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Houghton Feast, the ancient festival of Houghton-le-Spring

The Lake fair in 1912

Once again the ancient festival of Houghton Feast is upon us, heralding in the dark nights, chilly winds and countdown to Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and, of course, Christmas.
Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2011.
The Feast has its origins in the 12th century as Michaelmas, the festival of the dedication of the parish church of St Michael & All Angels. A common misbelief is that Rector Bernard Gilpin (1557 to 1583) founded the event, or that it originated as a celebration of his safe return to Houghton after his arrest for heresy when the country was under the rule of Mary I; when in fact the Feast predates Gilpin’s arrival at Houghton.

The festival, which is still centred on the historic parish church, has taken many forms over the years. Horse racing was a big feature of the Feast up until the last race in 1938, and it is the large crowds of miners and their families with a few pennies to spare that attracted stalls, show booths and roundabouts to the Market Place and Lake grounds.

Wilf Husband's organ at the 2007 festival

Recent Feasts have been commemorative ones.

In 2007 we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Feast revival. After the restrictions during the War, the Feast had solely become a reason to visit one of Houghton’s dozens of pubs and the emphasis was certainly not on its historic links with the magnificent St Michael’s Church. However, in 1967 the then Rector, Rev Oswald Noel Gwilliam, teamed up with the Rotary Club, Round Table, local Chamber of Trade, Houghton Urban District Council (UDC) and other community groups to start the revival of Houghton Feast.

Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2011.

The first ox sandwich of 2007 The Mayor of Sunderland & showman John Murphy Snr

Concerts were held in St Michael’s Church, something never done before, and a spectacular carnival of colourful floats was added to the line up. The Rotary Club even revived the traditional ox roasting, which has its origins with Bernard Gilpin in the 16th century. The Feast was billed as ‘new style’ and the format that we know today was established. Events were publicised in a free programme of events, which featured local ads, articles and a welcome by the chairman of Houghton UDC (in 1967 it was Cllr John Mawston, who is still the Festival Chairman to this day). In 2007, a commemorative brochure, based on the basic format of the 1967 one, was produced and circulated freely during the Festival.

2008 marked the fortieth anniversary since the fairgrounds switched to the Rectory Field, following the redevelopments in the Market Place and Lake. It also coincided with the sixtieth anniversary since showman John Murphy Snr first visited Houghton Feast with the Waltzer. A commemorative programme of events, featuring rare photographs of the fairgrounds, was produced and circulated around Houghton as a small tribute to the showmen who have been bringing all the fun of the fair to Houghton Feast for well over 100 years.

Houghton Feast Community Hymn Singing, 1960s

The celebrations continued in 2009 with the sixtieth anniversary since the Community Hymn Singing was added to the festival line-up. Rector Gwilliam initiated the event to place a greater emphasis on the religious aspects of the Feast. In 1949, after the evensong service, he encouraged the choir and parishioners to go outside to sing; the Broadway, then the main thoroughfare, was packed full of people and traffic was brought to a standstill! In subsequent years the event grew in popularity, and had attendances of several thousands of people. Sadly the outdoor event diminished after Rector Gwilliam left the parish in 1972 and it is now held inside the church, after evensong on Houghton Feast Sunday.

Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2011.

2010 commemorative programme cover

Last year's Feast, 2010, was as good as ever, as a mystical alignment of dates occurred. The traditional Houghton Feast Civic Service started at 10am on Sunday, the 10th day of the 10th month of 2010 (10-10-10-10). Where were you when the bells of St Michael’s Church chimed in 10 o’clock? Inside Church, sitting on a pew praying? That seemed like a good place to me.

Now 2011 is upon us, as is another Houghton Feast celebration. The Round Table will be organising their 45th annual Carnival Parade, when the town will be host, once again, to the procession of floats, fancy dress, pipes, drums, banners and bands. The Parade originally would its way from Brinkburn Crescent, through the town centre, up Church Street, and into the Market Place, but was later re-routed down Dairy Lane, across Wallace Street, ending on the Welfare ground. Each year, thousands of Houghton families line Houghton's streets to take in the spectacle. Volunteers from Houghton's Round Table, which was formed in 1958, will be making their usual collection along the route, the funds of which are donated to local charities and worthy causes.

So come along and join the fun
Houghton Feast we have to keep.
It's parade time in Houghton,
Line the route and then dig deep!


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

With thanks to all who contributed to my first book, 'Houghton Feast: The Anicent Festival of Houghton-le-Spring' in 2002, and subsequent booklets and articles.



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PAGE UPDATED: 25/09/2011