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The Ceremony Of The Widow’s Sixpence

April 13, 2017
by the gentle author

Free hot cross buns will be distributed at St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield tomorrow at 11:30am

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 the Good Friday I visited 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 this year, owing to the adverse meteorological conditions. “God’s blessing upon the frosts and cold!” he announced with a 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 the 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 chill  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.

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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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    April 13, 2017

    Ah, St Bart’s. When I lived in London my feet, camera and tripod seemed always to want to go there. As you say, GA, it’s a place where you can imagine sitting with Rahere close by still. Re: your photos, I imagine there was some cursing when that long-gone photographer developed his film and noticed the washing-line high above the churchyard.

  2. April 13, 2017

    Lovely post, there are no hot cross buns in Germany, even for poor widows, but enough other things to keep the wolf from the door. I love to see the old ceremonies being enacted with such humour. Valerie

  3. April 13, 2017

    I liked the then and now tradition shown for St Bartholomew’s at Easter time !Yes the green hill is far away it all started there. Here in London today all faiths are strong with lots of harmony. A nice surprise shown by GA, a house where John Betjeman once lived in I expect before he became Poet Laureate and was ‘Summoned by Bells’. This church has a strong presence in the community above all their faith is shown for all to see. They take the Easter message onto the streets and continue an old custom of distributing hot + buns. Poet John

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    April 13, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, God bless you for memorializing these ancient Christian traditions at Eastertide…

  5. John Smith permalink
    April 28, 2017

    They are very lovely interesting Photo’s and description of a lovely old church.

    I hope one of the Services is taken from the Book of Common Prayer.

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