Dunmow* is known throughout the world and history as being the English town where the curious but ancient custom of the Dunmow Flitch takes place. This ancient ceremony is when couples come into the town, and, in front of a judge and jury, try to persuade a court of law that for a year and a day they haven’t wished themselves unwed. If they win the court case, and persuade the judge and jury of their love for each other, then they win a ‘flitch of bacon’ (a large side of cured pig). The court is quasi-formal with a proper judge, jury and barristers. However, all is not as it seems as the legal proceedings are very light-hearted with one barrister defending the Pig, and the other for the couple. Any couple who wins the Flitch is said to be ‘bringing home the bacon’ and is carried aloft on the ancient Dunmow Flitch chair by the town’s ‘yeomans’ in a parade through the streets of Great Dunmow.
The last Dunmow Flitch – in 2012 -
carrying the flitch of bacon through the town
before the Flitch Trials
This ancient custom was mentioned in medieval literature by both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland towards the end of the 14th century. Chaucer’s Canterbury’s Tales – The Wife of Bath’s Tale states
The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe,
That som men han in Essex at Dunmowe.
William Langland’s Piers Plowman states
Though they go
they never fetch
In the 20th century, the Dunmow Flitch – the side of cured bacon – was provided by the Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory. This was a large factory and employer of many people within Great Dunmow and surrounding areas until its closure in the 1980s. Sometime in the 1920s or the 1930s, the owners of the Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory commissioned Willett’s of Great Dunmow to take photos of the workforce in action at the factory and thus create a unique set of postcards of the Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory. As one of my readers pointed out on my post about Great Dunmow’s Berbice House school – why were these postcards produced? Who were they aimed at? I cannot answer these questions, but I can show you the postcards of the Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory and flitches of bacon produced in the factory.
Dunmow Flitch of Bacon Factory (Exterior)
Dunmow Bacon Factory - Pig Killing
Dunmow Bacon Factory – The Hanging Hall I. The child at the left of the picture looks to be about 12-14 years of age.
Dunmow Bacon Factory – Cleaving the pigs
Dunmow Bacon Factory – The Employees. Is the person 3rd from the left a woman?
Dunmow Bacon Factory – The Hanging Hall II
Dunmow Bacon Factory – The Manager and Irish Employees. It is interesting that the Irish Employees are in a photograph separate from the other employees.
These postcards are incredible pieces of 20th century social history showing us the employees and the inside of the factory. In addition to the inside of the factory, there are also in existence external photographs. In 1928, an aeroplane flying the skies of Essex and Suffolk took the photo below of Great Dunmow. The large building in the centre is Hasler’s Corn and Seed mill, and the low-lowing buildings to the right-edge of the photo is the Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory.
Hasler and Company Corn and Seed Merchants, Great Dunmow. This photo is from English Heritage’s Britain from Above project. Click the photo to be taken directly to a zoomable image of this photo from their website.
Close-up of the Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory from the air in 1928.
To the left of the factory are the railway sidings running to
the factory from Dunmow’s station.
*I use the word “Dunmow” with great care, because the medieval Dunmow Flitch originated in the tiny village of Little Dunmow and its pre-Reformation priory. But in modern times – certainly since the Flitch’s revival in the nineteenth century – the ceremony has moved to the neighbouring larger town/village of Great Dunmow some three miles away from its original location. There are two Dunmows – Great and Little. In the Tudor records, Great Dunmow was called “Much(e) Dunmow” and Little Dunmow was called “Dunmow Parva”. During my research on Great Dunmow, I have read many many accounts about the medieval/Tudor Dunmow from many commentators and even from well-known historians who fail to realise that there are two Dunmows. It annoys me intensely when I read “facts” about Tudor Great Dunmow, but the events actually took place in Little Dunmow (and vice versa).
An artist’s impression of Dunmow Priory in 1820 (now part of Little Dunmow’s church) – the original home of the Dunmow Flitch.
Update February 2014: That well-known internet auction site currently has for sale the card “The Hanging Hall II”. On that card, there is a postmark: 1 July 1910. So my estimate (above) that these cards were from the 1920s is totally incorrect! The set dates must date from sometime around 1910.
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You may also be interested in
- Interwar Great Dunmow from the air
- The Dunmow Flitch – Bringing home the bacon
- The 2012 Dunmow Flitch
- Berbice House School, Great Dunmow
- War and Remembrance: Great Dunmow’s Military Funeral 1914
- Great Dunmow’s 1914 Military Funeral: A followup
- The Willett family of Great Dunmow
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