Myths and Legends
St Mary the Virgin, Braughing
Celebrating Old Man's Day
Did you know that the 2nd October is Old Man's Day? Well, it is if you live in Braughing anyway!
While many villages hold Harvest Festival events and Remembrance Day Parades, far fewer can lay claim to unique traditions of their very own, based on tales of old.
But the village of Braughing in Hertfordshire is one of them - because the 2nd of October is known as Old Man's Day, where for many centuries certain customs have been carried out, as stipulated in an "Old Man's" will.
The “old man” was called Mathew Wall who died in 1571. The story is that as he was being carried in his coffin down Fleece Lane in Braughing towards the church, one of the bearers slipped on a leaf and to everybody’s horror, he dropped the coffin. But even more to their horror, they then heard some knocking. It turned out that Mathew Wall was not dead after all and he went on to live for another 24 years!
Since then, the village has celebrated the 2nd of October, the day when his original funeral was held. Being buried alive was a big fear of the time and so obviously Mathew was very thankful that he had escaped this fate. He therefore laid down certain things in his will so that certain traditions should be continued over the years in memory of, and thanksgiving for, the extra 24 years of his life.
The Reverend Jeanette Gosney is the current vicar at St Mary the Virgin Church in the village. She explained what they do to celebrate:
“What he [Mathew] said in his will was that various things should happen including the sweeping of Fleece Lane on the 2nd October every year” she said, “and that the person should be paid for doing it. That person is now traditionally the vicar, who gets £1 for doing it – which goes into the charity box.
“We always think that it’s a little odd though, because sweeping it [the lane] removes the leaves, and yet it was because there were slippery leaves there, that the coffin was dropped.
“But the people who now sweep Fleece Lane are the children of the local school and they don’t get money, they get sweets!
“Also, the man who currently lives in Quilters, which is the house where Mathew Wall used to live has to pay the vicar £1 too. It was also laid down in the will that in order to be able to live there, the owner of the house had to pay this amount each year.”
And so it is then, that on the 2nd October each year, the vicar meets the local children at the top of Fleece Lane, who all arrive with their brooms and brushes ready to sweep.
“We then sweep Fleece Lane” continued Jeanette, “which as you can imagine, with 60-70 children all trying to get down there with their brooms, is quite interesting and we hope it doesn’t rain!”
The group then move on into the churchyard where they gather round Mathew Wall’s grave, and as they walk there, the church bells are tolled as if for a funeral which is another one of his stipulations.
“We gather round the grave and we say some prayers, normally for families because Mathew went on to have two sons” added Jeanette.
“Then the children sing a song and I play the guitar, and then the bells are rung as for a wedding as a sign of celebration and the children go off with their sweets.”
All this is believed to have stemmed from a true story, even if some things have changed a little over the years.
“All sorts of rumours go round as to how true it is” explained Jeanette, “but it’s like any village tradition, you don’t know how much genuinely happened and how much is based on an incident, but it’s nice to believe that it’s true anyway.”
And as a village, she also explained how important she though it was to keep these kinds of traditions going.
“I think it’s absolutely crucial” she said.
“We have several traditions in Braughing. This is just one of them and one that I think people would be very, very sad to lose, because it’s something that everyone knows about.
“Everyone remembers it and talks about ‘when I was a boy or girl this is what we used to do’. And although traditions evolve a little bit, this one seems to have been around for quite some time and it brings the community together.”
Many traditional events take place in villages all over the UK, but this seems to be a story like no other.
“This is unique to Braughing” said Jeanette, who this year will celebrate the day for the fourth time.
“As far as I know there is no other story that is celebrated in this way about a man supposedly dying and coming to life again.
“I think the first year I didn’t really understand what it was all about but as I talked to people, I gradually learned how important it is in the village.”
last updated: 02/10/2008 at 13:44