Before you ask… no, it’s not a spelling error. This year’s Enderby Fete will indeed be celebrating the “Wether” ….or more precisely, “Selling the Wether”!
By way of explanation, ‘Selling the Wether’ is an ancient custom dating back to the fourteenth century and having its roots in the Enderby area.
It is mentioned in several publications including the following passage from ‘The Folklore of Leicestershire and Rutland’ by Roy Palmer1, who writes:
“In the case of meadows with joint occupiers at Desford, Nailstone, Ratby and Stanton-under-Bardon a day was agreed when everyone would turn out to mow the grass. After completing the work the mowers enjoyed themselves in ‘wrestlings, footballs, cudgel-playing, and other athletic exercises’, followed by music and dancing.
“In the late 1370’s John o’Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Earl of Leicester, happened to pass the Ratby meadow while on the way to Leicester and stopped to ask the reason for the festivities.
[The mowers] “…explained and said that the traditional name given to their meadow-mowing was ‘Ramsdale’.
“John o’Gaunt joined in the merrymaking for a time, then summoned fourteen of the men to meet him at Leicester Castle.
“When they did so he presented them with a field at Enderby by the River Soar, subject to certain conditions.”
“The field was to be divided into fourteen strips of half-an-acre each, called the ‘Ewes’ and fourteen ‘swarths’ of 300 square yards each, called ‘the Boots’, together with a residual piece of two acres, called ‘the Wether’.
“Each man had one of the Ewes and one of the Boots for his individual use; the Wether was to be held for the common benefit, and its crop of grass was to be sold to the highest bidder every Whit Monday to provide money for a feast.”
A book by John Crofts and Nigel Morton entitled “Enderby, Narborough and Littlethorpe”2 describes the event:
“After partaking of bread and cheese and ale [a leader] was to declare the sale open. The land could not be sold for under four pounds and nothing less than two pence would be accepted as a bid.
“A coin was to be passed around and only when the coin was in hand could a bid be made.
“When a complete circuit with the coin had been made without a bid, the last bidder was declared the purchaser.”
The money obtained was taken to Leicester to pay for the meals provided by caterers and the whole assembly of those involved with the ceremony marched to the St. Mary-de-Castro church to hear a sermon before returning to the inn to partake of the meal provided for them.
“The rest of the day was to be spent in ‘jollification’ until the money was spent”!
Crofts and Morton further write that:
“In 1821, the rights of the Ratby men were disposed of, and the rights of the Wether were handed over to the people of Enderby. The conditions of sale were then somewhat altered. The people taking part in the sale paid one shilling, and shag tobacco was provided, with churchwarden pipes smoked during the sale.”
Although the nature of the ceremonies changed through the years, the ceremony (consisting of an ‘auction’ to determine who would have 12 months ‘rights’ to the Wether continued until the early nineteen seventies).
Auctions were held at the Nags Head public house in Enderby. During the ceremony a Crown coin was passed from hand to hand and only the person who had possession of it could bid.
Up until the celebration finished (circa 1973/4) the proceeds raised were spent on a celebratory dinner.
In its final days, the ceremony became known as ‘Selling the Wether’.
As part of the entertainment at this year’s Enderby Fete (thanks to a collaboration with Everards Brewery) there will be an activity dedicated to the history of “Selling the Wether”.
Whilst the smoking of churchwarden’s pipes and crown coins were prominent features of the old ceremony the 2019 fete will see a more contemporary take on the ‘auction’ ceremony!
Best described as a game of ‘pass the parcel’, participants will pass a wrapped package between them and on a pre-determined but randomly applied signal, remove a layer of wrapping until the final one is removed to reveal a miniature cask, which is ‘The Wether’. The cask represents the prize of either 14 cases (8 x 500ml bottle) or 11 minikegs (5 litres) of Everards ale which have been donated by local family brewery Everards. The prize value is worth around £200. Cheers Everards!
The organisers of this year’s Fete hope that the activity – besides having entertainment value on the day of the Fete itself – the story of ‘Selling the Wether’ will generate interest in the broader history of Enderby among the current community.
* Courtesy Enderby Heritage Group