We’ve been sorting out old papers that seem to accumulate and multiply – reading and re-reading old letters, cards, newspaper cuttings, poems and songs written out by hand long ago, and trying to throw out some of them. It almost makes me want to start scrapbooking! Included in one pile was a page from an old exercise book in my schoolgirl handwriting with the lyrics to an ancient song called ‘The Derby Tup’.
“Ha,” exclaimed my mother, and immediately started singing it. I should have recorded her for posterity, but the melody is probably well enough known. It’s originally part of an ancient Derbyshire custom that crept across the county border into south Yorkshire. Mom was immediately back in her childhood in Handsworth, Sheffield, in the nineteen-twenties, when the mummers would come round on Boxing Day, lugging their paraphernalia along and performing in people’s backyards in exchange for a drink or a few coppers. These mummers were mainly young lads, about 16 – 18, and the group varied in size but always included someone dressed up in a couple of sacks as the Tup, together with the Butcher, the Shepherd, the Devil and a few more characters, who would sing the old song and enact the story, culminating in the slaying of the Tup. Then a hat would be passed round, and the lads would threaten to sweep soot all over the doorsteps lovingly whitened by the housewives if no coppers were forthcoming.
They would introduce themselves with:
‘Here comes me an’ ahr owd lass,
Short o’ money an’ short o’ brass:
Pay for a pint and let us sup,
Then we’ll act the Derby ‘Tup’.
There are many different versions of the song, and I don’t know where this one came from; whether I found it in some reference book or whether it was pieced together by my mother and her older brother from memory at the time I noted it down fifty-odd years ago. It’s a prime example of hyperbole!
As I was going to Derby
Upon a market day,
I met the finest ram, sir,
That ever was fed on hay.
(Chorus repeated after every verse)
Faily, faily, ready for haily day!
This ram was fat behind , sir,
This ram was fat before,
This ram was three yards high, sir,
Indeed he was, or more!
The wool upon his back, sir,
Reached up to the sky,
The eagles built their nests there
For I heard the young ‘uns cry.
The wool upon his tail, sir,
Was three yards and an ell,
Of it they made a rope, sir,
To pull the parish bell.
The space between his horns, sir,
Was as far as a man could reach,
And there they built a pulpit
But no man in it preached.
This ram had four legs to walk on,
This ram had four legs to stand,
And every leg he had, sir,
Stood on an acre of land.
Now the man that fed the ram, sir,
He fed him twice a day,
And each time that he fed him
He ate a rick of hay.
The man that killed the ram, sir,
Was up to his knees in blood,
And the lad that held the pail, sir,
Was carried away by the flood.
Indeed, sir, it’s the truth, sir,
For I never was taught to lie,
And if you go to Derby
You may eat a piece of the pie.
And now our song is ended,
We have no more to say,
So please will you gi’e us a copper or two
To see us on our way.
What excitement to find that this custom is alive and flourishing; and my mother thoroughly enjoyed watching this clip of a performance on Boxing Day, 2011, in her hometown of Handsworth.
This site also has a clip of the Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers performing their unique dance; of special interest to us because another newspaper cutting in the above-mentioned pile published a report and photo showing my mother’s brother Jack in the Handsworth sword dancing group in the 1930’s.