An ancient English ceremony forgotten for over a century was revived on an island in the River Thames in London in May 1923 with champion sculler Ernest Barry at the helm. But what was ‘Landing the Pie’, and who was Ernest Barry?
Landing the Pie – Origins
The ancient ceremony of Landing the Pie is said to have been founded during the reign of King Henry VIII, with the Thames Watermen taking responsibility for delivering this delectable treat. Part of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the Thames Watermen ferried passengers across London via the River Thames, which was often the fastest route in a congested and bustling city.
Legend has it that King Henry VIII took a special fancy to the pies, made from Thames-eels by ‘Mistress Mayo’, who lived on Eel Pie Island. Located in the River Thames, Twickenham, the island, according to the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette, was a familiar spot to river lovers, who have sometimes wondered at but never inquired into its peculiar name. Enjoying the pies so much, the king gave orders that the first pie of the season was to be conveyed to him at Hampton Court Palace, and this duty became the privilege of the senior waterman.18 May 1923, Fri Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette (Exeter, Devon, England) Newspapers.com
The Mistress Mayo pie-origins theory was printed in a number of newspapers and appears to have been widely accepted at the time of the revival in 1923. The Mayo family did indeed have a presence on the island, establishing a hotel. However, this was in the 19th century and not the 16th, casting doubt on the true origins of the ceremony.
Performed yearly, the custom gradually became obsolete, reportedly during the reign of King George III (1760-1820). Perhaps falling out of fashion, the pastry-based ceremony would lay dormant for over a hundred years.
The Ceremony Revived
Pie lovers rejoice. All was not lost; the smell of freshly baked eel pie would once more grace the air above London’s famous island. On Saturday, 19 May 1923, Eel Pie Island played host to the revived ceremony, performed with gusto for the first time in over one hundred years. Apparently, the discovery of records resurrected not only the old ceremony but the original recipe for Mistress Mayo’s pie.21 May 1923, Mon Manchester Evening News (Manchester, Greater Manchester, England) Newspapers.com
As per tradition, the pie for the event was an eel pie. The Observer paints a vivid picture of the ceremony: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the Court and a jester landed on the island from a motor launch. Just behind them, in another boat, rowed by Thames watermen in their scarlet livery, came the very delectable pie – a pie to satisfy a dozen good appetites, most perfectly baked, so it seemed from its rich brown crust, in a round earthenware dish.’
As senior waterman, Ernest Barry, the retired world champion sculler, was responsible for bringing the pie safely ashore, protecting it from the water (nobody wants their pie to have a soggy bottom, not least King Henry VIII). Upon landing, the waterman formed an archway of oars, and the pie was carried through ceremoniously by Ernest.
The Observer continues:
‘A procession was then formed of watermen and courtiers, and at a table spread with a green cloth on a lawn before the river the pie, amidst much merry making, was cut and eaten.’
At the revival ceremony, Queen Katherine is said to have made the first cut into the pie to serve the King. Ernest Barry was photographed placing the ‘dainty dish’ in front of actors representing King Henry VIII and the Queen. Getting into the spirit of the occasion, a large number of residents in attendance are said to have donned the costume of the period of King Henry VIII.20 May 1923, Sun Sunday Pictorial (London, London, England) Newspapers.com
After its magnificent revival, it was intended, according to the Daily Herald, that the ceremony would be kept up and performed ‘every Whitsuntide’ (the week following Whitsunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter). Curiously, we found no mention of ‘Landing the Pie’ in any newspapers after 1923. Was the ceremony suspended? Did it fall out of fashion, or was there a lack of interest? If the ceremony is ever revived and a chief pie taster is required, we’ll happily pop along from our London office, hopefully through an archway of raised oars.
Stay tuned for part II, where we meet champion sculler, Ernest Barry, the man who bore great responsibility for landing the pie in May 1923.