This is an old tradition that may have its roots in the Crusades as it involves St George’s victory over a Turkish Knight as well as a resurrection. The word ‘pace’ comes from the Latin ‘pacha’ and means Easter and the Pace Egg Play has been performed at Easter for hundreds of years.
It has always been traditional to eat boiled eggs for breakfast on Easter morning as eggs would have been one of the forbidden foods during Lent. These eggs were usually decorated, but before paints were available the eggs would have been carefully wrapped in onion skins before they were boiled and this resulted in the shells taking on the appearance of mottled gold. If these weren’t eaten they may have been given as gifts, along with money and beer, to the ‘Jolly Boys’ who came to perform the Pace Egg Play.
The gifts were collected in a basket by the character of Owd Tosspot who traditionally wore a long straw pigtail, at one time full of sharp pins to prevent anyone grabbing it. This may have been before the performance or when it had finished.
The play is performed in verse and begins with the chorus:
Here’s one two three jolly lads all in one mind
We have come a pace egging and we hope you’ll prove kind
And we hope you’ll prove kind with your eggs and strong beer
And we’ll come no more nigh you until the next year
There are many variations of the Pace Egg Play, but the traditional story is that of Saint George and his victories over a variety of other characters. In some versions he fights Bold Slasher first. These two knights fight to demonstrate their knightly skills and Slasher is killed. But then the doctor, who has travelled to the East and discovered some miraculous medicine, is called and he brings Bold Slasher back to life to fight another day. Sometimes the doctor and Old Tosspot are the same character. Then there is another fight. This one is between St George and the Turkish Knight, with a blackened face, and, of course, St George proves victorious.
The next that comes in is a bold Turkish Knight,
From a far distant country he’s come for to fight.
He’ll meet with St George and will fight with him here,
To show him a hero knows nothing to fear.
There are many versions of the play and in later years Admiral Lord Nelson became a popular character. Other traditional Lancashire characters include Old Paddy, the King of Egypt, Mally Brownbags and the devil. The one thing that is common to all the plays is the comedy and the interaction with the audience. It was something like an early version of a pantomime.
In an early script Lord Nelson is the first character to appear:
The first that comes in is Lord Nelson you see
With a bunch of blue ribbons tied down to his knee;
He’s a star on his breast which like diamonds doth shine,
And he’s come-a-pace-egging, it’s pace-egging time.
By 1842 the Pace Egg Play was being performed less often, but in recent years there has been a renewal of interest in British traditions and folk customs and some of the old plays have been brought back to life by folk groups such as the Abram Pace Eggers and the Bury Pace Eggers.