The White Bread Meadow

The white bread meadow

One of Britain’s ancient and curious country customs takes place each year to secure the rental of the White Bread Meadow, a small field of just over one acre 1½ miles north of the town. Ever since the mid-18th century, the lease of this pasture has been auctioned annually during a 200-yard race between two schoolboys, once held on the Monday before Easter beside the Queen’s Bridge at the end of Eastgate although in recent years the date has been moved to the last Monday in April, therefore the Monday before the May Day Bank Holiday.

A bequest in 1742 by William Clay, a gentleman of Bourne, gave two pieces of land, the rent of which was to be distributed each year in the form of white bread among the householders and commoners in the Eastgate Ward. The land was called the Constable’s Half-Acre and the Dike Reeve’s Half-Acre but when the Enclosure Award was made in 1770, the original land mentioned in the bequest was incorporated in the new field system so in lieu of the two original half-acres of land there was allotted just over one acre of land in Bourne Meadows as the basis for the charity and it is this land that is still let annually under the terms of the will.

The conditions of letting were that two good loads of manure be put on the land, the meadow should not be overgrazed or poached, the fence be maintained in proper repair and that the hawthorn bush in the middle of the field should not be cut or damaged, by animals or weather, and although it has been blown down by the wind on two occasions, it has always been replaced.

Clay also stipulated in the terms of the letting the bizarre manner in which the new tenant should be chosen and the annual race continues to be held in the traditional form as in previous years with officially appointed stewards on hand to ensure that the rules are observed. When the auction begins for the grazing rights, the boys do not start running until the auctioneer thinks that a final bid may have been made and if by the time they have returned no further bid has been received, then the hammer falls. If a further bid has been received by the time they return, then the auctioneer usually asks them to run again until such time as no further bid is received and so the successful bidder becomes the tenant of the land for the following year.

The rent money now goes to one or more of various local charities but in 1968, one of the last times that white bread was actually bought and distributed, between 300 and 400 loaves were handed out from the proceeds of the charity which then amounted to £13.

After the annual ceremony, the boys who ran the race received one shilling each from the auctioneers, although they get £1 today, and then everyone attended a feast of bread, cheese, spring onions and beer. Until 1890, this took place at one of the six pubs in the Eastgate area, the Boat, the Woolpack, the Butcher's Arms, the New Inn, the Marquess of Granby and the Anchor but the meetings are now held solely at the Anchor. In 1941, no cheese was available owing to wartime rationing and in May that year, a German bomber crashed on the Butcher’s Arms and destroyed the usual convivial venue while the Boat and the Woolpack have been demolished and the New Inn converted for use as a private house.

Photo courtesy The Local newspaper


The sale has been conducted in recent years by Stephen Knipe, auctioneer and chartered surveyor, of Abbey Road, Bourne, who began in 1994. Prior to that, his late father, George Knipe, officiated between 1959 and 1994. See also George Knipe

Photographed in 2013 by Jim Jones

The event today is merely a token of what was intended and girls often take part in the race when no boys are available although the auction is still very real and its result is legally binding. But family traditions for the administration of the charity continue. John Bannister, senior, is a third generation steward, his grandfather Tom, senior, holding office from 1935 until 1960 while his father Tom, junior, was steward from 1951 until 1999 when John took over. The current steward is Roger Macey who was appointed in 1972 when he took over from his father-in-law. The auctioneer and chairman of the charity, Stephen Knipe, has held office since 1994 when he took over from his late father George who had let the meadow annually between 1959 and 1994. A new tradition has also been born in recent years with the attendance of the Bourne Borderers, a local group of Morris dancers who have now become a permanent feature of the annual event.

Photographed in 1999
The auction taking place at Queen's Bridge in 1999


In accordance with the provisions of the will of William Clay, gentleman, of Bourne, in the year 1742, who gave land, the rent of which is to be expended yearly in white bread, to be distributed among householders and commoners in Eastgate Ward, the Constable’s Half-acre and the Dike-reeves half-acre were let by auction on the Queen’s bridge on Saturday evening. Mr F J Shilcock, the auctioneer, read the conditions of sale, which provided that two good loads of manure should be put on the land, that the fence be kept in proper repair, and that the bush in the centre of the field be not cut or injured in any way. The most curious part of the auction is the manner in which the bidding is regulated. Two lads are started by the auctioneer to run a certain distance for a prize. Whilst they are running the bidding is carried on, and the person who has made the highest bid by the time the lads return becomes the tenant for the ensuing year. - news report from The Grantham Journal, 13th April 1889.

Odd methods of auction still survive. Thus at Bourne, in Lincolnshire, a meadow has lately been let in accordance with a quaint custom annually observed. The auctioneer stood on a bridge in Eastgate, and as each bid was forthcoming a boy started to run to a certain public house. The bid which was still unchallenged when the last boy returned was accepted as the rent of the field for the ensuing year, and the bidder as the tenant. Then the company adjourned to supper, which was provided out of the funds raised from the field, two trustees being appointed to dispose of the remainder of the rent by distribution of bread. - news report from the Daily Telegraph, 18th April 1904.

WHILE THE BOY RUNS - QUAINT CUSTOM FOLLOWED BY THREE COURSE SUPPER: The ancient custom of letting the White Bread Meadow took place on the Queen's Bridge on Monday. Mr Herbert Driffill was the auctioneer. The bids are made whilst boys run to a given place and back again, the tenant for the year being the person whose bid is unchallenged whilst the boys run. This year, Messrs Lee and Green Ltd secured the tenancy at £4 2s. 6d. The company subsequently adjourned to the Marquis of Granby where a bread, cheese and onion supper was provided. The balance of the fund is spent on distributing bread in that part of the town known as Eastgate, which includes a portion of the Austerby, South Street and Abbey Road. It is estimated that this year, some 380 loaves will be distributed. - news report from the Stamford Mercury for Friday 11th April 1924


This was the scene at the auction more than half a century ago. In the picture (from the left) are Tom Barthorpe, Len Bloodworth, Darby Pulford, Paddy Lees, Bill Bloodworth, Tom Bannister senior (head steward), Tom Bannister junior (under steward), Ray Herd, the auctioneer, Tom Brothwell and Jack Sherwin. The names of the boys who raced that year and can be seen in the foreground are unknown.

The 1955 auction


See also A royal picnic

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