For some, perhaps mainly the ladies, the work started in advance of tea treat day. Nowadays, it would involve a major shop at the supermarket but before convenience shopping arrived it was a mammoth job to obtain all the foodstuff that was needed from here, there and everywhere. There was tea, milk, sugar, splits, jam, cream and soft drinks and, of course, the tea treat buns. Then there was the little job of converting all these ingredients into mouth-watering goodies on a temperamental Cornish Range, or slab as it was often called. No doubt it was all done with good grace apart from the occasional moan at the menfolk who would simply turn up on the day. As one lady put it, “It was ever the case!”
For some folk, tea treat day started early and there were many nervous glances at the sky to check if the prayers had been answered. Planning and preparation was important to a successful day and there were always those who took the lead, those to whom everyone looked for guidance.
There were tables to be erected and Sunday school forms to be put in place. The tables were for the competitions, the for-sale items and, most important of all, the tea. They were usually a bit cumbersome and it was the men and older boys who were usually conscripted to erect them. They were mostly made of wooden boarding, not always free of splinters, and often with metal folding legs which had been designed to trap the fingers of any new recruits. Once in place, it was the turn of the ladies to add their pristine, whiter than white, tablecloths. There was always a good deal of pride about the tablecloths, and perhaps some comparison on the degree of whiteness. Every table, whatever its purpose, had some sort of covering and even the one for the lucky dip had to look the part. The schoolroom forms were of sturdy construction and some had no back rest. The more elderly folk, and certainly the band, would be given the ones with backs. They were much more comfortable except, on the buttocks! For the band, when it arrived, there was always the job of adjusting the layout as the seating arrangement did vary from band to band.
The first main event was the parade but before that could begin, everything had to be in place ready for an immediate start when the procession arrived back. Those not involved in preparing to satisfy the inner man were busy ensuring that everything was ready for “the off”. With tables loaded with produce and prizes it was necessary to leave someone behind to keep an eye on things while the majority of folk were off traipsing around the lanes. This was likely to be those who could not manage the march.
One essential element of the procession was the musicians and as the players moved to take their place, the leader kept a watchful eye on his “troops” to ensure that they were ready. It was also necessary to ensure that they had the same piece of music in front of them. That may appear to be a strange comment but… it has been known! One final glance to ensure that all was well and the two o’clock procession was ready to move off: often at ten minutes past!
1909: Trevellas Downs Wesleyan Tea Treat with St Agnes Band (Photo: courtesy Clive Benney)
As already mentioned, the procession was a part of the tea treat celebrations from the early days and unless a beach location was chosen, it remained one of the main features across the years. Music was essential and although the brass band is embedded in our minds, tea treats pre-date their creation. Before their involvement there was the reed and brass bands and before that, groups of musicians playing a variety of instruments of the day. More of that later, however.
There was always someone responsible for marshalling the parade. It probably wasn’t an official position and the person may even have been self-appointed. Of course, it may have been the lead superintendent of the Sunday school or even the minister. The formation usually comprised the minister and Sunday school superintendents followed by the banner bearers with the Sunday school banner proudly carried as a testament to the members’ faith. Then came the band, the children, and finally the adults. At the given time the band’s bass drummer gave the double tap and the procession was on its way. It was usual for the trombones and bass players to be at the front of the band and a moment’s thought here may reveal why the trombones, with their extending slide, were placed there. Behind these “big guns” came the euphoniums and horns while the cornets brought up the rear. The drummers were placed right at the back but in later years it was not unusual to find them somewhere in the middle.
The route may have been two miles or more each way or, if the location permitted, a circular route so that as many as possible could witness it. For more populous locations the villagers not directly involved would probably come out of their front doors, and children of different denominations would look on enviously with a feeling that they were missing out on the huge celebration. For more sparsely populated areas, where there were very few houses, the musicians played to the hedgerows with the odd cow raising its head to check which band had been booked that year. For the younger children it may have involved a ride on a cart pulled by a shire horse or it may have meant a brisk walk in trying to keep up with those with longer legs. In the case of St Austell, we know that folk often “went down” to Pentewan by train using the mineral line with carriages especially cleaned for the occasion.
In the days where Sunday schools combined for the procession, there are stories of rivalry and banter between the different groups of children. A trait, no doubt, mimicking the adults from whom they inherited their tribal instinct.
It was expected that the band would play continuously along the route apart from a short break to change music or an occasional uphill stretch where the players grabbed the opportunity of a breather. The procession may have occasionally paused, perhaps outside the house of someone too elderly or too poorly to attend the tea treat. Apart from that, there was the motivation of getting back to the chapel for the main event.
Finally, the chapel or church was once again in view. The long march was over and those that had been left behind were there to greet them. When the processions of the early days dispersed it was time to take part in the hymn singing and prayers before enjoying what the day had on offer. Later, these acts of devotion seem to have been dispensed with and the arrival back at the chapel was followed by the official opening.
The Official Opening
There always seemed to be one stallholder that “jumped the gun”, the unthinkable act of starting to trade before the opening speech. It was frowned upon, of course, and most waited until the minister or some invited person cut the proverbial ribbon.
With the knowledge that most children were chaffing at the bit, it was usually a short ceremony with few really listening and even fewer remembering what was said. Once done, then the afternoon’s proceedings could commence.
The musicians took their place on the wooden forms, the music began, the stalls opened for trade, the fun and games started for the children, and the adults not directly involved sauntered off for a cup of tea.
Music is intrinsically linked to tea treats and it would have been a strange affair if the day’s activities were not accompanied by some form of melodious strains.
The Traditional Musicians
During the early years, this would have been provided by groups of musicians playing a variety of instruments. They may have been placed in a prominent position or, and this is not difficult to imagine, they may have mingled with the gathered throng playing the popular tunes of the day. We have already seen that music was needed for the procession but it was also used throughout the celebrations, either in the background or as the main entertainment.
A search has been made for music labelled “tea treat music” or some which could be considered as such. Nothing conclusive has been found and Merv Davey commented, “The dozen or so marches that I am aware of are included in Ralph Dunstan’s (1) Cornish Song Book of 1929. They are described there as Regatta or Tea Treat music and are as he remembered from when he was a bandsman in the 1890s. Some others such as ‘One and All’ and ‘Tom Bawcocks’ are in his Cornish Folk Song and Dialect book of 1932 where they are described as deriving from instrumental marches. Most of these tunes are now employed by ceilidh or barn dance bands like mine but were clearly played by the formative brass bands of the 19th century which makes a nice link between these two genres of Cornish music. I suspect that for tea treats, bands would have played any suitable march that took their fancy but It would be wonderful to find some Cornish music tucked away in a bands’ archive which was written especially for Cornish tea treats.” We have asked the question of musician and historian Mike O’Connor but he knows of no piece referred to specifically as a “tea treat march”.
In one of Ralph Dunstan’s (1) books he refers to “the old days” when the children marched to the residence of the local squire, “tea-drinking” cup in hand, headed by a band of players from their chapel “or some other band”. He says that the music would have been played slowly so that the children and old people could keep up. He also suggests that “Sunny Corner March,” “Frogpool March” and “Point March” were some of the most popular tunes played at school treats in the west-central mining district.
Typical music used to entertain the crowds who attended the celebrations
Harry Woodhouse (left) and friends in period dress for a service – 18th century style
(Photograph reproduced from Harry’s book “Face the Music” and our thanks go to him for allowing its inclusion)
Harry Woodhouse suggests that the musicians who played at these early tea treats were probably the same ones who accompanied the hymns in the church and chapel: a strange combination of woodwind, string and brass that would accompany the procession and entertain throughout the day.
Horton Bolitho of the well-known Cornish Bolitho family considered the “old village bands to have been descendants of the old crowders and horners”.
1900 circa: St Blazey entertainers
Harry Woodhouse with the serpent, the clarinet and the ophicleide
(Photographs reproduced from Harry’s book “Face the Music” and our thanks go to him for allowing their inclusion)
Circa 1860: Tregajorran Choir and Band – On the left is a serpent player and next to him is a man holding an ophicleide
(Photograph reproduced from Harry Woodhouse’s book “Face the Music” and our thanks go to him for allowing its inclusion)
Some of the music played by the early musicians at tea treats and other events
“Medieval carvings in Cornish churches give us a window into the musicians and their instruments. The minstrels carved on the East wall of St Marys Church in Launceston boast a harp, a crowd (a crowd is a form of early fiddle) and a bagpiper together with a selection of percussion and horns. The magnificent bench end carvings in the church at Altarnun were carved circa 1530 and include some dancers accompanied by a piper and crowder. Two dancers have swords and are very similar to drawings of dance called ‘The Mattachins’ in a French dancing tutor called ‘Arbeau’s Orchesography’ published some 70 years later. Cornwall’s central position on the medieval sea routes created the perfect environment for cultural exchange with Europe.” (Merv Davey)
The “Mattachins” played by Merv Davey on the Cornish Bagpipes
The Snail Creep
“The Snail Creep is a dance for couples in a long procession of several hundred people, following the band. The parade is led by two people holding out branches like the tentacles of a snail and follows various spirals and convolutions to represent a snail shell. The Snail Creep has been revived as part of the Rescorla Festival each July. Rescorla is a small village on the Eastern edge of Cornwall’s Clay Country and has its own traditional tune aptly named the ‘Rescorla Snail Creep’.” (Merv Davey)
Joy Stevenson recalled her memories in the 1930s: “In the evenings there were games for the grown-ups and dances such as Snail’s Creep, or as father used to call it, ‘Tobacco Roll’. Many men smoked this years ago and the way the dancers formed a tight coiled knot did look rather like the rolled tobacco. To be head of the Snail’s Creep was an important role as the others followed in an ever-decreasing circle, all getting closer together, laughing, until it was time to unravel into a straight line.”
Alison and Merv Davey in their book, “Snail Creeps and Tea Treats” refer to the snail being respected by miners who “offered a snail a drop of melted tallow from their candles or a crumb of pasty or fuggan, on seeing one on their way to the bal (mine) in the morning”.
In 2001 Rescorla Chapel closed and six years later the building took on a new life, as the Rescorla Centre. Garry Tregidga, Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, brought together a group of people to create the Friends of Rescorla. Garry said, “We planned to create the Rescorla Festival and one of our first projects was to revive the Snail Creep dance. It had once been popular in local villages and an important part of tea treats but knowledge of it was seemingly lost. We looked for stories from those old enough to remember when the dance had been performed, and discovered the melody from Jean Harris, an elderly lady of Rescorla who recalled the tune. She was a chapel organist at Stenalees and her husband recorded her playing it. The tune was transcribed for us by Mike O’Connor and we recruited some local musicians to learn it and to lead the dancers. It turned out that two of the musicians, Mike Jenkin and Mark Hawken were familiar with the tune and remembered their parents playing it for the Snail Creep. With the help of Alison and Merv Davey and some local people, the Snail Creep was given new life.”
The “Rescorla Snail Creep” from the Rescorla Festival
“The ‘Turkey Rhubarb’ shows how Cornwall’s maritime heritage can be reflected in folk tradition. The dance is a kind of Mazurka which started out in Eastern Europe and ended up in Brittany before hopping across the Celtic sea to Cornwall and then to Ireland. The Irish version of the dance is called ‘Father Murphy’s topcoat’ and is so like the Cornish one that the tunes and dances can be interchanged.” (Merv Davey)
“Turkey Rhubarb” played by North Cornwall Ceilidh Band
The Rescorla Tea Treat Band
At Rescorla, some players of traditional instruments have formed a “Tea Treat Band” to recreate the sound that our ancestors would have enjoyed. Listen now and imagine yourself transported back in time to the 19th century to experience the atmosphere of the traditional tea treat celebration.
Merv Davey, Chris Bartram, Garry Tregidga, Graham Kemp and Nigel Nethersole. (Photos: This one and the next five were taken by Tracy Pithie)
One and All
St Keverne Feast
Rescorla Snail Creep
Later in this paper you can watch a video in which St Austell Town Band play Hannah Hawkin’s arrangement of this piece.
Molinnis Fife and Drum Band (Photo: courtesy China Clay History Society)
Standing: Charlie Martyn, Bill Rowse, Russell Harris, Fred Hore, Bull Rundle, Geoff Gilbert, Will Hore, Fred Retallick, Fred Hore Kneeling: Bill Kane, Ken Martyn, Archie Hore. This type of group performed from a date much earlier than when this photo was taken
The Reed and Brass Band
At some point there was a move to more formal groups of players but this probably happened over several years with some chapels persisting with the more traditional, ad hoc groups. Perhaps the move was because of the difficulty in arranging a group of disparate musicians compared to the comparative ease of dealing with a more formal group with a single point of contact. Or maybe tastes had changed and a military, marching band was preferred. The truth is that we just do not know the reason.
Reed and brass bands were certainly popular. Many had been formed of musicians discarded by the military following the Napoleonic Wars. Later, in the 1850s, there was a growing military threat from France and in May 1859, the Volunteer Force was formed as a citizen army of part-time rifle and artillery volunteers. Its job was to support the British Army stretched by overseas commitments. The relevance of this is that most of the corps had a reed and brass band and many of them performed at local civic and religious events including tea treats. Many reports of such events indicate the involvement of Volunteer DCR (Duke of Cornwall Rifle) bands.
John Dunstan wrote about his famous ancestor in the 2016 Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. “Methodist music was the formative force of Ralph’s [Dunstan] (1) childhood. One pictures him, as soon as he was able, joining in the annual afternoon tea treat march to Killiganoon, carrying a special cup and following the invited band or the chapel musicians. Up to 1896, Carnon Downs Wesleyan Chapel, like many other places of worship, had an orchestra. Theirs included two flutes, a euphonium, and an occasional clarinet or bassoon”.
Penzance Reed & Brass Town Band
The Brass Band
The reed and brass bands are the true ancestors of the brass band and the move to exclude woodwind was gradual, by evolution rather than revolution. Some woodwind players may have been unhappy by their rejection but the fact that it happened gradually probably avoided too many disputes. The introduction of Adolphe Sax’s sax horns and sax tubas, and the popularity of the more euphonic sound, accelerated this change although some brass bands retained woodwind players until the turn of the century and even later.
As with the reed and brass bands, the composition of the early brass bands circa 1830s/40s varied and it was not until contesting rules and the publication of standard sets of music, that the numbers of each instrument became established. Today a band comprises 25 players plus percussion: ten cornets, three tenor horns, flugel, two baritones, two euphoniums, three trombones and four basses (tuba
Many bands incorporated the word “Temperance” in their title but in some cases the addition seems to have been in name only. It is probable that most were genuine in declaring their abstinence from the demon drink but it seems that a few took advantage of the inference when seeking bookings from the many teetotal organisations of the time. There are instances of newspaper letters disputing that certain bands and bandmasters had genuinely renounced alcohol. Often, these attracted replies and the debate continued week after week.
Unfortunately, bandsmen were associated with regular visits to the tavern and Phil Ellery of St Columb Old Cornwall Society submitted this letter which appeared in the “Royal Cornwall Gazette” in September 1869.
“In your last impression and the previous one, I observed some correspondence respecting bands at tea treats. Now I do not altogether condemn the use of bands on such occasions, for they tend very materially to enliven the proceedings, but I do think that those who have the management of such anniversaries should be very careful in the selection of the bands. A few weeks since I attended one of those annual gatherings and was much pleased with the arrangements on the occasion. The children had a plentiful supply of tea and cake, and the band too, were not forgotten. After the children had thoroughly enjoyed themselves the musicians were dispensed with and received about 30 shillings for a few hours’ performance. An adjournment then took place to the chapel, where addresses were delivered, and everyone seemed highly pleased; but, unfortunately, as soon as the chapel doors were open, lo and behold, there were those very musicians drunk, insulting everyone who passed them, and whose example also tended to demoralize the children. If we are, Sir, to have bands at tea drinks, let the members of them be teetotallers or men of sobriety. I am Sir, yours very truly, One Who Was Disgusted.”
An even stronger view was included in the “West Briton” of the 15th August 1877 where the writer expressed his very strong views at considerable length.
“To the Editor of the West Briton. Sir – I beg to express my entire agreement with the views of ‘Observer’ in your last Monday’s issue, on the subject of Sunday school festivals. Along with your correspondent, my early experience as a Sunday school teacher witnessed a very different kind of festival from the loose, vulgar, promiscuous affair that we now see. In my day we trained the children to sing, and the public were greatly interested in hearing them, but now the stupid, senseless practice of having a band of music has superseded the sweet hosannas of the little ones. My indignation at this is much alleviated by knowing that Cornwall is nearly, if not quite, alone in this absurd employment of bands. We hear a great deal about poverty and hard times. Then why waste from two to five pounds of hard-earned money on a lot of lazy fellows who would rather be roving about the country with their instruments of so-called music than plodding at home at some honest business? Some of these musicians profess to be religious but see no harm in meeting night after night in public-houses to practice the rigs and jigs that they play at school anniversaries. Some of them are neither Good Templars, Rechabites, nor honest teetotallers, and the money they get from Sunday schools is spent on the road home, until they are quite ‘obfuscated’. School teachers who can see no harm in employing a band trained in a public-house, and who also see no inconsistency in the purchase of drink with Sunday school money, of course will see no harm in the kissing ring. Indeed, some of them finish the evening’s sport with a dance. From a dance after dusk to actual immorality the passage is short, and young women in Sunday schools often fall into disgrace.
What is wanted to check these evils is steady discipline on the part of school managers. Teachers, being many of them very young, ought to be under the control of a committee, and superintendents should be superintendents. But teachers are too often like spoiled children, and the officials, like weak-minded, indulgent parents, allow them to do just as they please. Any attempt to enforce rule is met by the retort. ‘If we can’t play at kiss-in-the-ring, we won’t come to the treat’. The seniors yield when they hear these silly threats, and thus many a Cornish Sunday school is really governed by greenhorns of the mature age of from 15 to 20 years.
Something may be said in favour of recitations, but more may be said against them. What can be thought of a case that has occurred in the last fortnight? Some young men who lingered in the alehouse till eleven o’clock on the Saturday evening were actually in the Wesleyan Chapel on the following Sunday afternoon carrying on a dialogue or representation, with several characters, amid the clapping and stamping of those who heard them! It has been freely said of late that Cornish Methodism was declining in purity and vigour, and if its officials can allow looseness such as I have indicated, then I say let it decline. Why cannot Cornish dissenters show the common sense that their fellow-religionists in other counties show, and teach their children to sing? The ritualistic clergyman readily finds out the good juvenile voices in his parish, and when I occasionally go to church and hear the young choristers, I come away amazed at the stupidity and indolence of the chapellers who, rather than teach their young children to sing, hire a wretched brass band, headed by a cracked drum, and then call the din and thunder that is made, music. ‘Observer’ deserves the thanks of every sincere friend of the young for drawing attention to such notorious evils, and I shall be glad if his letter pleases others as much as it has gratified Paterfamilias.”
1910: “Off to an engagement” – Treviscoe Band possibly on their way to Mithian, almost 20 miles away
(Photo: “Fragments of Cornish Life” by W A Hambly courtesy Alan Blake)
1870s: Redruth Volunteer Band – such bands were often hired for tea treats
In 1928, St Erth Band was playing at tea treats and charging £5 but whether that was for just the afternoon or a full day we do not know. The following year they received the strange figure of £4.14s.7d for the event. Perhaps they broke some crockery!
Up until the 1930s, it was usual for the band members to stand in a circle with the conductor in the middle, often also playing an instrument. On one such an occasion, at St Agnes, a young lad called Williams was encouraged by his friends to creep into the circle and slurp over his ice cream. We can imagine that this was almost as off-putting as sucking a lemon. In later years the players sat down to play but the wooden schoolroom forms became harder and harder as the day progressed.
Crosscoombe Band of Hope and Sunday School Tea Treat with St Dennis Temperance Band (RCG 20th August 1908)
Following the opening ceremony, the band began the afternoon programme but there were many other attractions to occupy everyone. There were usually very few listening however, but the occasional ripple of applause made it all seem worthwhile. To this background music, various competitions and sports took place and every so often the players took a break for a cup of tea or to buy some fruit from one of the stalls.
It was once usual for the band to enter into a contract to provide a specific number of players for an engagement. The organisers stipulated how many players they required and the band provided the stated number. On one occasion, one of the St Agnes Band players was taken ill at the last minute and a replacement could not be found. In desperation, the bandmaster enlisted the help of a friend of one of the players who protested that he could not play a note of music. He was told that it would not matter provided he took his place in the circle of players, pressed some valves occasionally, and pretended to play. Things were going well until a young boy sidled up to him and listened. After a short while he shouted, “He’s not playing, I can’t hear a thing”. The conductor, ever in control of the situation, looked straight at him and snarled, “Push off you little bugger”.
David Reed, cornet player in Camborne Town Band, recalled some makeshift seating provided for them in the 1970s. “Straw bales topped with boards make a fine bandstand but at Frogpool tea treat things didn’t turn out as planned. Everything was alright to begin but the bales turned out to be full of bugs and it wasn’t long before everyone was more involved in scratching than playing. We finished the concert but were certainly pleased to get away from the stage.”
As we have said, it is likely that brass bands of the late 19th century would have played some of their favourite military-style marches. However, Ralph Dunstan suggested that the repertoire also included some lighter material. These tunes were arguably more appropriate for the tea treat but no music has been found. Undaunted, we decided to create our own and enlisted the help of Hannah Hawkins of St Austell Silver Band who has taken some of the pieces mentioned by Ralph Dunstan and arranged them for brass band.
As a result, we are delighted to bring you the sound of a brass band playing the sort of music from over 100 years ago. It is played here by members of St Austell Town Band. The current Covid restrictions made it impossible for a conventional recording to be made so the players individually recorded their parts which were then electronically merged to produce this sound. We are grateful to FEAST and its funders who financed the making of these videos.
St Austell Town Band
Point played by St Austell Town Band
Sunny Corner played by St Austell Town Band
Trevince March played by St Austell Town Band
Frogpool played by St Austell Town Band
This music for these recordings has been arranged by Hannah Hawken and can be viewed by tapping the titles:
There is an abundance of humorous stories involving brass bands at tea treats including when some younger players earned the wrath of the percussionist when they stuffed grass up his tubular bells. There is also the confused baby rabbit which decided to take refuge in the bell end of a tuba and was only discovered when playing commenced. Alfred Tresidder, bass drummer at Camborne Band, always pushed his drumstick under the diagonal tensioning cords of the drum went he left to go for a cup of tea. A man of habit, he always re-started by taking the stick in his right hand, passing it to his left and licking his right hand. It was only then that he realised that one of his colleagues had rolled the handle in a cowpat. Perhaps drummers are particularly unfortunate as I can recall one who suffered some embarrassment when his trouser belt gave way at a Redruth parade and another who was too short to see over his drum and headed off in the wrong direction – allegedly! Richard Tresidder, also of Camborne Band, had a moment of embarrassment at Bolenowe tea treat when the drum skin had tautened in the heat. The double hit to signal the end of playing did not go quite as planned as the drumstick went straight through. He had “put n in” in brass band parlance and a replacement had to be borrowed from the Salvation Army for the evening concert.
During wartime, particularly the First and Second World Wars, brass bands were depleted due to players serving their country. Nevertheless, the show had to go on and it did by the good services of the young and the old who because of their age, remained at home. There are stories of events, including Helston’s Flora Day, where bands managed to scrape together enough players to save the day. Additionally, some Home Guard units formed brass bands, and these also helped to fill the gap for local events. Sadly, some of the players who went to war, never returned and many bands of the immediate post war years struggled to return to normal strength.
Before the days of efficient communication, many arrangements were made by word of mouth and it has been known for a band to fail to arrive. This would throw everyone in a panic and with no band present to defend itself, it was usually to them that the finger of blame was pointed. A tea treat without music was unthinkable and it was usually up to an enterprising member of the organising team to quickly find an alternative.
Many players “cut their teeth” at tea treats and many bands took the opportunity to try out new pieces, particularly during the afternoon session when few people were listening intently. It was usual to play some light background music while the majority of people were involved in their busy day and I well-remember being admonished by a man because we played some pieces that he considered were a “bit heavy”. I think that on this occasion we had taken the opportunity to “rehearse” a contest piece.
From a purely musical point of view, playing at tea treats was not the most satisfying type of engagement but they were necessary. With so many villages, and some having several chapels, they were a “good little earner” and many bands remained solvent because of them. Taking the broader view of being a part of a Cornish traditional event, they were superb and very enjoyable and as player Terry Sleeman recalled, “I attended several tea treats with St Dennis Band in the late sixties and early seventies at Frogpool, Carleen, and Porthleven. It was always a big day with a long march in the afternoon. We also had our own local ones at Roche, Treviscoe and Enniscaven with all of them making sure that the bands were all well fed and watered. Distant but lovely memories.”
The stannins (stalls) in times past may have been provided by travelling or local traders or it may have been the adults from the chapel who manned them with the profit used to cover the cost of the event. There were sweets (nicies as they were once called), limpets (in coastal villages) and a fruit and veg stall which always seemed to sell cherries. The cherries gave rise to the popular children’s game of, “Who can spit the cherry stone the farthest!” Often, there was a toy stall selling all sorts of appealing items on which the children could spend their pennies. Paul Phillips, Federation of Old Cornwall Dialect Recorder, recalled some home-made toys at Deveral tea treat, sawdust filled balls wrapped in foil and attached to a length of elastic. These were used to annoy as many people as possible by bouncing the ball on them. This “extreme sport” did not last long as the foil outer wrapping was only single layer and it was never long before your most deadly weapon was a flattened but small pile of sawdust on the floor!
Joy Stevenson had similar memories of the “commercial” aspects of the 1930s. “Around the field were stalls selling lucky dips, balloons, clidgy (toffee) and Georgie balls, and what fun we had with those sawdust filled coloured balls on a length of elastic. We all went around flicking them at other children, after a while many of them scat abrawd (burst) and many a tear was shed then as in those days it was no use asking for another one.”
“Stalls and sideshows added to the pleasure of both children and grown-ups and the Punch and Judy show was a great success with them all.” (Cornishman 9th June 1949) A bottle stall where matching a numbered ticket would win a tin of soup or fruit if you were lucky and the lucky dip which promised a prize every time. A cake stall was ever popular, with the ladies looking on nervously in case their creation was the last to sell.
Paul Phillips also recalled that slot machines were permitted at Degibna Wesleyan tea treat in the 1950s. As he commented, “How we were allowed to play games of chance I shall never know”.
The children arrived with whatever money they had managed to save or what they had been given by their parents. For some, this would have been very little but whatever the amount, there was plenty of opportunity to spend it. A popular attraction was the Ice cream stall where the containers were placed in buckets of cold water wrapped in sacking to stop the delicious contents thawing. Even then, the final sales consisted of liquid being poured into the cones but it still tasted good.
Elizabeth Dunstone (or Dunstan) travelled the local fetes and tea treats selling limpets, little dolls, china and jelly babies which she advertised as, “Babies that ‘went’ (won’t) screech”. She became known as Lizzie Sherdy (also referred to as Lizzie Shirley) and spent much of her life in Gwennap Parish. The name “Sherdy” seems to have come from her selling the limpets on broken pieces of china sherds. On the back of this circa 1900 photograph it says: “Born and reared at Creegbrawse, worked for her husband 36 years, hoped to live 10 years longer and on her way to glory and wish all good luck and heaven after death. Still able to eat broth, stew, fish and tatties and hope men will have a full catch of pilchards.” (Michael Tangye and Paddy Bradley)
1909: St Agnes Wesleyan Tea Treat with George Gerry (centre) selling his limpets – even policeman Benney is enjoying a dish (Photo: courtesy Clive Benney)
The Entertainment, Sports & Games
1940: Carnon Downs Tea Treat taken in the field opposite Carnon Downs Chapel. This was traditionally the field used for the tea treats and later became a playing field. Part of it has been built on in recent years, leaving a smaller playing field. The original picture came from Arthur Mitchell of Quenchwell Farm and the man leading the horse is Arthur’s grandfather, Mr Frederick Charles Mitchell. The horse and wagon were usually employed delivering furniture for local businesses such as the old Truro firm of Criddle and Smith. (Photo: courtesy Philip Davey / Carnon Downs Old Cornwall Society / Carnon Downs Methodist Church)
1903 circa: Mount Hawke Methodist Tea Treat with Fairground Attractions and Brass Band (Photo: courtesy Clive Benney)
Freddie Snell from the Blackwater area was a blind, children’s entertainer who visited schools and local events
At some point in the afternoon the children gathered to take part in the sports. As ever, there were those who loved this part of the day and a few who hated it. It involved the usual running races as well as the traditional novelty sack race, wheelbarrow, three-legged and the egg and spoon race. A few pennies could be won by the more successful “athletes” and these were promptly spent on the stalls and games.
Joy Stevenson described the competitive nature of the day. “There were races of all kinds, egg and spoon, sack race and with all sorts and sizes racing, they were all handicapped giving the little ones, and the less able, the chance to win something.”
As mentioned before, new or best clothes were the order of the day and considering the rough and tumble of the sports and games we are left to wonder how they looked when it was all over.
Left to their own devices, children will start to play impromptu games but there were always adults on hand to channel their energies into more organised versions. In 1965, John King wrote a paper entitled “Mithian Village” in which he said, “Hundreds of people flooded in from far and near to listen to the band: the games ‘Kissing Ring’, ‘Rounders’, ‘Twos and Threes’ and ‘Duff in the Back’ were often the starting point of many a romance”.
It is not suggested that all these games were of Cornish origin but they are remembered as having been played at Cornish tea treats and so deserve their place here.
Kiss in the Ring
Cedric Appleby refers to it as “the inevitable Kissing in the Ring” and we can only guess at its popularity. A lady at Bugle was asked what she remembered about it. Her response: “Twas nice!”
It seems that the way it was played out varied from chapel to chapel but always with the aim of giving and receiving a kiss.
William Morris of St Ives Old Cornwall Society suggests it involved holding hands to form a circle. A girl was chosen to start the game and she would run around the outside of the ring until she came to a boy she liked when she would give him a kiss. He then gave chase and when he caught her, he would take her place and then choose another girl to kiss. In this version it seems that the boy had two kisses.
Joy Stevenson wrote that “Kiss in the Ring was a great opportunity to choose a partner for the evening, or maybe for life. ‘Tea Treat Man Sure to Stand’ was the old saying and many marriages were the result of this game. A large ring was formed with one person left outside and it was his or her chance to choose someone of the opposite sex by poking them in the back. They then had to chase the one who had chosen them and when they caught them, give them a kiss on the cheek. Very permissive in the days when it might take a young man weeks to summon up the courage to ask the girl he fancied to go out for a walk with him.
I well remember the first year I was old enough to participate in the evening games: a young bandsman in his elegant uniform chose me all evening in the ‘Kiss in The Ring’. I talked about it for days, thinking I had made a real conquest. In those days we used oil lamps, so the oil man called each week. The week after tea treat my sister shouted to me that ‘My Tea Treat Man’, was at the door, he was helping deliver the oil to us. I looked out of the window and I’m afraid my tea treat man did not stand for me because in his dirty overalls and not his scarlet band uniform the romance quickly died.”
David Oates of Troon recalls a song from the Barber family of St Ives, it was often sung by the group Proper Job:
Now granfer he was in the ring and I was passing by,
I poked’n in the back and then pretended I was shy,
I covered up my face and so he kissed me on the ‘naws’,
Then later on he walked me home and that’s just how it was.
A Game with No Name
William Morris of St Ives Old Cornwall Society recalled a final game at their event but could not put a name to it. “At the end of the day a collection of pennies and halfpennies which had been saved up during the year from collections at the chapel, would be thrown up into the air and all the children would rush to collect as many coins as they could.”
The name survives in the memories of a few people but the way of playing it does not. Perhaps this description from the internet may provide the necessary information or maybe it was an entirely different Miller!
Pairs of children, hand in hand, sing while processing in a circle around one person in the centre. This was the Jolly Miller. On the word “grab” every inner person attempts to grab the outer person ahead. The Miller also attempts to grab one of the outer children and if successful, replaces the one left without a partner.
This is an outdoor version of musical chairs. Sacks are placed on the ground and used instead of chairs. As with the chair version there was one less sack than the number taking part and they are placed in a large circle. The music begins and the children process and when it stops, they rush to stand on a sack.
Nuts in May
Paul Phillips recalls this game being played at Deveral tea treat.
The boys and girls faced a chosen partner and held hands. To the singing of “Here we go gathering nuts in May” they skipped sideways. When the singing stopped, a couple who had been raising their arms aloft, dropped their arms over a couple who had to kiss. They were then released and skipped on their way until the next couple were trapped.
This is certainly not a game restricted to tea treats but Sue Mansell of St Agnes Old Cornwall Society recalls it being played at such events. It was a bat and ball game like American baseball. A square pitch was set out with a post and a fielder at each corner. The bowler tosses the ball to the batsman who had three chances to make a good hit. On the third toss the batsman had to run to the first corner and if possible, to the next and the next with the object of completing a full round. The fielders had to throw the ball to the post fielder before the batsman reached there and if the post was then touched with the ball then the batsman was out. If the batsman had safely reached a corner, then he could wait there and proceed to the next when a colleague made a running hit.
Sally Go Round
Once again, we are lacking in detail so we turn to the internet in the hope that it is the tea treat game.
The children sit in a circle with a small space between each person (hopefully the grass is dry). One child is chosen to be the sun and another to be the moon and they sit in the middle of the ring. Another child is chosen to be “Sally” and she stands and walks around the “sun” and the “moon” and then weaves in and out of the seated children until she gets back to her original place. This is repeated with every child having a turn to be Sally.
As the game progresses the following words are sung:
Sally go round the sun,
Sally go round the moon,
Sally go round the chimney pots on a Sunday afternoon.
Repeat this verse for each day of the week and finish with:
We all went round the sun,
We all went round the moon,
We all went round the chimney pots,
On a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday afternoon.
When the music stopped a long trail was formed, circling round and round until the leader was surrounded by several rings of players.
Duff in the Back
As with so many games, we have the large circle but in this case there was no holding hands. Tony Mansell of St Agnes Old Cornwall Society recalls that one person ran around the outside of the circle and tapped someone on the back (sometimes a little too enthusiastically). The giver and receiver of the blow then ran in opposite directions around the outside of the circle to claim the single vacant space.
The Dugging Ring
Now, was this a game or could it have been a dance? Whatever it was, the poor chap in this little ditty will surely resist its charms in future.
The Dugging Ring was written by Tom Miners, an Old Cornwall Society member from the early days, and is said to be based on Camborne tea treat at Trevu Field.
Terry Knight of Redruth and St Agnes Old Cornwall Societies has a vague recollection of this game being mentioned by his mother as something from her youth in the 1920s. He said, “Isn’t ‘dugging’ a game where boys and girls in a circle, dig one of the opposite gender as a choice to be chased around the ring by. I don’t know the rules and the end or how one wins, I can’t recall, but I’m sure you’ll get an answer”. This is quite possibly correct and it may well have received the usual reward of a kiss. It sounds very like “Duff in the Back” and may suggest that both were localised names.
This could be termed an impromptu playground game as it is one that every schoolchild has played. It simply requires the child who is “it” to touch another child who then must chase and touch (tig) another child.
Twos and Threes
No one could be sure how this game was played but it could have been like the Cornish pub game of spoofing. This involves several players forming a fist of one hand and, on the count of three, projecting up to three fingers. The person who has correctly predicted the total number of projecting fingers is the winner.
Winking was a popular tea treat game where the girls sat on a circle of chairs with a boy behind each one. There was one empty chair with a boy behind it who had to wink at one of the girls. She had to make a dash for the empty chair. The boy behind her also must watch for the wink as he must try and restrain her. It was great fun but often resulted in complaints about the means of restraint. Tony Mansell recalls this game still being played circa 1960.
What’s the Time Mr Wolf?
Sue Mansell of Mithian remembers this as an impromptu game from the school playground and other local events. More recently her grandchildren have enjoyed playing it.
A person is selected as the wolf and proceeds to walk ahead of a group of children who continually shout, “What’s the time Mr Wolf?” To this, the wolf replies, “one o’clock,” or “four o’clock” or any time that he or she chooses. Without warning the wolf changes the reply to “Dinner time” and tries to catch one of the other children. If unsuccessful then the game continues with the same wolf but if successful, then the captured child becomes the new wolf.
1960s-70s: Bringing in the supplies at St Ives (Photo: courtesy of Val Thomas)
Who does what had to be sorted and it was usually the “old hands” who made these decisions and the new recruits who followed orders. Even so, the patience of some were tested and caused a few ruffles especially when the pecking order was interfered with.
In the early days, before the use of electricity, an open fire would have been built on which to boil the water for that all-important “cup tay”. With due regard to the direction of the wind, some stones or bricks would be positioned to support a grid on which kettles or urns were placed. With newspapers and dry sticks in place the stoker now used his skills to produce an open fire, hot enough to get the kettles singing. James Nicholls (Jimmy Cuptea) had this role at Blackwater tea treat. At Bethel it was Mick Bartlett who stoked the furnace and Billy Whale who took care of the boiling water. At St Day in the 1940s/1950s it was Walter Cann who boiled the water and Cornish miner, Peno Knowles, county rugby player and wrasslin stickler, who wielded the pitcher. Jimmy Hender was another name who tended the fire in many tea treats and in this photograph he has been dubbed “Jimmy the water boiler”.
Jimmy Hender (Photo: from “The Miner with A Camera” courtesy of Clive Benney)
The Tea Urn
The cups were often topped up by a man with a pitcher, a sort of specialist topper upper. It was his job and woe betide anyone who tried to take over.
On other occasions the tea was served out of pitchers or large teapots (no tea bag in a cup in those days) by ladies often dressed in their best white aprons. One bandsman’s wife, who chose to remain anonymous, recalled that the young girls were called in to help with the teas and more than one chose this occasion to try and catch the eye of a young bandsman.
Occasionally, boiling water was obtained from a nearby house and carried precariously to the tables with little regard for that modern invention, health and safety. In later years, life was made a little easier with the use of an electric boiler with cables trailed from a nearby building.
For the adults, the tea was a major attraction and the spread of Cornish goodies always meant that its popularity was guaranteed. At some chapels, tickets were sold to non-members to emphasise the advantage of joining the society. It also brought in some money to help cover the cost of the day. These tickets were much sought after and in the 1860s, forged tea tickets were in circulation for the Wesleyan Whit Monday tea treat at Camborne.
The band were included in the sumptuous spread and could be relied on to do justice to the ladies’ labours. An interesting story is of Telfer Rule of Camborne Band who often carried his empty instrument case with him when he went for tea; it was very useful for storing sustenance for the homeward journey – allegedly!
The sumptuous spread included some “savoury trade”, but it was the jam and cream splits, saffron cake, hevva cake and sweet stuff that seemed to be most appreciated and no matter how hungry (or greedy) the bandsmen were, the food just kept on coming. No committee worth its salt was going to send a band home hungry and the acceptance of the engagement the following year was often based on the players’ memory of the tea. For the ladies there was great pride in serving a good tea and in receiving the expressions of thanks.
Having made the bold statement about no band being sent home hungry there was one oft-repeated story of a 1960s tea treat where St Agnes Silver Band members were each provided with half a pasty and a cup of tea. Astonished looks were followed by quite audible grumbles and when the invitation was received the following year everyone seemed to be otherwise occupied on the day in question.
The Famous Tea Treat Buns
At some point the children were given their tea treat buns. Some Sunday schools distributed them on the return from the procession but for others, perhaps the majority, it was while the adults were tucking in at the table. Perhaps the latter was the best idea if only to keep the children busy and away from the goodies intended for the adults although it didn’t seem to prevent the occasional child who found the contents of the table to be more attractive.
1912: Crosscoombe Primitive Tea Treat (Photo: courtesy Clive Benney)
1928: Richie Sandercock aged four at St Agnes Chapel Tea Treat
Jonathan Knight at Troon Tea Treat (Photo: K J Knight)
Peter (Nick) Thomas at St Agnes in the 1950s looking delighted to have received his bun
The term “Bun struggle” has been mentioned by more than one person and the only meaning seems to be connected to its size and the difficulty of finishing it.
The earliest discovered newspaper reference to these iconic tea treat buns is on the 29th August 1862 in the “Royal Cornwall Gazette”. It is probable that they predate this but we really can’t be sure when the tradition began or why the buns became so important to the tea treat. Were they always made from saffron and did the size and composition evolve across the years? Now they are remembered as being huge, like dinner plates and “as big as cowpats”. Not a particularly appetising descriptive! The suggested weight of them varies between 10 and 16oz. They were certainly big and according to Barrie Bennetts, former reporter with the “West Briton,” they were 10” in diameter and 2” thick. In an idle moment at a tea treat in Redruth, he calculated how many would be needed to match the height of the Basset monument on Carn Brea. He has forgotten how many but considering the granite column is 90’ high we can remind him that it would be 540. Balancing them may have been a bit of a problem though.
1893 Advertisement (courtesy of Garry Tregidga)
For the liquid refreshment, the children brought their own cups or mugs which in many cases, were tied around their necks with a ribbon. It seems that this was still the case in many chapels until the 1950s.
Betty Tredinnick of St Agnes recalled her father, Eddie Tredinnick, placing an order for the buns and other goodies from Stanley Cowl, the St Agnes baker. “He always asked him to put in a bit of extra lard and plenty of fruit”. Whatever else people remember about their tea treat it is always the buns which are mentioned.
This description from Joy Stevenson provides us with a vivid picture of the tea treat bun and of how much it was appreciated. “When we reached the tea treat field, long tables covered in snow white cloths awaited us, and as soon as we sat at the long forms we were given our tea treat bun, almost as large around as a dinner plate: nothing since has surpassed the oozing richness of that special bun. It was all washed down with hot tea poured from a huge enamel jug into the mugs we had brought for the occasion.”
Nice Saffron Buns
A bit of tongue-in-cheek
Written circa 2018 and included with the kind permission of Jim Wearne
The Evening Concert
1905: Treverbyn Tea Treat with Bugle Band (Photo: courtesy David Jane)
Many tea treats extended into the evening when the band provided a concert. If the weather remained fine then it was held outside with the band perched on those infamous wooden forms. This was an opportunity to play some music that could be described as “a bit more substantial” but it certainly would have included a couple of marches and a few hymn tunes. By now, the fun and games were over and the audience were much more attentive although it was accepted that the children would wander off to play after a while.
1905: Camborne Town Band at a tea treat (Photo: courtesy of David Thomas)
The Serpentine Dance / Walk / March / Waltz
1950 circa: The Serpentine Walk at Troon (Photo: Courtesy David Oates)
For many Sunday schools this was the traditional end to the day. However, it was not included everywhere, and folk from some areas have not even heard of it, so we are left to wonder if its use was very localised.
David Oates of Troon wrote about it in his article “Troon” for Cornish Story. “The real mystery of the tea treat was the Serpentine Walk that took place in Troon Square at the conclusion of the parade and before the distribution of the tea treat buns. No-one seemed to know how it went but there was one man (always a man) in each generation who had the knowledge. In recent years it was the late Mr Henry Roberts, village cobbler who would emerge from his house in Fore Street, resplendent in suit and buttonhole to lead and make sure the intricate walk went according to plan. Adding to the mystery, it was not always a chapel goer! In the dying days of tea treats this plan was made and should future generations wish to revive it, the basis is there.”
Plan of the Serpentine Walk as practised at Troon (Photo: courtesy David Oates) Clearly, here, the band was divided into five groups to accommodate the route but in other versions the band were either static in a single group or led the dance.
“The Serpent Dance, sometimes called the Snake Dance or Serpentine Walk, is a direct descendant of the Medieval Farandole with a line of dancers spiralling around, weaving in and out and “threading the needle” as the last couple make an arch for the lead couple to double back through. The Cornish tea treats took this dance to a new level by involving several hundred people into one long line and placing a full brass band in the lead.” (Merv Davey)
Blackwater tea treat was a regular engagement for St Agnes Silver Band in the mid-1930s and it was usual for them to lead the Serpentine Walk around the field. Unfortunately, a herd of cows had only recently vacated the field and had left a lot of evidence of their occupation. I can confirm that the eyes are usually focussed immediately ahead when playing on a march and it was understandable that the offending material was not spotted. Player after player managed to step in a cowpat, each one slipping but successfully regaining their balance. Bill Cheshire of St Agnes Silver Band was bringing up the rear and had a good view of the acrobatics going on. He said, “I was unable to continue playing through laughing so much”.
Ken White of St Agnes Silver Band recalled playing for the Serpentine Walk during the 1940s. He said, “We played an ordinary march but stayed seated while the people paraded around the field”.
Ruth Jennings of Crosscoombe Chapel recalled that their tea treats ended with a band concert and the Serpentine Walk when a man led the parade of couples into a sort of maze and out again and the ladies assumed that their partners expected to walk them home.
Merv Davey recalled, “I learnt about the Serpentine from my great aunt Annie and uncle Reg Salmon who lived their lives in Goonhavern. It would be interesting to know what music was played for it. I suspect that by then the ‘Sunny Corner’, ‘Point’ and ‘Frogpool’ marches of Ralph Dunstan’s 1890s band days had long disappeared.”
As we have already said, the existence of generic “tea treat music” is unlikely and that conclusion applies equally to the Serpentine Walk. It is more likely that each Sunday school had its favourite tune or that it was left to the bands to play something suitable.
The golden days of the tea treat was a time when entertainment was home spun with few alternative attractions. Communities looked to their church or chapel for religious and social needs and the tea treat was an annual celebration eagerly anticipated. Times have changed and entertainment has become more sophisticated but for those of us of a certain age, the tea treat will be remembered with a great deal of affection.
Our thanks go to all organisations and individuals, whether named or not, who have provided information and photographs for this project. If you own the copyright to any of the photographs included, then please let us know and you will be credited, or the photographs removed.
- (RD) Ralph Dunstan (1857-1933) was born in Carnon Downs and was an avid collector of Cornish folksongs. Following a move to London he made music, and teaching music, his life’s work. He returned to Cornwall in the mid-1920s and lived at Perrancoombe, Perranporth.
University of Exeter: “Parading the Cornish subject: Methodist Sunday schools in west Cornwall, c. 1830-1930” by Harvey, David; Brace, Catherine; Bailey, Adrian R.