The observance of this custom seems fairly general in the London district. Grotto building has been observed in recent years at Barnet, Hoxton, Islington, in the North of London; and at Hammersmith in the West, besides Leytonstone in the East. Also some fifty years ago, my landlady, then a child in the (at that time) well-to-do suburb of the Old Kent Road, S.E., used herself to make these grottoes, using for the purpose oyster-shells, which were procured from a fishmonger and most carefully cleaned, and greeting the passers-by with the following jingle:—
"Please to remember the grotto;
It's only once a year.
Father's gone to sea;
Mother's gone to fetch him back,
So please remember me."
Chambers's Book of Days mentions this custom of grotto-making under July 25th, and gives an illustration representing a child standing by one of these grottoes and begging from a lady passing by. His account is that in London, on the first few days of the oyster season, children make piles of these shells with a candle stuck in the top to be lighted at night, while the children whine out " mind the grotto "—a demand for a penny, professedly to keep up the candle. Neither Ellis's Brand's Antiquities, nor Hone's Every Day Book have anything on the subject.
All whom I interrogated were quite ignorant of the fact that they were assisting unconsciously to perpetuate an interesting custom which has probably been handed down for more than 500 years; and of the real import of candle and flowers. For these grottoes are almost certainly imitations of shrines to St. James of Compostella, which were erected in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in London (and perhaps at other places in England) for the benefit of those poorer folk who could not aff"ord the expense of the long pilgrimage to Spain and yet wished to pay their devotions to the perhaps most popular saint of that day (cf. Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and
- [When I was a child at Islington, fifty years ago, the date of the grotto-day was August 5th, i.e., 25th July, Old Style.—E. S. Hartland.]