The custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is well attested from the 16th century onwards; in the 19th century there are many references to the custom of tolling a church bell at 11. a.m. or midday to show the day's work was over and jollifications could begin, including cooking the pancakes. This was variously known as the Pancake Bell, Fritter Bell, or Pan-Burn Bell, and is thought to have evolved from a medieval custom of ringing to call people to church for ‘shriving’.
Nowadays, all over the country, there are races in which women must toss pancakes in a pan while running; they are now generally accepted as an integral part of the season, and some have been held sufficiently regularly to be regarded as established local customs. The most famous, at Olney (Buckinghamshire) claims as its origin legend that back in 1445 a woman rushed off to church on hearing the shriving bell, still holding her frying pan. Its real age is hard to establish. It is not mentioned in Wright and Lones, which must mean not only that it was not held in the 1930s but that there were no references to it in older works. What is certain is that soon after the Second World War the vicar ‘revived’ it (is it significant that the alleged origin date is exactly 500 years before 1945?), and that in 1949 ‘the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Liberal, Kansas, USA … challenged the women of Olney as to who could win a race over the same distance’ (Ingram, 1954: 90). The races have been twinned ever since; the times of the American and English winner are then compared, and an overall prize awarded. Any female resident over 16 can take part, provided she is wearing an apron, has her head covered, and is carrying a frying pan complete with pancake, which must be tossed three times on the way. The publicity inspired a host of imitators from the 1960s onwards, and today pancake races multiply yearly.
Wright and Lones, 1936: i. 8–16;Tom Ingram, Bells in England (1954), 89–92.