Folklore and customs by Dr Peter Millington

A folk song from the daybook of John Reddish, East Bridgford, 1780-1805. Courtesy of Anne Cockburn.

A folk song from the daybook of John Reddish, East Bridgford, 1780-1805. Courtesy of Anne Cockburn.



The archives of Nottingham Corporation and its successor bodies include records relating to Goose Fair, the Plough Day fair, Christmas Lights, and the town waits. The originals are held in the Nottinghamshire Archives, but extensive extracts have been published in nine volumes entitled Records of the Borough of Nottingham, under various editors, with translations from Latin or Norman French as necessary.

There is enough evidence from press reports to show that the more boisterous seasonal customs occasionally resulted in damage to property or offences against the person. Some cases went before the courts and no doubt were noted in court records, but they can be difficult to spot because they were usually just prosecuted as petty misdemeanours without reference to the attendant customs. There is evidence of a particular campaign by the authorities and judiciary in Nottingham to suppress the excesses of the Plough Bullocks there during the early to mid-19th century. However, the oldest and most interesting court case was of ten men of North Muskham who were arraigned before the ecclesiastical court in 1596-97 for having ploughed up the church yard on “Plowe Daie” and abusing the vicar. They apparently appeared in court in costume, and the judge ordered them to turn back the furrows they had ploughed. Unfortunately, the original court records seem to have gone missing, but before they disappeared the reports were published in the Nottinghamshire Guardian (B.V.M., 1886 & 1902).

Continuing this line of thought, it is also quite possible that fatalities may have occurred during calendar customs, and could therefore have been the subject of inquests. None are yet known for Nottinghamshire, but there is a precedent for such inquests in Lincolnshire.

Another official source with some potential is school log books. These record the day to day work of the schools, and would often record half day holidays and other activities for seasonal customs such as Plough Monday.


From research in Lincolnshire, we know that the household accounts of the landed gentry sometimes itemised disbursements to participants in seasonal customs. For instance, a family memoranda book of the Brecknock, Palmer and Carbutt families catalogued by the Lincolnshire Archives records that Roger Brecknock spent 3d on “plough day” in 1642 at his house in Hucknall Torkard (Lincs. Archives Committee, 1960/61, p.21).

Most village and town charities and doles were set up as a result of bequests in the wills of pious inhabitants. These latterly sometimes became calendar customs, as in Newark’s ‘Penny Loaf Day’ celebrated on the 11th March, although their original purpose was eventually taken over by the welfare state. Robert Thoroton’s (1677) Antiquities of Nottinghamshire lists many of these charities and their benefactors, and some of the wills may be deposited in county archives.

In the 1960s, the Nottinghamshire Local History Council ran a series of essay competitions designed to capture the memories of old villagers and the inhabitants of a couple of the market towns. These often included accounts of local folklore (notably Plough Monday, which had been mentioned in the competition blurb). All the entries were subsequently deposited in the Nottinghamshire Archives, and the “Memories of a Villager” entries were summarised by Cossens (1962). The folklore content is also indexed in more detail by Millington & Jones (2000-2005).

Although born in Derbyshire in 1843, Thomas Ratcliffe moved to Worksop as a child and spent his working life there as an antiquarian bookseller. He had a particular interest in the folklore of both counties, and contributed numerous articles to the local press and nationally to Notes & Queries. His notebook containing research notes and draft articles remains in private ownership, although copies have been deposited in Worksop Library and in the Derbyshire Record Office, Matlock ( Some extracts have also been published on the internet. The Nottingham Local Studies Library holds a couple of his scrapbooks.

Some folk enthusiasts hold manuscripts of local folk songs, including hunting songs and carols. They are encouraged deposit them, or copies, in appropriate publicly accessible archives or libraries.

Academic archives

This is a collection of Plough Plays of national repute.

While Reddish's manuscript notebook of folk songs from East Bridgford remains in private ownershiip, this thesis includes a complete photographic facsimile.

Francis Child, of Harvard University, was the seminal collector of Robin Hood ballads (see Printed Sources: F.J.Child, 1882-98 for details of the published collection). This archive holds his original research notes, with additions by George Lyman Kittredge. Vol.XXV covers the Robin Hood ballads.

This archive holds a large collection of images and ephemera, with particular emphasis on the Showman’s Guild. It covers Nottingham Goose Fair and other local fairs and wakes.

Especially useful for those parts of Nottinghamshire close to Sheffield and Rotherham.

This archive of the now defunct Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies includes several items relating to Nottinghamshire folklore and dialect.

This collection covers folk drama and folk dances such as morris dancing and sword dancing, as well as Plough Monday customs. A rough inventory of the collection is available online at

This small FLS archive covers all aspects of folklore. One of the collections - the Ordish Papers - includes material on Nottinghamshire folk drama.