The lost folk custom of ‘tin kettling’ welcomed many newly married couples into rural communities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Tin kettling, or sometimes ‘tin tattling’, is the name by which this widespread marriage custom was known in Australia. It usually took place after the bride and groom had retired to wherever they were going to spend their first night of wedded bliss. Allowing them enough time to settle down, the rowdier youths and younger men of the area gathered near the premises equipped with kerosene tins, pots, pans, maybe a concertina or anything else that made a lot of noise. At the agreed moment they began beating on their noisemakers, catcalling and often throwing stones onto the roof of the marital residence.
With variations, this animated custom was practiced in western Europe, Britain and America. In Germany and in the Barossa Valley it was known as ‘polterabend’, in America as a ‘tin kettle band’ or a ‘Dutch band’ and sometimes as a ‘shivaree’. It seems to have been mostly observed in rural communities and can best be thought of as a humorous welcoming of the newlyweds into what were usually small communities. A more recent, though now probably defunct, custom of tying tin cans and other decorations to the newlyweds’ car as they leave for their honeymoon may be an echo of the earlier tradition.
Reactions to the tin kettling experience varied. In some places, particularly but not exclusively where German people had settled, it was an honour to be tin kettled at your wedding and considered a mark of respect for the bride and groom as well as a sign of community approval for the union. Sometimes, the couple subjected to this rough music were expected to invite the noisy revellers into the house for a cup of tea, or perhaps something stronger. Not that the tin kettlers were likely to need much more alcohol following the earlier wedding festivities.
But not everyone enjoyed being tin kettled. According to one writer on the subject ‘performance invariably gives dire offence to the parties, whom it is intended to honour’. It could also easily become a public as well as a personal nuisance if it were kept up for a long time, as it sometimes was. But usually, there was little point in complaining as ‘Tis a custom of the country, and therefore to be winked at by the police’, according to one observer. [i]
While the ceremony had its cosier aspects, it could also become a scene of crime, as frequently reported in newspapers from the 1850s.
Yesterday several charges of assault were brought before the bench. The two first were Sarah Bailey v. Samuel Clift, and Sarah Bailey v. Thomas Wise. These charges arose out of the fact that a number of young men assembled opposite Mr. Bailey’s house on the 10th instant, to keep up the ancient but disagreeable practice of ushering in a wedding by unmusical noises, beating tin kettles, smacking stockwhips, etc. ; Mrs. Bailey not approving this, went out and tried to disperse them, and words proving ineffectual, she tried a whip, but was obliged to give it up, and as she retreated, she stated she was struck by some bones on the back, thrown by the young men, and by a stock-whip lash curling round her …
Clift and Bone were charged. Clift was able to provide witnesses who testified that Mrs Bailey gave at least as good as she got with her whip. He got off. His mate was charged with throwing the bones, probably marrow bones as these were often part of the custom. He was not so lucky and had to pay two shillings and sixpence in costs or go to prison for a month.[ii]
A few years later in Avoca, Victoria:
Complaints having been made to the Inspector of Police, that several persons have been insulted on the occasion of their marriage- by a number of people calling at their dwellings, and hooting, shouting, and playing on tin kettles &c, before the said persons dwellings, very much to the annoyance of those persons and other inhabitants of the township …
Local police wasted no time in issuing a stern warning:
… this is to give notice that this is insulting behaviour, whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned, and is punishable under the 16th of Victoria, No.22, clause 5. The Inspector has given instructions to the constables of this district to arrest all such persona who may be found so offending. — Hugh Ross Barclay, Inspector Police Department, Avoca, 26th September, 1859.[iii]
Some reports from South Australia detail more serious lawbreaking. At Marrabel in 1871 four local youths set up a tin kettling of some newlyweds in the traditional manner. But things soon got out of hand. They took to breaking windows and began destroying the window frames. The groom reported the incident and three of the offenders were brought to court. They escaped conviction with a published apology, legal expenses and twenty pound’s compensation to the complainant.
At Baker’s Swamp, New South Wales, tin kettlers made such a nuisance of themselves in 1903 that an enraged relative of the newlyweds sent them reeling with a shotgun blast.[iv] The same year a man was stabbed at a tin kettling near Bethany, South Australia, where ‘The gathering of tinkettler’s was an extremely noisy and rowdy one, and much larrikinism was in evidence’.[v] That tin kettling saw no less than 31 ‘persons’ charged with disturbing the peace.
There are frequent references to these events around the country from the mid- nineteenth century. If caught, perpetrators were usually charged with disturbing the peace and given relatively small fines, as at Casterton, Victoria, where six young boys were each fined two shillings and sixpence in default of six hours imprisonment.[vi]
It seems likely that tin kettling was disrupted by World War 1 when many young men went away to fight. In some areas it continued into the 1940s then faded away, though there are recent signs of a revival of sorts. Recalling tales of tin kettling on the Darling Downs told by her German grandparents during the 1930s and 40s, ‘Jo’ and a few mates tin kettled a friend on her birthday a couple of years ago. It was during a COVID lockdown but everyone had a great socially distanced time out on the grass in front of the surprised birthday girl’s house. She was ‘very surprised and quite touched as well’.[vii]
[i] Geoffrey H Manning A colonial experience, 1838-1910 : a woman’s story of life in Adelaide, the District of Kensington and Norwood together with reminiscences of colonial life, Gillingham Printers, Adelaide, 2001.
[ii] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 16 June 1852, p. 2.
[iii] The Age (Melbourne), 5 October 1859, p. 4.
[iv] Wellington Times, 22 January 1903, p. 4.
[v] The Advertiser (Adelaide), 11 September 1903, p. 7.
[vi] The Argus, 14 October 1903, p. 6.
[vii] ‘Jo’, Momentous blog, National Museum of Australia, https://momentous.nma.gov.au/stories/tin-kettling-makes-a-comeback/, accessed September 2022.