Horse's Skull from Hooton Pagnell, South Yorkshire

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Bonhams photograph of the horse's skull from Hooton Pagnell
Photograph of the horse's skull from Bonhams auction catalogue, 2015.

The recent sale of a horses's head in Bonham's sale, reported on the Master Mummers' Facebook page brought back memories [1]. The sale was of items from Hooton Pagnell hall, near Doncaster in South Yorkshire. When I was visiting the village in 1976, during my fieldwork for my M.Phil thesis on seasonal house-visiting customs, the gentleman I interviewed told me about the skull. I wrote to the then-owner of the hall, asking for further details. Mrs Ward-Norbury replied, told me what she knew and invited me to the hall to see it.

Hooton Pagnell hall is no ordinary country mansion; it more resembles a small castle, complete with its own gatehouse. Mrs Ward-Norbury was a delightful lady. She served me Earl Grey tea, showed me round the house, edging past assegais, zulu war-shields and a stuffed crocodile and helped me take some photographs of the horse's skull with my little "instamatic" camera.

Photograph of the skull from Hooton Pagnell, taken by Ruairidh Greig
Photograph of the skull taken in the garden at Hooton Pagnell Hall by Ruairidh Greig, 1976.

Photograph of the horse's skull from Hooton Pagnell, taken by Ruairidh Greig
Photograph of the horse's skull taken in Hooton Pagnell Hall by Ruairidh Greig, 1976.

She confirmed the story that she outlined in her letter. The skull was retrieved by her family from the pond where it had been dumped by the band of mummers, who had been regular annual visitors but who broke up after a final performance in the village. She was told this by her Grandmother, who died in 1931.

The performance was most probably of the Old Horse play, in which a comic horse goes lame and is treated by a blacksmith and a farrier, a local version of which was described in 1903 (Wilson, 1903). I discovered a near complete version of the play a few miles away at Elsecar. This can be seen, together with further details about the custom, in my online thesis (Greig, 1989).

Ruairidh Greig


  1. The Facebook post and subsequent comments concerned Bonhams' auction of the contents of Hooton Pagnell Hall on the 1st December 2015 in Knightsbridge (Millington et al, 2015). The lot was decribed as "A 19th century horse's skull: With inset glass eyes, mounted on a wooden stand, 58cm wide", along with the note: "This horse's skull was left behind after a group of Mummers had performed at the house." (Bonhams, 2015). The catalogue gave an estimated value of £200-£300. It was sold for £687 (including 25% premium) to Fred Mead of Upminster, Essex UK, who has added it to his Theatrical Memorabilia - Performing Arts Collection. Photographs of selected items from his collection, including the Hooton Pagnell skull and other mumming and guising items can, be viewed online at:


Bonhams (2015) Lot 506W: A 19th century horse's skull: With inset glass eyes, mounted on a wooden stand, 58cm wide
Auction 23248: Hooton Pagnell Hall: 300 years of collecting
London, Knightsbridge: Bonhams, 1st Dec.2015, accessed 16th Dec.2015

Ruairidh Greig (1989) Seasonal House-Visiting in South Yorkshire
MPhil thesis, University of Sheffield, 1989, accessed 16th Dec.2015

Peter Millington et al (2015) An interesting lot, up for sale at Bonhams on the 1st December
Master Mummers: Public Group, Facebook, 12th November 2015, accessed 16th Dec.2015 [restricted to Facebook members only]

John Wilson (1903) Verses and Notes
Chorley: A. Hill, 1903, p.182, accessed 16th Dec.2015

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