© JOHN TAYLOR

History of the Fenny Poppers
This painting, by Frank Duffiled, is a copy of a sketch made of St Martin's Church
and the surrounding neighbourhood in 1819. Frank and his brother Alf were well-known
shopkeepers in the town whose premises were opposite St Martin's. Courtesy of Mr R. Dogget
St Martin's Church was named in honour of the
anatomist Thomas Willis, who died on St Martin's Day

With the second Fenny Poppers Festival due to be held in August, it seems a new local tradition is being set. Local historian John Taylor investigates the older tradition of the Fenny Poppers, after which it is named.
"The whole of the work being happily finished", on May 26 1730 the Lord Bishop of Lincoln, Richard Reynolds, came to Fenny Stratford to consecrate the new church of St Martin's. This had been founded by Browne Willis, the lord of the manor, and the dedication honoured the memory of his grandfather, Thomas Willis, who had died on St Martin's Day in 1675.

Thomas, in the wake of the self-imposed financial worries of the second Duke of Buckingham, had purchased the estates of Water Eaton with Bletchley and Fenny Stratford in 1674. By also acquiring that of West Bletchley, he would reunite the local manors.

A student of Oxford University, Thomas had fought for the King in the defence of that city during the Civil War, and becoming medically qualified as 'MB' in 1646, this would be the year in which the first of his books was published, at The Hague. Perhaps amongst the more perceptive of his works was to be 'Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes which is that of the Vital and Sensitive of Man', one of the subjects of which was 'melancholy', to which the male was particularly susceptible, one cause being falling in love.

At the Restoration, when - following the austerities of the Puritan age - Charles II came to the throne, Thomas was made Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford University. And in London during 1664 he published - with many of the excellent illustrations having been drawn by Christopher Wren - a major work which, even in recent years, has been acclaimed as 'the most exact account of the time. It is the basis of our modern knowledge of the subject and the anastomosis between the left and right internal and external carotid arteries at the base of the brain is known as the Circle of Willis to this day.*

In Oxford, Thomas had been involved with the meetings that led to the formation of the Royal Society, but in 1666 he went to London, where he set up in practice in St Martins Lane. It would be on St Martin's Day, (November 11), that he died from pneumonia in 1675, leaving two daughters and a namesake son, by whom much of the enclosed lands at Fenny Stratford would be leased to the inhabitants.

Apart from the dedication of the church, in order to further perpetuate the memory of his grandfather, Browne Willis, on July 4 1730, settled a rent charge of £1 on Dr Martin Benson, the Rector of Bletchley, and also on the Churchwarden of Fenny Stratford, and the Overseer of the Poor of Fenny Stratford. This would be annually raised out of a close of land in Bletchley called Parsons Piece, and the three Trustees were tasked to pay the curate of Fenny Stratford to preach a sermon on St Martin's Day. Then on 11 February 1736 the curacy was endowed with a small farm at Bletchley, (which included Parsons Piece), and by this arrangement an income of £18 a year was now provided.

However, in January 1740, Browne Willis acquired a thatched house and grounds 'fronting the common street of Fenny Stratford', and for this he paid £33 to Mary Gibbs and her eldest son.

Thomas Gibbs, had originally acquired possession of the property from her brother, Matthew Cherry, on 20 July 1716, but the premises later became an alehouse known as The Crispin.

At the time of his purchase, the premises were in such a poor condition that, in order to render them habitable, Browne Willis had the front wall rebuilt, (duly recording this expenditure on the deed of conveyance), and as the means to both fund a sermon on St Martin's Day, 'and to buy small divinity tracts to give to poor persons yearly', he then gave the property to the town.

With the dwelling being bounded on the north by the premises of Benjamin Pomfret, on the south by Richard Stapp and on the west by John Page, at a rent of 3d per annum, the house was at that time occupied by Mary Lovell, a widow, but by 1839 the property - which as 25 and 27 Aylesbury Street would be known as St Martin's Cottages - had been divided into two dwellings, let at 1s a week to Richard Baseley and Conyers Burton.

In case of the latter was perhaps not without a certain irony, since he may well have been the same person who, before the building of a small church in 1805, had allowed those inhabitants inclined towards the Baptist faith to use his bouse as meeting place.

By the later 19th century, the two cottages were producing a revenue of between £8 and £10, and from this sum payment was made for a dinner, with the vicar paid £1 Is for preaching a sermon. Other sums were spent on the mundane matters of tax, rates, upkeep and insurance, but for a ceremony to commemorate Thomas Willis the sums of 2s for bell ringing, 6s on gunpowder, and 2s for firing the 'poppers' were also expended. The poppers were cast-iron vessels in which gunpowder was packed and then ignited, although it seems somewhat obscure as to whether the instigation had been by Browne Willis, since no specific mention occurs until the 1830s.

In the later 19th century, the churchwardens received a proposal from the Charity Commissioners 'for the appropriating of the charities of the town, and more especially the St Martin's or Browne Willis charity for educational purposes', but since only one churchwarden recommended acceptance, the general opinion was it 'is not desirable in as much as the said charities have been carried out strictly according to the will of the donors'.

The intention of the charity, therefore, remained intact, although this could not be said of the fabric of the cottages, which had become so dilapidated that on May 12 1914 the council, under the 1909 Housing Act, placed a closing order on the premises, 'as being dangerous and unfit for habitation'. Indeed, by November the situation had become so severe that they gave notice to consider demolition, and on Tuesday January 12 of the following year the order was duly sealed, at 8pm.

In consequence, the property would be acquired by a local building firm and, with the site having been cleared, the area was purchased by the firm of Manyweathers. As wheelwrights, following the outbreak of World War I, they would produce many gun carriages for the army, and it was also due to the war and the consequent national financial situation that £60 from the sale of the site was invested in Canadian Bonds. During World War I, in the search for dollars, the Government took over the Canadian Bonds and, with these eventually being replaced with other securities, in 1950 £2 5s 8d was being raised in interest.

As for the poppers, for many years the gunpowder was supplied by Pacey's, the ironmongers in Aylesbury Street, but in 1867, when fired in a field called Bull Close, at the back of Aylesbury Street, one of the poppers exploded, and a fragment partially demolished the roof of the Bull and Butcher. As a result, one of the remaining poppers was then sent as a pattern to Barwell and Co at the Eagle Foundry, Northampton, with a new set duly forged and bored out.

By tradition, the poppers are fired on 11 November, as per the original intent, but on occasion they have also been fired on other dates. These included the Coronation of King George V, when Dr Charles John Deyns, the chairman of the newly created council, was afforded the honour of firing the 21 'gun' salute.

In 1905 the then vicar of St Martin's decided that the poppers were unsafe. He had them replaced by two small cannons but the loudness of the cannons caused several local inhabitants to complain. The following year, the poppers made a triumphant return!

As for the cannons, they were eventually purchased by the Surveyor to the Council, Major Chadwick, and for many years would adorn either side of the front door of his house. Then at the sale of the late Mrs Chadwick's effects they were purchased in March 1951 for £2 by Captain Hubert Faulkner, who placed them in the garden of his home at Staple Hall Lodge.

During World War II, Captain Faulkner had been much involved in constructing extra buildings for the code breakers at Bletchley Park, and due to the outbreak of war because of the regulations regarding noise in wartime the ceremony of firing the poppers ceased in 1939. Nevertheless, the St Martin's dinner still went ahead at the Vicarage, attended by the wardens and secretary of the Parochial Church Council.

After an absence of seven years, following the end of the war the poppers made a welcome return, with the first being exploded at exactly midday by the vicar, the Reverend Wheeler before a crowd of 'youthful and excited' sightseers. A 6ft-long red-hot poker, rushed out by Mr Frank Duffield from a furnace at the rear of the church, was used for the firing, but after the first explosion Mr Pacey had to add additional powder to the following five, before they could be ignited. A London film cameraman and photographer were present to record the ceremony, and after repeat firings at 2pm and 4pm about 70 people attended the associated cold spread, prepared by the ladies of the church.

From then on, the ceremony once again became well-established, but as an effect of the blasts in 1949 a piece of the glass face of the church clock was blown out - rather unfortunate since in front of the tower was a board recording the amount so far collected towards the church restoration!

Not surprisingly, the next ceremony was transferred to the Watling Street entrance of Manor Fields, but this location attracted so little public interest that the event was moved to Leon recreation ground. Here much greater attention was aroused, and in 1953 the poppers were recorded by the BBC for their feature, England in November, scheduled for transmission at 10.15pm on November 25.