Times Past: The Christmas tradition of wrestling for a roasted boar’s head in Hornchurch
�In 1827 the London-based writer and publisher William Hone described what he said was an ancient Hornchurch Christmas tradition, which had occurred in the village “from time immemorial”.
The tradition was the annual Christmas Day wrestling match for a roasted boar’s head. It happened on Mill Field by the Hornchurch Windmill near St Andrew’s Church and opposite Hornchurch Hall (which stood where the Robert Beard Youth Centre is today) on Christmas afternoon each year.
Hone described how the tenants of Hornchurch Hall supplied a roasted boar’s head “dressed, and garnished with bay leaves etc.” and “carried in procession into the Mill Field, adjoining the church-yard, where it is wrestled for; and it is afterwards feasted upon, at one of the public houses, by the rustic conqueror and his friends, with all the merriment peculiar to the season”.
Hone wrote of this tradition – described by the Essex Standard newspaper in 1880 as “the most noteworthy of the distinguishing local folk customs previously existing in various parts of this county” – in his Every Day Book and Table Book listing the nation’s traditions and customs.
Hone described his book as a miscellany of “old country sports and usages” that “associated the Peasantry of this land with its Nobles, in bonds which degraded neither”.
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The tradition which Hone described in Hornchurch was recorded elsewhere in England in the Middle Ages and was associated with a rosy view of the past in the early 19th century.
A roasted boar’s head was the first dish brought to the table of the nobility on Christmas Day in Medieval England and, as a king among beasts, was symbolically associated with Christ who was a sovereign among men.
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In the early 16th century a scholar noted a Christmas carol containing the words: “This boar’s head we bring with song, in worship of him thus sprung, of a virgin to redress all wrong.”
In a contemporary poem published by Hone, the tradition was linked to an idealised view of Christmas in Arthurian England. “The bill of fare (as you may well suppose) was suited to those plentiful old times... They served up salmon, venison and wild boars, by hundreds, and by dozens, and by scores.”
The Hornchurch tradition continued until 1868 and was written about in the Chelmsford Chronicle and Grantham Journal as well as by Hone and the Essex Standard.