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'Open the door and let us in!'


And we'll come no more a-Souling until another year by Roy Clinging

Natives of Cheshire, like myself, are justifiably proud of the wealth of local traditions and customs that were practised in the area, many of which were unique to the county, or sometimes a specific location, while others were merely extensions or adaptations of rituals that were performed elsewhere. While many of these have long since unfortunately died out, one that is still hanging on, albeit by a slender thread, is that of Soulcaking, or Souling.

My own interest in things traditional goes back almost as far as I can remember and I was a performer with the local Soulcakers myself during the 1970's and '80's but I became more involved several years ago when, in an attempt to uncover an untapped source of traditional songs, I spent a large number of hours pouring over dusty tomes in my local library in Chester. This exercise was only partially successful and, due to limited time and energy, tended to be somewhat piecemeal as I would only go when time, and more importantly inclination, overtook me. Things were to change, however, with an unexplained knee injury which has kept me away from the 'day job' since last December (1996), and has not only created more time for research, but has also allowed me to extend my sources of information. My initial intention was to find a repertoire of fine traditional songs, all from my local area, which no-one in the folk revival had ever done before. What a fool I was! Of course this was complete pie in the sky, but it did lead me to discover a fascinating culture that is as diverse as it is interesting. This has now developed into a workshop of songs effectively telling the history of the county with background detail and information. The songs themselves range from the purely traditional to more recent compositions by local people who still sing about local issues. We are not talking professional songwriters here, but people who sing purely for the pleasure of singing and who feel a sense of pride in their own way of life. It has been argued that as these songs have been written comparatively recently they can't be 'real folk music' - personally I'm not so sure. If we want our tradition to be considered as living, we must give it room to adapt develop and grow, and songs like these can be part of that process. Other material has been found in libraries and archives and, as is so often the case in older publications, without a tune which, where necessary, I have supplied myself. The songs range from the well known Miller of the Dee, through ballads about local legends like the strange pact between the devil and a local friar with a liking for the good life (The Devil And the Monk), to variations of more familiar tales, as in The Old Man Outwitted, where a young girl falls in love with her servant and her father disapproves, but in this case with an unexpected sting in the tail. There are songs about local practices and ways of life (Cheshire Cavalry, The Marlers Song), less serious items, such as the tongue in cheek broadside ballad The Unfortunate Loves of Thomas Clutterbuck and Polly Higginbotham, and, of course, May carols and songs associated with that most characteristic of Cheshire customs, Souling.

The origins of Souling are thought to date back to the 10th Century when November 1st was not only the beginning of winter but was also the day that the spirits walked abroad and ancestors were worshipped. The timing of this tradition does seem slightly flexible though, as some sources would have the plays performed on All Souls Day (Nov. 2nd), some on All Souls Eve (Nov 1st) and still others on Hallowe'en (Oct 31st). Although mumming plays, of one sort or another, can be seen all over the country, the thing which sets the Cheshire plays apart is the inclusion of the horse, the origin of which is much disputed. In some areas the Soulers were accompanied by a man in a white sheet carrying a horse's head. This was known as hodening and though not a true part of Souling, as it occurs where Souling does not, was done at the same time and the two originally separate customs may well have blended into one. Some say it may derive from the Norse god Odin, and there are others who believe that it is a descendant of the Marbury Dun (a legendary horse which, according to folklore, ran from London to Marbury between the hours of sunrise and sunset.) Writing in 1886, Robert Holland, like many others, had his own ideas of the origins: 'As far as I can ascertain, several customs which were formerly distinct, and which took place at different times of the year, are now confounded together, and all take place at the same time of year. These customs were Soulcaking proper, which took place on All Souls' Eve; the performance of a mock-heroic play, which, I suspect, was originally performed at Easter, but which in many counties is now acted at Christmas; and the 'Dobby Horse' performance, which I think may have been part of the Christmas mummings.

Nowadays, the 'acting,' as it is called, is combined with this; but the actors still begin their operations by singing a Souling song outside the door. Having finished the song, the 'actors' knock at the door, and beg to be admitted to the kitchen. Leave is generally granted, and all the family and servants assemble to see the performance. The words are entirely traditional, being handed down orally from one generation to another; consequently many palpable errors have crept in, and the text varies in almost every village.'

The plays were not written down, most of the actors could neither read nor write anyway, so any words where the meaning was not clear were either corrupted or altered to something more familiar. For example the character of Beelzebub in the Halton play is known as 'Belzebub', in Frodsham as 'Bellsie Bob', and where he usually enters saying 'over my shoulder I carry a club' in Comberbach he carries 'my clog'.

While the importance of these plays may have detracted from the preservation of the county's folk culture as a whole (as a rural, and somewhat isolated, community it is likely that there would have been a strong singing tradition with local variants, songs about the area, people, events and activities which would appear to have been largely overlooked) it is easy to understand how the folk song collectors could be so taken by the number and variation of these plays, that other possible sources of material were passed by.

During the 1930's and 1940's a great deal of research was carried out by Major A. W. Boyd who collected the text of a great many of these plays and promoted them widely, even to the extent of a broadcast by the Comberbach Soulcakers on BBC radio on October 31st, 1934. The Great War virtually killed off the tradition in the Cheshire villages, but, according to Boyd, it was kept alive by the villagers of Comberbach, who then began to encourage others to do likewise.

The songs, like the plays, vary from village to village, and also in style depending on whether they were attached to a play or not. In some cases the song was used to introduce characters (though not always ones relevant to the action), while in others it was not an integral part of the play at all but used purely to extend the performance, and could be sung at the start, at the end, or split between the two. There were simpler versions that consisted merely of a song and a horses head speech, and in others, usually performed by the younger children, the song was all you got. Robert Holland continues: 'The Souling used to consist of parties of children, dressed up in fantastic costume, who went round to the farm houses and cottages, singing a song and begging for cakes (Soul Cakes), apples, money, or anything that the goodwives would give them.' Christina Hole describes the Soul Cakes themselves as 'small and round, made of a light dough, well spiced and sweetened', and as the children wandered from house to house they would chant rhymes at each door they came to:

My Souling cap, my Souling cap,
It cost me many a shilling,
My shoes are wore out through tramping about,
And I can't get a pint of beer.


Look down into your cellar and see what you can find,
For the best of all ale, and the best of stone wine.

My mother has memories of going Souling in Middlewich, from door to door hoping for money or some other gift, with her cousin, Sheila Fallon, who recalls their rhyme as:

Soul cake, apple or pear,
A plum and a cherry to make me merry.
One for Peter, one for Paul,
Give me an apple and I'll be gone.
Set down into your cellar and see what you can find;
I hope you will be kind, I hope you will be kind.
If you haven't got a penny, a halfpenny will do,
If you haven't got a halfpenny, God bless you!

To use Boyd's words many of these chants were 'traditional if somewhat tuneless songs,' and he concludes 'The Souling songs themselves perhaps show a rather excessive interest in liquor, but after all the play's the thing.' This thought, however, was not necessarily shared by everyone, for in 1880 The Cheshire Sheaf reported that 'Three middle aged men, with a concertina, have just been Souling here. They began well but ended with very bad verses about ale and strong beer which, they said, was all for which they came.'

While much of this has now died out, traditional Soulcaking can still be seen in Antrobus, and in Comberbach. The Antrobus Soulers claim an unbroken tradition until the outbreak of the First World War, which drastically depleted there numbers but after a short gap and with the encouragement of Major Boyd, performances were resumed.They also maintain the old system of not having a written script, so any new actors have to learn their part by word of mouth, although most of the current Antrobus Gang are seasonedperformers, including one stalwart who has not onlybeen Souler himself for the last fifty years, but is proud to have followed both his father and his grandfather into the tradition. The Comberbach Soulcakers were active untill 1952 when performances lapsed but were restored again in 1985 and are still going strong. Apart from the occasional short term resurrection by local groups, much of the revival interest has been due to local Morris Men, Bollin Morris, and members of the Ringheye Morris of Mobberley performing the texts from Swettenham, Warburton, and Mobberley respectively.extensively into this tradition (many thanks to Duncan Broomhead for his assistance), and the Jones' Ale Soulcakers of Chester, with whom i have enjoyed a long and happy association, started performing in 1971 and have just entered their second generation of performing which has to be encouraging news for the future. In the words of Major Boyd 'long may it continue', and long may the winter nights echo to the cry of 'Open the door and let us in!'


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