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Indecent Lifting and Heaving May 6, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

Beach recently came across the custom of ‘lifting’ for the first time courtesy of Invisible and Two Nerdy History Girls (an excellent blog should you get the chance). The girls describe an instance of lifting in Shrewsbury. This is part of the relevant extract: the full extract is to be found chez Nerd following the link above. The letter was sent in 1799.

I was sitting alone last Easter Tuesday… when I was surprised by the entrance of all the female servants of the house handing in an arm-chair, lined with white, and decorated with ribbons and favours of different colours.  I asked them what they wanted, their answer was, they came to heave me; it was the custom of the place on that morning, and they hoped I would take a seat in their chair… I wished to see all the ceremony, and seated myself accordingly.  The group then lifted me from the ground, turned the chair about, and I had the felicity of a salute from each.

The victim of the lifting was then charged for the service the girls had provided and the letter, which is ‘sexualised’, clearly alludes to kisses. There are naturally analogues from elsewhere in Britain, particularly Wales, the Midlands and the North. In 1784 one writer (Manchester) described the same custom relating it to ‘the northern counties’:

Lifting was originally designed to represent our Saviour’s resurrection. The men lift the women on Easter Monday, and the women the men on Tuesday. One or more take hold of each leg, and one or more of each arm near the body, and lift the person up, in a horizontal position, three times. It is a rude, indecent, and dangerous diversion, practised chiefly by the lower class of people. Our magistrates constantly prohibit it by the bellman, but it subsists at the end of the town; and the women have of late years converted it into a money job. I believe it is chiefly confined to these Northern counties.

Why indecent? Do hands get everywhere? If this was a Victorian account ‘indecent’ would work? But this is burly Georgian England. This dates to a newspaper for 1787:

‘The custom of rolling down Greenwich-hill at Easter, is a relique of old City manners, but peculiar to the metropolis. Old as the custom has been, the counties of Shropshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire, boast one of equal antiquity, which they call Heaving, and perform with the following ceremonies, on the Monday and Tuesday in the Easter week. On the first day, a party of men go with a chair into every house to which they can get admission, force every female to be seated in their vehicle, and lift them up three times, with loud buzzes. For this they claim the reward of a chaste salute, which those who are too coy to submit to may get exempted from by a fine of one shilling, and receive a written testimony, which secures them from a repetition of the ceremony for that day. On the Tuesday the women claim the same privilege, and pursue their business in the same manner, with this addition – that they guard every avenue to the town, and stop ever passenger, pedestrian, equestrian or vehicular.

Note the chaste salute again. Then this account dates to 1815 and comes from the pen of the Rev Peter Roberts:

‘On Easter Monday and Tuesday a ceremony takes place among the lower orders in North Wales which is scarcely known, I believe, elsewhere. It is called ‘lifting’, as it consists in lifting a person in a chair three times from the ground. On Monday the men lift the women, and on Tuesday the women lift the men. The ceremony ceases, however, at twelve o’clock. The ‘lifters,’ as they are called, go in troops, and with a permitted freedom seize the person whom they intend to ‘lift,’ and having persuaded or obliged him (or her) to sit on the chair, lift whoever it is, three times with cheering, and then require a small compliment. A little resistance, real or pretended, creates no small merriment; much resistance would excite contempt, and perhaps indignation. That this custom owes its origin to the season needs no illustration.

This letter came from Shropshire and one Miss Burne: it contains details that seem to have escaped the other accounts:

An old bookseller told me in 1881, that in his ‘prentice days at Ludlow he and his companions were accustomed to ‘heave’ all the young girls of their acquaintance. Parties of young men went from house to house carrying a chair decorated with evergreens, flowers, and ribbons, a basin of water, and a posy. ‘What were the basin and the posy for?’ I asked, and the old man smiled with amusement at my ignorance. ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘it’s quite plain you have never been heaved’; and he proceeded to explain that the posy was dipped in water, and the young woman’s feet sprinkled with it ‘by way of a blessing’, while she was held aloft in the gaily decorated chair….. Others give more details of the ceremony. The chair must be lifted from the ground three times and turned round in the air, …. and the feet then sprinkled with the bunch of flowers dipped in water. The heaving party were rewarded with a kiss, and generally when the men were ‘heaved’, by a gift of money. Those who refused to be ‘heaved’ had to pay forfeit. …. In Durham and Yorkshire ‘heaving’ is disused, but the forfeit for its omission is still exacted. The boys may pull off the shoes from the girls’ unblessed feet on Easter Sunday, and the girls may retaliate on the boys’ caps on Monday.

Then by 1890, when presumably the custom was well on its way to extinction, it is recorded by an American in Wales: its last stronghold?

A ceremony called ‘lifting’ is peculiar to North Wales on Easter Monday and Tuesday. On the Monday bands of men go about with a chair, and meeting a woman in the street compel her to sit, and be lifted three times in the air amidst their cheers : she is then invited to bestow a small compliment on her entertainers. This performance is kept up till twelve o’clock, when it ceases. On Easter Tuesday the women take their turn, and go about in like manner lifting the men. It has been conjectured that in this custom an allusion to the resurrection is intended.

Then there is this last lonely account that was published in 1914, but that could easily date back a generation before. Where would a good ‘olde’ English custom be without the supercilious vicar?

A grave clergyman who happened to be passing through a town in Lancashire on an Easter Tuesday and having to stay an hour or two at an inn, was astonished by three or four lusty women rushing into his room, exclaiming they had come ‘to lift him’. ‘To lift me!’ repeated the astonished divine. ‘What can you mean?’ ‘Why, your reverence, we’re come to lift you, cause it’s Easter Tuesday.’ ‘Lift me because it’s Easter Tuesday? I don’t understand. Is there any such custom here?’ ‘Yes, to be sure; why don’t you know? All of us women was lifted yesterday; and so we lifts the men to-day in turn. An in course it’s our rights and due to lift ‘em.’

‘His reverence’ got off by paying half-a-crown that, thinking about it, sounds more Edwardian than Victorian.

Finally, in Strickland we read (though it would be interesting to see the original source, see the Nerdy post above):

‘There is an old custom, still remembered in Warwickshire, called ‘heaving’. On Easter Monday, the women servants of every household clamorously enter the chamber or sitting-room of the master of the family, or any ‘stranger beneath his roof’, and, seating him in a chair, lift him therein from the ground, and refuse to set him down till he compounds for his liberty by a gratuity. Seven of Queen Eleanora’s (of Castile) ladies, on the Easter Monday of 1290, unceremoniously invaded the chamber of King Edward (the First), and seizing their majestic master, proceeded to ‘heave him’ in his chair till he was glad to pay a fine of fourteen pounds to enjoy ‘his own peace’, and be set at liberty.’

Fourteen pounds?! Bloody hell. In the thirteenth century, you could have bought a Motte and Bailey with solar panels and a swimming pool for fourteen pounds.

Any other instances of heaving/lifting? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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8 May 2012: Southern Man wonders aloud about whether lifting and heaving could have something to do with various wedding customs including chairing. Wade meanwhile ties heaving and lifting to the very similar and old Dorset custom of hocking or hock-tide, ‘neither of which I was familiar with before your post‘. Thanks Wade and SM!!