Firing the Fenny Poppers, BuckinghamshireEvery November 11 a delightfully different custom is celebrated in Fenny Stratford, now a suburb of Milton Keynes . The events of the day celebrate the life not of some pirate or soldier as might be expected given the nature of the day’s happenings, but the founder of the science of neurology, Thomas Willis.
Thomas Willis along with fellow medics Lister and John Hunter is buried in Westminster Abbey . He left a considerable fortune and three manor houses in the Fenny Stratford district, eventually inherited by his grandson. This grandson was the rather eccentric historian, Browne Willis, famed for his unkempt appearance and for having paid for the building of St Martin’s parish church in the town at a juncture when the place had fallen onto rather hard times.
The church was dedicated to St Martin as Thomas Willis had for a long time practised in St Martin-in-the-Fields , and died on St Martin’s day, November 11.
Thomas Willis is commemorated by a sermon being said in the church (fee for the preacher one guinea), by an evening meal - which should feature turkey - in The Bull, an ancient tavern, and most enjoyably of all by the firing of the Fenny Poppers.
These are described as ceremonial cannon, looking like large iron beer mugs, their handles big enough for Goliath’s mitts. The originals, said to date from 1740, eventually deteriorated and one cracked, so they were re-cast in 1859. There are six, weighing roughly 20lb each, with a ‘barrel’ firing upwards of six inches by a bit under one inch, loaded with a charge of one ounce or more of black powder.
Over the years the firing has supposedly damaged the roof of The Bull and the fabric of the church, so lately the ceremonies take place on a sports field. Here at noon, 2pm and 4pm a metal rod about twelve feet long, its end made red-hot in the church furnace, is used to touch off the cannon.
By tradition the vicar has the honour of firing the first, the rest being in the hands of other worthies of the town. Whether this is sharing the glory or the risk is debatable.
Quite why the learned physician’s grandson decided on the Fenny Poppers as a means of remembering his relative is unsure, but a custom involving 18 loud bangs and a boozy dinner surely cannot be faulted.
More British Folk Customs?