Monthly Archives: May 2018

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!

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Custom contrived: Blessing St. John’s of Harpham’s Well

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“In days of old in country ways, In Yorkshire woods, John sang they praise. Each year on the springtime wold, he saw the primroses unfold, the bleating lambs, the breaking sea. God gift to man eternally. Mist-laden nights, the shepherd’s crook, he left for cloister and for book, Through psalm and vigil, fast and prayer he grew in soul and found the three. But as he served n land of Kent. His winging thoughts still northernly.”

St John of Beverley’s anthem

It is a quiet village. Bypassed by a major room which brings excited tourists from York to Bridlington. Harpham lies to the south perhaps sleeping, except on the Thursday nearest the 7th May when the village and nearby town Beverley celebrate the village’s famous son, Saint John of Beverley. Indeed apart from the fine pub named after the local landowners, it is the relics of the saint which draw people to the village – the fine church and down a lane his old holy well. Although the well is one of two ancient ones in the village, itself unusual, this one is dedicated to the saint. Indeed it is claimed that the saint who was born in the village is said to have struck the ground with his staff and this spring arose

Well established tradition

Despite a claim that the visits to the well go back a 1000 years, the current custom dates back to the 2nd of May 1929, when the Minster at Beverley decided it was time to celebrate their own saint once encased in a fine shrine in that church, by visiting the place of his birth and paying homage to the spring. The date now moving to the Thursday nearest to the Saint’s feast day, the 7th of May. John born in Harpham in AD 640, would become an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Hexham and York, being educated at St Hilda at Whitby and retiring back home at Beverley where he was buried and until the Reformation a fine shrine housed his relics. A number of posthumous miracles are associated with the saint in particular his ability to tame wild bulls brought into the church yard. As William of Malmesbury records in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum:

“Savage bulls are brought up, tied fast, by strong men sweating profusely; but as soon as they enter the churchyard they lose all their ferocity and become, you might suppose, no more than innocent sheep. So they are untied and left to frolic in the yard, though previously they used to go for anything in their way with horns and hooves.”

Well dressed

St John’s Well, the very one said to have been made by his staff is the focus of the ceremony held on this evening. In the nineteenth century the spring was enclosed in its current stonework and surrounded by a circle of railings. During the afternoon St John’s Well is dressed. However, this is not one of those Derbyshire well dressings made of clay and petals, it is sometime for simpler but just as impressive and pleasing to the eye. Around the base of this well are placed primroses and on top of the railings

Blooming Hawthorn crowns the top of the railings, beneath the hawthorn, are three wreaths of mixed seasonal foliage and flowers mainly rosemary, gorse and forget-me-not on each side with another just above the small opening. In other years ivy and adorned with a cross and garlands of tulips and daffodils had been used but the year I went the simple adornment was most effective in the evening sunshine. Similarly in previous years had meant only a slight representation of primroses making the well dressing a little lacking in impact. The year I went it was a glorious attempt. Primroses were still a little short in number in May and so much of the yellow was provided by mimulus.

Well remembered

Inside the church people were gathering excitedly. Dark clouds had threatened all day but as soon as the choir appeared from the church the sun started to shine. This choir which come from Beverley Minster, consisted of 27 men and boys of all ages enthusiastically were gathered beneath the church tower. They were running hither and thither; it looked like getting them to be in an orderly row would be difficult – but the choir master called out and they arranged themselves ready to go. The crucifer appeared and clutching their hymnals they were off through the churchyard down the lane to the church and then across the main road. Unlike similar processions there were no police in their bright jackets obscuring the spectacle. No cars appeared in the time they processed, it is an obscure village after all or was it the miracle of John taming the bullish motorcar. Behind the choir were the rest of the congregation which was added to as the procession went as curious onlookers, photographers and locals who had not managed to get to the church joined in.

In such a small village such a procession was quite a spectacle: with its crucifer holding their cross up high and proud, snaking down the lanes to the well, with the white tunics of the choir shining in the evening sunshine.

Soon the choir reached St. John’s Well and they arranged themselves on the bank opposite and opened their hymnals ready to sing. The rest of the congregation arrived at the well and a silence descended as they prepared. Previous years one of the congregation, a young boy or girl, stooped down and placed a small pot of primroses at the base of the well to add to the others. As the well was fully decorated perhaps this was missed. Once the congregation was in position, appropriately the vicar started with John 7:

“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.”

The followed the Collect for St John of Beverley

Afterwards the choir sang St. John of Beverley’s Anthem:

“In days of old in country ways, In Yorkshire woods, John sang they praise. Each year on the springtime wold, he saw the primroses unfold, the bleating lambs, the breaking sea. God gift to man eternally.

Mist-laden nights, the shepherd’s crook, he left for cloister and for book, Through psalm and vigil, fast and prayer he grew in soul and found the three. But as he served in land of Kent. His winging thoughts still northernly.”

It was a short but evocative ceremony remembering this local Anglo-Saxon saint and the gift he gave to the village…once they had done their service they turned around and processed back to the church were a sung eucharist uplifted the spirits more. A delightful event which is nearing is 100 years and long may it be celebrated.

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)