Olde Worcester

Firstly I’d like to thank you all for coming to this talk entitled Old Worcester.

Together, we are going to embark on a fascinating journey back through time to explore a little of how the story of Worcester and of England has shaped our modern way of life, and also the way we speak and communicate.

I hope you enjoy this light hearted look at our history, and I hope that by the end you might be a little wiser about how some of the words and phrases we use today came about.

I must say I’m very pleased to see so many people here tonight. This will be my best attended talk since, due to a printers error, my presentation “Leather and Silk, an Illustrated History of Exotic Glovemaking”, was advertised without the capital ‘G’ it so very much required.

So let us begin…

Although it is thought that the Worcester area was inhabited from around 400BC, very little is known about our early human ancestors. From the archaeological evidence, we understand that they would gather in small groups to eat meals of wild birds and roasted vermin, throwing the discarded bones on the floor around them, and most likely communicating through rough grunts and primitive hand gestures.

Perhaps if you could picture a kind of Neolithic KFC, you would be close to imagining the scenes.

But this is mostly supposition, it is not until the Romans march imperiously into Worcestershire in the First century and the first reliable written records begin that we can say anything with any certainty.

The Romans conquered Ancient Britain and amongst their other achievements, founded the town of Vertis, widely believed to be the precursor of modern Worcester. And it is from the meticulous record keeping of the Roman bureaucrats that we get the earliest written records of life in the area.

We learn that the Romans regarded the locals as amiable but unfortunately rather backward, which they blamed on their incorrigible cider drinking. An affliction which possessed even the local chieftain, a powerful archer named Strongbow, and which the Romans regarded as uncivilised and coarse. Centurions and merchants would greet the Worcester folk with a “Haile Babari” or Hail Barbarians. By all accounts, there was no offence intended or taken with this form of address, and early Worcesterians adopted the name barbari when paying respects to each other.

 

“Haiye Barb”, they would say, which over the years shortened into the distinctive Worcester greeting “Hiya Bab!”,  with which we are all doubtless familiar .

 

 

But not all additions to our language are from outside influence, much of the way we speak is the product of our own history, of events which unfolded around us and left their mark in the very words we speak.

 

For example, Worcester has become known as the faithful city, after staying loyal to the crown throughout the English Civil War and sheltering Charles II after his defeat at the battle of Worcester. A turn of phrase which became popular around this time was the “boast of a king”. Anything particularly fine or which someone felt especially proud of would be classed as the “boast of a king”. It was a step up from being merely fit for a king, this was something that a King might actually boast of, so good it was.

 

And over time, this phrase was worn down and compounded from “Boast of a King” to “Boast a King” to the form in which we know it today – simply “Bostin!”

 

But Worcester was not always such a friend of the throne, at the Worcester Uprising of 1041 the townsfolk murdered a tax collector sent by the King. The King’s wrath was swift and bloody, and the town was ransacked by royal forces. Afterwards, those who had hidden to escape the violence took to greeting each other with a morbid “How hang ye?”

As if to ask, “How will ye be hanged?” when the King’s justice finally catches up with you

Again, over time the words are worn down by common use, first to go were the aitches  and “How hang ye?” becomes “Ow Ang Ye”.  As the original meaning is lost the “ang” becomes “am” and the contemporary greeting “How am ya!” is born.

<So we can see how a familiar phrase such as “Hi ya bab, how am ya” has its roots far far back in the history of England>

It should be stressed that The Worcester Uprising did not happen out of the blue, the English shires had long resented the king of the day who was a Dane named Canute.

This foreign King was seen as distant and out of touch with rural areas such as Worcestershire, which was why he became known as “The Far King”. Many were the complaints about the Far King’s taxes, the Far King’s soldiers and the Far King Canute himself. And I believe the term is still used for posts of authority today, as I came in tonight I heard someone complain about the job the Far Kings Council had done resurfacing his street.   

The symbol of Worcester has long been the pear, Samuel Pepys records in his famous diary that he:

“dined and supped well at a Worcester Inne, and when alone with the serving girl, to my delight she did uncover a wonderful pear, of which she was rightly proud.”

Pepys also tells an anecdote about an ailing stable boy with a case of Pershore Plums, but that’s another story for another day.

Samuel Pepys, however, was only passing through the area so we cannot claim him as one of our own, Unlike Elgar for example. Who went on to become perhaps Worcester’s most famous son, but who was once a schoolboy in Broadheath, locked in his room for hours on end sweating over his Nimrod.

And take JRR Tolkien, who described himself as “a Worcestershire man, born and bred” and it is known that he took inspiration for Middle Earth from his walks on the Malvern Hills. How he came up with his cast of orcs, goblins and hobbits I will leave to your own imagination …  but if you ever find yourself on Friar Street at chucking out time take a good look around.

But Worcester is at heart an ancient city, and many areas bear names which link them directly to the past. For instance the road The Tything which is named after the early division of the County into stewarded domains or tythes or the area known as The Butts. Which was originally a large plain reserved for archery practice, something which was required by law during the 16th century.

Many was the young wench who complained of her young lover’s aim being off when he slipped into the Butts on a Sunday afternoon.

But through all of its long annals, from cider addled barbarians to world class composers, the pulse of history is what keeps Old Worcester alive in the modern day.

So thank you bab and goodnight, and please stay out of The Butts or something something The Far King’s something.

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