Review of the talk “Straw Bear – 40 Years of Straw & String” presented by Brian Kell on 12th December 2021 via Zoom, attended by an international audience of around 90 participants from Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, UK and USA.
Mark Harris of Iron Men and Severn Gilders Morris and Stevenage Sword writes:
“40 years and counting! I have to say from the get-go that it doesn’t seem that long ago since Brian and I were enthusing over the newly released Ashley Hutchins LP (remember those!) “Rattlebone and Ploughjack” (1976) – one of the first forays into the forgotten music and dance traditions of the border counties and East Anglia.
“Brian’s illustrated talk brought to life the history of the Straw Bear from its early days on the streets of Whittlesea – where bemused onlookers watched from a safe distance – to its current position as one of the major and most well attended winter festivals in the UK, currently featuring traditional dance teams from all over the UK, and with regular visits from its German counterparts.
“Although keen to stress that the talk was not an academic study, Brian discussed the early history of the Straw Bear in Whittlesea (from the earliest memories to its demise in the early 1900s) and how straw was being used in other parts of the country perhaps at first for insulation from the cold, but then becoming costumes to celebrate local customs.
“Despite extensive research, still no one seems to be quite certain of how or why the Bear started – although it is widely accepted that, like many other traditions and customs, its roots are probably linked to some form of cadging (begging for money, food or beer) – in this case by the local ploughboys, brick-makers and labourers who were laid-off work through the winter months.
“Brian also highlighted the difficulties of building a bear from scratch, particularly as, aside from a few local contemporary black-and-white photographs, there were not instructions and very little to go on and as such, what we now see as a fully articulated bear, has been evolved through trial and error.
“For me, one of the highlights of the talk was hearing how despite setbacks (largely to do with the dreaded health and safety – risk assessments, traffic management, insurance, and relations with the local Constabulary etc), Straw Bear has become a well-loved symbol of community togetherness and community development. The Bear is owned by the local community and driven by the local community. Brian was keen to stress that Straw Bear is not a “folk” festival but has been, and remains, rooted in the Whittlesea psyche, with successive generations now being involved either by membership of Strawbearers or perhaps through Molly and Longsword dancing being taught and performed in and by the local schools. Again, for me, one of the most endearing images in the presentation was that of the bear and his keeper dancing alone on the street during the pandemic last year when (for obvious reasons) it was impossible for the bear to go out “on the day” highlighting and symbolising the bear’s relevance to its home town and the tradition, and that – even if there was no one there to watch or dance with it – the Bear would still be out, keeping the tradition alive
“While the bear fundamentally remains a “local bear for local people”, Brian also talked about finding that although originally thought to be unique to the fenlands, straw “bears” (or people dressed in straw costumes), appear to be international – and how the Whittlesea Straw Bear has developed a close association with its cousin in The Odenwald area of Germany and other bears in the area – although none are as “cuddly” as the Whittlesea bear according to Brian!
“Without doubt, the last forty years has established the Whittlesea Straw Bear as an enduring and lasting feature of the Fenland landscape and long may it continue – even if nobody is quite sure what it’s about, or why it’s being done. I’ll close with the words of William Palmer of Little Downham in 1931:
- “The younger people don’t understand it, they don’t know what its for, but they do it for a bit of sport!”
Brian opened his talk by singing the traditional song “The King” and finished with singing “Penny for the Plough Boys” written by Colin Cater.
Donations from participants raised money for the Whittlesey Mayor’s Charities: https://strawbear.org.uk/support
About Brian Kell
Brian Kell was the founder, and is honorary president, of the revived Whittlesea Straw Bear festival, with a background in various folk traditions. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2013 for services to music and the community in Whittlesey.