Traditions of Christmas and New Year past remembered

For our final post of 2021, we take a brief look at the Christmas and new year tradition formerly practised in Brimington and indeed Derbyshire – the Derby Tup. We’ll also take a brief look at so-called ‘mummers’ plays’.

‘Old Tup at Handsworth’ from S.O. Addy’s 1907 ‘Guising and Mumming in Derbyshire’. Not all Tups were as elaborately prepared as this one.

The Derby Tup

Thanks to the late Peter Harrison we were able to record his memories of the now largely lost Derby Tup (the tup is a ram) tradition, in our Miscellany 2 – which we hope to make available on-line in the new year.

The Derby Tup was an old tradition (recorded back into the mid-19th century at least) which involved costumed players taking the role of Man, Women, Butcher and Tup, but there were variations. The occasion would see the players tour round local pubs and perhaps houses performing the Tup. Starting with an introduction on the lines of the following;

‘Ere comes me an’ our old lass

Short o’ money an’ short of brass;

Pay for a pint and let us sup

And then we’ll show thee t’ Derby Tup.’

As recorded by Ian Mitchell in 1970.

There then followed a sung verse beginning with something on the lines of:

‘I was on my way to Derby upon a market day; we met the finest tup that ever fed on hay.

Fey lay fey lay nan-a-ga lay.’

The Derby Tup as remembered by Peter Harrison.

After this verse which some words were spoken to summon a butcher (mistakenly taken for a summons of a blacksmith at first). The butcher then pretends to stab the tup, who would squeal. After this further verses were sung describing the disposal of various body parts to the populace! As an example;

And all the lads in Derby came begging for its eyes;

to make a pair of footballs – they were just the size.

Fey lay fey lay nan-a-ga lay.’

The Derby Tup as remembered by Peter Harrison.

Ian Russell documented the performance of the Tup in the 1970s. He found that 41 groups were still performing at this time, including one at Brimington. In our Miscellany 2 Peter Harrison told of his childhood years where he had performed the Tup for about two years in the period immediately preceding the Second World War. His group, just one of a few he thought were active in the village, didn’t just visit pubs (and not every pub at that) but rather cunningly ‘would walk along and listen if any house was having a party or if music was being played, knock on the door and ask if they wanted us to go in and perform.’

As a young lad, just before the Second World War, Peter Harrison would be amongst a number of groups preforming the Derby Tup in Brimington.

Peter’s group picked the more affluent areas of Brimington. He remembered one trip to Tapton Grove where the audience were in full evening dress. But the small group’s trek up from his home in Cotterhill Lane, was only rewarded by the princely sum of 6 old pence. On a lucky night his roughly costumed group might earn up to one old pound, split equally between them. A house performance might earn one shilling (5p), a public house five shillings. At that time door-to-door carol singers (another tradition now largely died out) might earn one or two pence per house.

Earlier in its history the Tup might well be a real sheep’s head and certainly in the photograph in this blog , the Tup looks a little macabre. But in Peter’s time the Tup was a simple sack placed over the actor’s head.

Mummers’ plays

We’ll not go too much into Mummers’ plays, but suffice to say our Miscellany article discusses these in greater detail – some consider the Derby Tup to be a remnant of them.

Mummers’ plays are probably best described as hero-combat plays. They weren’t just performed in Derbyshire.  These ‘short traditional verse-sketches’ were, like the Derby Tup performed mainly around the Christmas. and new year period. Apparently, the play was locally known as ‘St George’. Costumed players included Slasher, St George, Black Prince, Doctor, King of Egypt, Hector, Beelzebub and Devil-Doubt. There were local variations, including at Brimington.

Performed now?

The last recorded time the Brimington Mummers’ Play was performed in the village was in November 1997, as part of the 150th anniversary of the present Parish Church building. This handbill (originally A5) promoted the event.

The last recorded performance of the mummers’ play in Brimington was in November 1997. This was by Brimington Junior School as part of the parish church’s 150 anniversary celebrations. It is doubtful that the play could be performed now.

Of the Derby Tup – we are not sure when it was last performed in Brimington. The presentation recorded by Ian Russell was on 16 January 1977. Stephen and Martin Booth were the leaders of this small group. They had obtained a version of the Tup from another member of the group Stephen Squire’s uncle – Tony Hancock (who lived at Hollingwood). Recent posts to The Brimington and Brimington Common Memories Facebook group also saw some residents remember their own or their relative’s performance, but none later than that recorded in 1977. Unless that’s, of course, anyone else can remember a later performance.

In Derbyshire, it’s thought that the Derby Tup is no longer performed. Writing in December 2021’s Derbyshire Life magazine, Richard Bradley stated that you could, however, still have seen it being performed in south Yorkshire. But Richard had discovered that ‘an interactive version of the Derby Tup’ had been given in Chesterfield Labour Club in November 2020. He thought that this was ‘possibly the first time the Tup has been performed in Chesterfield (perhaps Derbyshire) for 30 or 40 years.’ The Tup was presented by Mathew Hedley Stoppard, supported by his family.

The Derby Tup public house on Sheffield Road, Whittington Moor – a reminder of a once common Christmas custom.
The pub’s hanging sign.

Whether the Tup will see a resurgence is doubtful. But there is a reminder of this old Christmas and new year tradition. The Brunswick Arms on Sheffield Road was renamed the Derby Tup some years ago.

Finally, we’d like to say a merry Christmas and a happy new year to all our members, supporters and blog followers. We’ll be taking a holiday over the festive period, but should be back in the new year.

For further information on the Derby Tup and Mummers’ plays in Brimington see our article in Brimington and Tapton Miscellany 2.  

Peter Bradley has written about ‘The Derbyshire Tup: a festive Derbyshire tradition’ in the December 2021 Derbyshire Life (pp. 36-39).  Ian Russell published ‘A survey of traditional drama in north east Derbyshire 1970-78’ in the Folk Music Journal, 1979, volume 3, number 5 (pp. 399-478). We reference other accounts in our Miscellany article, which we are hoping to post on-line in early 2022.

The British Film Institute has produced a DVD ‘Here’s health to the Barley Mow’ which includes archive footage of two 1970s performances of the Derby Tup at Ridgeway. You can also see a rather elaborate performance of one version of the Derby Tup performed by adults of the Handsworth Sword dancers here.

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