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Good Friday At St Bartholmew’s

March 27, 2024
by the gentle author

If you are at a loose end over the forthcoming Easter holidays, why not join me for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS on Easter Thursday 28th March at 2pm or THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF THE CITY OF LONDON on Easter Monday 1st April at 2pm?



This Friday at 11:30am sees the Ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence 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 us who gathered in the churchyard at St Bartholomew the Great on Good Friday were blessed with sunlight. 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.

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 reached forward eagerly to take their allotted Hot Cross Buns in hand. The tense anticipation 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 and enjoying the March sunlight.

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

You may also like to read about

The Widow’s Buns at Bow

Easter Flowers at St Dunstan’s

5 Responses leave one →
  1. March 27, 2024

    another fine, and oh-so-timely post

  2. Sally permalink
    March 27, 2024

    I love your posts. They’re on their own.

  3. Cherub permalink
    March 27, 2024

    Easter is such a lovely time, I am decorating a little tree with painted eggs and bunnies. I just wish the world could be at peace, it would be such a gift.

  4. Saba permalink
    March 27, 2024

    I continue to wonder how anyone can get one of these great posts done every day. I would be proud to complete maybe three. They’re great and bring a bit of sanity in turbulent times.

  5. Ian silverton permalink
    April 1, 2024

    Good Mourning GA, and all your followers on here, Hope you all had a wonderful Easter. Was wondering GA, if you could do a story on my old School which was founded here at St Barthomews The Great Church in 1948. By Mrs P Wallbank MBE. Firstly in the Gate House Building at the front entrance, then in the main cloisters inside the Church Building. She called it the Gate House School, went on to become a leading light on Teaching Children, and expanded it all over London. Might be many ex pupils out their who called tell some very interesting Stories. Just Google Gate House School with her name if so. Thanks GA for listening. Ian

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