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grottoes


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An annual display custom, which lasted well into the 1950s and 1960s, in which children constructed ‘grottoes’ on the pavement and solicited coins from passers-by. Some authorities give 25 July (St James's Day), while others maintain that early August was the proper time, a probable explanation being that St James's Day Old-Style is 5 August. The grottoes were made of oyster shells, although some say they should be scallops. Scallop shells are the accepted symbol of St James, and early August was when the oyster season started and millions of oysters were consumed in London during the season (at four a penny). An old proverb is often quoted—‘He who eats oysters on St James's Day will not want money’. The earliest known reference to grottoes is in Time's Telescope for 1823 (190–1):On St James's day (O.S.) large quantities of oysters are eaten by Londoners, but their children are content to use the shells for building grottos and to illuminate these by means of rush-lights. The children ask passers-by for contributions to the grottos. This is an annual custom, but it lasts several weeks, to the annoyance of pedestrians. (Quoted by Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 40).

On St James's day (O.S.) large quantities of oysters are eaten by Londoners, but their children are content to use the shells for building grottos and to illuminate these by means of rush-lights. The children ask passers-by for contributions to the grottos. This is an annual custom, but it lasts several weeks, to the annoyance of pedestrians. (Quoted by Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 40).

The earlier form of grotto was a beehive shaped pile of shells, perhaps two or three feet high, with a small opening or tunnel at ground level in which was placed the light or candle, although at least one description places the candle on top of the pile. Other forms comprise a box, or just an area of pavement marked out and decorated with flowers, beads, broken glass and china, cut-out pictures, or anything to make it ‘pretty’. The accompanying rhyme, by which the children hope to gain recompense for their artistic endeavours, varied from place to place:Please remember the grottoMe father has run off to seaMe mother's gone to fetch ‘im backSo please give a farthin' to me!(Rose Gamble, Chelsea Child (1979), 105–9, remembering Chelsea in the 1920s)

(Rose Gamble, Chelsea Child (1979), 105–9, remembering Chelsea in the 1920s)

Most of the descriptions refer to grottoing as a London custom, but other reports from Essex, Kent, Hampshire, Sussex, and Swansea bear witness to its wider occurrence. The custom seems to have been particularly tenacious around Mitcham, Surrey. It is possible that grottoing still lingers in the 1990s, perhaps in the privacy of the home, but it has probably gone the way of most children's ‘street display’ customs.

Good illustrations in Illustrated London News (2 Aug. 1851), 137–8;and Merton Library Service, Merton in Pictures Book 3: Mitcham Fair (1991), 9.Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 40; Folklore Society Cuttings Collection.

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