​Easter Customs


Celebrations at Easter can be traced much further back than the Christian era, in fact, the name Easter derives from Eostre, a goddess worshiped and sacrificed to by the Saxons and other northern tribes in the month of April.  Bede, the earliest English historian says that Easter comes from the Saxon name for April which was Eostremoanth.   The chocolate eggs we eat at this time were originally a symbol of fertility, rebirth, and the beginning.  Hindu scriptures say that the world came from an egg.  When Christianity came, rather than try and abolish these pagan beliefs they adapted many of them for their own use, and so, the Easter egg came to represent the Resurrection of Christ or even the rolling away of the stone on His tomb.  The first Christians however did not refer to this time as Easter; they knew it as “pascha” which has a link with the Jewish Passover.

Pace-egging then is an Easter custom, the name being derived from the word “pascha.”   Its origins can be traced back hundreds of years with celebrations taking place up and down the country.  By the late nineteenth century pace egging was being celebrated less and less, and in the early twentieth century only a few places seemed to celebrate the event.
At the commencement of “Easter week”, children would dress themselves in ribbons and outlandish clothing and, carrying baskets they would go from house crying “God’s sake a pace egg” begging for eggs or money.  In Blackburn the eggs would be stained red in memory of Christ’s blood, or tinged with the juice of herbs which gave them a colourful look, these colours symbolised joy.  Then they would be hard boiled, after which the eggs would be raced against each other down the hills of Lancashire; those not broken would be eaten or given away.  It was unwise to leave an unbroken egg shell for these could be used as boats by witches.
The earliest mention of pace egging I can find is given in Peter Whittle’s  book “Blackburn As It Is” in a paragraph titled “Customs of Blackburn in 1801” it says;  “In Blackburn pace egging commences on Monday in holy week and ends on Maundy Thursday.  Young men in groups, from 6 to 12 dressed in various fantastic garbs, wearing masks accompanied by horns, drums, fiddlers, etc., go from house to house singing, dancing, and capering.  They have a fool, a doctor, and old Megs, with his basket for eggs which are given, St. George and the Champion, with a dialogue appropriate for the occasion.  And they get money besides all this, which makes a great stir in the town during Easter week.  It has been the occasion of unpleasant circumstances, and affrays have taken place between parties who have been jealous of each other’s property.”
The book “Pictorial History of Lancashire” gives an account of pace-egging in Blackburn, about the year 1842, I have copied it in full below:
“The old custom of “pace egging” is still observed in Blackburn.  It is an observance limited to the week before Easter-day, and is said to be traceable to the theology and philosophy of the Egyptians, Persians, Gauls, Greeks and Romans; among all of whom an egg was an emblem of the universe, the production of the Supreme Divinity.  The Christians adopted the egg as an emblem of the resurrection, since it contains the elements of a future life.
The immediate occasion of the observance may have been in the resumption on the part of our forefathers of eggs as a food at Easter on the termination of Lent; hence the origin of the term pace or pasque (rather from Pasche) that is Easter egg. In a curious roll of expenses of the household of Edward I, communicated to the Society of Antiquaries, is the following item in the accounts for Easter Sunday: “For four hundred and a half of eggs, eighteen pence.”  The following prayer, of Pope Paul V, composed for the use of England, Ireland, and Scotland, illustrates the meaning of the custom: “Bless, O Lord, we beseech thee, this thy creation of eggs, that it may become a wholesome sustenance to Thy faithful servants, eating it in thankfulness to Thee on account of the resurrection of our Lord.”
In Blackburn at the present day, pace egging commences on the Monday and finishes on the Thursday before Easter-week.  Young men in groups varying in number from three to twenty, dressed in various fantastic garbs, and wearing masks—some of the groups accompanied by a player or two on the violin—go from house to house singing, dancing, and capering.  At most they are liberally treated with wine, punch, or ale, dealt out to them by the host or hostess.  The young men strive to disguise their walk and voice; and the person whom they visit use their efforts on the other hand to discover who they are; in which mutual endeavour many and ludicrous mistakes are made.  Here you will see Macbeth and a fox-hunter arm in arm; Richard the Third and a black footman in familiar converse: a quack doctor and a bishop smoking their pipes and quaffing their “half and half;” a gentleman and an oyster-seller; an admiral and an Irish umbrella-mender; in short, every variety of characters, some exceedingly well-dressed, and the characters well sustained.  A few years ago parties of this description were much subject to annoyance from a gang of fellows styled the “Carr-laners,” (so called because living in Carr-lane, Blackburn,) armed with bludgeons, who endeavoured to despoil the pace-eggers.  Numerous fights, with the usual concomitants of broken heads and various other contusions, were amongst the results.  This lawless gang of ruffians is now broken up, and the serious affrays between different gangs of pace-eggers have become of comparatively rare occurrence.  An accident, however, which ended fatally, occurred last year [1841].  Two parties had come into collision, and during the affray one of the young men had his skull fractured and death ensued.  Besides parties of the sort we have attempted to describe, children, both male and female, with little baskets in their hands, dressed in all the tinsel-coloured paper, ribbons, and “doll rags” which they can command go up and down from house to house; at some receiving pence, at others, eggs, at others gingerbread, some of which is called hot gingerbread, having in it a mixture of ginger and some of Cayenne, causing the most ridiculous contortions of feature in the unfortunate being who partakes of it.  Houses are literally besieged by these juvenile troops from morning till night.  “God’s sake a pace egg,” is the continual cry.  There is no particular tune, but various versions of pace egging and other songs are sung.  The eggs obtained by the juveniles are very frequently dyed in logwood and other dyes, on the Easter Sunday, and rolled in the fields one egg at another till broken.  Great quantities of mulled ale are drunk in this district on Easter Sunday.  The actors do not take the eggs with them; they are given at the places where they call.  The actors are mostly male; but in the course of one’s peregrinations on one of these evenings it is not unusual to discover one or two of the fair sex in male habiliments, supporting the character admirably.
This old custom of pace egging was again observed this year [1842] notwithstanding the fatal accident we have mentioned, without molestation from the authorities and without any accident.”
The “accident” that ended fatally, mentioned above, occurred on the 6th of April 1841.
James Shorrock was a member of a pace-egging party who had been drinking in the Lamb and Staff public house.  When they left, sometime between 9 and 10 o’clock they met with another party of pace-eggers, most of both parties were in some form of disguise, which usually consisted of women’s clothing.  Shorrock and a man called Baron were assaulted and knocked down with an iron bar, Shorrock being badly injured.  Both men were taken to the Black Greyhound pub, which at the time was run by Thomas Perris, who had once been in the police force.  A doctor was sent for and after examination Shorrock was found to have a serious injury to the side of his head, but it was not thought to be life threatening.  After treatment both men were taken home.  The next day Shorrock had gone to work, and carried on with his normal life until the 19th of April when he suddenly died.  The case now became one of murder and Thomas Gilby, (21), William Lawrenson (24), William Marsden, (24), John Entwistle, alias Taylor (24) and Ralph Heald, (21) were charged with that offence.  All five men appeared at Lancaster Assizes before Lord Chief Justice Denman.  When Richard Brownlow Barlow, the surgeon who had attended Shorrock was examined, he said that had Shorrock not gone straight back to work and rested he would probably have recovered.  there was also some doubt about who had struck the blow.  The Jury returned a verdict of guilty against Gilby, and Lawrenson was found guilty of aiding and abetting, the others were acquitted.  Gilby received 12 months in prison, Lawrenson 9 month’s hard labour; both would have to serve the first and last week in solitary confinement.  Gilby went on to become a habitual criminal and spent much of his time in prison for petty offences.
Pace egging in Blackburn always seemed to bring trouble with it.  In a letter to the Preston Chronicle in March 1855, a Blackburn man wrote;
“Sir, Allow me to draw your attention to a custom which has nowhere been more eagerly followed than in Blackburn—the custom of Pace Egging.  Like most of our old customs, this has departed from the original.  It is not a custom as of yore, surrounded by sacred recollections.  The effects of our “civilisation” have been to deprive the Easter gathering of its sacredness, and to reduce it to a low and debasing festival.  In Blackburn I am aware that this is the case, from personal observation, and it is high time that the practice should be put a stop to.  Only in Passion Week of last year I noticed several detentions in the public streets, and it was seldom that a respectable person—more especially a female—was allowed to pass along without molestation.  The rabble was of a most disorderly character and I am sorry to say that amongst them were men with families who ought to set a better example to their offspring.  I have no doubt that on these occasions many of our youths are led into immoral and intemperate habits.  The “pace eggers” visit not only public-houses, but in many cases houses of infamous character... I trust, in common with hundreds of well-wishers of the rising generation, to see the authorities make some effort to stop the abuse of this custom, if they do not think it necessary to abolish the public observance of it altogether.  Such practice cannot promote the public good; they tend only to break the public peace, whilst they help to demoralise the community.  This is said to be an age of improvement.  If so, it is high time to do away with proceedings that would reflect disgrace on a community of Hottentots;--I am, in haste, yours very respectfully. R. P.”
What “R. P.” Says is borne out by the reports given in the newspapers at Easter Time.  The Blackburn Standard 11th of April 1860 reports that; “On Thursday, [5th April] at the borough police-court, Mark Madden and Edward McCoy were charged with violent conduct on Wednesday night, in forcibly entering the house of Ann Beards, Victoria Vault.  The defendants were in company of about twenty lads and men, who went “pace egging” and about eleven o’clock demanded admission, and when they were refused broke the door and got in to the Victoria vault.  The damage to the door was 2s and to the coat 5s. The defendants were ordered to pay 20s and costs, and the amount of damage.”
A rather bigger disturbance occurred on Tuesday the 7th of April, when nine men and youths were brought before the magistrate.  They were among many who had been pace egging the previous night and been arrested for disorder. The newspaper reported they; “presented a ludicrous spectacle...in the dock dressed in the attire they had been caught perambulating the streets in”.   The first to appear was Denis Gudgeon, a clogger in Penny-street, who was half shaven and who wore a woman’s bonnet, with ringlets in his hair.  He had been with a crowd who had broken windows and done other damage, he was found not guilty. Next up were Henry Holmes and William Morris.  The newspaper reports that these two had; “Nothing outrageous in their Dress,” again these two had been with a large crowd and damage was done no charges were brought against them.  William Walsh who was 30 and with a face; “not by any means feminine” was dressed in a woman’s dress with a bonnet and a yellow veil.  James Shaw and Cornelious Read had been arrested by police Sergeant Eastwood who told the court that when he was taking Shaw to the lock up, Read had said “Thou soft devil, I would not be taken up by that bugger” when Read was being taken to the lock up he had threatened that he would have “the bloody place pulled down”.  Thomas Riley and Henry Turner, both dressed in women’s clothes were proved to have caused no trouble.  Finally Richard Parkinson again dressed up was found to have been disorderly in Darwen street.
Read and Parkinson were both fined 5s with cost.  “With respect to the other defendants, the bench wished to express their determination that this sort of mischief must be put an end to.  People must not be allowed to go up and down the streets in that fashion, and go into public-houses and beer-houses and demand liquor, and take it when it is refused or threaten the people.  But as no specific charges had been proved against the defendants, and they had been locked up all night, they would now be discharged.”
Even Parliamentary elections could be affected by the pace eggers, The Manchester times writing about the Blackburn election of 1853 say’s;
“...Great numbers of mummers are holding their carnival, too, every evening, going through the performances called “Pace Egging,” in other parts of the country peculiar to the Christmas holidays, but here as common, it appears, at Easter also.  It will be as well if the disguises for such occasions are not turned to purposes favourable to an election riot.  A party of this kind performing at one of the inns, on Tuesday evening, in the excitement arising from a liberal supply of intoxicating drinks, gave free expression to their designs.  One of the party said; “We’ll hold up both hands and legs at the nomination tomorrow.  We work at -----‘s foundry.  Never mind we’ll fight likes cocks tomorrow.”  Another exclaimed; “the Boys from Brookhouse is the boys to fight.  I come out of blood, and blood I’ll fight.”  The probabilities appeared, however, from the state of the drunkenness these wretched creatures were in, that they would not be sufficiently restored to appear on the scene next day at the early hour for which the nomination was fixed.”
It seems, then pace egging was a time of drinking and trouble causing, and that whatever pace egging had started out has it end up, in Blackburn at least, a long way from the festive occasion it was meant to be.
In some parts of Lancashire pace egging is still celebrated. Middleton is one place where the tradition is carried on.  They have a very good website which tells the history, gives the script for the pace egg play, and the songs sang, the web address is; www.pace-egg.org.uk.  At Avenham Park, Preston, on Easter Monday large crowds gather, and role decorated hard boiled, eggs down a hill.
To hear a version of the pace egging song go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOXp70PpfDg
Pictorial History of Lancashire, 1844
Blackburn As It Is; Peter Whittle, 1852
Lancashire Folk-Lore; John Harland and T. T. Wilkinson, 1882
Ghost, Traditions and Legends of Old Lancashire, Ken Howarth, 1993
Preston Chronicle 1855
The Manchester Times, various dates
The Blackburn Standard, various dates
STEPHEN SMITH; Cottontown Volunteer
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