Category Archives: May day

Custom survived: Hot Penny Scrambling on Mayor’s Day, Rye, Sussex

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Mayor Making, that is the enthronement of a new Mayor, in Rye is an old tradition at least dating back 700 years. There are of course lots of such ceremonies in the country and whilst they are delightfully high in pomp, ceremony and colour, they are not as unique as what happens after Rye’s mayor is made. For afterwards the Mayor party take to the Town hall windows high above the square and rain pennies down upon the crowd. 

I attended the Throwing of the Hot Pennies as part of my mad May day weekend dash – having already experienced Oxford May Morning, Lewes May Garlands and stopped here on my way to the Rochester May Day and finishing off the day with the Hammersmith Jack. It was a bit of mad rush and adventure!

Why did Rye do this and not other places? Penny throwing or scrambling is found in other places such as Driffield and Reach Fair but these were often done for commercial reasons to encourage local children to spend money. This may be the reason but why would Rye do this and not other towns?

Hot money!

Jacqueline Simpson (1973) Folklore of Sussex states that one of the main reasons was that this was because Rye had its own mint and one day she states:

“The town ran out of pennies on Mayor’s Day, and a boy sent to fetch new ones from the mint brought them back so fast that they were still hot.”

The other would be that once the Mayor of Rye was a member of parliament and so provided money to bribe the voters. To be honest neither really make sense! Tony Foxworthy in his Customs in Sussex adds further reasons:

“The reason the pennies are heated before being thrown is to make sure the bigger children dont get larger handfuls than the smaller children (very likely)

The simple reason for throwing heated coins is to instil on the young people of Rye’s mind the importance of the day when the Mayor of Rye is installed.”

Although again this does ask why Rye?

Coined a profit!

It was reported in 1967 that the local bank had supplied coins that were minted in 1951 which was extraordinary as in this year most of the coins minted were sent to British dependencies in the West Indies and so made them rare. It was reported that after throwing £2.10s worth of coinage it was worked out that each penny was actually worth £12 and as such the rest of the coins were valued and kept safe…cannot imagine this rather put a dampener on all the fun!

In those days the total thrown was £5 now it is £20 and at some times in the past the George Hotel was used. 

Scramble to get there!

I turned up just in time to see a large crowd of excitable children mass below the Town Hall and the new Mayor turn up flanked by two mace bearers. A sort of hush descend as the windows opened and the crowd looked up in anticipation. A gleeful Mayor with a shovel in his hand tossed it upwards and off the coins went flying into the air! Soon all the children fell to the floor desperate to pick as many as possible. There was clearly a lot of enjoyment and the children would certainly remember it in many years to come….clearly the reason they did it!

PLEASE NOTE THIS BLOG WAS IN A BIT OF OBEYANCE OVER THE LAST YEAR BUT AS A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION I AM DETERMINED TO COMPLETE ALL MONTHS BEFORE THE END OF JANUARY…THE BLOGS 10TH ANNIVERSARY!

Custom revived: Hemswell May Day, Lincolnshire

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A cursory glance of a book on Calendar customs will find no mention of the Hemswell May Day. This is a shame for although the present celebration is not of a great vintage, it is claimed that Hemswell maypole dancing celebrations in the world dating significantly back to 1660, the year of the Restoration. However, the earliest record of the Maypole is from the street name first recorded in 1841.It is noted that the weathervane was added in 1859, Gutch and Peacock (1908) in their work on Lincolnshire folklore notes:

“Hemswell Maypole. — On a recent visit to the neighbourhood of Gainsborough, I went to Hemswell, a village at the foot of what is termed ‘ The Cliff,’ in the northern division of the county of Lincoln. In the centre of the village I was surprised to see a Maypole. The pole proper stands between two stout posts about fifteen feet high. Near the top of them a strong iron bolt is passed through the whole. The posts are fixed firmly in the ground, while the pole between is loose at the bottom, but kept in place by a second transverse bolt near the ground, which is drawn out when the pole is wanted to be lowered; which is done by getting a ladder and fixing a rope high up on the pole, by which it is pulled down, swinging on the top transverse bolt as on a pivot. It is steadied by another rope at the bottom. When decorated it is raised to its place again by pulling the bottom rope, and it is fixed by reinserting the lower transverse bolt.”

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The authors do not appear to describe any use of the Maypole and the earliest record of its use being pictures of the early 1900s. It is known that it was lowered and repainted in 1919 by the village carpenter, a Charles Love at the cost of 25/-. However, by the time Rudkin (1936) describes it, the correspondent appears to suggest such events were a thing of the past:

“Feast week was in Maytime (ie Mayweek first week in May) and there used to be stalls all in the street round the maypole. There was ‘good-stiff’ stalls and sweetmeat stalls and aunt sally a rare fine show it was!As a little ‘un I remember it and id 4d to spend so I spent it all in halfpence – and I did buy a lot with that 54d! We danced at nighttime round the Maypole, but only ordinary round dances, none of those dances with ribbons attached to the pole – I never heard tell of that being done pers Mrs H of Hemswell.”

She is more emphatic in the County Magazine (1934-6), as Rudkin notes:

“Hemswell is our only village that can boast of a Maypole still in position..but all traditions about dances or other doings are now dead in the village itself.”

May be old or Maypole be not!

Allen (1994) in her work The Hemswell Maypole notes however and a Mr. Senior in 1977 could remember a youth climbing it to put some briads on it. Allen (1994) suggests that the attempt was unsuccessful as he could not recollect any dancing. It appears if a Mrs Edith Bamford is correct with her recollection in 1986 when 87 that the tradition of Maypole dancing was kept alive by the school having a portable maypole. Certainly photographs from the 1950s show this. Despite this repairs were made in 1957 and 1964. It appears probable that the custom was revived in 1976 when the Lincoln Folk Dance society asked if they could use it.  They brought their own braids and a May Day was established and now dancing and a small fete is held around the Maypole area and parish hall on the May Bank Holiday.  The braids due to the difficulty of reaching the top of the pole are set mid way up.  Now the children wear a special costume with boy’s smocks patterned to denote their work and girls with long cotton skirts, aprons and fen-bridle style cotton bonnets.  Over the years Allen (1994) notes:

“Sometimes a May Queen has figured in the celebrations; the Lincolnshire Morris Men have often joined us, and other visitors have included the Lincoln Folk dance society, the Tatterfoals, and Dukes Dandy Clog Dancers, all bringing their particular brand of tradition.”

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The Hobby Horse and the rider

Only a hobby

One of the most interesting aspects of the day is a hobby horse – more horse like than others, which collects money and appears from all accounts to be a familiar feature although it is isolated from the dancing and appears to not to be associated with a Morris team. He wanders around with a note asking for money for his stable – the village hall! One wonders the origin of it, of course Obby Oss are associated with three West Country May events and certainly Rudkin refers to one in nearby towns of Grimsby where a sadly colourful defunct May pole day records: 

“And there was also Robin Hood, the Friar, the fool, the dragon and the Hobby Horse, all robed in character.”

Such a cavalcade of characters may suggest similar disguises where undertaken at Hemswell, but only the Hobby Horse remains, a person completely covered with a  sheet with a horse’s head on top carved out of wood. A bonus as the Hobby Horse is certainly a unique feature to Hemswell and one which looks vert old.

From the revival in the 1970s this quiet local celebration has continued. In 1992 when the pole was weathered for 5 years previous and a new brass fox placed on the top of its 17th feet, ensuring perhaps at least another 100 years of May days…so long may this remote location celebrate the May with their very own Maypole.

Custom contrived: Edinburgh Beltane Fire festivals

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Beltane is an ancient festival day which until recently had been largely forgotten it would seem but due to a neo-pagan revival to have been increasingly observed. One of the earliest and certainly most vibrant is that established in 1988 by a musical collective called Test Dept as their website records: 

“The event was intended as a celebration of traditional rituals as a local manifestation of an international spirit……Choreography, iconography and performance were moulded by the originators’ research into historical accounts of Beltane and their own influences (e.g. Test Department’s drumming, Trinidadian carnival, and ritual dance and performance).”

In a way of the custom is a sort of revival as Edinburgh had a tradition of beltane celebrations located on Arthur’s seat of which the washing in May Dew is the last remnant. However, anyone who has been to the told of Arthur’s seat would attest it is big on scenery but small on space! Thus the location was moved to Carlton Hill. The first Beltane fire festivals were a success:

“Originally an event with a core of a dozen performers and a few hundred audience, the event has grown to several hundred performers and over ten thousand audience. Key characters within the performance are maintained, though reinterpreted by their performers, and additional participants incorporated each year.”

Popularity has brought its challenges as the website notes:

“Originally, the festival was free and only lightly stewarded, however, as the event has grown in popularity, due to the capacity of the hill, funding requirements… the festival has in recent years moved to being a ticketed event.”

It certainly is a vibrant and busy event. I followed ticket in my hand the throng of people, devotes to the fire festival as they snaked up the hill. Once in you really do feel this is an immersive experience everywhere there is action, sounds, sights, smells and excitement. However, getting that killer photo is more of a challenge! 

The event starts with a procession of a resplendent white May Queen with a foliage covered green man with as their website states:

“followed by a cavalcade of characters who are intrinsically linked to them and their journey. Their destination is punctuated by various groups who either help or hinder their progress towards the Green Man’s fate and the May Queen’s destiny.”

If it wasnt them it was the throng of onlookers jostling for a position! The May Queen signifies the beginning of summer physically emphasized by the lighting of an immense bonfire. Once this has happened the performers move around the site integrating with great aplomb and flashes of red, white and toplessness! Writhing bodies and jumping in and out of the crowds creating a magical. Many doing the traditional jumping through the fire for luck and causes woops and cheers from the crowd. 

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After a dramatic stage performance signifying the inception of summer the May Queen and Green Man spark the birth of summer by lighting a huge bonfire. The performance then moves into its community phase. All the participants congregate in a place called the Bower. From here the finishing movements of the festival are played out in a dance of reds and whites. This is also where the home comforts of warmth, food and drink are provided to the tired and often very cold performers and crew. As the website notes:

“There are very few barriers between the audience and performers which offers up opportunity for an immersive experience. It is one where you are likely to come face-to-face with one of our colourful characters, or can step back and marvel at the scale of a production wrought in only two months by around three hundred volunteers. The presentation may leave you figuratively in the dark regarding what is being portrayed, but there is also a chance you may find yourself literally there too. One suggestion is to ‘head to the high ground and then follow the sound of drumming.”

The sound was indeed incredible and all in all this is an amazing event custom a must to experience and be part of. Less of an event to experience what Beltane was like in the pre-Modern years I would add but that is beside the point Edinburgh should be justly proud of this fantastic addition to the folklore calendar. A must! I left a bit before it finished and looked back at Carlton hill the spectacle of rich reds and oranges pours across the Edinburgh skyline creating an exciting vista. 

Custom survived: Helston’s Furry Dance, Cornwall

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“To attempt the Furry Dance without, for instance, passing in and out of the houses would be to lose part of the charm and novelty…. in other towns the so-called Furry Dance is but a travesty, which usually consists of a few straggling couples performing all sorts of grotesque figures…. If other towns and villages attempt the dance as an attraction, visitors should be informed that the traditional dance belongs to Helston, where alone it is correctly danced. ….it is an insult to Helston to compare the travesties of modern dancing performed to the old air with the real “Helston Furry.”

Cornishman, Thursday 26th July 1934

Many people in the 1970s may remember Terry Wogan singing on Top of The Tops – the Floral dance. For some unknown reason this one-hit wonder caught the zeitgeist with its catchy tune straight out of nowhere, but for folklorists and people down in the Cornish town of Helston – it was not so little known. It was based on the annual May time celebration that is the Furry Dance.

Hel of a stone!

Why does Helston dance on this day? The story is that many years again a fiery dragon appeared and dropped a large stone on an area known as Angel Yard. Over a hundred years ago it was broken up and people thought it might result in calamity. It didn’t and they are said to have celebrated their survival by dancing in and out of each other’s houses. In Feasts and

“A legend says this day was set apart to commemorate a fight between the devil and St. Michael, in which the first was defeated. The name Helston has been fancifully derived from a large block of granite which until 1783 was to be seen in the yard of the Angel hotel, the principal inn of the place. This was the stone that sealed Hell’s mouth, and the devil was carrying it when met by St. Michael. Why he should have burdened himself with such a “large pebble” (as Cornish miners call all stones) is quite unknown. The fight and overthrow are figured on the town-seal.”

Utter rubbish of course!

More likely that this was an ancient patronal festival, May the 8th being St Michael of whom the Parish church is named, feast day especially significant that it is started by the bell ringing of that church. A theory expounded by others and suggested by Henry Jenny in the Western Morning News of May 11th 1931:

“It is quite probable that the Helston `Furry` observances are a survival of a pre-Christian Celtic custom transferred, or fixed on, to the patronal feast”.

Of course there is no evidence of any pre-Christian origin either but it clearly is very old. The dance by going in and out of houses resembles many mainland European dances such as the labyrinthian dances of the tarantula and this area may have been brought over by traders and sailors.

Furry about

The custom though has little changed in 200 years, an account from Royal Cornwall Gazette May 1802 gives a typical description and suggests at this point a great age perhaps:

“Our Flora-day seems to have lost none of its attractions. The first hour of the morning was ushered in with drums, fifes and fiddles. Various parties proceeded to the country, where they ravished the gardens and hedges of their sweets, decorated themselves in the spoils, passed a few hours in junketing, and then returned to the town, faddying it thro’ the streets. About ten o’clock, the Volunteers, commanded by Major Johns, proceeded through the Downs, where after going through various evolutions, they returned, and fired three vollies in the Coinage-hall-street. The town now began to fill with visitants in their holiday cloaths; who with the town’s people, faddied at intervals thro’ the streets, and regaled themselves with their friends till evening.”

Faddying is a local term for dancing from country to town by the way! Little had changed it seems a hundred and 50 odd years as Folk Life and Traditions by E. F. Coote Lake in Folklore notes that in 1959 except the clock missed a beat:

“No 7 a.m. Clock Stroke for Furry Dance: But Helston band gave the signal From The Western Morning News, May 9, 1959 Helston’s town clock missed a beat yesterday, and made the Furry Dance late. The band was poised in the street ready to lead off the first dance of the day. The dancers stood in double file in the Corn Exchange, with the Mayor, Mr F. E. Strike, on the steps. All waited for the town clock to strike, for the rule is that the dances must start on the stroke of the clock but it did not strike. The M.C. looked at his watch and looked at the clock, and as time went by it became apparent that the town clock was not going to strike. Instead, a signal was given to the band. The first stroke of the big bass drum called out the time-honoured Furry Dance tune, and once more Helstonians went tripping and twirling along the streets and in and out of the houses, in the first of a series of dances that went on throughout the day, winding a thread of gaiety in ‘the quaint old Cornish.”

However, if ever there was a custom which was ultra-organised it was the Furry dance and I am sure the lack of the bell was a big embarrassment!

In a hurry for the furry!

Arriving early – but not that early as I missed the church peal and the early dances but just in time for the first Hal an Tow – the streets were still relatively quiet and gave me the time to admire the splendour of the doorways dressed in huge boughs and bouquets of spring flowers. The sun shone brightly upon them and they filled the streets with rich aromas. What was incredible was the array on show and the imagination (and competitive streaks) on show. It is noted by Cornish Feasts in 1886’s Folklore:

The week before Flora-day is in Helston devoted to the ‘spring- clean,’  and every house is made ‘as bright as a new pin,’ and the gardens stripped of their flowers to coming into the town.”

Understandably the Furry dance attracts large numbers of curious onlookers so finding a good place can be challenge however I positioned myself beneath the clock tower of the guildhall and awaiting. From here one could see down the street and beyond. Soon the bells run and the music could be heard distantly and then could be seen the promenade dancers in a sea of white at first and then black and pastel colours. First we saw the young children all dressed in white like first communion celebrants, their footsteps weaving in and out, the concentration showing on their face. Then came the adults looking for all the world like we had walked in upon an 18th century debutant’s ball or a garden party at the Palace. These were old hands and this showed in their skill, the dancing was balletic and hypnotic in equal measure.

I ducked away from the busy concourse to see the dancers down a quiet street nearby with no crowds and here I watched how the door opened a local house and the all danced in and the after some time inside begun to dance outside. The band all the time playing their tune.

The sun was shining – well just – and the flowers, top hats and ball dresses looked splendid. Helston Furry dance perhaps the smartest of all may day events and not a Morris in sight!

 

Custom revived: Hal-an-Tow, Helston, Cornwall

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On the 8th of May – the picturesque town of Helston becomes even more picturesque. Doorways are adorned with masses and flowers and everyone is dressed immaculately in readiness for the famed Furry dance. However, for the folklorist and customs enthusiast get there early and one can experience two customs on the same day – the earliest the revived Hal-an-Tow.

In Tow!

The earliest account of the custom appears in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1790 which is quoted in Charles Knightly’s 1986 The customs and ceremonies of Britain:

“In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbours and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects, and of which I know no more than that there is a mention in it of the grey goose quill and of going to “the green wood to bring home the summer and the May-O”: and, accordingly, hawthorne flowering branches are worn in hats.”

John Bickerdyke’s 1889 The curiosities of Ale and Beer records:

“At Helston, in Cornwall, on the 8th of May, called “Furry Day,” may still be witnessed a survival of the old May Day festivities. Very early in the morning the young men and maidens of the place go off into the country to breakfast. About seven o’clock they return bearing green branches, and decked with flowers, they dance through the streets to the tune of the “Furry Dance.” At eight o’clock the “Hal-an-Tow” (Heel and Toe?) song is sung, and dancing and merriment fill the remainder of the day.”

THE HAL-AN-TOW.

Robin Hood and little John, They both are gone to fair O !And we will go to the merry green wood, To see what they to do there O !And for to chase O !To chase the buck and doe O !With Hal-an-tow, Jolly rumble O !

Chorus:

And we were up as soon as any day O !And for to fetch the summer home, The Summer and the May O !For Summer is a come O ! And Winter is a gone O !

Where are those Spaniards That makes so great a boast O !They shall eat the grey goose feather And we will eat the roast O !In every land O !The land where’er we go, With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c

As for St. George O !St. George he was a knight O !Of all the knights in Christendom, St. George he is the right O !In every land O !The land where’er we go,With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

God bless Aunt Mary Moyses, And all her power and might O !And send us peace in merry England,Both day and night O !And send us peace in merry England,Both now and evermore O !With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

Hal an Two, or three or four

What appears to be a unique custom may not be what it seems. Research suggests that it was found in other Cornish towns. Nicholas Boson of Newlyn records that it was said the maypole was set up with the men singing “Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbelow” in 1660.  

Hal – an Tow what it means?

One thought is that the word Hal derives from kalann meaning the first of the month which is changed to an H in some version and ‘tow’ means garland in Cornish. However, this is no believed not to be true as the tow is pronounced like cow and not toe and derives from the Cornish word ‘tew’ meaning fat. It is possibly that it refers to the eve of fattening time – ie the coming of summer!

What the Hal – an Tow is it about?

So what is Hal – an Tow about? To my mind watching it, it comes across as a way devised for the town to remember and teach its history in a lighthearted way. The song is associated with various tableaux of characters – Characters include Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, St. George, St Piran and St. Michael.

Knightly thinks that the custom, and the Furry Dance which takes place on the same day, is:

“a rare survivor of…the Robin Hood May Games once played from Cornwall to Southern Scotland”.

In Peter Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

The meaning of the title is disputed.  According to one theory it is “heave on the rope”, an adaptation by Cornish sailors from the Dutch “Haal aan het touw” (“tow” is pronounced to rhyme with “cow” in Helston today).  

 But it seems a pity with such a Cornish-sounding title to despair of finding a link with the old.”

Sabine Baring Gould 1890 Songs of the West suggested that the Hal an Toe formed part of an old English May Games which included the election of a May Queen and King, Morris dance performed by disguised sword-bearing men, the Hobby Horse and Robin Hood and thus was a sort of Mummer’s play. The Morris association is suggested in Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

Others think it might refer to the heel and toe dance of The Monk’s March, which is still danced in the English Cotswold Morris tradition.  

The work continues to note that Mordon stated that:

“has every sign of being a processional Morris dance even to the slow part at the beginning of the chorus in which, when its steps were still known and used, the dancers in characteristic Morris style would have spread out sideways for a few steps, waving their handkerchiefs before forming into line as before.” 

The first two verses are fairly typical of a Robin Hood mummer’s play song, with the addition of the invasion of the Spaniards remembering when there were many attacks on the coast such as the burning of Mousehole. The next verse refers to St George and the dragon, albeit referring to a Helston local variety perhaps. Interestingly it is believed that an additional verse by a noted Cornish poet, Robert Morton Nance in the 1930s:

“But to a greater than St George our Helston has a right-O, St Michael with his wings outspread, the Archangel so bright-O, Who fought the fiend-O, of all mankind the foe’

Interestingly, unlike other customs this indicates that the custom is more fluid then many and in 2005 the following was added:

“St Piran showed his care for us
And all our sons and daughters, O
He brought the book of Christendom
Across the western waters, O
And taught the love of Heaven above
For Cornishmen below.”

The last verse has been thought to possibly suggest a vulgarisation of the Virgin Mary, the Cornish word for ‘maid’ or ‘virgin’ being mowse like moses thus Mary Mowse, Mary the virgin, perhaps again it refers to Maid Marian

A similarity has been made to Padstow’s May Day in some of the wording seen in now unused sections of the song. Indeed there is a parallel between the character of Ursula Birdhood in their May song and Helston’s Mary Moses. Its singing at only the first and last place it is performed, echoes in away the Padstow’s Night song.

The revival

The custom was abandoned in the 19th century probably because it encouraged lascivious behaviour encouraging as it did the locals to enter the woods at dawn and collect boughs of plants with possible other diversions. Then in 1930 on the back of the Old Cornish Society wave of Cornish rebirth it was brought back.

Hal and back

I arrive on a Saturday when the sun was shining and the whole town sparkled. Map in hand I searched for the Hal-an-Tow’s first location which appeared to be a car park. Here a big crowd had assembled awaiting the players.  Oe read a proclamation and around them dancers covered head to toe in foliage, knights and a dragon. Following Hal an Tow is great fun and the players clearly are well practiced and take it very seriously as well as having great fun. Carrying banners and blowing whistles and horns they appear to be pushing out the evil spirits perhaps or waking up the locals for the main event! Their customs and tableaux are splendid and the dragon is particularly superb. The whole custom is very hypnotic and I you feel yourself singing along and the tune turning over and over again in your head…until that is your start hearing the Furry dance tune!!

Custom survived: Reach Fair and Penny Scramble Cambridgeshire

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Regular readers of posts will have noticed fairs have been covered quite a bit this year. This will probably be the last one for a bit but it certainly is an unusual one to end with. It has the attributes of the other fairs covered here – rides, fast food and an opening from the Mayor. But the opening by the Mayor is more dramatic plus bizarrely it is a Mayor from the nearby city not the village it is in.

Within Reach

There is something ancient about Reach and its fair. I decided to travel to the fair via the Devil’s Dyke path following this ancient Anglo-Saxon entrenchment which ended at the village and one part of the fair even lay along it. Reach itself is a small settlement, a picturesque village, nestled around a green called Fair Green. Officially, it received charter in 1201 it is probably much older and likely dates back to the Saxon period. Over the years like many fairs it has changed. Despite being a small village, it was economically important to East Anglia, even nationally possibly internationally important being noted for selling ponies. These would fill the village and the auction would be held at the Hythe where a large stone still stands called the Auction Stone, the bids being struct for the third time. Over time like nearly every fair in the UK it moved from trade to fun.

Reaching out

I arrived a few minutes before the official opening of the fair. Making my way to the centre of the village, to Fair Green, where in this small area were crammed an array of whirling and buzzing rides; a big wheel, dodgems and a Maypole! It was May day after all!

Then at midday, the Cambridge Corporation and the Mayor party arrived. The Mayor being attended by the Aldermen and women in top hats and sergeant at Mace and various dignitaries from the University who processed to the bank and their assembled. They were given flower posies made by the local children, originally to keep the smells away! Below them the whole of the fair assembled waiting for the proclamation and more importantly for the hundreds of children – the penny scramble!

The Sergeant-at-Mace stood forward rang his bell, or rather dropped his clanger as it didnt work, and gave the proclamation:

“The King, by a charter dated at Geddington, the 8th of January, in the 2nd year of his reign, and tested by Roger bishop of St. Andrew’s, Geoffery Fitzpeter earl of Essex, Robert earl of Leicester, William earl of Sarum, and others, granted to the burgesses of Cambridge the following privileges :

  1. That they should have a gild of merchants.
  2. That no burgess should plead without the walls of the borough of any plea, save pleas of exterior tenure (except the King’s moneyers and servants).

III. That no burgess should make duel; and that with regard to pleas of the Crown, the burgesses might defend themselves according to the ancient custom of the borough.

  1. That all burgesses of the merchant’s gild should be free of toll, passage, lastage, pontage, and stallage, in the fair, and without, and throughout the ports of the English sea, and in all the King’s lands on this side of the sea, and beyond the sea, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).
  2. That no burgess should be judged by arbitrary amerciaments, except according to the ancient late of the borough existing in the time of the King’s ancestors.

  3. That the burgesses should have justly all their lands and tenures, wages and debts whatsoever, to them due, and that right should be done to them of their lands and tenures within the borough, according to the custom thereof.

VII. That of all the debts of burgesses which should be contracted at Cambridge and of the appearances there to be made, the pleas should be holden at Cambridge.

VIII. That if anyone in all the King’s dominions, should take toll or custom from the men of Cambridge of the merchant’s gild, and should not make satisfaction, the Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, or the Bailiff of Cambridge, should take therefore a distress at Cambridge, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).

  1. That for the amendment of the borough, the burgesses should have a fair in Rogation week, with all its liberties as they had been accustomed to have.
  2. That all the burgesses of Cambridge might be free of yereshyve and of scotale, if the King’s sheriff or any other bailiff had made scotale.

  3. That the burgesses might have all other liberties and free customs which they had in the time of the King’s ancestors, when they had them better or more freely.

XII. That if any customs should be unlawfully levied in war, they should be broken.

XIII. That whosoever should come to the borough of Cambridge with his merchandise, of whatever place, whether stranger or otherwise, might come, tarry, and return in safety, and without disturbance, rendering the right customs.

XIV. That any one causing injury, loss or trouble, to the burgesses, should forfeit a £10 to the King.

  1. That the burgesses and their heirs, might have and hold the foregoing liberties, of the King and his heirs, peaceably, freely, quietly, entirely, and honourably in all things.”

Much of the proclamation being largely incomprehensible to the crowd of course but of course everyone was waiting for the penny scramble. It is worth noting that the fair was originally on Rogation Monday later being moved to May Day Bank holiday for the convenience of the attendees. Like many fairs it was a time for homecoming. The second worth noting is that the charter allowed the development of a Pie Powder court to deal with trade offences and civil disobedience. This later point was of importance because it was said that it was the time when local people would fight with their neighbours and the nearby Upware men would make it the day the fought with Reach and got their hair cut! Indeed, in 1852 the local newspaper reported that a serious fire was caused by:

“Dissolute characters… attracted by the Annual Horse Fair”

Charles Lucas records in his 1930 Fenman’s world:

“Between ten and eleven o’clock things begin to get a bit lively as Upware and boxing, or rather free fighting, seemed to be the order of the day…the Wicken and Swaffham police were dealt with summarily, one being pitched into the Lode and the other into the Fen drain…at this time a crank Cambridge, a from Jesus graduate, Richard Ramsey Fielden MA, gave out that he was King and champion of Upware and he spent his time there arguing and fighting the bargees…it was though that he was the originator of the proceedings

Reach for the pennies!

Then after the proclamation the members of the corporation called Colts and Fillies apparent reached into their pockets for their bags of coins and then with very little fanfare we were off. Coins flew through the air. At one point coins fell from the sky like bullets. Below the children were prostrate on the ground, searching every blade of grass for the golden pieces, glinting in the light. I looked down and saw some children making large bundles of coins clutched in his hand beaming widely.

The barrage was constant and just when I thought it had stopped more coins appeared. The children were hungry for it and then it stopped. The crowd disappeared and the sound of the fair cranked up and it was open. Morris dancers appeared and danced. Young children did Maypole dancing – and sadly got tangled up and burgers were sold. Reach fair an obscure oddity and a great day to spend the May Day. Certainly much of the surrounding area agreed people were walking the roads for miles from nearby villages.

Custom revived: Chestnut Sunday Bushy Park

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One of the great joys of Maytime is the blossom that abounds. Hedgerow, fields and parks. The simple desire to appreciate and experience such natural beauty was behind the most curious of London customs; Chestnut Sunday

In a sort of homage to the tradition concept behind the northern Spa Sunday perhaps, London developed the custom soon after Queen Victoria opened the Royal Park to the public. Soon people recognised the grandeur of the chestnut trees that lined the drive in.

Bushy plants

It was during the reign of William and Mary that the mile long avenue lined by horse chestnut trees was planted by Sir Christopher Wren (not personally of course). These trees reached their zenith in the Victorian period and people, including members of the Royal family, would descend on the park on the Sunday nearest to the 11th of May when the blossom was said to be at its greatest. Thousands attended, records show that one Chestnut Sunday in 1894 over 3500 tickets were collected at Hampton Court railway station alone. Over the time it was so popular that even bus companies would organise special excursions. Although it World War I suspended any formal organisation to see the chestnuts, advertising went overboard once peace had returned. The Transport for London museum has a number of evocative posters made during the hey day of the custom – the 1930s showing people picnicking, promenading and playing amongst the trees.

Load of old chestnuts

The coming of World War II and the use of the park as a military headquarters curtailed Chestnut Sunday and it slowly disappeared. However it was not completely forgotten for a revival was coming. In 1977. Colin and Mu Pain, Hampton Wick residents came across details of the custom doing research about the suburb. The year was a good one for a revival being the Silver Jubilee of the Queen and so together with the Hampton Wick Association a one off celebration again on the Sunday closest to the 11th of May was planned. From this it grew and grew.

From tiny chestnut…

That initial revival has developed and developed that it has become a festival. I visited in 2008 to be greeted by thousands of people lining the avenue to see a parade which went from Teddington Gate to the Diana Fountain. The procession was the usual mix of vintage cars, marching bands and cavaliers…but no Morris…except from Morris Minor that is. A nice distraction although the smell of the vehicles did rather overpower the natural beauty of the avenue. Indeed Roy Vickery in his excellent Plant Lore blog notes:

Today, and one assumes throughout most of the event’s recent history, very little, if any attention is paid to the trees, a small number of local charities have stalls, there are a small number of food stalls, and a small funfair, the main attraction being a parade which starts at 12.30 p.m.  But the event is very popular with families, many of whom bring picnics.  In 2019 the parade consisted mainly of veteran vehicles – military vehicles, cars, bicycles, scooters and motorbikes.”

With a fun fair, local stalls and re-enactments, there is plenty to entertain the Londoners who attend…although one wonders how many spend time to admire its principle asset!

Custom demised: Dipping on May Day in Cornwall

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“The first of May is Dipping Day   The sixth of May is Looe Fair Day.”

 

In a previous blog post I discussed May Dew on Arthur’s Seat, in the other end of the country in Cornwall, a curious custom called dipping was associated with May Day and similarly thought to give good luck. R A Courtney is his 1886 article for Folklore on Cornish Feasts and Feasten customs records:

“In Cornwall May Day is hailed by the juveniles as ” dipping-day.” Early in the morning the children go out into the country and fetch home the flowering branches of the white-thorn, or boughs of the narrow- leaved elm, both of which are called ” May.” At a later hour all the boys of the village sally forth with their bucket, can, and syringe, and avail themselves of a licence to ” dip, or well-nigh drown, without regard to person or circumstances, the person who has not the protection of a piece of ” May ” in his hat or button-hole.”

Thomas Bond in his 1823 ‘Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Boroughs of East and West Looe, in the County of Cornwall notes:

“On May day the boys dress their hats with flowers and furnish themselves with bullocks horns in sticks of about two feet long are fixed and with those filled with water they parade the streets all day dip all persons who pass them if they have not what is May in their hats that is a sprig of hawthorn.”

Why did they do it? Perhaps Tony Dean and Tony Shaw’s 2003 Folklore of Cornwall has the answer:

“The importance of dew may have had some link with the May Day practice of sprinkling with water, ‘dipping’, to bring good luck. We have already noted that the Padstow Oss once visited Treator Pool for this purpose and all over Cornwall, dipping was a common custom.”

Dipping appears to be recorded nowhere else although it does have a similarity to customs seen in Poland associated with Easter Monday.

Custom revived: The May day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland dance

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“Many people must still remember the milk maids garland and dance now quite extinct The garland which was very splendid was at first carried by one of the milk maids but afterwards by men accompanied by the dancers and a fiddler In a scarce tract printed in 1623 eating cakes and cream at Islington and Hoxton is also mentioned as a custom on May morning To Islington and Hogsdon runnes the streame Of giddie people to eate cakes and creame.”

Hugh F. Martyndale 1831’s A familiar analysis of the calendar of the Church of England

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During my attempt to attend as many May Day customs over the weekend of 2015, details of which are available in an article for the Company of the Green Man, one firmly in my sites was the New Esperance Morris’s May Day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland. Why? One because the team, a women only one is historically important, secondly because this was no ordinary Morris dancing but a reconstructed milkmaid’s dance and third and finally it was only done on the 1st of May and as this time the 1st fell on Bank Holiday it was an ideal opportunity.

My milk dance brings…

The Milkmaid’s dance is quite well described by early writers. Thistleton Dwer (1900) Popular customs notes that the Milkmaid’s Dance. On the first day of May, was described in the Spectator (vol. v.):

“the ruddy milkmaid exerts herself in a most sprightly manner under a pyramid of silver tankards, and, like the virgin Tarpeia, oppressed by the costly ornaments which her benefactors lay upon her.”

Shaken not stirred

Timings were working well so far on the day. I had attended the May Day morning at Oxford, came into to London and made my way to north-east of the city where their guide suggested they would be present. This is not always the best guide as Morris groups can often be late or else early on a tour and missed. I placed my luck on the former being true. However on arrival at the allotted pub I found the group mid-dance at the side of a pub with a group of bemused on lookers. Light hit off their buckles and bows and made them look majestic in their dance. However, when I arrived the first I noticed was the decorated milk pail, it was a faithful reproduction of what Thistleton Dwer in his 1900 Popular customs notes:

“These decorations of silver cups, tankards, and salvers were borrowed for the purpose, and hung round the milk-pails, with the addition of flowers and ribbons, which the maidens carried upon their heads when they went to the houses of their customers, and danced in order to obtain a small gratuity from each of them. Of late years the plate, with the other decorations, was placed in a pyramidical form, and carried by two chairmen upon a wooden horse. The maidens walked before it, and performed the dance without any incumbrance.”

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Pail into insignificant

Strutt in his 1801 Sports and Past times notes:

“Sometimes in place of the silver tankards and salvers they substituted a cow. The animal had her horns gilt, and was nearly covered with ribbons of various colours, formed into bows and roses, and interspersed with green oaken leaves and bunches of flowers.”

In a set of prints called the Tempest Cryes of London, one is called the Merry Milkmaid, whose proper name was Kate Smith. She is dancing with her milk-pail on her head, .decorated with silver cups, tankards, and salvers borrowed for the purpose, and tied together with ribbons, and ornamented with flowers. Misson, too, in his Observations on My Travels in England, alludes to this custom, lie says:

“On the 1st of May, and the five and six days following, all the pretty young country girls that serve the town with milk dress themselves up very neatly, and borrow abundance of silver plate, whereof they make a pyramid, which they adorn with ribbons and flowers, and carry upon their heads instead of their common milk-pails. In this equipage, accompanied by some of their fellow milkmaids and a bag-pipe or fiddle, they go from door to door, dancing before the houses of their customers, in the midst of boys and girls that follow them in troops, and everybody gives them something.”

Of course these women are no milkmaids and are not dressed like milkmaids but traditional Morris and the group espoused the carrying of these pails on their heads. However they do carry on a platform a splendid pail adorned with cutlery.

In Head’s Weekly Times, May 5th, 1733, occurs the following :

“On May-day the milk-maids who serve the Court danced minuets and rigadoons before the Royal family, at St. James’s House, with great applause.”

Pepys in his Diary, May 1st, 1667, says,

“To Westminster; on the way meeting many milkmaids, with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly [Nell Gwynne] standing at her lodgings’ door in Drury Lane in her smock sleeves and bodice, looking upon one; she seemed a mighty pretty creature.”

Milk gone sour

Hone accounts for their demise in his Every Day Book of thirty years ago. He described them then as :

“ Themselves in comely colours dressed, Their shining garland in the middle, A pipe and tabor on before, Or else the foot-inspiring fiddle. They stopt at houses where it was ‘I’heir custom to cry ‘ milk below ! And, with the music play’d, with smiles join’d hands and pointed toe to toe. Thus they tripp’d on, till —from door to door The hop’d-for annual present sent — A signal came, to courtsey low, And at that door cease merriment. Such scenes and sounds once blest my eyes.”

He then notes:

“And charm’d my ears ; but all have vanished. On May-day now no garlands go, For milkmaids and their dance are banish’d.”

Why? I am not sure they were banished in the real sense but I would imagine changes in London’s urbanisation slowly pushed out this rural pursuit and as such it lay lost for over a hundred years.

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Someone else’s churn

The revival of this old custom is intrinsically linked with the development of female Morris dancing. Unfortunately Morris dancing and women are not something which is linked in most peoples mind when Morris dancing is mentioned. Yet early accounts do mention women Morris indeed some of the earliest mentions of Morris involve women. Will Kemp, a Shakespearian actor danced the Morris from London to Norwich in 1600 states that:.

“In Chelmsford he met “ a Mayde not passing 14 yeares of age… made request … that she might dance the Morrice with me in a large great roome. …I was soone wonne to fit her with bels… and to our jumps we fell. A whole houre she held out…”

Later on in Sudbury he came across:

“a lusty country lass …saying “If I had begun to dance, I would haue held out one myle though it had cost me my life. … if the Dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles,  ile venter to tread one mile with him my selfe. (sic)”

Fast forward several hundred years to a pioneer named Mary Neal who set up the first women’s Morris, Esperance Club, which was a social club for London’s working-class in 1896. Encouraged by Cecil Sharp the great collector of Morris and other traditional dances in 1905 who provided dances he had recorded from his notebook. The Esperance girls were soon displaying at schools and other places up and down the country and to teach the dances in schools and other places. However, differences in ideas and a fear that Neal’s views on the dances will taint the traditional aspects of the dance, Sharp and Neal parted company. Neal became involved with the suffrage movement and the group disbanded around the First World War. Morris fostered and developed by the Morris Ring became a male preserve and everything died down on the women’s front.

However, the 70s folk revival saw the birth of new women’s Morris and then finally in 1975 a London group named after that founding group the New Esperance – named for the original women’s team and practicing in the same area (of which I was proud to with them came the revived milkmaid’s dance which has continued ever since. And so they do a great effort to keep Morris in the city and raise the profile of the women’s essential role in the development of Morris and it is good to hear in this celebration of the Suffragette movement and consideration all things equality that finally the Morris ring has allowed women teams to join. Long long overdue!

Custom demised: Baldock’s My-Lord and-My-Lady May day effigies, Hertfordshire

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According to the 1832, William Hone’s Yearbook:

the “good wives” of the labouring poor, mostly living in what was then called “the backside” (the yards behind Church Street), made a unique May day structure, the Lords and Ladies similar to a Guy Fawkes effigy.”..

Thisleton-Dwyer in his Popular British customs notes:

At Baldock, in former times, the peasantry were accustomed to make a ‘my-lord and-my-lady ‘ in effigy on the first of May. These figures were constructed of rags, pasteboard, old masks, canvas, straw, &c., and were dressed up in the holiday habiliments of their fabricators—’my lady’ in the best gown’d, apron, kerchief, and mob cap of the dame, and ‘my lord’ in the Sunday gear of her master. The tiring finished, ‘ the pair ‘ were seated on chairs or joint stools, placed outside the cottage-door or in the porch, their bosoms ornamented with large bouquets of May flowers.”

What was the purpose of the custom. Thistleton-Dwyer adds:

“They supported a hat, into which the contributions of the lookers-on were put. Before them, on a table were arranged a mug of ale, a drinking-horn, a pipe, a pair of spectacles, and sometimes a newspaper. The observance of this usage was exclusively confined to the wives of the labouring poor resident in the town, who were amply compensated for their pains-taking by the contributions, which generally amounted to something considerable.”

The tradition must have been long established by 1832 as a Betty Thorn, described as “long since deceased”, was remembered as a “capital hand” at making a May day “my lord and my lady” Hone notes:

These dumb shows as may be expected attracted a crowd of gazers They varied according to the materials and skill of the constructors One old woman named Betty Thorn long since deceased is still remembered as a capital hand at making up a Mayday my lord and my lady of whose appearance the above is a faithful description The origin of this singular not to say ludicrous custom of attiring inanimate figures in the humble garb of cottagers to counterfeit persons of rank or whether any particular individuals were intended to he represented and how and when they first became connected with the sports on May day are to me alike unknown The subject is worthy of elucidation The observance of the usage just detailed was exclusively confined to the good wives of the laboring poor resident in the town who were amply compensated for their pains taking by the voluntary contributions which generally amounted to something considerable.”

When and why the custom became extinct is unclear but it was long gone but not forgotten when in the town’s Festival in 1982 the custom was briefly revived as can be seen from this photo from Victoria Maddern from Baldock Museum….it has not be revived since!

In 1982, the tradition of My Lord and My Lady was revived during the Baldock Festival. A handsome couple sit outside their cottage door just as they did 150 years earlier. (Photo: Victoria Maddren)