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The Ceremony Of The Widow’s Sixpence

April 14, 2022
by the gentle author

There are a few tickets available for my tours over Easter and bookings are open until the end of May:

While my tours start tomorrow afternoon in Spitalfields at 2pm, over in Smithfield tomorrow morning at 11:30am hot cross buns will be distributed at St Bartholomew the Great.

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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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Sandra Lawrence permalink
    April 14, 2022

    I was troubled by the woman who actually needed 20/- and the ‘easy amusement of the crowd’. Unless this was a regular part of the ceremony (which it doesn’t appear to have been) this implies the same kind of desperation that engendered this ‘quaint’ tradition in the first place, when 6d – and 20/- were decent sums of money. I suspect there may be more hands raised this year.

  2. April 14, 2022

    The Widow’s Sixpence — a very impressive history, rich in tradition.

    Wishing everyone a Merry Good Friday and a happy, peaceful Easter!

    Love & Peace

  3. Susan Postlethwaite permalink
    April 14, 2022

    Love the photographs posted each day. I used to work around the corner from St Bartholomew the Great. It is only recently that I actually went inside.

  4. Jill wilson permalink
    April 14, 2022

    Good luck with the tours! x

  5. Martin Palmer permalink
    April 14, 2022

    There is some quality about the last photograph: The people at the end of the alley give me the immediate impression that they are not separated from the viewer so much by distance as they are by time.

  6. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 27, 2022

    What a wonderful custom. I have only been to St Bartholomew’s once, for the funeral of my cousin John just a few short years ago. John was the former Dean of Ripon Cathedral until ill health forced him to retire. He and his wife moved to London to be nearer their daughters at this point. On the day of the funeral, John’s close family which included me, filled just 3 short pews, while the rest of the Church was filled to its very corners by Clergy High and Low. It was impressive to say the least!

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