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What is the New Year Derbyshire tradition of first footing?

The Coalite Millennium First Foot Pack Photo: Richard Bradley
The Coalite Millennium First Foot Pack Photo: Richard Bradley

One bonus of writing on local folklore for Derbyshire Life is that it takes me all over the county to document these strange annual events.

This month’s tradition is different, as it occurs in private houses during the first minutes of New Year, to ensure prosperity for the household for the year ahead.

My interest in folklore is not passed down from my parents, however one tradition my dad Keith insists on performing on the stroke of midnight at New Year’s is to place a lump of coal on the fireplace, reciting ‘Old year out, new year in’ – continuing an observance which used to take place in the house he grew up in.

The tradition has evolved in our household over the years. The house where I first lived, in a remote Derbyshire hamlet off the energy grid, originally had a coal fire.

Great British Life: Richard performs First Footing duties at his parents' house, NYE 2019 Photo: Richard BradleyRichard performs First Footing duties at his parents' house, NYE 2019 Photo: Richard Bradley

Within a few years my parents had upgraded to a three-bar electric fire with ersatz moulded logs and an orange lightbulb and rotating disc inside which gave a not-altogether-convincing simulating of a flickering flame.

For New Year’s Eve my dad would drag this to one side and put the coal in the original grate behind it.

In 1992 my parents moved to Two Dales, which has a gas fire with an imitation coal fire look, with pieces of flame-retardant polystyrene ‘coal’, one of which my dad removes, takes outside, places on a shovel and puts back on the fire at midnight.

The fact there is mining in our family blood feels integral to his upholding of this ritual - both my parents’ dads worked in the mining industry, at the Coalite smokeless fuels plant in Bolsover and Glapwell Colliery.

Great British Life: The influence of Derbyshire's coal mining heritage, such as Glapwell Colliery, lives on Photo: Andrew Hill, FlickrThe influence of Derbyshire's coal mining heritage, such as Glapwell Colliery, lives on Photo: Andrew Hill, Flickr

One name for this custom is First Footing, but my dad, who grew up in the mining village of Doe Lea, calls it ‘Letting the New Year in’.

He told me, ‘In the early 1950s Doe Lea had rows and rows of terraced houses; I remember men on their way back from the pub just after midnight knocking on doors asking “Can I let your New Year in?”, hoping for perhaps half a crown for doing it’.

His memories reflect the belief the person letting the New Year in is a gendered role. To secure good fortune, tradition dictates they should be male - ideally tall and dark-haired.

He remembers one year my grandad Joe was unavailable to perform the First Footing as usual; not long afterwards my grandma was involved in a minor car crash, remarking superstitiously, ‘this is because Joe didn’t let the New Year in’.

This got me wondering how widely the superstitious tradition is still practiced locally. Derbyshire has a long and proud mining heritage, but the county’s final working pit, Markham Colliery, ceased operations in 1993.

With each passing year there will be an inevitably dwindling number of Derbyshire folk who were employed in this once thriving local industry.

Given I couldn’t employ my usual tactic of observing and photographing this custom, a different strategy was required. Over the New Year period of 2020, I posted on local history Facebook groups with strong links to former mining communities, asking if there were others who maintained a similar tradition.

The responses were both great in volume and fascinating in content, revealing a thriving but largely private tradition lives on, a generation after the disappearance of the industry which provided the necessary raw materials.

‘I still use the same piece of coal - I put it on the windowsill before midnight,’ Kath White told me. ‘I picked the piece of coal up near Arkwright pit in my early teens and am now in my early 80s’.

Another who had upheld the custom for many years was Carolyn Hollinshead’s father, who lived in Chesterfield. ‘My dad, now 96, has done this every year of his married life,’ she told me. ‘He always recites a little rhyme when he comes back inside. It was always a special tradition for the family’.

For Deborah White, the coal used in her household had a sense of emotional resonance, and First Footing was a heartwarming link to members of her Chesterfield-based family no longer around.

‘I still have a piece of coal my nana gave me and she passed away in 1991,’ she recalled. ‘I put the coal out New Year’s Eve with a silver coin underneath and each family member hide theirs. On the New Year the first one knocking at the door says, “Old year out, new year in, open the door and let me in”. It is something I will always do. I think of my grandparents and each of the special traditions they each brought to our family. Even now I love to sit and listen to my own parents, who carry on the coal tradition and fondly reminisce about years gone by’.

Kim Twigden remembered that growing up in the Chesterfield suburb Calow, ‘My mum always did this, if I'd been out she wouldn't let me in until dad had been in with the coal. All men on the street would be outside waiting to go in if they had dark hair’.

Lynne Ward, whose dad was a Chesterfield miner, recalled, ‘My parents used to keep the fire going till midnight when someone would bring a shovel of coal and throw it on the fire… I think the said person used to put coal dust on their face - depicting coal miners’.

This intriguing detail was echoed by Ian F. Hadley, who grew up in a former colliery village near Alfreton: ‘It was a custom I remember still happening in the ‘70s and ‘80s... known as ‘letting’ or ‘bringing’ ‘the New Year in’ (Never known it as ‘First Footing’). Similar in a way to carol singing, young men would go door to door on New Year’s Eve, their faces blackened with coal dust, offering to let the new year in by placing a lump of coal on the fire, in return for a few coins’.

In other Derbyshire households, the properties were more elaborate than a lump of coal.

Kay Austin responded, ‘We used to put a sixpence, piece of coal and piece of bread in a milk bottle and put it on the doorstep. A male neighbour would bring it in the house after midnight with the words “Old year out, new year in, open the door and let me in”. The coal represented warmth, the bread, food, and the tanner, money, as a good omen for coming year’.

Sue Harris was another who let the New Year in with a homemade kit comprising similar elements, following the tradition of the previous two generations of her Chesterfield family.

‘On New Year's Eve I always put out my “Welcome” Box, consisting of a piece of coal, so you always have warmth; a piece of cloth, so you always have clothes on your back; a piece of bread, so you always have food to eat; and a coin, so you always have money in your purse. I carry on this tradition as my mother and grandmother always did’ (a notable deviation from the usual practice of it having to be a male household member or visitor performing the act).

Sue added, ‘I always bring the box in, as I live alone. I then go to the front door and say, “Old year out, new year in”’.

Great British Life: Coalite was a major and well-known brand back in the day Photo: Leonard Bentley, FlickrCoalite was a major and well-known brand back in the day Photo: Leonard Bentley, Flickr

This concept was capitalised on by Coalite, who produced a promotional Millennium First Foot Pack to mark the year 2000.

I was kindly sent an example by Zoe Jackson. It formerly belonged to her late father, Paul Jackson, who was an avid collector and researcher of industrial history.

Zoe remembered growing up being taken on some unusual day trips – to coal mines, coke works and the like – as a result of her dad’s interests.

The kit originally contained a bottle of whisky, a sachet of salt, a piece of ‘real British coal’ and a silver coin – although the salt and coin from this pack have gone awry somewhere along the line.

Echoing my grandma’s belief that a poorly-conducted ritual resulted in bad luck in the forthcoming year, John Cuttriss observed, ‘I have heard people exclaim to friends when they have had a mishap say “who let your New Year in then”’.

The most amusing response came from Matlock’s Irene Yarnell, off the back of my letter on the subject in the Matlock Mercury.

‘I have to admit that, without fail, I know I shall be rooted to the spot standing by my window waiting for a male (cannot be female) to walk past my house on 1st January’, wrote Irene. ‘I had put the piece of silver, ready to hand to whoever it was, on my stairs days before, not having any coal available.

‘I will not allow my husband to go out the house until the ritual is performed and I know I shall have a long wait as nobody is about early on New Year's Day.

‘This year - but only after a long wait - I was fortunate to bang on the window and this dazed-looking jogger came across and I was so thankful when he set foot into our house. (I get on my husband's nerves about this every single year)’.

I asked what the jogger’s reaction was to becoming unwittingly embroiled in Irene’s household ritual; she replied: ‘I have not seen him before or since. To say he was surprised is no exaggeration, he had no idea what I was talking about!’

Unlike many of Derbyshire’s towns and villages, Matlock does not have coal mining heritage. However, a clue to Irene’s zealous upholding of this tradition comes from her family tree.

‘My dad came from Scotland and I was always told we must never let our own New Year in,’ she concludes.

‘In days gone by we went to Matlock Golf Club. It was easy then as I could rope one of the golfers into coming back with us, but those days are gone and I know full well I shall not be able to settle until the deed is done’.

First Footing is more widely known in Scotland. The Scots really go to town on New Year’s Eve, or Hogmanay, with house visiting and First Footing an integral part of the festivities.

Echoing Coalite’s marketing ploy, in 2022 Scottish branches of the supermarket chain Lidl offered free lumps of coal to customers in a bid to keep the tradition going.

First Footing is also widespread in Northumberland. Several respondents who had a tradition of First Footing in their Derbyshire households told me they had Scots or Geordie parents, which suggests the practice could have been introduced to the area when people working in the mining industry moved around for work.

If you want to perform First Footing to ensure 2024 is prosperous for you, you may hit a legal snag – the government passed a law on May 1 2023 banning the sale of bituminous coal (or ‘house coal’) in a bid to improve air quality.

However, you can still buy chemically treated smokeless coal, including Coalite – despite going into administration in 2004 and the closure of the Bolsover works, the brand name was purchased by the Wales-based Maxibrite, who still keep the Coalite flame alight.



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