Monthly Archives: May 2013

Custom Survived: London Merrie England May Queens

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London’s sprawling suburbs are often wrongly portrayed as featureless places with little traditional about. They are crammed full of commuters with their busy jobs and no interest beyond dinner parties with the boss, the latest car, and boorish one-upmanship. Pure Terry and June. Perhaps, these suburbs are more like The Good Life in nature, despite the blandness something more earthy one lays beneath.

Although perhaps one cannot call Hayes annual celebration of May earthy; the participants are far too well groomed and presented for that. There’s no Jack in the Green, no Morris Men and no pagan peculiarities. However it is nevertheless more traditional than the Rotary club dinner. This is May Day in its most quaint, charming and if emasculated, trimmed down to the basic nucleus the May Queen.

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Making Merrie! 

The origins of the custom derive from a Dulwich headmaster Joseph Deedy who was keen on folklore, having compiled in 1907 a register of local May Queen coronations listing 81. He established the Bromley and Hayes May Queen festival first taking place on the 4th May 1907. This lead to the establishing of the Merrie England Society, organising a pageant in Greenwich in 1913 which had four other may queens: Brixton, Chelsea, Bromley and Lewisham and at it was crowned the first May Queen of London. The society charged 1p a month to join the Merrie England children’ being grouped into realms across London. Each February, each Realm chooses a Queen and they compete to be the May Queen of London.

The organisation encouraged the children to act, dance, sing or play a musical instrument and was part of the movement supported by people such as Ruskin and Disreali on the back of work such as George Daniels 1842’s Merrie England in the Olden Times. Interesting Ronald Hutton in his Stations of the Sun, suggests that such revivals:

“may well be that enthusiasm helped kill the surviving manifestations of the very traditional that was ostensibly revived.”

However, as these customs were dying out, I’d sooner have a revival than a demised custom, and as such this custom in a way is a fossilisation of those Victorian olde worlde ideals. My first notice of the custom was in George Long’s The Folklore calendar (1930):

“on the first Saturday after May 1st (or the same afternoon, when May 1st falls on a Saturday), the great May Queen of London festival is held on Hayes Common, near Bromley, Kent. It is a truly delightful festival of youth and beauty. It usually commences about 2pm with a procession of May Queens attended by Maids of Honour carrying garlands, and many little tots with gaily decorated prams containing May Dolls. They proceed to the common, where the prettiest of the May Queens is crowned ‘May Queen of London’. The ceremony is performed by ‘The Prince of Merrie England,’ who is a pretty girl, dressed in tights like the principal boy in the pantomime; and is usually the May Queen of London of last year. It is an extremely attractive sight, the gay costumes of the little girls, the ribbons, and the flowers forming a lovely picture. The May Queens are usually pretty girls of twelve to fourteen years of age: and even if the May Queen of London only wears a tinsel crown, she has what very few real queens possess – radiant youth and beauty. The May Queen, having been duly crowned, receives the homage of all the lesser queens, who sweep up to her, make a deep curtsey, and retire again. A large choir gives musical features at intervals, and there is dancing round the Maypole and ‘all the fun of the fair’”

Surely I thought this particular Victorian-Edwardian concoction of May would have died out years ago, and back in 1996 I was determined to find out more. In the days before the internet, books were the sole source of information and after that a good place to ask was the library. Many a time I have found the local librarian a font of knowledge and enthusiasm. Not this time! Never heard of it they cried. Moments later a cavalcade of colourful children streamed by the library on their way to the church! Let’s hope they noticed for next year in case someone asked. In the churchyard ‘Little Sanctum’ was read, a short service written by Deedy was read listened to by the Queen May Queen (for want of another name because I was unclear of what she would be called other than of all London of course) and her retinue. Then they paraded back to the common for the crowning. It was a wonderful site, almost thrusting us back into those early 20th century with maids of honour carrying garlands, members with May Doles in prams and each designated a colour scheme.

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Following the parade it ended entering a large field where a dais and chair was erected. The field had seen the presentation of this event since 2012, with a brief indoors in the Second World War. Here another Deedy speech was read and all the other May Queens.

Things have changed the cost of the membership has moved from 1p to £5 and now a committee organise it, but the nature of it remains the same. As noted, verses and speeches by Deedy are still recited and it still remains how he devised it.

FA on!

When I saw it in 1996, there was an important clash: the FA cup. It was apparent that some of the spectators sitting around the perimeter on garden chairs, eating sandwiches, teary eyed and gleeful, looking out for their daughters, had one ear on the proceedings and the other on their transistor radios. Indeed the nature of event was very like the FA cup, the tournament of all May Queens! Indeed this is the best part of the day, for it supports other May Queens and gives them a further day to dress up and celebrate.

The event of course was not a fully female only day, some younger boys, some more at ease with it than others I remember, were page boys. However, what I was impressed with was the ‘professionalism’ of these children. I saw no tantrums, no bored faces, no fighting…some were a bit worse for wear, yes, it was a long way from the church to the field but clearly some sandwiches had a very reviving affect and soon everyone was up dancing around the maypole which considering the array of colourful customs was a bit surreal.

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Queen for a day

I have wondered what ever happened to the May Queens of 1996. Most would be in their 20s and well into their careers. It would be nice to think that given this boost in their early ‘career’ that they would be encouraged to be top in their careers. Let’s hope that they became doctors, politicians and industry leaders! Being May Queen giving them that first flavour of success and fame!

May be old fashioned?

Overall, London’s May Queen is an event trapped in time. In this world where children appear to jump from watching cBBC to CSI in one week, appear to have little time for such activities or interest, it is pleasing to see the May Queen still has support and that the children have not become all Americanised Beauty pageant girls or grown up too soon!

I also feared back in 1996, that this was a final hurray; that the Queens were terminal decline and soon abdication would occur due to the lack of interest and changing views. But it has survived to see its centenary, and although the number of realms has dropped from 100 in 1930 to 27 in 1996, with 20 realms in 2011 its centenary. The realms being Beckenham, Beddington, Bletchingly, Bromley Common, Caterham, Chislehurst, Coney Hall, Downe, Eden Park, Elmers End, Green St Green, Hayes, Hayes Common, Hayes Village, Orpington, Petts Wood, Shortlands, Wallington, Warlingham and West Wickham. As can be seen from the photo one Coulsdon has become extinct! I suppose the loss of 7 in 15 years is not that rapid.

Still the spectacle of 20 May Queens and their entourage is still a spectacle to behold. It survives, fighting back a rear guard defence against ‘modern Americanised beauty pageants’, ‘loss of childhood’ and perhaps the football’ to see into another 100 years. Long may she reign!

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

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Customs revived: Calder Valley Spaw Sunday

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In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:

“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since. “

Such can happen to revivals, but then in 2010 it was reborn again. But in this case you wait for one folk custom to be revived and you get two, for at the same time, Midgley resurrected their Spaw Sunday. In a good piece of organisation because the Midgley event is undertaken in the morning and that of Cragg Vale in the afternoon, allowing the custom junkie to attend two on the same day and not wait another 365 days!

Spring into action        

May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! Large congregations of people would visit these springs to take the water even though in some cases it takes and smelled pretty horrendous! The custom was found in Northern counties, but its stronghold was Yorkshire and in particular the Calder Valley.

Water a walk!

Midgley is a small hamlet above the larger town of Mythmolroyd. I decided to arrive by train and walk to Midgley. What a walk, passing the world famous clog factory and equally famous Calder Valley High School (of Pace Egging fame), I climbed higher and higher…only feeling better when I turned to see an elderly man a few feet ahead steaming full speed ahead! If he can do it, so can I! I overtook him with a sort of pride and glee which I should have had and after about 40 minutes reached Midgley. A sign proudly proclaimed Spaw Sunday and asking around I was directed to the old Pound where the walk would begin at 11.00.

There I found two girls setting up their dressing. They pottered about moving things here, moving them there…a career at the Chelsea flower show perhaps beckons. As 11 arrived, I was feeling a bit self conscious as no one appeared to there…then soon, three, four, ten, twenty and finally around forty people turned up.

We were given a warm welcome by the chairman of the community forum and a very informative discussion of animal pounds by the two girls. After they finished, we all followed our standard bearer to the next well. Here set up with a colourful maypole we were carolled by two local singers and down we went to the main Town well along the high street where a delightful comical poem was recited.

So far the walk had been an easy and relaxing pace on flat surfaces or down hill, now we turned upwards to the moor! A few walkers fell by the wayside but they missed a fine view of the valley and the remaining wells after returning to high street. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre where the plan was to partake in dock pudding.

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What’s up dock!

Dock pudding is a local delicacy, but not this year. Although it was promised as an après walk, the thick snows of January through to March had prevented it from sprouting and possibly for the first time even the world famous dock pudding championship was cancelled. Never mind I did have to return back to Mytholmroyd although the journey back was 10 times easier and 100 times quicker it felt.

Midgley is one of those hamlets where the local communities have changed, being so close to Manchester it has like other areas become a dormitory town for commuters…however now it seems that this commuter community is retired and fortunately keen to spend time again in their community and revive traditions which made it unique.

The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, The Bords sacred waters from 1984 say recently revived, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted.

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What is unusual about Midgley’s Spaw Sunday is that no-one drank the water and the other side this was still undertaken and I was interested to see this. I spoke to the lady who wrote the article in The Guardian which directed my attention to revival the custom. She drunk some of the sulphur water at Cragg Vale and well…she was still alive. It was worth a go and I had packed my liquorice especially so off I went..

A Spa-rtan history?

The most famous of these was Cragg Vale which has a history dating back at least 300 years or details are scant. It certainly could be older but we cannot be sure. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and the custom was apparently to adorn the well with boughs and flowers and whether it was drink is unclear.  The height of its popularity was in the late 19th and early 20th with numbers being up to the 100s! In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:

“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town.  The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside.  Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”

Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:

“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character.  Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly.  The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by.  The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers.  The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”

The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 as noted above was short lived and consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind.  This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.

Sulphur and brimstone

I arrived at the Hinchcliffe Arms at good time, everyone was congregating with cake. The token clergy arrived jolly and enthusiastic and soon, the sword dancers, curate and local residents formed a procession. Through the fields we went following the stream, back onto the main road and then back down to the bridge where the spring lay.

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Here everything went a little off message, as soon as we arrived, we were subjected to a piece of fire and brimstone…which included a dig at a green man carved in a piece of wood in the village. Interesting to see that the 2000 year old battle with paganism continues. In a way this oration was classic Spaw Sunday because in the 19th centuries as noted these gatherings were attended by a whole range of tub thumpers. However, then the bombshell was dropped. She had received a phone call that said that no-one could drink the water!! No! I was looking forward to the convoluted faces as they drank the water. Why? The locals put it down to possible contamination due to last year’s ferocious floods. This also meant that the scattering of water in the blessing was not to be done. Never mind at least we would still have the blessing and I positioned myself so that I could get a number of shots. However despite a detailed order with hymns and Caedmon’s prayer we were subjected to more brimstone when God was called upon to rededicate the spring. This in particularly annoyed one of those assembled who challenged this view….but perhaps that was fitting for Spaw Sunday with its history of reforming Labourites and Temperance adherents was all about debate and argument. Long may the revival continue!

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom demised: Empire Day

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Empower the children!

The twelfth Earl of Meath, Reginald Brabazon, was largely behind the establishment of this custom and although it was first celebrated in 1902, it  soon became a main fixture of schools across the country. They observed the occasion with special events and these became a regular feature of the school calendar. Often it was taken officially or otherwise a half day holiday for schools:

“The twenty-fourth of May, The Queen’s Birthday; If you don’t give us a holiday, We’ll all run away.”

Another rhyme recorded at Boothby Pagnell near Grantham, Lincolnshire recorded:

“The 24th of May, Is our Royal Empire Day, Our Union Jack, Red, White and Blue, We all salute today”

The date is easily explained as being Queen Victoria’s birthday, but as a correspondent of Sutton (1996) notes an alternative name arose:

“the day was known as Daisy Day. You fastened a daisy to your dress with a red, white, and blue ribbon and wore it to school”

Queen Victoria’s favourite flower was a daisy. Opie and Opie in the Lore of the Playground note that a Staffordshire school teacher would noted that some of his children ‘wear red, white and blue and a daisy.’

Schools appeared to be the main celebrant of the custom, for example in Nottingham, the Evening Post of 1937 notes that all 120 of those schools controlled by the then educational committee in Nottingham, celebrated the day in some form ranging from Mass at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic school at the Cathedral to Maypole dancing and national dances at Arboretum Open air school. In Underwood, Nottinghamshire, a report in the Eastwood and Kimberley Advertiser describes what took place in 1908:

“The day was observed at Underwood mixed schools by the decoration of the school with flags, mottoes etc. The children had special lessons on matters relating to the Empire delivered to the Upper Standards V VI and VII by the headmaster Mr F. E. Lowe and the Lower Standards II, III and IV by the Principle Assistant Mr T B. Nix. Afterwards the children were drawn up in the playground in the form of a solid square under the baton of the headmaster sang the songs ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save the King” in the presence of a good crowd of spectators. Afterwards the children gave hearty cheers for the King and the Flag and dispersed for an afternoon’s holiday”                               

empire%20day%20a5%20flyer%2072dpi%20(2)In Surrey, Reigate children too would go to the castle and sing patriot songs as they waved flags. Doel and Doel (1992) inform us that at Headley, Surrey the children would be entered by a hurdy-gurdy surmounted by a live monkey in the rectory gardens. Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar (1996) reports a Gainsborough informant notes:

“We always wore a daisy to school on Empire Day, it being ‘A Colour Day’. We had a party to celebrate the event, and the food tied up with the colour of the day: green and white for daisy day. We ate green jellies, cakes with green and white icing on them, cucumber sandwiches were popular, everything fitted in with the colour for the day. Our teacher helped us to make crepe paper hats in the colour, some of the girls had green and white paper dresses on. There were stories about ‘the Great British Empire’ and a map of the British Empire was put on the wall; all that was British was coloured pink.”

Often visiting lecturers would appear in assembly. Most though had talks from the local vicar or headmaster and mistress. An interesting example being from Claremont school for boys, Nottingham suggesting how attitudes may have been changing, where the Rev Lysons:

“stressed the importance of character in building up and maintaining the Empire. The coronation oath made necessary the self government of the Dominions and freedom was the watch word of the Empire. He appealed to the boys to use their opportunities to develop character, so that they might be ready to carry on the great traditions of the Empire, and to live and work for the Commonwealth of Nations. Selections were given by the school orchestra….and patriotic songs were song by the school choir..During the day a floral token on behalf of the schools was laid in the ‘Soldiers corner’ of the General cemetery by the school captain…in respect for all who have done so much for the future of the citizens of this Commonwealth of nations and for the world.”

Processions would occur, in Lolworth, Cambridgeshire Porter in her Cambridgeshire folklore in 1966 notes that the children would process, singing and bearing flags to the Huntingdon road, after which they were given oranges.

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Red white and who!                                                     

Mention Empire Day today and few will know it. It appears to have declined during the Second World War, the focus appeared to be changing and interest was on recognising the conflict and its outcomes. Although in some places, Empire Day was still celebrated until at least the 1950s, its underlying theme of subjugation was perhaps ‘too close to home’ considering what had been fought over, a celebration of based on territorial expansion was no longer seen as appropriate. Therefore it was not surprising, it was replaced by Commonwealth Day in 1958 and then 1966 the date was moved to the 10th June the official birthday of Elizabeth II, and again in 1977 to the second Monday in March and as far as I am aware it is no longer celebrated.  Instead, St George’s Day has become the focus for patriotism and jingoism.