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Mancunians keep Whit Walks going

02 May 2014

WHEN Canon Jim Burns became engaged to his wife, Iris, her mother produced a photo of her, aged six, carefully holding on to a ribbon as she walked with her Sunday school through Beswick, East Manchester. Canon Burns's mother produced the same photo, and pointed out that her eight-year-old son was standing next to his future wife.

Sixty years later, the photo features in a book produced by Canon Burns commemorating Whit Walks - the tradition to which that 1953 Beswick procession belongs.

"Whit Walks in Manchester got a lot of happiness to people who had very hard lives in industrial Manchester," he said this month. "It was a festival for people away from the monotony of working life and a big witness to the Sunday-school movement."

The first Whit Walk took place in Manchester in 1801, a year after the C of E formed a committee for the development of Sunday schools.

"A six-day working week left children free on Sundays, but many fell into the temptations of gang membership, alcohol, cock-fighting and attendance at the races," writes Canon Burns in the introduction to The History and Memories of the Whit Walks (Countyvise).

"In response, one of the first resolutions of the Manchester Church of England Sunday School Committee was: 'That the children of the Sunday Schools be called together in Whitsun Week yearly to hear Divine Service.'" A dispute between St Ann's, Manchester, and the Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral) was solved by compromise: the children would walk between the two, led by a military band.

The Whit Monday procession (above and below, from the book) became a tradition in Manchester and surrounding towns and villages, as part of a week of festivities.

"In the 1920s to the 1950s, Whitsun was as exciting as Christmas," Canon Burns said. "Children were given new clothes and went round showing them to family and neighbours. The rest of the week was a festival week. Sunday schools organised excursions to the countryside and seaside, in the days when kids in industrial Manchester never had a holiday. . .

"It was never a solemn religious procession, but a joyful, colourful one, rather like ones on the Continent. Bands played popular, lively music, as well as hymns, and churches carried floral banners with religious texts on them. The crowds watching were ten to 12 deep."

Whit Walks continue today. Canon Burns, who was a parish priest in the diocese of Blackburn, reports that 1800 people took part in a walk held on Whit Sunday afternoon in Manchester last year - the same number that as part in 1801. He believes that it is an important tradition that should be kept alive.

Marching on. Padiham, in Lancashire, is one of the towns that continues the Whit Walks tradition. But this year, Lancashire Constabulary has said that it will not fund the policing of the event.

The Vicar of Padiham, the Revd Mark Jones, said this month that a traffic-management company had quoted a charge of £2000.

"It's a coming together of people locally, and sometimes people come back from other parts of the country for that Sunday," he said. "We have banners, like trade unions; so if there's a bit of wind people enjoy that. . . People just see it as part of Padiham's history. We would be sorry to see it go."

The Assistant Chief Constable of Lancashire Constabulary, Mark Bates, said: "Our local policing teams are part of the community and will very rightly play a key role in ensuring these events run smoothly."

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