The name of Chris Eyres will be synonymous to most Masons in the Warrington Group, however, his fame is not restricted to the Masonic fraternity and he is also well known in the field of Soulcaking.
For many years he has practised this very old play acting as the ‘Quack Doctor’ but was forced to retire three years ago because of ill health. This October saw Chris once again joining the group of Antrobus soulcakers for a ‘one off’ visit, however, a temporary vacancy existed for Mary which Chris was eager to accept for this spate of plays.
As far as Soulcaking is concerned, we believe that these rituals will have changed over time and the characters in such ‘plays’ will also have changed to reflect the good and bad omens and heroes of the day. It is also likely that, during the middle ages, in order to curry favour with communities, the Church will have ‘hijacked’ some of these beliefs and Christianised them in some way and added them to the Church calendar. It is clear that such rituals would have been an important part of village life and ones which all villagers would have looked forward to. It is also significant that the play is performed after harvest time. This would have been a time of great celebration within a rural village community. There would also be some concern that the earth would be required to produce crops for the following year. The raising of the dead in the play and the inclusion of a horse are believed to relate to superstitions surrounding fertility. Until the fairly recent past the Soulcakers were an essential part of Budworth Wakes which historically would have been part of the celebrations after harvest. Similarly the plays were enjoyed by other villages such as Frodsham, Helsby, Hatton and Utkinton, all of which have now died out. Villages such as Comberbach, Warburton and Halton have recently seen revival plays spring up which is adding to the number of plays being performed in the county.
It is also thought that, in the past, village communities may have believed that, on All Souls’ Eve, the spirits of the people who had died from the village during the previous 12 months, would return to the village and that the good spirits would fight with the bad ones. By performing a ritual containing a fight during which good overcomes evil, the villagers may have believed that the bad spirits would be unable to enter the village and peace and prosperity would prevail during the ensuing year. Such a ritual probably developed into what we see today as the Soulcaking play.
The Antrobus Soulcaking play is a hero-combat play with added extras. The essential part of the play involves a hero (King George to us) sword fighting a ‘baddy’ (the Black Prince) to the death and overcoming the evil impostor. He is then resurrected by a ‘Quack Doctor’ with his magic potions who is summoned for that purpose. The play also includes the Old Woman (Mary), the village idiot, (Dairy Doubt), a Tramp (Beelzebub), and the huntsman or driver with his wild horse. Introducing the play is the ‘Letter-in’, a smartly dressed gentleman who gains the audience’s attention.
After each performance the audience is asked to give generously to a local charity. Beneficiaries in recent years have included local branches of Mencap and other Mental Health Charities, CANtreat, St Rocco’s Hospice, St Luke’s Hospice and Warrington Hospital Scan Appeal to name but a few.
The Antrobus play itself is much revered amongst English folk traditionalists some of whom travel great distances each year in order to watch the gang perform. The play has also been copied and performed by numerous groups of people from as close as Derbyshire to as far away as New Zealand. It has also appeared on the television demonstrating country life.
Story by Chris Eyres, pictures by John Starkey.