Great Dunmow

 

The Dunmow Flitch –Past and Present

Much has been written about the Custom of the Dunmow Flitch, from the earliest references in ‘The Vision of Piers the Plowman’ by William Langland in about 1350 and in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer at about the same time. The custom of giving a side of bacon to a couple who could swear that they had not repented of their marriage for a year and a day must go back to before the 14th century, even to Saxon or Norman times. The earliest record of the award is in 1445 at Little Dunmow Priory but this is much later than the references above. Several awards were made at Little Dunmow up to the 18th century but the ceremony as we know it today in Great Dunmow originated in 1701 and was repeated in 1751 when several well-known engravings of the procession were published.

 

David Ogbournes engraving of the 1751 Flitch Trial ceremony

After a century, the ceremony was revived by Harrison Ainworth, the Victorian author who had written a novel entitled ‘The Flitch of Bacon or the Custom of Dunmow; A tale of English Home’ in 1854. He decided to award a flitch to a deserving married couple who were prepared to be ‘tried’ by a judge and jury, at a ceremony in the Town Hall on 19 July 1855. This occasion proved to be a great success and was repeated in 1857 on 25 June. Harrison Ainsworth himself was the judge at both these trials. Only one flitch was awarded but two couples were tried, so the unsuccessful couple were awarded a ‘silver ornament’ (a pair of inscribed sugar tongs shown in the photos below).

    

The inscription on the tongs reads ‘Presented at Dunmow- 25th June 1857 by W.H. Ainsworth Esq. as a reward for conjugal love’.

The ceremony was obviously a popular occasion as it was repeated many times in late Victorian and Edwardian times. The picture below shows a trial in the early part of the 20th century with the oath taking ceremony in the open air before a large crowd.

The judge, jury and counsels together with the claimants on stage in a field behind the Dunmow Workhouse.

A photograph taken by Stacey the local photographer (whose premises in the High Street still bear his name) shows the claimants and the jury of maidens and bachelors from the 1906 trial.

The claimants are (left) Mr and Mrs Lloyd-Willey of London and (right) Mr and Mrs Morgan of Bristol

The 1912 Flitch Trial included a pageant of Dunmow history going back to the middle-ages. A large number of local residents took part, dressed in the appropriate costumes, including a number on horseback. The pageant was re-enacted several times in the 1970s and 1980s.

The programme of the 1912 Flitch Celebrations.

After a break around the time of World War One, the trials continued throughout the 1930s until the outbreak of war in 1939. During the war years, there was one trial in 1942, mainly for the benefit of the American airmen at the local airfields (Andrewsfield, Little Easton, Stansted and others).

 

The programme of the only WW2 flitch Trial.

Trials continued after the war, including one as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations in 1951. In more recent times, the trials have been held every four years on a leap year. The early trials were held in the Town Hall, then in a marquee in the Causeway meadows (now called the Recreation Ground), on Parsonage Downs and recently in a marquee in Talberds Ley behind the F T Foakes Memorial Hall.

 

A selection of early Flitch Trial programmes. 

The flitch being carried in procession to Talberds Ley in the 2004 trials.

 

The claimants are tried in public by celebrity ‘barristers’ – one group as counsel for the defendants and the other for ’the bacon’. The counsels have included actors, MPs, radio presenters and the very popular Clare Rayner. Much embarrassing detail about the claimants’ marriage can usually be expected!

The counsels for the claimants and for the Bacon.

The jury consisting of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors, make the decision as to whether to award the flitch to the claimants based on the arguments presented by the learned counsel.

The jury of maidens and bachelors.

The successful claimants are carried in the ceremonial chair (now replaced with a modern replica) from the trial tent to the Market Place where the oath is taken in front of the judge, jury and assembled public. The sentence is then passed on the couple.

The successful coupleare carried to the oath-taking ceremony

The oath-taking ceremony outside the Starr Restaurant

Several couples are tried each year and the trials are spread out over a whole day – one in the morning and two in the evening. The winning couples are presented with a flitch of bacon, and the unsuccessful claimants are awarded a gammon.

The Flitch as awarded to the successful claimants.

The Oath
You doe swear by custom of confession
That you ne’re made Nuptiall Transgression,
Nor since you were married man and wife,
By household brawles or contentious strife
Or otherwise in bed or boarde,
Offended each other in Deed on in Word
Or in a twelve moneths and a day
Repented not in thought in any way
Or since the Church Clerke said Amen
Wish’t yourselves unmarried agen,
But continue true and in desire,
As when you joyn’d hands in Holy Quire.

The Sentence
Since to these conditions without any fear
Of your own accords you doe freely Swear,
A Whole Flitch of Bacon you doe receive,
And bear it away with love and good Leave.
For this is the Custome of Dunmow well known,
Tho’ the pleasure be Ours, the Bacon’s your own.