The heartbreak of losing sons at sea

My great-grandparents, who farmed at Hescwm, Dinas, had ten children – one every two years from 1867 to 1885 – as recorded on the first page of this family bible. Also recorded, at the bottom of the page are the dates of the children who pre-deceased them. David, their first-born, died at sea at the age of 25.

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The story of London’s oldest buns, as originally told here by the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life, is a poignant commentary on the anguish of many local families who lost their fathers and sons at sea.

Widow's SonA net of Hot Cross Buns hangs above the bar at The Widow’s Son in Bromley by Bow and each year a sailor comes to add another bun to the collection. Yet no Hot Cross Buns are eaten in the ceremony, they are purely for symbolic purposes – left to dry out and gather dust and hang in the net for eternity, London’s oldest buns exist as metaphors to represent the passing years and talismans to bring good luck but, more than this, they tell a story.

On Good Friday, what could be more appropriate to the equivocal nature of the day than an event which involves both celebration of Hot Cross Buns and the remembrance of the departed in a single custom – such is the ceremony of the Widow’s Buns at Bow.

The Widow’s Son was built in 1848 upon the former site of an old widow’s cottage, so the tale goes. When her only son left to be a sailor, she promised to bake him a Hot Cross Bun and keep it for his return. But although he drowned at sea, the widow refused to give up hope, preserving the bun upon his return and making a fresh one each year to add to the collection. This annual tradition has been continued in the pub as a remembrance of the widow and her son, and of the bond between all those on land and sea, with sailors of the Royal Navy coming to place the bun in the net every year.

Behind this custom lies the belief that Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday will never decay, reflected in the tradition of nailing a Hot Cross Bun to the wall so that the cross may bring good luck to the household – though what appeals to me about the story of the widow is the notion of baking as an act of faith, incarnating a mother’s hope that her son lives. I interpret the widow’s persistence in making the bun each year as a beautiful gesture, not of self-deception but of longing for wish-fulfilment, manifesting her love for her son. So I especially like the clever image upon the inn sign outside the Widow’s Son, illustrating an apocryphal scene in the story when the son returns from the sea many years later to discover a huge net of buns hanging behind the door, demonstrating that his mother always expected him back.

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About bookvolunteer

I'm passionate about books, about Oxfam and about making the world a better place. When I'm not filling the shelves in Oxfam Wilmslow, I might be found reading the books I've bought in the beautiful surroundings of North Pembrokeshire.
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