Today is Mayor Making in Abingdon in Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire) when the residents and businesses of Ock Street (in the town center), and immediate environs, vote for the Mayor of Ock Street, a mock mayor who is thereafter the head of the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers for the coming year. The ceremony nowadays takes place on the Saturday nearest 19th June each year, although in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was conducted near the annual Abingdon Midsummer Horse and Cattle Fair. The lineage of the dancers and the Mayor Making tradition is impossible to ascertain at this point due to the virtual non-existence of records prior to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a single entry in the parish records of 1560 for “two dossin of morris bells” and that’s about it until the 19th century. Not much to hang a history on.
I’ll try not to wear you out with my wonted diatribe about calendar customs in Britain, although in this case it is strongly tempting because I wrote the definitive history of morris dancing in England and was a member of Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers as musician and dancer in the 1970s. So I know a little bit about the tradition.
The tradition of electing a mock mayor is sporadically recorded throughout English history but not much is known about the custom. It seems to be allied in a loose way with the widespread custom of electing a foolish version of officialdom in holiday seasons, but there’s no thread that unites these diverse customs. The Abingdon Mayor Making ceremony is recorded in the 19th century and seemingly has always been associated with the local morris dancers. A newspaper article from a Reading paper of 1864 notes that the “customary election of the mayor of Ock street” took place on Saturday 25th June with the horse and cattle fair following on the Monday. The general description is in the image above (click to enlarge) or go here: www.abingdonmorris.org.uk/mab144.htm The general details are not very clear, however, and I doubt that 19th century reporters were any more accurate than modern ones are.
Morris dancing in Abingdon suffered the same fate as morris dancing did in general in the late 19th century, that is, by 1900 there were a few groups clinging on in isolated spots, but most were defunct. A few antiquarians took an interest and noted down the dances and their music. Cecil Sharp was one of the more notable of these, but there were others before and after him. Sharp recorded the Abingdon dances from older performers, but was not particularly impressed because their dances did not fit what he saw as a canonical model, that is, each village had its own individual patterns of stepping, arm movements, and figures (which Sharp called “evolutions”), which were the same from dance to dance. What distinguished one dance from another were the tunes and the chorus movements that alternated with the figures. When Sharp interviewed the remaining Abingdon dancers, he discovered that their dances did not fit what he had by that time decided was the normal pattern and so dismissed them as defective.
By and large Abingdon dances are much simpler than the morris dances of other villages recorded in the region. They generally consist of an introduction followed by one figure and a chorus alternated until the leader calls for an ending movement. What has always marked the Abingdon tradition off from the others is its paraphernalia, and the Mayor Making ceremony. The dancers always perform with a set of horns which are reputed to date back to 1700. In that year William III granted a charter to the town, and in honor of the event they held a public ox roast. A fight broke out between the residents of Ock street and other townspeople over who should claim the horns, and Ock street won. Ever after, the winners and their descendants paraded the horns along Ock street during midsummer festivities. The horns are mounted on a wooden replica of an ox head inscribed with the date, 1700. The mayor of Ock street carries a wooden cup and a sword as his badges of office during the Mayor Making procession. In 1864 these symbols had been hocked and had to be redeemed by the actual mayor of Abingdon before the election of the mock mayor could take place – which is presumably why the ceremony warranted a few lines in a Reading newspaper.
The tradition of morris dancing and Mayor Making managed to survive through the 20th century with frequent breaks. In the 1930s the tradition was reasonably robust, but languished in the war years. In the 1950s and 60s it held on with some outside support and encouragement. Three of the oldsters from the 1930s — Charlie Brett, Jack Hyde, and Johnny Grimsdale (all born around 1900) — were recruited to revive the dances and act as continuity with the past. Charlie Brett was mayor from 1964 to his death in 1979, Johnny Grimsdale carried the horns, and Jack Hyde was an occasional musician (usually for practices).
On the day before the election of the mayor, ballot cards are distributed to eligible voters along Ock street and its mews, and on the day itself a ballot box is set up in a designated spot from 10 am to 4 pm. A little after 4 pm the ballots are counted and the winner is proclaimed. Then around 6 pm a procession begins from one end of Ock street to the other. The basic idea is to parade from one pub to the next, so the itinerary has changed over the years. In the 1970s when I was a dancer it went from the Air Balloon to the Railway Inn (which was where we “practiced” – that is, drank all night and occasionally did a dance, and where we held meetings). Both are closed now, but there are still plenty of pubs to visit.
The highlight of the parade is chairing the mayor. The dancers have a seat with long poles attached that the mayor sits in, and then he is hoisted to shoulder height and carried along Ock street. It’s supposed to be an honor to be one of the bearers, but the times I did it, I thought it was just bloody hard work.
There are no special foods associated with either Abingdon or Mayor Making. It’s not a great foodie region of England. Jerome K. Jerome’s description of Abingdon in Three Men in a Boat about sums the place up for me:
At Abingdon, the river passes by the streets. Abingdon is a typical country town of the smaller order—quiet, eminently respectable, clean, and desperately dull.
They do have a bun throwing in Abingdon once in a while to mark special occasions. They had one recently to mark the queen’s 90th birthday. The town council in full ceremonial regalia get on to the roof of the town hall and toss about 4,000 currant buns out to the crowds in the market square below. I went to one in 1974 that mourned the move of Abingdon from Berkshire to Oxfordshire when the county boundaries were redrawn. It’s some sight to see currant buns raining down on expectant thousands. It’s also quite a job catching one. As it happens 1974 was a banner year for Abingdon morris because Ali saw us that year.
Anyway . . . pub food would work as a celebration. The dancers always had high tea during the ballot counting when I was a dancer. Just to bring home a point I made some time ago. “High” tea does NOT mean “afternoon tea” with scones, cream, jam and whatnot, as it is mistakenly called in the US. “High” does not mean “fancy.” What it means is that high tea is a regular meal as opposed to something you have to tide you over until dinner. Noon is the regular lunch time and dinner is served around 7 pm conventionally, so something in between is definitely handy. But in some families, tea is the evening meal, and consists of solid dishes. It is called high tea. High tea for us at Mayor Making consisted of cold meat, pickles, cheese, and bread – something easy to put together without cooking. These days the dancers have a pub lunch, and then a formal dinner after the ceremonies in the evening. There are no special dishes, however. You could have anything suitably English – steak and ale pie, steak and kidney pudding, ploughman’s lunch . . . stuff I’ve regaled you with many times before. Here’s a dish that I concocted that’s not especially traditional but is easy and tasty. The cider should be English country cider, that is, rich and alcoholic, not what passes for cider in the US.
Chicken and Cider
1 chicken cut in 8 pieces
flour for dredging
salt and pepper
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 lb mushrooms, sliced
fresh parsley, chopped
heavy cream (optional)
Place the chicken pieces in a heavy brown paper bag with some flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Fold down the top of the bag tightly, making sure there is plenty of air inside, and shake it vigorously. Open the bag and remove the chicken pieces, shaking off excess flour. This method ensures an even coating.
Heat the cooking oil over medium heat in a deep, heavy skillet. Gently sauté the onions and mushrooms until they are soft but not browned. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve them. Turn the heat to high and brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Return the mushrooms and onions, barely cover the chicken with a 50-50 mix of cider and stock, add parsley to taste, bring to a slow simmer and cook gently, partly covered for about 20 minutes.
Remove the cover and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. DO NOT OVERCOOK. The sauce should have reduced and thickened. Towards the end you can add a little heavy cream if you wish.
Serve the chicken with the sauce over the top garnished with parsley and accompanied with boiled new potatoes and a green vegetable such as green beans or asparagus.