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Simnel Sunday

( Originally Published 1884 )

This term is used in Bury, Lancashire, to denote the 'fourth Sunday in Lent " Mid-Lent called in other parts of the country and West Riding of Yorkshire, " Mothering Fig-Pie," " Mulled Ale," and "Braggart Sunday." From time beyond memory, thousands of per-sons come from all parts to that town to eat "Simnels." Formerly, nearly every shop was open, with all the public-houses, quite in defiance of the law respecting the closing during "service;" but of late years, through the improved state of public opinion, the disorderly scenes to which the custom gave rise have been partially amended. Efforts have been repeatedly made to put a stop to the practice altogether, but in vain. The clergy, headed by the rector and the ministers of all denominations (save the Romanists), have drawn up protests and printed appeals against this desecration; but, as just stated, with scarcely any visible effect. Possibly, too, the unfavourable weather for several successive seasons, and the great facility now afforded of obtaining "Real Bury Simnels," which are to be found on sale in every town in the Palatinate and connected districts, have been the means whereby this observance has been weakened. On a fine " Sunday," it is a mild expression to say that one could easily walk upon the heads of the crowds for several streets.

The bread called " Simnel bread," is mentioned by Jehoshaphat Aspin in his "Pictures of Manners, etc., in England" (now a very scarce work [see note 8]), page 126, quoting a statute of 51st of Hen. iii. :" A farthing symnel (a sort of small cake, twice baked, and also called a cracknel) should weigh two ounces less than the wastel (a kind of cake made with honey, or with meal and oil)."

Simnel bread is described in " The Book of Days," and in " Notes and Queries." [See note 9.]

Alderman Wilkinson, of Burnley, a well known able Lancashire antiquary, some time since stated that it "originally meant the very finest bread." "Pain demain " is another term for it, on account of its having been used as "Sunday bread" (if a conjecture may be hazarded, it is possible there may be some connection with the shewbread and heathen votive offerings, as in India and China) at the Sacrament. The name appears in mediaeval Latin as Simanellus, and may thus have been derived from the Latin simila fine flour. In Wright's "Vocabularies" [see note 10] it appears thus: "Hic artaecopus = symnelle," This form was in use during the 15th century. In the " Dictionarius " of John de Garlande, compiled at Paris in the 13th century [see note 11], it appears thus : "Simeneus = placentae = simnels. Such cakes were stamped with the figure of Christ, or of the Virgin."

It is not a little singular that this custom of making these cakes, and also the practice of assembling in one place to eat them, should be confined to Bury. Such is the fact. No other town or district in the United Kingdom is known to keep up such a custom. As stated above, much labour has been expended to trace its origin, but without success. Some years ago a sort of Eclectic Society in that town, who used to hold meetings on Sunday evenings, gave notice that they would discuss this question on the coming Mid-Lent Sunday evening. They met in an old room just out of one of the principal streets, and the chair was taken by a master-hatter, who afterwards became a Baptist preacher. Much laughter was caused by his explanation respecting the origin of the term " simnel," which, he said, he had heard arose from this circumstance : "In an old part of the town called 'the Island' (a plot of land nearly isolated from the Irwell), there formerly resided an old couple who kept a small ` toffy-shop,' which was famous amongst the schoolboys, etc., for a peculiar, and to them, excellent kind of sweet cake. The names of this old couple were Simeon and Ellen; but, according to common Lancashire parlance, they were usually addressed as `Sim' and `Nell,' and thus the cake came to be called ` Sim and Nell's cake,' easily corrupted to ` simnel cake' !" This, however, did not explain the practice of eating the cake during Mid-Lent only. It may be added that the Monday following is often accounted a holiday, and that the word "simnel" is vulgarly pronounced " simblin."

Upon the marriage of the Prince of Wales, the ladies of Bury made a very large and excellent simnel cake, which they presented to their Royal Highnesses ; it was exhibited amongst the rest of the "People's Gifts," and their Royal Highnesses graciously acknowledged it. The late M.P. for the borough, the Right Hon. F. Peel, always received annually a very nice simnel cake, made by sympathising hands. The confectioners of Bury vie with each other as to the size and richness of these cakes ; but they must yield the palm in the former particular, at least, to one just made at Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, as shown by the following extract from the " Bolton Chronicle " of March i0, 1866:

" A Monster Simnel. The display of simnel cakes in the various confectionery establishments in the town this week has scarcely, perhaps as regards size and beauty of design, ever been equalled on any previous occasion. A monster simnel, exhibited in the shop window of Mr. Henderson (late Mrs. Chatterton's), in the Market Square, has attracted great attention. It is 5 ft. 10 in. in length, 2 ft. io in. wide, 15 ft. in circumference, 6 in. in thickness, and weighs nearly 450 lb. On its surface is a representation of ` David slaying Goliath.' The shop window of Mr. Hamer (late Miss Bell's), in Bradshawgate, also contains an elegantly designed simnel, weighing about 250 lb., which was made in four pieces. Yesterday afternoon John Hick, Esq., and his lady, while at Mr. Hamer's shop, purchased a number of simnels, which, with considerate generosity, they distributed from their carriage, to about a dozen juveniles, who were congregated about the shop, admiring the large simnel in the window. Mr. Rigby, of Market Street, and Messrs. Burgess & Co., Deansgate, also exhibit an attractive variety."

I was rather surprised at the statement of your correspondent Mr. W. M. Brookes, in your last, that the eating of simnel cakes is con-fined to Bury, in Lancashire, and that "no other town or district in the United Kingdom is known to keep up such a custom." It shows the value of such a medium of communication as that offered by the " correspondence of Sylvanus Urban." I imagined, on the contrary, that this custom was peculiar to the counties on the Welsh border; at all events, these simnel cakes are well known in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and the good old town of Shrewsbury is especially celebrated for them. If he will look to a book so ready for reference as Chambers's " Book of Days," vol. i., p. 336, your correspondent will find an article on the Shropshire simnel cakes, in which he will find some additional information.

Mr. T. Wright's kindly wish to direct me aright (in your last Number, p. 692), has led him into error too, as he understands me to mean that simnels are not made elsewhere than in the town of Bury. This was not my meaning. I wished to state distinctly that the practice of assembling in one town, upon one day the middle Sunday in Lent to eat these cakes, is a practice confined to Bury. This I assert to be correct. I may add that the "Shrewsbury cakes" are really "Ellesmere simnels." I am quite aware of "Eccles Feast" and the "Wake Sundays" and other "Sunday festivities," etc., but these are not " simnel observances," nor are they during Lent.

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