Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Topping out

Topping out, the use of a tree branch to mark the completion of a building, became popular in the 1960s and continued into the 1990s, but appears to be less popular today.  Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, in their Dictionary of English Folklore, 2000, note that the custom:

‘has been particularly popular since the 1960s, and few major construction projects are completed without a gathering of company officials, local dignitaries, and newspaper photographers on top of the building to perform some ceremony such as laying the last brick.  This custom has some roots, as there are earlier references to the workers hoisting a bush, or a flag, to the roof of a completed building’.

The main photograph here shows Millie Miller, mayor of the London Borough of Camden, and the architect Dennis Lennon ‘hoisting a bunch of laurel [Prunus laurocerasus] leaves’ to mark the completion of a new block of flats near Swiss Cottage in July 1967.  This was said to be ‘a common practice in topping out ceremonies performed by [the builders] Trollope and Colls [though] most other building contractors now hoist a flag’.

Laurel, more officially known as cherry laurel, could have been considered an appropriate plant for topping out ceremonies because it was much used in the making of arches and decorations at times of celebration (see ‘More on cherry laurel’ on this website). It appears that yew, Taxus baccata, was also widely used.

Records of topping out ceremonies in P-LA include:

August 1989, Putney Exchange, London Borough of Wandsworth:  ‘A Scottish piper began the ceremony celebrating the “topping out” of a major new development … in traditional style … Mr Griffith [from Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons Ltd nailed] an evergreen bough to the roof to ward off evil spirits’ [Wandsworth Independent, 1 September 1989].                                 On the same day the Wandsworth Borough News carried the same story with the additional information that:  ‘The significance of the the evergreen bough is to ward off evil spirits and the “topping out” marks the fact that the roof is finished and the building watertight’. The  accompanying photographs show branch of an unidentifiable broad-leaved tree, not cherry laurel or yew.

November 1997, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London Borough of Islington:  caption to photograph in The Independent, 21 November 1997: ‘Building worker JS Hunda Singh praying at yesterday’s topping-out ceremony at the new Sadler’s Wells theatre in London.  With him is Fr Victor Stock, rector of St Mary-le-Bow, who is holding a piece of yew to be mixed with concrete to ward off evil spririts’.

Late 1998, National Railway Museum, York:  ‘Celebrity steeplejack Fred Dibnah has performed the topping-out ceremony foe the National Railway Museum’s new workshop in the traditional manner –  with a sprig of yew tree, used by builders for centuries to ward off evil spirits’ [The Railway Magazine, January 1999].

29 April 2003, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge:  ‘On Tuesday 29 April, The Fitzwilliam Museum celebrated the topping out of its new Courtyard Development in a ceremony performed by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge … [who placed] the final coping stone of the roof parapet to mark the occasion’ [Fitzwilliam Museum News, Spring/Summer 2003].  Although no mention is made of tree branches, being used, one of the accompanying photographs shows a small branch of yew stuck into an upright scaffolding pole.

Summer 2003, artsdepot in North Finchley, London Borough of Barnet:  ‘At a special “topping out” ceremony actress Miranda Richardson skimmed the final brick with cement to be placed in the roof of the building. In keeping with the tradition of planting a yew tree at the highest point of the building for luck, a giant yew branch was swung around the theatre space on a crane to bring good luck to future productions’ [Barnet First, August/September 2003].

January 2009, Battersea Reach riverside development, London Borough of Wandsworth:  The final tower in the development ‘has been given its official topping off ceremony to mark the completion of the building’s structural frame … The tradition of topping off goes back more than 1,000 years and sees the use of a yew branch to ward off evil spirits’ [Wandsworth Guardian, 15 January 2009].

Despite the suggestions that topping out is an ancient custom warding off evil spirits, it seems as if its revival or reinvention in the 1960s may be due to a builder at that time asking Alan Smith, then honorary secretary of the Folklore Society, if he knew of any appropriate ceremonies to mark the completion of a building.  In his Discovering Folkore in Industry, 1969, Smith noted: ‘the placing of the first chimney pot on a house would be an occasion for free beer …. and when the job was really complete the “topping out” ceremony was held.  Originally it was a fir tree or birch broom or other green bough that was displayed on the top of a newly completed  building but in this century a flag – the Union Jack – was more normal’.

Thanks to Richard Bradley II for drawing our attention to the main image; inset from Fitzwilliam Museum News, Spring/Summer 2003.

Edited 11 June 2023.