Cacophony: Depiction of charivari in the early 14th century.
My historical research takes me down some strange by-ways.
I was listening to a radio report on demonstrations in Istanbul where the demonstrators were tin kettling, banging pots and pans together to create noise. I had not heard that phrase for a long time!
I first came across the term reading about the history of the miners’ union in the Lower Hunter, the Northern Coal Districts. This is a long and fascinating story that has had a more significant impact on Australian history than most realize.
Coal miners were paid under a complicated system of piece rates. While earnings were better than average in good times, the work was hard, often dangerous and insecure.
Starting with Miners’ Lodges in the 1850s, a concept drawn from the English and Welsh coalfields, the miners tried to organise collectively. For their part, the proprietors also organised, creating what came to be called the Combine.
The miners’ main weapon was withdrawal of labour, strikes, while the proprietors retaliated with lock-outs and the importation of non-union labour, the scabs. The relationship was far more complex than this simple description, for unions and proprietors would also combine if anything threatened the powerful market position held by Hunter Valley coal.
Tin kettling was a powerful miner weapon in these industrial disputes. As the scabs arrived, the miners’ women and children would greet them by blocking roads and banging on pots and pans, creating a constant and often effective cacophony.
I had thought that this was the end of the story, but when I came to investigate, I found that this was not the common Australian usage for tin kettling. The dictionaries don’t mention the industrial usage. Instead, they focus on tin kettling as a custom in Australian marriages!
I shuddered a bit on this one. When I spoke to female friends, they shuddered too.
Imagine. You have just married. Tired, you come back to your new marital home for the first time after the wedding.
Unknown to you, your guests have all followed you home secretly carrying pots and pans. You are ready to go to bed and suddenly the silence is broken by banging, kettling and drumming accompanied by raucous noise! Ouch.
This is still not the end of the story. Researching, I found the practice of charivari or, in England, skimmington or rough music, a practice that spread to North America. Here performance, vulgarity and loud noise, including the banging of pots and pans, were used to embarrass wrong doers in small communities.
The next time your young child or grandchild gets the pots and pans out and starts banging them, remember they may be an extension of a long tradition!
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 June 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017, here 2018, here 2019