Customs, Laws and Punishments of Cheshire's Past

IN centuries past, Cheshire people waged a continual struggle against poverty and the elements. Any respite, however brief, was met with great enthusiasm and probably accounted for the way our local traditions have been passed down through the ages. In the series, Cheshire Life takes a look at some of the varied forms of entertainments and traditions our ancestors enjoyed.

February had us all tossing a few pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. The custom of ringing the 'Pancake Bell' used to be employed at Audlem and Middlewich to call the people to church on this day, but in later years was rung to tell housewives when to begin frying pancakes for their husband's dinners!

Many of the customs associated with Easter are still as popular today as they were centuries ago. Easter Eggs are now made from chocolate, but at one time, the children of Cheshire would hard-boil duck or goose eggs, paint them and roll them down the nearest hill. The winning egg would be the first one to reach the bottom intact.

May Day was originally a celebration of the Celtic festival of Beltane, symbolised by the lighting of the May bonfires. The Maypole and Morris dances was conducted around the great fires to celebrate the return of life to the earth. Because this festival refused to die out with the coming of Christianity, it was eventually declared to be a public holiday. All over the country, people still celebrate the first day of the Pagan summer, as the Royal May Day Festival in Knutsford.

The villages of Cheshire still hold traditional 'Wakes' or country fairs although today, they are rarely associated with religious festivals. Originally, they were feasts held in honour of the patron saint of the parish and held on the Saint's day. In later days, a law was passed to prevent the common people from having 'too many holidays' and the wakes were subsequently held on the Sunday following the proper day. At Wybunbury, near Nantwich, the villagers used to make fig-puddings as part of their Wake celebrations.

Another ancient custom, which used to take place in many parishes, was the practice of 'Beating The Bounds' - where the Parson and his parishioners would walk around the boundaries as a means of preserving the rights and properties of the parish.

Along the way, small boys were stood on the exact boundary lines and beaten soundly so that they would remember the place! The Churchwardens paid them well afterwards and so there was never a shortage of boys offering their services!

The Norman kings of Britain gave their abbots, nobles, earls and barons the power to lay down their own laws and punishments on their lands. They had the right to seize and judge all thieves and pocket the fines they paid. They also had the power to hang anyone found guilty of serious crimes.

The people who worked and lived on their estates were taxed for the upkeep of roads and bridges, and a toll was charged to all strangers passing through. Although the nobles could charge whatever they wished, in return, they made sure that the roads were fairly safe for travellers and punished all who broke the peace.

Bakers and brewers was fined if they sold unwholesome bread or watered-down ale. If they then continued the practice, they were physically punished. A baker who continually charged too much for his bread was put into the 'pillory' - an upright wooden cross with holes for head, hands and sometimes feet to be locked into.

There, they would be pelted with mud and refuse for a designated number of hours. Brewers who persisted in giving short measures or watering down their ale were punished by the 'tumbril', a cart which the offender was tied to, there to be dragged and whipped the length of the village.
Scolds - those women found guilty of nagging their husbands - were punished by way of the ducking stool, a kind of 'see-saw' on the bank of the village pond to which the unfortunate victim was tied, then ducked into the water, much to the amusement of the onlookers.

The poorest people, or 'vassals', weren't free to come and go as they pleased. They were bound to the estate and were bought and sold with it. Even those who'd managed to buy a piece of their own land were allowed to work on it only after first doing their masters' bidding. Any corn the vassal grew had to be ground at his Lord's mill and a toll paid for using it. Half of everything he owned belonged, on his death, to the Master of the estate, who often left nothing of any value for his heirs.

In Norman times, Cheshire had a great expanse of forest and the laws concerning poaching were notoriously severe. If venison was found in a villager's home, then all his possessions were forfeit. Anyone caught poaching was immediately hanged from the nearest tree. The 'dog gauge' - an iron ring of approximately one inch in diameter, was used to measure the front paws of all the dogs in the area. If their paws passed through , then they was considered to small for a poacher's purposes.

If the dog's paws were too large, then they were cut down until they did fit, ensuring that there were no hunting dogs in the forest area except those that were either too small or crippled.
Harsh laws, plagues and famines made conditions so wretched that the 'Cheshire Rising' took place in the reign of Richard II. In the district of Winsford and Over, the people rose against the Prior of Darnhall and murdered one of his monks, then proceeded to 'play football with is head...'