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Archive - Tuesday, 2 September 2003
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Keaw Yed - but which tale is right?
WHY are Westhoughton people often known as Keaw-Yeds? The question arose some considerable time ago after I printed a picture of a group of people standing at a farmer's gate, with a cow's head stuck in the bars, in the old "keaw yed" belief that instead of spoiling the gate by having to cut it, the farmer sawed off the cow's head. It's a well-known tale of many years' standing.
This brought a letter from Mrs E Hart (nee Crompton), of Stoneygate Fold, Heath Charnock, near Chorley, with a photocopy of a page from the Horwich and Westhoughton Journal of August 27, 1965, telling the story, and including another photograph.( I appologise for any delay in this story, but it "got lost" in the computer system, and I have suddenly realised that it never appeared in the paper).
"Compare the two photographs, and you will see a different cow's head in the gate, but the same people re-enacting the scene", she wrote.
One of the people on the pictures was her great-grandfather Ellis Crompton, and the Journal had turned to local historian Mr Robert Walmsley to try and explain how the "Keaw-Yed" story had started.
He said that as far as he could ascertain, "the cow with its head stuck in a gate theory, in my opinion (supported by evidence), is no older than the end of the last century or possibly the beginnings of this.
"At about that time (the exact date is stated to be 1908), old Ellis Crompton, of Grundy's Farm, posed for a photograph, with a saw in his hand, allegedly in the act of sawing off a cow's head (a real one) which was fast in a gate.
Then James (Jimmy) Gerrard, of Gerrard's drapers' shop in Church Street, a young man with an artistic turn of mind, produced a drawing in colour of the cow and gate incident, which was produced as a postcard, and it was sold widely in local newsagents' and stationers' shops. In the absence of any other supporting facts of the origin of the keaw-yed, this story seems as good as any other."
However, Mr Walmsley also said that there had been a couple of other stories, both with much longer pedigrees than the "cow and the gate story" which accounted for Westhoughton people being called Keaw-Yeds.
One rose out of an ox-roasting celebration after the Napolianic wars in 1815, when the "Higher Siders" fought with the "Lower Siders" for the possession of the beast's head after the feast as a kind of trophy. The Higher Siders won, and were ever-afterwards dubbed as Keaw-Yeds. That story had appeared in the local paper in the 1890s, from the pen of John Coop, a 19th century local historian.
"Complementary to this version," continued Mr Walmsley, "are the not-too-remote doings of the 'Bone Club' on Wakes Mondays, when (seemingly many decades previously) the bones of a cow's head, stuck together in their usual formation and decorated with ribbons, were carried round on a pole to various public houses."
Indeed, a writer for a Liverpool paper (the Bolton Chronicle re-published the story in 1873) said that in Westhoughton a colliers' custom "and the rites of the day have conferred upon the good people of the place the nick-name of 'Keaw-Yeds'."
The story went on that every year, "on the evening of the Saturday, each family that can afford to procures the huge head of a cow which, in company with potatoes and onions, and all things savoury, is put into what is called in Lancashire a washing-mug, and covered with a thick crust of dough. This, when cooked, served for a hearty meal on the following Monday. Then, the bones of the "keaw-yed", being well cleaned, are bleached and preserved for the next year's celebration of Monday.
"Upon that day, the bones of last year are fitted together in the original shape of the ox's skull, and placed in a cart that joins a procession of other similarly laden carts. In front of all rides the Lord Mayor who has been elected by the colliers' suffrage in Westhoughton a fortnight previously, and is a man of renown, in beer swilling at least." He had the privilege of calling for as much malt-liquor as he chose at every public house in the township, all provided at public expense.
By 1884, though, an observer wrote that the "purity of the 'Bone Club' ceremonial has become debased," and called the club "an indefinable organisation indirectly connected with the Wakes, the object of which seems to be to celebrate the close of the annual festival by a little revelry in the streets and at some of the hostelries."
A procession marched up Church Street to Wingates, the vanguard being formed by two men "carrying on brush poles a cow's skull, with the horns attached, and the jawbones of a cow, the skull being decorated with coloured paper. The 'carriers' are accompanied by a fiddler, and calls made at the public houses en route."
However, as the years went by in the late years of the 19th century, references to decorated cows' heads were displayed in local public houses, but without a single reference to the cow's head fast in a gate. "This seems to indicate that the cow and gate version was unheard of then, and was a more recent innovation," concluded Mr Walmsley.
So there you are, possible explanations about the why Westhoughton people are called Keaw-Yeds. Three possible stories. Which one do I believe? Well, as they say in the better places, you pays your money and you takes your choice...
Yet that cow-in-the-gate tale does not seem the most likely source, as is widely believed.