The outlawed Shrove Tuesday tradition of Leicester

Shrove Tuesday – taking place this year on 28 February – often involves the flipping of savoury and sweet pancakes, but prior to 1846 the city of Leicester had its own very particular way of celebrating the event.

At this time Shrove Tuesday was an occasion for an outburst of eating, drinking and riotous entertainments. 

A letter written by ‘J.C.B.’ to William Hone, author of the Year Book first published in 1829, explained how on the morning of Shrove Tuesday, a fair was held in the Newarke, with stalls selling food and drink and musical entertainment.

At about midday, a game of ‘hockey’ or ‘single stick’ played by two teams of men and boys, began. However, this was only the prelude to the main entertainment of the day – the ‘Whipping Toms’.

By one o’clock, any of the more timid onlookers would wisely have made themselves scarce. At this hour, three men clad in blue smocks and armed with ‘a large waggon whip’ - a formidable weapon, capable of causing serious injury - appeared, attended by three other men, who carried a bell. 

These were the ‘Whipping Toms’, who, as ‘J.C.B.’ explains, ‘[claimed] the right of flogging every person whom they [could] catch, while their attendant bell-man [could] keep ringing his bell’.

Those who had remained in the crowd would therefore surround the bell-men and try to capture the bell, running the risk of a severe whipping by doing so.

The custom was eventually outlawed by a clause in the Leicester Improvement Act of 1846, however, and, from then on, the Newarke during Shrove Tuesday became a more peaceful place, ultimately helping to lead to the pancake-prolific day we know today.