The Otterbourne Mummers, Christmas 1982
The Otterbourne Mummers performing the traditional Mummers Play in Otterbourne, Hampshire – Christmas 2002

THE OTTERBOURNE CHRISTMAS MUMMERS - A FAMILY TRADITION

Mummers plays were once a common sight in villages and towns across Southern England at Christmastime. Hampshire was a county particularly rich in these Mummers plays (see the Roud/Marsh Collection pages).

Sadly many of these plays ceased around the time of the Great War when whole swathes of young men, who'd grown up in the same village and taken part in its customs, were lost in battle.

My family, on my mother's side, the Goodchilds, took part in the local Mummers play from Otterbourne, Hampshire up until 1904/5.

At that time the Otterbourne Mummers were: Jim Warne (Convener); James Goodchild (King George); Arthur Broadway (Turkish Knight); Frank Edes (Doctor); Walter 'Shep' Hands (Old Father Christmas) and Tom Goodchild, younger brother of James aged eight (Little Johnny Jack).

The men were all neighbours, living in a row of cottages at Otterbourne. They used to meet to practice the play, a few weeks before the Christmas season, in the Reading Room, just opposite the White Horse public house. Here they would have a couple of runs through of the play just in case any didn't remember their parts, although most had taken their part for many years and knew it all by heart. Then a few days before Christmas they would all don their costumes made from wallpaper streamers sewn onto their ordinary clothes, with tall hats also covered with streamers so that nobody could see who they were.

The Turkish Knight and King George each carried a wooden sword, to do battle with, the Doctor had his 'little bottle' and Johnny Jack had his 'wife and family' (dolls sewn onto his back) and the collecting box hung around his neck. They visited all the pubs and 'big houses' in the area, where they performed their play. Afterwards they sang a carol or two and took up a collection. They walked all around the Otterbourne area, from Shawford to Brambridge, and from Silkstead to Chandler's Ford, performing their play at every opportunity along the way.

Although not always popular with their own wives due to the long absences from family and home over Christmas day and Boxing Day, the Mummers were much looked forward to by the rest of the community, both as a means of entertainment and because a visit from the Mummers ensured good luck for the following year. The collection, which was swelled by having a young boy in the gang, sometimes amounted to as much as ten week's wages. Very welcome when work was difficult to find in the Winter months. It was also a large factor in the continuation of the play.

My interest in the play was fuelled by stories told to me by my mother of her childhood Christmasses when the family home played host to a large gathering of Aunts, Uncles and cousins. Her Uncles James and Tom took part in the play. Indeed a highlight of the Boxing Day celebrations in later years was when Uncle Tom would go through all the parts of the play on his own, much to the amusement of the younger children.

She suggested that I go and talk to my Great Uncle Tom, which I did in 1973, to see if he recalled anything of those long ago days in the mummers. I found to my delight that he could still remember the play – after a gap of some fifty years - and lots of relevant information. He was especially pleased that I might get the play going again some seventy years on.

In 1975 I gathered a few friends, made our costumes, learnt our lines and under the watchful eye of Great Uncle Tom, started up the play again. We have kept it going ever since. Myself (Convener/Old Father Christmas) and Albert Wilkins (King George) have never missed a performance since 1975, with the others, Steve Jordan (Doctor), Ian Small (Turkish Knight) and Allan Pickett (Little Johnny Jack) have all played their parts for many years.

We used to perform in the village pubs, social club, village hall and at the big houses, Cranbury Park, Brambridge House, The Grange, etc. following in the footsteps of the earlier gang. But with the changing times, pubs becoming restaurants and many of 'big houses' becoming care homes or apartments, we now only do one appearance per year.

The Otterbourne Mummers, Christmas 2008
The Otterbourne Mummers – Christmas 2008
From the many excellent photos taken by FitzHughFella on the web at flickr.com

As the photo above shows we perform at 3pm on the Sunday before Christmas in Park Lane, outside the cottage of the late Mr and Mrs Alice and Ted Warne, (the daughter of 'Shep' Hands and nephew of Jim Warne, of the original mummers). We usually draw a substantial crowd from the lane and beyond. After we've performed the play we are always invited into the cottage for a glass of sherry and a home-made mince pie. Michael and Sylvia Warne, son and daughter-in-law now live in the cottage and carry on the family tradition. They tell me they plan their Christmas with the Mummers in mind, and always continue the hospitality after the Mummers play is performed.

It is a great honour to be invited into their home, to share a mince pie and a glass of mulled wine, amongst family and friends from the lane. In recognition of this we always lead the singing of the old carol, The Holly and the Ivy, which really 'makes the rafters ring' on the low ceiling.

In ever-changing times long may these traditions continue!

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