A Cumbrian Merry Neet [A Merry Night Dance]
For my fact checking I’ve been re-reading “Jollie’s Sketch of Cumberland Manners and Customs.”* First published in 1811, it has some interesting info about Cumbrian Merry Neets. These were dances organised by an individual specifically to raise money – ‘to put a pound or two in his pocket’. They were held around Christmas time and publicans sometimes organised them in aid of a charity. They were associated with entertainment, benevolence and a social get together.
Merry Neets were usually held in barns lit by candles that were fixed to the walls by their own melted wax. Jollie mentions people sitting against the walls needed to take care or their backs would become covered in clay and tallow. Since tallow was rendered fat it was probably best avoided.
All that was needed was a boarded floor and this could sometimes be an attic or a barn loft. The dance would be upstairs while the card players remained downstairs.
The Upshot was a similar occasion, but with no financial motive – one organised just for a good time. There’d be a fiddler, bread, cheese and ale which were all paid for by passing the hat round – women included.
I think this verse from The Upshot poem, cited in full in Jollie’s book, really captures the spirits of these Merry Neets and Upshots. It takes a bit of concentrating, but when read aloud there is a natural musical rhythm to the verse. I make it to be the “lads of our town” decided it would be right to hold the dance on a Thursday night at Wilson’s loft with folk coming from Brough, Thursby, and even some Bowness fishermen –
Now as ’twas frost and fair throw’ leet,1rejoicing 2entertaining themselves
As’ lads agreet it sud be,
Frae far and neer, a’Fuursday neeght,
Fwoke come as fast a cud be;
Theer was Brough-side lads an’Theursby chaps,
An’ Bowness fishers vaiperan;1 –
Huh! seerly that at go’ sea far,
Was gayly keen o’caiperan.2
Here’s some of the wonderful names from other verses – Clogger Kit, Butcher Jwoney Wulson, Little Markey Lonney, Young Nixon, Sarah Gate and Elsey Graham to name a few. Brock Gwordy, a famous badger hunter, was also there.
As may be expected, by the end of the evening they are “drunk as muck”, “blubbing”, “sat grunting” and the Wulson lad and Kursty Kitt “went efter the hounds togither.”
*Republished by Michael Moon at the Beckermet Bookshop, Cumberland, 1974.