Bridewell museum curator of community history Hannah Henderson with a selection of the Victorian Valentine's cards from a time when Norwich had its own tradition of St Valentines Eve. Photo: Steve Adams
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Father Christmas can stand down – in Norfolk, Jack Valentine is preparing to deliver cards and presents to loved ones in a tradition which has spanned the centuries.
Chocolates and flowers may satisfy the romantic urges of those living in other parts of the country, but in Norfolk, the desire to impress loved ones is far more heartfelt.
For centuries, the mysterious Jack Valentine or Father Valentine (and in the spirit of equal opportunities, Mother Valentine in some households) has deftly deposited love tokens on doorsteps without being spotted by the baffled gift recipients.
And for many, the ardour for a tradition that has enchanted countless Norfolk families since the 19th century shows no signs whatsoever of abating: in 2000, one cunning Cupid treated the residents of Muriel Road in Norwich to a Valentine’s Day surprise of romantically-iced biscuits left by their doors, gates and cars.
This week, there are some love-filled events taking place in Norwich which celebrate the heritage of love and the unique local traditions and folklore that have been passed down through the generations.
At the Bridewell Museum in Norwich, a special event is being held tonight to celebrate Valentine’s Eve, when Jack Valentine visited doorsteps with treats for loved ones and children.
Between 5pm and 8pm the museum will open its doors for a special evening of celebration – visitors can hear about the elusive Jack Valentine from a costumed storyteller, see a selection of love tokens from the Norwich Castle collections, talk to curators and museum staff about personal family traditions and join in a love quiz.
Every visitor will receive a drink on arrival and for the children, in true Norfolk Jack Valentine-style, small gifts will be left at the door by a shadowy figure who disappears before their discovery.
Hannah Henderson, curator of community history at Bridewell Museum, said: “This whole theme of Valentine’s Eve and Jack Valentine has been so enjoyable to work on.
“Everyone involved has already learnt so much about both of these unique Norfolk traditions and it’s great to bring these unusual stories into the present day to share with a wider audience – we want to bring back Jack!
“We know for a fact, through various channels, that there are many people in Norfolk who still follow them and have been really delighted by the response from local people who have been in touch.
“We really want to hear people’s own stories about Jack. I hope some of them make it to the museum tonight, especially some ‘singles’. It would be wonderful for a couple to meet on this evening in the museum!
“But what would very much make it for me is for someone romantic enough to come along on the evening and make a proposal. That would be the icing on the cake – have I now set a challenge?”
At the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library there will be an exhibition until February 24 which showcases photographs, letters and other documents from the archives which relate to wartime romances between Norfolk residents and American Air Force personnel.
The library also hopes that its call to wartime sweethearts and GI brides will see many pop along between 1pm and 3pm to share their romantic memories and help the library to create a ‘Wartime Sweethearts and GI Brides’ booklet.
And if your appetite for romance is whetted, there’s a special talk at the Millennium Library on February 22 at 2pm about Jack Valentine and other tales of Jack the Wise Fool from the Yarnsmith of Norwich. Admission is free.
In Victorian times, Norfolk lovers went to extraordinary lengths to anonymously leave parcels for their sweethearts on the evening of February 13 or on February 14 itself. Often, more money was spent on Valentine’s Day presents than at Christmas.
Lovestruck Romeos or Juliets would buy love tokens and cards, knock on the door of the object of their affection and run away before they were seen.
Later, the tradition spread to parents, who would devise ever-more cunning ways of knocking on front or back doors, leaving small gifts and then disappearing before inquisitive little eyes could spot them (I once had to hide behind a wheelie bin in order to pull off this particular trick. The things we do for love).
In a BBC4 documentary called Hop, Skip and Jump: The Story of Children’s Play, Edmund Mitchell, then 93, remembered Valentine’s Day in Norfolk being more exciting than Christmas Day.
“We’d go to where the posh people lived and would sing: ‘Old Mother Valentine, draw up your window blind, you be the give, I’ll be the taker’,” he said.
“We’d jazz it up, going quicker and quicker. Then they would heat up ha’pennies on a shovel over the fire and throw them in the road and us kids would scrabble for them. Because they were hot we dropped them, which caused a laugh.”
Similarly, there are stories of a somewhat less benevolent Valentine’s Day sprite causing havoc on February 14 rather than spreading love.
In some accounts of unusual occurrences in the county on Valentine’s Day, Snatch Valentine makes an appearance – equally as anonymous as Jack Valentine, but with the charm of a Roald Dahl villain rather than a lovestruck gift-giver.
Rather than opening the door after a disembodied knock and finding parcels packed with sweets, children would discover their presents would disappear the moment they reached to pick them up.
Attached to a piece of string, the presents would leap about, evading the grasp of a desperate child.
When the youngster finally managed to grab the gift they’d find it was an empty box or a succession of empty boxes. Thankfully, Snatch appears to have given way to Jack, a far more romantic figure.
And although the history of Jack Valentine and the origin of the tradition is still unknown, it’s clear that his visits are still very much part of Norfolk life and a tradition which many are keen to continue for many years to come.
The Bridewell Museum is on Bridewell Alley in Norwich. Tonight’s celebrations are from 5pm until 8pm. Admis-sion to the special evening is free with museum admission: £4.40 for adults, £3.20 for young adults (aged 17 to 25) and £2.70 for children aged four to 16.