Tar Barrels – A living tradition

The famous Tar Barrels procession at Allendale in Northumberland may seem to visitors just a quirky way to mark the arrival of the New Year, but to the residents of Allendale it is much more. It is part of the fabric of the town involving every local family.

The origins of the Tar Barrels are the subject of hot debate and varied interpretations. What is known is that from around the middle of the 1800s, when lead mining thrived and metalled roads began to snake their way up to the more remote parts of the North Pennines, empty barrels of the tar used for surfacing were often ‘lost’, reappearing on new year’s eve balanced on the heads of the town’s menfolk to light their midnight procession.

At one time, according to Dorothy Collier, a member of the Allen Valleys Local History Group, “You never left your rain barrels out from November onwards – they had a habit of disappearing.”To be allowed the honour of carrying a barrel, the men (only one woman ever carried a barrel – more of her later) had to be born in the town or, more recently, belong to a local family. Those who carry the barrels make up the committee which meets twice yearly to plan the annual event and each pays a subscription which goes towards the purchase of barrels.

These days the barrels are more likely to come from breweries, distilleries or jam manufacturers but they all undergo the same process: they are cut into thirds, the middle section being chopped into kindling which provides the fuel for the two ends.

Perhaps it’s just as well that the old pitch barrels are not available any more as the heat of the flames caused the residue to melt and run down the heads of the men carrying the barrels. “My dad used to put cloth underneath the barrel to stop the tar running onto his neck,” says Dorothy.

Malcolm Whitfield, another history group member recalls turning his cap back to front to protect his neck from the hot tar. Amazingly, there are no reports of any serious injury, though any man who dropped his barrel had to account for himself at the February committee meeting and was barred from taking part the following year.

Both Dorothy and Malcolm have lifelong memories of the processions. “Christmas was just something you got through on the way to the Tar Barrels,” says Dorothy. “It was all about New Year in Allendale.”

Each remembers with special fondness the few occasions that the townsfolk were snowed in. “I was allowed to go to my first Tar Barrels when I was about five on New Year’s Eve 1962/63 because we were cut off, so there were only the local families there to celebrate.”

Malcolm remembers stories of men who lived away from the village walking up from nearby Langley through snow drifts to make sure they were back in time for the procession. “There was one field above Langley where the snow didn’t drift, if you could find your way to it you could cross through the fields avoiding the roads which were 6ft -10ft deep in snow. No one wanted to miss it.”

So strong is the tradition that Malcolm recalls stories of Dorothy’s grandfather, Lance Bell, carrying an unlit barrel through the blackout during the years of the Second World War to ensure that no New Year would go unmarked, despite the absence of the town’s menfolk.

Maurice Reed and Clifford Fairlamb. (www.allenvalleyslocalhistory.org.uk)

A big part of the event is the ‘guising’ – dressing in the costumes the men wear as they process. Many of these have been in families for generations and both Dorothy and Malcolm remember Vesta Peart, a local woman who in the 1950s and 60s used to make the costumes.

“She often used curtain material and so some of the costumes, especially those made from velvet, were very heavy,” remembers Malcolm. Some were very elaborate, embellished with sequins and other decorations. As a result of her hard work it was Vesta who was given the honour of carrying a barrel, something not extended to another woman before or since.

Music is another part of the tradition which brings the community together. Most of the stories of the origins of the procession include carol singers and musicians, notably brass or silver bands, and it was the townspeople who provided the music as they do to this day.

Another fixture is the route of the procession, which begins at 11.45pm in the market square in the centre of the town next to St Cuthbert’s church, and follows the musicians up to the Wesleyan chapel at one end, down to the Primitive Methodist chapel (now the town’s library) at the other and back to the centre of the town.

It all takes around 15 minutes, arriving back at midnight where, to the accompanying peal of the church bells, the flaming contents of the barrels (and sometimes the barrels too) are thrown onto a huge bonfire in the town square.
Of course once the formalities are completed, the townsfolk get down to the serious business of first-footing, toasting each other with good wishes for the coming year. Malcolm remarks wryly, “In days gone by it has been known for first-footing to last for days before forlorn revellers and guisers returned home to suffer the wrath of their loved ones.”

And to show that the Tar Barrels are never far from the minds of the townsfolk, Malcolm and Dorothy recall John Milburn, a local man who used to sell raffle tickets throughout the year to raise funds for that year’s barrels. “He used to walk in front of visitors’ cars waving books of tickets until they gave in and bought some. One year he sold 600!”


If you are interested in learning more about the fascinating history of the Allen Valleys, why not visit Allen Valleys Local History Group’s  website