The Hairy Legs Contest – British Traditions

Excerpt from a book of British Traditions

When people were painting the town red in Melton in the 15th Century some of the locals started to compare various parts of their bodies with those of other people. Eventually, the comparisons turned to the hairiness of the legs and it was noticed that a man called George Loveless had ‘ye legs as hairy as that of a horse.’ Loveless proclaimed himself as having the hairiest legs in Leicestershire and defied anyone to be hairier. He challenged all comers to a contest on the fifth Wednesday of Michaelmas on an annual basis – this was 1456 and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the Hairy Legs competition there are a number of different sections to enter. There’s a prize for the longest leg hair, another for the most amount of hair, and yet another for the most artistic shaping of leg hair. There are separate sections for men and women.

The longest leg hair ever measured was 3 feet 4 inches in length and belonged to Gwendoline Jones, a visitor to Melton, who entered the contest while waiting for a stagecoach to Nottingham in 1753. Gwendoline’s legs were otherwise quite bare, but she did admit that this hair was a great source of pride to her and her family. She used to wash the hair in her monthly bath and treat it with sheep’s oil to ensure that it didn’t become brittle.

The men’s record was 2 feet 9 inches grown by Alan Peacock in the 1870s. The hair was used to help keep his left sock up and he admitted to greasing it with pig’s fat every night, which might explain why his wife left him for a pig farmer.

The hairy legs contest has changed with the advent of cosmetic surgery. People have been disqualified in recent years when the judges have discovered that tufts of hair have been grafted on to people’s legs, although this is more difficult to find than the amateurish attempts of Richard Davis in 1982, who, it was discovered, had glued cat hair to his knees. Davis was given a consolation prize of a tin of cat food and asked to pay his fine into the prize kitty.

For the genuine contestants, the judges comb the hair and discover the lushness and thickness of the fur. Contestants with fleas receive extra marks from the judges as this indicates genuine hair. The colour of the hair doesn’t matter so contestants who dye their grey hairs don’t impress the judges. The area the hair covers is also taken into account as is the location of the hair; furry knees, especially around the back, win high marks.

Competitors frequently use bizarre methods to encourage hair growth; Henry Travers, who won for 13 consecutive years from 1823-1835, swore by standing in a cow pat morning and night for 30 minutes – he is quoted as saying that “ye cowe patte contains growth – look how it makees the grasse become lushe.” Travers never married during his life and lived alone in a house without running water.

Matilda Grinstead, who won the women’s hairiest legs competition between 1901 and 1912, believed her success was down to bathing in baked beans every day – she ate the beans afterwards, which may explain why the judges inspected her legs through a telescope whenever possible.

Contestants’ imaginations run riot in the leg hair sculpture competition, which started in the 1900s when sheep shearer Alex Shepley thought he would start shearing his own legs. For years Shepley’s sheep had been the talk of the Midlands, with their immaculately shaped coats in three neatly trimmed lengths. Shepley had started out as a topiarist but was always disappointed that his hedges couldn’t move. He turned to sheep shearing only after a brief flirtation with hedgehogs resulted in him being hospitalized with multiple punctures to his face.

Shepley thought of the leg hair sculpture contest when he was trimming his toe nails one day and thought that he could do the same with hair. Soon he had a hairy representation of Queen Victoria displayed on his left calf. A pork pie was shaved into his right thigh and soon Shepley was the toast of Melton. He displayed himself at the 1901 contest and was surprised to find that he was not alone in his shaving exploits. Respectable ladies had Gladstone and Disraeli shaved on their thighs; polite gentleman had coaxed representations of naked women from their lower legs – one lovelorn footman had the name of his employer represented on his hairy foot using a combination of glue and flour. The leg hair sculpture contest was born.

Littondale Wall Building – British Tradition

Excerpt from a book of British Traditions

In 1842, Jeremiah Spalding built the longest wall in the history of the competition. It stretched 167 yards up the hill and was in a perfectly straight line. However, this wall didn’t win as it was just two feet high and one foot wide – the judges didn’t believe Jeremiah’s excuse that he was a grasshopper breeder.

The competitors mustn’t touch any alcohol during the contest – this was after an unfortunate situation in 1802 when Barry Cockerill consumed too much cider in the summer sun and started to build his wall across the path of the other participants. This lead to a sharp exchange of words and the cancelling of the contest until the following day, so that Cockerill’s wall could be dismantled.

40 Humourous British Traditions

Britain has many well documented, yet strange traditions, such as Bog Snorkelling, Bonfire Night, Cheese Rolling and Haxey Hood. The book 40 Humourous British Traditions describes 40 more traditions in a similar vein, all of which are less well known. Having lived outside Britain for a number of years, visiting the country and seeing these traditions in situ made me appreciate the quirkiness and eccentricity of the British even more than when I lived there.

Amateur Psychologists can gain a better understanding of the British and their way of life by reading about Turtle Rinsing in London, Arrow Catching in Staffordshire, and Animal Gambling in the Forest of Dean. Armchair travellers can discover where a Duck Quacking contest, a Pipe Cleaner Festival, and a Thimble Throwing competition take place. Former athletes and DIY enthusiasts can marvel at people’s spitting, blowing, and digging exploits.

All the 40 stories are distinct and can be read independently; this is a book for the busy individual who only has a spare five or ten minutes before their next meeting or physio appointment to discover the secrets of Biscuit Rolling, Weasel Walking, and Christmas Tree trimming.

Once the reader has completed the book, they will perhaps understand why the British left their shores to explore the rest of the world and find something slightly more sane to do.

I hope the book inspires people to go to Britain and seek out for themselves these traditions and similar ones. Why not take part in some of them? Try and beat some of the records set in these contests. Have your name remembered by people for hundreds of years as the person who has flicked an apple pip further than anyone else in the whole of human history. Be admired as the person who has best imitated a duck or been able to balance a sparrow feather on their finger for longer than anyone else ever has. These records will provide you and your family with memories and a legacy that no one can take away.

Read the book and dream about what might be.

Biscuit Rolling from Barnsley

This excerpt is from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions

In the UK there are many contests involving the humble biscuit, ranging from building competitions to throwing events. However, in Barnsley the biscuits are just rolled for fun, so that in the words of the original organizer Rufus Moxon, “the biscuit is conserved in its entirety and can still be consumed – what’s the point of breaking a perfectly good biscuit just for fun – what a waste of money that would be.”

The contest was started in 1934 and has been going strong since then, even during the time of Margaret Thatcher. The contest takes place on the day of the first full moon after the sixth Sunday after Len Hutton’s birthday on June 23rd.

There are many different skills contests. The oldest is the rolling the biscuit through the cricket stumps competition, which takes place at the cricket club. Competitors stand in one popping crease and have to roll their biscuit down the pitch and make sure it passes between the stumps at the other end – each person has three biscuits and whoever succeeds in bisecting the stumps is through to the next round. Wilfrid Hirst has won this contest five times – his advice is as follows: “it’s just like bowls – same delivery, same pace, except it’s a biscuit you’re bowling so you have to have more of a follow through – and don’t bounce the thing as it will disintegrate on the pitch.” Contestants aren’t allowed to replace broken biscuits, which means that people who employ a “bouncing bomb” technique have never won the contest.