Heritage: Christmas in Hornchurch 150 years ago and the end of an ancient custom

In the early 1800s Hornchurch celebrated Christmas Day with a wrestling contest. The prize was a roa

In the early 1800s Hornchurch celebrated Christmas Day with a wrestling contest. The prize was a roasted boar's head. Photo: PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Prof Ged Martin tells the story of an ancient Hornchurch custom, which came to a rowdy end at Christmas 1868.

Nobody knows the origin of the custom, but for centuries Hornchurch celebrated Christmas Day with a wrestling contest. The ritual was apparently unique in England.

The prize, a roasted boar’s head, was awarded by the farmer at Hornchurch Hall, which stood opposite St Andrew’s church.

The first known account, in 1826, dated the event to “time immemorial”.

The boar’s head was decked with ribbons, holly and bay leaves.

With an orange in its mouth, it was paraded on a pitchfork from Hornchurch Hall across the road to the Dell behind the church. The wrestling bouts took place there in the afternoon.

In 1837, there was a white Christmas. The ground was “as hard as frost could make it”. For the twenty contestants, it really was a knock-out competition.

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By tradition, the winner and his friends carried the boar’s head off to a local pub, where it was “feasted upon, with all the merriment peculiar to the season”.

The trophy was usually “paraded around the village” first.

It wasn’t the heroes of Hornchurch who wrecked the ancient custom, but the roughnecks of Romford.

The population of Romford increased from 5,000 in 1841 to over 8,000 by 1871. That figure included Collier Row, plus the future Gidea Park and Harold Hill, but it’s clear the town was growing.

Romford Market was a major centre for cattle trading. Romford Brewery was booming. Cattle drovers were tough characters. The Brewery employed muscular draymen.

Hornchurch was still just a village. Every Christmas Day, it faced an influx of Romford ruffians.

Hornchurch versus Romford rivalry now dominated the wrestling matches. The crowds were “nothing but a tumultuous rabble”.

In 1868, chaos erupted. A pompous journalist told the tale.

The procession carrying the boar’s head “was surrounded by a considerable body of persons from Romford, who were desirous that the honour of possession should fall to their town; but the means they adopted were not of a legitimate character, inasmuch as they took forcible possession of the coveted dish”.

The mob marched their booty back to Romford, and feasted at the New Mill Inn, a cattle-dealers’ pub. (It stood near the London Road roundabout of today’s ring-road.)

The police soon arrested the chief culprit, 22-year-old Herbert James, a drover living in a boarding house in Queen Street off Waterloo Road. Later, a teenage tearaway called Thomas Cooper was rounded up too.

But there was a problem. The Liberty of Havering had its own courts, but there were only three magistrates.

Two were needed to hear a case. One was on holiday.

Octavius Mashiter of Priests (remembered in Romford’s Priests Avenue) took his duties so seriously that he rarely spent a night away from home during 33 years on the bench.

But on New Year’s Day 1869, he slipped and broke his thigh. With only one magistrate available, the case was postponed until April.

By then, the local elite wanted to move on. James and Cooper were charged with theft. Lawyers mused that it was really a case of violent assault. This technicality enabled them to release the prisoners.

The real priority was to tackle the core problem, put an end to an annual custom that had become a liability. Havering magistrates said they would be “pleased to hear of its cessation.”

In September 1869, it was quietly announced that Christmas wrestling would cease.

The event had caused “disgraceful proceedings”, infesting Hornchurch with “the lowest rabble from the surrounding country” on what should be a sacred day.

Herbert James did well enough. By 1881, he’d made his own home, in nearby St Andrews Road. Still a bachelor, he employed a housekeeper.

The Waterloo Road area was later redeveloped. The New Mill Inn was demolished around 1970.

It’s sad that Havering lost its ancient custom, but Christmas in Hornchurch certainly became much quieter.