Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Whit-Horn

1895.21.1 Whit-horn of willowbark, primitive oboe
1895.21.1 Whit-horn of willowbark, primitive oboe
In the first half of the nineteenth century it was traditional for the Oxfordshire villages of Hailey, Crawley and Witney to celebrate Whit Monday with a hunt at Wychwood Forest. Whit-horns were made of softened willow bark in the weeks leading up to the celebrations, and played at dawn to wake the village for the hunt.
Formed from strips of willow bark wound into a funnel, the horns were secured with hawthorn or blackthorn spines, the whole measuring around 18" in length and 4" across the bell. Bark was inserted into the narrow end to form a reed, with the mouthpiece pinched together around it, hence Henry Balfour, the first Curator of the Pitt Rivers Collection, described the entire as a 'primitive oboe'.
Describing the traditions surrounding the Whit hunt in Oxfordshire, Balfour wrote,
In accordance with an old charter, certain villages in Oxfordshire were allowed on Whit-Monday to kill a stag in the forest preserves [and feast on their prey. Prior to this, young people] were busy preparing rude instruments of music (or rather of noise), with which to call the villagers to the hunt... they ran round the villages waking people up with the sound of their "whit-horns," as they were called. [1896:221]
The whit-horns in the Pitt Rivers collection (1895.21.1, 1903.130.22.1 and 1903.130.22.2) were donated by Henry Balfour, but were collected by Thomas Carter. They were made in the 1890s - half a century after the last Whit hunt (at the enclosure of the forests). Their maker was an anonymous local man, who had made similar instruments for the hunt in his youth. Percy Manning, a contemporary and probably acquaintance of Balfour's, also collected a whit-horn, which was made for him by John Fisher in 1895. It is likely that he shared his contacts with Balfour and that Balfour's instruments were made by the same man.

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.
Alice Little

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