It’s rumoured that the main reason that the Normans invaded England in 1066 was for the truffle-hunting in the New Forest. The locals didn’t need pigs to find truffles as they have always been possessed of fine long fingernails, which can quickly scrabble in the earth to find a truffle. Of course the truffles in the New Forest became extinct after overzealous hunting by the locals and the Norman invaders.
Although the truffles have gone the fine fingernails remain and are celebrated in the Fingernail contest in September held in Brockenhurst.
In honour of the truffle the main contest is a digging competition where people must use their bare hands to remove seven feet of soil in as short a time as possible. This contest takes place in hard ground where the initial incisions have to be made using the fingernails. Judges inspect the hands of the competitors before the contest to ensure that no-one has filed their nails to a point to gain advantage.
This contest was won six times in the 1930s by Bertie Smallman, who was held as a POW by the Germans during WWII but escaped by digging a three-mile tunnel from his camp. After the war Smallman became an emergency gravedigger in the Hampshire area, who was called in either when epidemics overwhelmed the existing gravediggers or when he had to dig the grave of a fellow gravedigger.
The longest fingernail contest has been held since 1132. Ten prizes are given to individuals with the longest fingernail on each of the ten fingers and thumbs. Individuals have their own ideas about how to grow a long fingernail: olive oil is used as is baby oil and turpentine. A 16th-Century vet Jimmy Cowans swore that placing his hand inside a cow’s anus for thirty minutes a day hardened his nails wonderfully. Few people were prepared to disagree. Cowan did win five times between 1582 and 1598; however more often than not at the time of the contest he had a very bad nosebleed due to his nervous habit of picking his nose and so was unable to take part in the contest.
There’s also the pulling fingernail contest where people have to pull large weights along just using their fingernails. The objects used include ploughs, buses, and Nell Gwynn, a local cow with a reputation for being bad-tempered. A rope is tied to the object and the contestant then digs their fingernails into the rope and pulls the objects along with their arms outstretched and their hands facing downwards, so that no muscle strength can be used.
This should be contrasted with the dangling fingernail contest, where the contestant places their arm on a table with the fingernails hanging over the edge. The judge then dangles a weight from the nail for 20 seconds; if the nail breaks the contestant is eliminated otherwise they proceed to the next round where a heavier weight will be used. The record weight is 52 pounds dangled from the thumbnail of James ‘Gurzel’ Webster in 1812.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker