An Introduction to Plough Monday

Enid Porter, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore (1969)

Photo by Peter Harmer

The custom of drawing a plough through Cambridgeshire villages with the threat of ploughing up the doorstep of anyone refusing to give money to the ploughmen and boys was continued in many places until early this century.

Ploughing up the doorstep

Haddenham boys and men molly danced on Plough Monday evening to the music of a concertina. They wore fancy costume with alleygags, a local term for cord or string tied round the legs of the dancer’s trousers, and blackened their faces. In the morning the plough had been taken round to the various houses in the village and the ground in front of them ploughed up if the request for money had been refused.

Singing for sixpences in Swaffham Prior

In Swaffham Prior, as recorded by Mr R. C. Benstead in 1963, ‘we children, thirty six years ago, used to black our faces and visit the more well-to-do houses, and on arrival we would sing:

A sifting of chaff, a bottle of hay,
See the poor crows go carrying away,
Squeak by squeak they wag their tails
Hi nonney! Hi nonney!

The “Hi” was shouted as loud as we could yell. One farmer would make us come up one by one and present us with a sixpence which, once grasped firmly in the hand, we would turn and run as hard as we could, with the farmer’s hearty laughter and his huge whip cracking at our heels. I don’t remember anyone getting caught by him.’

The carrying round of a miniature plough by local schoolboys with blackened faces was continued in this village until 1929. Members of the Women’s Institute recalled in 1958 that ‘men dressed as horses’ dragged the plough to various houses until the 1920s. The version of the song given by these members is:

A sifting of chaff and a bottle of hay,
See the poor colts go wagging away.
Squeak, boy, squeak and wag your tail.
Hi ninnany, norny!

Plough Monday dancing at Littleport

The MS. notebooks of Cecil Sharpe in Clare College Library, Cambridge contain a reference, under the date 8 September 1911, to Plough Monday dancing at Littleport.

Jonathan Clingo, aged 85, at Littleport, told me that 6 men called Morris dancers used to go round the village on Plough Monday and the the neighbouring villages. One man dressed in women’s clothes, led by a man with a long feather sticking straight out of his cap. Also a fiddler and a sweeper with a broom. The 6 men had white shirts with ribbons and scarves all over them and high box hats. In the evening they had a ball to which others came, and all danced very often too a fight to a finish between men representing different villages. The Morris dancers didn’t act a play but simply jigged about. No bells, no sticks, no handkerchiefs… No plough…

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