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The Swearing-in Song Or Rhyme Post by :davebrucesr Category :Poems Author :Unknown Date :May 2011 Read :2606

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The Swearing-in Song Or Rhyme

As formerly sung or said at Highgate, in the county of Middlesex.


(The proverb, 'He has been sworn at Highgate,' is more widely circulated than understood. In its ordinary signification it is applied to a 'knowing' fellow who is well acquainted with the 'good things,' and always helps himself to the best; and it has its origin in an old usage still kept up at Highgate, in Middlesex. Grose, in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, 1785, says, -


A ridiculous custom formerly prevailed at the public-houses of Highgate, to administer a ludicrous oath to all the men of the middling rank who stopped there. The party was sworn on a pair of horns fastened on a stick; the substance of the oath was never to kiss the maid when he could kiss the mistress, never to drink small beer when be could get strong, with many other injunctions of the like kind to all of which was added a saving clause--Unless you like it best! The person administering the oath was always to be called father by the juror, and he in return was to style him son, under the penalty of a bottle.


From this extract it is evident that in 1786 the custom was ancient, and had somewhat fallen into desuetude. Hone's Year-Book contains a very complete account of the ceremony, with full particulars of the mode in which the 'swearing-in' was then performed in the 'Fox under the Hill.' Hone does not throw any light on the origin of the practice, nor does he seem to have been aware of its comparative antiquity. He treated the ceremony as a piece of modern foolery, got up by some landlord for 'the good of the house,' and adopted from the same interested motive by others of the tribe. A subsequent correspondent of Mr. Hone, however, points out the antiquity of the custom, and shows that it could be traced back long before the year 1782, when it was introduced into a pantomime called Harlequin Teague; or, the Giant's Causeway, which was performed at the Haymarket on Saturday, August 17, 1782. One of the scenes was Highgate, where, in the 'parlour' of a public house, the ceremony was performed. Mr. Hone's correspondent sends a copy of the old initiation song, which varies considerably from our version, supplied to us in 1851 by a very old man (an ostler) at Highgate. The reciter said that the COPY OF VERSES was not often used now, as there was no landlord who could sing, and gentlemen preferred the speech. He said, moreover, 'that the verses were not always alike--some said one way, and some another-- some made them long, and some CUT 'EM SHORT.'

Grose was in error when he supposed that the ceremony was confined to the inferior classes, for even in his day such was not the case. In subsequent times the oath has been frequently taken by people of rank, and also by several persons of the highest literary and political celebrity. An inspection of any one of the register- books will show that the jurors have belonged to all sorts of classes, and that amongst them the Harrovians have always made a conspicuous figure. When the stage-coaches ceased to pass through the village in consequence of the opening of railways, the custom declined, and was kept up only at three houses, which were called the 'original house,' the 'old original,' and the 'real old original.' Two of the above houses have latterly ceased to hold courts, and the custom is now confined to the 'Fox under the Hill,' where the rite is celebrated with every attention to ancient forms and costume, and for a fee which, in deference to modern notions of economy, is only one shilling.

Byron, in the first canto of Childe Harold, alludes to the custom of Highgate:-


Some o'er thy Thamis row the ribboned fair,
Others along the safer turnpike fly;
Some Richmond-hill ascend, some wend to Wara
And many to the steep of Highgate hie.
Ask ye, Boeotian shades! the reason why?
'Tis to the worship of the solemn horn,
Grasped in the holy hand of mystery,
In whose dread name both men and maids {1} are sworn,
And consecrate the oath with draught, and dance till morn.

Footnote: {1} The 'swearing-in' is gone through by females as well as the male sex. See Hone's Year-Book.


Canto I, stanza 70.)


(Enter LANDLORD, dressed in a black gown and bands, and wearing an antique-fashioned wig, followed by the CLERK OF THE COURT, also in appropriate costume, and carrying the registry-book and the horns.)


Landlord. Do you wish to be sworn at Highgate?
Candidate. I do, Father.
Clerk. Amen.

The LANDLORD then sings, or says, as follows:-

Silence! O, yes! you are my son!
Full to your old father turn, sir;
This is an oath you may take as you run,
So lay your hand thus on the horn, sir.

(Here the CANDIDATE places his right hand on the horn.)

You shall spend not with cheaters or cozeners your life,
Nor waste it on profligate beauty;
And when you are wedded be kind to your wife,
And true to all petticoat duty.

(The CANDIDATE says 'I will,' and kisses the horn in obedience to the command of the CLERK, who exclaims in a loud and solemn tone, 'Kiss the horn, sir!')

And while you thus solemnly swear to be kind,
And shield and protect from disaster,
This part of your oath you must bear it in mind,
That you, and not she, is the master.

Clerk. 'Kiss the horn, sir!'

You shall pledge no man first when a woman is near,
For neither 'tis proper nor right, sir;
Nor, unless you prefer it, drink small for strong beer,
Nor eat brown bread when you can get white, sir.

Clerk. 'Kiss the horn, sir!'

You shall never drink brandy when wine you can get,
Say when good port or sherry is handy;
Unless that your taste on spirit is set,
In which case--you MAY, sir, drink brandy!

Clerk. 'Kiss the horn, sir!'

To kiss with the maid when the mistress is kind,
Remember that you must be loth, sir;
But if the maid's fairest, your oath doesn't bind, -
Or you may, if you like it, kiss both, sir!

Clerk. 'Kiss the horn, sir!'

Should you ever return, take this oath here again,
Like a man of good sense, leal and true, sir;
And be sure to bring with you some more merry men,
That they on the horn may swear too, sir.

Landlord. Now, sir, if you please, sign your name in that book,
and if you can't write, make your mark, and the clerk of the court
will attest it.

(Here one of the above requests is complied with.)

Landlord. You will please pay half-a-crown for court fees, and
what you please to the clerk.

(This necessary ceremony being gone through, the important business terminates by the LANDLORD saying, 'God bless the King (or Queen) and the lord of the manor;' to which the CLERK responds, 'Amen, amen!')

N.B. The court fees are always returned in wines, spirits, or porter, of which the Landlord and Clerk are invited to partake.


(The end)
Anonymous's poem: Swearing-In Song Or Rhyme

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