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.”
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.
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.
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
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Derick Mc Gauley
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Eileen Schaa Born Beeson