Constance Penswick-Smith was born in 1878, the daughter of an Anglican Clergyman and one of seven children. The family moved to Coddington, Nottinghamshire, when Constance was twelve years old, where her father remained the vicar until his death in 1922; her four brothers were all ordained by the Anglican Church. Constance worked as a governess in Germany at the end of the 19th Century and upon her return to England was employed as a dispenser of medicines at Nottingham’s Hospital for Skin Diseases….

It was in 1913 that Constance read a newspaper article about Anna Jarvis, who was campaigning to establish Mother’s Day in the United States. The American was hoping to bring her ideas across the Atlantic to Britain. This inspired Constance but being of religious nature, she felt a celebration leaning more in the direction of sentiment was, although similar, not close enough to the Mothering Sunday she aspired to, which had its roots in the Christian Church. Mothering Sunday had died out in Britain some fifty years earlier, so Constance decided to push to have it reinstated….

Working with her friend, Ellen Porter – Superintendent of the Girls Friendly Society Hostel in Nottingham – Constance founded ‘The Society for the observance of Mothering Sunday’…. The pair set up their headquarters in Nottingham during 1920 and it was here that Constance wrote plays to promote Mothering Sunday, made a collection of hymns for the day and designed greetings cards for children to give to their mothers. In 1921 she wrote a book about old, traditional Mothering Sunday customs from across the World….

In the beginning the Church was unenthusiastic about her ambitions but in time they gradually began to come around to the idea, seeing it as a way to strengthen families. Similarly, women’s organisations that she approached rejected the concept as they considered the tradition had been dead for too long….

Constance was persistent and with the support of her four brothers, themselves all Anglican priests, she continued to promote her cause. Gradually her campaign gained momentum, helped by the fact that Queen Alexandra of Denmark, the wife of King Edward VII took a keen interest in the Mother’s Day Movement. By 1936 the Movement had really begun to establish itself and by the time Constance died in 1938, she had been rewarded by being able to see the fruits of her labour…. She is buried in Coddington Church, where there is a memorial to her; ironically she never became a mother herself as she never married….

It took some thirty years for Mothering Sunday to be successfully revived…. During World War 2 Britain began to adopt the imported traditions of Americans and Canadians stationed here…. Scouts and Guides had begun marking the day and eventually every Parish across Britain acknowledged it. It was during the 1950s that Mothering Sunday really became commercialised, with businesses realising money could be made…. Nowadays, we are all familiar with the family day it has evolved in to; spending time with mums, grandmas and other maternal figures – the giving of cards, gifts and flowers – often sharing a meal to celebrate….

The real origins of Mothering Sunday can be traced right back to Ancient Roman times….to a religious celebration known as the Hilaria Festival. This is believed to pre-date the birth of Christ by some 250 years. Held at the time of the Spring Equinox, it was a time of feasting, dancing and singing to honour Cybele – Mother of the Gods….

By the 16th Century, Christianity had become established, Hilaria celebrations became part of Laetare Sunday. Laetare is the name given to the fourth Sunday in Lent – the forty day period of fasting and penance before Easter. Laetare literally translates as ‘rejoice’. The Laetare service is more relaxed than the usual Lent services, flowers may be used to decorate the Altar, the organ might be played a little louder and possibly the priest will wear a rose coloured vestment, representing a sign of joy. This may stem from the ancient ‘blessing of golden roses’, which were sent to Catholic heads of state on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Laetare Sunday is meant to give hope and encouragement – half way through Lent, Easter is in sight…. The fasting, just for the day, is relaxed alittle….to reflect the feeding of the five thousand….

Laetare is also to honour the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ and of the Church…. It became the day for people to return to their own local church, the one where they were baptised, the church attended by their family….their ‘mother church’. In the 1600s the Church began to include real mothers into the celebration, it became a day to honour all mothers….

In the days of people being ‘in service’, it was very often the only day of the year servants were granted a full day off….to visit their families and go to their own church to observe Laetare…. Younger domestic servants would pick posies of flowers on the way home, primroses and violets, to give to their mothers as a gift…. They would reunite with their families and all attend the church service together – a term that became known as to go ‘a-mothering’…. This is most likely how the name Mothering Sunday came about – and how it happens to always be the fourth Sunday in Lent and three weeks before Easter that it is celebrated….

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Photo credit: flower structure rotkraut.c.r. via / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL:

Those in service would sometimes have been allowed to bake a cake to take home with them, traditionally a Simnel cake; a fruit cake, covered with marzipan. It would then be decorated with eleven or twelve balls of marzipan; these to represent the eleven disciples and sometimes one for Jesus. (Legend says, the cake was named after Lambert Simnel, who worked in the kitchens of King Henry VII, circa 1500). Due to the fact it was the Lent period and such a cake was considered a little too indulgent, even though the rules had been relaxed for the day, the Simnel cake would have been kept for the Easter celebrations….

I’ll to thee a Simnell bring
‘Gainst thou go’st mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me’….
                                                               Robert Herrick 1648

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Photo credit: Simnel Cake James E.Petts via / CC BY-SA Original image URL:

After the service the family may have joined in with an old, fun tradition called ‘Clipping the church’…. The congregation would gather outside, form a ring around the church by holding hands – ’embracing’ it….

Then, eager to make the most of every minute of this annual family get-together, the rest of Laetare Sunday was spent enjoying quality time together….

Other names, Laetare Sunday was known by, were Mid Lent Sunday and Refreshment Sunday…. Here in Surrey, Laetare was known as ‘Pudding Pie Sunday’…. May be Simnel cake was off limits but there were other less ‘guilty’ ways to enjoy a little indulgence… Pudding Pie – (custard tart to you and I). Traditionally, this tart involves sherry soaked raisons and custard, here’s a recipe if you fancy trying it for yourself….

Surrey Pudding Pie

Ingredients: Pastry:

140g chilled, diced butter
250g plain flour
100g caster sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon milk

Ingredients: Custard:

250ml double cream
250ml milk
1 vanilla pod, split lengthwise
Pinch of nutmeg
8 egg yolks
100g caster sugar
200g raisons, soaked over-night in sweet sherry

To make the pastry:

Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles bread crumbs. Add sugar, egg and milk. Bring together to form a dough.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry and use to line a greased 20cm pie tin. Leave 2cm of pastry hanging over the edge. Chill for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Line pastry case with baking beans, blind bake for 20 minutes. Remove beans, cook for a further 20 minutes. Remove from oven, reduce heat to 140C/120C/gas 1.

To make the custard:

Beat egg yolks and sugar together until pale. Into a saucepan put cream, milk, vanilla pod and pinch of nutmeg, bring to the boil. Pour the hot milk mixture over the beaten eggs, beating as you do. Strain custard into a jug and allow to settle for a few minutes, skim off any froth.

Put sherry soaked raisons on to base of pastry case. Pour custard mixture over, evenly and carefully. Sprinkle a little more nutmeg over the top. Bake for approx. 40 minutes, or until it has just the slightest ‘wobble’ at the centre. Remove from oven, trim excess pastry from rim of tin. Leave to cool completely – serve in slices….

Which ever way you choose to celebrate Mothering Sunday – with a custard tart or not….


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