Mummers at Charney 1860

Mummers’ Plays are folk plays performed by troupes of amateur actors, traditionally all male, known as mummers.  It refers particularly to a play in which a number of characters are called on stage, two of whom engage in a combat, the loser being revived by a Doctor character. They are sometimes performed in the street but more usually during visits to houses and pubs, generally performed seasonally or annually, often at Christmas, Easter or on Plough Monday.

George William Walter Minns was ordained a deacon in the Oxford diocese in 1860. His first curacy was in Berkshire (Charney-Bassett, 1860-2). A fuller biography is given here and he is referred to on our Feasts page in 1861 and some pictures of him are included below. We are very fortunate that he sketched and noted down a mummers’ play that took place in Charney in 1860. We are even more fortunate that the book survived and that a relative of his, Alison Minns (wife of his great grandson, the late Christopher Colvile Minns), got in touch in 2018 and has kindly let us publish his work. 

The handwritten notebook appeared as you can see in the scans below and Peter Millington, Alison Minns and Ian Graham proceeded to examine and interpret the script and a typed written version with interpretive footnotes is now given with each original page. Alison also examined the census records and with Peter’s advice the best identification of the original players has also been added.

Peter Millington, who has helped enormously with the transcription and interpretation of this play, has carried out considerable research on English Folk Plays and other folklore. His  web site records his findings and there are web pages where phrases can be entered to search for examples of their occurrence in plays recorded elsewhere. In this way dates and locations of similar plays can be compared.

The Charney Bassett Mummers’ play is typical of the Christmas plays that were found throughout the upper Thames valley and the Cotswolds. It stands out, however, in two respects. Firstly, it is one of few texts from the mid-19th century that were noted down at the time of performance. There are many others recorded from the same period, but they were not written down until decades later, and are probably less accurate due to memory lapses. Secondly, the sketch is one of the oldest illustrations of a group of mummers, and possibly the oldest drawing made at the time of performance. Before then, illustrations of mummers were artists’ impressions drawn from written descriptions – often fanciful impressions or even caricatures. The next oldest picture is a watercolour from Chilworth, Hampshire, which is possibly dated 1864. This ‘Charney Mummers Play’ may become the subject of an academic paper.

Minns came from Norfolk and went to university in Cambridge, two areas notable for their lack of folk plays. In theory, he could have encountered mummers during his studies at Cuddesdon, but only if he did not go home for the Christmas vacation. The mummers at Charney Bassett would therefore have been something quite novel to him, and this may explain why he drew the sketch and noted down the words. Another possible factor is that he may have seen the mention of mummers in Thomas Hughes’ book “Tom Brown’s School Days”, published in 1857. They appear in early chapters set in the Vale of White Horse. Hughes came from Uffington, only a few miles away. We should perhaps also be thankful that Minns was living in lodgings in Charney, because had he been living in a vicarage or rectory he might never have encountered the Mummers. Mummers often steered clear of the clergy for fear of disapproval!

G W W Minns Notebook

Charney Mummers cover

Notes and sketch of Mummers at Charney, Berks, 1860 by G W W Minns.

The slim notebook is landscape 8”x6½”

Charney Mummers sketch

These are the characters & overleaf the words of the Mummers as performed at Charney Berks at Christmas 1860 taken down by me G W Minns

It looks as though the characters were listed left to right and in terms of props; Father Christmas usually had a stick to lean on, as here, and the next two, Duke and Slasher, have curved swords for their fight (although in the text Slasher has a 5½ ft staff). It looks as though the Doctor is carrying nothing but, he may have a bag or something similar in his right hand. Mary/Molly has a fiddle and bow.

Cast list
  1. Father Christmas – W Jones –
  2. Duke , W. Barnes.
  3. Slasher J. Woodbridge.
  4. Doctor . J. Harris Spainer[1]
  5. Jack Winny[2] – W. Jones.
  6. Molly – Sam Lowe.

[1] ‘Spainer’ – Spaniard. See text: ‘I don’t care for French Spainish [sic] ships. A few nearby plays have a Spanish Doctor or have the line “I am the Doctor, lately come from Spain.” Or perhaps less likely ‘Sparker’ or ‘Sparkler’ as a nickname.

[2] ‘Vinny’, as appears later in the text, or ‘Finny’ is the usual surname. ‘V’ often became ‘W’ in 19th century pronunciation.

Stir it all up in the fire[3]

[3] This line is not assigned to speaker. [the writing above this phrase is an insert for/from later in the play]

Having calculated their approximate ages in 1860 from the census data, this is the list of the boys we think most likely to have taken part:

W Jones (Father Christmas and/or Jack Winny)
    William Jones (14 years) Agricultural labourer

W Barnes (Duke)
    William Clark (11 years) Ploughboy [Clark was the surname of his mother’s second husband]

J Woodbridge (Slasher)
    James Woodbridge (13 years) Scholar [son of a butter merchant]
    John Woodbridge (10 years) Scholar [son of an agricultural labourer]

J Harris (Doctor)
    James Harris (13 years) Agricultural labourer

Sam Lowe (Molly)
    Samuel Lowe (11 years) Scholar

They all seem to be farm workers or sons of farm workers, and roughly the same age. The identity of J.Woodbridge is not clear cut. 

Script Page 1

Script page 1

Father Xmas   In comes Old Father Xmas. Welcome or Welcome not
I hope old father Xmas will never be forgot.
Last Xmas day I turned the spit.
I burnt my fingers and found on’t it.[4]
The spail[5] flod[6] over the table.
The skimmer beat the ladle.
Aye aye says the gridiron What Can’t you two agree.
Im the justice so bring ‘em to me.
A room A room I do preshume.[7]
To you and my brave gallant boys.
We come to shew you activity of age. Activity of life.[8]
Life was never seen or acted before upon the stage.∧
Ive fought many a battle at home & abroad.
All true upon my word.[9]
I don’t care for the French Spanish ship nor Turk
Never a man as can do me any hurt[10]
For Im the real prince of King[11]
Come Duke.

Duke. In comes Duke the Cumberland.
With his broad soord all in his hand.
Where’s that man as dares to put me to stand.
Ill knock him down with my clea chus[12] hand
Cut him and skew[13] him small as flies
Send him up to cottagehouse[14] to make mince pies.
Mince pies hot mince pies cold.
Send him up to Lunnon[15]. ……..

[4] Usually ‘feel it yet’, but here has lost its meaning. A text from Bampton has ‘finds on’t yet’, so Charney is not alone.
[5] Underlined by Minns. Usually ‘spark’. Minns seems to have underlined speech designations and words of which he was unsure.
[6] Usually ‘flew’
[7] i.e. ‘presume’
[8] Usually ‘activity of youth, activity of age’ to rhyme with the next line.
[9] This and the previous line are swapped in the original manuscript, but marked up for transposition.
[10] The four lines following the caret mark (‘∧’) have been moved here from under the cast list, as appears to have been Minns’ intention.
[11] Usually ‘Royal Prussian King’
[12] Usually ‘courageous’
[13] Underlined by Minns and evidently garbled. Elsewhere ‘slash’, ‘smash’, ‘slay’ or ‘hew’.
[14] Usually ‘cook’, ‘cook shop’, ‘bakehouse’ or similar
[15] i.e. ‘London’

Script Page 2

Script page 2

………..Afore three days old.
Come in Slasher.

Slasher.  Slasher Slasher doesn’t thee be so hot.
Thee doesn’t know what I have got.
Ive got a staff five foot & a half.
He’ll knock down a calf.
I’ll warrant he’ll knock down thee.
So if thee be so stout.
Thee and I’ll have a bout.
I’ll will tan thee hide.[16]
So mind thy Eyes and guard the blows
& face also.

Duke and Slasher fight. Duke dies.

Father Xmas.  Five pound for that noble doctor
ten if he was but here.

Doctor. Here am I sir.

Father Xmas. Whats thy fee?

Doctor.  Five pound ten I should have upon thee.
All sorts and diseases.
Just what my pills pleases.
As the Itch the stitch the fire the palsy, and the gout.
All pains within side & all pains without.
Hard corns soft corns
Mulligrub. funnygrub.[17] Any other little toutorous[18] thing

[16] The lines from ‘I’ve got a staff…’ to ‘…hide’ come from the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’  whose story forms the combat in some plays in and near the Cotswolds.
[17] Or ‘furrygrub’? However, other plays also use nonsenses words with ‘n’s.
[18] Elsewhere ‘rantorious’, ‘vainglorious’ or similar sounding words. Here it is perhaps meant to be ‘torturous’, but it is likely to have derived ultimately from earlier texts with the line ‘And all Pandora’s box’.

Script Page 3

Script page 3

bring em to me.
I cured old John Duglis’ wife rhematism in both elbows,
& she died.
Im bound for my life’s sake[19]
I’ll cure any old oman[20] nine years buried
ten years laid in her grave.
If she’ll rise up her head & crack one of my silver pills.
So bring me my pryers[21] Mary[22]

Molly  Here’s yr. pryers sir.

Pulls the tooth out Doctor holds it up

Doctor.  Isnt that tooth enough to cure[23] any man

Father Xmas.  Any man indeed Sir. 
Come in Jack Vinny.

Jack Vinny.   My name isn’t Jack Vinny.
My name’s Mr. Vinny Man o great Kingdoms[24].
Do more than thee or any other man

Father Xmas   What canst thee do then

Jack Vinny.   Cure an old magpie with tooth ache

learn[25]

Father.   How dos’t  aim  t do that

Jack Vinny.   Twist his old head off fling his old curkis[26] into the ditch.

[19] Elsewhere ‘I’ll be bound her life to save’.
[20] i.e. ‘woman’
[21] i.e. ‘pliers’ to pull out a tooth
[22] ‘Molly’ is a pet-name for ‘Mary’ and the names are used interchangeably in this text.
[23] Usually ‘enough to kill any man’
[24] Usually ‘a man of great fame’
[25] ‘learn’ is an uncertain reading. It is written above the line, and is perhaps meant to be an alternative to ‘aim’.
[26] i.e. ‘carcase’. Usually ‘body’.

Script Page 4

Script page 4

Jack Vinny.   Come in Mary’ or Tom the Tinker[27]

Mary.  In comes old Tom the tinker.
With his/hairy great[28] winker.
(ale & drinker)[29]
He told the landlord to his face.
The chimbly[30] corner was his place.
There he set & dried his face
Old Joe, Giles & He.[31]
In comes old Belzebub.
On his shoulder carries his club.
In his hand a frying pan.
Dont you think he’s a jolly old man.

All:  Jolly old man indeed sir.

Mary Tinker   His face is black. his beard’s long
his caps tied on with a leathern thong.
Don’t you think he’s a jolly old man.
Some money we must get.
Some money we must jink
Please to give the fiddler a little drop of drink

All Sing.  Green sleaves. yiller[32] laces.
Boys & girls dance apaces.

[27] Underlined by Minns
[28] Underlined by Minns
[29] The bracketed words probably indicate the subject matter of missing text.
[30] i.e. ‘chimney’
[31] These lines come from the drinking song ‘When Jones’s Ale was New’.
[32] i.e. ‘yellow’

George William Walter Minns

George William Walter Minns, Jane Porter Boggs, Rebecca Boggs. Englefield Green c 1870 (some 10y after the play)
George William Walter Minns and Biddy 1912

Whilst at Charney GWW Minns lodged with Robert Gerring (grocer & baker) and family.
It would be a nice touch if we could identify which house this was. From the order of the census it would appear to be in the south of the village.