved from their sins). A bell would be rung to call people to confession. This came to be called the “Pancake Bell” and is still rung today.
Leicester’s Shrove Tuesday Fair and Market
Every year, on Shrove Tuesday, a fair was held in The Newarke.
A large number of people gathered to buy and sell. Makeshift market stalls were built, selling everything from food to hand-made luxuries. Music was common place with crowds getting drunk and singing traditional songs and hymns. Various games were also played.
The last of these games started at midday and was always a game of hockey. This was played between two crowds of men and boys. Both teams were armed with sticks that had a knob or a hook at the end. It was played with a wooden ball and the ends of the Newarke courtyard formed the goals. Other than that the game had little rules or stipulations. As one can imagine the game quickly became violent and injury was almost certain. At about 1 o’clock the game ended and the “Whipping Toms” made an appearance.
The Whipping Toms
At around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, the “Whipping Toms” appeared; two or more men in blue smocked frocks, a handkerchief tied over one eye and carrying a long cart-whip. They were led out into the crowds by three men who each signalled the arrival by the use of a small, brass bell. At once the whipping started.
They were not by custom allowed to whip above the knee, and anyone kneeling down was spared. You could also be spared of the whipping if you made a small donation of Two Pence to the “Whipping Toms”, which many gladly did.
The Whipping Toms also liked to line people up and whip up and down the line. Often people attempted to avoid the whipping by wrapping material around their legs. However, the ‘victims’ would attempt to protect themselves with their hockey sticks and fought back. Unsurprisingly it often got a little out of hand.
The history behind the custom
One of the theories purported for the origins of the custom is that it commemorated the expulsion of the Danes from Leicester in the 10th century. Although unlikely a connection with the Danish custom of Hocktide is perhaps more likely as the custom involved the extortion for money (The Two Pence) as well.
The end of the custom
On the 16th February 1847 an Act of Parliament officially ended it and the last Whipping Toms put up a valiant fight – quite literally – but it was gone.
Today the only record is the plaque on one of the corner pillars of the railings surrounding the De Montfort University’s Hawthorn Building, next to where the Newarke precinct was.
More information: Traditional Customs & Ceremonies