Bringing home the bacon: The Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory

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 Dunmow FlitchThe 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
to Dunmow,
they never fetch
the Flitch.

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 Bacon FactoryDunmow Flitch of Bacon Factory (Exterior)

Dunmow Flitch Bacon FactoryDunmow Bacon Factory  - Pig Killing

Dunmow Flitch Bacon FactoryDunmow Bacon Factory – The Hanging Hall I. The child at the left of the picture looks to be about 12-14 years of age.

Dunmow Flitch Bacon FactoryDunmow Bacon Factory – Cleaving the pigs

Dunmow Flitch Bacon FactoryDunmow Bacon Factory – The Employees.  Is the person 3rd from the left a woman?

Dunmow Flitch Bacon FactoryDunmow Bacon Factory – The Hanging Hall II

Dunmow Flitch Bacon FactoryDunmow 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.

Great Dunmow from the air, 1928Hasler 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.

Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory from the air in 1928Close-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).

Little Dunmow Priory

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

© Essex Voices Past 2012-2013.

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One Response to Bringing home the bacon: The Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory

  1. Very interesting. So the derivation of the saying ‘to bring home the bacon’ relates to marital harmony and not success generally? It’s amazing how these common phrases started life – and so often evolved to mean something different.

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