"The Chronicles of a Country Parish" - A village appraisal of Sulgrave published in 1995

(Back to Chapter 3 Index)

On the night of Thursday 3rd December 1992 the Sulgrave Mummers play was once again performed in the Great Hall of the Manor House. In Dorothy Grimes' delightful book "Like Dew before the Sun", about life and language in Northamptonshire she has a section on The Mummers. She mentioned that Marion Jones, one of the country's leading experts on mummers' plays, had a cassette recording of the Sulgrave Mummers Play as recounted by a man who took the part of Molly before the 1914-18 war! The Sulgrave Historical Society invited Marion Jones to Sulgrave to talk about the Mummers Plays in general and the Sulgrave Play in particular. With the Hall decorated with holly and ivy, logs burning in the fire, candles glowing and cider mulling she then supervised a reconstruction of the whole play using society members! It was an event never to be forgotten.

A party of mummers.
(From Chamber's "Book of Days" 1864)

Their enjoyment of the occasion was great and in dramatic contrast to the experience of Mrs. S. Adkins, born in 1900 who recounted thus: "We moved to Sulgrave and I remember the mummers there quite well. They used to come one day about Christmas. My father was very interested in them. I remember him going outside and seeing the mummers. He came back and asked us if we would like to see them, and they came in. The were very weird and really frightening. They didn't say much - they acted. The characters had nasty, vicious ways, and they wore masks and peculiar dress. One had a broom and swept the room before they started the play. I was not a child, but fourteen or fifteen years old at the time, but I was frightened."

Mummers were an important feature of village life, and were the oldest dramatic entertainment in England, forming an unbroken sequence of performances year by year through at least eight centuries. The words were not written down, and the actors were ordinary country men meeting after work and on festival evenings to give a performance. They learnt by word of mouth and in such a way that each new visitor to the company would assume one character and receive from his retiring predecessor only the lines and cues of the part.

George Gascoigne, erstwhile village blacksmith and farrier, knew every part of the Sulgrave Mummers Play and so was everybody's understudy. It was a play purely for the boys and young men of the village and every night for weeks before christmas they woudl gather in the yard behind the blacksmith's shop to rehearse and make their props and costumes, a serious affair as a mask had to be made fro each character, of which there were seven. The play was all spoken in rhyme, and each character's face was masked so it should not be recognised. Those who remember George will know what a fantastic memory he possessed. This was proved by the fact that for some friends he acted out the whole of the play in their kitchen one day, playing everybodys part. Only the story was noted down, but this is how it went.

The first character to appear was Molly, a boy dressed as an old woman with long grey hair and a little white face. She wore an old coat, carried a broom, and cried 'I'll sweep your floors as clean as a berry'. It was she who introduced all the members of the cast who were to follow. Next to appear were two soldiers, St George and the Turkish Knight, who fought with wooden swords. One of the soldiers had a pig's bladder blown up, hardened, and filled with dried peas, causing a loud rattle. He kept this hidden behind his back, and would suddenly produce it, hitting his opponent and knocking him down. A Doctor was then called in, astride Beelzebub, his old black nag. he produced a pill for the soldier, which, unfortunately, failed to cure him. he declared that there was no one else in the whole world who coudl do better than he and he would return for £10,000 'if his old black nag could do it'. here is the rhyme that the doctor always recited:

"I've been to Scotland, Wales and Rome,
But never have I strayed from home,
What do you make of that?
Because I always stayed at home.'

Another doctor was called in and declared he would need four strong Irishmen to pull out a great tooth in the soldier's head, and then he would be cured. Meanwhile a gigantic tooth, wooden and four fanged, was being concealed in the doctor's clothes. Everyone pulled and pulled on the tooth which slipped and sent everyone tumbling to the floor.

Nevertheless they pulled again and produced the tooth. The soldier rose and prepared to fight again, but Molly intervened and asked for no more fighting that night, but suggested a jig, dancing and music.

The latter came from such instruments used during the course of the play: the knocking of Molly's broom handle, the rattle of the peas in the pig's bladder, a mandolin, a mouth organ and the club and dripping pan belonging to Big-Head, (a colourful character whose role in the play is not clear but who must not be omitted.) He wore the largest and ugliest mask and,with his great hooked nose, was a favourite of the audience.

This band of mummers visited all the public houses in the district, but this, George said, was not always the best idea. Not only did the Mummers sometimes have too much to drink, but Bighead one night went to have a drink, carelessly lifted the large nose of his mask to make room for the glass, and, in doing so, broke the nose. Damage to a prop like this spoilt the entire play, it seems.



This is an edited version of the play as remembered by a Mr H. Wootton who had taken the part of "Molly" before the 1914-18 war.

It begins with the "female" part, Molly, who is really a young man dressed as a woman, and carrying a broom.

                        (Molly knocks at the door)

MOLLY          Would you like the mummering tonight?

HOST              Yes, come in.
                        (Molly enters)

MOLLY          A room, a room for me and my broom
                        And all my brave compan-y.
                        I’ll sweep your house as clean as a berry
                        For very little mon-ey.
                        A room, a room, a broom, a room

                        (She sweeps around)

                        Come in, my brave, formall-y.

                        (Duke of Cumberland enters)

DUKE             In comes I, the Duke of Cumberland,
                        With his broad sword in hand.
                        Where is the man in all this land
                        Who dares before me stand?
                        I’ll kill him, I’ll slay him,
                        I’ll cut him up as small as flies,
                        I’ll send him to Jamaica
                        And from him make mince pies!

MOLLY          Oh, would you?

DUKE             Yes!

                        (Molly sweeps around again)

MOLLY          Come in, King George.

                        (King George enters)

KING              In comes King George with sword in hand
                        Where’s that man who said he dares before me stand?

DUKE             Here he is!

KING              You said you’d kill me, slay me,
                        Cut me up as small as flies
                        And send me to Jamaica
                        For to make mince pies?

DUKE             So I will, so I will!

KING              A battle, a battle twixt you and I,
                        To see which of us on the ground shall lie!

                        (They fight. Eventually King George is knocked down)

MOLLY          Oh dear, oh dear, what have you done?
                        You’ve killed and wounded my only son!
                        Is there a good doctor anywhere near?

DOCTOR       Yes, there’s a good doctor here.

MOLLY          One hundred pounds I’d give you to come!

DOCTOR       The doctor won’t come for no such money!

MOLLY          Two hundred pounds I’ll give!

DOCTOR       The doctor will come and long way to come
(Off)                 And a rickety old nag to come on!
                        (Enter Doctor on “horse”)

                        In comes I, old Doctor Parr,
                        In my time I’ve travelled far.
                        I’ve travelled England, Scotland, Rome
                        Yet I’ve never been far from home.

MOLLY          And how did you manage that, then?

DOCTOR       Because I always stayed at home!

                        (He looks around)
                        This man has a great tooth in his head –
                        If it isn’t drawn he’ll soon be dead!
                        Any strong men around to help me do it?

MEN               Yes, here we are!

                        (Four or five men jump up to help. After a considerable struggle they
                        Draw the King’s ‘tooth’)

DOCTOR       No wonder the man lies there half dead!
                        See ‘is damn great tooth I’ve drawn from ‘is ‘ead!

                        (He walks round the King examining him again)

                        I’m sure the man is not quite dead,
                        So it’s rise up, King George, and fight again!

                        (The King doesn’t move)

MOLLY          Is that all you can do?

DOCTOR       I think it is

MOLLY          Is there another good doctor around?

FINNEY         Yes – John Finney.

MOLLY          Come in, Jack Finney!

                        (Enter Jack Finney)

FINNEY         My name is not Jack Finney, it’s Mr. Finney,
                        A man of great pain
                        Who can cure the hip, the pip, the palsy, and the gout.
                        I can cure any old maid or any old jade.
                        ‘a can’t stop for laughing.

MOLLY          Ha! You’d better get to work.

                        (Finney moves around, feeling various parts of the King’s anatomy)

FINNEY         I’m sure this man is not quite dead.
                        Come on, old fellow, raise up your head!

MOLLY          That’s not his head!

FINNEY         Whatever is that, then?

MOLLY          That’s his body, you fool!

                        (Finney at last arrives at the King’s head)

FINNEY         I’ll soon make him fit again!
                        I’ve a magic bottle of elecampane!

                        (He spoons liquid from a large bottle into the King)

                        Many a case like this I’ve seen before.
                        Rise up, King George, and fight once more!

                        (Up rises King George and starts to fight. Molly jumps in with the
                        broom and parts them.)

MOLLY          Stop, stop, stop, enough of this fight!
                        I’m sure we’ve had enough for tonight.

                        (She sweeps around with the broom once more)

MOLLY          Come in Be-helzebub!

                        (Enter Beelzebub)

BEELZEBUB   In comes I, Be-helzebub,
                        On m’shoulder I carry m’club
                        In m’hand a dripping-pan.
                        Don’t you think me a funny old man?

MOLLY          And that’s all you can do?

BEELZEBUB  Yes, I’m afraid it is.

MOLLY          Stand back, then!
                        Come in there, Big Head!

                        (Enter Big Head)

BIG HEAD    In comes I as never been yet,
                        With my big head and little wit,
                        My head so big, my wit so small,
                        I can play you a tune that’ll please you all.
                        Me father killed a great fat hog
                        And this you’ll plainly see,
                        Me mother she gave me a bladder
                        To tie my hurdy-gurdy.
                        So now, my little lads and lassies,
                        Cock up your tails and give us a jig!

                        (Music – mouth-organ or concertina – and dance, in which everyone

MOLLY          And we wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
                        Anything to help the mummers on their way?

                        (A collecting box is passed round)