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Customs Uncovered: The Tichborne Dole

Discover the enduring tradition of the Tichborne Dole, a charitable act dating back to the 12th century, offering blessed flour (and curses) to Hampshire locals.

Today, March 25th, is the Feast of the Annunciation, or Lady’s Day. If you happen to live in the parishes of Tichborne, Cheriton or Lane End in Hampshire, today is also the day that you might have popped down to your local manor house for a bag of flour that’s been blessed by a priest. They don’t even offer that service in Waitrose, you know. This tradition of handing out ‘the Tichborne Dole’ dates back to the 12th century and of course, like all great traditions, its roots blur the line between myth and legend.

What is the Tichborne Dole?

Although the word has gained more negative connotations in more recent times, the idea of ‘the dole’ is not a new one.

Picture this – a woman lays on her actual death bed in a modest country manor house, asking her husband to, “please, when I’m gone, think of the needy locals and help them by using your land to grow corn to provide flour to make bread to feed them once a year”. And the husband, who would get booed if he was in a pantomime, replies, “Sure, no problem. I’ll plant with corn any land that you walk around once you’ve hopped up out of your actual death bed. Oh and fun twist. You have to walk around it before this flame…” pauses to dramatically pull a burning branch out of modest country manor house fireplace “…goes out. Ready?”

I don’t wish to cast aspersions but he doesn’t sound like the nicest chap, does he? The lady in question was Lady Mabella Tichborne, and this roguish Lord of the Manor was Sir Roger Tichborne, who was said to dislike charity in general. Really adds up when you think about it, doesn’t it?

Back to the story: Lady Mabella fully takes one for the team, and in a miraculous (and some might say surprising) show of strength for someone known to be suffering from a wasting disease, heads off out of Tichborne House. Walking is out of the question – what with her being on her actual death bed – so she resorts to the next best thing: crawling. The branch burned in Sir Roger’s hand and his wife headed off on hands and knees. In some versions of the tale, she has to carry the branch with her, but the logistics of that seem far-fetched in an already unbelievable story, so we’ll let him hold it for her. It’s really the least he can do.

How far did she go?

It’s said that before the torch burned out, Lady Mabella traversed around a 23-acre field, securing the area for charitable food production before, we assume returning to her bed. If any of our readers would like to test out her feat of endurance, Parker’s Piece in Cambridge is almost exactly 23 acres square. To this day, the land around which she travelled is known as “The Crawls” and can be found to the north of Tichborne Park, beside the road to Alresford.

In a delicious post-script to the whole sorry affair, Lady Mabella added a not-very-charitable curse on to her extremely-charitable offer to the local community: if the annual dole offering was removed, the Tichborne family line would not survive and the house would fall into ruin. When later Tichbornes were forced to suspend the Dole in 1796 due to misuse, a string of seven daughters were born, risking the male bloodline, and so the annual gift of bread was reinstated.

The Tichborne Dole in art

Amazingly, for such a tiny tradition in a small village, a historical painting of the day survives (it’s at the top of this article). Sir Henry Tichborne commissioned Flemish artist Gillis van Tilborch to record the event in 1607, and the painting shows Sir Henry, his family and servants distributing the Tichborne Dole in front of the old Tichborne House. That’s the Tichborne House that had to be demolished because it was falling into ruin at the end of the 1700s… nasty things those curses! In the early 1800s, a new house and chapel were built in the classical style, which survive to this day.

The modern Tichborne Dole

That the Tichborne Dole continues to this day makes it one of the longest-established charity doles in the country. Locals are still entitled to claim a gallon of flour per head (half a gallon for children) from outside Tichborne House each Ascension Day. The flour is blessed by the local catholic priest, and it is a condition of the lease of the house that the custom must continue. But how many people get a potential curse with their tenancy agreement…?

Are you from the area? Have you been to claim your dole today (or on a previous occasion)? We want to know how blessed your flour tastes, so let us know in the comments.