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

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