Monthly Archives: May 2022

Custom survived: Ickwell May Day

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Bedfordshire does not feature often in books on calendar customs but looming large is Ickwell May Day, a colourful injection of textbook May day. Centred around their distinctive permanent May pole on the green in the village’s centre; the custom has everything envisioned in a May Day – Morris men, maypole dancers, garlands and the May Queen. However it has some unique aspects as well which I shall come to later. 

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Merrie Month of May

The earliest reference to the custom is in churchwardens’ accounts from the 19 May 1563 where a list of “charges for all our Maye” is made. It shows that money was spent on making the Morris coats, shoes and bells as well as for a minstrel,: spice and fruit for baked meats; hops to brew beer; wheat; and three calves. Money was also spent on gunpowder suggesting the day ended in a bit of bang. Indeed these charges cost 55s and 3d and a hefty £4 19s 4d receipts was recorded. The customs survival between then and the late 1800s is unknown although it was doubtlessly stopped during the Commonwealth it is unknown when it was revived for the next record is not until 1872. 

When it is said that Squire John Harvey paid for a permanent Maypole which was erected in 1872, beforehand the Maypole was set up the day before and removed thereafter. Locally believed to be a ship’s mast set up to celebrate the birth of his son. However, the Bedfordshire Times of 5 May 1899 states however that the tree had come from Warden Warren and was a larch, 67 feet high and four feet around at the base. The pole had been embedded in six feet of cement for stability. The Will of 1877 records that the said John Harvey of Ickwell Bury leaves £2/10/- to the Northill churchwardens “to be expended yearly in keeping up Mayday at Ickwell as has been done during my life”.  

As the 1800s came to a close a revival or rebirth perhaps of May Day was happening courtesy of John Ruskin which saw the introduction of the May Queen through his introduction at Whiteland’s college and one of his students, Headmistress of Northhill School, Mrs Hodges, introduced this aspect of the custom and an Evelyn Woodward became the first Queen.  The custom began to grow and expand when schools in the nearby village of Caldecote were given a half day holiday and to watch the May day and later Old Warden joined in..now of course it is a bank holiday.

An account in the 1911 Bedfordshire Times for 1911 describes the scene not dissimilar to what one can see today including the surprising reference to the camera!:

“At Northill School we found them lining up for the procession. Behold a regal chariot bedecked with coronals and festoons of spring flowers in blue and gold and white; and drawn by a milk white steed! Enthroned on a flower dais, on the aforesaid chariot, were the May Queen for 1910-11, Mary Law, and the May Queen elect, Agnes Woodward, attended by a full retinue of squires, pages and maids of honour. Nice, chubby little girls were delightfully arrayed as spring flowers. The country dancers from Caldecote were charming Quaker costumes of blue and brown, the boys with three-cornered hats and the girls with snowy coifs. The Morris dancers from Northill were resplendent in the quaintly flowered muslin of a bye-gone day, and, honouring tradition, there wore bells on their ankles. There was the usual charming bevy of dairymaids, rosy, plump, sweet-voiced, and pig-tailed, at the rear. In front of the car (we beg their pardon for leaving them so late), were the pretty little girls and boys who perform the cobweb dance, the girls in blue frocks and Dutch bonnets, and the boys in smart white sailor suits, and last, but certainly not least, the merry maypole dancers themselves, the girls in simple white dresses, flower garlanded, and with glowing faces that surely were washed in May dew that morning; and the boys in smock frocks. At the head of all marched the Biggleswade Brass Band, making brave music, though, alas! there was no fiddler there. During its marshalling, the troop faced a heavy fire of camera clickings with conspicuous coolness, and presently a move was made for the sister hamlet, half a mile distant. A vast concourse of people was waiting on the Green, and a reverent hush was maintained while the Coronation of Queen Agnes was performed with all due ceremony. Truly, it was Queen’s weather, the sun shining kindly from a dappled sky on the idyllic sward, surrounded by cottages that were picturesque enough for stage scenery, snowy orchards, and magnificent trees. The ring was packed many deep, chairs inside were captured in a twinkling, and there was an outer circle of motors and carriages”.

The permanent Maypole did not last beyond the new century for the Victoria County History noted that in 1912 that Ickwell did not have one. An account in 1911 Bedfordshire Times noting that:

“As all the world knows, May day was not celebrated at Ickwell last year owing to divers reasons, including the alleged unsoundness of the Maypole, which had dominated the Green for over thirty years. The new pole, a present from Warden Warren, is broader but not quite so tall, and considerable difficulty was experienced in planting it owing to the presence of a subterranean spring. However, the obstacle was finally overcome, and the pole was a goodly sight in its brave coat of red and white paint, surmounted by a great Union Jack.”

In 1945 a committee was established which continues today to organise the event and in 2000 50 former May Queens assembled with a special locket being given to the then May Queen, Stephanie Turner which was made by the May Queen of 1920 and presented by her, then a Vera Wagstaff.

The day begins with some splendid Morris dancing and after the judging of the garlands the main event begins. Soon the road is closed, and a procession from Northhill to the green much as described above with Morris dancers, a band, garland carrying girls, Moggies and the outgoing and incoming May Queen with attendants and a large concourse of dancers, the Mayers with their Lord and Lady. This in itself was a very colourful site as it lead to the green for the festivities.

One of the most unique aspects of the custom are the moggies, a group who are blackened up and often cross-dressed. They go around soliciting money and mischief and dressed in ragged clothes and carrying besom brushes. Their origin is unclear and it was suggested to me that these represented the devil, the darkside of the year as the Morris represented the summer months. I was not sure of this and it seemed like trying to inject some pagan into the procedures. To my mind it is significant that in the 1800s and early 1900s nearby Northhill had a plough monday tradition where blackened faces used to disguise begging and mischievous behaviour are recorded. At the demise of this it would seem sensible that the Moggies translated to May, although why they were called Moggies was unclear. Another likely theory is that they represented Chimney sweeps and of course sweeps have a long association with May day adopting it in urban areas as a holiday. Of course I last went in 1996 the colour of their faces may well have changed since!

The Maypole dancing unusually is taken up by all ages and was splendid; with the repertoire of classic dances – formal plait and spiders web being the most intricate. It is perhaps particularly unique to Ickwell to see adult dancers, called the Old Scholars (perhaps a name nodding to John Ruskin’s academic re-invention but of course referring to the fact that they were ex students of the nearby schools). Dressed in white smocks and dresses these adult dancers were In fact  so good that one wonders why there were not more adult may dancers! The day ends with all being invited to surround the Maypole and so I joined in as we all joined hands and and did the the Circassian Circle, moving in and out around the Maypole probably as those 16th century Mayers did.

As I said there may not be Bedfordshire customs but as Ickwell is one of the best May days in the country it more than makes up for it

Custom contrived: Dancing in the May at Laxton

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“Dawn jig on misty mount – walking through the mist towards Castle Hill, Laxton, and hearing bells jingling in the distance at 5.15 am on Tuesday, it was easy to imagine you had stepped into a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel.”

Newark Advertiser Friday 04 May 1990 by Samantha Pease

Arriving in Laxton the only indication anything is going on is the sign at the top of the lane down to the castle with its instruction to remember to not disturb the neighbours – riotous bunch these Morris…mind you I say only indication…when I turned up a man appeared carrying a horses head over his shoulder and realising he must know the way…I followed him! Due to a rather dodgy gate I missed the exact start of the custom but in a way that added to it; the sounds of the assembled teams singing a May song as the first glints of the Sun arose tentatively on the horizon, was magical…as the author alludes to above.  The custom established on this old castle mound with its extensive views across Nottinghamshire and beyond has the feel of some older custom and so I was interested to know more of its origins and despite a splendid book which has brought the forgotten Morris traditions of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire greater acknowledgement the more recent history of this customs appears to have been forgotten about!

May be older than it looks!

Another newspaper cutting from 2002 is interesting for it states that:

The dancing was done at Castle hill after a two year absence because of the foot and mouth crisis.

But also:

“It was also the first time at the event for the newly-formed Rattlejag Morris from Retford.”

A year later:

“Dance return – Morris dancers return to Castle Hill, Laxton on May Day, after the foot and mouth crisis prevented them from performing there last year. The event, hosted by the Rattlejag Morris Dancers of Retford, starts at sunrise at about 5.29 am, and finishes with a cooked breakfast.”

Thus indicating that the custom predated the Rattlejag Morris and further digging was required. In 2007 the Newark advertiser stated that 

“The welcome has been performed by morris dancers at the village’s motte and bailey castle site every May 1 for 35 years.

It was carried out by Broadstone Morrismen for many years but Rattlejag Morris took over 15 years ago.”

 

This would date it back to 1972 but so far I cannot find any information recording this fact and the Broadstone Morris appear to be extinct. The earliest reference I can found is from the Newark advertiser which records for the Friday 28 April  1989:

Members of Retford based Broadstone Morris Men plan to dance at sunrise on Laxton Castle Hill. The dancing is due to start at 5.32 am and will be followed by a cooked breakfast”

The year later on The Retford Gainsborough and Worksop Times of 1993 record:

“The Broadstone Morris Men begin their summer programme on May 1 when they will be up early to see the sun rise at 530am and celebrate in traditional dance style The public are warmly invited to join them at Castle Hill Laxton “

Then on the 12th May 1994:

“May Day dancers On May Day the Broadstone Morris Dancers came and danced at sunrise on the hill of the castle ruins at Laxton It was a lovely morning and breakfast was served for anyone who wanted it “

On the 30th April 1999 Tiggy Trotter gives a vivid account of the custom for the younger readers of the Newark Advertiser Retford based Broadstone Morris as the following account informs us.

“Early risers mark start of summer Dear boys and girls, Have you ever thought about getting up at 4.30 m to watch the Morris dancers welcome in the summer of May 1st. I can tell you that it is a most memorable experience for those who can muster the enthusiasm to rise at such a time…..if it is fine the scene at Laxton is spectacular. As the sun begins to rise above the mote, the head of the team, known as the squire starts by singing an unaccompanied solo, Summer is a comin’un.

Whatever happened to Broadstone I do not know, but what is excellent to know that rather than let this custom die, that team who made their 2002 debut would be one day running it!

May I have this dance?

A 2002 newspaper account describes the costume and it what can be seen today:

“Dancing started at 5.30 am. Traditional costumes of flat caps with ribbons, open-necked white shirts, black waist-coats with ribbons and black trousers and shoes were worn.”

Each dance accompanied by a fiddle or a squeezebox has its own meaning and this year the team discovered more traditional local dancers. The clashing of sticks in the air represents the warding off of evil spirits, and the sticks are also used to strike the ground to initiate the dibbing action used by farmers when sowing their seeds.”

The dancing was memorising weaving in and out the sound of bells and squeezebox filling the air. At certain times another May carol was sung again filling the air with tingling melodies on this very crisp dawn. Each year following on it would appear from the Broadstone Morris tradition other teams were invited. Joining the Rattlejag in white with green and blue were local team the Trentside Holmes Morris who stood out in their glaring white in the darkness. They put on a great show of Cotswold Morris dancing and clearly enjoyed being involved.

 

Standing or rather looming rather ominously over the proceedings was that man with his horse’s skull, forming a large owd oss, covered in greenery with its ‘owner’ hidden under a cloak. It added some mystery to the event, especially when upon asking about it, the members of Rattlejag did not know who he was or where he came from! At the end everyone assembled was encouraged to do an en-mass Morris dance and dutifully everyone did! A fair size crowd clung to the top of the old castle and looked on. It was evident that Laxton’s May is becoming a regular ritual for its attendees as well many of whom had made the effort in dressing ‘in the May’ and they stood cheek by jowl with locals who also felt compelled to get up so early!

One cannot agree more with the summing up The Newark Advertiser‘s piece from 2002:

The sun now well up and the dancing nearly done, the sound and smell of sizzling bacon brings on a healthy appetite…what a way to start the day.”

Laxton’s May Day is a splendid custom, very evocative, and should be on anyone’s list of customs to experience.

 

 

Custom demised: Rushden’s Mop and Pail Day

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Sergeant Thomas Richards | Murder at the StarRushden records a possibly unique rather antisocial custom which I have not seen recorded elsewhere. First recorded in Round House” Scene. (about 1821)

” “Mop and Pail Day” it appears that the younger inhabitants of the village adhered tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the Mop and Pail. On one particular night a host of them went in accordance with their annual custom to collect mops, pails, brooms and wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on. These they placed on the Green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport began. At an early hour the lady owners of the mops etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, where a merry scene ensues. Some of the gentle dames were tugging at one mop or doing ditto to a water vat, other wielding certain articles to the imminent danger of the heads or ribs of their neighbours. It was customary for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play “Happy Land”. The men said little, but one old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom. They got into trouble over this affair.”

Another account records this extinct Northampton Mercury, 23 May 1846 indicated why this custom died out with some discussion of perhaps what is indicated about ‘getting into trouble’:

“Three young men, and one old lady, of Rushden, stood charged [at Wellingborough Petty Sessions] with conducting themselves in a disorderly manner, on the night of the 12th inst., and setting at defiance the powers that be.”

It continues:

“It appeared that the younger inhabitants of this merry village adhere tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the mop and pail, which by the bye has been entirely overlooked by Strutt [Joseph Strutt, Dresses and Habits of the English People, 1796-9, and Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801]; on the night in question, viz., the 12th of May, when Morpheus had closed the eyelids of the more peaceable inhabitants, the defendants and a host of others went in accordance with their annual custom to collect the mops, pails, brooms, wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on; these they placed on the green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport begins; at an early hour the lady owners of the mops, etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, when a scene ensued which defies pen or pencil.”

The source of the problem and why it was probably stopped is indicated here:

“Half a dozen gentle dames might be seen tugging at one mop, two attempting to wheel one barrow in different directions, or doing ditto to a water vat; others wielding certain of the articles to the imminent danger of the head or ribs of their neighbours. It is customary during the hubbub for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play some appropriate tune, such as “Happy Land”. The male defendants said little or nothing in their defence, but the old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom; gently brushing aside her still raven locks, she gave a statement which might interest a society of antiquarians, but not the generality of our readers. They were each called on to pay the expenses, Ss., and bound over to appear at the Sessions if called on. On leaving, the old lady sighed, and gently brushing aside her hair and a tear, exclaimed “We shan’t be allowed to play at marbles next”.

I am sure it was a very comical custom to watch and in a way perhaps a fun one with permission to revive?