For one thousand three hundred and eleven years Christmas has been celebrated here in Sherborne.
Ever since St. Aldhelm arrived in 705 and built his Sherborne Cathedral, -as it was known until 1075 when St. Wulfsin began the Benedictine monastery, since when it has always been the Abbey,- the town has seen Christmas services and celebrations. And still, in this year, 2016, a variety of traditions are still observed.
As you might expect, there are Nativity Scenes, carol singing, Christmas trees lining Cheap Street with their twinkling lights, candles, glittering baubles, shimmering tinsel, cards and wishes, the giving of gifts, overindulgence of food, the pleasures of alcohol……. traditions enjoyed by us all. Traditions that are practised throughout the country, throughout the Western World. In recent years we have even had a dedicated annual Festive Shopping Day on the first Sunday of December with all of the above and the official tree-lighting to round the day off.
But one not so common tradition still practised here in Sherborne has survived the passage of time and the change of eras for many years.
“Up To Lodge”, or “Christmas Pennies” as it’s also known, is described by Gerald Pitman (who never missed it) in his Sherborne Observed (1983) as the custom when
at 9am on Christmas Day, townsfolk who go to the Castle Estates Yard, are given a small gift of money as a personal gift from the owner of Sherborne Castle.
Although the Digby Family have been in continuous ownership of the Castle since 1617, the exact time when this custom began is obscure and not really known.
The Dorset County Chronicle, January 1896 stated that:
in accordance with an old-established custom, a large number of children from Sherborne (and surrounding villages) presented themselves at the Castle Lodge on Christmas morning, and were each presented with two new pennies.
The gate to the old road being opened to allow the public into Sherborne Park by the traditional route. (George Wingfield Digby built New Road in 1856, altering the route for all other traffic).
Often described as a feudal dole, this custom of giving out new minted coinage has persisted since “time out of mind”, (although there is a tradition that it was oranges that were formally distributed).
Its origins are difficult to determine, the Castle Estate records show that the gifts were given from 1828-1855 to children and elderly men & women (with a total amount of £5 for disbursements to children and £1 to the elderly).
In 1886 there is an entry for “pence given to children and aged women”, so at that time the custom seemed to be restricted to the very old or very young.
Some 50 years later the gift was 4d for adults and 2d for children. It was maintained unbroken through two world wars, although in 1915 during WWI new coinage ran out and used pennies had to be given.
In 1946, since there was another shortage of new minted pence, half-pennies were substituted.
Today new minted decimal coins are given out in the castle estate yard. (In 2015 inflation had increased the value to £1.70, given out with to the 40-50 residents who turned up, sealed in a dated Sherborne Castle Estates commemorative card “Wishing You A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”. (Children received chocolate coins in gold foil).
So I am pleased to say that Up To Lodge/Christmas Pennies remains, in continuance with custom, a Shirburnian Christmas tradition even to this day.
With thanks to Ann Smith of Sherborne Castle Estate Archives.