Hoodening through the ages

Origins of Hoodening

As with all ancient customs, it is difficult to be definitive about any aspect of Hoodening! It is possible that the origins are pagan (a celebration of the Winter Solstice and the rebirth which Spring brings). Some people see it as a Saxon custom, with the horse representing one's ancestral spirits. Sir James Frazer (in 'The Golden Bough') describes customs in various parts of Germany and England where the farm finishing their harvest first would send a 'corn-spirit in the form of a mare' to all the other farms. He goes on to say that 'in one place a real mare used to be sent, but the man who rode her was subjected to rough treatment at the farmhouses to which he paid his unwelcome visit'. Whether this is connected with Thanet farmers sending their best horse around the community in Winter (see 1876 below) is not clear. This book also goes into incredible depth about traditions of death & resurrection around the world, including many Celtic ceremonies. There have also been theories that it is a "rough survival of the burlesques of the mystery plays acted after the Reformation, telling the story of 'The Journey to Nazareth' with the hooden horse itself portraying the donkey that carried Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus".

Horses were important figures in Kent — indeed, the oldest known horse fossil (dating back 54 million years) was discovered in Herne Bay in 1838, by one William Richardson, and the symbol of Kent is Invicta, a white horse — possibly a reference to Hengist and Horsa, the two Jutes who subdued King Vortigern in around 450 and became the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain. (Both Hengist and Horsa originally mean 'horse', and some people believe that the two 'brothers' were in fact the same person.)

c. 400 BCE

Agesilaüs II, King of Sparta, is reported to have ridden a hobby horse with his children.

c. 690 CE

Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, issues a list of ecclesiastical laws called the Liber Penitentialis, in which he condemns the practice of those 'who on the kalends of January clothe themselves with the skins of cattle and carry heads of animals'; apparently they were expected to do three years of penance. Other unconfirmed reports say that 'St Augustine in the 5th century condemned the 'filthy practice of dressing up like a horse or stag' in the 5th century' (which seems somewhat strange considering he arrived in England in 597 — unless it means St Augustine of Hippo?) and that 'the ecclesiastical authorities in Scotland later forbade 'any man from dressing as a horse or wild beast and dancing widdershins in the Kalends of January, for this is devilish''. It is interesting to note that modern American evangelists devote no mean effort to 'countering the menace' of similar pagan customs (e.g. Halloween) via their websites. Horse heads may have been used at the Celtic festival of Samhain.

c. 1280

A psalter originally from Lorraine in France, but now held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (item "Douce 118"), shows on folio 34r a woman wearing a tourney horse. She is accompanied by a jester playing the pipe and tabor.

c. 1300-1310

A Book of Hours originally from Cambrai in Flanders, but now held in Walters Art Museum (item W88), shows on folio 115v a blue man-deer folio 156v a white man-deer with a red cloth. As above, both are accompanied by jester playing the pipe and tabor.

c. 1344

The Roman d'Alexandre, originally from Tournai in Flanders, but now held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (item "MS 264"), shows on folio 70r a furry brown man-deer, once again accompanied by jester playing the pipe and tabor.

c. 1350

Welsh poet Gruffudd Gryg writes "Hobi hors ymhob gorsedd / A fu wych, annifa’i wedd": the first recorded use of the term 'hobby horse'. The word appears in English in 1460, and again in 1504 in Cornwall.

c. 1620

A man wearing a tourney horse is shown in a painting of a scene of the Thames at Richmond.

At almost the same time, the Betley Window also shows a man wearing a tourney horse.


Rev. Samuel Pegge, vicar of Godmersham, refers in his 'Alphabet of Kenticisms' to 'Hooding (houding): a country masquerade at Christmas time, which in Derbyshire they call guising (I suppose a contraction of dis-guising) and in other places mumming.'


Hoodening is mentioned by the European Magazine as taking place in Ramsgate, although it is seldom mentioned again until 1838. This is the first detailed description, and is repeated almost verbatim in many other newspapers over the years:
'At Ramsgate they commence their Christmas festivities by the following ceremony: A party of the youthful portion of the community having procured the head of a horse, it is affixed to a pole, about four feet in length; a string is attached to the lower jaw, a horse cloth is tied round the extreme part of the head, beneath which one of the party is concealed, who, by repeated pulling and loosening the string, causes the jaw to rise and fall, and thus produces, by bringing the teeth in contact, a snapping noise, as he moves along; the rest of the party following in procession, grotesquely habited, and ringing hand-bells. In this order they proceed from house to house, singing carols and ringing their bells, and are generally remunerated for the amusement they occasion by a largess of money, or beer and cake. This ceremony is called 'a hoodening'. The figure which we have described is designated 'a hooden' or wooden horse. The ceremony prevails in many parts of the Isle of Thanet, and may probably be traces as the relic of some religious ceremony practised in the early ages by our Saxon ancestors.'


Hoodening at Ash reported to include a Maid Marian figure (as in some Morris traditions). Mollie is said to be a diminutive of Marian.


Susanna Crow, a heavily pregnant 21-year-old woman in Broadstairs, dies of 'severe contusion from a fall, occasioned by a fit of apoplexy which […] seemed to have been accelerated by fright, occasioned through a party from Margate, who paraded Broadstairs on Christmas Eve with music, and one of whom was habited as a bear in a dress of the most hideous description'. The dress had to be 'given up' and the offending 'apprentices' were warned that they would be prosecuted if any repetition took place. This is commonly reported as 'the Hooden Horse having frightened a lady to death and consequently having been banned by the local magistrates', but that is not at all clear from the description above.


Described in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction. A Margate resident also remembers it happening in this year.


Performed in Hoath — later a man recalls being frightened (when a young boy) by a candle showing through two eyes bored into the horse's forehead. This matches the structure of the horse we commonly refer to as 'Satan'.


Adalbert Kuhn, German linguist and folklorist, publishes the first scholarly study of hoodening, linking it to Woden and Robin Hood, as well as many other similar customs, and thus laying the foundation for Maylam's later book.


Wooden horse's head with moveable jaws apparently carried around in Margate on Boxing Day. Three separate teams performed in Birchington, each with five men.


Mentioned in Walcott's Guide to the Coast of Kent.


A German lady at Lower Hardres, who had been chair-bound for seven years, was so frightened by the horse that she leapt up and dashed for cover. The cure lasted, and her husband was so impressed that he bought the horse and took it back to Germany. A new one was made, but this too was bought by Squire Thomson of Kenfield (near Petham). The custom continued in this area until 1892.


English and Scottish ballads (ed. Francis James Child) mentions the ceremony of hoodening and the 'hobby horse' called 'a hooden' in connection with Robin Hood and Woden, referring to previous academic articles on the topic by Adalbert Kuhn.


The Kent Herald describes Christmas Eve in Minster. 'The band enlivened the streets; hooded horses not quite hooded up to the old style, perambulated the streets, and the carol singers… were very numerous.'


Mentioned again in the Kent Herald: 'The hooden horse, we thought, was as extinct as megatharium, but there was one that came again to see how the world was jogging on. The darkies performed their part very well, and one or two sets of carol singers put one in mind of the days of yore.'


Mentioned by Rev. H Bennett Smith, vicar of St Nicholas and Monkton. 'I made enquiry of an old retired farmer in my parish, as to the custom called Hoodning. He tells me that formerly the farmer used to send annually round the neighbourhood the best horse under the charge of the wagoner, and that afterwards instead, a man used to represent the horse, being supplied with a tail, and with a wooden (pronounced ooden or hooden) figure of a horse's head, and plenty of horse-hair for mane. The horse's head was fitted with hob-nails for teeth; the mouth being made to open by means of a string, and in closing made a loud crack. The custom has long since ceased.'


Maylam (see below) witnesses performance in Birchington.


Mentioned in A Dictionary of Kentish Dialect (published in Lewes by W.D. Parish and W.F. Shaw). 'Hoodening (hood'ning): the name formerly given to a mumming or masquerade. Carol singing on Christmas Eve is still so called at Monkton in East Kent.' It also says that in certain places a live horse was used. Maylam sees 'the St Nicholas horse' performing in Monkton on Christmas Eve (until 1892).


Letter from C. Saunders in the Bromley Record (dated 16/12/1889) says: 'I'm told in Thanet that Hoodening ceased fifty years ago, after a woman at Broadstairs died of fright. It is a custom peculiar to Thanet. They usually used a wooden head as real horses' heads are hard to come by. The 'old woman' swept with the broom the feet of those who answered the knock at the door, and while chasing the girls was only induced to desist by a gift of money or refreshments. The singers indulged the whole time, in carols formerly, but in combination of carols and song latterly.' The custom was apparently observed in 'St Peter's, St Lawrence, Minster, St Nicholas, Acol, Monkton and Birchington', but Minster was the 'headingest and toppingest'.


Mentioned in Church Times as still being performed at Deal and Walmer, but it is 'three to four years since it last took place at Hoath.'


Mentioned in the Kentish Express. 'Hoodening means going round singing carols and songs and shouting good wishes at Christmas and the New Year (for a consideration). Formerly, each farmer sent his best horse round the parish, gaily decorated, in charge of the wagoner, to whom drink and money were given. Sometimes too the labourers would take round their horse (wooden).'


G. Goodson moves from Cleve Farm (Monkton) to Fenland (in Word, near Sandwich), taking a horse and continuing the tradition.


H.F. Abell writes in Home Counties magazine, mentioning an alternative name 'championing'.

June 1905

Hale group photographed, out of season, by Maylam at Bolingbroke Farm in Sarre. The members' names are not known, and they may be unrelated to the group based around the Trice brothers, although Olive Brockman (aged 11 at the time) guessed some 73 years later that the Wagoner might be a Trice, the Hoodener or the Musician with a top hat might be Walt Patterson, and the boy might be Gibbs.
Moll, Boy, Horse, Waggoner Full group Man with horse


Performed in Birchington, and in various Walmer shops on Christmas Eve. Apparently three heads still remained in Acol, Mutrix and Northdown, but all trace has been lost since (q.v. 1925).
There are rumours of some hooligans calling themselves the Birchington Hoodeners, who terrorized the village (people used to barricade their doors) and were led by an infamous character called Steve 'Mouser' Terry — so-called because he used to bite the heads of mice as a party trick! We have yet to find any detailed evidence of their existence, other than a second-hand report from someone who 'saw them when young, and was born shortly before the turn of the century'… and an article indicating they might have been active in the 1920s. Apparently they would have serious fights with other local groups.


A. Loft at the Crown Inn in Sarre writes that 'Hoodening is still performed here. They sing old country songs.' Maylam photographs a group in Walmer.
Walmer group


Percy Maylam, a Canterbury solicitor, photographs the Deal group and publishes his definitive book: 'The Hooden Horse, An East Kent Christmas Custom'. Originals are rare, but a modern annotated edition is available.
Deal group


Edmund Trice's wife comes to St Nicholas and sees Hoodeners.
Members: William West (musician: accordion), Walter Trice (jockey; William West's brother-in-law), etc.


The Encyclopædia Britannica includes an article conflating hodening (sic) with similar customs elsewhere (it even mentions a white cloth), and perpetuating the 'Odin' theory.


No record of any performances during the Great War.


Probably the year that Tom West first participated in the St Nicholas Hoodening. He remembers being thrown across the bar of the King's Head and into a pile of biscuit tins at Packham's bakery. Money was collected on a tambourine, the other instruments being an accordion and a triangle (which is still with the St Nicholas Hoodeners). Hoodening was performed on a couple of nights in Christmas Week (although Tom West's account implies that the 'night' actually started while the shops were still open). The first was generally set aside for the shops, pubs and big houses of St Nicholas, while the second was used for the 'Great Walk' (on the map, 10 miles or so — although when retraced in 2016 along modern roads and paths, it was around 18 miles and took 8 hours). Part of the Boy's function was to make sure the men got home again at the end of the evening!

Venues included the following:

Map of Great Walk
Members included the following:
Edmund Trice (horse; b.1887), Frank 'Podger' Trice (horse; b. 1897), Walter Trice (musician & wagoner; b. 1904), George Trice (Moll), Ern Trice
Tom West (jockey; William West's son, b. 1907)
Steve / Charlie Howland (wagoner; possibly the same person?)
George Holladay (musician; also his father?)
St Nicholas Hoodeners in 1919 Names of performers

c. 1921
Trice brothers perform last Hoodening in St Nicholas / Sarre for 40-odd years.
St Nicholas Hoodeners in 1920 Names of performers
Charlie Howland


Thanet Advertiser describes the 'Old Custom Revived': 'The Yuletide amenities at Birchington were added to this year by the revival on Christmas Eve of the old English custom of trotting out the hooding horse.' with similar reports in a few subsequent years.


Hoodening still performed in Acol; one of the Hoodeners was William Frederick Castle (b. 1875, d. 1940-1), a labourer at Quex.

c. 1935

It is said that Hythe had a hooden horse that did its rounds in the mid-1930s (specifically, after 1934).

Late 1930s (c.1937?)

There are sporadic reports (childhood memories, etc.) of Hoodening continuing in Deal until around this time.

15 July 1939

A replica horse 'operated' by Balgowan School (Beckenham) appears at Aylesford Folk Dance Festival, and later at Herne Hill. See History of Ravensbourne.

In many areas the custom declined after World War I, partly due to the decrease in the use of horses for farming, partly due to the rise in alternative forms of entertainment such as the radio, and partly due to the general mood of the country. It similarly took a while to start up again after World War II.

Later Hoodening History, 1945-1965 ⇒