‘Ossing About

On Christmas Eve we went over to Richmond to see T’Owd ‘Oss do his stuff around the town. T’Owd ‘Oss – or ‘The Old Horse’ to southerners – is a real horse’s skull on a pole, which is carried around the centre of the town every Christmas Eve. All decked out in greenery and poinsettias, the ‘Oss is accompanied by his ‘huntsmen’ who lead him around, singing a song and, on a fairly regular basis, beating him to death. A pretty normal Christmas Eve in Richmond, North Yorkshire.

The Poor Old ‘Oss “dies” and then rises again

The ‘Oss and his huntsmen make an appearance around 11am, when they start going around the pubs in the Market Place, being offered a glass of whisky in each – they even get a drink from the manager of Barclays Bank! The story goes that traditionally there always had to be a local butcher, dentist and lawyer amongst the ‘Oss’s huntsmen – the butcher to supply the horse’s head, the dentist to make sure the teeth stayed in, and the lawyer to deal with the aftermath of the fighting and damage that would inevitably happen as the day went on!

One of the group dressed in red with the ‘Oss is a local pagan, who is well-known from the Beltane at Thornborough Henges celebrations down the road near Masham in North Yorkshire. He explains the tradition of T’Owd ‘Oss to those watching in terms of The Wild Hunt – that the ‘Oss is a mythological figure associated with death and re-birth and they, the ‘huntsmen’ who accompany him, represent the souls of the dead. For me this is a wonderful and empowering reclaiming of the event from its fox-hunting associations.

Old photograph of Richmond 'Poor Old Horse' from 1895

The first photograph we have of T’Owd ‘Oss was taken in 1895 and the song that the huntsmen sing about the ‘Oss was first published in 1857, where it was described as “a very old composition”, so we know that the tradition has been going since the mid-19th Century at least.



As sung by the Mummers in the Neighbourhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas.

[The rustic actor who sings the following song is dressed as an old horse, and at the end of every verse the jaws are snapped in chorus.  It is a very old composition, and is now printed for the first time.  The ‘old horse’ is, probably, of Scandinavian origin,—a reminiscence of Odin’s Sleipnor.]

You gentlemen and sportsmen,
And men of courage bold,
All you that’s got a good horse,
Take care of him when he is old;
Then put him in your stable,
And keep him there so warm;
Give him good corn and hay,
Pray let him take no harm.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

Once I had my clothing
Of linsey-woolsey fine,
My tail and mane of length,
And my body it did shine;
But now I’m growing old,
And my nature does decay,
My master frowns upon me,
These words I heard him say,—
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

These pretty little shoulders,
That once were plump and round,
They are decayed and rotten,—
I’m afraid they are not sound.
Likewise these little nimble legs,
That have run many miles,
Over hedges, over ditches,
Over valleys, gates, and stiles.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

I used to be kept
On the best corn and hay
That in fields could be grown,
Or in any meadows gay;
But now, alas! it’s not so,—
There’s no such food at all!
I’m forced to nip the short grass
That grows beneath your wall.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

I used to be kept up
All in a stable warm,
To keep my tender body
From any cold or harm;
But now I’m turned out
In the open fields to go,
To face all kinds of weather,
The wind, cold, frost, and snow.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

My hide unto the huntsman
So freely I would give,
My body to the hounds,
For I’d rather die than live:
So shoot him, whip him, strip him,
To the huntsman let him go;
For he’s neither fit to ride upon,
Nor in any team to draw.
Poor old horse! you must die!

Robert Bell,  Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, 1857

The ‘Oss may have been in existence before the 1850s, as William Wise in his newspaper articles in the Richmond and Ripon Chronicle in the 1880s wrote about memories of it from his boyhood during the 1830s:

The most exciting Christmas custom was that of the ‘Poor Old Horse’ which perambulated the town from one public house to another.

Richmond, Yorkshire in the 1830s: Being the reminiscences of William Wise ‘An Old Richmond Lad’, edited by Leslie P. Wenham, 1977

It seems that the tradition of T’Owd ‘Oss may not have started any earlier than the mid-1820s though, as it wasn’t mentioned by Christopher Clarkson in the chapter on ‘Old Customs’ in his 1814 book The History of Richmond, or in the extended 1821 second edition. Clarkson briefly addressed Morris dancing customs practiced in Richmond during the Christmas holidays in the early 1800s, which although apparently not involving a horse’s head on a pole did involve a man dressing up as an animal:

the FOOL almost covered with skins, a hairy cap on his head, and the tail of a Fox hanging from his back leads the festive throng and diverts the crowd with droll antic buffoonery.

Christopher Clarkson, The History of Richmond, in the County of York, 1815, page 296

Clarkson thought that the figure of the “Fool” was a “fragment of the ancient Festival of Fools, held on New Year’s Day, when all sorts of absurdities and indecencies were indulged in.” (page 298)

At 12 noon the ‘Oss arrives at Richmond Town Hall and meets the children and parents who have been to the previous puppet show. The picture hanging on the wall above the ‘Oss is a painting of him, which takes pride of place in the Town Hall.

The presence of small children, however, does not stop T’Owd ‘Oss from being beaten to death (yet again). Its how we make them so tough in Yorkshire.

The stop at the Town Hall does allow the poor chap who is underneath the horse’s head to have a bit of a rest. He was, bless him, absolutely lathered which is not surprising as he is carrying it for most of the day. He let me pick the head up while he was having a rest and it must have weighed at least ten kilos.

He explained that what I had originally thought was some kind of textile fabric covering the skull underneath is, in fact, the skin of a black lamb that was never born. It was one of the softest things I have ever touched. I felt sad about where this covering had come from and yet intrigued. This ‘Oss is a copy of the one that is pictured in the 1895 photograph and so that skull may also have been covered with a stillborn black lambskin. Could this be of any traditional ritual significance about T’Owd ‘Oss’s link between the living and the dead – a space occupied by the very similar Mari Lwyd in Wales? There was no time to ask as T’Owd ‘Oss was off once more, now heading into a tea shop to create mayhem amongst the customers.

And then back into the Market Place to make a further nuisance of himself before setting off – once again – to visit the many hostelries in Richmond. As did we!

When he’s not galivanting around the Market Place on Christmas Eve, T’Owd ‘Oss of Richmond lives just around the corner on the first floor of the Richmondshire Museum in the re-creation of James Herriot’s veterinary surgery – well he is a horse! He can be visited again when the museum re-opens in April.

by Liz

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