The History Hunters files on Marshfield

The History of Marshfield

The Marshfield Mummers

Every Boxing Day at 11:00am increasing numbers of visitors come to the village to see the performance of the celebrated Marshfield Mummers or "The old time paper boys." ( It all starts in the Marketplace, and is always the most crowded. The best advice I can give is visit one of the pubs beforehand and you'll be able to see the last one when it's less crowded. )

Seven figures, led by the town crier with his handbell, dressed in costumes made from strips of newsprint and coloured paper, perform their play several times along the high street. Beginning in the Market place after the Christmas Hymn's which Are led by the vicar the mummers arrive to the sound of the lone bell. The five minute performances follow the same set and continue up to the Almshouses. The final performance is outside of one of the local public houses where the landlord delivers a tot of whisky for the "Boys".

In the past centuries the mummers were probably a band of villagers who toured the large houses to collect money for their own christmas festivities. During the latter half of the 19th Century the play lapsed, presumably for lack of interest. The play was not entirely forgotten however. Then, in 1931, the Reverend Alford, vicar of Marshfield, heard his gardener mumbling the words 'Room, room, a gallant room, I say' and discovered that this line was part of a mummers' play. The vicar's sister Violet Alford, a leading folklorist, encouraged the survivors of the troupe and some new members, including Tom Robinson (whose place was later taken by his brother), to revive the tradition. . It differs in several respects from other versions: St George has apparently become King William and Father Christmas is an extra character. The costumes, as well as the play's symbolism, are relics of an ancient and obscure original- perhaps the earliest performers were clad in leaves or skins, symbolizing the death and rebirth of nature.

When mumming began in Marshfield is unknown, but there appears to be documentary evidence of mummers' plays since the 11th century. This year Barney Ruddell told me his wife Helen was told 1141 as a rough start date. The Marshfield play was discontinued in the 1880s when a number of the players died of influenza.

The Paper Boys have performed nearly every Christmas since (there were no performances during World War II). The Paper Boys' play is basically a fertility ritual with traces of medieval drama and incorporates the story of St George and the Dragon. It was never written down, and over the centuries, it gradually changed through the addition of ad libs and misunderstandings.

The nonsensical corruptions of the text reveal its origins as a story told by illiterate peasant folk, unaware of all its allusions. There have to be seven characters as seven was thought to be a magic number. They include Old Father Christmas (the presenter of the play), King William who slays Little Man John who is resurrected by Dr Finnix (a rebirth theme). There's also Tenpenny Nit, Beelzebub who carries a club and a money pan, and Saucy Jack who talks about some of his children dying -- there are many references in mummers' plays about social hardship.

The Paper Boys have to belong to families that have lived in Marshfield for generations and they must have the Marshfield accent. When a role becomes available, precedence is given to the relatives of present members of the troupe. Because it is a fertility rite, women are not allowed to participate. Each costume comprises a garment made of brown cloth covered in sewn-on strips of newspaper -- hence the name 'Paper Boys'. Each mummer maintains his own costume, repairing it as necessary. It is thought that , in the distant past the costumes bore leaves instead of paper strips.

Marshfield is justly proud of it's special local tradition revived now for more than 40 years and looks forward each year to the social gathering each Boxing Day. The mummers have been featured on radio and television and at events of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. A few years ago they featured on the Rev. Lionel Fanthorpes "Fortean T.V." aired on Channel 4. In 2002 they featured in a program by Jonnie Kingdom.

Do remember if you wish to come and see them and if Boxing day falls on a Sunday they will perform on the Monday. Email me if your coming from a long way off and I'll confirm exact date. Carols are usually sung in the Market Place with the Marshfield Silver band at 10:30ish. The Mummers arrive from the church hall at about 10:58 to 11:00. They do the play five times. The first is in the Market place, second at the top of Sheepfair lane, The third at the top of St Martins's lane, the forth at the Almshouses, and the final play is performed outside one of the three pubs. In 2003 it was outside of the Lord Nelson.

I have been asked if there is a script available of all the words. At the moment this would appear to fly in the face of the plays historical changes and social commentary that gets introduced when handed down by word of mouth. If it was to get "written" down anywhere this could change. I will be exploring the idea though as I have had many requests. ( email me if you'd support the idea ).

The 1999 Mummers