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At The Ceremony Of The Widow’s Sixpence

March 31, 2015
by the gentle author

To get everyone in the mood for the forthcoming Easter celebrations, I am publishing my account of the Ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence held each Good Friday when Hot Cross Buns are distributed to widows in the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield.

Distribution of buns to widows in the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great

St Bartholomew the Great is one of my favourite churches in the City, a rare survivor of the Great Fire, it boasts the best Norman interior in London. Composed of ancient rough-hewn stonework, riven with deep shadow where feint daylight barely illuminates the accumulated dust of ages, this is one of those rare atmospheric places where you can still get a sense of the medieval world glimmering. Founded by Rahere in 1123, the current structure is the last vestige of an Augustinian Priory upon the edge of Smithfield, where once  martyrs were burnt at the stake as public entertainment and the notorious St Bartholomew Fair was celebrated each summer from 1133 until 1855.

In such a location, the Good Friday tradition of the distribution of charity in the churchyard to poor widows of the parish sits naturally. Once known as the ‘Widow’s Sixpence,’ this custom was institutionalised by Joshua Butterworth in 1887, who created a trust in his name with an investment of twenty-one pounds and ten shillings. The declaration of the trust states its purpose thus – “On Good Friday in each year to distribute in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew the Great the sum of 6d. to twenty-one poor widows, and to expend the remainder of such dividends in buns to be given to children attending such distribution, and he desired that the Charity intended to be thereby created should be called ‘the Butterworth Charity.’”

Those of use who gathered at St Bartholomew the Great on Good Friday morning were blessed with sunlight to ameliorate the chill as we shivered in the churchyard. Yet we could not resist a twinge of envy for the clerics in their heavy cassocks and warm velvet capes as they processed from the church in a formal column, with priests at the head attended by vergers bearing wicker baskets of freshly buttered Hot Cross Buns, and a full choir bringing up the rear.

In the nineteen twenties, the sum distributed to each recipient was increased to two shillings and sixpence, and later to four shillings. Resplendent in his scarlet robes, Rev Martin Dudley, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great climbed upon the table tomb at the centre of the churchyard traditionally used for that purpose and enacted the motions of this arcane ceremony – enquiring of the assembly if there were a poor widow of the parish in need of twenty shillings. To his surprise, a senior female raised her hand. “That’s never happened before!” he declared to the easy amusement of the crowd, “But then, it’s never been so cold at Easter before.” Having instructed the woman to consult with the churchwarden afterwards, he explained that it was usual to preach a sermon upon this hallowed occasion, before qualifying himself by revealing that it would be brief, owing to the adverse meteorological conditions. “God’s blessing upon the frosts and cold!” he announced with a stoic grin, raising his hands into the sunlight, “That’s it.”

I detected a certain haste to get to the heart of the proceedings – the distribution of the Hot Cross Buns. Rev Dudley directed the vergers to start with choir who exercised admirable self-control in only taking one each. Then, as soon as the choir had been fed, the vergers set out around the boundaries of the yard where senior females with healthy appetites, induced by waiting in the cold, reached forward eagerly to take their allotted Hot Cross Buns in hand. The tense anticipation induced by the freezing temperature gave way to good humour as everyone delighted in the strangeness of the ritual which rendered ordinary buns exotic. Reaching the end of the line at the furthest extent of the churchyard, the priests wasted no time in satisfying their own appetites and, for a few minutes, silence prevailed as the entire assembly munched their buns.

Then Rev Martin returned to his central position upon the table tomb. “And now, because there is no such thing as free buns,” he announced, “we’re going to sing a hymn.” Yet we were more than happy to oblige, standing replete with buns on Good Friday morning, and enjoying the first sunlight we had seen in a week.

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, a century ago.

John Betjeman once lived in this house overlooking the churchyard.

The ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence in the nineteen twenties.

“God’s blessing upon the frosts and cold!”

A crowd gathers for the ceremony a hundred years ago.

Hungry widows line up for buns.

The churchyard in the nineteenth century.

Rev Martin Dudley BD MSc MTh PhD FSA FRHistS AKC is the 25th Rector since the Reformation.

Testing the buns.

The clerics ensure no buns go to waste.

Hymns in the cold – “There is a green hill far away without a city wall…”

The Norman interior of St Bartholomew the Great at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Gatehouse prior to bombing in World War I and reconstruction.

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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The Widow’s Buns at Bow

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. March 31, 2015

    Great to know more about this lovely church.
    We’ve pottered around in the churchyard before.
    And what a great ceremony.
    And good for the lady who spoke up for 20 shillings. Not that 20 shillings takes you very far!

  2. March 31, 2015

    Loved the juxtaposition of the vintage and modern photos. Good to see that these traditions are being kept up. Great that one old lady said ‘Yes’ when he asked the needy question! Valerie

  3. March 31, 2015

    Enjoyed this very much, especially hearing about John Betjeman.

    And seeing ‘proper’ hot cross buns, unavailable here in the States!

  4. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    April 1, 2015

    Rev. Dudley has a lot of alphabet soup after his name – what does it all mean?

  5. April 1, 2015

    A very touching ceremony amidst the big city’s turbulences …

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  6. April 4, 2015

    Since I could not be there this Good Friday I baked my own hot cross buns. It’s a lovely custom.

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