Hoodening – a tradition you may never have heard of

If you were fortunate enough to see the Lost Sounds of Rural England exhibit at Maidstone Museum before lockdown started (or are planning to go and see it after lockdown eases) you might have seen the rarely displayed ‘hooden horses’.

The horses (pictured below) which were donated to the museum by Wye College after being found in a barn in Wingham, date from around 1870 – 1900. In the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries it would be commonplace to see these strange creatures in the four or five days before Christmas.

Photos used with kind permission of www.hoodening.org.uk

Hoodening, also spelled hodening and oodening, is a folk tradition unique to East Kent although similar customs are seen in various forms in other parts of the UK. Groups of farm labourers would dress as various characters and travel door to door requesting money, cake and ale. Characters in the procession commonly included:

  • the horse (of course). A long suffering work horse played by a man, covered with a sack, who would carry the horse’s head mounted on a pole with a string attached to snap its hinged jaw;
  • the wagoner, who would carry a long whip;
  • the rider, who tries and mostly fails to mount the horse;
  • Mollie, a man in drag who follows behind sweeping with a besom. In most cases she is a woman past her prime; and
  • two or three musicians who would accompany the party with song.

The origin of the word ‘hooden’ is uncertain and much debated. Firstly, there is the obvious hood like structure of the costume worn over the head, or possibly coming from ‘hide’ as in animal skins or ‘hoaden’, a type of cloth. Another source suggests that it comes from the Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian god, Woden. Some think it comes from Robin Hood and that Mollie is supposed to be Maid Marion. Whatever the origin, the horse is already an iconic symbol for Kent, appearing as a heraldic symbol on the county flag.

The tradition in its original form diminished following the First World War but a few teams and contemporary revivals are still devotedly kept alive by folk groups today. Nowadays the groups tend to take a more philanthropic approach if they collect money, raising funds for a chosen charity. Not even lockdown could stop The St Nicholas at Wade with Sarre Hoodeners who did their first ever online performance on 22 December, currently still available to view online: www.hoodening.org.uk/hoodening-2020. This will available until around Twelfth Night in the new year. If you would like to donate, their charity is Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance Trust: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/hoodening2020

If you would like to learn more about Hoodening, you can find more information on http://hoodening.org.uk/. In my opinion, the ultimate internet authority on the subject! You’ll also find links to other groups who preserve Kentish traditions and videos of performances.

And remember: If ye the hooden horse do feed, throughout the year ye shall not need!

Cassie