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Guest Post by BK

May Day in Lewisham

May Day in Lewisham

May Day in England is celebrated with any number of customs and festivities. Although there is a great deal of regional difference they usually celebrate the return of spring and summer with the greenery and flowers of the countryside. The usual term for this was ‘going a-Maying’ or ‘bringing in the May’ and initially this involved people going out into the country and returning with flowers and blossom to decorate the home.

Perhaps the grandest example of going a-Maying occurred in 1515 when Henry VIII and Catherine Of Aragon took a trip out from Greenwich Palace to Shooters Hill. In an elaborate charade some of The King’s Archers had disguised themselves as Robin Hood and his Merry Men. After discharging their arrows over the heads of the Royal Party they ‘captured’ the King and Queen and took them to their lair. A bower decorated with flowers. After a feast of venison and wine the couple were returned. On their way back they were met by ladies on floral chariots who sang songs in their praise until they arrived back at Greenwich to be met by cheering crowds and, of course, another feast.

A local custom that is being revived in that of Jack In The Green. Jack appeared in many towns throughout England but was particularly strong in London. He was traditionally a chimney sweep. He was completely covered in a wicker frame from his feet to a point one or two feet over his head and the frame would be fully festooned with flowers and greenery. Jack would often be accompanied by a makeshift band to whose music he would dance around. He also often had a Queen, usually a milkmaid, and various princes and princesses; When the custom started in the late 1700s they would have been child sweeps. As this strangely dressed bunch paraded down the street banging cans and shovels they collected money to tide them over the summer when demand for sweeps slackened.

The custom appears to have survived to about World War One. It is well documented in Lewisham and there are photographs in the Library Archive. A diary entry says:

“May Day, 1894, at Lewisham. In the High Street we saw a Jack with a Queen Of The May, two maidens proper, a man dressed as a woman, and a man with a piano organ. The organ was playing a quick tune and the Queen and the maidens danced around the Jack. The man-woman sometimes danced with the maidens, turned wheels and collected the pence.”

The Jack was a bottle-shaped case covered with ivy leaves and surmounted by a crown of paper roses. The man-woman had a Holland dress, his face was blackened and he had a Zulu hat trimmed with red.

An effort is being made to revive the tradition and on May Day a parade will leave the Dog and Bell in Deptford at noon and arriving at the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich at 17:00. Further details here:

Another local custom was that couples who wished to have good fortune in conceiving a baby would copulate whilst rolling down the hill in Greenwich Park on May Morning. I have not heard of any proposals to reinstate this admirable custom.




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