May Day was traditionally a time of courtship for young unmarried people to celebrate the arrival of spring. Houses and halls were decorated with greenery and hawthorn blossoms. According to the Illustrated London News of May 1843, ‘may poles, may fairs and may games are as old as any English sports we have on record’. A may pole stood outside Somerset House in London with two gilt balls and a vane on the summit and was decorated on festival days with flags and garlands.
May festivities were frowned upon by certain sections of society. In 1664 the Long Parliament issued an ordinance against maypoles and they were all taken down but were erected again at the Restoration. Some of the traditions must have been spectacular with the may pole being drawn to its destination pulled by ‘twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nosegay of flowers tied to the tip of its horns’. Once in place the pole was bound with ribbons and put into position, with handkerchiefs and flags streaming from the top. Straw was laid out on the surrounding ground, flowering bowers and arbours were set up nearby and the populace ‘fell to banqueting and feasting, leaping and dancing about it’.
It wasn’t all unrelenting gaiety however. A violet storm on 9th October 1736 caused a large maypole near Falmouth to break, crushing a girl to death that stood nearby. A woman who saw the accident ‘was so struck with surprise that she sunk down and expired immediately’. In Aldermaston in 1707 ‘divers persons, contrary to law and decency, did assemble together in a riotous and tumultuous manner for the purposes of erecting a may pole’. This seemingly innocuous act took place outside the home of the village priest and was followed by the unfortunate man’s cattle being let loose and his ferret being stolen. A reward of two guineas was offered for information leading to the apprehension of those responsible.
May celebrations live on in some rural communities and there are countless pubs and inns called The Maypole around the country.This entry was posted in Archives, Blog and tagged archives, documentary records, history lesson, house history, may day, old newspapers