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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Sic-Sac! - The Customs and Traditions of Oak Apple Day

From the late seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century one of the most important holidays of the year was ‘Oak Apple Day’, ‘Royal Oak Day’ or 'Arbour Day' which fell on 29th May. The day commemorated the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 and was so called ‘Oak Apple Day’ due to his memorable escape from capture by the Roundheads after the battle of Worcester, by hiding up in an oak tree at Boscobel in Staffordshire on 6th September 1651.

The Royal Oak, Cerne Abbas -
A typical Public House sign
commemorating King Charles II
escape from the Roundheads
Consequently the oak became a symbol of Royalist sympathisers and upon Oak Apple Day it was customary to shows ones support for the King by wearing a sprig of oak leaves with some oak apples attached. Some ardent supporters even went so far as to cover their oak leaves with gold leaf!

Anybody not decorated was viewed as a nonconforming anti-Royalist and was beaten with stinging nettles and ‘bonneted’, that is to have their hat pulled violently over their eyes.

They were furthered abused by the name calling of “Shit-Sack”. In fact in some areas of the country

Oak Apple Day was known as ‘Shit-Sack Day’ or 'Shick-Sack Day'. It was also customary to decorate statues and ones own front door with a branch of oak leaves. Those that ignored this practice were once again frowned upon. The Oak Apple loyalists of east Dorset would visit any undecorated house and place a wreath of stinging nettles on the door and sing:

‘Shic Sack, penny a rag
Bang his head in Cromwell’s bag
All done up in a bundle’.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Oak Apple Day in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-


This is also known as Restoration Day, being the anniversary of the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. It is also said to have been his birthday. Brand and other writers speak of the common people, especially in the north of England, still wearing in their hats the leaves of the oak, which is sometimes covered with leafgold, and of others decorating their doors, etc., with green oak branches in commemoration of his escape by means of that "miraculous divergence " - as it has been called in Dorsetshire - through the county after the battle of Worcester in September, 1651. But in Dorsetshire itself one might almost look in vain for any such observances at the present day, though, perhaps, more interest has been taken of late years in the subject by reason of the recent books and articles that have been written upon King Charles's wanderings.

George Roberts, in his History of Lyme Regis, writing in 1834, refers to the growing disuse of this old-time practice. He says :—

"The practice of decorating the doors of houses with oak boughs on May 29th has within the last few years somewhat grown into disuse, owing to the means adopted by the proprietors of land to prevent depredations from being committed on their trees by the apprentices, etc.

"Fifteen years ago scarcely a door was without its branch. At the doors of some persons might be seen, early in the morning, a bunch of nettles by the inmates when they arose. Dissenters who in Charles IIs reign did not celebrate his restoration by putting up oak boughs, or pay those who had put them up during the night, were served in this manner. I have not seen any nettles at doors for several years ; party feeling as to the Restoration seems now extinct. None save the lower orders wear oak leaves in their hats ; the boys continue to gild their oak apples, and apply an approbious name to those who have not an oak leaf displayed, or who wear it after twelve o'clock. For the origin of this appellation, by which noncomformists were commonly distinguished. Granger accounts, vol. iii, p. 316, in a truly ludicrous manner."

Mr. Edmund Gosse contributed a very interesting article, compiled from the unpublished papers of his father, the late Philip H. Gosse, F.R.S., depicting the tatter's childhood at school in Poole in 1818, to Longman's Magazine in March, 1889, from which I take the following extract:-

"The 29th May, Oak Apple Day, was called 'Shicsack Day', when all loyal urchins were expected to display a bit of oak in their hats or caps. A mere twig of oak-leaves was sufficient, but if anoak-apple was attached it was better ; while those who wished to be altogether ' the cheese' wore leaves or apples on which a fragment of gold-leaf was gummed. There was a considerable demand for gold-leaf just before the day at the stationers' shops, and for boys whose 'tin' was scarce there was an inferior kind of foil provided called Dutch gold ; while in the little hucksters' shops bits of oak duly gilt could be obtained for a consideration"

Mr. Gosse added that Mr. Thomas Hardy had told him that the day was still called "Sic-sac-day" by the peasantry ; but that he had no idea what the words meant. (Halliwell (Dict. of Archaic and Provincial Words, 1852) gives "Shick Shack Day" as a term for the 29th May, or Royal Oak Day, used in Surrey.)

The following account of this custom—as obtaining, presumably, in the adjoining county of Wilts - isgiven by that close observer of natural history, the late Richard Jefferies, in his 'Wild Life in a Southern County' (ed. 1902, p. 83) :-

"In May the ploughboys still remember King Charles, and on what they call 'shick-shack-day' search for oak apples and the young leaves of the oak to place with a spray of ash in their hats or button-holes; the ash spray must have even leaves, and an odd number is not correct. To wear these green emblems was thought imperative even within the last twenty years, and scarcely a labourer could be seen without them. The elder men would tell you,—as if it had been a great calamity,—that they could recollect a year when the spring was so backward that not an oak-leaf or an oak-apple could be found by the most carefulsearch for the purpose. The custom has fallen into disuse lately; the carters, however, still attach the ash and oak leaves to the heads of their horses on this particular day."

Charles II in West Dorset

2012 marks the 361st anniversary of Charles II's escape from the Battle of Worcester. While his supporters were trying to find a boat at nearby Charmouth to take him to France and failing, he was hiding at Bridport. There is a memorial stone on the corner of Lee Lane close to the main road that commemorates his time there.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in 'Notes and Queries' Ninth serie. Vol X. July/Dec 1902 about the erection of the 'King Charles II Escape Memorial Stone' to mark the 250th anniversary in Bridport:-

King Charles II Escape Memorial
depicted on the Royal Oak, Charmouth
"West Dorset was recently the scene of a very interesting ceremony, namely, the unveiling of three memorial tablets affixed to certain old houses which had established their claim to the honour of having sheltered the prince afterwards Charles II. during the three eventful days he spent there in his hurried, but fruitless endeavour to escape to France from the coast of Dorset after his decisive defeat at the battle of Worcester on 3 September, 1651. This ceremony was the complement of an earlier one which took place on the outskirts of Bridport on 23 September last, the 250th anniversary of the king's visit to that town, and which is referred to in detail later.

There is, it seems to me, special reason why these proceedings and the history of the movement whichled up to them should be recorded permanently in the pages of 'Notes and Queries' for it was in great measure what had previously appeared there upon the subject, now nearly twenty years ago, that led to the carrying out of the present memorial.

At that time there was an interesting discussion in 'Notes and Queries' (6th S. v. and viii. passium1) as to what old houses now exist in the country that had formed hiding - places for Charles II. between the battle of Worcester in September, 1651, and the time when theking at last effected his escape from Brighthelmstone on the 15th of the following October.

It was then that I put forward the claim of the old manor-house at Pilsdon, in West Dorset, at that time the property of those staunch royalists the Wyndhams, to rank as one of those entitled to this honourable distinction, basing the claim upon a local tradition that I had heard. This claim, however, having been challenged by one of your correspondents, I went more deeply into the question of Charles II.'s wanderings in Dorset, and after consulting the principal authorities at my disposal I was constrained to admit that the claim I had put forward rested upon tradition only, and had no historical foundation. 

This I did in a somewhat lengthy paper which I read before a meeting of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club upon Pilsdon Pen itself, the highest hill in the county of Dorset, in September, 1886, I think from which meeting I date my acquaintance with Thomas Hardy, the Wessex novelist. This paper was reproduced in the annual volume (viii of the society's Proceedings for the following year, and also reprinted in pamphlet form. In it I traced in considerable detail the wanderings of Charles from the time he left Trent manor, another seat of the Wyndhams, on the borders of Dorset and Somerset, on 22 September, till he returned there on the 24th, after his abortive attempt to quit the Dorset coast at Charmouth on the night of the 22nd. I mainly followed the narrative given by Mr. J. Hughes in his 'Boscobel Tracts' (first published in 1830, a second edition of which appeared in 1857) from the authorities there cited, taking my former contributions in 'Notes and Queries' as the basis, and confining myself, of course, to those incidents which happened on Dorset territory alone.

A very interesting feature of Mr. Hughes's book was the description he gave of the houses and buildings which had sheltered the king as he found them in 1830. To the Dorset portion of them I added in my paper a detailed description of the condition in which I found them some fifty years later.

In 1897 was published Mr. Allan Fea's most interesting work, 'The Flight of the King,' in which appeared many excellent illustrations and descriptions of the various houses and hiding-places which had sheltered the king immediately after the battle of Worcester, and many other places and articles of interest, portraits, &c., connected therewith.

In fact, it may be said to be the complement or an up-to-date edition of Mr. Hughes 's book. In this work Mr. Fea refers to my Dorset pamphlet. To me the Dorset portion of his work was particularly interesting, in that it showed one of the houses which I had been unable to locate that " lonely house, situated about a mile and a half from Charmouth, among the hills to the north," at which Capt. Ellesdon (the author of the ' Letter to Lord Clarendon ' which appears in the thirteenth book of the ' History of the Rebellion ') met the fugitive king on his way down from Trent into Charmouth "an old thatched building known to this day as Elsdon's Farm," at Monkton Wyld, an ecclesiastical parish carved out of Whitechurch Canonicorum.2

General public interest having by Mr. Fea's volume and by another kindred work, by Dr. Osmund Airy, which I have not yet had an opportunity of seeing been aroused in what the then Bishop of Llandaff (in a letter to Mr. Hughes in 1827) termed " by far the most romantic piece of English history we possess," it was only to be expected that local interest in the subject would be quickened.

King Charles II Escape Memorial
in Lee Lane, Bridport
And so about a year ago (May, 1901) appeared in the Dorset County Chronicle an interesting letter from a correspondent signing himself "Lee Lane" (the pseudonym being taken from the name of a lane about half a mile from Bridport, on the Dorchester road, down which the king is alleged to have turned on his way to Broad Windsor on 23 September, 1651), calling attention to the fact that within a few months would occur the 250th anniversary of King Charles's visit to the county, and advocating the erection of a memorial at the corner of the above lane to mark the occasion, a monumental design for which was sketched in detail. The proposal for a memorial I myself supported from the distant West Indies, and at the same time suggested that, in addition to any monument at Lee Lane, commemorative tablets might be affixed by the Dorset Field Club, as the premier antiquarian society in the county, to those four houses in Dorset which had been indicated in my paper and in Mr. Fea's book as having actually sheltered the king.
For some reason or other, whilst certain subscriptions were promised, neither of these suggestions was taken up by the Dorset Field Club or by any other local responsible body ; and eventually 'Lee Lane," 3 who had offered a generous donation in support of his proposal, signified his intention of himself erecting, anonymously and at his own expense, the proposed memorial at the corner of Lee Lane, though in a somewhat less elaborate form than he had at first suggested. 

On 23 September last, then, the 250th anniversary of the king's escape, the memorial was unveiled. Its design had been well carried out by Mr. Milverton, marble mason of Bridport, and consisted of a large plinth of Portland stone supporting a very fine slab of Bothenhampton stone, rising to the height of 10ft. from the ground. It stood, covered with the Union Jack, under a weather-beaten old oak tree at the head of the lane, bearing the following inscription : 

King Charles II,
Escaped Capture through this Lane
September xxiii., MDCLI.
When midst your fiercest foes on every side,
For your escape God did a Lane provide.
(Thomas Fuller's ' Worthies.')
Erected September xxiii., MDCCCCI. 

It was unveiled by Mr. James Penderel-Brodhurst, the well-known writer and journalist, and a descendant of the Penderels of Boscobel, in the presence of a fairly representative company. Mr. Broadley was present and took a leading part in the ceremony, whilst Miss Lane Brown, a descendant of the Lanes of Bentley, co. Stafford, placed a crown of oak-leaves upon the monument.

At the conclusion Mr. Lomas, one of the Magdalen College, Oxford, glee singers, sang Sir Walter Scott's ballad ' Here 's a health to King Charles.' Thus was brought to a happy issue an interesting historic ceremony, of which a very good account appeared in the Dorset County Chronicle at the time.

Mr. Broadley then, apparently undeterred by the very lukewarm support that he appears to have received locally, proceeded to turn his attention and the funds of the somewhat slender subscription list towards carrying out the suggestions I had previously offered as to the four commemorative tablets to be erected at Ellesdon Farm, Monkton Wyld, where the king stayed a few hours on 22 September, 1651 ; the old inn at Charmouth, then known as the " Queen's Head," but now, and for sometime past, as the manse for the Nonconformist minister at Charmouth, where the king stayed the evening and night of the 22nd, waiting in vain for the boat which was to convey him to France ; the old house in Bridport, then called the " George Inn," now a chemist's shop, where the royal party had their midday meal on the 23rd, and so narrowly escaped detection by the local hostler; and the old inn at Broad Windsor, then known also as the "George," where the king spent that night, the one immediately preceding his return to Kent, having successfully evaded his pursuers at Bridport by turning down Lee Lane. All but the one at Bridport are now happily accomplished.  

The tablets, which were of marble in a frame of Ham Hill stone, the inscription being in  imperishable letters, were also the work of Mr. Milverton's hands. Those at Charmouth and Monkton Wyld were the first to be erected, and, being only a mile or so distant from each other were unveiled on the same day, Easter Monday last. For the account of the ceremony I may be allowed to refer to one of the local papers the Bridport News. It states :

"Those who were present at the unveiling of the King Charles II. tablets at Charmouth and Ellesdoi Farm on Easter Monday had a most interesting and a very delightful day. It was an ideal spring day and nature was budding out in all her vernal freshness. To [sic] those who have made themselve acquainted with the incidents associated with this flight of the king through Dorset, the drive alone, the road from Bridport to Charmouth and Ellesdon Farm on that quiet sunny morning could hardly have failed to contrast [sic] that happy condition of things with the state of anxiety which must have possessed Charles when he and his companions rode nastily on the same road to Bridport on the 23rd Sept., 1651, with those hunting for his blood before and behind him. The royal fugitive could hardly have time or taste under the circumstance to admire the charming scenery through whic this old coach road passes. The pretty villages of Chideock and Charmouth seem to have the famous'heights of Dorset ' standing sentinel over ther and guarding them from harm, and one would have to travel a long way to find a more delightful picture than presented by these villages as seen from the hills descending into them. The Rev F. J. Morrish very kindly allowed visitors to pass through be old manse which he now occupies, and contemlate the room which Charles II. spent the night, waiting for Limbry and his boat which never came. From the window of this room an unobstructed view of the beach may be obtained. It is a pity that the royal arms which were erected in the room have been covered over by builders and paper-hangers. It is at the manse where the first tablet was gracefully unveiled by Mrs. Simms, he revered mother of the rector (Rev. Spencer Simms). The drive from Charmouth to Ellesdon Tarm opens out vistas of a charming country. The Vale or Marshwood sweeps along far below the roadway on the right, and here and there some of he 'stately homes of England ' may be seen looking iut from their wooded surroundings upon the Channel, glittering on the left, and the smiling alleys. Ellesdon Farm, occupied by Mrs. Larjombe, is a delightful old house, an ideal haven of rest, secluded from th.e public gaze in a little nook within a stone's throw 01 the highway. It was here  the hunted king, barely of age, rested on the afternoon of the 22nd Sept.", and the tablet over the entrance, unveiled by Miss Simms, will perpetuate the fact to future generations, for the old house,with its granite cobble floors, is of such a substantial character that it will stand the ravages of time for a considerable period of time. The day was, indeed, a memorable and an enjoyable one to those who took part in the proceedings, but, as Mr. Broadley suggested in his speech, these commemorations will not be complete until a fourth tablet is erected at the house now occupies by Mr. James Beach at Bridport, where the king rested, the premises being an hostelry at that time.' 

Mr. Broadley, who again took a leading part in the proceedings, in an interesting address explained to those present the occasion for the ceremony, and shortly reviewed the circumstances of the king's stay at these two places, after which he submitted for their inspection a very interesting and valuable collection of contemporary proclamations and broadsides, letters, portraits, medals, and medallions, which he had recently brought together.

On the following Friday (4 April) the third memorial tablet, at Broad windsor, was unveiled by Mr. Perkins, the Mayor of Taunton. The same paper from which I have just quoted gives the following account of the proceedings : 

"The third of the tablets erected in the district to commemorate the places of refuge of Charles II. during his wanderings in West Dorset when pursued by the Roundheads after the battle of Worcesterwas unveiled by the Mayor of Taunton (Mr. Perkins) on Friday. Like the others at the Manse, Charmouth, and at Ellesdon Farm, the tablet is of marble, framed with Ham Hill stone, and inscribed in imperishable letters. It is placed in the front wall of the cottage occupied by Mr. Charles Harrison, to the left of the entrance to the inn yard, which was undoubtedly at one time a part of the old ' George Inn,' where King Charles stayed on the night of the 23rd September, 1651. The inscription on the tablet commemorates this fact, and Mr. Milverton, marble mason, of Bridport, who has done all the tablets, experienced considerable difficulty in placing it in position, owing to the old walls being a species of rubble, composed of stones and foxmould. Again the day was fortunately fine, and a fairly large gathering of spectators was present at the ceremony." 

The proceedings were opened by the Rev. G. C. Hutchings, vicar of Broad Windsor a place which is interesting as having had for a prior incumbent the famous Thomas Fuller, author of 'The Worthies of England 'after which the Mayor of Taunton unveiled the tablet by withdrawing the Union Jack which covered it.

At the luncheon at the "George Hotel" which followed, Mr. Broadley, in again stating the occasion of the proceedings, referred to the local incidents connected with the king's visit. In commenting on the connexion of Thomas Fuller with Broad Windsor he produced, in addition to a fine portrait of the author, several of his minor works, which he stated to be very rare in particular, a copy of his sermon called 'Jacob's Vow' which he preached before King Charles I. at St. Mary's, Oxford, on 10 May, 1644, and of which, it was asserted, no copy was known in the British Museum or the Bodleian Library, nor was it known to Mr. Pickering, who compiled the bibliography in Russell's 'Life of Thomas Fuller.' At a subsequent adjournment to the vicarage Mr. Broadley's fine collection of broadsides, portraits, medals, &c., was submitted for inspection.

I may add that Mr. Broadley in the course of his remarks was, as on former occasions, most courteous in his references to myself, "to whom," he stated, "the credit of having first called public attention to the deep interest which belongs to the Dorset portion of the flight of the king must always be attributed." And this recognition was rendered still more graceful by his having sent me, on the 250th anniversary of "Worcester Fight," one of two facsimiles which, with the consent of the authorities of the Bodleian Library, he had had reproduced at his own expense of the famous letter of Capt. William Ellesdon to the Earl of Clarendon, already alluded to. This letter, of fourteen pages, in exceptionally good and clear handwriting for the time, is exceedingly well reproduced by the photographers of the Clarendon Press.

There only now remains the final tablet to be erected in Bridport at the premises of Mr. Beach, chemist, which premises occupy the site, and, indeed, form part of the old "George Inn," where Charles's ready wit alone saved the whole party from the most imminent risk of discovery. May I express a hope that it will not be long before this memorial is also erected, and that the good work already done by the loyal county of Dorset in commemoration of the share which it had in the preservation of the fugitive king may be followed by many other parts of the country?

I cannot imagine a better way of spending one of those excellent "field-days" which so many of our county natural history and antiquarian societies set apart every summer for the pleasure and instruction of their members and their friends, than by making them the occasion of such celebrations. Our great metropolis, through the Society of Arts, has for many years past placed such fitting memorials on those buildings which have sheltered its illustrious dead. In this Coronation year surely the country districts should not be backward in doing their share.

The only matter for regret that I have in the work already carried out in West Dorset is that it should practically have been the work of one man. The great thing to be desired in these matters is accuracy, both historical and topographical, and this cannot always be relied upon when the work is initiated and carried out by a single man, however able and willing he may be. At all events, the imprimatur of a public body or a learned society is much to be desired in such matters, and I am personally very sorry that such a competent body as the Dorset Field Club, which numbers amongst its executive many men of scientific and archaeological attainments, should not have come forward, as invited, and have taken up the burden of and responsibility for that which has been done by private hands. Other promoters may not be so fortunate in having the way so carefully prepared for them as it has been in the case of Dorset.

J. S. UDAL, F.S.A.
Antigua, W.I.

1. The discussion as to Charles's hiding-places ranged from 6 th S. iv. to xi.]

2. How narrowly Mr. Fea's book escaped having any illustration or detailed description of this
"lonely house," and what happy accident it was that put its author on the right track to discover it on the eve of the publication of his book, is pleasantly told by Mr. Fea in a letter to the Dorset County Chronicle in July of last year. He says : "Mr. Udal told me of his disappointment in not being able to locate this solitary house amongst the hills. This acted as a stimulant, and I explored those beautiful hills minutely over and over again, with maps, compass, and ancient records, but to no purpose." Alas for the influence of the tropics on one's memory ! I have quite forgotten this incident, and, still worse, the fact of my ever having met Mr. Fea.

3. 'It subsequently transpired that "Lee Lane'' was the pseudonym of Mr. A. M. Broadley, who will be remembered as having some years ago been the leading counsel for the notorious Arabi the Egyptian, and as the author of 'Tunis' and other works, and who had some time previously taken up his residence in the neighbouring parish of Bradpole, of which his father had for many years jeen vicar.

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