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A photograph of the Plough Jags of Burton upon Stather, North Lincolnshire, England was sent to by Paul Laverack with the following query.

Plough Jags fromBurton upon Stather, Lincolnshire, England

There exists a photograph of the Burton plough Jaggs but nothing else, I was wondering if it would be possible to identify the cast and from that derive some idea as to the type of play performed. I would be very grateful for any help you could offer. I am particularly interested in the village during the nineteenth century and the plough play seems to have been an important event in the year.

Paul Laverack, Burton upon Stather


Initial Answers

In his paper on "Plough Plays in the East Midlands" Maurice Barley (1953) refers to Burton-on-Stather twice:

"In north-west Lincs., the first gang to reach Normanby Hall, the home of Sir Robert Sheffield, received ten shillings; this attracted men from West Halton, Flixborough and Burton-on-Stather." - page 75

"The double team at Burton on Stather consisted of ‘four Hat Men, two Besom Betty’s, two Niggers, two Hobby Horses, one Doctor, one Soldier and one Lady’, according to Mrs. Cawkwell of Burton; how the could divide and perform the play is not clear." - page 77

Although there are 13 characters in both Mrs. Cawkwell’s description and in the photograph, to my mind the two do not quite tally. My assessment is that:

  • The two figures at either end are the Hobby Horses. These have typical Lincolnshire construction, with bodies based on an old sieve or riddle - heads sticking out in front - and the actors covered with horse jackets. Unusually, the nose-pieces of the horse jackets appear to have been tied into knots. With the large ear pieces, they look to me more like giant rabbits than horses.
  • The two identically dressed men standing in the centre must be two of the Hat Men, whose main role elsewhere in north Lincolnshire seems to have been decorative.
  • The Doctor is the man with the top hat on the right at the front. I note that his face has been coloured - probably blackened, but possibly raddled.
  • The boy clad in white and with a dark face next to the Doctor is evidently one of the 'Niggers' - characters based on the 'Nigger Minstrels' of the 19th century.
  • The Soldier could be any of the men in military uniform, but is probably the one without an instrument. (The drummer is possibly also in uniform, although it is difficult to see properly.)
  • The Lady is the probably the 'female' character standing near the left.

I think the two extra Hat Men are the ones with streamer-decorated smocks - one kneeling on the left, and the other standing next to the other Hat Men. The other man standing with a tall hat, black face and patterned shirt could be a Besom Betty or a 'Nigger'. However, other people might interpret these three differently.

This leaves the two men in uniform with instruments who ought to be either Besom Betty’s and/or a 'Nigger', but who are clearly neither.

Apart from mentioning Mrs. Cawkwell, Maurice Barley does not give the source of his information - certainly no published source - and he does not appear to have had either a script for the play or a photograph. Also, as far as I can tell, there is nothing relating to Burton in Barley’s play collection, which is now held in the Manuscripts Department at the University of Nottingham. Consequently, it has not been picked up by any of the usual bibliographies and databases that have indexed Barley’s work, although it is listed in Cawte's Ritual Animal Disguise (1978), and his list of Amendments to English Ritual Drama - Part2 (1982).

The reference to the Burton upon Stather play in Chistopher Cawte's 1982 Amendments says that there is a text fragment in a manuscript written by Sue Fenoughty (1971). Fenoughty also refers to plays from Kirmington and Winterton, and evidently gives the full text of a play from West Halton. All these places are in north Lincolnshire. Unfortunately, the provenance and current location of this manuscript is not given.

Cawte's Ritual Animal Disguise (1978, p.238) cites another reference for the village play, but gives no further detail. This is the Burton upon Stather chapter of the book This was my Villagepublished by the Lindsey Federation of Women's Institutes (M.Wood, 1946).

Peter Millington

Enquiries with the North Lincolnshire Museum yielded the following information.

The photo of plough jags from Burton-upon-Stather has appeared in three publications. The first is North Lincolnshire. A pictorial history by Kevin Leahy and David Williams published by North Lincolnshire Council in 1996 on page 61 with the following caption, and is probably where the scanned image came from;

"Burton-upon-Stather Plough Jags, 1907. Plough plays, representing death and resurrection, have their roots in the village culture of the Middle Ages. This simple ceremony was an allegory of the burial and growth of seed. The plays were preceded by a procession which included the terrifying hobby-horse, and Besom Betty. They were performed on Plough Monday which was the first Monday in January. Newspaper reports of the 1870s and 1880s record the decline of the plays, although some, as at Burton-on-Stather, lingered on into the twentieth-century."

The second was in 1996 in The Parish of Burton upon Stather with Normanby and Thealby by Geoffrey Robinson M.B.E., on page 60 with the following caption;

"The annual Festival of the Plough Jacks (corrupted to Jags) took place on or about Monday, January 9th. Its origin was embodied in the idea of invoking a blessing on the ploughman and his plough. In the 1850/60's the Sheffield family took a prominent part in encouraging the entertainment when a plough was drawn through a large fire kindled in the courtyard of Normanby Park. Jarvis writes that 'many a barrel of beer was given by the squire on these occasions, but like many a good thing, got out of hand'. A fatal accident occurred in connection with the event and the glamour of the Plough Festival ceased."

He has since given his large collection of photographs to the Museum. The third was Twentieth Century Lincolnshire in the History of Lincolnshire Series edited by Dennis Mills on page 354 in 1989 with this caption;

"The Burton-upon-Stather (or Burton Stather) Plough Jags, 1907. They are said to have been 'a double gang, who often split up to work a village quickly, gathering together at the best and likeliest houses'. According to Mrs.E.H.Rudkin, they were 'Four Hat Men, two Besom Betties, two Niggers, two Hobby Horses, one Doctor, one Soldier, one Lady'. Source: D.N. Robinson Collection."

We have an original copy of the photograph at the Museum and it is on our Image Archive, number s492

D.J.Taylor, Local History Assistant
North Lincolnshire Museum

The cast list provided by Ethel Rudkin tallies with that of Mrs.Cawkwell. The North Lincs Museum has a similar-looking photograph taken in Scunthorpe by Arthur Harry Singleton, taken sometime in the period 1904-1913. (North Lincolnshire Museums Service, 2002). We hope to publish this in a future issue of Traditional Drama Forum for comparison - PTM

We would be grateful for any further information that anyone can add. Please sent replies to Peter Millington (p.millington [at], who will forward them to Paul Laverack.



M.W.Barley Collection
   Manuscripts & Special Collections, Hallward Library, University of Nottingham, 
   University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, England, Ref. BaP

M.W.Barley (1953) "Plough Plays in the East Midlands"
   Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, 1953, Vol.7, p.68-95

E.C.Cawte et al (1967) "English Ritual Drama: A Geographical Index"
   London, Folk-Lore Society, 1967

E.C.Cawte (1978) "Ritual Animal Disguise: A Historical and Geographical Studyof Animal Disguise in the British Isles"
   London, Folklore Society, 1978, ISBN 0-85991-028-8, pp.132-139 & 238

E.C.Cawte (1982) "Amendments to English Ritual Drama - Part 2"
   Roomer, 1982, Vol.2, No.2, p.9-16

Sue Fenoughty (1971) "From Italy, Titaly, France and Spain"
   [Manuscript], 1971, pp.76,78,80,82-87

Kevin Leahy & David Williams (1996) "North Lincolnshire. A pictorial history"
   North Lincolnshire Council, 1996, p.61

Dennis R.Mills (1989( "Twentieth Century Lincolnshire"
   History of Lincolnshire Series: Vol.12
   Lincoln, History of Lincolnshire Committee for the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology. 1989, ISBN 0-90266815-3, p.354

North Lincolnshire Museums Service, "Image Archive"
   Oswald Road, Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, DN15 7BD, England, Ref.s492

North Lincolnshire Museums Service (2002) "Photographs by A.H. Singleton. 1879-1927"
   Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire Council, 2002, ISBN 0-9539636-2-4

Geoffrey Robinson (1996) "The Parish of Burton upon Stather with Normanby and Thealby"
   [Publisher not known], 1996, p.60

M.Wood (1946) "This was my Village"
   Louth, Lindsey Federation of Women's Institutes, 1946, no page numbers