by Jeannie Swales
These three tiny, everyday objects are laden with symbolism at this time of year.
On the left, there’s a nugget of coal, on the right, a tiny crust of bread, and at the bottom, a neatly wrapped package of salt.
All three were given to a guest at an unknown Scarborough hotel as part of the New Year celebrations some time in the first half of the last century – certainly prior to 1945, as they are from the collection of local folklorist William James Clarke, and he died that year.
In a tradition which seems largely confined to the north of England and Scotland, the three objects were given as gifts to a household as part of ‘first footing’.
It was – still is, by many – considered lucky if the first visitor to a house after midnight on New Year’s Eve was a tall, dark-haired man bearing coal, representing warmth and comfort; bread, representing food and plenty; and salt, representing wealth (presumably because salt was an expensive commodity at one time, and much sought after for the preservation of food).
Alternative gifts might be coins, or a glass of whisky. And if the first visitor of the year is a fair-haired male or, worse, a female, a bad year will follow for the family.
As a child I remember my father, and later, my brother – both tall, dark-haired men – leaving the house just before 12 on New Year’s Eve and returning just after midnight had struck with a lump of coal. But we had a different name for the ceremony: we called the coal-carrier ‘the lucky bird’. I wonder if that was just a family thing, or if other Scarborians had the same tradition?
Clarke (1871-1945) was one of the last of a dying breed – the great Victorian collectors. A naturalist by inclination – he ran a shop on Huntriss Row dealing in natural history specimens, fishing tackle and taxidermy - his curiosity spilled over into folklore, charms and amulets, and he amassed a large collection, now in the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects acquired by the borough over the years.
The Scarborough Collections is full of fascinating objects, many of them on display at the Rotunda, the William Smith Museum of Geology, or at Scarborough Art Gallery. Others are in storage at Woodend, the former natural history museum and Sitwell family home. Scarborough Museums Trust runs regular store tours on the first Tuesday of each month; those wishing to join are asked to meet at the Art Gallery on The Crescent at 2pm. Each month’s tour is themed – details are posted regularly on the Trust’s website: www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.org.uk, or contact (01723) 384503 for further details.
Happy New Year from all at Scarborough Museums Trust!