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Flowers, fish and traditions

Jo Draper takes a look at the history of Abbotsbury Garland Day

Garland Day at Abbotsbury in 1905 (picture: Look and Learn)

Abbotsbury Garland Day is the only surviving celebration of a tradition once widespread along the West Dorset coast, and even at Abbotsbury there have been problems over the years, sometimes with the law. Perhaps fishermen were more superstitious than farmers, because several propitiating ceremonies are recorded along this part of the coast. In 1803, Hutchins recorded at Abbotsbury ‘before the first launching of the boat every week, when the net and all were ready the Captain says “Let us pray”, and all the crew joined in asking God’s blessing on the fishing!’
The dividing of the money at the end of the week was less unselfish – they knelt to pray and thank Heaven for its favours, but added, ‘The God who gave us this can give us more.’ By 1863, the later edition of Hutchins records that these traditions had been lost and ‘as they were not unusually followed by profanity and drunkenness’, that was a good thing.
In 1900, Wilkinson Sherren was exploring the Dorset coast for his book on The Wessex of Romance and at Langton Herring, just up the road (or bank) from Abbotsbury, he stumbled over a custom which seemed ‘to be a survival of votive offerings to Neptune…. Before the nets are taken to the beach the contents of a 7lb tin of biscuits are scattered on the adjacent field by the fishermen, in the hope that it will ensure a good season’. Somehow sacrificing to Neptune and 7lb tins of biscuits don’t go together, but presumably seagulls or children benefited.

The offerings to Neptune were all in aid of ensuring a good catch

Garlands were the proper offering to Neptune to ensure good fishing, not tins of biscuits. Canon Mayo wrote about the garland ceremonies in 1893, noting that at Swyre and Puncknowle, as well as Abbotsbury, the garland ceremonies survived. He missed out Burton Bradstock, where they were certainly still having such a ceremony, and he may have missed others. At Burton Bradstock the ceremony continued up to 1914, with single-handled garlands, smaller than Abbotsbury’s. In the 19th century the garlands had been thrown into the sea, but by 1914 this no longer happened.
No-one seems to have noticed Abbotsbury Garland Day until the 19th century, although its very date suggests its antiquity – Old May Day, 13 May. In 1752 the calendar had to be adjusted by losing eleven days, and somehow another has crept in to make the old 1 May the new 13 May. (In towns there were riots with people yelling ‘Give us back our eleven days’).
In 1893 Canon Mayo described how ‘The Abbotsbury children, having prepared their garlands of flowers, which are as wide as a child’s hoop, and surmounted by two intersecting semicircular arches, so as to resemble a crown, proceed with them round the village from house to house, soliciting gifts of money from the inhabitants. There are separate garlands for each boat’s crew, this year eleven in number. After the perambulation of the village is concluded, the garlands are taken to the boats, which are rowed out from the shore, and their floral tributes deposited on the waves. I am, however, informed that this year and last most of the garlands were brought back to the shore, instead of the flowers being stripped from them and cast into the water, the ceremony thus losing its chief significance. This year also Garland Day was converted into an ecclesiastical festival, the garlands being carried in procession by the children to the church, where a special service was held.’
The church is therefore muscling in on a traditional festival which had managed fine without it for a long time. In 1863 it was recorded that the lord of the manor, Lord Ilchester, had provided an entertainment for the children, often close upon 200 in number, on the beach for some years, because he was particularly fond of such ancient customs.
Happily this ancient custom continued, even with the local school giving an annual holiday for Garland Day, but the numbers of garlands declined as the number of fishing boats declined, until only two were made each year. After World War 1 only one was sacrificed to the sea, with the other placed on the war memorial. The garlands continued to be paraded around the village and a collection made.

Garland day fashions have changed over the years, as this image from the 1980s shows (picture: Homer Sykes)

Canon Mayo states clearly that the garlands were made by the children, but this may have been a misunderstanding based on the fact that children paraded with the garlands. Generally adults made the garlands for the ceremonies elsewhere – club walking for example, and certainly in Burton Bradstock they were produced by adults and paraded by children.
In 1954 it was the collecting which led to trouble with the law. Abbotsbury children ‘were calling from house to house with two huge garlands of flowers and receiving small money gifts from residents’. The Abbotsbury constable decided this was begging, ‘called them to the police house and took their money [£1-1s-7d] away’. The children ran home crying and Abbotsbury was up in arms. It was reported that the children said ‘Would you like to see my garland’, as was traditional, and offerings were voluntary. After the police action, parents ‘sent many of the children through the streets again with the garlands, before one was cast onto the waters off the beach and the other placed on the war memorial’.
Happily, a son of Lord Ilchester was in residence at the Manor House and he immediately sent for his solicitor. The Parish Council weighed in and a public meeting set up. The Chief Constable of Dorset had been away on Garland Day, but he quickly produced a full apology ‘stating that it was not the policy of the Dorset Constabulary to oppose and interfere with ancient rural customs’ so Garland Day (and carol singing etc) could continue.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1893, this painting – Garland Day, Dorsetshire Coast – by P R Morris, shows the offering to Neptune about to be rendered

One of the garlands had reached its traditional destination, thrown into the sea to ensure good fishing, and on the evening of Garland Day one of the best shoals of mackerel that year came in and was caught. Clearly the sacrifice was effective for improving the fishing. Everyone in Abbotsbury helped to fight the ‘official officious action’ by the local police. That was how John Fox Strangways, son of Lord Ilchester, described the event in a letter to the Dorset County Chronicle afterwards. He wildly claimed that the garland ceremony might have originated in the 5th century AD and was certainly a thousand years old, and struck a shrewd blow by noting that in Dorset ‘it is the usual custom for the police in uniform to collect contributions in aid of their sporting activities’. At least Abbotsbury people got a view of the garland for their money, whereas the police were simply begging.
Garland Day went on, with a hiccup in 1971 when the garland-makers wanted to retire. Others quickly took on the job, and today the parade of the garlands is used to raise money for local charities. They are placed on the war memorial rather than sacrificed to the sea now: there are no inshore fishermen left at Abbotsbury, so they don’t need the luck.

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