Sunday, May 8, 2016

May 1700s - Cross-dressing May Day celebrations or The Garland Gone Wild


Jack-In-The-Green


An 18C hand-colored print of chimney-sweeps’ May Day “Jack in the Green” celebrations in London. The portly “May Queen” on the right of the picture is probably a man. Bawdy & Bacchanalian these exuberant drunken celebrations of the coming in of Summer were gradually suppressed during the formality of the late Victorian period.

Traditional celebrations of the arrival of Summer on May Day had a rich cast of characters, not least the mysterious figure of the sinister Jack-in-the-Green, who wore a large, foliage-covered, garland-like framework, usually pyramidal or conical in shape, covering the body from head to foot.  The costume was a development of the 16C & 17C custom of decorating homes (and people) with garlands of flowers & leaves for the May Day celebration.



After becoming a source of competition between Britain's Works Guilds, the garlands became increasingly elaborate, finally covering the entire man. This figure resulting from extreme garlanding became known as Jack-in-the-Green.  For some reason the figure became particularly associated with chimney sweeps.




1836, 3 May: HATTON-GARDEN. - MY LORD AND MY LADY, OR JACK IN THE GREEN LUMBERED. - Yesterday George Sharpe, Edward Ellis, William Davies, and George Vincent, sweeps, were brought before Mr. Bennett and Mr. Halls, charged by Richard Bird, the street-keeper of Bedford-row, Holborn, with having created a disturbance, and assaulting him. 
    The prisoners were dressed up in an eccentric style. Sharpe and Ellis were clowns; Davis [sic] was papered and spangled as "My Lord," and Vincent, as "Jack in the Green." 
    Bird stated that yesterday morning, about twelve o'clock, prisoners entered Bedford-row with a fife and drum, followed by an immense crowd of persons, when they commenced dancing and disturbing the whole of the neighbourhood. He ordered them to remove, when they refused ; and, on making an effort to move them, Davies struck him, and he was immediately surrounded and beaten by them, and he would have been murdered had it not been for the arrival of the police. 
    A witness corroborated this evidence. 
    Mr. Barnett [sic] asked Davies what he had to say? 
    Davies (in a gruff voice) - Vy, my Lord, I'm a serveep ; my father was a serveep afore me ; and ve alvays vos 'lowed to go about in May. The beadle pushed us along, ven I sartainly did strike him, but he hit my child on its head.
    Eliza Sharpe, who held a child in her arms, said that Bird struck the child on its head with his staff, and pointed out a bruise on its forehead, but she could not say that he did it wilfully. 
    Mr. Barnett [sic] asked Bird why he used his staff? 
    Bird - I was obliged, in self-defence. They were all upon me, your Worship. 
    Mr. Bennett - You have acted rather intemperately ; you ought not to have used your staff. 
    Mr. Bennett - You have acted rather intemperately. You ought not to have used your staff. [sic] 
    Davies - We axed him if we might have a dance, and vile ve wer in the reel round "Jack in the Green" he cum'd and turned us avay for nuffen votsamdever ; there are some o' these chaps vot goes about, vot are not serveeps (pulling up his trowsers), but if yer Lordship vants to be satisfied on that ere subject only look at my knees, (showing large corns on his knee-pans) I assures yer Vorship ve are reglar flue-flakers, and I've been up the smallest flues in the country. I was born a serveep, I've lived a serveep, and I'll die a serveep. (Laughter.) 
    Mr. Bennett - I certainly must say that it is very irregular for such persons to go about the streets creating a mob and disturbance, but it is an ancient custom, and they ought not to be interfered with. (To Bird) - I do not mean to censure you ; but if you had not interfered you would have acted more wisely. If you call upon me to punish them for their conduct I must do so; but, under the circumstances, you having used your staff, I think you would act more wisely not to press the matter. 
    Bird said he would not, and the whole of the prisoners were discharged, and, on leaving the Court, Jack popped into the Green ; and, after regaling themselves at an adjacent public-house, they proceeded opposite the office and struck up a tune, and continued dancing in a most ludicrous manner until they got out of the neighbourhood.  The Morning Post, 4 May 1836, page 4.



1856, 3 May: On the 3rd inst. a young woman, named Mary Sullivan, residing in Paviour's-alley, Lambeth, was attracted by the display of a Jack-in-the-Green, accompanied by my lord and lady and clown. The latter individual indulged very freely in the clown's proverbial mischievous pranks, and suddenly catching hold of the young woman he embraced her. This unexpected act produced a shock on the nervous system. One fit succeeded another. She was removed to the hospital, but never rallied. The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 24 May 1856, page 6.


By the turn of the 20C the custom had started to wane, as a result of the Victorian disapproval of bawdy behavior. The cross-dressing Lord & Lady of the May, with their practical jokes & embarassing excesses, were replaced by the chaste tableau of the May Queen, while the noisy, usually drunken Jack-in-the-Green vanished from most local parades.


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