The Cheshire Wakes
Highlight of bygone years in many towns and villages

In days gone by, the men of Cheshire had an unforunate reputation and one which followed them down through the centuries. It was of having an unruly nature!

Although they were probably no worse than the men from other counties, the facts remain, that many of Cheshire's old customs were phased out and are now extinct. Through the misbehaviour of certain irresponsible persons, who as we say "spoilt it for others."

Sixteenth century monastic documents at St Albans, tell "because of their fickleness, the people of those parts (Cheshire) are more ready and accustomed to doing such things because of local disputes and former wars. They more readily resort to arms and are more difficult to control than other people."

Throughout the centuries, the highlight of the year for many Cheshire towns and villages was an annual event known as the Wakes. Celebrated around the time of the local Parish Church's patronal dedication festival. The Wakes was a holiday lasting for one or two days up to a week, and because it was customary for each parish to hold their Wakes nearest to the date of its own patron saint's dedication.

There was no fixed time throughout the county for holding the festivities. This situation apparently didn't suit the eccleastical powers of the day, and in 1536, an Act of Convocation was passed, ordering each parish to hold its Wake on the first Sunday in October, without reference to its patronal link.

The act was doomed to failure from the start, as town's people and villagers alike, clung tenaciously to their own saint's days. For most country folk, the annual Wakes was their only opportunity to rub shoulder to shoulder with the outside world. Fairs were set up on village greens, each one bringing into the community its quota of travelling showmen. Market stalls lined the streets, pedlars, hawkers and salesmen came from afar to sell their wares.

For country women, it was their once a year change to buy the pretty things they otherwise never saw, silks and laces, garter and ribbons, and "all they lacked from head to heel".

Unfortunately, it also gave an opportunity for the unruly and rougher element of the community to drink too much strong ale with fights, brawls and empty pockets often the inenvitable outcome.

This caused some onlookers to see it as an excuse for several days of idleness, intoxication and riotours conduct. So much so, that at the beginning of the 19th Century, one pious individual from Great Budworth felt duty bound to publish a protest of reasons, explaining why the good people of the village should not go to the Wakes.

1. Drawing together multitudes of persons for no good reason.
2. Excessive drinking.
3. Encouraging all the works of the flesh.
4. Losing much precious time.
5. Cursing, swearing and blasphemy.
6. Doing the works of the Devil.
7. Wasting a great deal of money.

"And I exhort you friend, if you value your immortal soul, do thou stay away also."

The attractions during Wake's week were numerous and varied, and in most villages often well organised. At Bunbury. for instance. in 180.8 the parish advertised for a master of ceremonies to supervise the week long events, which included bull, bear and badger, baiting, cock fighting, goose riding, bare fist fighting, jawing, gurning, whistling, jumping, skenning, grinning and pudding eating competitions.

Even though there were ample other pastimes for the local men to enjoy, many of them also with scores of outsiders from nearby towns, came to the Wakes especially to participate in the cruel, but immensely popular sports of bull and bear baiting.

Most country towns had a site usually in the Market place call the Bull-Ring to which the bull was taken in ceremony. There tethered by a chain to the large iron ring firmly secured in the ground, he would await the dogs and more often than not to die in fear. At village Wakes he would be baited on the Green, with the end result nearly always the same.

Bear-baiting unlike bull-baiting which invariably ended in the bull's death was less one sided, with the odds rather against the dog, whose owner paid two pence to the bearward for the privilege of allowing it to try and over throw the larger animal.

At Barthomley, a man killed during a bear-bait, provided a sufficient enough excuse for abolishing the Wakes in that village, while over in Bunbury, a Bearward by the name of Robinson, "was cruelly rent in pieces by a Bear and so died fearfully."

Lots of stories are told in Cheshire about the travelling bears, for their coming was a greast event in the dull life of most villagers. During Wrenbury Wakes, the bear was usually brought to the village on Saturday evening, and stabled at the inn ready for Monday morning.

A certain vicar who took a keen interest in the sport, had been anxiously enquiring of the Parish clerk all evening, whether the bear had arrived. When told it had not, he asked the clerk to inform him of its coming. The next morning as the vicar was on his way to the pulpit to give his sermon, the clerk obviously very excited, came up behind him and in a loud voice audible to the delighted congregation, announced "Mester, ye mun stop now, hoo's com'n and her's a brain un" (Brown one).

A custom the villages of Weaverham and Wynbunbury held during Wake's week, was to bake fig pies to give to their friends, because of this they were known as "Good neighbour pies" and although their Wakes petered out in the early 1900's. Fig pies were still made in the locality for many years afterwards.

This an instance of one of the nicer customs the Wake's left behind, yet even this pleasant cusom was at one time abused. In earlier days at Wynbunbury, the fig pies were sometimes baked hard and rolled down Swan Bank for prizes, but there are stories of individuals hurling them at passers by, from the church tower.

As time went by, the Wake's festivities degenerated into a fair where brutality, cruelty, crime, accidents and tragedy became common place, and seemed to have little in keeping with the true reason for the celebrations.
One waiter describing the Middlewich Wakes wrote, "There was often a bull feight in one fieldm and a mon feight, I'th next, with the parson as referee." And so it was with a certain amount of relief to the authorites when the Wakes in most areas died a natural death.

Today, apart from a few towns and villages which still hold a respectable Wake's Day, they have almost faded into the past, most churches preferring to celebrate their patronal Saint's Day in a quieter way, though the signs still abound to remind us of former times.

Many towns still have "Bull Rings" and there are pubs throughout the county that carry names associated with the bear-baiting, e.g. the Bear's Paw and the Bear's Head.