The Plough Jags: A Living Tradition

Eveline van Breemen, Collections Assistant Social History

Content Warning

This article contains historical images of plough jag participants wearing blackface make-up. It is recognised that whatever its origins, today blackface has the potential to cause offence or hurt. In 2020 the Joint Morris Organisations issued a statement about eliminating the use of full-face black make-up which can be read here.

In Comes I!

And so starts the Plough Jag Play. A gathering of interesting characters, a curious play and catchy songs. This on-line exhibition will give you a taster of what the Plough Jags are, their history and future.

The tradition goes by different names. Such as Plough Jags, Plough Plays, Mummers Play, Plough Boys’ Play, Plough Bullocks, Wooing Play, Plough Stotts or Plough Jack’s Play. In this exhibition we will use Plough Jags.

The Burton Stather Plough Jag in 1907.

Coleby Plough Jag

This exhibition was put together with the help of the Coleby Plough Jag. This group of performers was resurrected in 1973 after a long period during which the play was no longer seen in the area. Maurice (Mo) Ogg from Coleby was the man behind the tradition’s revival. Mo researched and collected songs, stories and costumes.

We can thank Mo for his passion for folk traditions. Without him it is possible we would not have the pleasure of seeing the Plough Jag today.

Mo Ogg, who in 1973 restored our local Plough Jag tradition. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.
Some of the original notes, made by Mo Ogg. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.
Some of the original notes, made by Mo Ogg. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.
Scunthorpe Folk club performing the Plough Jag in 1983. Top row left to right: Steve Hindley, John Walker, Geoff Convery, Dave Barlow, Geoff Miller, Eric ?. Bottom row left to right: Gerry Fillingham, Eamon Greene, Paul Brown, Dick Skinner, Eric Stones.
Coleby Plough Jag in 2018. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.
Plough Jag team, possibly from West Halton.

The History of the Plough Jags

Plough Jags were once found in many English counties. There are many forms of the performance, with different characters, costumes, and scripts. The plays were performed on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night.

It is not known exactly when the Plough Jags started. Farm labourers were once responsible for the upkeep of the Plough Lights in Churches. Records going back to the 16th century, show that money and goods were collected for the Plough Light in the Church. These Plough Lights are possibly one of the reasons why the Plough Jags were started. Left over money and goods collected were used for a last celebration before the ploughing season started.

A procession of all the play’s characters moved from village to village. They would walk with a light known as a Largus lamp. They would yell “Largus” as they knocked at each house. Then they would offer to perform their play in return for money or goods.

People that refused to donate risked having their doorstep turned over or front garden ploughed up!

A Largus Lamp. Largus is a corruption of the word Largesse, which means “generosity in bestowing money or gifts upon others”. This lamp is on display in the Local History Gallery of the Museum.
An image from a Medieval manuscript, showing two labourers working a plough, pulled by two oxen. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.
The West Halton Plough Jags posing in front of Normanby Post Office during their procession through Normanby in 1898.
The Plough Jag team from Carlton, Lincolnshire in 1934.
Revival of the plough jag team at Barrow-on-Humber in 1951. Left to right: Roy Lawrence, Norman Bilton, Joe Wilson, Arthur Newby, (sitting) Jack Martin, Andy Wilson, Pez Howsam, Frank Bell, Wilf Bell, Bill Stanley, (sitting) Bill Lawrence, Jez Mumby, Morris Broughton, Luke Stanley.

The Story

A Farm Labourer is called up by the Recruiting Sergeant. His Lady is not happy that he is leaving her for the army. She meets Rag Fool and they decide to get married. Then Dame Jane seems to be pregnant and claims the Sergeant is the father. Beelzebub (The Devil) kills Dame Jane. The Doctor is sent for and he brings Dame Jane back to life.

Though the story varies from team to team, the concept is the same. The underlying message is that of death and resurrection. This links in with the farmer’s year; the land springing back to life after winter.

Several short songs are part of the play. For example: ‘Lads a Bunchem’, ‘Farmer’s Boy’ and ‘Oats and Beans and Barley Grow’. Often after the play the audience is treated to more traditional rural songs.

In other Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire play scripts there are characters that are not seen in the Coleby Plough Jag play. Such as: Beau Black, the Indian King, Hopper Joe and King George. Characters sometimes play the same role but under a different name. Rag Fool can be found in plays as Bold Tom, Blether Dick or Clown.

The Coleby Plough Jag in 1983. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.
The Coleby Plough Jag in 1992. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.

The Hobby Horse

In comes I who’s never been before.

If you give me some of your best ale I’ll never come no more.

I’m hungry as well as dry and would like a bit of your best pork pie.

(From the Coleby Plough Jag).

The Hobby Horse of Burringham Plough Jag Team in 1953.

Master and Mistress

Good Master and Mistress sat around by the fire,

remember us poor ploughboys and treads thro’ muck and mire.

For the mire it is deep and the water cold and clear.

so we’ll thank you for some pork pie and a jug of your best beer.

(From the Coleby Plough Jag).

The Farmer’s Man

In comes I, the Farmer’s Man

Don’t you see the whip in my hand?

I go to plough my Master’s land.

I turn it upside down so grand.

(From the Barrow-upon-Humber Plough Play).

Plough jag team from Scopwick near Sleaford, Lincolnshire.

The Doctor

Here lad, hold me hoss, for he’s nowt but a donkey.

Hold him by tail and mind he don’t kick yer

and I’ll show you the rusty side of a brass farthing when I come out here again

…In comes I, the Doctor.

(From the Coleby Plough Jag).

Mr Broadbent of Scotter as the Doctor.

Beelzebub

In comes I Beelzebub,

on my shoulder I carry a club,

in my hand a witleather frying pan.

I think myself a jolly young man.

(From the New Holland Plough Play).

A drawing of Beelzebub, part of the revival script of the Coleby Plough Jag by Mo Ogg, 1970s.

Hopper Joe

In comes I, old Hopper Joe.

I can either plough, sow, reap or mow.

And I hope the Master will bestow,

all he can afford us in our Hopper O!

(From the Cropwell Butler Plough Play, Nottinghamshire).

Thresher Blade

In comes I, old Threshing Blade.

All you good people ought to know,

My old dad learnt me this trade just ninety years ago.

I have threshed in this part of the country,

I have threshed in this part too.

And I will thrash you, young Tommy, before I go.

(From the Calverton Plough Boys, Nottinghamshire).

Threshing day at Holme farm in Winterton, 1920s.

The Plough Jag’s Present and Future

The Coleby Plough Jag team still performs once a year. On this day they tour the area, performing eight to ten times. The tour starts at Gainsborough Market Place. On the way to Scunthorpe they perform in some pubs along the route. The day ends in Burton upon Stather or another village in the area between the Humber and the Trent.

This makes for a full day of performing, drinking, laughing, and singing. The audience at the last pub is often the luckiest as the Jaggers will take the time to sing many more songs after the play.

At the end of the performance the donation bucket goes around. These donations are given to the British Heart Foundation. 

Eamon Green, Rag Fool, during the sword dance in 2006. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.
Coleby Plough Jag performing at the Malt Shovel in Ashby in 2018. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.
Coleby Plough Jag performing at the Malt Shovel in Ashby in 2018. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.
The Coleby Plough Jag team in 2019. Courtesy of the Coleby Plough Jag.

The Coleby Plough Jag has been going since the 1970s. The group would like to continue to exist and perform for many more decades. But to do so they will need new recruits.

In Comes I, the Recruiting Sergeant!

If you want to know more or are interested in joining the group please visit the Coleby Plough Jag website.

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