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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