Custom Goes Off With A Bang (8 November 1974)
At mid-day next Monday, if all goes according to custom, six loud bangs will rend the air of Fenny Stratford. The bangs will be repeated at 2p.m. and again at 4p.m. After that there will be no more such bangs until the same times next year.
The bangs will be made by the famous Fenny Poppers, which, since the war, have been featured both on television and on sound radio. Made of gun metal and normally kept in St. Martin’s Church tower, the Poppers resemble quart pots, with handles along the sides and touch holes at the after ends. For firing, they are charged with gunpowder and wadding. A long rod, brought to red heat at the business end. Is then applied to the touch hole and the result is a satisfactory bang. It is also a startling one to the “gunner,” as I found when once invited to fire one.
The Poppers pop each November 11 because the church is dedicated to the Glory of God and to St. Martin, and November 11 is St. Martin’s Day.
Mystery surrounds the origin of the custom. The church was dedicated in 1730, but its antiquarian founder, Browne Willis, makes no reference to the Poppers in any of the voluminous manuscripts he left behind.
By 1766 the Poppers had apparently become customary. Fenny parish had been carved out of the ancient parish of Bletchley but the Rector of Bletchley, the Rev. William Coles, felt he still had a claim to conduct its patronal festival. In the previous year, however, the Fenny curate and people had made it clear that he would not be welcome, to put it mildly, so in 1766 he let the matter slide.
But there was a further complication. Over very many years life was affected by the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. It created as much confusion as the change to the metric system does today.
There was a difference of 11 days between the “old style” and the “new style” calendars. The Rector worked according to the “new style” but Fenny, maybe just to be awkward, still preferred the “old style.” The result is that the Rector, in his diary for what was officially November 22 reports being told of bonfires blazing and “guns” firing at Fenny “for their dedication!”
There is some evidence, however, that the custom may be as old as the church and the parish, whose registers begin in the same year. In 1859 the original Poppers became so unsafe that six new ones were forged by a Northampton firm. Mr. Pacey, ironmonger, was in charge of the business and sent one of the original poppers as a sample of what was required. He had a son, George. Fenny Stratford historian, Dr. William Bradbrook, writing in 1911, says George remembered the old Poppers quite well and told him that the sample had the date 1730 on it – apparently incised by a chisel – while the metal was hot.
Why did Browne Willis not mention Poppers while ordaining the special sermon which is always preached in observance of St. Martin’s Day? I think he might very well have taken some such performance for granted. In that era and for 150 years afterwards it was common for communities to use explosions on joyous occasions. The village blacksmith took his anvil on to the green and exploded gunpowder in its hole for as long as the powder lasted. This happened at Stony Stratford and Newton Longville. Fenny folk, proud of their new church and of their freedom from Bletchley, decided to go one better and have special maroons (which gradually came to be known as Poppers).
It is only in comparatively recent years that the Poppers have been limited to St. Martin’s Day and to special times on that day.
For the greater part of their history the Poppers were fired in the paddock or orchard behind the Bull Inn. The 1859 decision to replace them was taken after one of them burst and damaged the inn’s roof.
On another occasion towards the end of last century, the “master gunner” laid the muzzles towards the inn instead of towards the fields. As a result, the orchard’s galvanised iron fence was riddled and so was the leg of a small boy who was hanging on it to see the fun.
Then, in 1905, the vicar and churchwardens apparently thought the Poppers were not loud enough, or that the system was too antiquated. At any rate, they secretly acquired two small cannon, or “carronades,” and stored them in the vicarage coach house. The comical tale of what followed on St. Martin’s Day is suitably told by contemporary local journalist Forbes Oldham:
“Escorted by the vicar and church officers and the verger (to act as artilleryman) they were transported with the aid of a horse across Aylesbury Street to a neighbouring field. There, after due preparations, they were let off.
“The result of the salvo was not what was expected. The Royal Fenny Stratford Horse Artillery guns certainly went off. They went off to far greater purpose than their sponsors thought for.
“The first report considerably surprised the inhabitants of the town. The second shot considerably angered them. The third shot nearly broke all their windows. And with the fourth, indignant remonstrators might have been seen making a beeline for the church-warden’s house to lodge their protests…
“The Horse Artillery was disbanded, the guns sold out of service, and in 1906 the Poppers resumed their ancient function.”
Major John Chadwick acquired the retired pieces of ordnance and placed them in front of his house in Queensway. When later he moved to another house at the junction of Cottingham Grove and Buckingham Road he set them up there and called the house “The Carronades.” On the death of Mrs. Chadwick after the last war, Captain Hubert Faulkner bought the property, but moved the artillery to his home in Staple Hall, since when I have lost track of them.
The last notable Popper incident occurred in 1949. By this time the Poppers were being fired in St. Martin’s churchyard, with their muzzles pointing towards the Watling Street. After one of the bangs there was an ominous tinkling sound and looking up at the church town we saw that a segment of the glass covering the clock face had fallen out. This would never do – especially as a big appeal for the church restoration fund was then being made!
So the following year adjournment was made to a spare bit of ground where the river meets the Watling Street. This was going to the other extreme. The ceremony attracted practically no attention. Since then the Poppers have been fired in the Leon “Rec,” to the particular edification and delight of the children of the Queensway schools.