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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Cheshire Soulcakers

The quiet Cheshire villages of Antrobus and Comberbach have their own very special celebrations for All Hallows’ Eve - the Soul-cakers - a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

The Soul-cakers, or Soul Gangs, tour local pubs with their ancient Mummers' Play and its star performer, the supernatural Wild Horse.  Country folk in Cheshire and parts of Derbyshire once believed their ancestors’ souls could return to the family fireside at this time; they made special ‘soul-cakes’ as offerings to appease the family spirits.

The tradition differed from village to village.  Before WWI, around Malpas, Tarporley and Frodsham, children and adults marched from house to house, singing traditional ‘soul-caking’ songs in return for small, spicy ‘soul-cakes’ (similar to parkin cake).   

‘Soul a soul a soul cake

Please good missus, a soul cake...’                                                                                                                                   

In other villages, ‘Mummers’ plays were performed by the Soul-cakers, going from house to house.  Afterwards they passed the hat round for a collection - and some soul-cakes.

Over forty Cheshire villages are thought to have had versions of the play, but the Great War proved disastrous for the tradition; so many men never returned. Luckily Major Arnold Boyd, a Cheshire naturalist and author in the 1920s, was interested in the play.  Major Boyd wrote down the words, called a ‘nominy,’ which had been passed down through the generations, and helped the play survive. 

The Play has many unusual characters, for example, the Letter-in, Black Prince, King George, the Quack Doctor, and ‘Dick’ the Wild Horse and his Driver, resplendent in Cheshire Hunt livery. All the parts, played by men, are thought to represent the souls of the dead.

Wild Horse’s head is a horse’s skull, with its jaws wired so it can ‘snap’ its teeth alarmingly at the audience, and is worked by a man covered with a blanket.  His legs form the horse’s back legs, and a short pole supports the skull at the horse’s front end. 

Nowadays, the Soul-cakers play in local pubs, beginning on Hallowe’en, instead of house to house. The Antrobus Soul-cakers have raised hundreds of pounds for charity over the years. The plays have enjoyed a revival in other Cheshire towns and villages like Chester, Comberbach, Alderley, and Mobberley.  You can search for forthcoming events here on the Master Mummers Directory.

Image © Sue Wilkes: the Comberbach Mummers performing in 2000, with ‘Wild Horse’. 
'Riding a Mumming'. From J. Brand, Popular Antiquities, London, 1841. 

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