Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Widow's Bun

An unusual custom celebrated on Good Friday in London's East End will be taking place next week - try to get along if you are interested in such things. At the moment I cannot access the photos I took on my visit in 2007 but I'll try to put one up later. Below unedited original text from The Folklore of London:

A Bun at The Widow’s Son

Despite its singularly unattractive location on a busy road, surrounded by monochrome tower blocks and appallingly designed ‘industrial units’, The Widow’s Son at 75 Devon’s Road, Bromley-by-Bow, E3 proved to be a traditionally boisterous East End boozer. Fairly recent photographs show the exterior bearing the words “The Widow’s Son On the Site known as The Bun House”, but these must have been erased in subsequent repainting. Outside, in the car park, a party of immaculately uniformed sailors from HMS President, the Royal Naval Reserve, together with their Commanding Officer, stood talking and drinking, having their photos taken and looking decidedly incongruous compared with the casually attired locals, although one or two were dressed as pirates. Inside, a disco blared from one corner and a buffet was laid out for later; the large room was very busy and the atmosphere expectant. Just in front of the bar a couple of nets hung above head height containing, I suppose, around thirty or forty hot cross buns, some with a distinctly unappetising black and mouldy appearance.

At 2.30pm precisely, everyone gathered inside to witness a bun being ceremonially borne into the bar by one of the sailors. He briefly held it aloft for the crowd’s inspection and for photographs. I was surprised at its size, more like a small cake than a bun, perhaps because it was easier to photograph or possibly as a comment on contemporary supersizing. (Old photographs of the custom sometimes show a larger-than-average bun). Each quarter of the hot-cross bun held one of the numerals of the year – it had obviously been baked specially for the occasion. After a couple of minutes an attractive Wren was hoisted up by her fellow matelots before popping the bun into the net, to the accompaniment of numerous camera flashes, mine included. This annual Good Friday ceremony had been performed once more and the merriment could continue, but the traditional origin of this custom is much sadder than the contemporary celebration might suggest.

The Widow’s Son Bun Ceremony is said to have originated in the early nineteenth century, when the site of the pub was occupied by a humble cottage. Here lived a poor widow, together with her only son. The boy went off to sea, possibly during the Napoleonic Wars, promising to return at Easter. On Good Friday, expecting his imminent arrival, the mother baked a hot cross bun. Sadly, her son failed to return but, having never received official notification of his demise, she continued to live in hope, baking and keeping a bun for him on every Good Friday until her own death. By that time the house had become famous for its melancholy collection. When a pub was built on the site of the mother’s cottage in the 1840s it was decided to name it The Widow’s Son and to continue the quaint custom. Subsequently, every year, on Good Friday, a sailor or Wren from the Royal Navy has been invited to place another bun in the net above the bar, for which he or she receives a pint of beer or similar drink in payment.

Historian Ronald Hutton writes that, “During the nineteenth century folklorists discovered the superstition that bread, buns, or biscuits baked upon this day [Good Friday] had especially beneficial powers. They were generally believed to never go mouldy and to be capable of curing diseases, especially intestinal disorders, if eaten. If hung in a house, they were thought to protect it against misfortune. Not merely the day of manufacture was important, however, for like a pre-Reformation host they had to be marked with the sign of the cross.” Hutton believes that this custom recalled the veneration of the consecrated bread of the mass, particularly on Good Friday when the host was used in the rite of the sepulchre.

William Hone also noted in The Every-Day Book that, “In the houses of some ignorant people, a Good Friday bun is still kept ‘for luck’, and sometimes there hangs from the ceiling a hard biscuit-like cake of open-cross work…to remain there till displaced on the next Good Friday by one of similar make…[I have] heard it affirmed that it preserves the house from fire.” Pieces of bun, mixed with water, were used as a remedy for diarrhoea and whooping cough. It was also generally considered to bring good luck and in some coastal areas was believed to protect all members of the household from shipwreck. This could account for the link with sailors and the sea at The Widow’s Son.

Slight variations in the tale have been recorded: that the son asked his mother to bake him a bun to enjoy on his return; that the widow’s cottage was already a pub and that she was the publican; that neighbours hung up the accumulated buns in the house after her death; or that subsequent residents in her dwelling, by then famous as the “Bun House” or “Bun Cottage”, faithfully kept up the custom until a pub was built on the site. It has also been claimed that after the widow’s death her collection of buns was bought at auction by a local publican as a gimmick and added to every year thereafter.

Writing in 1943 the folklorist Christina Hole recorded that, 'The collection now totals one hundred and seventy-three buns which during air-raids are taken to a place of safety along with the other valuables of the house.' Many books state that the continuation of the custom is a condition of the pub's lease, although the present landlady is unaware of any such stipulation. She also confirmed that there are no older buns stored in the cellars and that those hanging in a bunch above the bar are the only surviving examples, following a fire in recent years.

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