It has long been the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday to dress one of the villagers of Whittlesey in straw and call them the ‘Straw Bear’. This custom was used to collect food for the impoverished indentured farming workers in the area, who had by January, begun to run low in their supplies of food and firewood.
A newspaper of 1882 reports that “… The Straw Bear was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef”.
The bear was described as having great lengths of tightly twisted straw bands prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate enough to have been chosen. Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over his head and the straw wound round upon them to form a cone above the “Bear’s” head. The face was quite covered and he could hardly see. A tail was provided and a strong chain fastened around the armpits. He was made to dance in front of houses and gifts of money or of beer and food for later consumption was expected. It seems that he was considered important, as straw was carefully selected each year, from the best available, the harvesters saying, “That’ll do for the Bear”.
The tradition fell into decline at the end of the 19th century, the last sighting being in 1909 as traditionally it is thought that an over-zealous police inspector had forbidden ‘Straw Bears’ as a form of cadging.
This ban was actually imposed because the police inspector was trying to maintain of peace between 2 groups in the area; the comparatively wealthy industrial workers from the massive brick factory near Whittlesea and the farmers.
After a breach of 71 years, the straw bear was revived in 1980 and in 2009 completes a 30 year observance of this once lost Fenland custom, unique in this part of Great Britain.
For more information, please visit; http://www.strawbear.org.uk/