An old tradition of Minehead


The origin of this custom is a bit hazy. I was told it was made to frighten off the Viking invaders, but a local newspaper printed in May 1863 says "The origin professes to be in commemoration of the wreck of a vessel at Minehead in remote times, or the advent of a sort of phantom ship which entered the harbour without Captain or crew. Once the custom was encouraged, but now is much neglected, and perhaps soon will fall into desuetude"...... Another conjecture to its origin was that the hobby horse was the ancient King of the May.

Luckily the custom did not die.The Original Sailors Hobby Horse was accompanied by a drum which has a date inside it which dates back to the seventeenth century. It traditionally comes out on the eve of May Day and proceeds from the Quay over the hill through Higher town to arrive at White Cross early on May 1st. It is thought that was how far it chased one of the viking invaders.
The Sailors horse with drummers and a squeezebox or accordian playing the special tunes that have been handed down, dances its way around the town and then on to Dunster Castle. I remember a Mr Date who played the accordian for the hobby horse, he lived in Bampton Street.
The traditional instruments are one row accordions and drums which can be seen in early photographs dating back to the early 1900's.The accordion was invented in 1829 and probably came into the Hobby Horse tradition sometime after 1860 which is when it came into mass production. Before then the drum may have been accompanied by whistles, fifes,possibly fiddles. Even earlier, bagpipes may even have been used.
From Dunster it then comes back to Minehead collecting donations on the way. The festivities last till the third day of May when it used to finish at the top of Cher steep in Minehead and perform the 'booty'. The victim is caught by two members of the crew, and booted ten times whilst being held by the arms and legs under the heavy fore bow of the horse, which rises up and down over him. There is then a further penalty for the victim to dance with the horse while avoiding being lashed by its tail.. The pictures below show the hobby horse through the ages. It is now held on the outskirts of Minehead.
The booting is then repeated in Wellington Square, in the centre of town, and it is here that the horse takes his final bow of the festive season and after a light refreshment, returns to his stable at The Quay until the following May day eve, whilst the crew finish in the Old Ship Aground.

The Horses frame is made from withy sticks lashed together with tarred cord into the shape of a boat with a dome-shaped head and a tin painted face. A mast is made fast to the head and spliced to the after end is a length of rope with a cows tail made fast. The whole frame, head and rope tail is covered with brightly coloured ribbons and attached. Draped to the ground from the frame are sacks brightly painted with different coloured rings.
Those connected with the Original Sailors Horse give their services freely and all money received is disbursed to Minehead Mencap and the Minehead Branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Outside the church at Higher Town, Minehead
Hobby horse and Gullivers
'photo by permission of Bob Bonar'
I think this is outside the Brit at Alcombe
In the Parade, Minehead
In Quay Street, Minehead by George Ody
At Dunster Castle
outside the Lantern Cottage at the bottom of Church steps
outside the Red Lion Inn
In Quay Street
Outside the Market House
With musicians
Outside Dunster Castle
West street Dunster
West street Dunster
At Minehead Harbour


The earliest written description (1830):
A number of young men, mostly fishermen and sailors, having previously made some grotesque figures of light stuff, rudely resembling men, and horses with long tails, sufficiently large to cover and disguise the persons who are to carry them, assemble together and perambulate the town and neighbourhood, performing a variety of antics, to the great amusement of the children and young persons:
they never fail to pay a visit to Dunster Castle, where, after having been hospitably regaled with strong beer and victuals, they always receive a present in money; many other persons, inhabitants of the places they visit, give them small sums, and such persons as they meet are also asked to contribute a trifle;
if they are refused, the person of the refuser is subjected to the ceremony of booting or pursing; this is done by some of the attendants holding his person while one of the figures inflict ten slight blows on him with the top of a boot; he is then liberated and all parties give three huzzas: the most trifling sum buys off this ceremony, and it is seldom or never performed but on those who purposely throw themselves in their way and join the party, or obstruct them in their vagaries.

The money they collect is donated to various charities.

(the above is a snippit from their website)


A Song for Alan Baker by Jim Parham 2005 who donated the colour pictures above.

This is my fictionalised version of a life spent through sickness and health, following the Hobby Horse. A faithful melodeon player for the Sailors Horse who, with the wonderful support of his wife, who transports him in car and wheel chair, allows us to share his enthusiasm and joyful smile as he plays for Hobby Horse or at the Blazing Stump Folk club and Acorn Folk Club.To expand on the Blazing Stump Folk Club which is held at the Royal Oak at Luxborough - the name is on the bar door. It is said that a previous landlord was so mean he only used to put one log on the fire and so that is how it got its name! 

When the world spins round to May, I remember happy days,
Of the drum’s incessant beat, As the Horse comes down the street,
With its dance so strong and gay,  My melodeon I would play,
And a smile lights up my face, Remembering.

On strong shoulders I was bourne, To White Cross at crack of dawn,
And we followed all that day, To the Castle and the Quay,
And I dreamed along the way, My melodeon I would play,
And a smile lights up my face, Remembering.

Through a youth of carefree days, I have followed in its ways,
And I learned the rights of Spring, That the Horse to life would bring,
And I’d practice every day, My melodeon for to play,
And a smile lights up my face, Remembering.

In the May of every year, You could walk with me to Cher,
And then follow all around, Through the village and the town.
While the drum awakes the day, My melodeon I would play,
And a smile lights up my face, Remembering.

Through the long years of my life, I’ve a good and loving wife,
And together we have found, The great joy that does abound,
And to celebrate the day, My melodeon I would play,
And a smile lights up my face, Remembering.

Now I can no longer stand, I still follow where I can,
And I watch the Sailor’s Horse, Steer its ancient mystic course.
As it comes across my way, My melodeon I would play,
And a smile lights up my face, Remembering.

As around the room I gaze, Where the old oak stumps ablaze.
I see friends here all around, And the love that there abounds.
Now I’m young and if I may, My melodeon I would play,
And a smile lights up my face, Remembering.

Then when this old ship’s aground, And I’m carried through the town,
When again I’ll lead the horse, On my final earthly course,
I would ask you if I may, Your melodeons for to play
With a smile upon your face, Remembering.