On the Throwing of Buns

Did you go to the Platinum Jubilee Bun Throwing? I recently mentioned the throwing of buns to some friends, and they were amused, puzzled and intrigued. Throwing actual buns? From the roof? Where did that strange idea come from? In this blogpost I will try to illuminate the origins of the Bun Throwing in Abingdon, chart its history, and give you a glimpse behind the scenes on throwing day.

Catch a falling bun…Crowds watching the buns come down during the Queen’s visit to Abingdon in 1956.

The spiritual roots of the custom can probably be traced back to the more widespread custom of handing out food, either to the populace in general or the more needy parts of it, on special occasions. This would have been an act of charity, not one of fun and excitement. In Abingdon, the link between food distribution and a royal event is said to have been established at the coronation of George III. There is one record which gave rise to the claim that Abingdon’s Bun Throwing goes back to that occasion. However, the record is not of the event itself, but rather of a memory of it. On 28th October 1809, Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported on the festivities of the previous day for the jubilee of George III. Apart from a church service (with “a most impressive sermon”) and formations of cavalry and infantry firing a salute in the Market Place, “cakes and ale were distributed to the populace”. No mention of throwing yet. This was in 1809, but the paper goes on to report that “Mr Waite, one of the members of the Corporation, presented to the Mayor and company a Cake which was made and given to the populace at the King’s Coronation – probably such another curiosity does not exist. We understand it is to be presented to his Majesty at Windsor.”

We can probably infer from that, that cakes and ale were also distributed (not thrown) at the coronation festivities. This paragraph is also remarkable for the first mention of a preserved historic bun. What his Majesty made of the dried-out cake is not known.

The next coronation was that of George IV in 1821, and the Corporation of Abingdon ordered 1,000 penny cakes to be distributed on the day. Presumably something similar was done at the coronation of William IV ten years later. In 1838 we have arrived at the coronation of Queen Victoria, and here something curious has happened. The 1,000 buns make an appearance again, but this time they are “to be thrown from top of the Market House according to custom”. The Market House is another name for the County Hall. But when did the throwing of the buns become a custom? There is no mention of it in 1821, where the record simply speaks of “distribution”, and yet only 17 years later it has become a “custom”. Even if they did throw the buns for William IV, that is only a single occurrence before Victoria’s coronation, which hardly constitutes a custom. Or perhaps there were many more occasions of which we know nothing? By the time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Council Minutes have gone one better, calling the Bun Throw an “ancient custom”.

An exceptionally well-preserved bun from the Bun Throwing for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. The bulge in the centre is a crown, flanked by the letter “V R”.

All we can take from this is that the distribution of cakes and ale on royal occasions had been tradition for a long time, and that at some point someone had the bright idea of making it more fun by throwing the cakes instead of handing them out. During Victorian times his hardened into an established custom, and it remains one to this day.

So when can the people of Abingdon expect a Bun Throwing? It is not an annual occurrence. The Town Council decides whether to mark a particular occasion with buns. There is a perception that these are always royal events, and most of them are: coronations, weddings, birthdays and jubilees. However, even in the early days of the custom, there was a celebration with buns to mark the end of the Crimean War. The non-royal celebrations became more frequent in the 20th century. For example, the first anniversary of VE Day, Abingdon International Week in 1966, the twinning with Lucca in 1972 and the Millennium were all marked with a Bun Throwing.

The number of buns ordered by the Council has gone up considerably since George IV’s coronation. From 1,000 buns (or cakes) then the numbers have increased to 4,500 – 5,000 for the most recent throwing events. The buns are bought in bulk and are delivered in crates. They then have to be carried up all the stairs from the museum entrance to the roof – over 100 steps. Help has been given in the past by the Scouts or the Army. In 2011 the museum was encased in scaffolding, and the buns were winched up to the roof without having to go up the stairs.

Buns going up to the roof in 2011.

What exactly are these buns? They are currant buns, essentially hot cross buns without the cross. Most of them will be plain, but a proportion of them (around one in ten) has an appropriate decoration piped on top. For Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, for example, this was the number 60, for Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981 it was the letters C and D, and for the Queen’s Mother’s birthday it was the letter E (for Elizabeth, her first name).

Buns for the Will+Kate royal wedding – W for William and C for Catherine. These were produced at Millets Farm.

The crates are stored on the roof until the throw begins. The crowds begin to assemble in the Market Place, and people are getting themselves in position to hopefully catch a bun. A few years ago there was a sudden fashion for using upturned umbrellas to facilitate the catching. At the next Bun Throwing, signs had gone up to ban the use of umbrellas. Not so much to put a limit on people’s greed, probably, but rather out of fear that someone could be poked in the eye with a spoke.

Buns on the County Hall roof waiting for the throwing to begin

Finally the Councillors make their way in a procession from Roysse Court to the County Hall and climb up to the roof. After a few words, the Mayor kicks things off by throwing the first bun. And then it rains buns from the County Hall for a good few minutes, while the people try to catch one. They will eat their buns straight away, or perhaps they will preserve them for posterity. I have heard of varnishing buns or encasing them in hairspray to make it a lasting memento. Any buns bursting on the pavement make food for the pigeons after the crowds have dispersed.

The throwers in action. Note the gloves – when you catch a bun, you can eat it safe in the knowledge that no one has touched it with their bare hands.

As the Collections Officer of the museum, I am of course keen to obtain buns from each Bun Throwing to add to our collection of historic buns. The oldest buns in the collection now are from Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. The museum is reputed to have owned even older buns. The 1956 publication “Abingdon and Its Treasures” lists buns from the coronations of George IV, William IV and Victoria as being on display at the museum. However, there is no trace of them in the collections now. Perhaps they eventually deteriorated too much. Buns from past Bun Throwings have been donated to the museum over the years, but now I don’t rely on anyone catching a bun intact to add it to the collection – I request that a couple of the buns are kept back before they can be thrown. To preserve them I don’t rely on lacquer or varnish. This could become sticky in the long run. The best way to preserve buns is to dry them out. I usually do this by putting them into the oven on a low heat. The main concern is to prevent mould growth, and removing any moisture does just that. The drawback is that the buns became quite hard and brittle and prone to crumbling, so like other museum objects they have to be handled with care.

A few of the buns are always on display at the museum, and more come out now and then for exhibitions. I am happy to report that I did get a couple of the Platinum Jubilee Buns, and they have been preserved for posterity.

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer

Featured image: buns flying off the roof of the County Hall.

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