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24 September 2014

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You are in: Liverpool > History > Discover > The Times > Judas Burning

Collecting firewood

Collecting firewood

Judas Burning

The Liverpool Good Friday tradition of burning an effigy of Judas around the streets of Dingle and Toxteth was unique in the U.K.

Every Good Friday in the first half of the twentieth century the streets of Dingle and Toxteth would ring to the noise of running feet, cries of ‘Judas’ and the crackling sound of burning.

The custom of burning an effigy of Judas at Easter was common in Greece, Spain and Mexico. There’s little record of the tradition taking place in the U.K. apart from in Liverpool, even then it was confined to a small area of streets in one area.

David Glyn Hughes recalls the tradition during his childhood in the 1930’s. “I was born in 1928 and my childhood up to the blitz was spent living in a two-up-two-down in one of the streets leading down to Grafton Street from Cockburn Street in Toxteth.   I remember that we used to get up early on Good Friday morning and "burn Judas" up against the wall of some building.”

Moses Street

The ritual took place in Dingle

The tradition of Judas burning was very parochial and many people from neighbouring districts were unaware of it.

The practice generally involved children aged between 8-12 years old who would collect and store wood in the weeks preceding Easter and build an effigy of a human figure, along the same lines as that of Guy Fawkes. The ‘Judas’ would have to be hidden away from rival gangs who would attempt to steal the effigy.

The ritual would begin early in the day. In her 1992 book ‘Confessions of a Judas Burner’, Carole Sexton describes that “Mrs Lympany who lived in Lothian Street recalls her two elder sisters going out at 4am around 1914 carrying a burning torch and running through the streets shouting ‘Burn Judas’.”

Children would parade the Judas as they ran through the streets asking for contributions with the cry of ‘A penny for Judas’s breakfast.’ The Judas would then be burnt on a local waste ground. Sometimes a pig’s bladder would also form part of the ritual. The bladder would be purchased from a local butcher, inflated and then tied with string before being attached to a stick. The bladder would be used to beat the Judas and often other children too.

Authorities intervene

The police and fire brigade would often attempt to thwart the burnings as David Glyn Hughes says “Of course it would not be long before the police would be around putting out the fire and picking on one or two of the boys, it was always boys in my memories of these events, and chasing them through the streets. 

"I can't remember which year it was.  I was simply watching these other lads burning their "Judas" when two policemen arrived, would you believe - on a motorcycle and sidecar!  We all scattered but for some reason they decided to chase me. 

Guy Fawkes

The tradition was similar to Guy Fawkes

"I was running along the jigger behind Cockburn Street toward my back entry between Draycott and Charlecote Streets where I would be home.   Because every time the police came to a street to cross they had to stop to make sure nothing was coming down the street, I was able to keep ahead of them.  I turned down my back entry without them seeing which of the back doors I had turned into.   The dog in the yard next to mine kicked up a shindig and I heard the police open that back door, saw I wasn't in that yard and decided to call it a day.  Was I relieved!   I don't think my parents ever knew that I had been involved."

Local residents would often leave their front doors ajar so fleeing children could hide inside. Most people recall that the fun would generally be over by noon, with mid morning the popular time for fires to be lit.

One explanation for the development of Judas Burning was that sailors from Greece, Spain and Portugal would carry out the ritual on their ships. This was witnessed by the local children who then took up the custom themselves.

In Liverpool it seems to have been in existence from the late 19th Century although it was most prevalent in the years between the two world wars. There are reports of Judas Burning taking place as late as the 1950’s.

last updated: 25/04/2008 at 15:08
created: 12/04/2006

Have Your Say

Do you have recollections of Judas burning? Have you heard stories about it? Add your comments here.

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Derick Mc Gauley
I WELL REMEMBER BURNING JUDAS ROUND THE DINGLE. I LIVED IN ELSWICK ST.USED TO TELL ME MAM AN DAD I WAS STAYING AT A MATES AN STAY OUT ALL NIGHT. ONCE SLEPT OUT ON A BUIILDING SITE ON PEEL STREET WITH SOME OF THE LADS FROM DINGLE VALE SCHOOL. I ALSO REMEMBER THE POLICE HAVING VESPA SCOOTERS , I WAS TOLD THEY COULD'NT GET THROUGH THE MIDDLE JIGGERS THAT JOINESD ELSWICK STREET TO DRAYCOTT, ALTHORP ETC. A COPPER WAS CHASING ME ON A VESPA SO BEING A CLEVER KID I DUCKED DOWN A MIDDLE JIGGER . FELT STUPID AND SCARED WHEN I HEARD THE BUZZING OF HIS BLOODY VESPA COMING UP BEHIND . RESULT VISIT TO ESSEX STREET POLICE STATION WITH "DE OWLD FELLEH"

spence fleetwood
I remember it very well in the fiftyswe used to live in barclay street further down towards the merseyI used to look forward to it every year

Billy Ellis
I lived in 8 Lockhart St. from 1952-63 an we had a fire every good friday in our street, we collected wood for weeks before and we up at 1am to start our fires, this lasted practicly all day

roy david steele
me and alan reitdyke used to do judas burning a lot between late 60s early to mid 70s but it seemed to fizzle by 1975 to 1976 but we always thought the judas was some sort of union leader

Maureen Wickham
I was born in 1948 and lived in Marmion Terrace, off Beresford Road, we were burning Judas as late as 1961/62 - However we would get up very early and creep out, (as early as 5 o'clock am)with hot cross buns, and potatoes which we would cook in the bonfire. We would have our bonfire at the bottom of Beresford Road, another bonfire would be lit in Thornton place and we would visit each others fire. The fires would be out by mid morning, I can only remember a policeman on a bike, and he would just check if we were OK and not putting ourselves at risk and then off he would go. The majority of us would be attending St. Cleopas Church of England School in Beresford Road.

Ken Dobson
I was born in the Dingle in 1959 and my Dad always used to talk about this tradition, my brother who was born in 1950 actually recalls seeing the burning judas.

Arthur Devine
I was born in 1940,and lived in Winkle Street between Northumberland Street and Upper Park Street. The days leading up to Good Friday,would be spent trying to steal another streets's Bonfire wood, which would be used to burn Judas

Eileen Schaa Born Beeson
i do remember very well we use to go around a penny for the guy and we had our fire on the dingle field we also roasted chesnuts we had a old pram and put guy farks in it when we went arouned collecting our pennys i think we done that up until 1960 or may be longer thay wher lovely times i live in germany now the last 37 years but i love the place i was born and visit as much as i can i was born 1947

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