Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Saint Clement's Twanky Dillo Day is a Lost Hoof History Holiday

Imagine a holiday when tradition dictated that farriers and blacksmiths fire their anvils with gunpowder, then roam the streets and knock on doors, demanding liquor or cash as they sang songs with lyrics only they understood. It only happened on St Clem's Day, a festive day that has slipped off British calendars and from people's memories...unless you know where to look.  Public domain image, Chatterbox magazine, 1896.

The end of November may mean Thanksgiving Day in America, but in the British Isles, there is a forgotten holiday that you probably won't find on any calendar.

For hundreds of years, people celebrated St Clement's Day on November 23.  But now both the holiday and the saint it celebrated are lost and long forgotten in history. Hard as it is to find out what went on, much less why it went on, this day is worth remembering for its colorful couplets, enchanting songs, and evidence to the important (and powerful) role that farriers and blacksmiths played in local matters.

Who was St. Clement?

St. Clement with his anchor.  Image courtesy
of Wikimedia.
What does an early Roman Catholic Pope have to do with hooves, horseshoes, or even blacksmithing? According to Roman Catholic history, Pope Clement was persecuted by the Romans in the days when Christians were tossed into the arena with lions for the entertainment of cheering crowds. To keep Christianity under control, Emperor Trajan exiled Pope Clement to Crimea and sentenced him to hard labor in the quarries there.

Working as a slave at the edge of the empire didn't stop Clement. He soon converted prisoners and local citizens to Christianity. The religion spread through Crimea, and churches were built. But even far from Rome, Clement's religious zeal made him an enemy of the state. The Romans finally tied an anchor around his neck and, on November 23, tossed him overboard from a ship into the Black Sea.

Legend also has it that the sea parted in that place every year on November 23. Needless to say, Clement is the patron saint of sailors.

Saint Clem and farriers
Hundreds of years later, St. Clement was adopted as a patron saint by farriers in Britain. Anchors, of course, were forged, as were the chains that held them, so there is a link between the death of Saint Clement and the anvil-centric trades.

Legend also has it that the farriers believed that Clem the slave had been the first to smelt iron, and perhaps even the first to shoe a horse with metal, during his days in Crimea.

The death of Saint Clement in the Black Sea.
(Wikimedia image)
About the time that farriers adopted Saint Clement as their patron saint, his name was shortened to the friendlier "Clem" and a strange word, "Twanky dillo" came to be associated with his songs.

Whatever the meaning, farriers celebrated the day of St Clement's death by honoring him in festive ways. The loudest part of the tribute was the announcement of the day with the "firing" of anvils; it was also believed to be a test that the anvils had no faults.

Apprentices went from door to door in the towns, and knocked on doors as they sang:

St Clement’s Day comes once a year
Give us some apples or give us some beer!

In the town of Burwash in East Sussex, England, the blacksmiths made a scarecrow-like effigy of Clem. The local history site says they hung the dummy over the pub door to let the world know that they had taken it over and were celebrating their feast day inside. Other town histories say that farriers paraded through the streets with a dummy on a stick, as they sang their song and accepted apples and gifts from residents.

In Dartmoor, England the traditional song was:

“Come all you Vulcans stout and strong,
Unto St. Clem we do belong,
I know this house is well prepared
With plenty of money and good strong beer,
And we must drink before we part,
All for to cheer each merry heart.

One English literature scholar writes: "A senior apprentice dressed in a cloak and mask to represent Old Clem and was carried in a procession that would move around town and stopped at all the taverns along the way. At all their stops the blacksmiths told the brief history of Old Clem and then passed a box around for donations."

The cash collected was used to buy the apprentices a hearty dinner.

Maddy Prior sings Saint Clement's song:

One work of great literature has made people curious about St Clement, and kept his name alive: Charles Dickens' classic novel Great Expectations. The mysterious Miss Havisham commanded Pip to sing for her and her haughty niece, Estella.

Pip sang the only song he knew, the one he heard at home in the forge of kindly Joe Gargery, a song "that imitated the measure of beating upon iron". In spite of the class difference between them, the aristocratic Miss Havisham and her niece sang along:

Blacksmiths are central to Charles
Dickens' attack on the class system in
Britain in Great Expectations.

... hammer boys round - Old Clem! 
With a thump and a sound - Old Clem! 
Beat it out, beat it out - Old Clem! 
With a clink for the stout - Old Clem! 
Blow the fire, blow the fire - Old Clem! 
Roaring dryer, soaring higher - Old Clem!

The song most associated with St Clement's Day is "Twanky Dillo", also known as "The Blacksmith's Anthem". The loveliest recording of it is by Maddy Prior. The lyrics follow the sound file, though what they really mean is anyone's guess:

Here's a health to the jolly blacksmith
The best of all fellows
Who works at his anvil
While the boy blows the bellows
Which makes his bright hammer
To rise and to fall

Here's to old coal, and to young coal
And to old coal of all.

Twanky dillo, twanky dillo
Twanky dillo, dillo, dillo, dillo
And the roaring pair of blowpipes
Made from the green willow.

Here's a health to the pretty girl
The one I love best
She kindles her fire
All in her own breast
Which makes his bright hammer
To rise and to fall
Here's the old coal, and the young coal
And the old coal of all.

If a gentleman calls
With his horse to be shoed
He will make no denial
To one pint or two
Which makes his bright hammer
To rise and to fall
Here's to old coal, and to young coal
And to old coal of all.

Here's good health from us all
To our sovereign, the queen
And to all the royal family
Wherever they're seen
Which makes his bright hammer
To rise and to fall
Here's the old coal, and the young coal
And the old coal of all.

Twanky dillo, twanky dillo
Twanky dillo, dillo, dillo, dillo
And the roaring pair of blowpipes
Made from the green willow
Green willow, Green willow
Green willow, willow, willow, willow
And the roaring pair of blowpipes
Made from the green willow.

Poor St. Clem, so little is left of his day and his legends. But there's no reason for St Clem and twankydillo to disappear without a trace. Make a toast to Saint Clem, or sing him a little song; let me know what happens next!

--Fran Jurga

To learn more:

Few references exist to document Saint Clem or his feast day in the British Isles. A scholarly investigation may be required; if you have more information, please share it in the comments below.

A few suggestions:
Sussex history website documenting the Burwash anecdote
Legendary Dartmoor website
World headquarters for St Clement's Day celebrations may be Finch Foundry in Sticklepath, England

Other versions of the Twankydillo song:

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