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At the heart of English folk
The Pace-Egg Play

#4: The Pace-Egg Play

Pace-egging, a folk drama practiced at Easter time, is supposed to go back as far as The Crusades, and has long evolved to accommodate different cultural, political, religious, secular beliefs. It is a begging custom, in the past a legitimized way of asking for money, which otherwise was illegal.

Like the tradition of many folk customs and dances, men almost exclusively performed the Pace-egg plays, which is one of the reasons why this photo reveals an extraordinary and subversive fragment in its tradition. Little is written about this particular team at the time, or how the public might have responded to such an unique and bold act, only that,

“…The picture we reproduce is rather an exceptional one, as girls do not usually take part in the game, only boys. It will, however, serve to show the popularity of the pastime.”

The team are cotton operatives, probably around 15 years old, their sashes bought from a local shop, or made themselves or by female relatives. Their costumes look far plainer than teams of boys at the same time, but you can still pick out some of the different characters from the props they’re holding in the photo.

Women pace eggers, Rochdale, 1909
Women pace eggers, Rochdale, 1909

The girl in the centre holding the basket and stick is undoubtedly ‘Devil Doubt’ or ‘Dirty Bet’ representative of the Devil or vice. Their role was to beg at the end of the play where traditionally the public gave away money and eggs. To our right of her the crucifix probably makes its wearer ‘The Doctor’ character, who would miraculously cure 'King George' after they had been killed by ‘Slasher'.

Disguise or ‘guising’ was important in begging customs like the Pace-egg play. Performers could cross into public spaces they were excluded from, engage in radical interactions for a liminal time, and partake in disreputable activities and ways of being without fear of recognition or punishment.

Historically, blackened faces and cross-dressing were and are widely utilised in folk dramas and dances, they could provide a level of anonymity, whilst offering ‘theatrical’, ‘comedic’ and ‘shocking’ caricatures. Records of participants with blackened faces can be traced back to the Tudor Courts, but the suggested origins for its usage in this context are diverse, ranging from the commonality of chimney sweeps, miners and blacksmiths, to the popularization of the minstrelsy tradition in the early twentieth century. Its adoption in many facets of English folk dance and drama during the twentieth century might also signal an acknowledgement of nationalism, colonisation and imperialism.

Cross-dressing has been and still continues to be an important part of the tradition of Pace-egg plays, the characters of Devil Doubt, Dirty Bet, Old Tosspot and Beezlebub usually require a ‘female’ costume, and some teams also adopted a blackened face. Historically the participants’ crude and ironical treatment of gender, class, racial and religious stereotypes, empties the plays of any queer subversion, and aligns them with other traditional, non-progressive folk dramas. In view of this, the female members in this photograph -  both caucasian and black individuals - reclaim this otherwise male-dominated and white custom for a multiplicity of participants, and in doing so enrich  its historical legacy.

 ‘…boys teams of pace-eggers were well-received, particularly by their own community, and collecting was encouraged. For girls however, taking part in the performance was not as acceptable…The position of women in Lancashire pace-egging teams remains substantially clear: it is not part of the tradition. ‘ (pg. 48 Eddie Cass, The Lancashire Pace-Egg Play- A Social History)

J. T. Clegg, The Works of John Trafford Clegg, Th' Owd Weighver Stories, Sketches, and Rhymes in the Rochdale Dialect, James Clegg -The Aldine Press, 1895

E. Cass, The Lancashire Pace-Egg play: A Social History, 2004

J. Boyd Hyland, ‘We’re Jolly Boys, An introduction to Mumming and Pace-Egging’

E. Bradtke, Translucent Rustics : Molly dancing in East Anglia before 1940, FLS Books



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