The Plough Boys in Palterton

Plough Boys was another village custom practised during the evenings between Christmas and New Year.  The Plough Boys was an heritage and must kept on record.

Who were the Plough Boys and what was their heritage?

The custom of the Plough Boys has many variations and was common throughout the English East Midlands, since the late 1600's, probably earlier.

English folk plays, often called Mummers' plays are short traditional verse sketches, performed at Xmas, Easter and other annual festivals and taken round pubs and private houses.  Sometimes, these sketches (in Derbyshire) are called Guisers.

They are usually associated with Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) - hence the name.  In fact there are two sub-types of Plough Play.

One is the Recruiting Sergeant play.  Here Tom Fool introduces the play, but the introduction is followed by a three-way operatic scene between a Recruiting Sergeant, a Farmer's Man and the Lady.  Basically the Farmer's Man forswears his sweetheart and joins the army, so the Lady decides to marry the Fool instead.  There next follows a scene between Old Dame Jane and Beelzebub which ends up with Dame Jane being knocked to the ground. A quack doctor is then brought in to perform an intricate comic cure. The performance ends up with a song.  Sometimes, King George and other Hero/Combat characters are also inserted into these plays.

Hero/Combat Plays as in Palterton - the Plough Boys.

This is the most common form of English folk play.  It starts with an introductory prologue and is followed by challenges and a sword fight between the hero and an antagonist.  As a result of this, one of them (not always the villain) is "slain" and a quack doctor is brought in to perform a cure.  This is usually achieved with a degree of comedy and may be the major scene of the play.  To end, a number of supernumerary characters may enter to ask the audience for a reward - chief of whom is Beelzebub.  Often the whole affair finishes with a seasonal song.

Saint/King/Prince George is the most common hero of the play, but others may be found in sub-types of the play.  These include; Robin Hood and Galatians, Scotland's typical hero.  The most common antagonists are the Turkish Knight and a soldier called Slasher.  In some cases there may be more than one combat.

Plough Boys was taught by our fathers and grandfathers a hundred or more years ago. Then they were know as the house to house players, and were performed as so.

In Palterton, this was a sketch acted by (originally the village ploughboys) groups of youngsters, including my friends and I.

We would knock at the villager's door and then one of us would walk in 'unannounced' and start to perform the Plough Boys sketch.  Usually the village folk welcomed the intrusion and would allow us to remain in their home.  After the performance they rewarded us with a few pence (sometimes shillings) and a mince pie each!

It was customary to turn our coats inside out, black our faces with soot from up the chimney.  Turn our caps back to front.  Borrow mothers' copper stick for a club, and also her dripping tin, and use sticks for the swords.  Some children would have black earholes at school next day!

At weekends we would visit the two village public houses to perform the Plough Boys sketch.  Clifford White, a friend of mine, was the son of the licensee of the Hare and Hounds which was opposite the little Mission Chapel on Main Street, so we could always rely on a welcome there.  The other inn was the Nags Head which was next door to the Mission Chapel and only thirty yards from the Hare and Hounds.

On one occasion we earned 3..0s.11 1/2d. each for our Plough Boys efforts', a lot of money in those days!  Traditionally any moneys acquired was shared equally unless it was for charity.

The wording of the Plough Boys sketch as performed by the youth in Palterton is as follows:

First entrant into house.
In comes I never been before.  All my men stand at the door.
Some can sing and some can dance.  With your consent, one of my men comes marching in.

King George enters:
In comes I, King George so brave and bold.
I once won 1000 in glittering gold.
I fought a fiery dragon and took it to the slaughter.
By those fair means I won the King of Egypt's daughter.
If nay man dare face me, I'll smash him and smash him and send him to Jamaica to be made into mincemeat.

Tom Fool enters:
In come I, Tom Fool.
My head is made of brass, my body is made of steel.
No one can make me feel.

King George:  "Can't I?

Tom Fool "No".

Then there is a little scuffle between King George and Tom Fool.  King George thumps him and Tom Fool falls to the ground.

King George:  Ten pounds for a Doctor.

Doctor then enters room
In comes I, the Doctor.

King George:  How did you become a Doctor?

Doctor:  By my travels

King George:  Where have you travelled?

Doctor:  England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and then on to New York, where I came to the house of Mrs Cork.  She had a pig with a knife and fork stuck in it's belly.  I ran full punch at it and soon cured it.

Note: A slightly alternative version was...

Doctor:  England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales.  I've cured Ipsy, Pipsy, Palsy, Gout, Pain within and pain without.  As I was coming up Glapwell Hill I met a pig with a knife and fork stuck in it's back.  I ran full pelt and soon cured it.  What have you been feeding him on?

King George:  Turnip tops and potato peelings.

Both versions then continue along the same lines...

King George:  Can you do anything for this poor fellow?

The Doctor then kneels down over Tom Fool and mutters some mumbo jumbo and tells Tom Fool to rise, whereupon Tom Fool gets up.

Then the last member of the gang comes into the house.

In comes I, Little Tommy Stout.
If you don't give me some money, I'll sweep you all out.

Little Tommy Stout then goes dashing around with his broom and says :
"Now let's all rise up and sing".

Note: A slightly alternative version was...

In comes I, old Beelzebub,
And on my back I carry my club,
In my hand a frying pan,
Don't you think I'm a jolly old man?

The group of Plough Boys then sang:

Good Master and good Mistress as you sit round the fire.
Remember all the plough boys that plough the moory mire.
The moory mire was so deep, the water ran so clear.
So what shall we drink in your house, but a pitcher of your best beer.
We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New year.
(Then go round with the hat)

As they go out of the premises, all sing

We thank you for civility,
And what you gave us here;
We wish you all good night,
And another happy year.

Note: A slightly alternative version was...

Instead of Tom Fool entering, it is Jack Ploughman, who says:
Can't I?
First person.  And who are you, when you're at home?
Jack Ploughman:  Jack Ploughman's my name, dragon slayer extraordinary.
King maker and King breaker.
On guard King George, I'll make thee feel".
A short sword fight followed and King George falls.
First entrant.
Tha's killed him.  Now how am I to be paid?
Who's to rule the Kingdom?
Jack Ploughman:  Send for the Doctor.
All chorus, looking to the door.  Send for the Doctor.
Doctor.  In comes I, the Doctor.

The sketch carries on as above.

Although this tradition ended in Palterton around 1955, it is still practised in other areas of the English East Midlands.

It is a tradition that must not end!

The Plough Boys in Palterton


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Created 2 December 2001
Last updated: 10 February 2003