by Ross Parish
“People in the Meadows would never wash blankets in the month of May for that …was regarded as washing away one’s love ones.”
What with Clifton resurrecting their May Day festivities this year (2014, see a forthcoming separate post on this custom) for the first time since 2009 it seems fitting to make a summary of some of the customs associated with Maytide, that is days around that of the 1st of May, the traditional May Day. Accounts of the observation of May Day in the county date back to the 16th century. In Nottingham, the Mayor received in the Market place cut branches cut for the:
“bringing in of the May”.
In 1573 21s was paid by the borough treasurer’ in reward for:
“gunners, daunsers, and others that toke payns in brynginge in May and for gunpowder that the guners hade.”
This was modest compared to £3 2s and 6d paid in 1575. In 1583 6d was paid to Stapleford men who came with the May Games in the Records.
However, May Day has always been the most controversial of customs, often church and revellers clashed, especially when in 1585 a Boughton man was charged with setting up a maypole in the churchyard! Before the establishment of this fixed date May Day was always celebrated on May 1st. This brought revellers directly in conflict with the church if the date fell on the Sabbath as the rules for recreation was not relaxed. In 1605 Peter Roos of Laxton admitted to participating in the ‘maye game’ during service time. In 1608 thirty-five men of Nottingham were prosecuted for witnessing a football match in the meadows ‘ uppon the first of Maye beinge he Sabboth daye in tyme of divine service. This response to May Day was exacerbated in the Commonwealth when an ordinance of the two houses of parliament was made for taking down all maypoles.
It is interesting to note an account in the Mansfield Advertiser from 1902 which states:
“May Day has lost its old characteristics. It is unusual to hear see or hear of the May-bush or the Morris dancers, who were always seen in the streets on the first of May; frequently sweeps and female members of their families in fantastic garb.”
Despite this rather despondent account, it is pleasing to note that this is far from the truth today and May day, or rather May bank holiday in some cases is rather enthusiastically upheld and indeed the sound of Morris dancers is very much to be heard. For example, a modern May Day tradition is the greeting of the dawn at Laxton Castle and Nottingham Castle on the 1st May, the later since. A similar, vibrant May day was established briefly from 2006 to 2011 at Edwinstowe, which appears to have incorporated a whole range of ‘traditional’ customs: a procession of folklore characters, crowning of a May Queen and her ‘Jack in the Green’, ‘Stowe Sweep Dance’, Maypole dancing as well as Morris and Clog dancing.
Nottinghamshire County Council’s Service Director for Cultural Services Patrick Candler said:
“May Day celebrations are a fantastic opportunity for local communities to come together and have fun whilst learning more about a fascinating heritage that has existed in this county for generations.”
In the Victorian and Edwardian period there was a revival of what was called ‘Merrie England’ and Nottinghamshire was not immune to this. The aforementioned Clifton May Day is one such example. Many schools organised private events. Tuxford appears to have had a May Day through the 1970s and 80s and many primary schools celebrated it, such as Butler’s Hill Primary school and in Eastwood the ‘Wise man of Gotham’ being performed on May Day in 1957 at Devonshire Drive Infant school. A correspondent of National Federation of Women Institute states that:
“Attending the village school at Upton from the age of four, I particularly remember the May Day procession through the village. In 1936 it was very peaceful and we had day after day of warm, flower-filled sunshine. I well remember the clanging of the school bell-one of the big ones, had the privilege of pulling the bell rope and was a very sought after role. On 1st May our May Queen, resplendent in her beautiful white crepe paper, gown and crown headed the procession up the village street, attended by for small girls followed closely behind-in my case too close closely as I trod on her train and tore it, much to my embarrassment. We carried a garden cane in one right hand with a bunch of garden flowers tied to the top with a wide ribbon bow, and we all felt very proud of our important role.”
Maypole and maypole dancing are traditionally associated with May Day. Our Frank in his work on May Day in Nottinghamshire (1991) records that there were Maypoles at Bradmore, recorded in 1792 although it is not recorded on what day it was used, Boughton 1585, Farnsfield 1834, Gedling, Edwinstowe, Linby until the 1920s and restored in the 1990s, Hucknall, Stapleford, 1884, Nottingham 1780, Woodborough erected one in 1979 and Wellow as noted below. North Wheatley’s maypole is noted in White’s directory 1884:
“A feast and hiring for servants are held on the first Thursday in November, when the Green round the lofty maypole is crowded with visitors.”
Maypole dancing is a feature of most modern observations and the most famous one is that of Wellow which begun in 1856 and can be seen as one of the best of such traditions. Although this custom being carried out at late Spring Bank Holiday or traditionally Whitsun is of course not during Maytide strictly speaking.
Fairs were often associated with May time. The most noted being the Ollerton May Fair, located on the green outside the Hop Pole. The fair consisted in its dying days of horses, coconut shies, fortune tellers, rifle ranges and died out in the early 1900s. Specified foods were also associated with the day a sweet mixture of milk, oats, wine and spice and for the assembled company to fish with a ladle for a ring and a sixpence, which has been dropped into the bowl. By gaining the ring, the young man would suggest that he was interested in the young women won the sixpence.
A later May Fair, no doubt once on May Day itself was that of Newark. The earliest record of this fair appears to date from 1133 in a grant made by the Bishop of Lincoln, although it is believed to pre-date this. Brown (1905) notes that it originally beside the church and continued for three-four days, it moved to the market square and latterly moved to Tolney Street. This was notably a hiring fair for local men and women and it was held beneath the exchange clock. The noted Shakespearian actor Donald Wolfit notes in his autobiography:
“It was still the custom for the men to stand in line in front of the town hall with some indication of their trades in their hands or on their person.”
Perhaps the most fascinating of the county’s Maytide traditions is that associated with Lambley. The village’s Cowslip Sunday was a grand event and doubtless a May Day custom or church Patronal Day which unusually became associated with the Sunday before May Day. On this date, local people and visitors from neighbouring Nottingham and nearby villages (several thousand in the early 20th century) would visit the Dumbles and picked cowslips. Stalls would be established in the main street selling refreshments and local pubs would sell beer causing unfortunately associated drunkenness and violence. A brief undated cutting in Nottingham Central Library reads:
“Cowslip Sunday. About dinner time and during the early afternoon yesterday a large number of cyclists and pedestrians could have been seen returning into Nottingham carrying either bunches of cowslips or small branches of blossom taken from the hedgerows. Many of the pedestrians were boys, and it seemed in one sense, a pity that better use was not made of what must have cost them many a mile of trudging. Some of the youths left their little burdens of cowslips and wild violets scattered on the road.”
By the 1920s the tradition had all but died out. This was due to a number of factors: the ploughing up of some of the dumbles, probably the weather and the police discouraging the tradition due to its rowdy nature. Then in 2010 Lambley Parish council resurrected the tradition, albeit a little more organised and lending itself more to May day, which probably the original focus was. More can be read of the custom from the link below and it will the subject of a longer article.
May Day is an unusual aspect of the calendar being that its associations with Christianity are loose to say the least, the Catholic church dedicated the whole month to the Virgin Mary calling it Our Lady’s Month. However, no customs in the county record a Christianised association. Having said this one church charity was established with the day being Elizabeth Bilby’s Charity, of Nottingham, who in 1697, left 10s to be paid on the day.
So this May Day why not spend some time thinking about how we celebrated this turn of the year, but remember however tempting be careful what you bring into the home:
“May blossom was absolutely taboo. No child would bring May blossom into the house without incurring the wrath of the household.”
Happy May Day folks!!!
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