Were you visited by Norfolk's Jack Valentine when you were a child?
- Credit: Matt Willis for Shuck zine
Once upon a time, Valentine’s Day Eve was just as enchanting to the children of Norfolk and north Suffolk as Christmas Eve, filled with anticipation for the visit of Jack Valentine.
Whether your family knew him as Jack, Father or Mother Valentine, the arrival of Valentine’s Day meant one thing for youngsters: a sprinkle of magic and gifts.
A tradition still observed by many families in the region, the Jack Valentine ritual would see the elusive Jack disappear into thin air after knocking at the door and dropping off gifts.
Like Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, the role of Jack was (spoiler alert) a role often taken by parents to bring a little enchantment to their children on Valentine’s Day.
Sometimes Jack would simply knock and disappear, sometimes parcels were attached to a piece of string, and twitched out of children's grasp as they reached for them.
East Anglia is at the heart of St Valentine's Day.
The earliest-known Valentine was sent from Norfolk, in 1477, from Topcroft, near Bungay: it worked, as Margaret Brews wrote to her 'right well-beloved Valentine' John Paston, who later became her husband.
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Jack Valentine has been leaving gifts for East Anglian children for centuries but, unlike Father Christmas, Jack never went global and generally only strays outside the region when summoned by ex-pats.
In The Folklore of East Anglia written in 1974 by Enid Porter, the author noted: “In Lowestoft, and in many places too, the gifts were left on the recipients’ doorsteps and were preceded by ‘mock’ presents such as boxes filled with nothing but paper, a custom which encouraged mischievous boys to leave such offerings as dead herrings and other unsavoury objects.”
No one ever said that love was easy.
The arrival of a mysterious man called Jack to the home isn’t confined to our county and the outer reaches of Suffolk, but the East Anglian version of the doorstep visitor is far more welcome than most.
Stories drifted through the smog in 1830s London of a terrifying supernatural creature that knocked on doors at night before attacking them.
Spring-Heeled Jack terrorised Victorian England with the story of the razor-clawed creature first appearing in newspapers in 1838, described as “…a ghost, a bear and a devil…”
The report added: “…the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses.”
With iron claws and a cloak, Spring-Heeled Jack was said to leap from roof-top to roof-top breathing blue and white flames and sporting eyes like balls of fire: he was seen across the country, from London to Liverpool and Lincoln.
The county’s doorstep visitor whose popularity soared in Victorian times was also called Jack, but he left gifts and love rather than terror in his wake – even his darker cousin, Snatch Valentine, was mischievous rather than evil.
For centuries, the mysterious Jack Valentine has deftly deposited love tokens on doorsteps without being spotted by the baffled gift recipients.
And for many, the ardour for a tradition that has enchanted countless Norfolk families since the 19th century shows no signs whatsoever of abating.
In 2000, one cunning Cupid treated the residents of Muriel Road in Norwich to a Valentine’s Day surprise of romantically-iced biscuits left by their doors, gates and cars while readers often recount us with their continuing tales of visits from Jack Valentine.
Fourteen years later, Norwich Lanes launched a 'Bring Back Jack!' campaign which saw 20 businesses in the independent shopping quarter offer their own twist on the theme with heart-shaped chips, lovers' cocktails and an exhibition at the Museum of Norwich on Bridewell Alley (where you can still see Jack Valentine artefacts).
In Victorian times, Norfolk lovers went to extraordinary lengths to anonymously leave parcels for their sweethearts on the evening of February 13 or on February 14 itself. Often, more money was spent on Valentine’s Day presents than at Christmas.
Lovestruck Romeos or Juliets would buy love tokens and cards, knock on the door of the object of their affection and run away before they were seen.
Later, the tradition spread to parents, who would devise ever-more cunning ways of knocking on front or back doors, leaving small gifts and then disappearing before inquisitive little eyes could spot them (I used to hide behind a wheelie bin or purloin neighbours to help me in order to pull off this particular trick. The things we do for love).
In a BBC4 documentary called Hop, Skip and Jump: The Story of Children’s Play, Edmund Mitchell, then 93, remembered Valentine’s Day in the east being more exciting than Christmas Day.
“We’d go to where the posh people lived and would sing: ‘Old Mother Valentine, draw up your window blind, you be the give, I’ll be the taker’,” he said.
“We’d jazz it up, going quicker and quicker. Then they would heat up ha’pennies on a shovel over the fire and throw them in the road and us kids would scrabble for them. Because they were hot we dropped them, which caused a laugh.”
A version of this rhyme was first recorded in the 1800s when children in the county would leave their warm beds just before dawn in order to sing it outside houses in exchange for sweets, cakes and pennies, a bit like a February trick or treat tradition.
Local folk cleverly built in a deadline to this custom: as soon as the sun rose, the gifts stopped being handed out as it was bad luck to give a present to a 'sunburnt' child.
Similarly, there are stories of a somewhat less benevolent Valentine’s Day sprite causing havoc on February 14 rather than spreading love.
In some accounts of unusual occurrences in the county on Valentine’s Day, Snatch Valentine makes an appearance – equally as anonymous as Jack Valentine, but with the charm of a Roald Dahl villain rather than a lovestruck gift-giver.
Rather than opening the door after a disembodied knock and finding parcels packed with sweets, children would discover their presents would disappear the moment they reached to pick them up.
Attached to a piece of string, the presents would leap about, evading the grasp of a desperate child.
When the youngster finally managed to grab the gift they’d find it was an empty box or a succession of empty boxes. Thankfully, Snatch appears to have given way to Jack, a far more romantic figure.
Illustrator and designer Matthew Willis, whose Shuck magazine is a celebration of Norfolk’s folklore, said a previous edition had celebrated Jack and Snatch Valentine.
“We wanted to look at one of Norfolk’s most-loved folklore characters who has been part of county life for centuries and who seems to be exclusive to our part of the world,” he said.
“Not everyone knows about Jack – or Father, Mother or Mr – Valentine, but for those that do, Valentine’s Day is still magical. I’m Norwich born and bred and remember presents were left outside when I was a child and I used to really look forward to it every year.
“We delved into Jack’s heritage and looked at the lesser-known Snatch Valentine, who was Jack’s mischievous alter-ego – it’s important to keep these stories alive.
“The subject was so popular that we’ve revisited it this year and will be offering Jack Valentine cards and a wooden decoration so that people can celebrate our heritage and learn a little bit more about Norfolk’s folklore.”
And although the history of Jack Valentine and the origin of the tradition is still unknown, it’s clear that his visits are still very much part of Norfolk life and a tradition which many are keen to continue for many years to come.
We asked readers from our Weird Norfolk Facebook Group to share their memories of Jack Valentine:
Lynne Wood: “Jack Valentine visited every year when we were kids. Usually when our parents were in full view of us. To this day, I don’t know who they got to do it! They never told…”
Beverley Folkard: “The knock at the door and there was a parcel…sweets or a colouring book, something small. As we got older, there was a race to the front door…pick up a gift and then race back to the back door to see if mother was breathless!”
Kath Jackson: “We used to have Jack Valentine come every year. We didn't see dad sneak out the back, run round to the front door, put the presents down and knock, appearing in the kitchen again soon after!
“We also did Snatch Valentine as kids, having a present on a piece of string and pulling it away when the neighbour opened the door.”
Shirl Stevenson: “Mum used to knock on the door when I was growing up with a broom from the window upstairs!”
Nathan Crowley: “Mother Valentine used to visit us on February 14 every year. After it was dark there would be knocks at the door throughout the evening.
“My sister and I would open the door and there would be parcels wrapped in newspaper on the doorstep (always wrapped in the EDP which coincidentally was the paper my nan who lived up the road had delivered every morning...).
“The parcels would contain all sorts, from groceries and cat food that Mum would put straight (back) in the cupboard, and sweets or cheap toys.
“I remember one year when I was five or six, opening the door, bending over to pick the parcel up and it scooted off down the garden. I only learnt years later that my Nanny Flo and Grandad Jim were hidden behind a bush down the garden giggling as they pulled the string that was attached to the parcel! Happy memories.”
Clare Howard: “We had St Valentine (50 to 60 years ago). Ring on the doorbell, no-one in sight when we ran to the door and a small present on the doorstep. My father said that in his childhood the present sometimes vanished into the darkness (pulled on a string by a concealed parent) but his father loved playing tricks - I don't know if the present ever reappeared! My father's family are all from Norfolk/Norwich back to at least the 16th century.”
Tracy Snowden: “Father Valentine always came to our house when we were growing up. We would wait in anticipation for the knock on the door and small gifts left on the doorstep. “I could never work out why whoever had knocked had disappeared so quickly. Years later my mother told me that my dad always went to the bathroom which was on ground level and climbed out of the window and back in again. I never suspected a thing, but looking back I should’ve wondered why my dad always needed the toilet when Father Valentine visited!
“We had the best parents ever and I carried on the tradition for my son although my husband had never heard of it. It’s a Norfolk thing!”
Sarah Mills: “My mum and Dad used to do it for us. We lived in Carleton Rode. Father Valentine would bring us a few sweets and chocolate bars and maybe a small toy like the old polystyrene airplanes, usually there was a pack of Love Hearts, they were wrapped in newspaper.
“There'd be a knock at the door and we'd rush to open it to see what Father Valentine had left us. Mum would often distract us while Dad crept out the back door and nipped to the front door and left the sweets, knocked and legged it back round to the back door and into the kitchen saying ‘did I just hear a knock at the door…?’
“Fond memories of Valentine’s Days trying to catch Father Valentine out. I then did it for my sons when they were little.”
Simon Covell: “I remember this as a kid growing up in Southrepps in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember one year, I think I was four or five, there was a knock at the back door, and upon opening it I found a Bounty bar and some colouring pencils! Everywhere was frosty, and it was quite, quite magical!"
Kate Hope: “My sister and I had visits from Jack Valentine. My grandad (also Jack and born on Valentine’s Day) was quite the legend and so if you weren’t quick enough, those parcels would get away. I remember chasing one down the passage!
“My mum did it for us too, I did it and my sister does it for her little ones as it’s a great tradition to keep alive. Great memories!”
Angie Claxton: ”I remember Jack Valentine knocking at our door as a child. You’d go to the door and there might be a small gift or sweets. He would knock a few times, leaving something. Sometimes you might get squirted with water or the parcel would move away on a piece of string.
“One year we got hit by snowballs! First the front door would go then the back door. We were a bit scared! I used to do it for my children, now in their 20s, and also my niece and nephews. Sometimes I left a pile of leaves on the step!”