“But what”, I hear you murmuring, “is a Whiffler?” Today the only Whiffler left in Norwich is the pub on the Ring Road at Hellesdon, but that is named after the Whiffers who were a major part of the mayor-making ceremony until the 19th century. The job of Whifflers was originally to go in front of an important procession to clear onlookers from its path. From being mere functionaries, Whifflers became a principal attraction of the spectacle.
WHIFFLER is not an East Anglian word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word originated from the Old English word wifle meaning a spear. The word may have been once in general use, but the Norwich Whifflers were the last to play a major role in civic ceremonies. The Rev. Robert Forby included the word in his Vocabulary of East Anglia (published 1830), which suggests that by the early nineteenth century it had died out of use in the rest England. It was an East Anglian survival.
In Shakespeare’s time the word was well known across the country. The Bard referred to a Whiffler in the play Henry V; in this case the Whiffler preceded the king as he went on his Royal Progress. The deep-mouth’d Sea, / Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King, / Seems to prepare his way.
George Borrow, writing in 1857 in his book The Romany Rye lamented their passing in the following words: The last of the whifflers hanged himself about a fortnight ago … from pure grief that there was no further demand for the exhibition of his art…since the discontinuance of Guildhall banquets.
In Norwich I imagine that London Street was the principal route taken by the Whiffers, leading as it does from the Cathedral to the Guildhall, where the mayor’s banquet was traditionally held. In the elaborate twirling and throwing of their swords the Whifflers resembled the action of the drum major as he manipulated the mace at the head of his band. The two practices seem to have no close relationship, although both bands and Whiffers would appear in the same procession. With the changing face of the nineteenth century the need for Whifflers vanished and the name too became an echo of the past.
We are fortunate that Whiffler lasted into the age of photography, so we may see the dainty costume that they wore. They had breeches and white socks tied with fancy garters. The bowler hat must have been a very recent addition when the picture was taken, but the cockade to the left hand side was probably much older. The whole uniform was completed by a white jacket. The effect of the Whiffler must have been quite a sight, as he jumped up while spinning round, and then brought down the flat of his sword on the back of some unwary member of the public.
Whifflers, who paraded before the Mayor of Norwich on Guild Day, were brought to an end by the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835. The feasting and revelry that had accompanied the annual installation of the City Mayor was stopped by this Act of Parliament. At the same time other age-old customs of Guild Day were abandoned, like that of Orator, a boy from the Norwich Grammar School who addressed the new Mayor in Latin, or Snap the Dragon, who walked through the streets in the procession, seizing boys’ caps in his iron jaws. A collecting box always joined Snap on his perambulations, so it was not merely fun. Other time honoured characters like Dick Fool had already passed into history by the end.
In a blend of ancient and modern there was one final outing of the Whifflers in 1846. During the mayoralty of Jeremiah Colman, the mustard manufacturer, the Whifflers met a royal Duke off the train at Trowse Station. The railway to London had opened only the previous year, so this part was bag up-to-date. The ancient Whiffers led the Duke in procession up Bracondale Hill into the city. There were two Whifflers who took it in turns to run ahead of the procession, whooping, leaping and twirling their two handed swords. It must have been on this occasion that a Whiffler was photographed. A group of Morris Dancers called the Norwich Whifflers attempt to recreate the lost art of Whiffling.