The Experience Barnsley museum has now been open to the public two years this June. Avoiding the initial rush of visitors, I had decided to wait a couple of weeks for the fuss to die down before venturing in to gaze at the treasure trove of items that had been collected from our town’s rich and varied past. Admittedly I knew very little about the more iconic items on display but there was one local treasure I was hoping to see (besides Bri Shaughnessy’s Saxon leather jacket!) that I’d not laid eyes on for nearly 21 years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The item in question is the cured skin of Lady Fitzwilliam’s horse, Master Copperfield. Quite an odd item you might think anyone would want to appreciate but it brings back some nice memories and a sense of local and family pride.
A couple of years prior to Experience Barnsley opening, I was looking through an old box of papers and found an old flyer dated 1st April 1990 for a promotional ‘walk around’ event in Elsecar called ‘The Old Horse Party’ – which I’d attended with my family, at the time being aged 13. Spearheaded by Val Noble, the-then secretary of The Elsecar Family History Group, it was a village street procession re-creating almost a 100 year old local tradition to raise money via donations and sponsorships towards equipping a small museum that they hoped to rent at the then newly-refurbished Elsecar Workshops (aka Elsecar Heritage Centre) which once belonged to the Fitzwilliams.
The Old Horse Party was founded around 1900 by a local miner from Elsecar called Tom Walker who had written a short, light-hearted three act play about a horse losing its shoe. With the help of his friends, the initial aim of the party was to raise money to purchase footwear for the ‘poor, crippled and fatherless’ children of the area by mumming around the district in pubs, clubs and the streets (Elsecar, Hoyland, Wentworth, Harley, Ecclesfield, Chapeltown). They sang traditional songs, performed tricks, played musical instruments such as the concertina, accordion and doggerel and generally clowned around. The centre piece was a pantomime horse – two members of the party donned a fabric costume to play the front and the back of the horse. In it, they chased local children to ‘scare’ them in and out of their houses, down ginnels and into fields. Other members dressed as a jockey, a clown, a blacksmith and a farrier who simply rattled their collection tins at the crowds gathering to watch.
Once a year, usually Christmas Eve, the group performed the aforementioned play in the Marble Salon at the home of Earl Fitzwilliam, Wentworth Woodhouse. The Fitzwilliams were great supporters of the Old Horse Party and invited them back year after year to perform for them and their guests. After the play and a few additional songs, they were treated to a feast of venison and beer.
In the 1920’s Lady Fitzwilliam’s favourite horse, Master Copperfield, broke a leg whilst hunting and she asked her saddler to arrange the horse’s skin to be cured and handed over to the Old Horse Party for them to use instead of the material one which was starting to get tatty.
In the 1930’s my Great Uncle George Edward Lomas (who lived in Harley) joined the Old Horse Party, a fact that I’m really proud of. Both the tradition and the fundraising continued and the money was eventually used to fund a day trip to Cleethorpes for poor children in the area. Local residents’ memories tell of their sheer excitement, gifts of rock and ‘nearly every kid came back with a cardboard kazoo and a song sheet’. In December 1934, the group were interviewed by a representative of BBC Manchester with a view to broadcast but it was thought that such an act would better be performed live.
The last performance of the Old Horse party play took place on the 27th of December in 1939 just after the 2nd World War broke out. A few days after their performance, Captain A. Taylor informed the group by letter, that ‘Their Ladyship is still smiling’ although a sad song they played called ‘The Fisherman and his Child’ had made her weep a little. Shortly afterwards, the Fitzwilliam Family started to decline unfortunately taking the Old Horse tradition with it.
In this age of technology, fundraising via entertainment (whether it be Sport or Music) is commonplace and can be made more accessible to people offering them different methods to pay. The musical comedy group The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican and Barnsley Football Club fanzine West Stand Bogs are superb recent examples of hardworking, excellent fundraisers and seem to hone it down to a fine art. But imagine trying to raise money during a time when so many, many people had so little to spare must have been very difficult indeed. The Old Horse Party did a sterling job of it and made so many people happy in the process.
Fast forward to that spring day in April 1990, I can remember the weather being sunny and warm when I got to the starting point of the procession, although Val remembers an early morning pea souper fog threatening to permeate into mid-day before finally dispersing. I scanned around the crowd looking for my father who was chatting to concertina player, John Willis. Due to our family’s previous connection with the old tradition, he was approached by Val to take part and was only too happy to accompany John on the violin. The float carrying Master Copperfield set off from the Parish Hall after a quick speech and a blessing from local, former Councillor Arthur Loy. Arthur had previously managed to track down and rescue the dirty and mouldy skin from a coal place in Mexborough after some students had loaned it from him for a thesis and never returned it to him. Our walk took us down Wath Road and past the cottage lined Reform Row. The Old Horse signature song was belted out but seeing that most of us only knew the first 4 lines, we didn’t use the song sheets after that. After Rhubarb Row we turned onto Stafford Avenue then Welland Crescent (where a couple of dogs joined in!) and up the ‘killer hill’ on Cobcar Street.
The Fitzwilliam Arms was the first pub we called at for a pint and a whip-round from the daytime drinkers. The Crown pub and Milton Arms followed, then back to the Market Hotel at 1.45pm on the dot. To conclude our walk we made our way to The Ship Inn for a break where a waiting photographer took a group photo of both the Old Horse Party and the supporters outside the pub. In the concert room the counting of the collection tins and sponsorship forms took place and we had successfully raised £160 towards the museum space. I’m not sure if we’d provoked the response as it had in the old days but it felt nice to be part of something that combined entertainment with family, fostering community spirit.
In October 1990, Arthur Loy made a statement granting Val to be the legal custodian of Master Copperfield as his intention was that the Old Horse was to be kept safe ‘to be used for the pleasure and charity of the people of Hoyland and Elsecar’. She promised faithfully to Arthur that he would never go missing again.
In a letter to my father, Val told him her dream was to re-create the Old Horse party to a much higher standard, ‘a standard to which it is more worthy of’ and ‘that it is only right and proper that the party members who played at this historical event between 1906 and 1939 should be remembered and their history recorded forever’.
After the success of the procession, Val and the rest of the Elsecar Family History Group wished to further expand their activities and events for the group and held committee meetings to discuss ideas. It was widely agreed that naturally, the next big event should be a recreation of Tom Walker’s old play – for the first time in 52 years.
There was one problem, they didn’t have a script. After some further research they found local man Horace ‘Tupty’ Cooper who had played the role of the Jockey in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He remembered all of the finer details of the play including the props used. Luckily, he had a very old and tatty copy of the play that was held together with cellotape but unfortunately the lower half of page four was missing. But that didn’t deter Val in the slightest. She and the group’s archivist Christine Roebuck were prepared to turn playwright to fill the missing bits in by researching old books and journals about English folk practice and mumming groups from medieval times onward.
Using his memories and experience, Tupty offered to direct the play much to the delight of the English Family History Group. The character roles were made available to both the Elsecar Family History Group and its supporters who wished to take part. My father stepped in once more to play the part of the Blacksmith and also offered his services to help organise any PA and lighting.
Lots of other complementary entertainment was planned around the play on the fields opposite the workshops which included Morris Dancers, the Loxley Lass musical organ, Barnsley Longsword dancers, clog dancers, a poets circus, my father’s folk band ‘Brewers Troop’ and the welcome addition of some little girl maypole dancers from Elsecar C of E school to provide a riot of colourful ribbon. A real festival of fun, music and dance guaranteed!
A copy of the play was made available to the members of the group so they could familiarise themselves with the lines and a series of rehearsals were pencilled in regular intervals leading right up to the big day.
A date was set for the play – Sunday 7th July 1991 – in the Blacksmith’s Shop in the Elsecar Workshops. The tickets had sold very well beforehand partially due to the publicity about the group and the event itself in the local press and by word of mouth.
The play itself went very well without a hitch and as a result the ‘new’ Old Horse Party were given a standing ovation by an appreciative and enthusiastic audience that included relatives of members past and present and members of the local press and other local event supporters. BBC Radio Sheffield’s Rony Robinson conducted a 40 minute live slot with Val who gave listeners a brief history of the Old Horse party and to tell them why the play and the event was so important to them.
The entire play was recorded as the audio and visuals were to be used to ‘bring to life’ the museum space which was eventually made available to The Elsecar Family History Group in 1992. The group had also been collecting an array of artefacts, amongst them were coal carvings by a local miner and old local records.
A few smaller, low-key Old Horse Party events took place in the same year as the group visited and performed the play in local old folk’s homes. The group hoped to jog the memories of many who enjoyed the Old Horse party trips as youngsters.
Master Copperfield and the rest of the museum collection remained on display for about 10 years until visitors to the Elsecar Heritage Centre began to dwindle and it closed around the year 2000.
Val Noble handed the skin of Master Copperfield to Barnsley Council for safe keeping by their Museums Service – but she still remains his Custodian. Val told me recently that Master Copperfield is still in secure storage with the Museums Service.
I hear that Experience Barnsley are planning an exhibition at the end of March until June 2015 called the ‘Brilliant and Bizzare – Unseen treasures from the Stores’ exhibiting many strange items that have been donated by the public since the inception of Experience Barnsley. I think that that description certainly fits our Master Copperfield and I sincerely hope that there will be a place for him in it. After all these years it would be brilliant to see him on display once more for our future generations as he meant such a great deal to the people who once lived and worked in Elsecar and the surrounding villages.
I’d like to thank Val and Graham Noble for helping me piece my memories together and the rest of the Elsecar Family History Group past and present.
Words by Sally Lomas.