A Brief History of Golowan
Golowan – Penzance’s midsummer festival in the 19th century
By Tom Goskar, FSA
Today’s Golowan festival, created in 1991, brings back to life many of the traditions and practices recorded in Penzance during midsummer, adapting them to a safe and enjoyable festival for locals and visitors alike. Did you know that many of the familiar parts of the festival – crowds, fireworks, serpent dancing, market stalls, roaming bands, fireworks, the Mock Mayor and much more – have their roots in an ancient midsummer tradition celebrated vigorously up to the late 19th century? Read on for a window into Penzance’s fiery midsummer revels.
Lurid and ever-moving flames
“To the early torches succeeded the first hand-rockets, which send all who have not made up their minds to be salamanders to the shelter of the house. Gradually the tar-barrels were ignited throughout the length of the principal streets. The scene, even at this stage, is picturesque, though it be barbarous. The thoroughfares are filled with dense smoke; but through this can be seen perhaps fifty torches, the lurid and ever-moving flames crossing and re-crossing each other, and, as they approach you, throwing a light which would have delighted Rembrandt on all around.”
(An account of St John’s Eve, Penzance, 23 June 1875)
All is rough and unmannerly, yet no offence or harm is meant
Dancing takes over. “In about an hour, “the charm” grows madder. The possessors of hand-rockets – their faces already smirched with the smoke and powder – rush up and down the lines of spectators, peppering their legs from their fiery pepper-castors, or adroitly thread their way, with dancing steps, among the thickest of assembled crowds.”
“From half-past ten to half-past eleven, pandemonium is witnessed. Spite of the stifling smoke a band plays ; hobble-de-hoys, with occasionally a female partner, but more frequently in couples of their own sex, waltz and polka ; in every direction the bonfires blaze, the hand-rockets hiss, squibs flit hither and thither, and fall in unexpected places, sky-rockets and Roman candles send their many coloured scintillations into the air ; the cry of “Fire, fire!” resounds, but it only means that some fair one’s petticoats require a vigorous shaking or she would soon be skirtless ; all is rough and unmannerly, yet no offence or harm is meant.”
“So the game proceeds until midnight approaches, when the fun slackens, the police and sweepers appear, and the commemoration of St John burns itself quietly out, and all vestiges of the carnival disappear.”
This heady and vivid description was printed in the Cornish Telegraph newspaper on 30th July 1875. The bonfires were lit in the Greenmarket, on Market Jew Street, Queen Street, and countless others.
Our celebrations were part of an even wider custom
Until the mid 1880s, the time of midsummer, around and between the feasts of St John the Baptist (24th June) and St Peter (29th June), was vigorously celebrated in Penzance and surrounding villages. Our celebrations were part of an even wider custom. Midsummer celebrations have been held across Europe for centuries, forming an important – and still relevant – mark on the wheel of the year. In Estonia, Jaaniõhtu – St John’s Eve – is marked today in many towns and villages with bonfires, singing and dancing. In Finland, for juhannus, bonfires are lit near lakes and the sea, and many homes place branches from birch trees either side of their doors to welcome visitors. Jāņi is celebrated in Latvia with great enthusiasm, incorporating fires, decorating houses with leaves, singing, dancing, and drinking. In Bulgaria, fires are lit with daring barefoot dances on the hot coals. Some French towns still create tall bonfires that are lit on St John’s Day. There is a long list of places that mark midsummer and the Feast of St John the Baptist with fire and tradition, in which Golowan in Penzance plays its part.
This is been largely forgotten in recent times, but an editorial piece published in the Cornishman on 17 June 1880 remembers that “At one time these fires (such as we shall certainly see in a few days illuminating our town and making it look as if there were a great conflagration in it) were common in most parts of Europe.”
“When our Penzance lads are lighting their fires or waving the torches around their heads it is a strange thought that far to the North, amidst the fjords of Norway, on the crags of Scotland ; to the South, amidst the Menhirion of Brittany ; to the East, in the forests of Russia, or on the Carpathian peaks, fires will be burning on the same evening in honour of Midsummer-tide. Penzance and Krakow are at one on this point.”
What does “Golowan” mean?
There are many accounts that record the festivities around the town. The newspapers are particularly useful, containing colourful reports of the events that went down in this heady week. But what is the earliest reference, and where does the word ‘Golowan’ come from?
In the special collections of Penzance’s Morrab Library is held an original copy of the 1754 book Observations on the Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall, by the antiquarian and rector of Ludgvan, William Borlase. He describes some of our midsummer customs: “In Cornwall, the Festival Fires, call’d Bonfires, are kindled on the Eve of St. John the Baptist, and St. Peter’s Day, and Midsummer is thence, in the Cornish tongue, call’d Goluan, which signifies both Light, and Rejoicing.” This is the earliest printed reference to the word we use today – Golowan. Strictly speaking, this is made out of two words – gool – Cornish for feast, fair or festival – and Jowan – the Cornish for the name John. Golowan means, loosely, the “Feast of St John”. When Cornish was spoken by the majority, a form of this word is what they would have used to call our midsummer festivities – as we do again today.
Decorating the town
Let us now head back to 1801, where the letters page of the Royal Cornwall Gazette (4th July) takes us back to sunset on St John’s Eve.
“No sooner had the tardy sun withdrawn himself from the horizon, then the young men began to assemble on several parts of the town, drawing after them, trees and branches of wood and furze ; all which had been accumulating week after week, from the beginning of May. Tar barrels were presently erected on tall poles ; some on the quay, others near the market, and one even on a rock in the midst of the sea ; pretty female children tript up and down in their best frocks, decorated with garlands ; and hailing the Midsummer-eve as the vigil of St. John.”
Fire and serpents
“The joyful moment arrives ! the torches make their appearance ! the heaped-up wood is on fire! The tar-barrels send up their immense flame ! the ladies and gentlemen parade the streets, or walk in the fields, or on the terrace that commands the bay ! thence they behold the fishing-towns, farms, and villas, vying with each other in the number and splendour of their bonfires.”
The author, known just by the initials “T. J. R.” goes on to describe fireworks in the streets, and finally:
“Then comes the finale : no sooner are the torches burnt out, than the inhabitants of the quay-quarter, (a great multitude) male and female, young, middle-aged, and old ; virtuous and vicious, sober and drunk, take hands, and forming a long string, run violently through every street, lane, and alley crying “An eye! an eye! an eye!” At last they stop suddenly ; and an eye to this enormous needle being opened by the last two in the string, (whose clasped hands are elevated and arched) the thread of the populace run under, and through: and continue to repeat the same, till weariness dissolves their union, and sends them home to bed: – which is never till near the hour of midnight.”
This is a good description of the Serpent Dance that we do today down Chapel Street to the quay.
The Quay Fair
“T. J. R.” then paints a picture of the quay fair the following day.
“The custom is, for the country people to come to Penzance in their best clothes, about four or five o’clock in the afternoon ; when they repair to the quay and take a short trip on the water. On this occasion numbers of boats are employed, most of which have music on board. After one cargo is dismissed, another is taken in ; and till nine or ten o’clock at night, the bay exhibits a pleasant scene of sailing-boats, rowing-boats, sloops, sea-sickness, laughter, quarrelling, drum-beating, horn blowing, &c. &c &c. &c. On the shore there is a kind of wake or fair, in which fruit and confectionary are sold, and the public houses are thronged with drinkers and dancers.”
So good they did it twice
Our letter-writer from 1801 sums up: “Such is Midsummer in this part of Cornwall; and on the eve and feast of St Peter which follows so closely upon it, the same things are acted over again.”
Why did Penzance’s midsummer revels disappear?
By 1890, as far as our research can tell, the streets were quiet during Midsummer. No bonfires, no revelling and dancing in the streets. Only some organised firework displays. What happened?
There was constant friction between revellers and the Penzance borough authorities. The chief concern in a busy town was that of fire and fireworks, the latter being homemade from gunpowder. The Gunpowder and Fireworks Act of 1860 meant that licenses to manufacture fireworks had to be applied for, but in reality this was hard to enforce, and this was reinforced or replaced by the Explosives Act 1875. Section 80 of this act, which still applies today, makes it an offence to set off fireworks in the street. It is also an offence to make or store them without a license. Substantial fines could be applied for those in breach of the law.
Explosive and glittering compound
This couldn’t have helped Penzance’s cottage firework industry that went into overdrive as midsummer approached. The Cornish Telegraph, on 30th June 1875, describes “Some of us have been busily engaged in the secret recesses of out-houses in the rolling-up of rocket cases. Sheet after sheet of pasted brown paper, tightly enveloping an iron bar, have been made the depository of a mixture of gunpowder and steel filings. This explosive and glittering compound has been smartly compressed, the top of the hand-rocket finished off with a piece of touch-paper, and, dozen after dozen, the completed weapon placed in a secret corner for re-production and use on the famed Midsummer Eve.”
In the same 1875 piece, we learn that “a trusted few formed themselves into what we call a committee – an anonymous but representative body to whom is confided a large sum of money, never larger than this year, with longer pockets; and these find money for a band of musicians, all the tar barrels and other casks of the neighbourhood, firewood, furze, &c., and men to place and ignite the combustibles. All this self-imposed labour – some of it highly dangerous, as is the pastime to which it leads, and yet the gods of misrule seem never to have permitted a serious accident – is in honour of saturnalia which are as old as the hills.”
Bands of roughs
By 1875, the midsummer celebrations were bigger than ever before, well-organised, and with decent budgets. At exactly the same time, on 14th June 1875, the Explosives Act was passed, an event which that year, probably went unnoticed and unheeded by Penzance’s midsummer revellers. And so it went on for a few more years. By 1880, the Cornish Telegraph (30th June) picked up on the tensions that were starting to form after some particularly rough behaviour: “Considerable discomfort was caused by the presence of bands of roughs who arm-in-arm rushed among the town knocking people down. The son of Mr Rogers, butcher, Market-jew-street, was knocked down and had his collar bone broken.” There were reports of lit rockets being stuffed unknowingly into people’s pockets, and windows were broken by rocket fire. “No town in England, not even Exeter or Lewes now, can equal the scene presented by Penzance last night.”
In 1881, the Cornish Telegraph (7th July) reports that on St Peter’s Eve a firework smashed the window of a sitting room above a shop in the Green Market (where some of the bigger bonfires were traditionally burned) and struck a man in the eye, which also set another man’s coat on fire, and burnt another’s arm. Someone else was injured by the flying glass. The writing was on the wall for fireworks and bonfires in the streets of Penzance.
We may just as well let the custom die out
A letter in the Cornishman published the same day (7th July 1881) lamented “Much as I uphold old customs, for “old fashions please me best,” and should regret seeing fireworks in our town put a stop to ; yet, if better conduct and less rough play cannot be obtained, I think that we may just as well let the custom die out. Several visitors who had read of, and were anxious to see, the ancient custom, went away from the Green Market thoroughly disgusted, and it is a pity that the reputation of the town should suffer by the conduct of a few low roughs from the back slums.”
By 1883 there was a 10pm curfew, enforced by the police. No bonfire crackled and burned in the Green Market, only smaller ones on side streets: “A ten o’clock curfew might, to all appearances, have been in force, for as the last stoke died away the fires everywhere went out, the street lamps were put out, the moon came out, and most folks went in ; and long before midnight Penzance, like a well-conducted little town, was snugly tucked in bed and perhaps asleep and dreaming.” (Cornishman, 5th July 1883)
By 1884 people letting off fireworks in the streets were made examples of by the police. At the West Penwith Petty Sessions held in Penzance on 2nd July and reported in the Cornishman the next day, several people were charged and pleaded guilty to fireworks offences.
Just a fond memory
In 1885, a public fireworks display was held in the town, to which people were charged entry. By 1896, in the “Now and Then” section of the Cornishman (2nd July), the St John’s Eve revels were just a fond memory: “I can look back on the Green-market, Penzance, when King Pyro held universal holiday there. Ah! Law is stronger than synods.”
And then… nothing. Until an embryonic community festival called Golowan took place in 1991. But that is a story for another day, with many voices to tell the tale, to helped Penzance take its place once again with our fiery friends across Europe and beyond, celebrating midsummer and the Goluan, Golowan – the Feast of St John.
In 1991, the tradition was revived by Alverton School, members of Kneehigh Theatre, Penwith Peninsula Project and Penzance Town Council. From the one day of celebration – Mazey Day – and with the continuing support of Penzance Town Council, Golowan grew to revive the old traditions of the Feast of St. John, with the Golowan Band, Serpent Dances, the Quay Fair, Mock Mayor Election, greenery, banners and giant imagery on parade. Hand-made banners and flags adorn the town throughout the festival.
In the week leading up to Mazey Day each year there is an election of the Mock Mayor of the Quay and, on Mazey Eve, a spectacular fireworks display with the appearance of Penglaz, Penzance’s ‘Obby ‘Oss, accompanied by the Golowan Band.
Mazey Day, launched each year by the Mayor of Penzance and the Mock Mayor of the Quay, is the centrepiece of the festival, in which artists, schools and other community groups fill the streets with music and giant sculptures in a series of parades. Tens of thousands of people line the main street of Penzance, Market Jew Street, which becomes a huge market place for the day, with traders selling all manner of goods as well as food from all around the world to delight the taste buds.
Click the link below to see Barbara Santi’s film about Golowan Festival 1999