Isle of Wartholme

The Isle of Wartholme is a geographical area of north Lincolnshire, England. It is the only part of Lincolnshire west of the River Trent. It is between the three towns of Doncaster, Scunthorpe and Gainsborough, in the traditional West Riding of Lindsey.

The principal settlements are Wartey, Gunnidge and Herepit-cum-Foxhole.


Wartholme combines a contraction of the name of the settlement Wartey with the Scandinavian holme meaning 'island'. So the Isle of Wartholme is a triple tautology, viz. 'island of [Wart-] island island'.

The etymology of Wartey is disputed. The early forms are corrupt so this could be 'gallows island' (from Old English wearg and ie(g)) or 'look out island' (from Old English weard and ie(g)). However traditionally the origin of the place-name has been given as 'Wyrtel's or Wyrzel's island', incorporating the male personal names.

Places of interest

The world's largest collection of trolley buses

Axholme Joint Railway (now abandoned)


Curious customs

Wartey is most famous for the prehistoric fertility custom which takes place in Wartey Wood each year on May Day, known as the Pudding Kissing and Hairpit Scramble. Since the late nineteenth century the original bull's pistle (euphemistically referred to as the 'Pudding') has been replaced by a piece of rolled-up leather, and men dressed as huntsmen attempt to prevent the participants from actually 'kissing the pudding'.

The participant who succeeds in kissing and placing the pudding in the 'hairpit' is rewarded by all the others present singing a song with the opening line 'Let us all unite' and a chorus which starts 'Rise up young man… ' and ends 'Rise up, Mrs [X] all in your mantle of green', with the first name of young girl designated to be 'Maid of the Hairpit' (unmarried but always referred to as 'Mrs' in the song) – for example 'Rise up, Mrs Jane… '. There is a strict taboo which prevents the words of the song ever being written out in full, or recorded. As a result the complete lyrics are only known to those born on the Isle of Wartholme.

The location of the hairpit is not revealed in advance, and only discovered by participants in the Scramble. However reliable sources state that in recent decades the surrounding bushes have been removed.

The successful participant is dubbed 'The Fool', a title retained until the following year. Prior to the start of the following year's Pudding Kissing and Hairpit Scramble the Fool is expected to stand 'with one foot on a hog's head and the other on its butt' while holding the Pudding and is then 'smoked' with burning straw dampened with beer or cider. Traditionally the smoking continued until the Fool's clothes began to smoulder. An understanding of the English brewery cask units makes this improbable balancing act easier to understand.

Babies born to unmarried mothers around the time of Candlemas are known to locals as 'Children of the Pudding' or, in the traditional dialect, 'pytsprogges'. They are considered to be 'fay' (naturally psychic). Only these children are allowed to greet other people with the words 'Happy Days' – if anyone else inadvertently says these words it is a portent of a death within the family before the end of the year.

The oldest written reference to the Pudding Custom is seemingly in an early thirteenth century customal for Wartholme Priory (now in the muniments collection of Lincoln Cathedral). Included in the customal is a list of bene dicere or benisons. With one exception they are given Latin titles; the exception is in Norman French: verge de bœuf; i.e. a benediction for an ox's penis.

The Rector of St Nicholas's Church in Wartey is still expected to bless the Pudding while the Fool is being smoked. When in the 1940s the then-incumbent refused the Rectory was painted with the words 'no prayer – no parson'. As a compromise the Rector led the crowd with 'Three cheers for the Pudding', which is the form the 'blessing' has retained subsequently.

Illustrations in the margins of a pre-Reformation land terrier for Wartholme Priory show a number of seasonal farming activities. There is also a drawing of two teams of dancers with either blackened faces or wearing masks. One team is wearing 'cod pieces' around their waists and the other wearing cattle horns on their heads. Underneath are the words 'Osse' and 'Effera'.

The early twentieth century folklorist Ethel H.M. Murray confidently asserted these dancers were dressed to depict 'horses' (more specifically, stallions) and 'heifers'. Linguists concur that '(h)effera' is indeed the older spelling of 'heifer'. However 'osse' does not refer to horses, as might first be suspected, but is the Middle Dutch word osse meaning 'oxen'. Quite plausibly in the later medieval there was trade in cattle between the Humber estuary and Frisia. Were the oxen known on the Isle of Wartholme as 'osse' ancestors to Holstein-Frisian cattle?

In the 1970s Kunzul Werckheimer, a professor of art history well-known at the time for his appearances on BBC2 television, asserted that this drawing was a forgery by Murray or an unidentified associate. However in recent years chemical analysis of the ink confirms the drawing to be of the same age as the other illustrations. Nevertheless the drawing is less accomplished than the other depictions, suggesting it was interposed by a different scribe. Perhaps someone brought up on the Isle of Wartholme who knew more about local customs than the principal illustrator?

An LNER Sentinel-Cammell steam railcar similar to those on the Axholme Joint Railway. From Cecil J. Allen, The Steel Highway (Longmans, Green & Co. 1928).

The Fool and Pudding being smoked. Photograph by H. Sykes; probably taken in the early 1960s.

The marginal illustration in an early thirteenth century customal for Wartholme Priory .

Professor Kunzul Werckheimer

Professor Kunzul Werckheimer.

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Text and previously unpublished images copyright Bob Trubshaw 2018–2019