The Christian festival of Pentecost.
Tomorrow would have been a holiday, had it not been abolished in 1971, for it is Whit Monday.
There was no call to abolish Whit Monday, simply because it was a movable feast. We still manage Good Friday and Easter Monday without losing our sense of time and whatever work ethic we had. It is said that the name Whit Sunday comes from the white clothes that those who had been baptised at Easter wore. But did neophytes wear white on this day? Whatever the case, Pentecost is as old a name in English as Whit Sunday, being used by the Anglo-Saxons hundreds of years before even Thomas Malory told his tales of King Arthur and the wonder that dependably came along on Pentecost day as the knights sat at their round table.
In Lancashire there are still Whit walks. Again, these have been transferred to the bank holiday of June 4. They certainly did involve children dressed in white, for in their modern form they grew out of the phenomenally popular Sunday school movement promoted by Robert Raikes in the late 18th century. By 1830, more than a million children were attending Sunday school.
According to Dr. Vanessa Toulmin of Sheffield University, the practice of “walking” during Whit Week can be traced back to Manchester.
“The earliest known “Walks” can be traced to Manchester around 1800. Walking Days or Whit Walks as they became known sprang out of the Sunday School movement first pioneered in 1784. The idea behind this movement was to free the children: Who worked under wretched conditions during the week in the manufacturies… were on Sunday allowed to run wild and free from all restraint. To celebrate the anniversary of the Sunday School movement in Manchester the founders decided to assemble the children in St Anne’s Square and parade through the Market Square to attend church. Although these parades became later associated with the Whit holidays and walks, the main features of the walks, the parading of the churches, still remained an intrinsic part of the tradition in Manchester well into the 1950s.”
In “Manchester – A Short History of Its Development,” W. H. Shercliff has an account of the centenary processions which took place in 1901:
“The scene in Albert Square this morning was one of exceptional beauty. At eight o’clock the space in the square was so arranged by the marshalls that the place of each school was indicated by a flag flying the Union Jack. … Then for the next half-hour the different schools arrived in quick succession, and the music of a dozen bands proceeded from all corners of the square. … There was a free mingling of colours, the cassocks and hoods of the clergy contrasting sharply with the costumes worn by the scholars. …The Chetham boys wearing the quaint garments of the school order formed a prominent feature. Nathaniel Drumville … unfurled his white flag to act as a baton and to the beating of his time nearly 30,000 young voices sang the Old Hundredth. The schools marched out of the square, the order being determined by the date of consecration of their respective churches. At every point on the route were gathered large crowds of sightseers.”
Interesting that neither of these accounts mention that Manchester had 2 walks – one for Protestants and one for Roman Catholics; on different days and with each community religiously ignoring the other “Christian sect.”
It was the time, from memory, when young children would ‘confirm’ the promise made at their christening by parents and ‘god’ parents and join the Christian movement. Children were bought new clothes or in my families case new shoes!!!
The weather during the week’s holiday from school was always sunny and warm. I would leave the grey back streets of Moss side and cycle along the leafy lanes of Cheshire. Once in my late teens I even managed the thirty odd miles up to Buxton.