Folk-Lore/Volume 4/May-Day in Cheltenham

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Folk-Lore, Volume 4  (1893) 
May-Day in Cheltenham
by W. H. D. Rouse

MAY-DAY IN CHELTENHAM.




I GIVE a short account of the May-Day revels in Cheltenham, as I saw them on the 2nd of May last year. The 1st being Sunday, they had been put off till the next day. Some few facts which I gained by inquiry I put in their place, with my informant's name.



The dancers are the chimney-sweeps of the town, two of whom, dressed in ordinary clothes, but with faces blacked, play on a fiddle and a tin-whistle for the dancing. The centre of the group is formed by a large bush: on a framework of wood leaves are fastened, so as to make a thick cone of them, about six feet high, topped with a crown made out of two hoops of wood covered with flowers, fastened crosswise. The mass of leaves is only broken at one place, where there is an opening contained by a straight line and the arc of a circle, like a ticket office, through which peers the face of Jack-i'-the-Green, or the Bushcarrier.[1] Jack advances halfway down the street, and then sets down the bush. Three young men of the party are attached, so to speak, to the bush, and now begin to dance round it. Their faces are blackened; they are crowned with complete caps (not garlands) made of all manner of leaves and flowers. Their dresses are red, blue, and yellow respectively, each of one colour; loose-fitting bodices and trousers of calico, with flower-patterns upon them. These dance lightly round the bush, turning always towards their left, in a tripping polka-step, three trips and a pause, mostly straight forward, but with a turn round now and then. I am informed that they always dance in the same direction.

The rest of the party are two boys and two men, most fantastically dressed: it is almost impossible to describe the dresses. The leader of the whole procession—the Clown—wears a tall hat, whose crown has been cut almost round, and turned back, like the lid of a meat-tin. To this flapping crown is fastened what looks like a bird or a bundle of feathers, and a few long ribbons hang from it; there is a wide pink ribbon fastened round the hat by the brim, with a large blue bird's-wing in front, the feather end rising to the crown. Over a dress of chequered calico and trousers of red and black stripes, is a very large white pinafore, reaching from the neck to the knees, and fastened by one or two knots behind. Across the front run two fringes of coloured stuff, below the waist; and at the bottom is a yellow frill. This he used to flap and make quaint gestures with, now and then fanning himself languidly; indeed, this personage greatly fancies himself. His face is stained by large black rings round the eyes, and a red dab over mouth and chin.

The second man wears a red fool's-cap, with a tassel, all stuck with flowers. On the right and left breast of his white pinafore are stuck or painted black figures, meant for human beings; and behind, a large black pattern in the shape of a gridiron, with a red bar crossing it diagonally.

The two boys have white pinafores, with similar figures, or stars, on the breast, and a fish on the back; their white pinafores are cut away in the shape of swallow-tail coats, the tails flying out behind. One wore a girl's hat stuck with flowers.

Most or all of these last five carried in the left hand an iron ladle or spoon with holes pierced in the bowl, which they held out for contributions; in the right they had a stick, with some kind of a bladder hung on to the end. Whirling this, they ran about, and tried to strike the passers-by, who scampered off, shrieking, as hard as they could go. They sometimes danced, sometimes roared, and pretended to bite any child who ventured too near. Their faces, like their leader's, were painted in divers colours, fearful and wonderful to behold.

I received some more information from Mr. Ames, a chimney-sweep living in Swindon Road, Cheltenham. He says he used to go out along with them, and his father before him. They always wear the same kind of dresses; but the details are sometimes different. The gridiron on the clown's back, however, seems to be traditional; at any rate, he used to wear the same when Ames had a part in the doings. Formerly there used to be a song, but he could not remember the words. There used to be "pipe and tabbor", or even a harp, for the music. There were one or more clowns, who poked fun at each other and played practical jokes on the spectators; sometimes climbing to the upper windows and making grimaces, or threatening to get inside. There was also a man dressed up in woman's clothes, who personated the Clown's wife; and the whole thing wound up with a feast. He recollects no maypole nor bonfires in this district.

He gives the following account of the origin of the custom, which is an interesting example of the modern myth-making faculty. It is obviously made up to account for the fact that the sweeps get up the May-Day revels.

"It was a lady as gave 'em those dresses, sir; that's how it was they began to goo about May-Day. Her son was stoole from her, as they say; and she was a tellin of it to a sweep, as his boy was a climbin in the chimney; that's how they had a used to do it, you know. An' she was a lookin at the lad, an, says he—the sweep, that is sir—'Here's a lad o mine up the chimney as was found'; and down a come, an she knawed'n be a mark or sum mat on 'em, sir. An so she give 'em the dresses, and got up the band; an 'twas o the ist o May, as they say, sir; an that 's how it come so as the sweeps done it."

"And do you remember it?"

"Ah noo, sir, nor my father neyther; but that's how it was, a long time agoo."

It used to be the custom in London for the sweeps to get up the May-Day dances. Companies of these would make a pyramid of wicker-work, of a sugar-loaf shape, covered with flowers and leaves, and topped with a crown of flowers and ribbons.[2] The chimney-sweeps appear again in Bavaria.[3] That the same used to be true of Cambridge, is shewn by the rhyme which the children still sing about the streets. They carry a female doll, hung in the midst of a hoop, which is wreathed with flowers, and they sing withal the following ditty:


The first of May is garland day,
And chimney-sweeper's dancing day.
Curl your hair as I do mine,
One before and one behind.

I add a few notes jotted down in September 1889 and in 1890.

The Black Forest, In a village near Furtwangen. The maypole stands all the year round by the inn. When I passed through, a new landlord had just come in. The pole bore on the top a faded wreath, no doubt last May's; and below, a cross-tree had been fixed to the pole, bearing upon it a wreath of fresher flowers, which I take to be the wreath set up for the in-coming; while a long string of flowers wound about the pole from the cross-tree down to the ground. On the cross-tree were fixed wooden models of a wine-bottle, wine-glass, beer-glass, cup and saucer, and brödchen; and a placard was affixed, reading: Glück und Segen dem nenen Wirth.

Oberharmersbach. Here, too, the inn had a new landlord. He had only just come in, as I well remember; for he had no bed for me, and sent me another five miles' trudge to find one. On the steps before the door stood a little fir, like a Christmas-tree, the branches bound with ribands and decked out prettily.

In Freiburg (Baden), in the Vosges, and at Cologne, I saw instances of the custom of placing a similar fir-tree on the roof-ridge or other part of a house while building. In one instance the tree was planted near the house in the ground.

  1. This is not to be distinguished in the picture. The space at the top is formed by the loops of the crown.
  2. Mannhardt, Baumhultus, p. 332, who cites authorities.
  3. Id., ib., p. 352.

W. H. D. Rouse.