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Halloween in Britain: It
 ain’t what it used to be

Today Halloween in Britain is celebrated almost as extravagantly as it is in America. Witches, ghosts, goblins, and carved pumpkins now abound on both sides of the Atlantic, but things were quite different when I was a child.

It was not really a time of celebration. In cities and towns, it passed virtually unnoticed. In country districts, superstitious folks stayed home, behind locked doors—for it was the night when souls in torment were said to revisit their earthly homes or the scenes of their undoing.

All Hallows Eve, as it is properly known, was not directly associated with witches until recently, at least in the part of the world where I grew up. The Witches’ Sabbath actually took place on April 30th—the eve of the Feast of St Walpurga, an 8th Century German abbess.


“Witches’ Sabbath”, from Blockes-Berges Verrichtung by Johannes Praetorius (1537–1616). From Wikipedia.

It was known as Walpurgis Night, from the Anglo-Saxon version of the German Walpurgisnacht. It was another occasion upon which superstitious country folk stayed safe at home. It was believed to be the high feast of Satan—an occasion for witches and warlocks to gather in secret to worship their diabolical master in savage and blasphemous rites.

One of my favourite stories associated with Walpurgis Night concerns the Hell Fire Club—a bunch of mid-18th Century bucks, also known as the Monks of Medmenham.

The club was avowedly atheistic, and the members, accompanied by hired ‘nymphs’ and hogsheads of wine, celebrated ‘Black Masses’ amid the ruins of Medmenham Abbey on an island in the River Thames.

One Walpurgis Night, when Lord Sandwich (inventor of the Sandwich) was scheduled to celebrate the Black Mass, John Wilkes—a radical politician and notorious rake—hid a baboon in the chimney of the ruined refectory behind the satanic altar.

Medmenham Abbey

Medmenham Abbey. © Knight Frank /

Immediately Sandwich uttered words conjuring up the devil, Wilkes released the baboon. The terrified animal leapt on the no less terrified Sandwich, and the meeting dissolved into chaos, as monks and half-clad ‘nymphs’ desperately sought to escape the supposed ‘satanic hordes’.

The club was never quite the same again. Sandwich never forgave Wilkes, and eventually he sought to have him impeached for allegedly writing seditious and pornographic pamphlets.

Wilkes was brought before the bar of the House of Commons, and Sandwich, acting as prosecutor, marshalled the evidence against him.

Apparently, Sandwich was convinced that the case against Wilkes was
absolutely watertight, for he ended his presentation with a flourish. ‘This man,’ he declared, ‘is born to die either on the gallows or of an unmentionable disease …’ (Or words to that effect.)

Wilkes immediately leapt to his feet and responded: ‘That depends upon whether I embrace your morals, or your mistress.’ The House, howling with laughter, voted to dismiss the case against him. Sandwich never got his revenge.

By contrast, May Day, which immediately followed Walpurgis Night, was marked by rather less sacrilegious celebrations.

In country districts it was often observed with vestiges of Betltane, the Celtic celebration that marked the beginning of summer. In the country, household fires would be doused and re-lit. Morris Dancers would perform on village greens. In cities, there would be working men’s galas at which considerable quantities of ale would be drunk.

In some parts of the country, neighbours would gather around bonfires, and civic organisations would sponsor festivities at which whole oxen or pigs would be roasted on spits over open fires.

Halloween, on the other hand, was a time at which local superstitions ruled. One year, for example, playground gossip at my elementary school had it that on All Hallows Eve, at the stroke of one, the spirits all the villagers who would die during the coming year would process around the parish church and disappear through the south door into the nave.

Chirbury Cemetery

Chirbury Cemetery. From A Tale of Chirbury.

Indeed, a local baker, it was claimed, had gone to the churchyard the previous year to watch the solemn processions of spirits. As the last spirit was about to enter the church, it looked at the baker and the poor man found himself gazing at his own face. Shocked, he dropped dead on the spot.

It occurred to us that if the baker had dropped dead of shock, he couldn’t have been alive to tell the story. But it was too good a challenge for adventurous young lads to ignore, and a bunch of us decided to find out for ourselves if the story was true.

We crouched amid the graves until the church clock struck one. Sadly, no ghostly procession appeared. We gave it another half hour before going home. But just as the clock struck the half hour, we heard a series of unearthly groans and saw unearthly orange glow emanating from one of the graves.

Our courage vanished, and we fled, leaving the devil to take the hindmost.

Next day at school one of our intrepid band was missing from class, and, to our dismay, we realised we’d left Kenny Lewis to be caught by the ghost.

Kenny was still missing at morning recess when the headmaster and his mother arrived in our classroom looking for him. Sheepishly, we confessed that, in cowardly fashion, we had abandoned him to be taken prisoner by some ghost or demon.

Six of the best

“Six of the best.” Cecil Trouncer and Richard Attenborough in The Guinea Pig. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Police Constable Butcher was summoned to investigate. Half an hour later, he reappeared with Kenny, who tearfully explained he had spent an uncomfortable night and much of the morning shivering in a newly dug grave.

When the spirits failed to turn up, he’d decided it would be a hoot to jump into the grave with his flashlight and scare the living daylights out of us. No genius, he hadn’t figured out that if he succeeded in scaring us out of our wits, it was unlikely there would be anybody to help him out.

Our adventure ended with an ignominious ‘six of the best’. On balance, I think celebrating Halloween the American way is a whole lot better. GPH✠

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