An explosive custom...Newark's Bombshell Sermon or Penny Loaf Day

A March custom

By R B Parish

This is one of the county’s more interesting surviving customs by virtue of its origin. Brown (1874) tells the story:                                                                                                   

A worthy resident, Hercules Clay, some time Mayor of Newark, resided in a house at the corner of the market-place not far from the Governor’s mansion. For three nights in succession he dreamt that the besiegers had set his place on fire, and he became so impressed with the circumstance that he and his family quitted their abode. They had no sooner done so than a bomb, fired from Beacon Hill, occupied by the Parliamentary forces, and believed to have been aimed at the Governor’s house, fell on the roof of Clay’s dwelling, and, passing through every floor, set the whole building in flames. The tradition is that a spy, blindfolded, and bearing a flag of truce, came from the army on the hill to the Governor’s house, and was able on his return so accurately to describe its situation as to make the shot all but successful. To commemorate his deliverance, Mr. Clay left a sum of money to be distributed in charity (it. is given away annually in penny loaves), and the memorial to him in the parish church testifies in a lengthy and curious inscription to the miraculous nature of his escape: ‘Being thus delivered by a strength greater than that of Hercules, And having been drawn out of the deep Clay, I now inhabit the stars on high.’”      

Presently the service is attended by the Mayor and other local dignities who process behind a bible, now a replica of that owned by Clay. Previously the Mayor laid a rose on the Hercules Clay plaque, but this does not appear to be undertaken now. However the bible is brought to the altar, often by one of his descendents, and a sermon is given on a suitable theme. The Charity commission record that:                            

“His will 11th December 1694 gave to the major and alderman 100l to be placed out at interest by the vicar’s consent fir his benefit, to preach a sermon on the 11 of March and also 100 l to be laid out at interest by the mayor and alderman for the benefit of the poor on the 11th March yearly.”

Early reports of the dole or sermon are scant, although by the 1800s it appears well known. Brisco (1876) notes:                                                                                                               

“Penny loaves are given to everyone who makes application. Formerly they were distributed in the Church, but afterwards at the Town Hall. The applicants are admitted at the door in single file, and in order to prevent a second application, they are locked in until the whole is distributed.”

However, reports in the Mercury for March 1828 records how much poverty there was with 3654 loaves were given out. Moreover, it also reports understandably with scorn:

“some gentlemen amused themselves by kicking the bread around in the streets...(they would)..regret the waste if in the future they are hungry” .

Certainly the size of the dole and its misuse had an effect on how it was delivered for in 1832, for the parishioners met that year to discuss the fact the dole ‘cost more than was left for that purpose’ and deemed it necessary to restrict it to 80 poor and needy families by giving 1 shilling loaves. However, this agreement did not appear to have had an impact as in 1833 it is reported:                                                                                                                                

“On Monday last, being the anniversary of the deliverance of Mr. Clay from Oliver Cromwell’s fury, a sermon was preached in the morning of Newark church and in the afternoon a penny loaf was distributed in the Town Hall to all who chose to accept it by the church warden according to the tenor of the will of Mr. Clay three thousand eight hundred and sixty four loaves were delivered.”

Sometime between 1899-1928 the giving of loaves or rolls appear to have been replaced by money or shoes in some cases but in recent years the trend has been reversed and although it is reported that members of the choir receive the loaves (in the Newark advertiser in 2008-2011 particularly), the present ceremony invites local charities to do a presentation and it is to that chosen charity that the loaves are given. In 2012 it was Newark Foyer who provide for the homeless and they took the twenty loaves and deciding to add Bacon to them would give them to anyone who came looking for help at the desks on the following Monday.


Anonymous, (2011) Clay legacy lives on Newark Advertiser 13 3 2011

Briscoe, J. H., (1876) Nottinghamshire Facts and Fictions  

Brown, C., (1874) Notes about Notts

Milliard, L., (2008) Tradition prompts thoughts of the future. Newark Advertiser 14 3 2008

Vernon, R., (1984) Newark before Victoria

Pietras, E., (2010) Service honours Hercules Clay Newark Advertiser 7 3 2010

Photo:The Procession ready to leave the Town hall with the Clay bible

The Procession ready to leave the Town hall with the Clay bible


Photo:The plaque on the site of Clay's house

The plaque on the site of Clay's house


Photo:The Clay wall monument

The Clay wall monument


Photo:The Procession of Mayor and dignities process to the church

The Procession of Mayor and dignities process to the church


Photo:The rolls of the bequest

The rolls of the bequest


Photo:The charity recipients, Newark Foyer, 2012

The charity recipients, Newark Foyer, 2012


This page was added by R B Parish on 18/02/2013.

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