Mummers: a tradition brought back from the dead after First World War tragedy

November 27 2019
Mummers: a tradition brought back from the dead after First World War tragedy

IT is a tradition whose origins are shrouded in mystery – possibly medieval or even pagan. But the annual Mummers play in Winterbourne Down almost died out forever after the First World War.

Thanks to a group of villagers and an old lady who remembered the words, the play was revived in 1979 – and celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

The traditional folk play, performed in the street on Boxing Day, had not been performed since 1913 after one of the players, Tom Biggs, was killed in the First World War. But 40 years ago it was rediscovered when some village elders were talking about the 'olden days’.

Organiser Terry Martin said: “One lady, Mrs Penton, told of a play that was performed on Boxing Day around the village. Her father, who had followed the play since he was a boy, had learned the words and he would recite it to her every Christmas. She recounted it to me, which I recorded, and I persuaded my pals in the village to perform it.”

The play is based on the theme of death and the resurrection. Over time the theme has stayed the same, but because it was an oral tradition, each village developed its own version. In Winterbourne the villain of the story is a Turkish knight, but near the south coast the villain is Napoleon. There is always a popular hero, which in Winterbourne is St George. They fight until the villain is killed, below. Then a doctor, who shows off about his ability to raise the dead, gives the villain a potion and brings him back to life. In the Winterbourne version there is a Father Christmas and a Little Fellow who support the knight.


It is thought that the story could have originated from pagan rituals which represent the dying of winter and the birth of spring.

Recently some plays around the country have been subject to complaints over the performers' practice of blacking their faces for the play.

But Terry says this tradition is based on a need to disguise the performers and has no racial connotations.

Terry, who has played the Doctor for 40 years, said: “Mrs Penton told us that the characters disguised themselves, as it was considered bad luck to identify the players, and blacking faces was an effective way. They used soot and coal dust then but now we use theatrical blacking as it comes off nicely when someone gets ‘Mummed’ (kissed) on the cheek! Some of us also have tatters hanging down and false beards.”

The play was traditionally performed in cottages, where the characters would enter unannounced. It was considered unlucky not to reward them with money, which would have been spent in the pub.

Nowadays the performers collect donations, which this year go to Coalpit Heath charity Paul’s Place.

The Winterbourn Down Christmas Boys and Winterbourn Down Border Morris will perform the play at four locations on December 26. It will start at the junction of Stone Lane and the top of the Dingle at 10.30am, moving to All Saints Church Hall at 11am, then on to the junction of Colston Close and Station Road at 11.45am, and finally to the Cross Hands at 12.15pm.