The Bodmin Wassail by Andrew Ormerod 6th January 2014

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Bodmin Wassailers arriving at the Hole in the Wall pub their last destination of the day.

Happy New Year everyone!  It is the 6th January I know – but it is also the old new years eve (before the calendars were changed).

If you visit the town of Bodmin on this day and you see a group of gentlemen in the town wearing top hats and Victorian tail coats you are not seeing visions from the past but you are watching part of the Bodmin Wassail.  You may also hear them sing their ancient Wassailing songs in some of the local pubs and wishing listeners a Happy New Year.

The Bodmin Wassail is one of those very special local traditions – little known outside the area but locally cherished.   It has been running continuously since 1624 – when money was set aside to bring good cheer to the local people in the depth of winter.  It is held on the 6th January unless it falls on a Sunday in which case it takes place on the 5th January.  I think it is the oldest (or one of the oldest) ‘Visiting Wassails’ in Britain.   The Wassailers bring and share good cheer to old people’s homes, private houses and pubs from about midday to closing time.  Their traditional last port of call these days is the ‘The Hole in the Wall’ pub in Bodmin.    On route as well as sharing good cheer they collect donations for charity.   One difference from some of the other old visiting Wassails in Somerset is that this one visits places in the town rather than orchards and although apples are mentioned in the songs the tipple enjoyed by the Wassailers is more likely to be beer.  The men taking part often have taken part for many years and the privilege of taking part is being passed down to the next generation of young men who are joining the Wassail.   Many of them also sing in Bodmin Folk Club.  (Forget the computer, forget television isn’t it great that people can still create their own entertainment by singing interesting songs for the benefit of others present).

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The Bodmin Wassailers greeting the pub land lord in one of their Wassail songs.

The land lord of the Hole in the Wall once showed those present photographs going back a generation or two of participants in the Wassail.   I believe it was in the 19th century that current costume was adopted and continues to this day.    One of the songs sung by the Bodmin Wassailers – came from an old member who grew up in a boys home and shortly before he died shared a song with his compatriots.  He learnt the song around about 1910 and it is  believed to be the St Columb Wassail.    Local Wassails were once more common within Cornwall – but probably died out with industrialisation.

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Steve the land lord of the Hole in the Wall pub in Bodmin about to fill the Wassail bowl. 

As for the Hole in the Wall, Steve the pub land lord  said it was one of seventeen in Britain.  The origin of the name varies from place to place but the one in Bodmin got its name because it was the debtors jail and members of the family provided food for those incarcerated through “the hole in the wall”.   It has a fascinating eclectic mix of artefacts including  model ships, medals from different countries bits of animal skeletons and stuffed animals.  It stopped being a debtors jail in the 18th century when Bodmin jail was built and opened as a pub in the 1930’s.    Apparently the lever mechanism from the gallows originally from Bodmin jail was found a few years ago hidden in a wall at the Hole in the Wall and when taken back to Bodmin Jail it still worked!

Links

Hole in the Wall Pub in Bodmin

http://www.pubtrail.co.uk/cornwall/hole-in-the-wall-bodmin.htm

Bodmin Folk Club  http://www.bodminfolk.co.uk/

Bodmin Wassail

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/bodmin-wassailing/
Welcoming Wassail song from Bodmin Wassail

Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!  and Jonny come to our jolly wassail!

Here comes a ship out in full sail ploughs the wide ocean in many a gale

For singing Wassail! Wassail! Wassail! and Jonny come to our jolly wassail!

Sometimes it’s laurel, sometimes it’s bay, fill up our bowlidish and we will drink away.

For singing Wassail! Wassail! Wassail! and Jonny come to our jolly wassail!

If master and mistress are sitting at ease, put your hands in your pockets and give what you please!

For singing Wassail! Wassail! Wassail! and Jonny come to our jolly wassail!

Come knock at the knocker and ring at the bell, I know you will reward us for singing Wassail!

Oh Singing Wassail, Wassail, Wassail and Jonny come to our jolly wassail!

St Colomb Wassail song (prossibly) – Learned by Charlie Wilson, past member of Bodmin Wassail, when he was in a boys home around about 1910.

Call out the butler of this house, put on this wedding ring, please bring us out a piece of cake and the better we will sing.

We are not daily beggars that come from door to door, but we are labours children who you have seen before.

We have got a little purse my outstretching leather skin, we want a little money to line it well within.

Good master and good mistress who are sitting by the fire, just think of us poor children who are wandering through the mire.

The lord of the manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill.

Wassail song prior to departure

Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!   Wassail! I am joy welcome to our jolly wassail!

This is our merry night for choosing King and Queen now be it your delight that something may be seen in our Wassail.

Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!   Wassail! I am joy come to our jolly wassail!

Is there any butler here or dweller in this house? I hope you take a full carouse, and enter to our bowl in our Wassail.

Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!   Wassail! I am joy come to our jolly wassail!

We fellows are all poor can’t find no house nor land unless we do gain in our Wassail.
Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!   Wassail! I am joy come to our jolly wassail!

Our Wassail bowl to fill with apples and good spice! Now grant us your good will taste here once or twice of our Wassail.

Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!   Wassail! I am joy come to our jolly wassail!

So now we must be gone to seek for more good cheer, where bounty will be shown, as we have found it here in our Wassail.

Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!   Wassail! I am joy come to our jolly wassail!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to you!

©  Andrew Ormerod 2014

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About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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