The Origins of Mothering Sunday and the Nottinghamshire Connection

by Ross Parish

It seems no sooner have the Valentine’s Day displays have been packed away than it’s up with Mothering Sunday ones! Yet this is a custom with rather confused origins and again like Valentine’s Day nearly died out. And oh yes, it is Mothering Sunday not Mother’s Day, a technicality often forgotten by the card sellers but one I shall explain.

Mothering Sunday is one of a number of ‘feast days’ in the days of Lent. Despite being a period of fasting, ‘breaks’ were given on the Sundays leading up to Easter Sunday for breaks in the fast observation. Mothering Sunday was only one of these. An old Nottinghamshire rhyme records the others:

Care Sunday, care away, Palm Sunday and Easter Day”.


A ‘Traditional Mothering Sunday Scene- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

Before considering Mothering Sunday, it is worth noting Carling Sunday. This is the fifth Sunday in Lent and became probably erroneously associated with a food – the carlin pea. A newspaper cutting from the late 1800s records:

North of the Trent the favourite dish consisted of well-soaked peas fried in butter and seasoned with pepper and salt. These last were called carlings. They were so greatly preferred in Notts that the day was locally given the name of ‘Carling Sunday. ”

Does anyone still eat carlins in the county? I would be interested to know. The food is still eaten in the Northern counties, especially the east, in Driffield there’s a shop proudly proclaiming itself as a supplier – no such shop does so in Nottinghamshire – and those wishing to partake on this rather delicious pulse are best to do so over the net! Yet why should it be associated with a pea you may ask? A legend tells of a ship wrecked off the coast which was carrying these peas which were greatly consumed by the fasters…an unlikely story. The name of the Sunday is thought to derive from the consideration of the Lord’s Passion (it’s official name was Passion Sunday), but like other folk customs and explanation to do with care, that one should consider others on that day, evolved.

Back to Mothering Sunday however. Where did it come from? Some church historians see it as being developed from a feast day in the early church called Laetare Sunday, the aim of which was to make pilgrimage to the ‘mother church’ of the diocese. This custom was thought to have an ancient pre-Christian origin. It is said to have originated from the March feast of the Roman Hilaria, the Mother of the Gods. In its attempt to absorb some of the traditions of the pagans, the early Catholic Church adopted the feast fixing it on the fourth Sunday in Lent, a date always in March. However, not everyone agrees with its religious origin and some state that its history has been back derived. If it was a Catholic feast days, unlike others it did not die out but became generally secularised. It is easy to see how this became converted post Reformation to paying tribute to one’s mother! Indeed the custom is first recorded as such only in the mid-1600s suggesting such. The tradition probably begun with servants of the big houses, who would be given the day off to visit home. John Potter Briscoe in his 1870s Nottinghamshire Facts and fictions records:

One can readily imagine how, after a stripling or maiden had gone to service, or launched out into independent housekeeping, the old bonds of filial love would be brightened by the pleasant annual visitation, signalized, as custom demanded it should be, by the excitement attending some novel, and perhaps, surprising gift.”

Such that like other ‘house visiting customs’ it became known as ‘going a mothering’. John Potter Briscoe continues:

The harshness and general painfulness of life in old times must have been much relieved by certain simple and affectionate customs which modern people have learned to dispense with..  Amongst these was a practice, which existed last century, of visiting the parents on Mid-Lent Sunday, taking for them some little present.  A youth engaged in this act of duty was said to go “a-mothering”, and thence Mid—Lent Sunday itself became to be called “Mothering Sunday”. ….”

Such house visiting of course required provision of food and indeed the custom became known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’ and two particular foods became associated with the day. Another local account records:

Usually a special provision of food was prepared for the delectation of the visitors who were all the more welcome as those were unlettered days and travelling was so difficult that it was only upon rare occasions that families met.”

Briscoe records the recipe for furmety, fermety or frumenty:

There was also a cheering and peculiar festivity appropriate to the day, the prominent dish of “furmety”, which is made of whole grains of wheat first boiled plump and soft, and then put into, and boiled in, milk, and sweetened and spiced.”

To make it today soak the wheat overnight! Readers may be more familiar with Simnel cake – a fruit and almond icing cake. Indeed it appears to be being sold in slices at a well-known high street bakers, albeit now provided as an Easter cake, with associated twelve apostle almond ball. The Simnel cake, said to have arisen over whether it should be boiled or baked by Simon and Nell, is a delicious cake, of which an old recipe is recorded below:

Chop 4oz of chopped almonds, 28oz of mixed fruit with 11oz flour and 2 teaspoons of mixed spice. Add 8oz of butter and 4oz of sugar cream to together and beat until fluffy. Beat in 5 eggs one at a time. Mix thoroughly and then add ¼ teaspoon of bicarb. Cook on a medium for 4 hours. To make the almond paste add 4 oz icing sugar with 12 oz ground almonds. Add vanilla, 2 eggs and lemon juice. Knead and roll. Once cake is cool, glaze with 3 tablespoons of boiled apricot jam and then once this is cool, roll out the almond paste and place over the cake. Brush with beaten egg and place in a very hot oven for seven minutes to brown.”


Frumenty- Photo Credit: RB Parish.


Simnel Cake- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

Despite the provision of cakes and continual observance by the church, Mothering Sunday was dying out. An account at Bleasby in 1877 records that ‘distant members of the family gathering around the home fireplace’ was still current at the time of writing, but this may have been already in decline. The changing in working patterns from working on the estates to working in factories? A general change in work patterns and the movement to have more holidays? Was it the increased secularisation of society? Was it the First World War? In truth it was probably a combination of all of these. By the 1920s it was thought to have died out in most if not all places. However, its demise would be averted…and its revival was straight out of Nottinghamshire.

By the 1920s Mothering Sunday was in decline. Its final death was prevented by a Nottinghamshire lady, Constance Penswick-Smith, who by her actions should be annually celebrated by card manufacturers the county over, although he aim was religious not secular one I must add!

I also noted that Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day are not the same and that the majority of the cards available in the shops are wrong! But why you may ask? Those with transatlantic or Australasian relatives will know why – there mothers are remembered in May. This Mother’s Day is a ‘modern’ secular tradition established in the USA. This was established in 1907 by a Philadelphian called Anna Jarvis, a schoolteacher who wished to do something to celebrate her mother and had read about Mothering Sunday. Her actions proved popular and many people took up the observation and as such by 1913 Congress had recognise the new day being set on the second Sunday of May.

The story of Mothering Sunday’s perhaps revival starts at Coddington. Now I don’t think I’ll be offending the village by saying it is fairly ordinary place. Nestled just outside of Newark, there is nothing which would suggest here would spawn a revival which would spread to every corner of the UK and keep many card sellers in business ever more. However, Coddington was where a 12 year old Constance Penswick Smith came with her six other siblings to live with the Reverend Charles Penswick Smith who father and vicar of All Saints Church Coddington.

It was in 1913 that Constance that the idea of reviving the custom arose and it was thanks indirectly to the aforementioned Anna Jarvis. Being a devout Christian she was concerned that this secular commemoration would water down and remove the spiritual message of the day. She apparently at that moment decided to dedicate her time to campaigning for its restoration. It was a campaign which would last for 30 years.

Many thought a revival was impossible. The Mother’s Union understandably were keen to support one but thought it too long gone that a restoration was unlikely. Setting up an office at 15 Regent Street Nottingham, she and her friend Ellen Porter, the Superintendent of Nottingham’s Girls Friendly Society Hostel set about designing Mothering Sunday Cards, and doing research collecting hymns, writing articles and plays all of which in 1921 was distilled into a book on the subject Mothering Sunday written to engender interest – it’s foreward starting Coddington Vicarage, Newark-on-Trent Lady Day 1920. She established ‘The Society for the Observance of Mothering Sunday’ but despite the work her ideas were not warmly accepted.

However, Constance had a secret weapon, her four brothers who had joined the church and being converts to the idea started to establish services in their churches. In Nottingham, the first church to take on the revived service was the new St Cyprian’s church and a time capsule of Mothering Day materials was buried at its construction. Thanks to the Reverend Killer it became an established event. Slowly but surely.

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St Cyprian’s Church- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

In the parish where Constance first cemented the ideas, today the church are rightfully proud to remember their evangelist as well as their mothers. The church on this day a 100 on is a packed one, with some congregation even having to sit in the bell tower. The service led by the Rev William Thackrey and the curate Rev. David Anderson included a number of hymns ‘Our Sorry Prayers’, hymns ‘This is the day’ and ‘Tell out my soul’ and a bible reading ‘John 10 25-27’. There was a delightful touching tribute to mothers made by the children of Coddington primary school.

A notable feature was the clyping of the church. This is done in a number of churches, including some Nottinghamshire churches, although usually this is done outside, the horrendous wintry weather meant it was more sensible to clypp the inside of the church. The origins of this custom are obscure but it is associated with Mothering Sunday in Staplehurst in Kent. Some authorities have tried to link the custom to pagan origins but certainly the idea of embracing the mother church is wholly appropriate to the theme of the celebration. Whilst clyping a special hymn ‘We love the place O Lord’ was sung to recognise the importance of the church. The children in this circle then processed through the vestry and into the chancel where the vicar and curate awaited holding trays of primroses; free gifts for their mothers. With a final hymn and blessing the congregation were given a bookmark commemorating Constance Smith and Simnel cake. If you remember this was the food most synonymous with Mothering Sunday and tasty I am sure it was too – no being a mother I would not be allowed to try it.

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The Clyping of the Church Ceremony- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

Overall the ceremony was an uplifting and joyful celebration of the importance of motherhood and I am sure Constance would be very pleased, she is buried with her father in the churchyard. Sadly, though when Constance died at the age of 60 in 1938, the movement had not reached its peak and despite some parishes adopting it, it had not become nationwide. Her friend Ellen Porter, who later carried on the work of the Movement from her home in Marston Road, Nottingham, died in 1942 at the age of 74. By then Mothering Sunday was beginning to see roots, but ironically perhaps it was at this time with the flux of homesick GIs that caused the custom to be so firmly established in the public’s mind. Bringing with them Jarvis’s Mother’s Day a hybridisation was established and forever more in the UK the Mother’s Day and Mothering Sunday fusion survives. However, you celebrate make sure you remember your mum!


The Grave of Constance Penswick Smith- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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