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The Olney Pancake Race

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Pancake Race GalsShrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday is celebrated in Olney England like nowhere else on earth! Townsfolk gather to see the original and unique Olney Pancake Race which is now world famous. Traffic stops while the competitors make their 415 yard dash from the Bull Hotel (old coaching Inn) to the Parish Church of St.Peter & St. Paul.


Does anyone know who the energetic young girls in the photograph are? (must have been taken about 1950- ish?) Many thanks to Tony Evans (Olney Pancake Race Committee) who provided me with the information for this page.



The History and Tradition

No one is quite certain how the world famous Pancake Race at Olney originated. One story tells us of a harassed housewife, hearing the shriving bell, dashing off to the Church still clutching her frying pan containing a pancake. Another that the gift of pancakes may have been a form of bribe to the Ringer, or Sexton that he might ring the bell sooner; for the ringing of the Church bell was the signal for the beginning of the day's holiday and enjoyment, no less than to summon the people to the shriving service at which they would be shriven of their sins before the long Lenten fast. Traditional declares that the race was first run in the year 1445, pancakes at that time being a popular dish and receiving the royal favour. It was run on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent, and the whole day was given over to a festival of celebrations, pranks and pastimes, which formed a part of the last fling celebrations. The race continued through the centuries, and while many other local customs died, and the race itself may have lapsed many time, such lapses were never were never so long as to be entirely forgotten by the womenfolk of Olney. It is known to have taken place during the troublesome times of The War of the Roses.

The Custom Revived

After a lapse during the Second World War, it was revived again in 1948 by the then Vicar of Olney, the Reverend Canon Ronald Collins. In clearing out a vestry cupboard he came across some old photographs, which had obviously been taken in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties, of women running with frying pans. Fired with enthusiasm to revive the ancient custom, he called for volunteers, and in response thirteen runners appeared on Shrove Tuesday that year. The race immediately caught the popular imagination, and the people of Olney set out to make this simple and colourful link with their rich past a day of festivities.

The Link with Liberal (Kansas, USA)

In 1950 the race became an international event. A challenge was received from the town of Liberal in Kansas, USA, where they had, after seeing press photographs of the race at Olney, conceived the idea of starting a similar custom. Olney readily accepted the challenge and, in a spirit of international goodwill and friendship, the two towns now compete annually and prizes are exchanged. The race is run on a timed basis and the winner declared after times are compared through a transatlantic telephone call from Liberal to Olney. Important relatives from America have been present for the race in Olney, as have Representatives from Olney been present in Liberal, and the British Consul-General in St. Louis and the Governor of Kansas attend celebrations in Liberal.

The Race Today

The race-in Olney is now run from the Market Place to a point midway down Church Lane - a distance of 415 yards. Warning bells are rung from the Church steeple and the race is started by the Churchwarden at 11.55 am, using the large bronze 'Pancake Bell' normally on display in the Museum. Pancakes are tossed at the start and the winner is required to toss her pancake again at the finish.

When the race is over, the runners, officials, townsfolk and visitors pour into the Parish Church for the great Shriving Service, when several of the famous Olney Hymns are sung. Competitors place their frying pans around the font and occupy seats reserved for them. During the service, presentation of the official prizes from Olney and Liberal takes place. Other prizes are given at an evening party.

Rules for Competitors

Those who are qualified to take part must be women of 18 years of age or over and either have lived in the town of Olney for at least 3 months immediately prior to the event or, if living away, have their permanent home in the town.

For the race they must wear the traditional costume of the housewife, including a skirt, apron and head covering, though they need not be married. At the start the Starter will order competitors: "Toss your pancakes - Are you ready?" and then give the starting signal. At the Finish the winner is required to toss her pancake before being declared the winner and being greeted with the Kiss of Peace the words "The peace of the Lord be always with you" spoken by the Vicar, and the traditional prize of a kiss from the Verger. All who finish the course are expected to attend the Shriving Service during which official Olney and Liberal prizes are presented.

Page created January 25, 1997
Page last updated 
17 February, 2006
Photographs Copyright ©
Ian Burnside


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