Myths, fairies and other magic from Kensington Reference Library

Maja Erhovnic, Tri-borough Reference Librarian, writes:

In the 1960s and 70s London libraries collaborated to create designated specialised collections that would together form a remarkable London-wide collections net covering different sections of the Dewey Decimal Classification. Kensington Central Library’s subjects were 920 (Biographies) and 390 (Folklore and Customs).

Although the idea of a centrally co-ordinated mega collection has disappeared from the local authorities’ agendas, some libraries keep and maintain their specialist collections up to date. Here in Kensington Reference Library we stock the Folklore and Customs Collection.

The Folklore and Customs Collection covers a variety of interesting topics that range from Witchcraft, Sex & Marriage, and  Feminism, to Mythology and Death Customs (take a look at our previous post, Vikings, Pumpkins and Dancing with Deer Horns).


A large sequence covers a family of tales (fairy tales, folk tales, myths etc) from across the globe.

One of the values of these types of collections is archiving books that would have otherwise been withdrawn – probably decades ago. What we have here is a rich source for anyone interested in how people all over the world tell stories of their existence, how those stories change over time and how over time their essence stays the same. What’s the essence of people’s tales?

The way I personally see stories is that storytelling is about the reasoning, struggles and joys of our existence through imagination.

And that imagination is as vast as the universe. And imagining doesn’t have to stop once the story is told, even in cases when one story is already written down. Stories transform, they always will. Because life changes, the world changes, why would stories of our existence stay the same? They don’t, they change.

Thinking about this recently, I noticed how the notion of transforming the stories we thought were set in stone seems to be talked about more and more, and how these story transformations are reaching mainstream. I think that’s a good thing. I read Russell Brand’s children’s story The Pied Piper of Hamelin yesterday and though it was beautiful.

Russell Brand's Trickster Tales: The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 2015
Russell Brand’s Trickster Tales: The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 2015


But don’t let my opinion about tales and stories take over your view of what the essence of storytelling is. Make your own story. But before that, I invite you to listen to another story, another view – that of an author of a book, a writer of a song, a painter of a mural, a stranger at the till, a person down the pub, a colleague, a neighbour, a fellow traveller…What is their story telling you about you?What is the story you want to tell?

I wish all readers an open heart and an abundance of beautiful stories in 2015!

If you are interested in looking at any of the materials in our Folklore and Customs collection, please ask a member of staff or contact the libraries team.








By George – he’s here!

The birth of Prince George Alexander Louis inspired one of our Triborough Reference Librarians to take a look at our reference resources….

A New Royal Baby

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Prince George
Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Prince George

Gosh everyone was rather excited about the birth of Prince George recently. Not just in the lead up to his birth as well but the naming, first glimpses and photos as well.

Of course Prince George isn’t the first royal baby by any means. I had an interesting time looking through our Illustrated London News for images of our current Queen, Elizabeth II at around the time of her birth in 1926.

Princess Elizabeth with the Duchess of York (The Illustrated London News, 25 December 1926)
Princess Elizabeth with the Duchess of York (The Illustrated London News, 25 December 1926)

I run a Family History Group at Marylebone Library and we were recently talking about what the day of the week we were born on and what these days mean.  If you don’t remember it the rhyme (usually referred to as ‘Monday’s Child’) can be found in the Oxford Reference Online database (you’ll need a Kensington and Chelsea library card to access this from home) and it originally went…

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for its living,
And a child that’s born on the Christmas day Is fair and wise and good and gay.
1838 A. E. Bray Traditions of Devon II. 287

I think that Christmas day refers to Sunday in this instance but it would become the Sabbath day in later versions.

If you’re not sure what day of the week you were born on – you can check on the brilliant website Time and Date.  I was born on a Wednesday so apparently I am full of woe!

So –  Prince George was born on a Monday (22 July 2013) and the newspapers are indeed saying that he is fair of face. Perhaps more traditionally we would say he looked like Winston Churchill though?

Owen Grey

Triborough Reference Librarian

Further information

Coronation – customs and history

The Queen marks the 60th anniversary of her Coronation this month. Karen Ullersperger, Tri-Borough Reference Manager has taken a look at coronations using our varied collections.

Cecil Beaton's official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation
Cecil Beaton’s official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation

On 2 June 1953 Queen Elizabeth ll was crowned in Westminster Abbey. The coronation is the greatest of royal ceremonies and to mark the 60th anniversary of  this great occasion I will take a look at some of the customs and history behind the crowning of the monarch through the ages.

The origins of the coronation can be found in the pagan custom of installing their leader, usually warrior kings,  by seating them upon a stone and investing them with  symbols of their office  for example a spear. With the arrival of Christianity this ceremony then acquired a religious element and kings were anointed and consecrated. In the ceremony the King binds himself on oath to serve the people and in return the people pledge their allegiance to the King.

The ceremony last seen in 1952 is very similar to coronation  of King Edgar  in 973. For which there is a written record. Early coronations were held at Kingston upon Thames and you can still see the stone on which the Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned.

Coronation Stone, Kingston upon Thames
Coronation Stone, Kingston upon Thames

Coronations were not always held at Westminster Abbey and have also taken place  at Bath Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, Oxford, Winchester Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral. It was only in the middle ages Westminster Abbey was granted the sole right to hold the ceremony and to date there have been 38 coronations there.

The ceremony in 1952 took 16 months preparation and looked spectacular on a cold, rainy June day even in black and white on the small  televisions then in use. Yet our books on coronations and their customs give us an insight into even bigger events in the past.

In the thirteenth century it became the custom for the monarch to spend time before the coronation at the Tower of London and then formally process through the City to Westminster Hall.  On the day itself a there was procession from the Hall to the Abbey and following the service the monarch returned to Westminster Hall for a lavish banquet. The procession was abandoned in 1685 and the banquet in 1821 as a cost saving measure, the pageant alone had cost a mere £243,000.

The Coronation Procession of King George IV from Westminster Hall to the Abbey
The Coronation Procession of King George IV from Westminster Hall to the Abbey

One custom which sadly no longer takes place is the arrival of the King’s Champion during the coronation banquet. Dressed in full armour with lance and shield  and  mounted on a horse – the champion threw down his gauntlet asking if anyone denied the rightful title of the King or Queen.  As a reward for performing the service the champion got to keep the horse, trappings, armour and was given a gold cup filled with at least 36 ounces of gold.

Sir Edward Dymoke throwing down the gage at King Edward VI's Coronation
Sir Edward Dymoke throwing down the gage at King Edward VI’s Coronation

We can see from this picture of the procession that there were  minor  roles including strewing fragrant  herbs before the King on his way to the Abbey. This probably originated as an antidote to the plague. This picture show the last named herb woman, Miss Fellowes leading her ladies in 1821.

Miss Fellowes and her ladies strewing fragrant herbs
Miss Fellowes and her ladies strewing fragrant herbs

A few chosen facts about coronations

William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day 1066 but during the ceremony the noise of from inside the Abbey  alarmed the Norman guards outside who fearing a  revolt began to massacre the local Saxon populace  in the local area.

William the Conqueror being crowned on Christmas Day 1066
William the Conqueror being crowned on Christmas Day 1066

Henry lll was the first child to be crowned King at the age of 9 at Gloucester Cathedral in 1216. The ceremony could not take place at Westminster Abbey because London was occupied by the French who had invaded England. The regalia was still in London so Henry was crowned with his mother’s gold head circlet. He was crowned again  in 1220 in a full ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

Henry Vl was even younger becoming King at the age of  8 months  in 1422 but was not crowned until the age of eight in 1429. He remains the only King to also be crowned King of France, at Notre Dame Paris in 1431.

The Coronation of King Henry VI, 1429
The Coronation of King Henry VI, 1429

William lll and Mary ll had the first ever joint coronation in 1689. A duplicate coronation chair and regalia were made for Mary and William using the originals.

Two kings were never crowned, Edward Vlll who abdicated in 1936,and Edward  V who went into the Tower prior to his  coronation  in 1483  and  with his brother Richard, Duke of York  was never seen again.

In 1821 George IV’s estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick arrived expecting to be crowned Queen but was refused admittance to the ceremony – she was turned away from every door.

Central to the crowning of the  monarch is the regalia which has its own very colourful history. The most significant being the destruction of the original  regalia following the execution of  Charles l in 1649 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. The gold and silver were melted down and the jewels were sold. At the restoration new regalia had to be made and this is what we are familiar with today which is on display at the Tower of London.

Karen Ullesperger, Triborough Reference Manager
Karen Ullesperger

Karen Ullersperger, Tri-Borough Reference Manager

Further information

  • You can find more information the lives of all our King and Queens in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is available online on the library website (you’ll need a Kensington and Chelsea library membership to access this database) or you can borrow a book from the special biography collection at Kensington Central Library.
  • Books on the history and customs of the coronation through the ages  be found in the Folklore and Customs collection in Kensington Central Reference Library
  • More information on coronations can be found on the Westminster Abbey website.

Books that were used for this piece – all are available in the Folklore and Customs collection:

  • Shramm, Percy Ernst, A History of the English Coronation, Oxford, (Clarendon Press) 1937
  • Passingham, W. J, A History of the Coronation, London, (Samson Low Marston Ltd ) 1937
  • Brooke-Little,John, Royal Ceremonies of State, London, (Country life, Hamlyn press) 1980
  • Roe, F Gordon, Coronation Cavalcade,  (P. R . Gawthorne) 1937


The Lord Mayor’s Show

City of London Royal Crest
City of London Royal Crest

Following immediately after Halloween and Bonfire night is another great spectacle that of the Lord Mayor’s Show.

Our collection of books on customs cover great ceremonial occasions and the Lord Mayor’s show is one of the best. It takes place annually on the second Saturday in November and this year it falls on 10th November – best of all its free!

The post of Lord Mayor of the City London dates back more than 700 years and it was in the reign of King John who needing the support of the city in 1215 against rebellious barons gave the citizens of London the right to elect their own Mayor.

As the choice of Mayor has to be approved by the monarchy, each year (he or she) proceeds through the city to swear and oath of loyalty at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Gog and Magog
Gog and Magog

Up until 1453 the procession went through the City of London and was a great public holiday. One of the highlights of the procession was a chariot containing the two fearsome giants, Gog and Magog, who normally lived at the Guildhall. They represent the ancient legend that London was founded in the year 1000 by Trojan invaders after they had been helped by the two giants. Apparently these were made of wickerwork and were frequently eaten by the rats in the city. Therefore in 1708 two wooden figure were carved which unfortunately were later destroyed in the Blitz – luckily another pair were made and can still be seen in the Guildhall.

River Pageant
River Pageant

After this date the Lord mayor travelled to Westminster by barge in a river pageant – similar to the one we saw this year for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Apparently some of barges were so big that in one report they could hold a dinner and dance for eighty people. There were musicians, flags and guns firing along the way and on some occasions there were boats with dragons casting fire over the water. Unfortunately the river pageant ceased in 1856 and it went back to the processional route along the streets.

Mansion House in London
Mansion House

The Lord Mayor now travels through the City from Mansion House the official residence of the Lord Mayor to the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand and returns in procession to Mansion House to hold a huge banquet. He travels in a richly decorated state coach. The coach was built in 1757 and cost the grand sum of £1065 0s 3d. It weighs over 3 tons and is 19.8 metres long (approx 65 feet).

Illustration of the Lord Mayors Coach
Lord Mayors Coach

The procession is held each year and there is great account in the Illustrated London News of 17th November 1883 describing all the floats. You can also find them on our online database Times Digital Archive which include such wonderful phrase as “the window of the houses were filled with persons mostly ladies of most respectable appearance” and in the procession an “ancient knight mounted on a charger armed cap a pie in suit of polishes tell armour and plumed”.

Illustration of Dick Wittington
Dick Wittington

Some famous Lord Mayors include Richard (Dick) Whittington who really was Lord Mayor three times and which I have found out was worth the amazing sum of £7000 at his death in 1423. Sir William Walworth, was the Lord Mayor who killed Wat Tyler during the peasants revolt of 1381. One of the more inept Mayors was Sir Thomas Bludworth who famously underestimated the impact of a small fire in Pudding Lane in 1666, the result of which was the burning down of most of London, more famously known as the Great Fire.

More information:

Bibliography for the above blog post, was done using the following references:

  • Roud, Steve, London Lore the legend and traditions of the world’s most vibrant city , London, (Random House) 2008
  • Brentnall, Margaret, Old customs and ceremonies of London, Norfolk, (B.T Batsford Ltd) 1975.
  • Hayward Girtin, T, The Lord Mayor of London, London, (Oxford University press) 1948
Karen Ullesperger, Triborough Reference Manager
Karen Ullesperger

Karen Ullersperger, Tri-Borough Reference Manager


Fire celebration
Fire celebration

As the nights draw and autumn  leaves begin to fall it is time once again to look at  some of the folklore surrounding this time of year.

In our previous folklore post we referred to Punkie night in late October and this time of year is rich in custom and tradition.

The most well know date in the calendar is of course the 31 October. This has a variety of names including Samhain, All Hallows Eve,  Apple and Candle Night, Nut Crack Night, Nos Calan Gaeaf (if you are a welsh speaker) more commonly known as Halloween.

In pagan tradition the date marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, the time of the ending of one year and the beginning of the next. A time of celebrating the harvest, looking forward to the New Year, but also a time when the dead were honoured. Supernatural forces are thought to be stronger than normal and barriers between the living and  the dead begin to dissolve  and spirits walked abroad.

The date also became important in the Christian calendar as All Hallow’s Eve  with celebrations  continuing into the festival of All Saints Day (1 November).

Bobbing for apples
Bobbing for apples

Here are a few ideas for Halloween celebrations taken from books in our special collection.

One of the more well known games is to try to bite and get-a-hold of an apple floating in a tub of water or swung on cord in front of  the player, usingnothing but your teeth. Good fortune will follow in the coming year if one is caught.

Why not try the Scottish and north country variant by swinging a treacle smeared scone in front of the player instead?

Who will be your partner?
Some older games for  Halloween involve nuts and fruit. These often involved girls trying to find out who their future husband would be (although I expect it works for both sexes these days!!).  Why not try roasting  two chestnuts in the fire and give them the names of your potential parners, if they cook well all will be well in your relationship, but if they burst apart the signs are bad.

If you grow your own, pull up a cabbage to see how suitable you partner is –  taste the root to see if it indicates a sweet or bitter temperament, and lots of dirt implies they are wealthy.


Trick or Treat?
Nowadays this seems more like an American import but the tradition originates from England. In the nineteenth century in both Yorkshire and Scotland the 31 October was known as mischief night. It was customary for young men in the villages  to disguise themselves in fantastic costumes, wearing masks or darkening their faces and going from house to house collecting money or gifts of food.

All things spooky
On this night all things supernatural are supposed to occur and the night is chiefly associated with witches and the returning dead

Books and stories
Of course there are a number of books, poems and films which have Halloween as a theme, some of which can be found in our libraries. Search our library catalogue  for all things Halloween.

Halloween Party by Agatha Christie
Halloween Party by Agatha Christie
Halloween Trick or Treat book
Halloween Trick or Treat book
Halloween book by Dorling Kindersley
Halloween book by Dorling Kindersley

                    by Karen Ullersperger

Vikings, pumpkins, and dancing with deer horns…

One of the many gems in Kensington Reference Library is our  special collection devoted to folklore and customs, the odder and more archaic the better! The United Kingdom has many eccentric traditions whose origins go back to ancient times but which are still observed and take place at various times throughout the year. Take a look at some of the highlights from a few of the many books we have on our shelves…here are four of our favourites…

Lerwick in the Shetland Islands hold a midwinter festival each January called Up-Helly-Aa (“End of the Holy Days”). This has its origins in a Viking midwinter festival and climaxes in the burning of a magnificent mock Viking longship, followed by lots of partying. Guizer Jarl, an elected leader of the celebrations, leads these festivities in full Viking armour (sounds like a fun job…)

In Helston, Cornwall  a spring festival  is held in May and includes the curiously named Hal-an Tow (meaning “haul on the rope”), a  mumming play referencing St George and the Dragon, Robin Hood and the Spanish Armada.  The day’s celebrations  include the Furry Dance (a floral dance) that  weaves in and out of local shops and houses, men wearing top hats and tailcoats, ladies in evening dress, and everyone adorned with sprigs of Lily of the Valley (slightly more civilised than Viking carousing!).

Abbotts Bromley in Staffordshire boasts its own traditional dance in September each year.

Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011,
The Horn Dance Fool (Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011).
The Horn Dance (Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011).
Deer horns and tweed trousers, we must be in England…(Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011).

The Horn Dance is first recorded in 1226 but almost certainly dates back to pre-historic times. Six men carrying great reindeer antlers are accompanied by a fool, a hobby horse, a bowman and Maid Marian, all performing a dance to the music of a melodeon and a triangle. The ritual is believed to ensure a good hunt but nowadays is also used to collect money for charity.

Punkie Night
Fire and fun on Punkie Night (Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011).

Punkie Night is held in Hinton St George, Somerset, in late October. The   custom is reminiscent of Halloween and trick-or-treating. Children follow a horse-drawn carriage around the village carrying “punkies”, lanterns made from pumpkins and mangel-worzels with carved faces, singing songs and threatening to frighten people.  The origins of Punkie night are believed to have come from the custom of placing lanterns on farm gates to drive away evil spirits.

If you want to find out more about these customs, as well many others, look in the following books from our collection:

  • Hannant, Sara, Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011
  • Hobson, Jeremy, Curious country customs, Newton Abbott, (David & Charles) 2007
  • Hogg, Garry, Customs and traditions of England, Newton Abbott, (David & Charles) 1971