building trade

   One of those *occupations which had a rich variety of traditional customs and beliefs, but as there has been no systematic collection or study devoted to them our knowledge of them is patchy. The overriding principle for most seems to be the same the country over - at certain key points in the building the workers expected a ceremony of some sort, and money for a drink.
   What passes for building trade lore nowadays are 'official' customs such as cutting the first turf, laying a foundation stone, and topping out. The latter has been particularly popular since the 1960s, and few major construction projects are completed without a gathering of company officials, local dignitaries, and newspaper photographers on top of the new building to perform some ceremony such as laying the last brick. This custom has some roots, as there are earlier references to the workers hoisting a bush, or a flag, to the roof of a completed building.
   A personal experience recounted in 1900 details some beliefs of the time:
   My little boy of four years old was taken one day lately to see the house now in building for us in Bar-net. It had already been arranged that he should formally lay the date-stone when it was ready, but he wanted to be able to help at once, so the workmen good-naturedly let him lay a brick. As he was leaving the house afterwards, the head bricklayer called after the nurse, 'the little boy will have no luck with the stone if he don't wet the brick!'. When she told me this, I took back the child later in the day with a small coin to give to the friendly bricklayer who had superintended his work, and I found the words 'no luck' scribbled upon the brick he had laid. On our next visit to the house, we found that the words had been smudged out, but after the laying of the date-stone, which we were careful to 'butter' with a variety of coins, we noticed that even the smears were carefully washed off. In my native district (the borders of Shropshire and Staffordshire) this would have been called 'paying his foot-ale'. The builder of our house tells us that when the first chimney is finished he himself will have to give the men a pint of ale apiece, after which they will hoist a flag on the roof-tree. If they do not get the ale, they will very likely hoist a black flag, and perhaps even refuse to continue the work. (Folk-Lore 11 (1900), 457-8)
   A follow-up letter in the same journal describes a 'rearing', common in the northern counties, which was a supper given to the workmen when the roof principals of a house were fixed (Folk-Lore 12 (1901), 104).
   See also *shoes and *cats.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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