This month we feature a fascinating article from the Spring 1979 edition of the magazine, which back then cost the princely sum of 30p! As Easter is now with us read all about the ancient custom of ‘heaving’ in the Black Country but please don’t try this at home!
HEAVING was the custom, observed at Easter, of lifting into the air persons of the opposite sex—the men heaving the women on Easter Monday; the women heaving the men on Tuesday. Although originally a rural custom it seems to have been practiced in the Black Country throughout the nineteenth century before dying out. An early reference to the practice in contained in Hinde's History of Wolverhampton. The writer recalls walking with a friend through Townwell Fold on Easter Tuesday, 1838.
"Not bearing in mind the season of the year we ventured on a short cut to Darlington Street through the Townwell Fold. Until half way there were no signs of danger, but once fairly in the net, out pounced a bevy of 'Nymphs' who debarred further passage and one of the most stalwart seized and fairly 'heaved' us off the ground and claimed and received the silver guerdon demanded for the practice."(1)
It would thus appear that in the Black Country at least the custom involved some notion of reward for the 'heaver'. Hinde goes on to say that the practice of heaving was more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but there is some evidence to suggest that the custom remained in force at least until the end of the century.
Occasionally, local police court reports made reference to 'Heaving Day Rows', such as one Wolverhampton case in April 1861, when two Irishmen, Patrick Casey and Patrick Walsh, were enjoying themselves in a public house 'heaving each other's wives' when jealousy took over and they set about each other with fire pokers. One unusual case concerned Theresa Evans of Hill Top, West Bromwich, who was charged with being drunk and disorderly, and had been found lying in the middle of the road very drunk. She pleaded in her defence that it was ‘heaving time’ and that she had attempted to heave the police officer in the hope that he would pay for a quart of beer, but he had pushed her down. Her punishment was a fine of 11/6d. or 14 days in prison, and having no money she was—sent to jail and left the court lamenting that she would remember the heaving quart.(2)
In the mining areas of the Black Country especially, the custom was still very much in force in the 1860s. The pit-girls were said to particularly enjoy 'two days of saturnalia when, by immemorial custom, the field of labour is turned into a scene of general riot'. A contemporary described the practice in the following way. 'On Easter Monday, the men roam about the Colliery in gangs, and claim the privilege of heaving, as they call it, every female whom they meet—that is to say, of lifting her up as high as they can, and saluting her in her descent. On Easter Tuesday the ladies have their revenge—and in their hands this strange horse-play acquires redoubled energy. Neither rank nor age are respected; not even the greatest of men, the manager himself, would be secure from attack; and those who will not enter into the fun must purchase exemption by a ransom proportionate to their station.’(3)
Here money or beer was not used as a reward for the 'heaver' but as a means of obtaining immunity.
Sometimes the custom of heaving was said to have been abused and complaints were made resulting in a summons for assault. On Easter Monday, 1896. at the Black Horse Inn, Walsall, Herbert Hancox was alleged to have assaulted Esther Heap. He had said that 'he would heave her and kiss her and have a quart of ale'. She refused him that privilege and went out. However, he followed her into the passage and threw her down several times and in retaliation the woman bit his finger.
In his defence, his solicitor stated that Easter Monday was Heaving Day and in this public house there was undoubtedly some jollification going on. A man named Holmes had heaved the complainant and when the defendant attempted to do the same she bit his finger very badly. The magistrates clerk said that if the complainant objected to being heaved it was at once an assault for the defendant to proceed. He was fined 20s and costs with the alternative of a prison sentence and, on receiving his sentence, remarked that 'he would pay for a woman but not for a cannibal'(.4)
By the end of the century the 'heaver' was no longer rewarded by money but by a quart of ale, and it seems that the custom was practiced almost exclusively in public houses and beer houses over the Easter period. However, it would also appear that the custom was slowly dying out and it did not survive long into the twentieth century in the Black Country.
1 Hinde A., History and Guide to Wolverhampton (1884).
2 Wolverhampton Chronicle, April 1861 and West Bromwich Weekly News, April 14, 1893.
3 ‘The Black Country', Edinburgh Review, April 1863.
4 Walsall Advertiser, May 2, 1896.