Saturday, 3 January 2015

Wantage Tar Barrels

There are quite a few places in England which have traditions of parading lit tar barrels around the town/village, as part of the celebrations of New Year (e.g. Allendale) or Guy Fawkes Night (Ottery St Mary; Hatherleigh). In the past this practice seems to have been quite wide spread, but has largely disappeared. It turns out that Wantage also had this tradition in the 19th century.  According to Kathleen Philip’s splendid little book Victorian Wantage in the weeks before Guy Fawkes night, the local youth acquired big barrels from the old gasworks, rammed them full of anything that would burn and then on the night itself, lit them and rolled them around town – one group started in Newbury Street, another in Mill Street and they all met in the Square. She refers to the barrels and effigies being hurled around the statue of Alfred – this was erected in 1877, which give some chronological peg to hook this on to. Philip says that she found no written record of this tradition, but heard about solely via local informants – presumably in the 1960s. The 1822 Wantage Improvement Act explicitly forbade making  ‘any bonfire or burn any effigy or throw or let off any cracket, squib, rocket, fireball or any other firework’, which suggests that similar practices were known far earlier in the 19th century.

It’s worth having a look at the section on Ottery St Mary in Steve Roud’s excellent book The English Year for more on the background of this wider tradition.

NB: the image is not of Wantage - it's from the Ottery St Mary celebrations

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