Jack and Snatch: Passion and Pranks in Norwich

by | Feb 3, 2023

Valentine’s Day (originally, The Feast of St Valentine) was established as a Christian holiday as far back as 496AD and has been celebrated here in England since (minus around 120 years during the reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries). But here in Norfolk (especially in Norwich) we have had our very own Valentine’s Day custom for at least the last 200 years! Part folklore, part custom, Jack Valentine (also known as Old Father or Mother Valentine) brought just as much excitement during Valentine’s Eve as the prospect of Christmas Eve.

Jack Valentine as Illustrated by Matt Willis: Click to see his collection of art on Etsy!

Almost a “Santa Claus” figure, children and people with prospective lovers would awake on Valentine’s Eve before the sun had risen and run down to the front door to check for little parcels and presents that would be left for them from this anonymous and mysterious character. In reality, of course, the gifts would be left by parents or the recipient’s “Valentine” but the idea of Jack Valentine, an almost invisible figure that would appear on your doorstep and knock on the door before leaving gifts and disappearing into thin air, was a popular one.

The tradition is unusual insofar as it hasn’t ever really been observed outside of Norfolk and some areas of Suffolk. Jack even had a darker counterpart named “Snatch Valentine” who was more likely to leave you prank presents or tie the gifts to string and pull them out of the recipient’s reach as they bent down to pick them up.

What did we do around Valentine’s Day?

Norfolk already had links to Valentine’s Day, with the first known Valentine’s letter being sent from Topcroft near Bungay in 1477 AD. Margaret Brews wrote to John Paston referring to him as her “right well-beloved Valentine” and the two were later married. The actual origin of the Jack Valentine tradition, however, is largely unknown but seemed at its most popular during the mid-19th century. In “Notes and Queries,” a document from the 1850s, John Wodderspoon notes:

“The day appropriated to St. Valentine is kept with some peculiarity in
the city of Norwich. Although “Valentines,” as generally understood,
that is to say billets sent by means of the post, are as numerously
employed here as in other places, yet the custom consists not in the
transmission of a missive overflowing with hearts and darts, or poetical
posies, but in something far more substantial, elegant and costly–to
wit, a goodly present of value unrestricted in use or expense. Though
this custom is openly adopted among relatives and others whose
friendship is reciprocated, yet the secret mode of placing a friend in
possession of an offering is followed largely, and this it is curious
to remark, not on the day of the saint, when it might be supposed that
the appropriateness of the gift would be duly ratified, the virtue of
the season being in full vigour, but on the eve of St. Valentine, when
it is fair to presume his charms are not properly matured. The mode
adopted among all classes is that of placing the presents on the
door-sill of the house of the favoured person, and intimating what is
done by a run-a-way knock or ring as the giver pleases.”

Seeing as this was written in the 1850s, and seeing as this description seems to imply that the tradition was already well established by this point, it’s possible the origins are earlier than the Victorian era.

It seems that the majority of the people leaving gifts did so on Valentine’s Eve and usually before the sun had risen. Children would often receive small gifts such as sweets or chocolate from a local corner shop in little bags or parcels but gifts to prospective lovers or “Valentine’s” could often be far more elaborate and expensive, including books and even, in some recorded instances, fancy writing desks. Shops around Norwich would advertise gifts and cards in the period leading up to the 13th of February and even Town Criers reportedly would shout about the coming of Jack and could be paid to advertise for businesses hoping to sell items as gifts.

It is recorded that, in the hours preceding sunrise on the 13th of February, you would often see people scurrying here and there in the dark, parcels and presents under their arms, joking with one another as they bump into each other in the dark. These parcels would be left at the doorstep of the recipient and the gift giver would knock on the door and run. Sometimes hiding to see the reaction of the person opening the door. This was not just for children or lovers either and often it would be friends or even neighbours following the ritual.

In some areas of Norfolk, the tradition would differ. In certain villages it was customary for children to go door to door, chanting rhymes that would be met by the occupant with small sweets, cakes or a penny. The rhymes would often vary but a popular one went as follows: “Good morrow, Valentine, God bless the baker, you’ll be the giver, and I’ll be the taker.” This is very similar to the modern tradition of “trick or treating” at Halloween.

Although now not as popular as it once was, the custom of Jack Valentine lives on today, with many locals, young and old being able to recount their parents following the tradition for them when they were younger. It found a new height of popularity during the 1960s and the Norwich Lanes, during the 2010s, saw shops trying to revive the custom with their “Bring Back Jack” campaign. Some households still observe it but as more people move into the area from outside of Norfolk, and Norfolk people leave for other shores, it would seem it has become diluted and somewhat lost.

Snatch Valentine, the Anti-Jack

It seems that for every figure of good or giving that we have in folklore, there is an opposite character carrying darker personality traits. For example, the Krampus legend is the opposite of Santa Claus, stealing away naughty children in his sack. Jack Valentine also has an opposite, and for every gift given in Jack’s name, a prank was played or a gift stolen in the name of his antithesis, Snatch Valentine.

Often depicted as just a trickster and sometimes as evil, Snatch was the perfect cover for mischievous people (often children) looking to embarrass someone or simply play a practical joke and the humour could range from the lighthearted to the downright nasty.

Some would involve a wrapped present gifted to someone unlucky in love. The recipient would be seen to excitedly tear away layers of wrapping paper, only to be left with an empty box with a cruel scribbled note, sometimes reducing the recipient to tears. Others were a little less personal, such as the “gift on a string” prank mentioned above or drawing a convincing envelope shape on the doorstep in chalk, leaving the occupant scrabbling to try and pick up a letter that wasn’t there. Some would balance a bucket of water above a partially open door, knock and run away so the occupant would push open the door and the bucket would tip over their head. Sometimes it was as simple as leaving a wrapped, rotting herring on the doorstep instead of a gift, or playing good old fashioned knock and run!

Who are Snatch and Jack Valentine?

Snatch, like Jack, is a mysterious figure and no description can be found of who either character is supposed to be and why they supposedly ended up following this strange custom on a yearly basis. The name “Jack” was used a lot by the Victorians for mysterious male figures, examples including “Spring Heeled Jack” and the infamous “Jack the Ripper” as well as Jack Frost, Jack O’ Lantern, and Jack the Giant Slayer. It is possible that the name was simply very popular, but there is also the idea that it was used as just a general term for a boy or man. In fact, in the middle ages, the common people could be referred to as “the Jacks.” Almost in the same way as we use “Joe Blogs” or “John Doe” to mean an unnamed man.

Jack Valentine kindly provided by The Museum of Norwich

It would seem these local Norwich figures are an example of an oral tradition, with barely any written documentation about them. As a result of this, it’s very hard to track the origins of the myth or any changes to it over the years. However, the mystery surrounding them is part of the magic. Especially when children are involved. Like with Santa Claus, children were told that if he were to be seen, Jack Valentine wouldn’t visit those children again. This remarkably vague figure does leave a lot of room for the myth to be adapted and personalised, however, which could explain why it was so popular for so long in the region.

It does, however, seem to be one of the more innocent local traditions at this time of year. For example, in Derbyshire, it was customary for young women to pray, the night before, for a visit from their love interest over the date of the 14th of February. If they did not appear during that date, the young woman was labelled as “dusty” and would then have to endure a humiliating act as the family would strip them to their underwear and scrub and brush them with straw or brooms.

Other Norfolk Valentine’s Rituals and the Struggles for Women

Although more associated with St Mark’s Eve on the 25th of April, Valentine’s Day in the 19th Century was one of those days when single young women would feel a lot of pressure from society, and therefore among more superstitious people, it was a time for small rituals and to try and divine their future in regards to love.

At the time, a single, young woman was seen as a burden to the family if that family were already on the breadline. They were seen as just another mouth to feed so, often, they would find themselves married off quickly in an arranged, often loveless and sometimes abusive marriage or sent into service as maids or nuns. Their lives were not under their own control and often it was seen as an escape route, to be married for love. If they were to be wedded to a man who cared about them as a person, maybe some more freedoms would be allowed.

An unmarried woman, or spinster, was often the poorest people, having very few ways of making money for themselves, and were often figures of ridicule in the local area, with bullying and cruel comments being regular. Widows were seen as figures of some sympathy, but all of their husbands’ debts would fall upon their shoulders and again, there were few ways for them to make money. There were also few systems in place in order to help them. So in order to try and gain an insight into what kind of future awaited them, women often desperately resorted to superstition. It’s understandable when you consider the weight of what marriage meant for them. It literally dictated their entire future.

These rituals may seem very strange or silly to us nowadays, but these were people often not afforded an education and our attitudes in regard to marriage, although still with room for improvement, have improved dramatically in the last 200 years or so. So in order to try and divine future love, a number of customs were employed. If a woman was due to be married and happened to have a ladybird land on her hand or arm, a rhyme was sung. As quoted by Walter Rye in 1885 it went as follows:

“Bishee, Bishee Barnybee
Tell me when my wedding be!
If it be tomorrow day,
Take your wings and fly away
Fly to the East, Fly to the West
And fly to him that I love best.”

If the ladybird did not take off and fly away, or if it merely fluttered to the ground, it was seen as a grave omen and a wedding could be postponed indefinitely.
A girl’s future marital status was thought to be able to be predicted if that girl was sat down on a special date such as Valentine’s Day or St Mark’s Eve, blindfolded and three bowls placed in front of her. One was empty, one filled with dirty water and the other with clean water. The bowls were mixed so the girl didn’t know which was which and she was instructed to dip her finger into one of the bowls. If she places her finger into the empty bowl, she was doomed to be a spinster. The bowl with dirty water signified she would marry but become a widow and only the clear water bowl signified she would be happily married.

It was also thought that a young lady could divine the occupation of her future husband. In order to do this she had to clean the hearth and place upon it a clean pewter pot facing downwards. She would then retire to bed, the ritual indicated climbing the stairs to bed in silence and backwards. The following day they would rush down to look under the pot (often another member of the household would be cooperating by placing an item under the bowl.) When the bowl was lifted, a small item underneath would predict the future husband’s job. If it was a small pile of earth, he would be a labourer, a small piece of wood would indicate a carpenter and so on.

So what are your traditions around Valentine’s Day? Do you still observe the tradition of awaiting the knock of Jack Valentine in your home? Or do you follow more modern traditions? The one thing we can take away from the history of February the 14th, is that there have been a real variety of rituals and celebrations and you can pick whichever fits you!

If you are interested in the local history of Norwich, why not book one of our historical tours through the Shoebox Website? Click here for more information and availability.


Traditional customs and ceremonies
BBC Norfolk
EDP Jack visits Norwich

This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore – P. Tolhurst 2018