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A woman kisses a tutti man outside a shop in Hungerford at Hocktide.
Photo credit: Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo

Tales of a Tutti Man: Hocktide Customs Uncovered

To the woefully unaware, the West Berkshire town of Hungerford may seem like a quaint spot on a pretty canal. But beware: Tutti men are known to prowl at Hocktide.

Hocktide, a medieval English festival dating back to before the Norman Conquest, is celebrated the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter. It was significant for medieval governance, involving the election of officials and community bonding through activities like the Hocktide play. Today, its traditional observance has waned, but Hungerford continues with unique customs, maintaining a link to England's historical social fabric.

We’re publishing this article on April 1st. Note that it’s past midday, so you can be confident that everything below is real. Even the parts about Tutti men, kisses at the tops of ladders in exchange for an orange, and a tradition in which newcomers are “shod” by a local blacksmith. None of it, we are told, is made up.

Now, at Tradfolk we’re all too aware that England has its fair share of eccentric traditions, but in our two-and-a-half years of publication, we’ve yet to come across anything quite so… Alice in Wonderland. Welcome to the Wyrd World of Hungerford Hocktide, with its macaroni suppers, its Orange Men, its delivery of Tutti men in wheelbarrows, its top hats, tails and ladies waiting in windows. There’s a strong hint of the Mad Hatters Tea Party about all this, but there’s also a serious component. The holding of the Hocktide Court currently leads directly to projects that will allow free access to nature reserves for the people of Hungerford and beyond. The Tutti men may sound sinister, but they are here for the common good.

Rather than try and get to the bottom of all this ourselves, we caught up with the Steward of the Hocktide Court, Mr Greg Furr, and asked for a whistle-stop tour of Hungerford at Hocktide. Tutti, tutti!

We no longer throw red hot pennies to the children in the street. Don’t talk to me about health and safety…

Greg Furr, Steward of the Hocktide Court, Hungerford

Can you tell us about the historical origins of Hungerford’s Hocktide celebration? 

It is believed that Hocktide, sometimes referred to as Hock Tuesday or Hockney Day, may have its origins in the medieval ‘Tourns’, when the county Sheriff would visit every Hundred [an administrative area large enough to sustain 100 people] and hold a criminal court. Many of the procedures of the Tourns are echoed in the ceremonies of the Hocktide Court.

Hungerford’s Hocktide is unique; what do you believe has allowed these traditions to survive and thrive here?

Hocktide was once celebrated almost nationwide, but apart from its legal role it became a rare holiday for the villeins and developed into a pretty roisterous festival and eventually became discouraged. It had almost disappeared by the beginning of the 17th century. Since the 14th century, Hungerford had been administered by the Town and Manor of Hungerford and held its own Manorial Court and Courts Leet and Baron, and many of the ancient traditions survived long after they had ceased elsewhere. In the early 17th century, James the 1st formalised this arrangement by appointing a board of burgesses. This arrangement lasted until the 19th century when the government demanded that the Town and Manor became a town council. This intrusion was dealt with by ignoring it for 50 years until, under threat of imprisonment, a deal was struck whereby the Town and Manor became a charity retaining all its assets and a separate town council was established.

You don’t have to dig very far into Hungerford’s Hocktide history before you come across the Tutti Men. Who are they and what role do they play in today’s celebrations?

The Tutti men or, correctly, the tithing officers, would have originally collected the quit rents from the tenants, but on Tutti Day they are re-enacting the collection of a penny fine for those who have failed to attend court. This has been replaced over the years with a kiss from the lady of the house in exchange for an orange.

And that’s presumably where the Orangeman comes in, right? What’s his significance?

The Orangeman’s main task is to shepherd the Tutti men around the town and, given that most households will offer some type of refreshment, usually alcoholic, this is quite a responsibility. The name is said to be a reference to William of Orange, who met representatives of James II at the Bear Hotel in Hungerford – but as this happened in 1688 and the earliest mention of the Orangeman is in the 1920’s, it seems unlikely.

Give us a rundown of the key Hocktide events over in Hungerford.

After lunch the newcomers or ‘colts’ are shod by the blacksmith, and then we retire across the road to the Three Swans Hotel for anchovies on toast.

Greg Furr, Steward of the Hocktide Court, Hungerford

The events start a week earlier with the selection of the Hocktide Jury. The commoners gather in the town hall and draw names from the Bellman’s Hat. Those selected are then summonsed to attend the Hocktide Court the following Tuesday.

On the Friday, the officers of the court attend the macaroni supper where the appointment of officers for the following year is discussed. Their recommendations are then put before the Hocktide Jury at court. This is then followed by the consumption of alcohol.

The most popular event, ale tasting, takes place in the Corn Exchange on the Monday evening before Hocktide. The Tutti men from the previous Hocktide are automatically appointed ale tasters. The pubs and clubs around the town and local breweries are extremely generous in donating barrels of ale, usually between 10 and 12 for the approval of the ale tasters and guests. This was originally an official post as you were not allowed to sell or supply ale in the borough unless approved by the ale tasters for consumption. Regrettably, this is by invitation only.

The main event is Tutti Day and, once the Tutti men are sent off on their rounds at 9am from the town hall steps, the steward leads the Constable, jury and officers of the court up to the town hall chamber to commence the serious business of the day: the Hocktide Court, presided over by the Constable and conducted by the steward. Members of the public are welcome to attend and observe this ancient tradition.

Shoeing a colt – part of the Hocktide Ceremony annual custom celebrated at Hungerford. Jeff Morgan / Alamy Stock Photo

The Hocktide lunch takes place after the court, attended by up to 150 guests. After lunch the newcomers or ‘colts’ are shod by the blacksmith, and then we retire across the road to the Three Swans Hotel for anchovies on toast.

In the evening, the excellent Hungerford Brass Band gives a free concert before we retire once more to the Three Swans to welcome back the Tutti men at the end of their long day.

On the following Friday, the steward holds the Court Leet in the town hall where the officers for the ensuing year are sworn in before we retire to the pub. (There seems to be a recurring theme here.)

The final event of the week is the Constable’s parade and service on the Sunday morning.  All Trustees, commoners, officers of the court and representatives of all the organisations in Hungerford gather outside the town hall and parade, led by the Bell Man and town band, to the parish church of St Lawrence to celebrate the life of the community of Hungerford.

The Bellman outside the Tutti Pole Tea Shop, Hungerford. Image courtesy of townandmanor.co.uk website.

How has Tutti Day changed in recent years, if at all?

The most drastic change must be the inclusion of women as officers of the court – a change which was carried unanimously when proposed.

Greg Furr, Steward of the Hocktide Court, Hungerford

Tutti Day has not changed fundamentally over the years, although there have been some obvious additions such as the climbing of a ladder to kiss the lady of the house at an upstairs window, and the Tutti men returning at the end of the day to the Three Swans in a wheelbarrow. The wearing of top hats and tails has become commonplace but this is a recent innovation, as early photographs show. It is amazing how quickly these features become traditions. The most drastic change must be the inclusion of women as officers of the court – a change which was carried unanimously when proposed.

Are there any ancient customs that have been discontinued or significantly altered? Has it ever failed to take place?

It is obviously no longer necessary to collect quit rents from the tenants and we no longer have a searcher and sealer of leather amongst our offices. Apart from that, Hocktide in Hungerford hasn’t changed much over the years. During the war years, I believe Hocktide was held in one form or another – the only cancellation I am aware of was during the recent pandemic, but I managed to hold a form of Hocktide Court over Zoom (another ancient tradition in the making?) It does beg the question, “What happened during the plague in the 17th century?” Looks like another trip to the archive…    

In 2001, I was honoured to become Tutti Man with the first lady to hold the post, Barbara Barr, who later went on to become the first Lady Constable, head of the whole organisation. Since then, we have had three more Lady Constables.

How does the Hungerford community get involved in the Hocktide celebrations?

Back in the Middle Ages, the Town and Manor of Hungerford was effectively the local authority and ran the town accordingly. All of the inhabitants of Hungerford were entitled to commoners’ rights and to hold office, and were subject to the authority of the Hocktide Court. Fast forward to the 19th century and the attempted abolishment of the Town and Manor, which only survives today thanks to some hard negotiations and sheer bloody-mindedness of the trustees of the day.

But survival came at a price: only the commoners who inhabited houses on the site of the original tenements were allowed to exercise their valuable rights of common, and thus hold posts within the organisation. This sadly led to some resentment in the town, but the Town and Manor’s raison d’etre – as laid out in their charitable scheme – is working for the benefit of the whole community in the ancient borough. We do try to encourage interest in our work and welcome members of the public to as many events as possible. For instance, they are welcome to attend the Hocktide Court and buy tickets for the lunch. We also invite local organisations to apply for donations.

Forgive me for saying so, but it all seems nuts! You must have a few stories…

Too many… far too many! I can tell you that when I was a Tutti man, having been warned that the commoners were very generous with refreshments, I resolved to be sensible and pace my intake throughout the long day. At our first visit at 9am, we were given a large glass of sherry. The second host gave us a larger glass of brandy. At our third commoner property, we entered through the front door to the sound of champagne corks popping… and all this within 40 minutes! The day ends at around 11pm in the Three Swans Hotel… not that I remember much of it.

Is the Hocktide tradition something that the younger inhabitants of Hungerford are interested in? What challenges do you face in keeping it alive?

One of my tasks is to contact new arrivals when they move to Hungerford and explain who we are and what we do before signing them up as commoners. I find that they are usually very interested and want to get involved. The bigger problem is that many young people frequently move, often for their career, and we often find that, having recruited an individual, they have gone before they can rise through the ranks. Any commoner can ultimately become Constable, but not before occupying all posts including tithing officer, ale taster, bailiff and portreeve. This process can take between five and 10 years. Years ago, it was not uncommon for people to be born, educated, work and die without leaving their home town.

Are there any initiatives or plans to evolve the Hocktide celebrations while maintaining their traditional essence?

No, we are committed to preserving this wonderful tradition and only make changes when legislation requires us to do so. We no longer throw red hot pennies to the children in the street. Don’t talk to me about health and safety…

What does overseeing Hungerford’s Hocktide celebrations mean to you personally?

A lot of work and a lot of fun.

Have you ever climbed a ladder to kiss a girl?

No. As I have said, when I was a Tutti man I was partnered with the first lady Tutti man (for that is what we call them), and having placed the ladder carefully at an upstairs window I passed my Tutti pole, a six-foot staff with a bloody great flower arrangement on the top (which gets mysteriously heavier as the day passes), to the Orangeman and turned back to see my fellow Tutti man sprint up the ladder and plant a kiss on the startled face of the man of the house! I found out later that, as a young woman, she had been an apprentice thatcher.

Which aspect of Hocktide do you think is most important for outsiders to understand or appreciate?

That Hocktide is a tradition that still has a purpose. The holding of the court ensures the continuing existence of the Town and Manor of Hungerford and the continuance of the good work that the trustees do for the town. We own over 450 acres in and around the town, including Hungerford Common and Freemans Marsh, hundreds of acres of land with free public access, completely self-funded, without a penny from public funds. We also own the Town Hall, believed to be the only one in England in private hands. We are currently working on a 40-acre wetland reserve adjacent to the River Kennet which will also have free access.

We might have the odd drink or two, just to be sociable…

Greg Furr, Steward of the Hocktide Court, Hungerford

Are there any misconceptions about Hocktide in Hungerford that you would like to clarify?

That it is a glorified piss-up! We might have the odd drink or two, just to be sociable…

Well, since you’re being sociable, how can people who are not from Hungerford participate in or support the Hocktide traditions?

As I have said, the Hocktide events are commoner-centric, but the public are welcome to attend the court (limited seating; first come, first served) and book tickets for the lunch (via the Town and Manor website), and are welcome to come and observe the comings and goings of the Tutti men. There is usually a film crew and photographers around, especially in the morning to see the Tutti men off. We have been criticised in the past for not having enough for people to do. I’m not sure what they want… jugglers on the Common? Morris men on the Marsh? We use to have a steam organ in the marketplace outside the town hall. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hear ourselves think in the courtroom.

Is there anything new or different planned for the upcoming Hocktide celebrations?

Absolutely not.

To apply for court room seating and the Tutti Day lunch, head to townandmanor.co.uk.