Highgate horns

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A custom which used to take place at Highgate, north London, was the ‘swearing on the horns’. Anyone passing through the village for the first time was requested to submit to a ceremony in one of the local public houses conducted by the landlord. By the time detailed accounts are available, the ceremony was highly facetious, and carried out with an eye to the tourist trade. The description in Hone's Every-Day Book is the fullest. All nineteen pubs in the village offered the ceremony, and all had a similar outline in which the publican claims the newcomers as sons or daughters and insists they call him father. He lays down various rules, such as: ‘you must not kiss the maid while you can kiss the mistress, except you like the maid the best, but sooner than lose a good chance you may kiss them both’, and ‘if at any time you are going through Highgate and want to rest yourself, and you see a pig lying in a ditch you have liberty to kick her out and take her place; but if you see three lying together you must only kick out the middle one and lie between the other two’. At the end of the ceremony, the newcomers have to kiss the horns.

Swearing on the Highgate horns was known far and wide, and people came specially to the village to be sworn, often in convivial parties. The earliest known reference is to 1737 (quoted by Thorne), but it was clearly in full swing already at that date, and other 18th-century references abound. By the mid-19th century, however, the custom was virtually defunct. It is not known whether the custom had always been jocular, or had previously been serious. However, Wright's English Dialect Dictionary (iii. 159) glosses ‘He has been sworn in at Highgate’ as meaning ‘he is very sharp or clever’.

Several theories of origin have been put forward. The simplest is that Highgate was part of the manor of Hornsey. The most logical is that Highgate was formerly one of the most important routes into London for cattle drovers, and the custom arose as some sort of occupational initiation ceremony. Hone also prints an anecdote about a horn custom for new waggoners in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Compare also other initiation ceremonies such as at Hungerford Hocktide and Sturbridge Fair, and other symbolism under horns.

Hone, 1827: ii.40–4, 188–9;W. Carew Hazlitt, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (1905), 184;James Thorne, Handbook to the Environs of London (1876;1983 edn.), 346–7.

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