We arrived in Fenny Stratford with five minutes to spare for the midday firing of the Fenny Poppers. As we walked down the path that leads to the Leon Recreation Ground we passed a semi-derelict chapel with gothic spire, surrounding this were many tombstones which have toppled over, or been capsized by the elements. A small tent adjacent to the gap in the hedge which leads to the Leon Recreation Ground was keeping the Poppers dry, as well as the wooden tools needed to ram them with Pyrodex powder.
In a small clearing surrounded by cordening tape was a burning brazier, protruding from which was a long metal pole. The Poppers were being placed firmly into the soil, and a small huddle of people (including the vicar) stood about them talking whilst adjusting ear defenders, hats, coats, and gloves. Beyond the corden was a small assembled group of children and older people. At exactly midday, a man wearing high visibility clothing withdrew the pole from the brazier and proceeded forward to touch it to the side of the first buried Popper. There was a short fizzing flash followed by a tremendous explosion and a lot of smoke. The red hot pole was passed rapidly down the chain of people, each firing off a Popper in turn. The whole event lasted no longer than a minute, leaving a large cloud of smoke, a terrified dog, and a small group of happy but shell shocked onlookers.
We spent the rest of the short time we had in Fenny Stratford listening to tales of near misses, accidental fireballs, churchyard subsidances and the consequences of overstuffing the Poppers with black powder...
Between 1724 and 1730, Browne Willis built St. Maragaret's Church on the site of the old Chantry Chapel of St. Margaret and St. Catherine in Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire. The church was erected to the memory of his grandfather Dr. Thomas Willis a noted physician, who lived in St. Martin's Lane, in the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, and who died on St. Martin's Day (11th November) in 1675.
To perpertually honour the memory of his Grandfather, Browne Willis paid for a sermon to be preached at St. Martin's Church every St. Martin's Day. This would be followed by a dinner to which local gentry and clergy would be invited.
An inscription in the Church reads:
In honour to thy memory;
Was the Foundation of
this Chapell laid;
Purchased by Thee – Thy Son
and Present Heir,
Over these Three Mannours
to Thy Art and Care:
For this – may all Thy Race
Thanks ever pay,
And Yearly Celebrate
Saint Martin's Day.
It is believed that the Fenny Poppers were also fired at this time as part of this honourarium, although there is no formal record of their use.
The Fenny Poppers are six tankard shaped gun metal castings with handles. Each weighs nineteen pounds. The bore is loaded with Pyrodex (a gunpowder substitute) and plugged with newspaper which is rammed dow using a wooden pole (formerly a chair leg) to prevent accidental sparks. The Popper is detonated with a firing rod touched to a sliver of wood which protudes from a small aperture at the side.
Although the date they were first used is not known, tradition has it that the Poppers were presented to the town by Browne Willis from his collection of antiquities. In 1740 he purchased a house in the town, the rent from which was used to pay for the sermon and gunpowder for the Poppers. Following his death in 1760, the traditions were carried on and were documented in print. The Poppers have been fired in various locations: St. Martin's Churchyard, Canal Wharf, and St. Martin's Hall. They are now fired at the Leon Recreation Ground which was once consecrated Church land.
In 1856 the original Poppers were fired for the last time, as in that year one of them burst and partially destroyed the roof of the Bull Inn. Following this (and another incident were the Church clock face was partially destroyed) the Poppers were recast using one of the originals. This was done at the Eagle Foundry in Northampton in 1859. These casts are still in use today and are examined regularly to ensure their safety.
From a forthcoming work 'Twelvemonth'. Twelve films which document traditional English customs and ceremonies with Adam Asnan.