What May Day may mean to the many…   11 comments

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Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station ...

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marx Memorial Library

Marx Memorial Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Clerkenwell Green

Clerkenwell Green (Photo credit: Fin Fahey)

 

In June 1976, John Betjeman, the Queen’s celebrated ‘poet laureate’ and saviour of St Pancras Station, now restored in all its glory, penned a foreword to a collection of Walter Crane‘s Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. ‘Clerkenwell’, he wrote, ‘is one of the best preserved of the inner villages of London and the nearest village to it. It has a Green and its church on a hillock above the Green. Several hoses survive of those which surrounded it, a remarkable haven of peace amid the roar of public transport and heavy lorries.’ In the early sixties, it looked as if these buildings would be destroyed, which would have taken away the village character of Clerkenwell. Betjeman was among a number of local residents who had appealed to what was then the Greater London Council. No. 37A Clerkenwell Green, the building housing the Marx Memorial Library, was not outstanding in architectural terms, but ‘its value to the townscape was great’. The GLC therefore agreed to preserve it on these grounds, at a time when few people understood the importance of minor buildings to the more major ones alongside them.

Walter Crane, 1886
Walter Crane, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These cartoons, of which the one above is an example, were printed for Walter Crane by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at 37A Clerkenwell Green. ‘They are of interest as period pieces when high-minded socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris,’ wrote Betjeman. Walter Crane (1845-1916), was first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild and an ardent Guild-Socialist. He was no William Blake, but a brilliant decorative artist, born in Chester, where his father was a fairly successful local artist. The family moved to Torquay in Devon where Walter was educated cheaply but privately. After moving again to Shepherd’s Bush, London, Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. Betjeman added:

A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all.

He tried his hand at poetry as well as decorative art, writing a poem to accompany the cartoon above which was printed in the journal, ‘Justice’ in 1894. Here are the final verses:

Stand fast, then, Oh workers, your ground,

Together pull, strong and united:

Link your hand like a chain the world round,

If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,

Shall build, in the new coming years,

A fair house of life – not for others,

For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

May Day 2008 024
May Day 2008 024 (Photo credit: Perosha)

Although May Day became associated with International Labour towards the end of the nineteenth century, its origins as a ‘people’s festival’ go back as far as early Roman times (at least). The goddess Maia, mother of Mercury, had sacrifices made in her honour on the first day of her month, accompanied by considerable merry-making. The Maypole celebrations are linked to the qualities of pagan tree spirits and tree worship. In Medieval and Tudor England, May Day was a great public holiday when most villages arranged processions, with everyone carrying green boughs (branches) of sycamore and hawthorn. The most important place in the procession was given to a young tree, 12 to 15 feet (3.6 to 4.6 metres) high, decorated with rings, or ‘garlands’, of flowers and ribbons. The tree was stripped of its branches, except for the one at the very top, whose leaves would be left to show the signs of new life at the beginning of summer. Sometimes the tree was completely stripped so the top could be decorated by attaching garlands in the shape of crowns or floral globes.  In some villages the decoration took the form of two intersecting circles of garlands or flowers, similar to some modern Christmas decorations, bound with ribbons which spiralled down the tree.  Sometimes dolls were attached to the top of the tree, originally representing Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. More recently, these were changed into representations of Mary, mother of Jesus, with May being recognised as the month of Mary, sometimes also used as a short-form of the name.

While the Maypole was the centre of attention on this day, the fun and games which accompanied it were disapproved of by many churchmen. One of them claimed that…

All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves and hills, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies. There is a great Lord over their pastimes, namely Satan, Prince of Hell. The chiefest jewel they bring is their Maypole. They have twentie or fortie oxen, every one having a sweet nosegay of flowers on the tip of his horns, and these oxen drag the Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered with flowers and herbs, bound round with string from top to bottom and painted with variable colours.

Henry VIII was, as you might well think, very fond of Maying, and went early one morning with Catherine of Aragon, from Greenwich to Shooters Hill and watched a company of yeomen dressed in green with their chief, Robin Hood, a character representing Old England.  He then stayed on to watch their archery contest. May Day was certainly an energetic festival, starting the previous evening, going through the night, with dancing and games through the day and ending with evening bonfires, known in some places as ‘Beltane’ fires, being the name given by the Celts to their fire festival. This reveals the continuity of Celtic Druidic traditions into Saxon and Medieval England.

However, the Puritans in the Stuart Church frowned upon these activities and were annoyed when James I continued to allow the setting up of Maypoles. When in power in the Long Parliament under Charles I and Cromwell they carefully controlled the celebration of both May Day and Christmas Day. Both were thought to encourage too much physical pleasure of one kind or another! However, they had difficulty in removing some Maypoles, which were fixed permanently in place. Some were as tall as church towers, painted in spiral bands like vertical barbers’ poles, dressed with garlands of flowers, ribbons and flags on May Day. One church, built in the shadow of a giant pole, was called St Andrew Undershaft, the shaft being the Maypole.

With the Restoration of the Stuarts the Maypoles stood erect all over ‘Merrie England’  once again. Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary that the first May Day in the reign of Charles II was ‘the happiest May Day that hath been many a year in England.’  A great Maypole, 130 feet (40m) high, was set up in The Strand. It was so vast that, made in two parts, it was floated along the river to where Scotland Yard now stands and carried in procession along Whitehall, accompanied by bands and huge crowds of people. It took twelve seamen four hours to get it up, using their block and tackle. However, this great erection in London to some extent obscured the general shrinkage in the significance of May Day, as it was replaced in popular observance by Oak Apple Day, May 29th, the restored King’s birthday as well as the date of his return to the throne. The name given to this day refers to the incident at Boscobel House when Charles, after his defeat at Worcester, hid in the branches of an oak tree while Cromwell’s soldiers searched the House and grounds for him, unsuccessfully. He was then able to ‘go on his travels’ via Wales and Bristol to the continent, so for some time sprigs of oak were worn to commemorate both his escape and safe return to the throne. By the 18th Century, the festival had largely disappeared, and in 1717 the highest permanent Maypole was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex, where Sir Isaac Newton used it to support the  most powerful telescope in the world.

However, with the establishment of universal elementary education by the beginning of the twentieth century, Maypole dancing gained in popularity once more, partly due to the revival of interest in folk songs and tunes. In Primary Schools, intricate dances developed using the coloured ribbons in patterns formed by the steps of the dancers, round and about each other. New life was also given to the festival by the writers Tennyson, Morris and Ruskin, who made it into a children’s day, with the crowning of a May Queen, symbolising Mary, whose month it is. Morris also helped to establish it as Labour Day through the 1889 Congress of the Second International of socialist societies and trade unions. In the industrial north of England and industrial south Wales, it became once more a day of fairs, brass-band music, processions and dancing, a ‘gala’ day, with an occasional speech by a distinguished leading Labour figure. It became a public bank holiday in Britain, as on the continent, and remains so, though not without its partisan and puritan detractors, especially since the all-but-complete demise of heavy industry, and, in particular, the wholesale destruction of mining communities in the wake of the pit closures and miners’ strikes of the 1980’s. Walter Crane’s Song for Labour Day concludes with a positive message which is no less relevant for the twenty-first century than it was for the twentieth:

Rejoice, then, weary-hearted mothers

 That your little ones shall see

Brighter Days – O men and brothers –

When Life and Labour ye set free!

Sound upon the pipe and tabor!

Blow the trumpet, beat the drum!

Leave your toil, ye sons of Labour!

Come a-maying, toilers, come!

However, Crane makes it clear in his third verse that this is not a march into any kind of  ‘class war’:

March they not in shining warfare,

No sword they bear, or flashing blade;

But the pruning-hook and ploughshare,

But the worn wealth-winner’s spade.

‘Dissent and Unionism was their only crime’

This February 1876 photograph illustrates how far The Labour Movement in Britain has come through peaceful protest and parliamentary reform in the space of two life-times, or four generations.  Mr W. Durham had dared to stand up to the tyranny of the local ‘squire’, or land-owner, G. H. W. Heneage and his relative, C. W. Heneage, who between them owned most of the village of Cherhill in Wiltshire. The result was the eviction of Durham and his family from the cottage where they had lived for twenty-eight years. In the picture are the two items among their few possessions which illustrate their independence, which so infuriated the feudal Heneages: a collecting box for the Wesleyan Missionary Society and a framed poster of Joseph Arch, founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and Methodist preacher from Warwickshire.

The full story of behind this picture makes painful reading for those who want to paint an idyllic picture of the lost world of ‘Merrie England’. The paternal squire and his wife ran a coal and clothing club, adding a little of his own money to the regular contributions of his farm labourers. For the privilege of receiving the benefits of this, the farm labourers’ wives had their clothing inspected by Mrs Heneage in her drawing-room and received a ‘scolding’ if they dared to purchase any garment ‘beyond their station in life’. Each woman was also asked ‘is your husband in the union?’ If they said ‘yes’, they were not allowed to belong to the club! She also interfered in proposed marriages within the parish, and any girl who ‘transgressed’ was driven out of ‘hearth and home’ as if she were part of some Victorian melodrama.

When a new tenancy agreement was issued to the Heneage labourers in 1875, two trade unionists, one of whom was Durham and the other a small tradesman and a Liberal, were given notice to quit. Durham was not only independent, but also a man of integrity, known as a sober and industrious worker. However, not only was he a unionist, but as a Wesleyan ‘dissenter’, neither did he support the established Church, and these ‘heresies’ were not to be tolerated. After a court order was obtained by Heneage, the entire family, comprising Mr and Mrs Durham, their two sons, who had also joined the union, and their twelve-year-old daughter were evicted by the police, their ‘goods and chattels’ being dumped in the field outside. The girl was also forbidden to attend the village school by the parish priest, since the school was controlled by the Church of England.

The week following the eviction, a public protest meeting was held near the village in a field loaned by a more sympathetic small-holder. The meeting, supported by the NALU and The English Labourer, was attended by a thousand farm workers, despite pouring rain and the threat of retribution. They sang When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree chorus:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

 NALU had been formed in 1872 by Joseph Arch, the son of a Warwickshire shepherd, and had 58,000 members by 1875, organised in 38 districts. Opposition from the gentry and the farmers was fierce and the agricultural workers scattered in small villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of a hostile squirearchy, as in Cherhill. The union responded quickly to the eviction by commissioning a ‘first rate photographer’ to record the aftermath of the eviction. Tripod and plate camera were rushed by horse and trap  from Salisbury to the village and the family were posed with their possessions by the hedgerow in front of their former home. Copies of the photographs were then sold with the proceeds going directly to the victimized family.

The story of the eviction is a tale of tyranny in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, of feudal power and the refusal of one agricultural labourer to bow to the will of a vindictive squire. The first May Day march in London, held in 1890, seems to have passed unrecorded by the camera, but this photograph represents something of the lives and circumstances of those who built the labour movement, our great-grandfathers who were on the march with Arch through the Warwickshire and Banburyshire villages, listening to the Methodist lay-preacher beneath the Wellesbourne tree and out in the muddy fields of Wiltshire in winter, fighting on immediate issues, yet never losing sight of Blake’s vision of a new Jerusalem. Similar battles between ‘Squire’ and ‘tenant’, between ‘Church’ and ‘Chapel’, caused long-lasting division and bitterness in many villages throughout England and Wales long into the twentieth century, with squires and rectors seeking to impose a monopoly of social and political control on landless labourers, artisans and tradesmen, by using the power of the courts and the police to evict. If this was a class war, it was not one instigated by the labourers themselves, who merely sought protection from trades-unions from these relentless intrusions and pressures in every part of their already impoverished lives.

No wonder rural communities revived ancient traditions on May Day, to emphasise a sense of common ’cause’ amid all the conflict in the countryside. The activity of ‘well-dressing’ is a popular May morning tradition in some towns and villages in England and Wales. Bright, elaborate pictures are placed at the top of wells on May morning and a little thanksgiving service is held. The pictures, of religious subjects, are made from flower petals, mosses, lichen and berries stuck in wet clay. In grains of rice above the picture are written the words, ‘Praise the Lord’.

Perhaps the most famous, unifying May Day ceremony of all, however, is the one movingly captured in the film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins playing C S Lewis and Debra Winger his American wife, Joy. This is the singing of carols and madrigals, from the top of Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, which takes place on May morning at 6 a.m. every year, a medieval tradition broken only for five years between 1977 and 82, while stonework was being restored. Many all-night parties are held by the students who end up in ‘the High’ just before dawn, with champagne being poured liberally. Groups in formal dinner clothes mingle with those in bizarre fancy dress in a crowd which can number 15,000. They first hear the clock strike six and then the magnificent singing of ‘Te Deum patrem colimus’, followed by the far less reverent  madrigal  ‘now is the month of maying, while merry lads are playing…each with his bonny lass, all on the greeny grass’. The listeners remain silent during these, but as soon as the madrigal ends, a riot of activity begins. Groups of Morris dancers attract spectators in all parts of the town. Musicians, offering a wide variety of styles, set up on stone steps and other platforms, so that the onlooker can choose anything from pop to Purcell. Meanwhile, the bells in every part of the city ring out. In Cowley, children bring bunches of flowers to church. In The Oxford Book of Carols there are several May songs, including ‘the Furry Day Carol’, sung as part of the annual procession, or ‘Furry Dance’ through the streets of Helston in Cornwall:

Remember us poor Mayers all!

And thus do we begin – a

To lead our lives in righteousness

Or else we die in sin – a.

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11 responses to “What May Day may mean to the many…

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