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ONE OF BRITAIN'S ancient and curious country customs takes place each year to secure the rental of the White Bread Meadow, a small field of just over one acre 1½ miles north of the town. Ever since the mid-18th century, the lease of this pasture has been auctioned annually during a 200-yard race between two schoolboys and always held on the Monday before Easter beside the Queen’s Bridge at the end of Eastgate.
A bequest in 1742 by William Clay, a gentleman of Bourne, gave two pieces of land, the rent of which was to be distributed each year in the form of white bread among the householders and commoners in the Eastgate Ward. The land was called the Constable’s Half-Acre and the Dike Reeve’s Half-Acre but when the Enclosure Award was made in 1770, the original land mentioned in the bequest was incorporated in the new field system so in lieu of the two original half-acres of land there was allotted just over one acre of land in Bourne Meadows as the basis for the charity and it is this land that is still let annually under the terms of the will. The conditions of letting were that two good loads of manure be put on the land, the fence to be kept in proper repair and that the bush in the middle of the field should not be cut or damaged, by animals or weather, and although it has been blown down by the wind on two occasions, it has always been replaced.
Clay also stipulated in the terms of the letting the bizarre manner in which the new tenant should be chosen and the annual race continues to be held in the traditional form as in previous years. When the auction begins for the grazing rights, the boys do not start running until the auctioneer thinks that a final bid may have been made and if by the time they have returned no further bid has been received, then the hammer falls. If a further bid has been received by the time they return, then the auctioneer usually asks them to run again until such time as no further bid is received and so the successful bidder becomes the tenant of the land for the following year. The rent money now goes to one or more of various local charities but in 1968, one of the last times that white bread was actually bought and distributed, between 300 and 400 loaves were handed out from the proceeds of the charity which then amounted to £13.
After the annual ceremony, the boys who ran the race received one shilling each from the auctioneers and then everyone attended a feast of bread, cheese, spring onions and beer at the Butcher’s Arms public house. In 1941, no cheese was available owing to wartime rationing and in May that year, a German bomber crashed on the Butcher’s Arms and destroyed the usual convivial venue and meetings are now held at the Anchor in Eastgate. The event today is also merely a token of what was intended and girls often taken part in the race because no boys are available although the auction is still very real and its result is legally binding.
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