Today in London’s festive history: traditional day of Charlton Horn Fair, rowdy popular procession & shindig

Charlton Horn Fair was a rowdy bawdy South East London popular procession and fair, said to have originated in a celebration of cuckoldry. 100s of working class men wearing horns, and blowing on the musical horns, would march every 18th of October from Cuckold Point in Bermondsey, through Deptford to Charlton House, then back to Cuckolds Point, Deptford, where the Horn Fair was held for 3 days, outside St Luke’s Church. Like many fairs, the event often became riotous and disorderly, according to contemporary accounts, and descended into heavy drinking, occasional fighting and general debauchery. Respectable folk increasingly saw such occasions – which punctuated the annual calendar, especially between Spring and Autumn – as a threat to public order and morality.

The fair was described by Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, in A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727) as:

“Charleton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz’d well govern’d nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify’d the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.”

Woodley, W.; Charlton Horn Fair

What were the origins of the fair? We know that in 1268 King Henry III granted a three-day fair to the Abbey of Bermondsey to be held around Trinity Sunday, which is the eighth Sunday after Easter, that is, around May or June. Bermondsey Abbey owned the manor of Charlton at the time.

Around the seventeenth century the date of the fair was moved to the 18th of October, which is the feast day of St Luke (patron saint of Charlton’s parish church). In medieval pictures Luke is often seen writing or painting, with a horned ox or cow also somewhere in the picture. It is thought that this inspired the displaying of a large pair of horns on a pole to announce the opening of St Luke’s Fair, which may be the origin of the horn motif of the fair.

An old myth used to be trotted out explain slightly older origins of the Fair:

A broadside summonsing people to the Horn Fair

“King John, wearied with hunting on Shooter’s Hill and Blackheath, entered the house of a miller at Charlton to refresh and rest himself. He found no one at home but the miller’s wife, young, it is said, and beautiful. The miller, it so happened, was earlier in coming home than was usual when he went to Greenwich with his meal; and red and raging at what he saw on his return, he drew his knife. The king being unarmed, thought it prudent to make himself known, and the miller, only too happy to think it was no baser individual, asked a boon of the king. The king consented, and the miller was told to clear his eyes, and claim the long strip of land he could see before him on the Charlton side of the river Thames. The miller cleared his eyes, and saw as far as the point near Rotherhithe. The king then admitted the distance, and the miller was put into possession of the property on one condition – that he should walk annually on that day, the 18th of October, to the farthest bounds of the estate with a pair of buck’s horns upon his head.”

This tale is almost certainly pretty much entirely made up – for a start, there is no record of any landowner having possessed all the land mentioned. Also, it was only in the 17th century that the fair was associated with October rather than being held around mid-summer.

But there could be a kernel of historical truth at the heart of this legend…

When the famous Magna Carta was issued to King John, as part of the subsequent editing process, a lesser known Magna Charta de Foresta, or Forest Charter, also emerged a few years later. This secondary document relaxed a large number of laws which made it almost a capital offence to hunt in the forests, which were solely the preserve of the Monarch. The forests and lands belonging to the Monarch had been greatly expanded, causing considerable anger among the populace, so the law also reduced the size of the land controlled by the Monarch, making it more available for common folk to use.

Could the tale about King John granting land to a commoner derive from folk memory of the actual law that his son signed just a few years later? Could the Charlton Horn Fair owe its origins to popular celebrations of the relaxation of forest laws signed by King Henry III? there was considerable rejoicing There were various other Horn Fairs dotted around the country, and a good many of them all seem to date from charters granted during King Henry III’s reign, and certainly the Charlton Horn Fair can be traced back that far as well, although its exact origins are uncertain.

The Horn aspect has been linked by some commentators to earlier pagan traditions, but another aspect of the Magna Charta de Foresta was to reduce the fines on hunting and encourage the reduction of earlier New Forests. The link between the law and hunting could explain the popularity of wearing horns, to show that the commoner has been allowed to hunt freely.

In 1819 the Fair was moved to Fairfields: “The fair was formerly held upon a green opposite the church, and facing Charlton House; but this piece of ground having some years ago been enclosed so as to form part of the gardens belonging to the mansion, the fair was subsequently held in a private field at the other end of the village, under the auspices of a few speculative publicans.” (Old and New London: Volume 6. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.)

The Charlton fair seemed to reach its zenith in popularity during the Restoration period, and flotillas of boats would fill the Thames as they brought revellers down from London to Charlton.

“During the reign of Charles II. it was a carnival of the most unrestrained kind, and those frequenting it from London used to proceed thither in boats, “disguised as kings, queens, millers, &c., with horns on their heads; and men dressed as females, who formed in procession and marched round the church and fair.”” (Old and New London: Volume 6.)

Nicholas Breton, in a poem published in 1612, “Pasquil’s Nightcap, or Antidote for the Headache,” gave an account of the annual gathering, which shows that they were held in great pomp, and with an immense concourse of people, all of whom

“In comely sort their foreheads did adorne
With goodly coronets of hardy horne;”

Breton ends his poem by hinting that the Fair was already seen as a nuisance by some:

“Long time this solemne custome was observ’d,
And Kentish-men with others met to feast;
But latter times are from old fashions swerv’d,
And grown repugnant to this good behest.
For now ungratefull men these meetings scorn,
And thanklesse prove to Fortune and the horn;
For onely now is kept a poor goose fair,
Where none but meaner people doe repaire.”

Many people attended the Fair in fancy dress, cross-dressing being especially popular. William Fuller wrote in 1703: “I remember being there upon Horn Fair day, I was dressed in my landlady’s best gown and other women’s attire, and to Horn Fair we went, and as we were coming back by water, all the clothes were spoilt by dirty water etc. that was flung on us in an inundation, for which I was obliged to present her with two guineas to make atonement for the damage sustained.”

In 1872 Charlton Horn Fair was officially banned, either because of general drunken behaviour, or specifically due to a fight between dockers & army cadets.

A ferris wheel at the Horn Fair, 18th century

“Legal measures are being taken to extinguish the fairs held at Charlton-next-Woolwich and on Blackheath. Charlton Fair, or “Horn Fair,” as it is called, has been held for centuries past on the 18th of October and two following days, under the authority of a charter said to have been granted by King John. It was formerly opened with great ceremony, including the blowing of horns, and hence, probably, its name. For many years past the character of the gathering has greatly degenerated, and it is the last pleasure fair left existing in the metropolitan district. The bulk of the inhabitants have long urged its extinction, and since the passing of the Fair Act, 1871, have memorialised the lord of the manor, Sir John Maryon Wilson, to that end. Sir John has now given his consent to the abolition of the fair, and on Saturday last the justices of the Blackheath division, sitting in petty sessions, resolved that the fair was a nuisance which ought to be abolished, and directed that the Secretary of State should be requested to take the necessary steps for that purpose. At the same time a representation was made with respect to Blackheath Fair, a sort of market held twice a year for the sale of horses, and pigs, and the consent of the “owner,” who is [Lord Darnley,] lord of the manor, having been given, a similar resolution was unanimously passed. It may be taken for granted that the fairs of Charlton and Blackheath have been held for the last time.”Daily News, Jan. 15, 1872. They have since (March, 1872) been officially abolished.

Despite the ban, the Fair was apparently unofficially celebrated in the 1920s.

While the fair itself was restored in the 1970s, the parade from Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe was not brought back, until the tradition of the parade was revived in 2009 – the IanVisits blog describes the start.



May Day in South London: a history

“Thou art here indicted by the name of Flora, of the City of Rome, in the County of Babylon, for that thou, contrary to the peace of our Soveraign Lord, his Crown and Dignity, hast brought in a pack of practical Fanaticks, viz. Ignorants, Atheists, Papists, Drunkards, Swearers, Swash∣bucklers, Maid-marrions, Morrice-dancers, Maskers, Mummers, May pole-stealers, Health-drinkers, together with a rascalian rout of Fidlers, Fools, Fighters, Gamesters, Whoremasters, Lewd-men, Light-women, Contemners of Magistracy, affronters of Ministery, rebellious to Masters, disobedient to Parents, mis-spenders of time, abusers of the creature, &c.”
(Thomas Hall, Funebria Florae, Or the Downfall of the May Games, 1661).

It’s International Workers Day… (regardless of the British government’s attempt to deny the existence of class by shifting the Bank Holiday to next week).. so we hope you’re all taking the day off. Or pretending to work from home. Assuming you’ve not been laid off without pay from your zero hours gig.
Or are you being forced to jostle with workmates on a crowded site or in a care home, cause you won’t get paid if you don’t turn up? Jammed together in a flat with the kids? Trying to keep yourself safe while looking after the sick or dying, while your manager hides the PPE in case you “use too much”?

It’s May Day – a day to strike, skive, shirk and fight back, if you can… (and then let’s carry it on…)

But the lily-livered attempt to replace the Mayday holiday with a more nebulous and patriotic national holiday does remind us of the discomfort that May Day in its various forms has caused ruling elites over the centuries. There’s no better time than now to turn Mayday back into a threat again…

So for all of you workers, shirkers, dancers and chancers – here’s Neil Transpontine’s excellent romp through the history of Mayday in South London – from medieval games and cavorting with Satan (oh yes!), to mass strikes and riots in the City, it’s our holiday and we’re not giving it up.

This text was published as a Past Tense pamphlet in 2011. You can also download a PDF of the pamphlet 


May Day in South London: a history

Neil Transpontine


1. Introduction
2. Ancient Festivals
3. The Merry Month of May – Middle Ages to Puritans
4. Milkmaids, Chimney Sweeps and the Jack-in-the-Green
5. Reinventing May Day
6. The Workers’ May Day: origins to 1930s
7. The Workers’ May Day After the Second World War
8. The Counter-Culture and the Folk Revival
9. Anti-Capitalist May Days
10. 21st Century May Day
10. Conclusion
11. Bibliography


For centuries people have been celebrating the height of Spring, and the first signs of Summer, at the beginning of May. This text examines the diverse ways they have done so in London South of the Thames.

It is a story of milkmaids, chimney sweeps, kings, socialists, pagans, Christians, school children and anarchists. A story of maypoles, May Queens and Jack-in-the-Greens.
A story too of subversion and conflicts with the authorities: May Day has often been a focus of religious and political contention, and continues to be so down to the present day.

This text started out as a talk and has developed through participation in various May Day events in South London over the past few years. The first talk was given in 2003 to South London Radical History Group at the Use Your Loaf Social Centre in Deptford High Street. After further research, a revised talk was given in 2005 to South East London Folklore Society, then meeting at the Spanish Galleon in Greenwich.
Short versions of the talk were given at May Day events organised by the Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir in Brockley at Toad’s Mouth Too (2004), Moonbow Jakes (2005), and the Brockley Social Club (2007). Then, in 2010, I gave a talk at the Deptford Arms as part of a lovely May Day folk evening organised by Kit and Cutter that also featured the singing of Martin Carthy.

In a sense then, this pamphlet has emerged out of the story it describes. I can only hope that it goes back into the stream to inform those who come after to celebrate the May.



If we pick up one of the many books available on ‘Celtic spirituality’ or neopaganism we will find confident descriptions of the ancient festival of Beltane.
For instance according to Glennie Kindred (2001): ‘In the Celtic Pagan past, this was the night of the “greenwood marriage” where the union between the Horned God and the fertile Goddess was re-enacted by the men and women to ensure the fertility of the land. It was a night to spend in the woods, to make love under the trees, stay up all night and watch the sunrise, and bathe in the early morning dew. On this night, people walked the mazes and labyrinths and sat all night by the sacred wells and healing springs’.
This is though an imaginative reconstruction – in reality we know little about the precise content of religion and rituals in the British Isles before the Romans. We do though at least know that a festival has been held at this time of year for as long as records exist – although of course before the adoption of the Roman calendar the date ‘1st of May’ did itself not exist.

In his authoritative overview of seasonal customs, the historian Ronald Hutton (1996) notes that May Day is something of an exception to ‘the almost total absence of concrete evidence concerning pre-Christian seasonal rituals in the British Isles’. Early Medieval Irish documents refer to the burning of fires on Beltane or Beltine at the beginning of May, between which cattle were driven to protect them. A ninth-century document links this custom with the Druids (Hutton 1991).
Records of similar practices are found from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and South West England until into the nineteenth century. As well as fires, Beltane was associated in some areas with other customs, such as hanging rowan branches around doorways. It is common for writers to refer to Beltane as associated with a god ‘Bel’. There was a god called Belenus who was worshipped in what is now Austria, although there is no evidence of this deity ever being associated with Ireland or British Isles. Bel may just be derived from the Celtic preface meaning ‘bright’ or fortunate (Hutton 1996).
There are though no records of Beltane fires in the south of England. The custom was presumably tied up with a pastoral economy where animals were driven out to new pastures in the summer months. If the custom was observed in the London area it must have died out before written records came into being.

We can only speculate where in what is now South London Beltane or some other seasonal festival may have been observed at this time of year in prehistoric times. Remains of pre-Roman monuments and settlements have been found in various locations. Along the River Thames these include a burial mound by what is now London Bridge, and a wooden structure by the mouth of the River Effra in Vauxhall. There are surviving traces of Iron Age hillforts at the south end of Wimbledon Common and at Keston Mark in the London Borough of Bromley, on a hill above the spring that is the source of the River Ravensbourne (misleadingly, both sites are known as ‘Caesar’s Camp’).
Doubtless those who lived around these sites marked the turning of the seasons in their own way, but we do not really know how.


The Romans celebrated the festival of Floralia from 28 April to 3 May in honour of Flora, the personification and goddess of flowers and greenery. Like later May Day festivities in the British Isles, it was sometimes associated with license and indecency – prostitutes apparently claimed the festival as their own. The festival included theatrical performances and public games, known as the Ludi Floralia.
There was a substantial Roman settlement in Southwark around the south end of London Bridge, and numerous other Roman sites south of the Thames, such as a temple in what is now Greenwich Park. It is quite probable that a Roman spring festival was celebrated in such areas during the centuries of Roman influence following the invasion of 43 CE, but as with the pre-Roman period there are no records to confirm this.

Flora remained an important image of the season, long after the organised worship of the Romans died out. An image of Flora can be seen to this day in Camberwell Road, with a codestone relief depicting a figure with a garland of flowers now embedded in the wall of a block of flats. This was originally displayed in Dr Lettsom’s mansion in Grove Hill, an 1809 description of which states that ‘The front is adorned with emblematical figures of Flora and the Seasons’ (cited in Walford, 1878). In the mid-19th century, there was also a Royal Flora Gardens in Camberwell, a pleasure garden in Wyndham Road.



O the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!
O, and then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen.

(Thomas Dekker, 1600)

The Roman festival of Floralia was associated with the wearing of garlands of flowers, and this has remained a common feature of May Day celebrations through the ages. This is not surprising as the proliferation of flowers is such a feature of the natural season, as is the shift to a warmer climate more suitable for outdoor celebrations.

In early modern England, May Day was one point in an annual ‘calendar that drew on celestial, pagan and ecclesiastical elements’. In addition to ‘the natural calendar of the seasons’ there was an ‘agricultural rhythm of cultivation, harrowing, planting and harvest… further modified by the cycles of lambing and calving, droving and herding, and the autumn slaughter of animals’. Then there was the ‘ceremonial calendar of the Christian year’, marking the life of Christ and the saints (Cressy 1989).

By the Middle Ages the whole ‘merry month of May’ was associated with communal celebrations in England, particularly the holidays of May Day and Whitsun. Festivities included games, fairs and communal feasts (often known as ‘ales’), with music, dancing and sports. Hutton (1996) suggests that the weather was one of the reasons for this: ‘Commoners, unlike royalty and the aristocracy, lacked large buildings in which communal festivities could comfortably be held in bad weather’. The warmer weather in May enabled outdoor gatherings, and in addition ‘it lay conveniently between the heavy work of ploughing and sowing, and that of hay making’.

The custom of going out to collect flowers and greenery on May Day, sometimes known as ‘Maying’ or simply ‘The May’, is described in the London area for as long as written records exist and no doubt had its origins in an even earlier period. It did not die out until late in the nineteenth century, by which point urbanisation meant that many people would have had quite a journey to find flowering hawthorn or other suitable foliage.

In his Survey of London (1603), John Stow wrote that ‘in the month of May, the Citizens of London of all estates, lightly in every Parish, or sometimes two or three parishes joining together, had their several mayings, and did fetch in Maypoles, with diverse warlike shows, with good Archers, Morris dancers, and other devices for pastime all the day long, and towards the Evening they had stage plays, and Bonfires in the streets’; and that ‘on May day in the morning, every man, except impediment, would walk into the sweet meadows and green woods, there to rejoice their spirits with the beauty and savour of sweet flowers, and with the harmony of birds, praising God in their kind’ .

Henry Machyn, a London merchant, recorded in his diary in 1559 that ‘The first day of May’ was marked ‘with streamers, banners, and flags, and trumpets and drums and guns, going a Maying’ and at the Queen’s place at Westminster ‘they shot and threw eggs and oranges at each other’.

A more hostile account is given by Philip Stubbes in his The Anatomie of Abuses, first published on 1 May 1583: ‘Against May, Whitsunday, or other time, all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding overnight to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bring with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal. And no marvel; for there is a great lord present amongst them, as superintendant and lord over their pastimes and sports, namely Satan, Prince of Hell’.

Bringing in the May was sometimes accompanied by dancing, processions and other pleasures. Stubbes claimed that ‘of forty, threescore, or a hundred maids going to the wood overnight, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled’ – although demographers have found no evidence of a 1 February baby boom nine months later.

One of the first references we have to May Day in South London comes from 1492 when King Henry VII is recorded as having paid ten shillings ‘to the maidens of Lambeth for a May’ – presumably a garland of flowers, perhaps accompanied with some kind of performance. The King’s interest seems to indicate that May Day customs were observed at all levels of society. This vignette also suggests another feature of May Day: as well as being a time of popular celebration, it was also an opportunity to earn some extra income. As we shall see, this was an important aspect down to the 19th century.

May kings and queens

A feature of the May festivities was sometimes the crowning of a mock-king. Once again, Stubbes (1583) provides the most colourful description of this: ‘the wild heads of the parish conventing together, chose themselves a grand captain (of mischief) whom they ennoble with the title of my Lord of Misrule… they have their hobby horses, dragons and other antiques, together with their bawdy pipes and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devil’s Dance withal, then march those heathen company towards the Church and churchyard, their pipers piping, drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchieves swinging above their heads like madmen, their hobby horses and other monsters skirmishing among the throng’.

The May King or Lord was sometimes accompanied by a female counterpart – an instance is recorded at Kingston – but frequently not. The prominence of the May Queen seems to have initially been a literary invention of early seventeenth century London-based poets such as Michael Drayton and William Brown. Hutton (1996) remarks of these urban pastoralists that ‘their difference in priorities from genuine rustics is shown in their constant descriptions of pretty May Queens in preference to the more common village lords’.

Robin Hood

Robin Hood and his entourage were also sometimes associated with May festivities. Kingston in Surrey was known in the 16th century for its Robin Hood plays held over five days in May, featuring all the usual characters of Little John, Friar Tuck and Maid Marian, the latter usually played by a man in drag.

On May Day 1515, Henry VIII and the Queen ‘rode a Maying from Greenwich to the high ground of Shooters hill, where as they passed by the way, they spied a company of tall yeomen clothed all in Green’. The staged pageant included ‘Robin Hoode’ leading a band of 200 archers. ‘Robin Hoode desired the King & Queene with their retinue to enter the greene wood, where, in harbours made of boughs, and decked with flowers, they were set and served plentifully with venison and wine, by Robin Hoode and his men, to their great contentment, and had other Pageants and pastimes’ (Stow, 1603). The company included Lady May, Little John, Friar Tuck and Maid Marian.

Another account of this event is given by Sebastian Giustinian, a Venetian ambassador to the court of Henry VIII at the time. The Venetian party had arrived in London shortly before, travelling by road from Dover to Deptford where they were met on 16th April by fifty of the King’s horseman to accompany them into London. On the first day of May 1515 ‘his Majesty sent two English lords to the ambassadors, who were taken by them to a place called Greenwich, five miles hence, where the king was, for the purpose of celebrating May Day. On the ambassadors arriving there, they mounted on horse-back, with many of the chief nobles of the kingdom, and accompanied the most Serene Queen into the country, to meet the King. Her Majesty was most excellently attired, and very richly, and with her were twenty-five damsels, mounted on white palfreys, with housings of the same fashion, most beautifully embroidered in gold, and these damsels had all dresses slashed with gold lama in very costly trim, with a number of footmen in most excellent order’.
The party then proceeded to Shooters Hill: ‘The Queen went thus with her retinue a distance of two miles out of Greenwich, into a wood, where they found the King with his guard, all clad in a livery of green, with bows in their hands, and about a hundred noblemen on horseback, all gorgeously arrayed. In this wood were certain bowers filled purposely with singing birds, which carolled most sweetly, and in one of these bastions or bowers, were some triumphal cars, on which were singers and musicians, who played on an organ and lute and flutes for a good while, during a banquet which was served in this place; then proceeding homewards, certain tall paste-board giants being placed on cars, and surrounded by his Majesty’s guard, were conducted with the greatest order to Greenwich, the musicians singing the whole way, and sounding the trumpets and other instruments, so that, by my faith, it was an extremely fine triumph, and very pompous, and the King in person brought up the rear in as great state as possible, being followed by the Queen, with such a crowd on foot, as to exceed, I think, 25,000 persons’. After Mass and more feasting at Greenwich, the day finished with the King taking part in a jousting tournament.

May Day seems to have been celebrated regularly by Henry VIII at Greenwich as the start of the summer season. In 1536, his then Queen Anne Boleyn sat with him in the royal box to watch the May Day jousting. It was to be her last public appearance – the following day she was arrested, and on May 19th she was beheaded.

The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth the 1st, was also an enthusiast for May games. Machyn records that on the 25th June 1559 there was a special performance for her at Greenwich of ‘a May game’ featuring a giant, St George and the Dragon, Morris dancing, Robin Hood, Little John , Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and the Nine Worthies of Christendom.
These Elizabethan May games were evidently very lavish. For the 1559 games, the City of London’s Ironmongers company sent ‘men in armour to the May game that went before the queen’s majestie to Greenwich’ and in 1571 ‘the Merchant Taylors sent 187 men in military costume, as their proportion towards a splendid Maying’ (Timbs, 1866).
Queen Elizabeth is also linked with another South London May Day. On 1 May 1602, ‘the Queen went a-maying to Mr. Richard Buckley’s at Lewisham’ (Lyson, 1796). Local legend has it that this occurred by an oak tree on what is now One Tree Hill, and that as a result this tree became known as the Oak of Honor – giving its name to the surrounding area of Honor Oak.


In the political and religious conflicts that shook England in the 16th and 17th century, popular festivities were often a focus of controversy. As the most visible symbol of May Day, it was the maypole itself that was frequently targeted. Philip Stubbes (1583) was typical of the Puritan reformers who regarded it as a kind of pagan idol: ‘But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration… Then fall they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself’.
Under Edward’s Protestant regime of the 1540s many seasonal festivities withered in the face of official hostility: in 1549 the Corporation of London even instructed property owners to prevent their servants from attending May games (Hutton 1994). It was in this climate that the local maypole in Wandsworth was sold off in 1547/8. It must have been replaced, because a century later it was destroyed once more, being dug up in 1640-1 shortly after the Long Parliament had dispensed the King’s ‘Book of Sports’ which had given some protection to popular festivities against the puritan onslaught. In 1644, Parliament passed an ordinance banning maypoles which were described as ‘a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness’.

In Bermondsey, there was a maypole at Horsleydown. A painting by Joris Hoefnagel of a fete there in around 1590 shows a very tall wooden pillar opposite the Tower of London, approximately where Potters Hill Fields park is now situated. Opposition to the local maypole was led by Edward Elton (c. 1569-1624), the vicar of St Mary Magdelen. Elton was a prolific puritan, the author of such works as ‘The complaint of a sanctified sinner answered’ and ‘A plaine and easie exposition upon the Lords prayer in questions and answers’. In 1617, after preaching against the pagan evils of May Day, Elton led a mob to cut down the local maypole.
A contemporary account records: ‘Some of these practitioners, with friends of the Artillery Garden, intended sport, but Parson Elton would not have it so, and desired the constable to strike out the heads of their drums, and he preached against it many Sabbath days. Further Elton and his people assaulted the said Maypole, and did, with hatchets, saws, or otherwise, cut down the same, divided it into several pieces, and carried it into Elton’s yard’ (cited in Clarke, 1902).

Another 17th century South London maypole is shown on a 1681 map near to the present Elephant and Castle junction, set up in the middle of the ‘King’s Highway to Southwark’, (now Newington Causeway)’. The fate of this maypole is unknown.

Repression and rebellion

The chopping down of maypoles can be seen as part of a broader assault of popular celebrations. According to Ronald Hutton (1994): ‘All over western and central Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reformers attacked popular festivity and tried to enforce a stricter standard of sexual morality and of personal decorum… Vagrants, fornicators, and suspected witches were all persecuted with a new intensity, and formal entertainments tended to replace spontaneous and participatory celebration’.
For the radical historian Peter Linebaugh (1999), May Day ‘was always a celebration of all that is free and life-giving in the world. That is the Green side of the story. Whatever else it was, it was not a time to work. Therefore, it was attacked by the authorities… In England the attacks on May Day were a necessary part of the wearisome, unending attempt to establish industrial work discipline’.

But the picture is more complicated than a straightforward desire to suppress all festivities: ‘Maypoles and May games provided easy targets for reformers of manners… But a vigorous tradition of May revels survived the Reformation and withstood the hostility of puritan critics. May games, May bowers, May fairs and maypoles enjoyed a popular vigour, sometimes encouraged and at other times frowned upon by local authorities… The royal orders of 1617 and 1633, known as the Book of Sports, authorized “May Games, Whitsun Ales, Morris Dances and the setting up of Maypoles”‘ (Cressy, 1989).
It may be true that in the Cromwell period there was less official tolerance of May Day customs, and that after the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War there was something of an officially-sponsored return of popular revelry – in 1661 a 134 foot maypole was erected in the Strand ‘to replace the one removed in 1644’ (Hutton, 1994).

It would be simplifying matters though to say that 17th century Royalists were always more inclined to festivities than Parliamentarian Puritans, or that in the previous century Catholics were always more tolerant of them than Protestants.
Under the Catholic reign of Mary Tudor the Privy Council banned May games in Kent because ‘lewd practises… are appointed to begun at such assemblies’, while in the seventeenth century Deptford Royalist John Evelyn condemned May customs – although to be fair a major concern for him as a tree enthusiast was that people were cutting down ‘fine straight trees’ to be used for maypoles. Evelyn denounced ‘those riotous assemblies of idle people, who under pretence of going a Maying, (as they term it) do oftentimes cut down and carry away fine straight trees, to set up before some ale-house, or revelling place, where they keep their drunken Bacchanalia… I think it were better to be quite abolish’d amongst us, for many reasons, besides that of occasioning so much waste and spoil as we find is done to trees at that season, under this wanton pretence, by breaking, mangling, and tearing down of branches, and entire arms of trees, to adorn their wooden idol’ (Evelyn, 1662)

[Editor’s note: One swivel-eyed parson set out his objections to the May Games, listing some of the dodgy types it attracted: “a pack of practical Fanaticks, viz. Ignorants, Atheists, Papists, Drunkards, Swearers, Swash∣bucklers, Maid-marrions, Morrice-dancers, Maskers, Mummers, May pole-stealers, Health-drinkers, together with a rascalian rout of Fidlers, Fools, Fighters, Gamesters, Whoremasters, Lewd-men, Light-women, Contemners of Magistracy, affronters of Ministery, rebellious to Masters, disobedient to Parents, mis-spenders of time, abusers of the creature, &c.”
(Thomas Hall, Funebria Florae, Or the Downfall of the May Games, 1661). If you’re not in that list – get misbehavin’…]

Many Protestants were happy to celebrate a calendar of holy days and Saints days, with May 1st being marked as the feast day of the apostles Saint Philip and Saint James. Not all were averse to people enjoying themselves, for some the issue was rather that the secular celebrations should be kept completely separate from the sphere of the church.
What united rulers of whatever stripe, Royalist or Parliamentarian, was ‘the fear of riot and rebellion during a period characterised not only by dramatic religious change but by inflation and harvest failure’ (Hutton,1994). May was a prime month for such rebellion: the Peasants Revolt 1381 and Jack Cade’s rebellion 1450 both started during the May Whitsun holidays. In 1517 the events known as ‘Evil May Day’ took place in London, an uprising of apprentices that targeted the houses of foreigners living in the city – arguably an early ‘race riot’ and a reminder that popular rebellions are not always propelled by emancipatory impulses.

In May 1640, there was a revolt of Southwark apprentices during the May holidays. The focus was the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, a key ally of Charles I who was to be executed as a Royalist a few years later in 1644.
John Evelyn recorded in his diary on April 27th ‘the Bishop of Canterbury’s palace at Lambeth being assaulted by a rude rabble from Southwark’.
Seemingly a few days later it was attacked again: ‘placards suddenly appeared throughout the City urging the apprentices to rise and free the land from the rule of the bishops. At a public meeting on St. George’s Fields, the City apprentices and the sailors and dockhands, now idle through lack of trade, joined up with the glovers, tanners, and brewery workers of Bermondsey and Southwark who were on holiday for the May Day celebrations to hunt “Laud, the fox”‘ (Browner, 1994).
On May 11th Laud himself recorded: ‘Monday night, at midnight, my house at Lambeth was beset with 500 persons of the rascal riotous multitude. I had notice, and strengthened the house as well as I could, and, God be blessed, I had no harm.’ A young rioter was condemned at Southwark soon after and hanged and quartered. The king issued a proclamation ‘for the repressing and punishing of the late Rebellious and Traiterous assemblies in Lambeth, Southwark, and other places adjoyning’. Laud’s fellow royalist the Earl of Clarendon wrote that ‘this infamous, scandalous, headless insurrection, quashed with the deserved death of that one varlet, was not thought to be contrived or fomented by any persons of quality’ (Walford, 1878).

In 1649 May 1st was again eventful. It was on this day that radical Leveller prisoners in the Tower of London, including Greenwich-born John Lilburne, published ‘An agreement of the free people of England’. On the same day the Scroop’s Horse regiment unanimously agreed not to obey Cromwell’s decision to send them to Ireland. At least five other regiments joined them and set up a Council of Agitators. Having mutinied at Salisbury, they joined with other mutinous regiments, until on May 14th they were surprised by Cromwell at Burford. Hundreds were captured and imprisoned in Burford church, and the next morning three were executed in sight of their comrades.


Milkmaids and Bunters

Whether due to repression, or simply changes in taste, May games in London seemed to have declined somewhat by the eighteenth century. May Day was though kept alive by specific occupations: in particular milkmaids. There are reports of Milk Maids in London celebrating May Day from the mid-17th century, and indeed there are images from the 14th century of milkmaids dancing and carrying flowers, although these cannot definitively be linked to May Day.

Milkmaids’ Mayday in London c. 1760

On May 1st 1667, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary ‘Thence to Westminster; in the way meeting many milk-maids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them’. Pepys also recorded another seasonal tradition of May dew being good for the complexion: ‘My wife away down with Jane and W.Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there tomorrow, and so to gather May-dew tomorrow morning, which Mrs Tuner hath taught here is the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it’ (28 May 1667). In Tudor times, Queen Catherine of Aragon is also said to have gathered May dew in Greenwich Park (Timbs, 1866)

The milkmaids’ ‘garland’ consisted of (often borrowed) silver plate decorated with flowers and ribbons which they carried on their heads. Accompanied by musicians they would go dancing through the streets collecting donations. This custom was seemingly in decline by the time Hone’s Every-Day Book was published in 1826, with its lament that ‘In London thirty years ago, When pretty milkmaids went about, It was a goodly sight to see, Their May-day pageant all drawn out. Such scenes and sounds once blest my eye, And charm’d my ears; but all have vanish’d, On May-day now no garlands go, For milkmaids and their dance are banish’d’.

Milkmaids were associated with one of the longest surviving maypoles in London, to be found ‘near Kennington Green… the Maypole was in the field on the south side of the Workhouse Lane, and nearly opposite to the Black Prince public house. It remained til about the year 1795, and was much frequented, particularly by milk maids’ (Hone, 1826).
As well as the milkmaids there are also references in the 18th century to ‘bunters’ May Day – bunter being a term for a prostitute. According to Roy Judge (2000), ‘The Bunters were, in fact, a kind of parody of the Milkmaids’ custom, with their pewter in place of silver… giving a deliberately grotesque show as public entertainment’. A 1770 print purporting to depict this includes the verse ‘What Frolicks are here /So droll and so queer/ How joyful appeareth the day/ E’en Bunter and Bawd Unite to applaud /And celebrate first of the May’ (The Humours of May Day.).

The Jack in the Green

By the beginning of the 19th century, May Day was associated more and more with another occupational group – the Chimney Sweeps. Robert Southey commented that ‘The first days of May are the Saturnalia of these people, a wretched class of men, who exist in no other country than England’ (Southey, 1836).

In his ‘Sports and pastimes of the people of England’ published in 1801, Joseph Strutt, described the Chimney Sweeps’ May Day: ‘The chimney-sweepers of London have also singled out the first of May for their festival; at which time they parade the streets in companies, disguised in various manners. Their dresses are usually decorated with gilt paper and other mock fineries; they have their shovels and brushes in their hands which they rattle one upon the other; and to this rough music they jump about in imitation of dancing. Some of the larger companies have a fiddler with them, and a Jack-in-the-Green, as well as a Lord and Lady of the May, who follow the minstrel with great stateliness, and dance as occasion requires. The Jack-in-the-Green is a piece of pageantry consisting of a hollow frame of wood or wicker work, made in the form of a sugarloaf, but open at the bottom, and sufficiently large and high to receive a man. The frame is covered with green leaves and bunches of flowers interwoven with each other, so that the man within may be completely concealed, who dances with his companions, and the populace are mightily pleased with the oddity of the moving pyramid’.

Early 19th century chimney sweeps’ parade

Another observer of this custom complained: ‘Unfortunately, the apparently innocent and somewhat child-like capers of the Jack-in-the-green and his jovial troop engender and increase the vice of drinking. At each halt, more refreshments are produced, and sobriety is not a distinctive quality of the poor in general, or of chimney-sweeps in particular’ (Thomson & Smith, 1877).

Henry Mayhew (1850) was told that costermongers (market traders) were also involved: ‘This kind of street performance is generally got up by some master sweep in reduced circumstances, who engages all the parties and finds the dresses. There was only one regular sweep in the school that my informant joined. Many of the Jacks-in-the-green are got up by costermongers. “My Lady” generally has 3s. a day, and is mostly the sweep’s or costermonger’s daughter or sister – anything, indeed, said my informant, so as she can shake a leg about a bit. The Clown gets 5s., the Jack 3s. or 4s., and the drum and pipes 6s. There are generally from five to six persons go out together, and the expenses (not including dresses) will be about 30s. a day, and the receipts about £3’.
The folklorist Roy Judge (among other things a Peckham teacher) wrote the classic study of ‘The Jack in the Green’ (2000). He rejects the notion that the Jack in the Green represents some kind of pagan survival from ancient times of a Green Man figure, noting that the first descriptions of a Jack in the Green on May Day date from the late 18th century. The pyramid of greenery may have evolved from the milkmaids garland which became increasingly more elaborate, with the structure carried on the head evolving into something that had to be carried by hand.

Within South London, reports of Jack in the Green have been found from Borough, Camberwell, Clapham, Greenwich, Tooting, Wandsworth and Lewisham where on May Day 1894 ‘a Jack with a Queen of May, two maidens proper, one man dressed as a woman, and a man with a piano-organ’ were spotted dancing and collecting money ‘In the High Street, at the inn near St Mary’s Church’ (cited in Judge, 2000).

The chimney sweeps’ May Day seems to have been in steady decline from the middle of the 19th century and had more or less disappeared by the end of the century. Acts of Parliament in 1842 and 1875 had prohibited the use of the child labour of ‘climbing boys’ whose presence was a source of sympathy and therefore charity on May Day. It is important not to be too carried away by the picturesque scenes of the Chimney Sweeps’ May Day – behind the Jack in the Green and the dancing there was acute poverty. May marked the end of the peak season for sweeps, making the search for extra income through ritualised begging a necessity. As William Blake wrote in his poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’:
‘And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery’.

The Jack in the Green survived a while longer. In around 1900 the Jack was spotted in Bermondsey: ‘Walking along Jamaica Road I saw what looked like a big bush hopping from one side of the road to the other, and bobbing up and down. This being the first time I had seen a Jack-in-the-Green it scared the life out of me’ (cited in Judge, 2000).
The Kentish Mercury reported on 18th May 1906: ‘It is not more than 3 or 4 years since such a band were seen in the streets of Deptford. Jack in his greenery, twirling, and the male and female dancers with him pirouetting something after the traditional style – but there was a sad falling off. In olden days the dancers used to be sweeps, to whom money collected was a sort of annual perquisite and sweeps were very jealous of their privileges in this direction being usurped, latterly however, this rule was by no means adhered to’. A photograph survives of the Deptford Jack in the Green on the back of which is a note from the photographer Thankful Sturdee, believed to have been written in about 1934, which reads: ‘Jack in the Green. Fowlers troop of Mayday revellers. ‘Jack in the Green’ was an old institution in Deptford and regularly kept up until about twenty years ago, when the police stopped all such customs’ (see Crofts, 2002).

Fowlers Troop and the Deptford Jack in the Green, early 20th century.

One of the last descriptions we have is from St Thomas Street, SE1 from 1923 of ‘a man enclosed in an openwork cage of greenery dancing upon he road, accompanied by a girl in fancy dress, money being collected in a sieve’ (Judge, 2000)

Horse Parades

A final group of workers associated with May Day was those working with horses. May Day 1860, saw ‘the decorations of horses belonging to the several railway companies and other large establishments’ in South London. The annual procession from the South-Eastern Railway Company from the Bricklayers Arms on the Old Kent Road ‘created some sensation in the locality’ with the streets crowded and the horses ‘preceded by a band of music’. In the evening ‘a supper was provided for the drivers, presided over by the principal officials, at which about one hundred sat down’. However another custom had already faded away by this date: ‘The procession of mail-coaches which formerly drew such crowds to witness at the General Post-Office on May-day, no longer exists’ (South London Chronicle 5.5.1860).

An annual May Day parade of horses was held in this period at Wellington Wharf, Lambeth by Eastwood and Co. Ltd. The event had outgrown the Wharf by 1899 when it was moved to Battersea Park and featured nearly a hundred ‘gaily bedecked’ horse drawn vehicles. In the same year St Olaves Board of Works in Bermondsey agreed to give 5 shillings to each carman and dustman in its employ for the ‘parade of horses on May 1’ (South London Press, 6 May 1899).

May Day Cart Horse Parade, Bermondsey 1892

Local Council workers also held a parade. In 1892 ‘the Bermondsey dustmen and other servants of the Vestry turned out with twenty-two teams’, and prizes were awarded to the most effective of them’ (The Graphic, 7 May 1892). May Day Cart Horse Parade, Bermondsey 1892

This event was still taking place at the turn of the 20th century: ‘On Tuesday the annual May Day parade of the horses belonging to the vestry of Bermondsey was held. Twenty four horses, with their carmen, paraded in Spa Road… at the conclusion of the judging, the parade was continued through the streets of Bermondsey until 1:30 pm, the carmen being given the remainder of the day as holiday’. Prizes were awarded for the best cared for animal (SLP, 5 May 1900).

In 1920, May Day horse parades were put on in Lee by employees of Mr. A. Manchester, horse and steam contractors (based at Dacre-Park) and at the Whitbreads bottling store in Lewisham, the latter a revival of ‘a popular feature before the war’ (KM, 7.5.1920).


Much of what came in the 20th century to be understood as traditional May Day custom actually only dates back to the 19th century. The rise of industry and urbanisation fostered a dream of a return to a pastoral idyll, as seen for instance in the popularity of Arthurian romances and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. May Day was one of the arenas where this dream was manifested, and Hutton (1996) suggests that it was ‘substantially recreated by the Victorians’ prompted by ‘acute anxiety about the weakening of traditional social bonds’ and ‘a hankering after an idealized past, characterised by order and harmony’. Likewise Judge (2000) sees ‘The nineteenth century Arcadian view of May Day’ as rooted in the fact that ‘the problems presented by the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and of the Industrial Revolution were enough to make a dream of rural innocence and peaceful tranquillity most attractive’. Still, as we shall see, this dream could be put to use for revolutionary ends as well as conservative ones.

While there were still some surviving May Day customs in the 19th century, more influential in the Victorian recreation of the festival were accounts of Tudor celebrations and romantic imaginings such as Tennyson’s ‘The May Queen’ (1830). Interestingly the May Queen, a seemingly marginal figure in the Middle Ages, came to be the centre of the Victorian May Day. And while in previous generations May Day had been celebrated by adults, the Victorians and Edwardians increasingly organised it as a children’s festival.

May Queens

One of the longest established modern May Queen customs in South London seems to have been in Walworth in Southwark, and actually pre-dates the Victorian period. According to the South London Observer, the first May Queen ceremony there took place at the York Street Independent Chapel in 1798 ‘when Walworth really was a village’ (SLO 6 May 1949). The ceremony was still being held in the same location 170 years later – now renamed the Browning Hall in Browning Street in honour of the poet Robert Browning who was baptised at York Street Chapel. A report from 1967 claims that it had been uninterrupted ‘with the exception of 1940’ (SLO 11 May 1967). The May Queen was presented with an emblem ‘enscribed with the names of previous queens’ (SLO, 5 May 1950).

The format was for children to nominate their own ‘Queen of the May’, who was crowned by her predecessor at a pageant also featuring maids of honour, page boys and heralds. Newsreel film of the 1920 May Queen ceremony in Walworth shows the May Queen being crowned at seven o’clock in the morning. The Queen and all her attendants wear white dresses, and all have foliage in their hair as well sashes of greenery over their shoulders. Several of them are also carrying branches. After the coronation they make their way on a pony and cart for the procession, with Girl Guides at the front and Scouts behind (British Pathe Newsreel 3 May 1920: There is also British Pathe newsreel film of the Walworth May Queen from 1927, 1928 and 1929.). In the 1920s at least, the May Queen and her maids of honour were treated to a trip to the seaside – in 1926 they were taken to Littlehampton for a weekend (SLP, 14 May 1926).

These features – white clothes, election by peers, crowning by the previous year’s Queen, a supporting cast of assistants – recur repeatedly in descriptions of various children’s May Queens from the 19th century down to the present.

Another well-established May Queen festival, and indeed one that has continued into the 21st century, is the London-wide event held on Hayes Common in the London Borough of Bromley. The first Bromley and Hayes May Queen Festival was held in 1907. In 1910, it featured a procession with a ‘Jack in the Green’ and the May Queen’s carriage, which made its way from the public gardens next to Bromley’s Free Library to Hayes where there was singing and dancing round the maypole. The event was organised by Joseph Deedy of 62 Bromley Common (Bromley Record, June 1910). In the following year, Deedy founded the Merrie England Society to encourage May queen ceremonies, especially in the London area. It established a London-wide May Queen festival at Hayes Common where by 1930 hundreds of schools were taking part ‘and little girls brought along May-dolls, of the nineteenth century sort, in prams’ (Hutton, 1996).

Becoming London May Queen was seen as a major honour. When Betty Wadsworth (aged 11) from Deptford High Street was crowned London May Queen in 1930, a reception was held at New Cross Cinema with the Mayor of Deptford in attendance. Betty’s father was an international footballer who was playing for Millwall at the time (SLP, 9 May 1930). The event sometimes received national coverage: in 1921, the winner of the Daily Mirror‘s children’s beauty competition was crowned London’s May Queen at Hayes (British Pathe newsreel 12 May 1921).

Often the May Queen was just one element in a wider May Day pageant. We have a detailed description of one such ‘May Day Festival’ put on by Bermondsey Settlement Guild of Play at Bermondsey Village Hall in 1898: ‘The children were all very prettily attired as merry maids, foresters, villagers, morris players, milkmaids, and shepherdesses. A real May tree in full blossom and quantities of freshly plucked flowers… were used in decorating the middle of the hall, the maypole being crowned with flowers and banked up with them at the bottom. A rustic throne covered with evergreens was provided for the May Queen’. There was dancing round the Maypole ‘to music of the time of Charles II’ and singing of old English songs. The May Queen was ‘a cripple girl who had been elected by the members of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things’ (The Times 2 May 1898).
An account of the same event two years previously suggested that the urban dwellers of this part of London could have no conception of the rural delights which May Day was intended to celebrate: ‘the fact that Bermondsey could boast a May Queen at all is distinctly creditable to the authorities of the Bermondsey Settlement, who are responsible for this pleasing and picturesque revival. It would have been better still, of course, if the affair had been the spontaneous outburst of a popular yearning for that faint and far away past when there were still green fields and spring flowers round Bermondsey Spa, vanished utterly long ago, save for the name of Spa Road. But there is not, probably, much spontaneous yearning after Arcady on the part of the latter-day population of that delectable region, and so one must, perforce, be content with what can be done by the organising efforts of those who devote themselves to the noble work of bringing all the sunshine and springtime that they can into the sombre existence of our London poor. How, indeed, can the Bermondsey Board School boy or girl know anything of the glories of Nature’s great Renaissance as it is going on far away from the smoke and smother of ignoble London’ (The Graphic, 2 May 1896).

These May events were often self-consciously nostalgic. In 1920 ‘The Childer Chaine’, a young people’s organisation linked to the Belgrave Hospital for Children in Clapham Road, held a ‘May Fair and Sale’ in at St John the Divine Parochial Hall in Frederick Crescent (Camberwell). The South London Press reported that ‘The hall was most effectively transformed into an Old English Village… The many stalls were constructed as representative of the “Good Old Days” and the stallholders and workers were attired in costumes of the period’.

The event included ‘a maypole dance by children of St George’s School, Camberwell, a Jack-in-the-Green procession, dances by members of the English Folk Dance Society’ and ‘a mummer’s play, “St George and the Dragon”‘ (SLP 14 May 1920).
All kinds of organisations seem to have been involved in organising such events through the first half of the twentieth century, including churches of all denominations. Bermondsey Settlement was initiated by a Methodist preacher; the temperance Band of Hope held a May Day concert with a May Queen at Robert Street Chapel, Plumstead in 1907 (Woolwich Pioneer 3 May 1907); and in 1950 the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Seven Dolours, Friary Road (Peckham) hosted festivities with a May Queen elected by St Francis Infants School and ‘wearing a white silk confirmation gown with blue trim’. The Guide movement was also active; in 1948 for instance, Peckham Rye Guides and Brownies elected the May Queen for the May Day Revels held at St. Antholin’s Church Hall in Nunhead.
In Stockwell, the local Church of England vicar was the driving force: ‘at St Andrew’s National School, Stockwell Green…. the girls give a very charming display on May Day… The girl who is chosen Queen for her good conduct is the heroine of the day… After a pretty dance round the Maypole, the pageant concludes by the Queen’s receiving homage from the other girls. The revival is due to the Rev. J.H. Browne, the vicar of St Andrews’ (The Graphic, 7 May 1898).

Schools were clearly also a focus. In 1908, ‘The seventh annual May day Festival was held at Choumert road Girls School’ in Peckham, where eight year old Edith Hollands was crowned Queen and there was a ‘rustic romp round the maypole’ (SLO, 6 May 1908). A Downham May Queen was crowned at Pendragon Junior Girls School ‘attended by heralds, train-bearers and a crownbearer’ (KM, 1 July 1938: For other examples see Kennington Road Girls School, SLO 8 May 1908; St Chrysostum Girls Club, Peckham, SLO 10 May 1946.)

Other events were organised by socialist and co-operative movements. In the early part of the 20th century, the Woolwich Children’s Co-operative Guild held an annual May Day festival. In 1905 it took place at the Co-operative Hall, Parson’s Hill: ‘In olden times such gatherings were wont to be held on the village green: for Woolwich in the twentieth century the green had to be the Cooperative Hall, with a brilliantly be-ribboned and be-flagged maypole in the centre’. The hall was ‘festooned… with a profusion of spring flowers’. As well as the crowning of the Guild Queen and maypole dancing, the children performed a piece called ‘The Yearly Round’ featuring children representing the seasons, the months of the year, farmers, milkmaids and ‘the Spirit of Co-operation’ (WP 5 May 1905). In 1915 Woolwich Socialist Sunday School organised a May Day outing to Eltham Public Park (WP, 7 May 1915).

Return of the Maypole

The maypoles of the Middle Ages seem to have usually been just stripped tree trunks. Maypoles with ribbons were however known in France and seem to have been introduced into England to feature as part of the entertainments of the Pleasure Gardens of London, such as those at Vauxhall and Ranelagh in Chelsea. Horace Walpole wrote of a 1749 visit to the latter that ‘in one quarter was a maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked’ (Walpole, 1840). The supper boxes at Vauxhall featured paintings of May Day scenes by Francis Hayman.
The Victorians codified a series of maypole ribbon plaiting dances which were popularised through schools. A key vector for this transmission was Whitelands College in Roehampton, where generations of teachers were taught the dances as part of their teacher training. John Ruskin – art critic, philanthropist and Camberwell resident – had an important role in this. He was a friend of the College Principal, the Reverend Canon John Faunthorpe, and in 1881 helped initiate the first May Day festival there. Students at Whitelands have elected an annual May Monarch ever since with the main concession to modernity being that in 1986 the rules were relaxed so that a May King could sometimes be elected instead of a May Queen.

Maypole dancing became a feature of school life in South London and elsewhere. In Bermondsey for instance, the opening of the new Tanner Street playground on 11 May 1929 featured a Maypole dance by infants of Riley Street School (Bermondsey Labour Magazine, June 1929). Maypole dancing was not always confined to May – it featured for instance at the Shirley Street Sports Day in Bermondsey in July of that year (BLM, September 1929).

The maypole also featured in the May Day Fetes held at St Mary Cray in the 1890s organised by local paper mill owner, E.H. Joynson. The Graphic reported (10 May 1890): ‘Of all pretty revivals, one of the prettiest, the May Day Fete, attracted great crowds to the usually quiet Kentish village of St Mary Cray. The May Queen, attended by her maids of honour, had her throne of a triumphal car, drawn by four Sussex bullocks, with drivers in Old English costume. The procession was led by Druids, with flowing beards and flowing robes (one very much like Father Christmas, out of season), followed by Friendly Societies with their banners, and tilters on horseback, by maskers, clowns, and sweeps, Jack-in-the-Green, living chess characters, milkmaids leading a decorated cow, children representing wild flowers, maids with garlands, and a living pack of cards… The dance around the Maypole… attracted great notice’.
May Day in St Mary Cray, (The Graphic, 10 May 1890)

The following year 10,000 spectators turned out in the pouring rain. ‘The costumes… were entirely designed by Mr Joynson, of the paper mills, and were carried out at the mill under his personal superintendence… it betokened a very pleasant state of feeling between the employer and the employed that the latter should have entered so heartily into the spirit and enjoyment of the performance’ (Graphic 9 May 1891).

May Day in St Mary Cray, (The Graphic, 10 May 1890)

But this kind of paternalist May Day from above was already being challenged by a new kind of May Day event. The same issue of the Graphic reported May Day demonstrations, and in some cases riots, in various countries. It seemed that a new spectre was haunting Europe: ‘Nothing in its way could be more impressive than the fact that essentially the same ideas have captivated the imagination of the labouring population of every civilised country… in all the great centres of industrial life they are evidently of the opinion that it is possible for them to have shorter hours of work and higher pay, and that it is just and necessary that the possibility should be transformed into a reality’ (Graphic 9 May 1891).



In the late nineteenth century a new layer of meaning was added to May Day, as the first of May became associated with the international workers movement. As we shall see, elements from traditional May Day celebrations came to be incorporated into socialist demonstrations – but was it just, as Hutton (1996) suggests, ‘a wholly fortuitous coincidence’ that ‘the strike which became the symbol of the American Labor Movement began upon 1 May’?. To answer this we have to examine the origins of the ‘Workers’ May Day’ in the struggle for an 8 hour day in the United States and elsewhere.

For the early workers movement internationally a key demand was for a reduction in the length of the working day. The 1884 Chicago congress of the Federation of Organized and Labor Unions (which later become the American Federation of Labor) declared that from May 1st 1886, it would impose an eight-hour working day in the United States by industrial action. Unlike most strikes which respond to particular events, this date was set several years in advance.

It is unlikely to have been a purely arbitrary date – but why the first of May? Dave Roediger (1997) has noted that in parts of the United States May 1st was known as Moving Day, the date when leases expired and when new terms and conditions of work were set for building tradesmen and others who worked outdoors. This would make it an obvious date for setting new hours of work. Of course the notion of May 1st as effectively the start of a new year might itself be related to older seasonal traditions. It is also quite possible that for some within the workers’ movement at the time the date had a symbolic value as a time of renewal, related to these traditions. Immigrants to the USA brought with them various May Day customs from their home countries. For instance a Maypole was famously set up at Merrymount in New England by Thomas Morton in the 1620s.

There does also seem to have been a precedent for radical movements to regard May 1st as significant. We have already seen that the Levellers’ ‘Agreement of the People’ was published on 1 May 1650. The proposed French Revolutionary Calendar renamed the month Floreal, with the opening day envisaged as a celebration of love and nature. The utopian socialist Robert Owen announced in 1833 that the New Moral World should begin on 1 May 1834 – Owenite ideas certainly had their influence in the US so this may have been a factor. On May Day 1820 the Cato Street conspirators, who had plotted to assassinate the British cabinet, were hanged in London.

It was also on 1 May 1776 that Adam Weishaupt founded the ‘Order of Perfectibilists’, later known as the llluminati, at the University of Ingolstadt. Apparently dedicated to the enlightenment ideas and critical of the absolute rule of kings and priests, this Masonic society was seen by reactionaries as the hidden hand behind every radical and republican stirring in 19th century Europe. As a case in point, the notorious anti-semite Nora Webster (1924) saw May Day as a plot of ‘the great German-Jewish company that hopes to rule the world’ led by ‘illuminized freemasons’ in the guise of socialists. She asked ‘Was it again a mere coincidence that in July 1889 an International Socialist Congress in Paris decided that May 1, which was the day on which Weishaupt founded the Illuminati, should be chosen for an annual International Labour demonstration?’. Well yes in all probability it was a coincidence.

Whatever the factors involved in choosing the date, the events of Saturday 1 May 1886 and the succeeding days are well documented. The eight hour day strike went ahead in parts of the USA, and by May 3 1886 perhaps 750,000 workers had struck or demonstrated (Roediger). In Chicago police killed two people when they opened fire on Monday 3 May during clashes outside the McCormack Reaper Works, where workers had been on strike since February. The following day a policeman was killed by a bomb thrown at a protest meeting in Haymarket square in the city. Eight anarchists who had been in the forefront of the 8-hour-day agitation in Chicago were convicted of murder, of whom seven were sentenced to death.

There was an international outcry against the trial and the sentences. In London those who spoke out included William Morris, Annie Besant (who had lived in Colby Road, Upper Norwood), George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin (then living at 6 Crescent Road, Bromley), Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Ford Madox Brown, Walter Crane, E. Nesbit (then living in Lewisham), Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling (who later lived in Sydenham). A meeting on the case was held at the Peckham Reform Club (Freedom, November 1897).
Nevertheless, four of the accused were hanged. The deaths in Chicago had a powerful impact across the world, not least on Jim Connell who was inspired to write ‘The Red Flag’ anthem in 1889 on a train to New Cross – he was living at 22a Stondon Park in Honor Oak at the time (Gordon-Orr, 2004).

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labour called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, and this call was echoed in July 1889 by the international socialist conference in Paris. So it was that from 1890 May Day became an annual international festival of working class solidarity.

The 1890s

In London, May Day 1890 was marked by a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, a venue that was to become the focus for May Day protests for many years to come. May 1st 1890 actually fell on a Thursday, and saw London anarchists holding a meeting at Clerkenwell Green. The main demonstration took place [after some political shenanigans- Ed: here’s Engels on the subject] on the following Sunday – May 4th – and saw contingents heading towards Hyde Park from all over London. A description from the South London Press of the attendance of the North Camberwell Radical Club and Institute’ provides an insight into how local groups organised themselves for the march:
‘A goodly contingent went from this club to take part in the monster eight-hours demonstration. The procession was headed by the club’s excellent band, which discoursed some well-chosen music on the way. A large banner followed, bearing the device in front, ‘The Proletariat Unite’, and on the reverse side the legend, ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ pay; Eight hours’ rest, eight bob a day’. Mr Oodshorn devised and executed the banner, which was very effective. Mr J. Harrison (chairman of the club) headed those who marched in front, and Mr. H.J. Begg accompanied the contingent until it took its place in the general ranks. Two breaks followed the pedestrians – one full of ladies, and one containing those of the sterner sex who were not equal to a four-hours march on a warm day. Messrs. Benstroke and J.Sage (chairman of the Political Council) acted as marshalls. The breaks, which added greatly to the effectiveness of the procession, were under the charge of Mr A. Boreham (chairman of the Entertainment Sub-Committee). The contingent arrived in the park in time to hear some good speaking from No.7 Platform, and afterwards Mrs Besant’s stirring speech from the Socialists’ platform. The whole affair was excellently managed, and good humour and good order prevailed throughout’ (South London Press, 10 May 1890).

The next few years saw this route being repeated. In 1891, the North Camberwell Radical Club was again said to have been busy in preparing for the 8 hours demonstration in Hyde Park (SLP 25 April1891). The Club was based in Albany Road.

In 1892 a crowd estimated between 300 and 500,000 marched from Westminster Bridge to Hyde Park, with 350 banners and 110 bands. An observer reported that ‘The great staple industries of London, the dockers, the stevedores, the coal-porters, the gas-workers… railway workers, and so on, came first: and then a whole host of miscellaneous trades, led by little Jew cigar and cigarette-makers from the East End… The Workgirls… were in great force. The chocolate-makers had a smart little wagonette all to themselves, from which they dispensed ‘Union Chocolate’ in penny packets’ matchgirls’. Those present included Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann and Louise Michel (all of whom spoke), Eleanor Marx and the elderly Frederick Engels. The crowd was so large that ‘the South London contingent, led by John Burns, never got in at all, and it turned sadly back without a chance of attending the meeting. In a word, London has never seen such a gigantic turn-out of the forces which create her wealth’ (Penny Illustrated Paper, 7 May 1892)
In 1897 the Demonstration from Embankment to Hyde Park on Saturday 1 May included contingents from Camberwell and Battersea (Times 3 May 1897); in 1898 there was a large ‘International May Day Demonstration’ from Embankment to Hyde Park in the pouring rain (Times 2 May 1898).

Crystal Palace and Walter Crane

The turn of the new century saw the main May Day event moving to South London at the Crystal Palace. The Palace had been hosting May Day celebrations for many years. In the 1850s, William Husk of the Sacred Harmonic Society had helped recreate a Tudor-style May game there (Hutton, 1996). On May Day 1866 ‘a great concert of five thousand voices was given by children and others connected with the metropolitan schools… Ethardo [a circus performer] also reappeared, his lofty pole being converted into a gigantic maypole. On the following day Mr Charles Dickens kindly undertook to give a reading of Little Dombey’ (PIP 5 May 1866). In 1898 a ‘Crystal Palace May Day Festival’ had included ‘May-Day Sports and Maypole dance’ with a programme featuring ‘the Clan Johnson, Scottish Dancers and Champion Pipers and an Old English Maypole Dance’ as well as a ‘Grand May-Day Concert’ featuring ‘madrigals by the Crystal Palace Choir’ (advert in the Times, 1 May 1899).

May Day 1900 was different in tone. The Times reported that 12,000 took part, including ‘about 150 associations connected with the Social Democratic Federation and London Trades Council’. Six platforms were set up and the resolutions carried included one asserting ‘their determination to overthrow wagedom and capitalism, and to establish by united efforts that international cooperative commonwealth in which all the instruments of industry will be owned and controlled by the organised communities and equal opportunity be given to all to lead healthy, happy human lives’ (Times, 2 May 1900).
The event did though include more traditional May Day elements alongside the socialist speeches: ‘There was a procession at half past two, and meetings at 3 o’clock. There were also cycling and athletic sports, a Maypole dance and other attractions. The programme concluded with a display of fireworks by C.T. Brock & Co., including a special set Labour piece by Walter Crane’ (South London Press, 5 May 1900). Other attractions of the ‘International Labour Festival’ included a variety show and a performance of Bernard Shaw’s ‘Widowers’ Houses’ (advert in Times, 1 May 1900).

The artist Walter Crane recalled: ‘Labour’s May Day, which has become an international festival in the Socialist movement, was this year celebrated at the Crystal Palace, which certainly afforded plenty of space for the gathering, as well as entertainment and refreshment in the intervals of the functions. A vast meeting was held under the dome, and this was addressed by many of the leaders, such as Mr. H. M. Hyndman, Mr. G. N. Barnes, Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineers (and now in Parliament), Mr. Pete Curran, Mr. Ben Tillet, and many others. I made a design for a set piece for the firework display which was carried out on a gigantic scale and with remarkable success by Messrs. Brock. It was a group of four figures, typifying the workers of the world, joining hands, a winged central figure with the cap of Liberty, encircled by the globe, uniting them, and a scroll with the words ‘The Unity of Labour is the Hope of the World’. It was the first time a design of mine had been associated with pyrotechnics. I was rewarded by the hearty cheers of a vast multitude.’ (Crane, 1907 – Crane dates this event to 1899 while The Times reports it as being in 1900, though it is possible it was repeated in both years).
Crane was a key figure in the creation of a May Day iconography that combined socialist values with the familiar ‘Merrie England’ imagery of may queens, garlands and angels. Crane’s earliest May Day work was a series of illustrations for a fairy tale by John Wise, The First of May, a Fairy Masque (1881). His drawings depicted animals dancing round a maypole and fairy scenes. Soon he was to add a political dimension to such imagery. While for some conservative Victorians, the recreation of May Day festivities harked back to a traditional social order where everybody knew their place, socialists like Crane and William Morris mobilised visions of medieval pageantry and a lost rural idyll in the service of a critique of what they saw as the squalor of industrial capitalism.
The contrast between May Day festivities and the world of work had been drawn before. In May Day songs from the 1860s, WC Bennett had written: ‘Your fathers met the May, With laughter, dance, and tabor; Come, be as wise as they: Come steal today from labour… Talk not of want of leisure; Believe me, life was made, For laughter, mirth and pleasure, Far more than toil and trade’ (PIP 7 May 1864); and ‘Out from cities haste away, This is earth’s great holiday: Who can labour while the hours, In with songs are bringing May’ (PIP 5 May 1866).

But for most workers skipping into the fields on a work day was not an option – it was only the reduction of working hours and the extension of weekends and holidays that could create the free time for festive celebrations.
As the historian Eric Hobsbawm (1998) has argued, the act of demonstrating, and in some cases striking, on May Day made this connection directly: ‘It was thus both a gesture of class assertion and class struggle and a holiday: a sort of trailer for the good life to come after the emancipation of labour… Seen in this light May Day carried with it a rich cargo of emotion and hope’.


Crane’s images gave a strong visual identity to this ’emotion and hope’ and were precisely adverts ‘for the good life to come’, in which carefree, healthy proletarians dance in the open air. After May Day became the focus of an annual socialist demonstration, Crane produced a May Day cartoon every year. These were mostly published in Justice, paper of the Social Democratic Federation, but they were also printed for sale separately. Examples included ‘The Triumph of Labour’ (1891) ‘The Workers May Pole’ (1894) ‘A Garland for May Day’ (1895) ‘John Ball’s Creditors’ (1900), ‘The Goal’ (1904) ‘Socialism and the Imperialistic Will O’ the Wisp’ (1907), ‘A Posy for May Day and a Poser for Britannia’ (1910) and ‘The Triumph Car for May Day’ (1911).

Socialism and the Seasons

In addition to the main London demonstration, May Day was often marked by local events. In 1905, for instance, there was a ‘tremendous gathering’ in Woolwich’s Beresford Square for a May Day demonstration sponsored by Woolwich Independent Labour Party and Woolwich and District Trades and Labour Council. Speeches at this event show how in England at least, many saw a clear continuity between the workers’ May Day and the more traditional festivities. Mr. H.S. Wishart, the Chairman, declared: ‘long ago the workers were wont to assemble on May Day to enjoy themselves. Today the workers were nominally free, but their real condition was worse than in days gone by. Today the workers were really slaves owned by the masters, slaves to wages, and to the men who controlled the money power of the world’. Councillor Grinling elaborated: ‘May Day was the birthday of summer, and they were assembled on that occasion in spirit with the men and women all over the universe who on May Day saw the sun rise on a new summer and a new season. The lives of all were dependent upon the four seasons, yet livers in towns were so unfamiliar with the beauties of the earth and sky that they forgot the changing seasons’. He went on to herald the summer of the Labour Movement, with the ‘people rising to take… a fuller and juster share in all that comes from Mother Earth’ (Woolwich Pioneer, 28 April 1905, 5 May 1905).

Similar sentiments were voiced in Bermondsey Labour Magazine in the 1920s: ‘All over the world the organised Labour movement has set aside May 1st as a special holiday or festival. From pagan and mediaeval times the period of the year marked by the beginning of the month of May has been held as a time of rejoicing at the return of sunshine and warmth after the greyness and frost of winter. In the young trees the sap is rising. Flowers and buds and blossoms are lifting up their faces to the sun. Shall not humanity do likewise and rejoice with them? May Day for our ancestors, therefore, symbolised the Dawn of Hope – hope of harvest, hope of fruit, hope of plenty, hope of the glad time to come after the bleak discomfort of the past months. For Labour and the toiling masses everywhere, May Day signifies the new hope of the better days that are to be. It proclaims the bursting of the fetters of convention; it declares deliverance from the bondage of wage slavery; it tells of the times when the disinherited shall share in the beauty, the joy, the dignity of life. And, as the men of the past proclaimed their faith in the future by song and dance and merrymaking, by procession and pageant and revel, so the Labour and Socialist Movement over Europe demands that May 1st shall be a day of demonstration, of carnival, of freedom from work. The celebration of May Day is Labour’s proclamation to the tyrants of Land and Capital that the mighty are to put down from their seats and that the people of low degree are at long last to enter into their inheritance… May Day is Labour’s International Holy-day’ (The Meaning of May Day, Bermondsey Labour Magazine, May 1924).

The following year’s May edition of the magazine included ‘The Workers’ Song of the Springtide’ which bemoaned: ‘They sing of the merry springtide, Which is sweet to them indeed, These wealthy whom we are clothing, Whose little ones we feed; But to us is the sun a furnace, The spring but a burning cauldron, And life but a prison cell’. Still, the author proclaimed ‘the time will come when the
beauties of earth shall be for all… When the spring shall come laden with gladness, And pleasure instead of pain’
 (BLM, May 1925).

The Nineteen Twenties

The official labour movement in Britain generally timed the main May Day demonstrations so that they did not fall on a working day. 1920 was an exception – May Day fell on a Saturday, still a normal working day for most, and 6 million workers took a holiday. At the Woolwich Arsenal, the Shop Stewards wrote to the management informing them that the workers there had ‘decided to celebrate the First of May as a Labour Holiday’ (WP 30.4.1920). On the day ‘there were so many absentees from work that some of the departments had to shut down’ (WP 7 May 1920).

Many of them joined a demonstration on Dartford Heath that included contingents who had marched from Woolwich, Welling, Erith, Bexley Heath, Dartford and Crayford. It featured the Woolwich Labour Protection League drum and fife band and songs from the Woolwich Socialist Sunday School. There was also a children’s wedding procession with girls in home made paper dresses (KM 7 May 1920). The resolution passed at the mass meeting declared:
‘This meeting of workers assembled on Dartford Heath, May Day, 1920, sends fraternal greetings to the Proletariat of the World, and heartily rejoices at the continued success of the Russian Revolution. Recognising that the ever increasing burdens placed upon us are entirely due to Capitalist Domination, we urge the International Solidarity of our Class to bring about its emancipation from this system. Furthermore, we condemn the action of the British Government, in regard to its Militarist oppression of Ireland, Egypt and India’ (WP 7 May 1920).
As well as the Dartford demonstration, The South London Press reported a ‘gigantic muster in Hyde Park’ at the end of the May Day demonstration from Thames Embankment (SLP 7 May 1920).

In 1926, May Day marked the effective start of the General Strike. On Saturday May 1st, one million miners were locked out for refusing to accept a pay cut and longer hours. The same day workers at the Daily Mail walked out on strike refusing to print the paper’s lead article ‘For King and Country’. This marked the point of no return and from Monday May 3rd millions of workers went on strike in support of the miners. After nine days they were ordered back to work by the Trades Union Congress.
On Saturday May 1st itself at least 100,000 people marched from the Embankment to Hyde Park, including many from South London. ‘The Bermondsey contingent in the London May Day procession was the finest and most impressive that had been organised. At 11 am we lined up outside the Bermondsey Town Hall with our band, banners and brakes. Almost every section of organised workers in the Borough was represented’. The Bermondsey contingent met up with marchers from Deptford and Camberwell by St George’s Circus (BLM June 1926). Later there was a May Day Festival and Dance at Bermondsey Town Hall featuring ‘Bert Healey’s Famous Dance Band’ and ‘Limelight colour effects and novelties’ (BLM, April 1926).

May Day messages in the Bermondsey Labour Magazine reflected the turbulent times. New Cross (No.1 Branch) of the National Union of Railwaymen declared ‘Greetings to the workers in “All Labour Bermondsey”. International Labour Day, 1926, will go down in history as the turning point in the inevitable all conquering march towards emancipation… Let us honour the memory of our valiant pioneers, by striving for Unity – at home and in all the lands, irrespective of race, colour or creed’. Bermondsey NUR sounded a more seasonal note: ‘Let us therefore strengthen our own organisations, industrial and political, and continue every day this May Day Spirit of Brotherhood and Comradeship to meet the present Capitalist offensive. We read how in London before the ugly factories were built children danced the Maypole and men and women joined in their games on the people’s commons. Spring had come, birds were beginning to sing, flowers to bloom, and nature putting on her best. It is because of this, we workers think of the laws that are unjust and bind us. We long to repeal them and make Liberty and Freedom for all to enjoy’ (BLM, May 1926).
The history of the General Strike in South London is beyond the scope of this text, but it was strongly supported in most areas. There were clashes between strikers and police at the Elephant and Castle (Past Tense, 2005) and at the New Cross Tram Depot in New Cross Road (Gordon-Orr, 2004).

The Nineteen Thirties

In 1930, May 1st marked the end of a National Unemployed Workers Movement hunger march. Starting on 30 March 1930, twelve contingents of unemployed workers set off from areas including Scotland, Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent. Unemployed ‘hunger marchers from Kent’ joined with contingents from Bermondsey, Deptford and Lewisham at Bermondsey Town Hall in Spa Road to march via St George’s Circus to the Embankment and on to Hyde Park. ‘Bermondsey workers gathered in large numbers… under the banners of the local branch of the Electrical Trades Union, Bermondsey Shop Stewards Committee and the Bermondsey Branch of the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement’. The marchers were headed by a drum and fife band (SLP 2 May 1930)
On 1st May the march finished with a mass demonstration of at least 50,000 in Hyde Park. Over the next few days there were various clashes with the authorities as marchers took control of Fulham workhouse to provide accommodation, occupied the boardroom at the Ministry of Health and attempted to storm the House of Commons (Hannington 1936). On May 2nd there was also a strike on the docks in Bermondsey, with a thousand ‘Tooley Street Stevedores and Dock Labourers’ walking out claiming that not enough workers had been allocated to unload a ship (SLP 6 May 1930)
In the same year, Bermondsey Council – led by the Labour Party’s Alfred Salter – agreed to grant employees a May Day holiday. In the evening there was a May Dance at Bermondsey Town Hall, followed on the Sunday after by a May Day demonstration from Bermondsey Town Hall to Southwark Park. The attendance was apparently not as large as in previous years, and the Labour Party’s platform in the park had to contend with the presence of ‘a rival communist orator and his following’ (BLM, May 1930).
An account of May Day in Bermondsey in the late 1930s is given in Jessica Mitford’s memoir of the period, Hons and Rebels (1960). In 1937, she moved to 41 Rotherhithe Street with her husband Esmond Romilly, back from supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. They became involved in left-wing politics in the area and took part in the 1937 May Day march:
‘On May Day the entire community turned out, men, women and children, home-made banners proclaiming slogans of the ‘United Front against Fascism’ waving alongside the official ones. The long march to Hyde Park started early in the morning, contingents of the Labour Party, the Co-ops, the Communist Party, Independent Labour Party marching through the long day to join other thousands from all parts of London in the traditional May Day labour festival… Everyone took lunch in a paper bag, and there was much good-natured jostling and shouting of orders, and last-minute rounding up of children who had darted away in the crowd. Philip [Toynbee] and Roger taught us some new songs to sing on the way – parodies on Communist songs: ‘Class conscious we are, and class conscious we’ll be, And we’ll tread on the neck of the bourgeoisie’. ‘Oh ’tis my delight on a Saturday night to bomb the bourgeoisie!’, and a sarcastic version of the ‘The People’s Flag: ‘The People’s Flag is palest pink, It’s not as red as you might think’. We had been warned that the Blackshirts might try to disrupt the parade, and sure enough there were groups of them lying in wait at several points along the way. Armed with rubber truncheons and knuckledusters, they leaped out form behind buildings; there were several brief battles in which the Blackshirts were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the Bermondsey men’.


1940s and 1950s

In the aftermath of the Second World War, May Day marches resumed but were marked by a split as the Labour Party endeavoured to keep its members away from Communist Party influence. In 1946, the former held a rally at Covent Garden Opera House on the same day as the London Trades Council’s May Day demonstration to Hyde Park: ‘Marching to the band of Camberwell British Legion, about 1,000 workers from SE London moved off from St Georges Circus… every trades council in SE London, with the exception of Southwark and Wandsworth, was present. Local Communist parties were well represented, and among the trade union banners were those of Southwark TGWU, Brixton AEU and S. London AEU’ (SLO, 10 May 1946). In 1947, a May Day rally in Lewisham Town Hall was addressed by Labour Minister Herbert Morrison, whose criticism of strikes was met with silence, and saw 800 people singing ‘The Red Flag’ (SLO, 9 May 1947). The following year, the Labour Party organised a May Day procession through Lambeth, culminating in a rally in Brockwell Park (SLO, 7 May 1948).

The May Day demonstration was banned in 1949, prompting defiance and arrests in South London. The South London Press (May 1949) reported: ‘Waterloo marchers broken up by police: The Battle of Waterloo Road was South London’s biggest share in the May Day clashes between thousands of people in procession and the police. Some were injured after the police called for reinforcements to try and stop thousands who swelled a crowd of about 600 leaving St George’s Circus, Southwark, where a South London demonstration had been organised by Southwark Trades Council and supported by Bermondsey and Camberwell Trades Councils.
After the meeting ended and the crowd began to move along Waterloo Road, a procession was soon deemed contrary to the ban imposed by Mr Chuter Ede. More police, on foot and mounted, arrived and there were several clashes as they tried to break up the march. At the southern end of Waterloo Bridge there was a police cordon, but the crowd seeped through to find another line of police at the northern end of the bridge. Some of the marchers were diverted down to the Embankment, but most of them continued. Mr A.E. Scriven, secretary of the Southwark Trades Council, told the South London Press: ‘Our meeting passed off peacefully under the chairmanship of Mr Len Smith, chairman of our Trades Council. We made no attempt to organise a procession afterwards. It was extraordinary how the crowds suddenly increased as the people drifted away from our meeting. I think the police used unnecessary violence in dealing with the crowd in Waterloo Road. I know they have a difficult job to do, but they could have been more tactful’. London Trades Council speakers at the Southwark meeting included Mr Mark Bass of the Fire Brigade Union and Mr I.W. Hall, Sheet Metal Workers Union, a member of the London Trades Council executive’.

The following year, May Day demonstrators again sought to defy the Home Secretary’s ban on political processions. 69 people were arrested as mounted police broke up a crowd of thousands of people in and around Trafalgar Square (Times 8 May 1950). A number of South Londoners were among those arrested, including James McCabe, 31, an engineer from Carter Street, Albert Lodge, a Walworth Lorry Driver, and Agnes Mennell, an East Dulwich typist (SLO, 12 May 1950).

1960s and 1970s

May Day demonstrations continued in London through the 1950s and early 1960s, usually from the Victoria Embankment to Hyde Park on the first Sunday after May 1st. By the mid-1960s these seemed to be dwindling away, with numbers getting smaller each year. Some saw them as archaic and harking back to the interwar period. At the 1958 London Labour Conference a Deptford delegate complained that marching behind brass bands belonged ‘to the times of mass unemployment and empty bellies’, while in 1966 a black Labour councillor in Camberwell told Tribune that the now traditional May Day demonstration ‘meant little to him, as he had not participated in any of the struggles it honoured. He called for the celebrations to be made more relevant, not just for the sake of immigrants but also for native-born youngsters’ (Fielding 2004). Subsequently the Labour Party withdrew from the demonstrations and held a rally in Festival Hall instead from 1969 to 1971, though the agenda of speeches, classical music and performances from the Royal Shakespeare Company were not particularly popular with the party’s rank and file (Fielding 2004). Others were determined to take May Day back to its radical roots, prompting the formation in 1967 of the London May Day Committee to try and reinvigorate the tradition of demonstrating on May Day itself, not on the nearest weekend. A key driving force in this was John Lawrence (1915-2002), who lived at 29 Love Walk in Camberwell in this period.
Their first march in 1967, from Blackfriars to Farringdon, only attracted around 250 people, but by 1968 this had increased to a more respectable 2500 marching from Tower Hill to Transport House (McIlroy 2003). Unfortunately the 1968 May Day march was overshadowed by another demonstration of workers that day: dockers and workers from Smithfield and Billingsgate markets walked out in support of the racist MP Enoch Powell and marched on Westminster. Outside the House of Commons they clashed with marchers from the May Day demonstration (Times 2 May 1968). On the following Sunday there was a Labour Party May Day rally in Trafalgar Square, where Government ministers were heckled from the crowd (Times 6 May 1968).

1969 saw one of the biggest May Day events for years when thousands of people went on strike against the Labour Government’s proposed trade union legislation. The strike was unofficial but despite the lack of support of trade union leaders the government estimated that 90,000 walked out, including printers, car workers and dockers (other estimates put the number closer to 200,000). The Port of London was at a standstill and no daily papers were printed in London.
The 1969 London May Day demonstration was split due to political differences.Writing in the anarchist paper Freedom, Lawrence had proclaimed that ‘May Day is May 1st or it is nothing… This May Day is going to be different. Not a dreary slog through the City and the West End but a short march and then off to an open space, Victoria Park in the East End, to enjoy ourselves with bands, groups (pop not political), dancing, sports and anything else that the members want to do … it will be free day in every sense of the word, free from work and free to do what you like…. As one worker at our May Day Committee said: “My guv’nor will be choked if I take the day off and he’ll be double choked if he knows that I’m enjoying myself as well.”‘
However the Communist Party-led Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions refused to support the London May Day Committee and instead organised its own demonstration, to start from the same location half an hour before. At least 15,000 took part in the CP/LCTDU demonstration from Tower Hill to Lincoln’s Inn Fields (Times 2 May 1969), while another 500 headed off to Victoria Park.

The following year, the May Day demonstration (Sunday May 3rd) seemed to have returned to a relatively low key event, with the Times reporting that only 1000 marched to a rally at Festival Hall on the South Bank. As they went by Trafalgar Square they passed a rival May Day rally organised by the right-wing Conservative Party group The Monday Club with a strong National Front presence of at least 500. On the same day Pakistani workers marched from Hyde Park to Downing Street to protest against racist attacks (Times 4 May 1970). The 1971 march was uneventful, with ‘about a thousand people, including Labour Party members, old age pensioners and Vietnam war protestors, marched from Charing Cross to Hyde Park’ (Times 3 May 1971).

In 1973 the TUC called for a national day of action on May 1st against the Conservative government’s clampdown on wages. The pay freeze had already led to disputes in South London. For instance, in January ’73, 90 electricians employed by Southwark firm Phoenix on the St Thomas’s Hospital building site walked out and were still on strike on March 19th when there were clashes with police on the picket line (SLP 8 May 1973).
On May Day, by the government’s own estimates 1,600,000 workers went on strike, while the TUC estimated ‘several millions’ stayed away from work. In any event it was the biggest single stoppage of work since the 1926 General Strike with railways, factories, and newspapers all affected (Times, 2 May 1973). All 30,000 staff employed by the Labour-led Greater London Council were given the day off including the many employed at County Hall on the South Bank (SLP 8 May 1973).

An unusual call for support for the May Day strike came from the National Union of School Students branch at Dulwich College, one of the capital’s most exclusive private schools. The NUSS there claimed 47 members, including Simon Keys, a member of the national executive of the union. As well as calling for a walk out on May 1st, the Dulwich College NUSS newsletter denounced the class-segregated education system: ‘Most school students are middle to upper class and will go on to become part of the ruling class whereas the students at Kingsdale (a local comprehensive school) are predominantly working class, are educated to a much lower level, live in a worse environment and leave school to be wage slaves’ (SLP 1 May 1973).

By the end of the 1970s, May Day had been declared a public holiday. In 1970, the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution calling for two new public holidays a year: May Day and New Year’s Day (Times 12 September 1970). In 1975, the Labour Government declared that from 1978, May Day (or the Monday after it) would be a bank holiday.
The trade union May Day march has continued in Central London ever since, generally a fairly routine demonstration rarely exceeding a few thousand marchers. From time to time there have been other large scale trade union-organised events. In 1981 for instance, the May Day bank holiday (Monday 4th) was marked with a celebration of the Peasants’ Revolt 600th Anniversary on Blackheath, with music including Leon Rosselson and Squeeze.


Free Games for May

On May 12 1967 Pink Floyd presented “Games for May” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank promising ‘space-age relaxation for the climax of spring, with electronic compositions, colour and image projections, girls and the Pink Floyd’. There was recorded bird song, millions of bubbles and free daffodils. Counter-cultural events like this were signs of a renewed interest in the pastoral dream of evergreen Albion. The earlier 1960s folk revival had also led to a resurgence of Morris and other forms of English folk dancing. From these overlapping strands the seasonal elements of May Day once again came to the fore.

In South London, students at Goldsmiths College formed the Blackheath Foot’n’Death Men in 1969, described in the International Times as a ‘Long haired Morris dancing crew’ (IT 11-25 February 1971). They danced at ‘underground’ happenings alongside bands like Hawkwind and The Pink Fairies. Over time they morphed into Blackheath Morris Men and are still going today, 40 years later. It was members of the Blackheath Morris Men who revived the Fowlers Troop Jack in the Green in the early 1980s, inspired by one of Thankful Sturdee’s photographs of the original troop from the turn of the twentieth century.
The Fowlers Troop have been going out on May Day ever since, processing through the streets with music, dance and fancy dress (clown costumes, a bear, Edwardian style clothes), all accompanying a very impressive Jack – a pyramid of greenery on a frame carried by a hardy volunteer concealed. The location varies – sometimes Greenwich, sometimes the Borough/Bankside area of Southwark (e.g. in 2007-2009 and 2011). In 2006, a larger scale event in Deptford with Rediscovered Urban Rituals included a recreation of Sturdee’s 1902 photograph.

Sacred Marriages and Green Men: neo-pagan Beltane

The flowering of the counter-culture also saw a revived interest in mysticism, the occult and various spiritual paths. In this context May Day came to acquire another layer of meaning, with its reinvention as the neo-Pagan Beltane festival.

In her influential ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ (1921) Margaret Murray (1862-1963) identified May Day as one of the four Sabbats of an underground witch religion that had survived from pre-Christian times until at least the seventeenth century. Similarly in ‘The Golden Bough’ (1922), James Frazier paid a lot of attention to May customs. He considered the Jack-in-the-Greens in a chapter on ‘Relics of tree worship in Modern Europe’ as ‘representatives of the beneficent spirit of vegetation’, while the crowning of the King and Queen of May represented a kind of sacred marriage, ‘magical rites intended to ensure the revival of nature in spring… our rude forefathers personified the powers of vegetation as male and female, and attempted, on the principle of homeopathic or imitative magic, to quicken the growth of trees and plants by representing the marriage of the sylvan deities in the persons of a King or Queen of May’.

Current day folklorists and historians are generally dismissive of the suggestion of folk customs being diluted survivals from pre-history. In any event, the notion of the sacred marriage of the King and Queen does not fit with most descriptions of early modern May Day, where, as we have seen, May Kings seems to have been a lot more numerous than Queens. There is no evidence of the Jack in the Green before the 1780s, even if the image of what has more recently been labelled as the Green Man is familiar from the foliate heads on old churches.

Ronald Hutton and others have undermined the claims of modern day witches and neo-pagans to be inheritors to an ancient nature religion practiced continuously since the Neolithic, and indeed poured scorn on Margaret Murray’s earlier claim that such a religion was still being practiced as recently as the seventeenth century.
Modern witchcraft, or Wicca, seems to have been codified by Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) and others in the 1940s and 1950s, drawing on various literary, occult, and folklore sources. In the process they effectively reinvented a pagan May day – which may, or may not, have been recognisable to the pre-Christian revellers of the British Isles. Gardner included a ritual for May Day into his ‘Book of Shadows’, influenced by Kipling’s ‘Puck’s Song’. This was one of eight seasonal festivals, including solstices and equinoxes, occurring at regular intervals in the course of the ‘Wheel of the Year’.

All of these festivals may have been marked at one time or other by different groups of our ancestors, but there is no evidence that this particular calendar in its entirety was celebrated in any one period. Its origin seems to lie with Ross Nichols, an important figure in modern Druidry, who devised the Wheel based on his reading of Medieval literature in the 1940s (Orr, 2000).
The various neo-Druid groups originating in the 18th century celebrated the equinoxes and summer solstice, but not Beltane. The order Nichols belonged to rejected his calendar, and it was not until he established The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) in 1964 that modern Druids in Britain began May Day rituals. In the mean time, Nichols’ ‘Wheel of the Year’ had been incorporated in another reinvented pagan tradition – that of Wicca – by his friend Gerald Gardner.
One of the earliest of Gardner’s covens was developed in South London from the late 1950s, where Rae Bone was high priestess. Her coven was in Tooting Bec and then Streatham, while its daughter coven, Madge Worthington’s Whitecroft, met in Chiswick, Chislehurst and then Beckenham (Hutton 1999). Whatever the origins of their ritual, it is indisputable that by the 1960s various school of modern paganism were celebrating Beltane or a similar festival on May Day in the London area.


In the aftermath of the 1988 ‘Acid House’ explosion, a new generation tasted the delights of partying in the great outdoors and some of the old ‘hippy’ ideals of love, peace and communing with nature were excavated once again. In conflict with the authorities, parts of this scene also became increasingly politicised. The scene was set for the latest twist in the London May Day story.

Within the rave scene, May Day was sometimes marked with parties if only because it was a bank holiday weekend. For instance Telepathic Fish were pioneers of ambient parties, where the emphasis was as much on chilling out as on dancing. One of their first big parties in 1993 was a May Day tea party in a squat in Tunstall Road, Brixton. Fliers were given out on teabags and DJs including Mixmaster Morris and Richard “Aphex Twin” James. One of the organisers recalled ‘It was from Sunday tea on May bank holiday and people just turned up in dribs and drabs all through the night. We got Vegetable Vision in to do the lights. We ran around and got mattresses from on the street round Brixton and we had some of my friends doing the tea. We made lots of jelly and there was plenty of acid about. That went on for about fourteen, fifteen hours, with people lying around. That was the first proper Telepathic Fish, May 1st, ’93’ (Toop, 1995).

On Clapham Common, Wandsworth Trades Council started putting on big May Day free festivals in the 1990s, and by featuring bands who were also popular on the electronic dance music and festival circuits attracted thousands of people who might not otherwise have come into direct contact with the socialist May Day tradition.
On 1st May 1994 featured bands included Dub Warriors and Fun Da Mental, as well as the Bhundu Boys, The following year, sponsored by the GMB Union, acts included Tribal Drift and Skunk Anansie. The Government had just passed its Criminal Justice Act, with its notorious ‘anti-rave’ powers targeting parties where the music was characterised by ‘repetitive beats’. On Sunday April 30th 1995, 3,000 marched from the Embankment to oppose the CJA, ending up at the May Day festival on Clapham Common. Neither the police nor the festival stewards were keen to allow the United Systems sound system on to the Common, so the lorry pulled up alongside the park, where people danced on the grass next to it.

The movement of opposition to new roads and other developments came to a head in the mid-1990s with the protest camp against the Newbury bypass and the occupation of abandoned houses on the proposed route of the M11 at Claremont Road in Leytonstone. Seasonal parties became part of the social life of these camps, and on May Day 1998 a Beltane party was held in the protest camp at Crystal Palace, set up in the previous month to oppose plans to build a multiplex cinema in the park. The protest continued until March 1999 when hundreds of police evicted the camp – though it took them a further three weeks to remove two protestors who had barricaded themselves in an underground bunker (Anon 1999).

In 1999, two separate May Day protests ended up on Clapham Common. The International Cannabis Coalition organised a ‘May day is J day’ Cannabis Carnival 1999, with people marching from Brixton to Clapham behind Luton’s Exodus Collective sound system on a flat bad lorry. More than 10,000 people gathered on the Common, with bands and sound systems playing despite a last minute objection by the police to the event getting a licence (SchQuall 2000). On the same day, several hundred people held a May Day party on the London Underground. Boarding a Circle Line train at Liverpool Street station, they decorated the train, released balloons, played music and gave away food. Leaflets were given out against tube privatisation and demanding a free transport system. After a couple of hours, the police stopped the train and those on board were put on another train to Clapham Common, where they joined the legalise cannabis campaigners in the sunshine.

Among those organising the Party Line tube party was Reclaim the Streets (RTS), established amidst the road protests of the early 1990s with a focus on reclaiming public space from the car through street parties. On May Day 2000 they called for an anti-capitalist protest in Parliament Square, explicitly bringing together the different strands of May Day: “Mayday is RED for international workers’ day; GREEN for Beltane, the ancient fire and fertility festival that signals transformation and rebirth; and BLACK for the anarchists executed for their part in trying to bring about a shorter working day… Mayday is a time when RED, GREEN and BLACK converge – a catalyst for hope and possibility” (RTS flyer, 2000).

This echoed the sentiments of the US radical historian Peter Linebaugh (1999): ‘To the history of May Day there is a Green side and there is a Red side. Green is a relationship to the Earth and what grows thereof. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among… Green dreams of the world that is to come; Red resists the world as it is. Green is nurturing; Red is struggle. May Day is both’.

Several thousand people made their way to central London on May 1st 2000, with banners displayed proclaiming ‘the earth is a common treasury for all’, and a Maypole raised next to Parliament. An attempt was made to transform the Parliament Square green into a ‘guerrilla garden’ with the planting of flowers and plants. Most famously the statue of Winston Churchill was given a turf mohican. After a long stand off with the police, hundreds of people headed South with a Samba band over the river to Kennington Park where ‘someone had the bright idea of starting a football match… and a hundred a-side game ensured. Eventually, the crowd dispersed’ (Anon 2000).

The following year there was an intensive police operation to prevent a recurrence of the May Day protests. A month before May Day, up to 200 police raided the Button Factory, a squatted building in Wanless Road, Herne Hill that had been used for gigs, parties and meetings. The police portrayed it a training centre where ‘Anarchists from across Europe were due to gather in the disused factory this weekend for riot training and planning’ (Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2001). On May Day itself, the South London May Day Collective called for people to gather at Elephant and Castle for an ‘anti-privatisation picnic’ as one of a series of ‘anti-capitalist actions across London’. Several hundred people met up there before heading into central London where the day ended with demonstrators being held in a police cordon by Oxford Circus.

The 2002 May Day events saw several hundred cyclists take part in the South London Critical Mass mobile protest, starting off from Camberwell and heading off via Elephant and Castle into the City of London and the West End. There they joined up with the main protest in Mayfair, which the flyer pointed put was so-named as ‘the traditional place of Mayday celebrations… Mayday in Mayfair will be a fluid, spontaneous and exciting return to the Mayfayre’. Many other events were held across London during that week as part of the Mayday Festival of Alternatives, including a New Cross and Deptford Radical History Walk.
2003 Mayday in London


In the first decade of the twenty-first century May Day continued to be marked in South London in many different ways. The children’s May Queen festivities initiated by the Victorians continued, particular on the outer fringes of South London. It is true that some of the longer established traditions seemed to struggle to survive. In 2002, the May Queen Society in Mitcham agreed to discontinue its event that had started in 1949: ‘The crowning of Mitcham May Queen, one of the borough’s best-loved traditions, could be consigned to history after more than 50 years because organisers cannot drum up enough support to keep the event running’ (Wimbledon Guardian, 1 May 2002). In Croydon too, the future of the May Queen was in doubt: ‘The little girls of the historic Croydon May Queen group, who have delighted generations with their jigs round the maypole, may have had their last dance’ (Croydon Guardian, 16 May 1998).

Elsewhere though the Wallington May Queen made it through to its centenary in 2003, and the Beckenham May Queen was crowned in Croydon Road Recreation Ground in 2010. In the same year, the Caterham and Warlingham May Queens both had floats in Caterham Carnival on Westway Common. And on Hayes Common in the London Borough of Bromley, 26 May Queens from around south-east London and Kent took part in the London May Queen event – where similar events have been held for a hundred years or more. Maypole dancing in schools was much rarer than fifty years before, but not entirely extinct. At Redriff Primary School (SE16), a May Day event with maypole dancing was held in 2008, with the English Folk Dance and Song Society on hand to teach the children dances. The school was chosen because in the 1960s it had hosted a festival of singing games and playground chants.

The pagan Beltane was celebrated in various places: Children of Artemis held Beltane events at Croydon Fairfield Hall in 2002 and 2007. At Green Angels in Trundle Street (SE1), Avalon in London and the Dragon Environmental Network held an eco-pagan Beltane in 2004.

In the Roman Catholic Church, May 1st was designated as the Feast of St Joseph the Worker in 1955. With the influx of migrant workers into London from traditionally Catholic countries (e.g. Latin American people settling around Elephant and Castle or Portuguese around South Lambeth), the day gained a new resonance. South London churches took part in an annual Mass for Migrant Workers at Westminster Cathedral held from 2006 at the beginning of May, accompanied by a rally calling for better wages and an amnesty for undocumented migrants. In 2011, it was scheduled to take place at St George’s Cathedral in Southwark.

While the annual socialist May Day demonstration continued in central London, the more direct action oriented anti-capitalist protests came to end for the time being in 2004, when the London May Day Collective decided not to organise an event other than a picnic in St James Park. But there were a variety of local radical May Day events. In 2007 a procession made its way from the Camberwell Squat Centre in Warham Street SE5 to Kennington Park behind banners reading ‘Workers of the World Relax’ and ‘Kennington Park – A common place for all’, referring to the park’s pre-enclosure history as a common, where the Chartists gathered in 1848. 50 or so people gathered in the park for a picnic where they danced around a maypole, featuring an imitation surveillance camera on top. Fowlers Troop Jack in the Green were out every May Day with their costumes, folk music and dancing, and there were occasional larger scale festive events.

In Battersea Park there was a 2007 ‘May Day Festival and Procession’ featuring a Maypole, Morris dancing and the burning of a giant Jack in the Green sculpture.


For hundreds, and in all probability thousands of years, people have been celebrating at the height of Spring in many different ways. When people celebrate today they are not simply acting out a script surviving from ancient times, but nor are they simply reinventing festivals spontaneously from scratch.

We can think of May Day as a kind of dressing up box, full of customs, images, songs and stories. Different people at different times have dipped into this box and selected the bits that fitted with their current hopes and concerns. Some things have been lost or forgotten, but new elements have been added. As Roy Judge (2000) has put it: ‘May Day should be thought of as producing a diversity of activity, which changed its associations and relationships in kaleidoscopic fashion. There was not a set, immutable pattern, but rather a fluid, moving process, which combined different elements at different times’.
For as long as people have been writing about May Day they have been looking back to some golden age when the festival was supposedly bigger and better.

When John Stowe wrote 400 years ago of London May Day customs he did so under the heading ‘Sports and Pastimes of Old Time’. A common complaint in the 19th century was that ‘The May-day morris dancers have degenerated into Jack-in-the-green and his attendants, and they are not what they used to be; the dance of milk-maids is no more; the May-pole is unhonoured; all the old customs are dying out’ (The Graphic 4 March 1870).
If the best of May Day was always already in the past, it has evidently had a very long after life in South London and many other places. Paradoxically this nostalgia has sustained May Day and helped give it life: ‘We love it for what it has been – for what it reminds us of; for undying memories and evergreen associations, for the fragrance of flowers that still lingers about it, and the echoes of unsurpassed music that it still brings home to our hearts’ (PIP 2 May 1863).

But May Day is not simply backward looking – there is an inherent optimism in celebrating the perpetual return of brighter days, and indeed of looking to children as the bearers of the future. May Day in all its guises is ‘an amorphous event within which the central themes of revival and new life have been expressed in a number of different ways’ (Judge, 1999). But more than that the idealised form of May Day festivities has offered a glimpse of a different way of life – an affirmation of the joy of living, of free time spent in the company of others in the open air, of pleasure exalted over drudgery of labour. Or as described on the ribbons of Walter Crane’s Workers Maypole, a celebration of ‘Socialication, Solidarity, Humanity’ and ‘Leisure for All’.


The overall understanding of May Day customs in this text is particularly indebted to Ronald Hutton and Roy Judge, whose work is an essential starting point for the study of seasonal festivities and May Day in particular.

• Anon., Mayday! Mayday!: visions, collisions and reality (2000)
• Anon, Storming the Palace: Park Life in South London, Do or Die, no.8 (
• Jessica A Browner, Wrong Side of the River: London’s disreputable South Bank in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Essay in History, 36 
• E.T. Clarke, Bermondsey: its historic memories and associations 
• Walter Crane, An Artist’s Reminiscences 
• David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England 
• Sarah Crofts, Fowlers Troop and the Deptford Jack in the Green: a history of an old London May Day tradition 
• John Evelyn, Sylva, or A Discourse on Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber 
• Steven Fielding, The Labour Governments 1964-70: Labour and cultural change 
• James Frazer, The Golden Bough 
• Sebastian Giustinian, Four years at the Court of Henry VIII: selection of despatches written by the Venetian Ambassador to the Signory of Venice, 1515-1519 
• Neil Gordon-Orr, Deptford Fun City: a ramble through the history and music of New Cross and Deptford 
• Wal Hannington, Unemployed Struggles, 1919-1936: My Life and Struggles Amongst the Unemployed 
• Eric Hobsbawm ‘Birth of a Holiday: the First of May’ in Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz 
• William Hone, The Every Day Book 
• Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: their Nature and Legacy 
• Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain 
• Ronald Hutton, The triumph of the moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft 
• Roy Judge, May Day In England: an introductory bibliography 
• Roy Judge, The Jack in the Green: a May Day Custom, 2nd edition 
• Glennie Kindred, Sacred Celebrations: a Sourcebook 
• Peter Linebaugh, The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day 
• Daniel Lysons, The Environs of London: volume 4: Counties of Herts, Essex & Kent 
• Henry Machyn, The Diary of Henry Machyn: Citizen and Merchant-Taylor of London 
• Henry Mayhew, The Morning Chronicle: Labour and the Poor, Letter LIII 
• John McIlroy, The Revolutionary Odyssey of John Lawrence, What Left Journal, no.27 
• Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels 
• Margaret Murray, The Witch Cult in Western Europe 
• Emma Restall Orr, Ritual : a Guide to Life, Love and Inspiration 
• Past Tense, Nine Days in May: the General Strike in Southwark 
• Dave Roediger, May Day: Made in America, Union Advocate 
• Robert Southey, Letters from England 
• Isobel Spencer, Walter Crane 
• SchQuall: Schnews issues 201-250 and the best of Squall 
• John Stow, A Survey of London 
• Joseph Strutt, Sports and pastimes of the people of England 
• Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses 
• J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London 
• John Timbs, Something for everybody; and a garland for the year 
• David Toop, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds 
• Edward Walford, Old and New London, Volume 6: the Southern Suburbs 
• Horace Walpole, The Letters of Horace Walplole, Earl of Orford 
• Nicolas Walter, Haymarket and May Day: a centennial history 1886-1986, Freedom, 
May 1986.
• Nora Webster, World Revolution: The Plot Against Civilisation and Secret Societies and Subversive Movements

Newspapers and periodicals:
• Bermondsey Labour Magazine (BLM)
• Bromley Record
• The Graphic
• International Times
• Kentish Mercury (KM)
• Penny Illustrated Paper (PIP)
• South London Observer (SLO)
• South London Press (SLP)
• Woolwich Pioneer (WP)

This week in North Kentish festive history: ‘Youling’ ritual took place, Keston and Wickham

Until the 1800s, for centuries, the youth of the North Kentish villages of Wickham and Keston (now suburbs of south London) used to hold an annual ritual, something of a mashup between a fertility rite, a hippy tree festival and riotous blackmail…

The festival would take place during Rogation, several days of prayer and fasting, when farmers would also often have their crops blessed by a priest. (Rogation was also associated with ‘gang-days or beating the bounds).

The young men taking part would expect free drinks or cash from the owner of the orchard thus ‘blessed’. If they didn’t get it they would curse them and their trees. The youths blessing the apple trees is also clearly a pisstake or appropriation of the priest’s role, slightly blasphemous in itself…!

Much of the Rogation-tide activity was fertility-related, with it taking place in late Spring.

Edward Hasted reported: “There is an odd custom used in these parts, about Keston and Wickham, in Rogation Week; at which time a number of young men meet together for the purpose, and with a most hideous noise run into the orchards, and incircling each tree, pronounce these words:

“Stand fast root: bear well top,
God send us a youling sop,
Every twig apple big.
Every bough apple enow.”

For which incantation the confused rabble expect a gratuity in money or drink, which is no less welcome: but if they are disappointed of both, they with great solemnity anathematise the owners and trees with altogether as significant a curse. “It seems highly probable that this custom has arisen from the ancient one of the perambulation among the heathens, when they made prayers to the gods for the use and blessing of the fruits coming up, with thanksgiving for those of the preceding year: and as the heathens supplicated Eolus, god of the winds, for his favourable blasts, so in this custom they still retain his name with a very small variation; this ceremony is called Youling, and the word is often used in their invocations.”

(Edward Hasted, The history and topographical survey of the county of Kent, second edition, volume 2, Canterbury 1797)

This custom seems to have been popular across several counties of Southern England, and was also known as ‘apple howling’. It seems likely that the name came from yowling or howling, and not a along-remembered roman hangover from ‘Eolus’… but who knows…?

The ‘expecting free drinks from landowners and threatening curses if they didn’t get it’ part has strong echoes of the mischief night/trick or treat style pranking tradition, which often has manifested with a sly class twist. This sometimes produces a licensed day a year where invading the homes or property of the wealthy is tolerated, and a limited blackmail of the rich by the poor is allowed (where cops would get called the rest of the time!). This in itself is part of a long tradition of temporary reversal, something between a genuine threat of class conflict, and a pressure relief valve to maintain social peace by letting off some pressure from the constant tension of class antagonisms.

Earlier reversal festivals like the Roman Saturnalia and the Feast of Holy Innocents were more controlled, restricted; in later centuries class antagonism came more and more to the fore.  The European Catholic Carnival tradition gradually evolved a subversive and satirical fringe, with a powerful culture of critique of authority,

Mischief Night is generally celebrated in the UK/US at the end of October/early November, though the Youling festival being in May chimes with places like Germany, where May 1st was traditionally Mischief Night…

To some extent Youling seems to have been another of those traditions that grew up around feast days which an expression of licence, a certain amount of tolerated disorder; the Shrove Tuesday apprentice holidays were usually the most unruly in England, but Mayday (just a few days before Rogation Week) was also a popular festival with some elements of riot, as was St Johns Eve at Midsummer.

Youling seems to also contain an element of Mumming – traditional English folk plays, performed by troupes of amateur actors, traditionally all male, known as mummers or guisers (also rhymerspace-eggers,
soulerstipteererswrenboys, and galoshins). Most mumming plays feature a hero, often Saint George, King George, or Prince George (but Robin Hood in the Cotswolds and Galoshin in Scotland), and a baddy, (known as the Turkish Knight in southern England, or Slasher elsewhere) – these two fight, one gets killed, and a quack Doctor who comes to restore the dead man to life. Other characters include: Old Father Christmas, who introduces some plays, the Fool and Beelzebub or Little Devil Doubt (who demands money from the audience).

Mumming was often performed in the street but more usually during visits to houses and pubs, or at festivals, often at Christmas, Easter or on Plough Monday, more rarely on Hallowe’en or All Souls’ Day. The collection of money is crucial, in which the practice may be compared with other customs such as those of Halloween, Bonfire Night, wassailing, pace egging and first-footing at new year.

The word mummer  is likely to be associated with Early New High German mummer (“disguised person”) and vermummen (“to wrap up, to disguise, to mask ones faces”)… Mumming groups often disguised themselves, wearing masks or face-obscuring hats, or blackening or painting their faces. In 1418 a law was passed forbidding “mumming, plays, interludes or any other disguisings with any feigned beards, painted visors, deformed or coloured visages in any wise, upon pain of imprisonment”. Some mummers and guisers, however, have no facial disguise at all.

Mumming was, basically, it seems, a way of raising money – the play was often toured round the big houses by poorer folk. Most Southern English versions end with the entrance of “Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back”. Johnny, traditionally played by the youngest mummer in the group, first asks for food and then more urgently for money. Johnny Jack’s wife and family were either dolls in a model house or sometimes a picture.

Mumming spread from the British Isles to a number of former British colonies, notably the Caribbean and the US.

In the US, early migrant traditions in the English speaking colonies merged the custom of ‘mumming’, Mischief Night, Saturnalia’s masked charivari, but also evolved some lovely elements of pure class extortion. In Boston, Massachusetts, in the late eighteenth century, ‘Anticks’, lower class mummers, “a set of the lowest blackguards… disguised in filthy clothes and offtimes with masked faces, went from house to house in large companies” and pretty much forced their way into the houses of the richer sort, performing part of the traditional mummers’ play, with insults and menaces:

“The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiently to a foolish dialogue… it happened not infrequently that the house would be filled with another gang when these had departed. there was no refusing admittance. Custom had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose…” (Samuel Breck, quoted by Hal Rammel)

In 1702, one ‘John Smith’ (his real name, surely) was up in court in Philadelphia, charged with “being maskt or disguised in women’s apparel, stalking openly through the streets of this city from house to house on or about the 26th [of December]”, as part of a traditional mumming ritual. [Note the date: within a few days of our New Year, the old Feast of Fools, Saturnalia, all reversal festivals].

Other scattered records of this Philly tradition all record attempts to repress it by the authorities, although it survives in an official, co-opted form as a New Year Mummers Parade).

Something of this survives in Trick or Treat, and has crossed the Atlantic back to take hold in England in the last thirty years; but think back to the peasants turning the tables on the Teutonic Knights, or the edgier carnival practices. Again, licenced it may have been, thinly veiling the class antagonism; but by the 1830s it had been stamped out in Boston. But a Land of Cokaygne could be created, not just by dancing and drinking, but by inverting class relations – if only for a while…


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Today in festive history: it’s St John’s Eve – for bonfires, drink, dancing and dreams…

When the sun sets on 23 June, Saint John’s Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist.

In medieval times the feast of St John was one of the most important festivals of the year – and they liked their festivals back then. But although renamed for poor old headless St John, in fact those pesky thieving Christians had appropriated the midsummer festival, the solstice, the longest day of the year. Early Christians loved to nick pagan gods and turn them into saints, and lift pre-christian festivals and graft saints onto them…

Midsummer celebrations pre-dated Christianity all over Europe – the time when the day is longest and night is shortest, is just an obvious excuse for either a ritual or a knees-up. Or both. But St John’s Eve reflected much more than that: there are elements of pagan worship, dreams of an idle and carefree life, the wandering of the soul into the spirit world, and the threat of riot and revolt…

Midsummers Day was holy all over Europe. Irish and Scots, Swiss and French, Germans, Lithuanians, Italians, Russians, and Swedes celebrated the climax of the light with celebratory rituals. Some countries in the northern hemisphere receive 24 hours of daylight.

“At midnight on the holyday’s eve, said Spanish tradition, the waters are blessed with special power. Maidens rushed to be the first to reach the springs. The first to drink the water received its “flower,” and left a green sprig to show others that it had been collected. People brought this water home as medicine. They took off clothing and shoes to bathe in the Midsummer’s eve dew, which had blessing and curative powers.”

St Johns Eve was everywhere associated with fire – bonfires were lit all over Europe, often going along with a ritual, that young people had to jump over the fire… In some places it was customary to build the fire near water, on the beach or a river bank or lake side (though in Scandinavia they were also lit on the tops of hills). Bonfire parties naturally turned into revelry – carnivals of drinking and eating, singing and dancing, late into the night. Across Europe it was customary to dance around Midsummer bonfires. The Swedes used nine kinds of wood in their blaze, and wove nine kinds of flowers into the dancers’ garlands. In many places people gathered nine special herbs, usually including hypericum and mugwort. The Spanish gathered verbena at dawn and leaped over the fires (as the Catalans still do). The Letts sang and gathered hypericum and a plant called raggana kauli, “witch’s bones.” People observing these old pagan customs were called “John’s folk,” after the saint whose day fell on the old pagan festival. In some places you can find St John place names where popular celebrations were held on this night, (or where people celebrated on June 23rd because of the name).

“Fire was the theme of Midsummer celebrations as it symbolised the sun. There was an impulse to make merry in the sunlight at Midsummer, before the year waned into autumn. People made bonfires using the charred logs from the previous year. Often bones were tossed in for good fortune. (The term for bonfire derives from late Middle English: bone + fire; fire with bones for fuel.) The fires were thought to lure the sun to stay longer in the sky. People danced and leapt between the flames while feasting. 

In the country, bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and livestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires. This practice was possibly used as a protection against disease. Causes of diseases in animals and plants were not understood then. They believed that any contagion was airborne, hence the fire was a cleansing agent against disease.”

Midsummer marked the start of the harvest, too, so it was a shindig before some serious hard graft had to be done…

Like all the medieval feast days St Johns Eve played a part in social cohesion – both in ritual terms, marking ceremonies that bound people together, and in more informal or complex ways… for instance it was once the custom in Yorkshire for any family who had come to live in the parish within the last year to put a table outside their house, on St. John’s Eve, and place on it bread and cheese and beer and offer this to anyone who passed by. Any of the parish might help themselves, and if the fortunes of the family ran to it, would be invited indoors for a further supper and a festive evening. By this means the newcomers to the parish made many acquaintances and friends, and were helped to see themselves as having a definite place in the local community. Midsummer was a time of merry making, of settling differences between neighbours, and giving to the poor.

On top of this, as with the southern European carnival, the rowdiness and letting your hair down associated with St John’s Eve celebrations helped by defusing the social tensions, the class resentment and straining against constraints and social control, which bubbled along under the surface.

Collecting plants – gathering medicinal herbs or plants held to have magical properties was also customary on St Johns Eve. The flowers represented the fertility of the earth, just as the fires stood for the sun. It was traditional to decorate one’s home – especially the main entry door – with garlands or wreaths. The colours of the flowers used were red, yellow, orange, all colours identified with the sun, and green for fertility. The circular shape of the wreaths suggested both the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons, again harking back to old Pagan beliefs.

The flowers associated with the feast of St John include fennel, rue, rosemary, lemon verbena, mallows, laburnum, foxgloves and elder flowers. It was especially important to gather the perennial herb “St. John’s Wort”. Since medieval times, the herb has been hung over doors, windows and icons to keep witches and evil spirits away, and was once known as ‘chase-devil’. Yarrow has been used since ancient times for healing wounds, and its essential oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Yarrow was also used as a ward against evil, and traditionally it was burned on the eve of St John’s Day.

Bracken was also collected: its minute spores were reputed to confer invisibility on their possessor if gathered at the only time when they were said to be visible, i.e., on St. John’s Eve at the precise moment at which the saint was born. THAT sounds worth trying out!

St John’s Eve was long celebrated in London: “Every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s wort, orpin, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning in them all the night; some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps alight at once, which made a goodly show, namely in New Fish Street, Thames Street, &c.” (John Stow)

Festivals like St John’s were often times where a release of energy was allowed, where the ties of social control were deliberately let loose, so as to provide a safety valve, a letting off of steam, which helped to ensure a reduction in trouble and rebellion the rest of the time. Between Midsummer Eve and June 29th (St Peter’s Eve), the mayor of London, the aldermen and other worthies paraded through the streets, carrying torches, in the ‘Midsummer Watch’. Not just taking part in a ritual, impressing the lower orders with the power and wealth of the City elite – but also usefully keeping an eye on the revels and being on hand to keep any boisterousness from becoming socially dangerous.

Sponsored by the twelve great London livery companies, the great and good, accompanied by soldiers in armour, processed through the ‘principal streets’, carrying banners, lit up by ‘lampes of glasse’ hung on the houses ‘with oyl burning in them all the night’, and followed by morris dancers, minstrels, gunners, archers, pikemen, officials.

Another element was men dressed up as giants. Rented by the London livery companies, sometimes so massive it would take to men to carry them… They were made from hoops of metal, plaster. Lath, paper mache, sized cloth, and tinfoil, gold and silver leaf. The giants were so popular that the idea spread to many other Midsummer parties around the country (not sure where it originates…) The gigantic Gog and Magog were favourites by the 16th century…

This pageant became more elaborate, involving dramatics, pageants, plays, carnival type floats, and great spectacle, and absorbing large sums of money, especially in the early 16th century. By this time the guilds and livery companies were competing to sponsor plays and costumes to demonstrate that they were more influential and richer than the others. “In 1521, the Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St. John the Evangelist, St. George, and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, Morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Dragons and firework displays were popular additions to the marches. In 1541, the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae. (Aqua vitae is Latin, defined literally as “water of life.” It was a term for unrefined alcohol. In England in the 1540s, the term was used for brandy and whiskey.”

St Johns Eve may well have been celebrated most energetically by apprentices, famed as the most forward group in riots, rebellions, fights, rowdy sports and other outbreaks of trouble. Apprentices looked forward most of all to feast days – because their working life was hard, with long hours, virtually unpaid and possibly bound to unscrupulous bullies for masters. Feast represented a time to escape work for everyone, buy for apprentices the bonds were harsher and the (temporary) release more of a giddy joy.

Just as the feast of St John revelries had a respectable and approved face, there was a dark, dangerous, hedonistic and rebellious side, which the Watch parades acknowledged in their exhibiting the power of the state. Hell, the parade was itself a response to this threatening and pleasure-centred counter-current. Which included paganism, the dream of Cokaygne, and magic…

Midsummer was long associated with magic and witchcraft – like the other turning points of the year, the solstice was thought to be a powerful time, when magic became more powerful and the spirit worlds nearer to the material. Midsummer Night was, like All Hallows, a time when the divisions between these worlds grew thin and easy to bridge.

The ‘Watch’ may have reflected this, interestingly. According to Chambers’ Book of Days: “Some of the superstitious notions connected with St. John’s Eve are of a highly fanciful nature. The Irish believe that the souls of all people on this night leave their bodies, and wander to the place, by land or sea, where death shall finally separate them from the tenement of day. It is not improbable that this notion was originally universal, and was the cause of the widespread custom of watching or sitting up awake on St. John’s night, for we may well believe that there would be a general wish to prevent the soul from going upon that somewhat dismal ramble. In England, and perhaps in other countries also, it was believed that, if any one sat up fasting all night in the church porch, he would see the spirits of those who were to die in the parish during the ensuing twelvemonths come and knock at the church door, in the order and succession in which they were to die. We can easily perceive a possible connexion between this dreary fancy and that of the soul’s midnight ramble.

The civic vigils just described were no doubt a result, though. a more remote one, of the same idea. There is a Low Dutch proverb used by those who have been kept awake all night by troubles of any kind:

‘We have passed St. John Baptist’s night.’ In a book written in the seventeenth century for the instruction of a young nobleman, the author warns his pupil against certain ‘fearful superstitions, as to watch upon St. John’s evening, and the first Tuesday in the month of March, to conjure the moon, to lie upon your back, having your ears stopped with laurel leaves, and to fall asleep not thinking of God, and such like follies, all forged by the infernal Cyclops and Pluto’s servants.’

A circumstance mentioned by Grose supports our conjecture—that to sleep on St. John’s Eve was thought to ensure a wandering of the spirit, while watching was regarded as conferring the power of seeing the vagrant spirits of those who slept. Amongst a company who sat up in a church porch, one fell so deeply asleep that he could not be waked. His companions after-wards averred that, whilst he was in this state, they beheld his spirit go and knock at the church door.

The same notion of a temporary liberation of the soul is perhaps at the bottom of a number of superstitious practices resembling those appropriate to Hallow-eve. It was supposed, for example, that if an unmarried woman, fasting, laid a cloth at midnight with bread and cheese, and sat down as if to eat, leaving the street-door open, the person whom she was to marry would come into the room and drink to her by bowing, after which, setting down the glass, with another bow he would retire. It was customary on this eve to gather certain plants which were supposed to have a supernatural character. The fern is one of those herbs which have their seed on the back of the leaf, so small as to escape the sight. It was concluded, according to the strange irrelative reasoning of former times, that to possess this seed, not easily visible, was a means of rendering one’s self invisible. Young men would go out at midnight of St. John’s Eve, and endeavour to catch. some in a plate, but without touching the plant—an attempt rather trying to patience, and which often failed.”

Midsummer Eve was seen as the most advantageous time of the year for enchantments, since the sun and plants were at the height of their powers. Witches were held to assemble in sabbats at Midsummer: part of the ritual of the St John’s Eve fires in some countries was to ward off witches and ‘evil spirits’ – obviously it helped you stay up all night ‘watching’ if you had some evil spirits of your own to quaff to pass the time. Or beer. Lots of beer.

Enchantments to reveal who your new lover would be were wildly popular. Lovers looked for ways to spend this magical night in each other’s arms. Divinations for love, prosperity and health were widely practiced.

Another subversive undercurrent associated with the fest of St John was the dream of Cokaygne.

In most, if not all, the corners of Europe, in their mythologies, folk tales, popular songs and festivals, the poor of the Middle Ages dreamed up a land where their sufferings were reversed, where people lived in harmony and plenty without having to work.

The lives of the poor in medieval times were viciously hard – oppressed and exploited by the rich and the church, terrorised by their hired soldiers, forced to work long hours all their lives, for sometimes little more than a bare living, without hope of any change in their situation. On the one hand, they were told constantly by the Church that they could not expect and should not dream of a better existence in this life; on the other that a paradise existed for them somewhere after death: so long as they held the right religious beliefs, worked hard and obeyed their ‘betters’.

People were also absolutely dependent on changes in their natural environment: bad weather, a bad season, might mean crop failure, famine and hunger or even starvation.

Not surprising, then, that the frustrated dreams of the poor should create a place where everything was free, where life was easy, where the weather was always fine, where all desires came true – and where the rich could never hope to come.

Their dream of a Utopia of the poor appears in popular medieval literature in many parts of Europe, most notably anonymous poems or stories, part of a shared oral tradition, but varying in their form and content. In fourteenth Century Western Europe, this image of a free earthly paradise is usually named as Cokaygne, or Cockaigne; and descriptions of it emerged in a popular song, The Land of Cokaygne. Many versions existed, varying from country to country, from area to area; and it was anonymous, possibly a product of many minds.

In Cokaygne, clothes grow on trees, animals run around ready cooked crying eat me; no one works, and the idlest is the king; sex is abundant and guilt-free; the poor only can get in, and the rich are barred. Cokaygne is a land of conscious rebellion against work, poverty, hierarchy and religion, which are all ruthlessly satirized in the poems. This tradition survived its early medieval roots, was transmuted into moral warning literature in the reformation, filtered into mumming plays and ‘exploration’ tales, and was itself carried to the ‘new world’ to emerge again in later centuries, breaking forth into social comment again as the Big Rock Candy Mountain or Poor Man’s Heaven.

The surviving French version of this song, ‘La Fabliau de Cocagne’, and a version of the English Cokaygne poem, mention the feast of St John, celebrating it, bringing it into the fabulous country, or asserting its Cokaygne-like nature, along with hounourable mentions for other carnivals and feast days. All carnival and festival to some extent reflected Cokaygne, in their excess, satirical dramas, bingeing and dressing up, in the release of pent-up aggression in wild fantastic partying. The worry for the authorities was always to keep this controlled release from becoming something more violent and dangerous – and many revolts and attempts to overthrow authority of one form or another would begin in festivals and carnivals, across Europe. Kett’s 1549 Rebellion against enclosures in Norfolk did begin to take shape at Midsummer, on June 21st…

St John’s Eve also saw the launch of an uprising in the German peasants War: “On 23 June 1524 the Countess von Lupfen in Stuhlingen ordered her peasants to collect stripey snail shells.  She liked to use these to wind her embroidery thread around. But anyway this was a bad day as it was St John’s day and should have been a holiday. It was actually also the first opportunity the peasants had to tend to their own vegetables as the weather had been very bad and they had otherwise been working on her estate.  Anyway on this occasion they refused to collect the shells for her. They went up to her castle to complain but instead of standing her ground she fled. This was probably a mistake as before they knew what was happening more and more peasants assembled and within days there were thousands of peasants in full revolution.  Eventually there were an estimated 300,000 peasants in an armed revolt which spread across Germany and Austria, burning down hundreds of castles and abbeys until eventually it was suppressed by mercenary armies hired by the princes.” (Thanks, Mark!)

So don’t go nicking our holidays, poshos.

The blatant theft of the pagan solstice/midsummer celebrations, and its christianising into St John’s Eve/Day, would return to bite the godbotherers in the bum… Paganism, or at least elements of it, would erupt every now and again throughout the middle ages – at least partly because much of it was very attractive and obvious if you lived among nature, and also because the Christian church was often so fucking controlling and repressive. Some of the element of St John’s Eve – fire, the garlands, the jumping through flames – had clear origins in pre-christian nature worship, and the feast of St John would carry this association for centuries.

The feast of St John seemed open to subversion and overflowing of convention and restraint. Perhaps because people felt the spirit world the material world were so close, because the ‘liberation of the soul’ was on people’s minds, the constraints on the body, and on behaviour, could easily fall away. Max Dashu describes how frequent movements of euphoric dancing appeared in central Europe over several centuries, often associated with St John and his feast.

“Midsummers became the focus for a revival of pagan culture in the mid-to-late 1300s. Trance dancing spread through southern Italy and the Rhineland. Large groups of people danced the round with deep emotion, for days at a time. These gatherings were large enough to attract the notice of chroniclers. The dancers appear in Erfurt, Germany, in annals of the year 1237, and again in 1278 in Utrecht, Holland. The earliest records of ecstatic dancers call them St. John’s Dance, after the saint assigned to Midsummer Day. (The later name of St Vitus’ Dance points to the same time frame; that saints’ festival fell on June 15th.) The dances took place on and around the summer solstice…

In 1373 and 1374 a mass celebration of dancers spread over Flanders and western Germany. At Aachen people danced through the streets in circles, leaping and singing with religious intensity. The dancers entered trances, sinking to the ground unconscious, and later sat up and recounted their visions. Some prostrated themselves before images of the Virgin in churches. Most of the dancers were poor folk, with a large proportion of women…”

This popular outbreak of pogoing alarmed officials of church and state, who saw it as uncontrollable, hysterical, and dangerous, with people traveling from place to place – never easily tolerated in a society where ‘knowing your place’ was paramount. Church commentators described the entranced dancers as tormented by the devil.

“… in markets and churches, as well as in their own homes, they danced, held each others’ hands and leaped high into the air. While they danced their minds were no longer clear, and they paid no heed to modesty though bystanders looked on. While they danced they called out names of demons, such as Friskes and others…

However, Frisch or Friskes was not the name of any devil, but medieval German: frisch or vrische, having to do with healing and lifeforce. As E. L. Bachman pointed out, “Vrische is also a verb with the meaning, ‘make whole’… East Frisian has frisk, which means ‘healthy, young, unspoiled, lively’ and frisken, meaning ‘to make healthy…” Its English relative is frisky, “lively, frolicking”, and the Scandanavian versions mean “fresh.” The dancers were singing the praises of wholeness, vitality, and health, not “devils never before heard of,” as the historian Radulphus de Rivo wrote. In Holland the dancers themselves were called Friskers…

Priestly accounts accuse the entranced dancers of being possessed and questioned whether they were christians.”

The association with St John and his festi emerges again and again. Koelhoff’s Chronicle of 1499 has the dancers shouting as they leap, “Oh Lord St John/so, so/ Whole and happy, Lord St John!”

“It is quite possible that Europeans revived trance dancing as a way of confronting the plague. We have already seen how the dancers invoked healing power with their cries of “Friskes!” We know that in 1349 the people of Wertheim tried to ward off the plague by performing ringdances around a pine tree. The church had always recognized and condemned the animist and pagan roots of these ecstatic ceremonies.

A new wave of dancing started in 1381 near a chapel of St John by the river Gelbim. The ecstatic dance took place in a forest secluded from the view of would-be exorcists, who had begun to claim that the dancers were possessed by devils.

… in one lonely spot in the diocese of Trier, far from the abodes of men, near the ruins of a deserted old chapel, there gathered several thousand members of this company [societas] as if to fulfil a sacred vow. They and others who followed to see the show amounted to some five thousand persons. There they stayed, preparing for themselves a kind of encampment: they built huts with leaves and branches from the nearby forest, and food was brought from towns and villages as to a market.

The music and songs of these dancers are lost to us, but the deliberate and ceremonial nature of the dance-gathering is clear. Near the turn of the century Johannes de Beka wrote about another outbreak of entranced dancing in 1385:

In the same year there spread along the Rhine, beginning in the kingdom of Bohemia, a strange plague which reached as far as the district of Maastricht, whereby persons of both sexes, in great crowds, marched here and there bound around with cloths and towels and with wreaths on their heads. They danced and sang, both inside and outside the churches, till they were so weary that they fell to the ground. At last it was determined that they were possessed. The evil spirits were driven out….

The lauding of successful priestly exorcisms does not mesh with the chronicles’ assertion that the “choreomaniacs” kept on going from city to city. Rather than disappearing under dramatically successful ministrations, as the clergy claimed, the dancers passed through Flanders and Holland and then headed towards southern Germany.

In 1418 a crowd assembled to watch women dancing in the Water Church of Zurich. This chapel had been built over a spring reknowned as a source of healing and strength-giving waters for centuries. [Bachmann, 232] Other gathering points were places associated with rites of the summer solstice. At St John’s Mount near Dudelingen, Midsummer was celebrated with dancing that culminated with people falling to the ground unconscious. This site continued to be a place of pilgrimage for centuries; in 1638 Bertelius wrote that “even today” large crowds came there in procession.

Trance dance remained common practice through the 1400s. The priesthood disparaged it but peasant festival celebrants kept it alive. Only in 1518 did it come to be known as St Vitus’ Dance, after the patron saint of seizures, spasms and rabies, when priests performed exorcisms on dancers at the chapel of St Vitus in Strasbourg. Perhaps they had decided that the pagan associations of “St John’s” festival had become problematic.

Contemporary chronicles tell us that this rather desperate outbreak of dancing took place in a year preceded by several years of ruined harvests and famine. Several chroniclers agree that a woman began dancing for days at a stretch, that 34 others soon were dancing, and within a month more than 400 had taken to dancing and hopping “in the public market, in alleys and streets, day and night…” People fasted and danced continually “until they fell down unconscious.”

The authorities were at a loss about how to suppress this popular movement. They tried to keep the dancers indoors and to make the guilds responsible for taking their dancers to the shrine of some saint. None of this worked, so finally they outlawed the playing of music.

At the end of the middle ages, churchly prohibitions against dancing reach their highest pitch. They single out for condemnation “the participation of women and… crude magical churchyard dances.” Chroniclers made no secret of their contempt for the celebrants, especially “the women and young girls who shamelessly wandered about in remote places under the cover of night.”

The strategy of branding the dancers as out-of-control maniacs ultimately succeeded. Trance dancing came to be viewed with contempt in Western Civilization. The dancers are described, with the same contempt later directed at the vodunsis and santeros of Afro-Caribbean sacramental dance, as mad people held captives by superstition and delusion. Diabolism was projected on these groups, and many others, by a hostile priesthood who became the primary (and sometimes the only surviving) historical sources.” (Dashu)

Repression of these dancers was only a part of the crackdown on festivals, carnivals, dancing, ‘pagan elements’ in worship, and many other aspects of popular culture across Europe, across the late middle ages and early modern period. This saw saints days and images and decoration abolished, long-held practices and beliefs outlawed and fairs and feast days reduced. A culture of hard work and joylessness was rising, and there was just way too much fun being had and a lot if it very suspicious indeed. It all had to go, and it wasn’t only the protestants, wither – catholic Europe also experienced a vicious purge of popular celebrations.

London’s St John’s Eve practices were to vanish. The increasing cost of the London Midsummer parades, and the drunken bawdiness and violence that often accompanied the festival, became too much for the authorities, eventually. In 1539, Henry VIII banned the Midsummer Watch in London due to the exorbitant cost and drunken crowds. The suspicious paranoid old psycho may also have been afraid that any gathering of armed citizens or assembly of crowds might be a cover for some kind of rebellion against him.

Many of his loyal subjects were not too impressed by this act, and in 1548, after his death, the Watch was briefly revived.

The following year, however, the parade was switched suddenly to October and transformed into the Lord mayors parade, which survives today a pure celebration of City power. The increasingly protestant regime of the protector Somerset took a dim view of pageantry and much of he show, considering it idolatrous and pagan, associated with Roman Catholicism. Moving it to a much colder time of years would also cut down on much of the drinking, fighting and snogging (etc) in the street, they no doubt thought. Never been to Newcastle then?

Midsummer parties continue, however; new celebrations sparked by more recent midsummer revolts (eg Gay Pride), or conscious revivals of ancient festivals (or what hippies fondly imagine them to have bee like), such as summer solstice at Stonehenge… When the days are long and hot, you just need to grab a shandy and dance till your head is at least partly in another world…

Interestingly, the rowdy Pinner Fair originally began on June 23rd, before being moved to August.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s festive past: impromptu street party after ‘Stokefest’ event, Clissold Park, 2007

In the 1990s, Church street, Stoke Newington, used to host a midsummer fair, every year in early June. The whole street was closed to traffic, there were bands, stalls, food, stages, sound systems and all sorts of other entertainment. “Some of the finest musicians around performed on the street, particular flowing out from the vortex jazz bar, now just a gap in the street. and if you got too hot or needed a rest from the crowds, there was the picturesque overgrown Abney Park cemetery in which to find shade and rest.”

However, although Stokey then still had a sizeable working class population many west Indian, south American and numberless other communities, as well as lots of squatters, housing co-op residents and other down at heel types, gentrification was at work in the area. London N16 was slowly being taken over by the middle class in a big way, so that these days it’s impossible to walk down Church Street for pop-up artisan cakeries and shops selling artistically labelled sticks for £17 or baby clothes that’ll set you back the best part of a week’s wages.

While the middle class like a street fest as much as the next socio-economic strata, Hackney Council decided that shutting the street and allowing people to hang out and enjoy themselves was making the place look messy and risking disorder riotry and other unruly pleasures. Which had gone on a little bit to be fair but no more than your average night out in any town centre. After much muttering and risk assessment shuffling, in 2003 the Festival was moved into neighbouring Clissold Park and renamed ‘Stokefest’. As a concession to its origins the day usually started with a parade along Church Street, ending in the park. Sound systems, several stages, playgrounds and story-telling etc still made it a fun day out. Clissold Park itself then had a good recent history of grassroots self-organised festivals like the Hackney Homeless Festivals and an alternative Lesbian & Gay Fest in the mid-90s…

Although moving the party to the park did change the spirit somewhat, (the narrow lane that is Church Street made it more fun and felt weirdly less confined than in a large open space), Stokefest did continue for a few years, but you always felt that the power-that-be had their eye on closing the fun down. Much as the long-mooted idea of moving the Notting Hill Carnival into Hyde Park is widely derided, not only because people see it as a first step to total abolition.

In 2006, Hackney Council ‘forgot’ to apply for the licence necessary to stage the festival at its usual time in June, and it had to be postponed till September. This was put down to bureaucratic bungling, and Hackney was its least competent at this point, but you got wonder if they hoped the festival would just die naturally.

But in 2007, the festival went head, and even ended with an impromptu street party (admittedly a small one…):
“Those of us who are nostalgic for the street parties of the 1990s – long ago pronounced dead – were pleasantly surprised when a street party broke out in North London’s Highbury New Park last Sunday (10th June 2007) at the end of the Stokefest festival. 

Around 8pm the festival in Clissold Park started to wind down, and the police closed the exit on Green Lanes opposite the White House pub. This could possibly have been to stop the Rythmns of Resistance samba band getting in, so they did a set on the green in front of the housing estate at the corner of Highbury New Park, with much dancing and football kick-abouts. When they finished, the large truck with posters advertising the forthcoming Secret Garden Festival fired up their soundsystem, and with a bit of ineffectual arm-waving from some yellow-jacket community cops, started off down Highbury New Park, squeezing through the traffic calming features and roadworks, with a couple of hundred party people bouncing after them, some on bikes.

To the tune of Blue Monday and Underworld’s Born Slippery, they partied down Highbury New Park, with some punters dancing on top of garden walls. Some punters, wineglasses in hand, appeared to have come out of parties in local back gardens, and the lady who asked me where they were going seemed quite good natured about the giant sound system having woken her baby up.

About half way down the long Highbury New Park road, the truck attempted to turn, gave up, and then punters lay down in front of the truck in the road and demanded “More music!” as the sound system crew pleaded, “We’ve got to be back in Brighton tonight!” Some very efficient crowd control was carried out by a man with a megaphone wearing a tall black top hat with a peacock feather in it, who somehow talked the crowd into getting out of the way and letting them drive off at speed (without the sound system on) in the Brighton direction after about half an hour or partying. An improvised on-street percussion workshop followed as darkness fell.

Apart from the opening minutes, there was not a cop in sight. Street parties like this are the sort of thing we’re not supposed to be allowed to get away with anymore in our modern 21st century surveillance world with lots and lots of public order police. But it happened.” (Matt Salusbury)

This wildcat shindig may have narked cops and council into determining to take Stokefest by the scruff and shake it like a cheeky kitten. The council had already laid down that 15,000 people was the maximum number allowed in a park event; now they ruled that any event over 300 people had to be fenced in. The organisers already kept publicity to a minimum so as to not attract too many over the 15,000 arbitrary limit.

So in 2008, Stokefest was again confined to the park, but cops and council fenced off a small area designated for the festival, (leaving most of the park outside this cordon) and to tightly control those entering; police corralling everyone through a tiny entrance/exit, and aggressively searching any group of young black youth… This created a claustrophobic and aggravated atmosphere, with a fair amount of angry exchanges and some shoving. To be fair as usual with such approaches, funneling people through narrow gates and penning them in, many of us are not going to feel especially sunny. The day ended with some minor skirmishing and recriminations.

With the fence on the cards again for 2009, the Stokefest organisers decided that they couldn’t carry on, issuing this statement:

“Clissold Park has a premises license permitting events with a maximum capacity of 15,000 people in one portion of the park. For years we’ve had to stick to extremely limited print marketing runs and media-feature blackouts in order to get permission from Hackney Council to run the event; this has made it extremely difficult for our producing partners to solicit sponsorship to pay for their areas. Additionally, Hackney Council’s Parks and Licensing Departments, alongside Hackney Police Licensing Department, has developed an outdoor events policy stating that any event over 3,000 capacity must be completely fenced in. This is not an altogether unreasonable policy in itself, and is only there in principle to negate any potential risks of having lots of us all having a great laugh in one place at the same time. Unfortunately we, as the organisers of Stokefest, cannot bring ourselves to organise a free community festival inside a great big steel box! It just doesn’t feel right. We feel sure that the atmosphere will change, the essence of what we all collectively had would be diluted, and our memories of the fun we had would be tainted by the security systems, ridiculous entry conditions and a general lack of freedom. “

So Stokefest was no more. Other free festivals in London (and wider afield) had already gone the way of the dodo; meanwhile large-scale commercial events, also involving fencing off large parts of parks, but charging huge amounts to get in, have increased dramatically. Not 2 miles away from Stoke Newington, Finsbury Park has hosted as many as eight such dos, with big chunks of the space shut off for several days of the year. Councils are skint, and are attempting to recoup some of the money lopped off their budgets by national government with any lucrative scheme going… Bit annoying for those of us with little cash who like parks to be free and open. Stokefest was TOO free, clearly, not enough money flowing into Town Hall coffers.

As was pointed out at the time of Stokefest’s demise: “There’s also a wiff of conspiracy around Hackney council’s sabotage: one of the alternative events that Stokefest’s organisers recommend, tongue perhaps in cheek, is the new Free Range festival, which takes place in, would you believe it, Clissold Park, this September. The catch? A £25 ticket.”

Nowadays Stoke Newington Church Street is very genteel, and Clissold Park has been re-worked to cater more for the bourgy elite edging out the less wealthy of the area. Some of us grumpy disreputable types still hang out there and annoy them; but you do feel a bit like an uninvited guest at a garden party sometimes.

Thanks to Matt Salusbury, Peter Marshall and Johnny Void who I shamelessly nicked some of the above from nicked without even asking…


Postscript: A tiny intro to Stoke Newington’s radical history:

For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists (like Newington Green, see later on), due to its being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. The area was a hotbed of defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War; when the monarchy was restored they took to assassination plots and abortive uprisings.

Colonel Henry Danvers lived in Stokey; a parliamentary officer in the Civil War, by 1661, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republicans in 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, establish a republic and redistribute property. Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!

In 1685 Danvers led 5th monarchists, who planned to riot in support of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. Had 500 men promised, but they failed to appear, Danvers fled abroad. Others fled to Monmouth, whose army contained many former Levellers, and other radicals; they were beaten at the battle of Sedgemoor.

The religious dissidence that characterized this are lasted into the nineteenth century. Hence the dominance of Abney park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried; some of the most interesting being chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… On the other hand the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of the supreme vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation. For all their charitable work, these god-bothering music-manglers were widely hated by the homeless and poor for their pressing of the bible; in the 19th century there was even a ‘Skeleton Army’ founded to oppose them (although some mystorians have suggested this was a plot by the publicans to get back at the Starvation Army for their message of avoiding the demon drink). The Booth graves are just by the entrance on Church Street, on a sunny Sunday it’s traditional to go and dance wildly on their graves, singing blasphemous songs, like the anti- Sally Army IWW song, ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, or ‘Banging in the Nails’ by the Tiger Lilies…

From the 1960s, Stoke Newington was home to a growing afro-Caribbean community, which like most black communities in the inner cities faced battles with racism, from organized rightwing groups and institutions, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up en masse for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots here in 1981, numerous campaigns and protests, and the organized resistance against racist murders, police harassment, most notably through the brilliant Hackney Community Defence Campaign. Some cops did get sacked in the end, but others were just moved elsewhere, and wholesale assault was tweaked around and made to look nicer.

In parallel with this, run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting in the area from the 70s onward. Thousands of houses were occupied to live in, and various larger buildings used as social centres, punk venues, artspaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creation was built on squatting. Too many places to list; but in July and August 2013 two radical history walks explored some of this amazing recent past in the area; we are hoping to provoke the authors to set these walks out for some form of publication… keep in touch.

Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s, though a gradual gentrifying of the area since the 70s has infested the area with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. If a freak earthquake swallowed the area, the Guardian, BBC and Channel Four News/Dispatches would grind to a halt, so many journos and media b-list celebs now cluster here. Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class and poor, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.

There’s lots more on Stokey past at the excellent The Radical History of Hackney blog, which makes past tense look like shamateurs…


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London festive history: Brixton streets Reclaimed for wicked street party, 1998


An account of the Brixton Reclaim the Streets Party, 6th June 1998. Written by one of those that planned and brought the day off successfully…

Brixton has seen many parties, but none quite like the one on Saturday 6th June 1998 when thousands of people brought traffic to a standstill by partying in the high street without the permission of the police or Council.

The occasion was the Reclaim the Streets’ ‘South London Street Party’. RTS had organised similar events of increasing size in the previous few years. A party in Camden High Street (April 1995) had been followed by a bigger one in Upper Street, Islington three months later. The following year RTS shut down a section of the M41 motorway in west London, with sound systems and sofas replacing cars on the tarmac.

The challenge for 1998 was how to keep one step ahead of the police now that the basic tactic was well known. There was also some dissatisfaction amongst RTS activists about simply continuing with parties that erupted suddenly but disappeared just as quickly leaving little behind except memories and a sense of the possibility of a different way of life.

The agreed way forward was to try and organise two simultaneous parties in different parts of London, and to attempt to root the parties more in what was going on in the areas concerned.

The planning meetings for the South London party were held in a squatted social club in Kennington (now a housing office). Sometimes there was no electricity and we talked by candlelight. At other times we met up on the roof of the building in the open air. We broke up into groups, each responsible for a particular aspect of the party. I was in a group focused on organising activities for children. One sub group was responsible for selecting the location, something that was to be kept secret from everybody else until the day of the party to keep the authorities guessing. In this way too the Wednesday night planning meetings could be open to all comers without worrying about the venue becoming widely known.

The publicity called for people to meet at noon outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, and several hundred people were there at the appointed time. Most party goers and police only knew that the party was to take place somewhere in South London. The expectation was that there would be some chasing around to get to the location – for the M41 Reclaim the Streets party in 1996, people had assembled at Liverpool Street on the other side of town and been directed by tube towards Shepherds Bush.

This time though a game of double bluff was being played. In the road opposite the Town Hall two old cars crashed into each other in a pre-arranged manouvre to halt the traffic, a flare was let off and a few people immediately stepped into the road. After a moment’s hesitation, the crowd pushed passed the police into the road, with another staged car crash at the other end of the high street blocking traffic in both directions.

Within a short time the party was in full swing. The whole stretch of Brixton Road from the Fridge down to beyond the tube station was full of people instead of cars; Coldharbour Lane was also traffic free down as far as the Atlantic Road junction. Climbers had scaled the lamp posts and hung enormous colourful banners across the street – my favourite read ‘Under the Tarmac Flows the River – Dig Up the Effra’, referring to the lost river now flowing beneath Brixton. Others read ‘Cars my Arse’ and ‘Against Tube Privatisation’ (tube workers were due to strike the following week). There was a huge figure of a woman – the poster and flyer for the event had featured an image from the 50s movie ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman’ showing said woman lifting up cars. Another climber got a big cheer for putting a plastic bag over a CCTV camera. A red, green and black RTS flag flew on top of McDonalds. News came through that in North London a similar party had been successfully established on Tottenham High Road.

People danced to a sound system set up in a van at the junction of Acre Lane. Down by the tube station there were two more sound systems, one playing ragga and the other, a cycle-powered effort, spluttering out techno. A live music PA was set up in the road outside Morley’s store. Over the next few hours it featured an all-women punk covers band (a highlight for me was ‘Teenage Kicks’), Steve Prole, Painful and various others. On the other side of the road there was a big acoustic jam, with drums etc.

A sand pit in the road was the centre of the children’s area. We had loads of gold shiny card which we made into big conical hats. Children were also playing in the fountains outside the library which were overflowing with bubbles. We gave out free pastries donated by staff at Grace and Favour cafe in East Dulwich (workers at the café in Clapham Common gave up the contents of their tips jar for the party).

The flyer had promised to ‘transform our Streets into a place of human interaction, a dance, a playground, a football match, the sharing of food, an exchange of free thoughts’. And that’s pretty much what happened, with up to 5,000 people partying on until about 9 pm.

The police mainly kept themselves at the edge of the party, with only three arrests, one of a fire eater for allegedly breathing flames too near to the police…


The great strength of the 98 party was that it was organised by people who lived in Brixton, some of us had lived there for years. We transformed the place WE lived in, turned it again into a place of human interaction, not profit and endless traffic. It shared that sense of the possible that we got from the riots, the feeling that we could transform the mundane and weary world around us, by our own actions, into a place of joyous rebellion…

Interestingly, the author mentions the sandpit we created for the kids to play in… One of the planners of the party, who also helped set up the sandpit, pulling the cart the sandbags were loaded on from a squat round the corner, was known to us as Jim Sutton, who had got involved in Reclaim the Streets in 1996, shortly after the seminal M41 party, and was central to many RTS events and actions for 4-5 years – as well as becoming a friend to some of us, or so we thought. In 2011 it became generally known (and is now admitted by the Metropolitan Police) that Jim was actually Jim Boyling, an undercover police operative working for the Special Demonstration Squad, on whose behalf he spied on not only RTS but many other groups and individuals. In fact, I think he is the central figure in the picture at the head of this post, with his back to the photographer, in the blue jacket, urging people into the street. Just one of the many spycops who have been revealed by activists to have infiltrated campaign and political groups over the last 50 years…


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015



Today in London’s festive history: Twelfth Day. Let Them Eat Cake!

“If a satirical prophecy in “Vox Graculi,” 4to. 1623, may be relied on as authority, it bears testimony to the popularity of Twelfth-night at that period. On the 6th of January the author declares, that “this day, about the houres of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, yea, in some places till midnight well nigh, will be such a massacre of spice-bread, that, ere the next day at noon, a two-penny browne loafe will set twenty poore folks teeth on edge. Which hungry humour will hold so violent, that a number of good fellowes will not refuse to give a statute-marchant of all the lands and goods they enjoy, for half-a-crown’s worth of two-penny pasties.” He further affirms, that there will be “on this night much masking in the Strand, Cheapside, Holbourne, or Fleet-street.”

Twelfth Day, Epiphany, the last day of the Christmas holiday in some traditions, the day still celebrated as Xmas in some countries… it used to be a festival day associated with cake. Lots of cake. For some reason there was also a fashion for boys to nail the coat-tails of gentlemen checking out cakes at the bakeries. Also Twelfth Day was a time for masking up and partying…

An entry in William Hone’s Everyday Book (1825) recounts some of the old ethos of January 6th:


Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth-cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp’ry curb, or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round – dare not go back – and yet dare not advance.

In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers. Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk-maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by “excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.” This “paradise of dainty devices,” is crowded by successive and successful desirers of the seasonable delicacies, while alternate tapping of hammers and peals of laughters, from the throng surrounding the house, excite smiles from the inmates.

The cause of these sounds may be inferred from something like this passing outside.

Constable. Make way, make way! Clear the way! You boys stand aside!

Countryman. What is all this; Is any body ill in the shop?

1st Boy. Nobody, sir; it’s only Twelfth day!

2nd Boy. This is a pastrycook’s, sir; look at the window! There they stand! What cakes!

3d Boy. What pretty ones these are!

4th Boy. Only see that!

5th Boy. Why it’s as large as the hindwheel of a coach, and how thick!

6th Boy. Ah! It’s too big to come out at the door, unless they roll it out.

7th Boy. What elegant figures, and what lots of sweetmeats!

8th Boy. See the flowers; they look almost like real ones.

Countryman. What a crowd inside!

9th Boy. How the people of the house are packing up all the good things!

Countryman. What a beautiful lady that is behind the counter!

10th Boy. Which?

Countryman. Why the young one!

10th Boy. What her? Oh, she’s the pastrycook’s daughter, and the other’s her mother.

Countryman. No, no; not her; I mean her, there.

10th Boy. Oh, her; she’s the shopwoman; all the pastrycooks always try to get handsome ladies to serve in the shop!

11th Boy. I say, I say! Halloo! Here’s a piece of work! Look at this gentlemen – next to me – his coat-tail’s nailed to the window! Look, look!

Countryman. Aye, what?

All the boys. Ah! Ah! Ah! Huzza.

Countryman. Who nailed my coat-tail? Constable!

12th Boy. That’s the boy that’s got the hammer!

2nd Boy. What me? Why that’s the boy – there; and there’s another boy hammering! And there’s a man with a hammer!

1st Boy. Who pinned that woman to the gentleman? Why there’s a dozen pinned together.

Countryman. Constable! Constable!

2nd Boy. Here comes the constable. Hark at him!

Const. Clear away from the doors! Let the customers go in! Make way! Let the cakes come out! Go back, boy!

13th Boy. If you please, Mr. Constable, I’m going to buy a cake!

Const. Go forward, then!

Man with cakes. By your leave! By your leave.

Const. Clear the way!

All the Boys. Huzza! Huzza! More people pinned – and plenty nailed up!

To explain, to those who may be ignorant of the practice. On Twelfth-night in London, boys assemble round the inviting shops of the pastry cooks, and dexterously nail the coat-tails of spectators, who venture near enough, to the bottoms of the window frames; or pin them together strongly by their clothes. Sometimes eight or ten persons find themselves thus connected. The dexterity and force of the nail driving is so quick and sure, that a single blow seldom fails of doing the business effectually. Withdrawal of the nail without a proper instrument is out of the question; and, consequently, the person nailed must either leave part of his coat, as a cognizance of his attachment, or quit the spot with a hole in it. At every nailing and pinning shouts of laughter arise from the perpetrators and the spectators. Yet it often happens to one who turns and smiles at the duress of another, that he also finds himself nailed. Efforts at extraction increase mirth, nor is the presence of a constable, who is usually employed to attend and preserve free “ingress, egress, and regress,” sufficiently awful to deter the offenders.

Scarcely a shop in London that offers a halfpenny plain bun to the purchase of a hungry boy, is without Twelfth-cakes and finery in the windows on Twelfth-day. The gingerbread-bakers – there are not many, compared with their number when the writer was a consumer of their manufactured goods, — even the reduced gingerbread-bakers periwig a few plum-buns with sugar-frost to-day, and coaxingly interpolate them along their new made sixes, bath-cakes, parliament, and ladies’ fingers. Their staple-ware has leaves of untarnished dutch-gilt stuck on; their upright cylinder-shaped show-glasses, containing peppermint-drops, elecampane, sugar-sticks, hard-bake, brandy-balls, and bulls’-eyes, are carefully polished; their lolly-pops are fresh encased, and look as white as the stems of tobacco-pipes; and their candlesticks are ornamented with fillets and bosses of writing paper; or, if the candles rise from the bottom of inverted glass cones, they shine more sparkling for the thorough cleaning of their receivers in the morning.

How to eat Twelfth-cake requires no recipe; but how to provide it, and draw the characters, on the authority of Rachel Revel’s “Winter Evening Pastimes,” may be acceptable. First, buy your cake. Then, before your visitors arrive, buy your characters, each of which should have a pleasant verse beneath. Next look at your invitation list, and count the number of ladies you expect; and afterwards the number of gentlemen. Then, take as many female characters as you invited ladies; fold them up, exactly of the same size, and number each on the back; taking care to make the king No. 1 and the queen No. 2. Then prepare and number the gentlemen’s characters. Cause tea and coffee to be handed to your visitors as they drop in. When all are assembled and tea over, put as many lady characters in a reticule as there are ladies present; next put the gentlemen’s characters in a hat. Then call on a gentleman to carry the reticule to the ladies as they sit, from which each lady is to draw one ticket, and to preserve it unopened. Select a lady to bear the hat to the gentlemen for the same purpose. There will be one ticket left in the reticule, and another in the hat, which the lady and gentlemen who carried each is to interchange as having fallen to each. Next, arrange your visitors according to their numbers; the king No. 1, the queen No. 2, and so on. The king is then to recite the verse on his ticket; and the queen the verse on hers; and so the characters are to proceed in numerical orders. This done, let the cake and refreshments go round, and hey! For merriment!”

Twelfth Day does owe something to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, with its temporary reversal of social hierarchies. As in Saturnalia, a king for the day was set up, though while in the Roman festie the lowest of the household was crowned, the king and queen of twelfth Day were often chosen by chance – beans would be hidden in a cake and the ones who ended up with the slice with the bean in would be raised up as monarchs…

“They come! They come! Each blue-eyed sport,
The Twelfth-night king and all his court –
‘Tis Mirth fresh crown’d with mistletow!
Music with her merry fiddles,
Joy “on light fantastic toe,”
Wit with all his jests and riddles,
Singing and dancing as they go.
And Love, young Love, among the rest,
A welcome – nor unbidden guest.

Twelfth-day is now only commemorated by the custom of choosing king and queen. “I went,” says a correspondent in the Universal Magazine for 1774, “to a friend’s house in the country to partake of some of those innocent pleasures that constitute a merry Christmas. I did not return till I had been present at drawing king and queen, and eaten a slice of the Twelfth-cake, made by the fair hands of my good friend’s consort. After tea yesterday, a noble cake was produced, and two bowls, containing the fortunate chances for the different sexes. Our host filled up the tickets; the whole company, except the king and queen, were to be ministers of state, maids of honour, or ladies of the bed-chamber. Our kind host and hostess, whether by design or accident, became king and queen. According to Twelfth-day law, each party is to support their character till midnight.” The maintenance of character is essential to the drawing. Within the personal observation of the writer of these sheets, character has never been preserved. It must be admitted, however, that the Twelfth-night characters sold by the pastry cooks, are either commonplace or gross – when genteel they are inane; when humorous, they are vulgar.

Young folks anticipate Twelfth-night as a full source of innocent glee to their light little hearts. Where, and what is he who would negative hopes of happiness for a few short hours in the day-spring of life? A gentle spirit in the London Magazine beautifully sketches a scene of juvenile enjoyment this evening: “I love to see an acre of cake spread out – the sweet frost covering the rich earth below – studded all over with glittering flowers, like ice-plants, and red and green knots of sweetmeat, and hollow yellow crusted crowns, and kings and queens, and their paraphernalia. I delight to see a score of happy children sitting huddled all round the dainty fare, eyeing the cake and each other, with faces sunny enough to thaw the white snow. I like to see the gazing silence which is kept so religiously while the large knife goes its round, and the glistening eyes which feed beforehand on the huge slices, dark with citron and plums, and heavy as gold. And then, when the “Characters” are drawn, it is nothing to watch the peeping delight which escapes from their little eyes? One is proud, as king; another stately, as queen; then there are two whispering grotesque secrets which they cannot contain (those are sir Gregory Goose and sir Tunbell Clumsy.) The boys laugh out at their own misfortunes; but the little girls (almost ashamed of their prizes) sit blushing and silent. It is not until the lady of the house goes round, that some of the more extravagant fictions are revealed. And then, what a roar of mirth! Ha, ha! The ceiling shakes, and the air is torn. They bound from their seats like kids, and insist on seing [sic] Miss Thompson’s card. Ah! What merry spite is proclaimed – what ostentatious pity! The little girl is almost in tears; but the large lump of allotted cake is placed seasonably in her hands, and the glass of sweet wine ‘all round’ drowns the shrill urchin laughter, and a gentler delight prevails.”

Th’above was nicked from longer descriptions of Xmas traditions here


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s festive history: Puritan ban on Xmas widely ignored in London, 1644.

Everyone knows that Cromwell and the puritans of the English Revolution banned Christmas…
Perhaps less well-known is the opposition and resistance the ban aroused. In London, as elsewhere, the repression of popular culture was not imposed without rioting and disorder…

During the seventeenth century, as now, Christmas was one of the most important dates in the calendar, both as a religious festival and as a holiday. Over the twelve days of a seventeenth-century Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with rosemary and bays, holly and ivy; pretty much everyone went to Christmas Day church services, presents were exchanged at New Year, and Christmas boxes were distributed to servants, tradesmen and the poor. Large quantities of food were obviously also eaten – this period of winter following on from the annual slaughtering of livestock, and a couple of months after the harvest, it was one time in the year when food was in relatively plentiful supply (in contrast summertime was comparatively lean); so great quantities of brawn, roast beef, ‘plum-pottage’, minced pies and special Christmas ale were consumed. Dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays filled the days.

Also associated with this time of year were drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess (so some things have TOTALLY changed then…!) Most of the festivals dotted through the year had an element of disorder and licence to go a bit wild. The idea of ‘misrule’, and of a ritualised reversal of traditional social norms, was an important element of Christmas (generally associated with Holy Innocents Day, 28th December), a time of limited licenced reversal and breakdown of hierarchies, a useful safety-valve for the simmering class and other tensions within society.

The disorderly pleasures of Christmas, however, enraged the Puritans of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. In the 1580s, Philip Stubbes, the author of The Anatomie of Abuses, complained:

“That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.”

The celebration of Christmas emerged as one focus of a kind of culture war, a religious division within early seventeenth-century society. This was a contributing factor to the tensions that lead to the breakdown of government, civil war and revolution in the 1640s. When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it.

Pressure had been building before the civil war, from zealous Protestants, outraged by the unruly and immoral nature of Christmas festivities (and other festivals) and suspicious of feast’s link to Catholicism and the old saints’ days. The 1637 Scots Presbyterian Rebellion jacked up the pressure – the Scots had already banned Xmas before, and did so again in 1640. As both England and Scotland slid into Civil War, the alliance of English parliamentarians with the Scots church led to a spreading of the idea of doing away with the celebrations south of the border.

The controversy over how Christmas should be celebrated in London and the other Parliamentary centres surfaced in the early stages of the Civil War. In December 1642 Thomas Fuller remarked, in a fast sermon delivered on Holy Innocents Day, that ‘on this day a fast and feast do both justle together, and the question is which should take place in our affections’. While admitting that the young might be ‘so addicted to their toys and Christmas sports that they will not be weaned from them’, he advised the older generation among his listeners not to be ‘transported with their follies, but mourn while they are in mirth’.

There were three angles to the repression – the phasing out of traditional Xmas church services, the closing down on the more festive celebrations, and the enforcing of 25th December as a normal day not a feast day.

In 1643, some Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other, while several London ministers kept their church doors firmly shut. Puritan MPs also turned up to sit in the parliament on Xmas Day.
But the cancellation of Christmas aroused huge popular resentment – not just in the royalist camp, but in the districts controlled by parliament, too. In 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers in Cheapside who had opened on Christmas Day, and, in the words of a delighted royalist, “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”. In reporting the incident Mercurius Civicus sympathised with the shopkeepers but argued that to avoid ‘disturbance and uproars in the City’ they should have waited ’till such time as a course shall be taken by lawful authority with matters of that nature’.

The following year Christmas Day happened to on the last Wednesday in the month, the day set aside for a regular monthly fast, upon which parliament’s supporters were enjoined to pray for the success of their cause. On December 19th an ordinance was passed directing that the fast day should be observed in the normal way, but:

“With the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights…”

Both Houses of Parliament attended fast sermons delivered by Presbyterian ministers on December 25th, 1644, the Commons hearing from Thomas Thorowgood that:

“The providence of heaven is here become a Moderator appointing the highest festival of all the year to meet with our monthly fast and be subdued by it.”

But again there was resentment and resistance. Many therefore simply defied the government, and despite the pressures and intimidation, refused to abandon their traditional practices. On 24 December 1644, the editor of a pro-parliamentarian news-pamphlet expressed his support for the MPs’ decision to favour the monthly fast over the traditional feast, but admitted that “the parliament is cried out on” by the common people as a result, with incredulous shouts of “What, not keep Christmas? Here’s a Reformation indeed!”

Immediately following this (in January 1645) parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, aimed at replacing the Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all. At Christmas-time 1645 it was said, you could walk right through the parliamentary quarters, and “perceive no sign or token of any holy day”. Over the following year and a half, the king was beaten in the civil war, and the puritans strengthened their hand over the country.

MPs suspected those celebrating Xmas of harbouring sympathies for the king. In some cases this might have been true (though the London apprentices who rioted in favour of keeping this and other festivals had also formed part of the shock troops of the early struggles against the king a couple of years earlier). But its also apparent that such social repression drove previously sympathetic or neutral folk into a more pro-royal position.

But most Englishmen and women continued to cling to their traditional Christmas customs. So strong was the popular attachment to the old festivities, indeed, that during the postwar period a number of pro-Christmas riots occurred. Most notably, in December 1646 threats by a crowd of young men at Bury St Edmunds against local tradesmen who had opened their shops on Christmas Day led to a riot.

In June 1647, parliament passed an ordinance which abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and substituted as a regular holiday for students, servants and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month; it also declared the celebration of Christmas to be a punishable offence. But again there were pro-Christmas riots, on 25 December 1647, at Bury St Edmunds again, and at Norwich and Ipswich. During the course of the Ipswich riot, a protestor named ‘Christmas’ was reported to have been slain – a fatality which could be regarded as richly symbolic, of course, of the way that parliament had ‘killed’ Christmas itself.

In London, a crowd of apprentices assembled at Cornhill on Christmas Day, and there “in despite of authority, they set up Holly and Ivy” on the pinnacles of the public water conduit. The lord mayor sent militia “to pull down these gawds,” but the apprentices fought them off, until the mayor and a party of soldiers arrived to break up the demonstration by force. During the Christmas of 1647, a number of ministers were taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach on Christmas Day, and one of them subsequently published his intended sermon under the title The Stillborn Nativity.

The worst disturbances of all took place at Canterbury, where a crowd of protestors first smashed up the shops which had been opened on Christmas Day and then went on to seize control of the entire city. This riot helped to pave the way for a major insurrection in Kent in 1648 that itself formed part of the ‘Second Civil War’ – a scattered series of risings against the parliament and in favour of the king, which Fairfax and Cromwell only managed to suppress with great difficulty.

The least successful prong of the attack on Xmas was Parliament’s attempt to abolish the traditional holiday over the Christmas period. With the churches and shops closed, the populace resorted to its traditional pastimes. In 1652 The Flying Eagle informed its readers that the ‘taverns and taphouses’ were full on Christmas Day, ‘Bacchus bearing the bell amongst the people as if neither custom or excise were any burden to them’, and claimed that ‘the poor will pawn all to the clothes of their back to provide Christmas pies for their bellies and the broth of abominable things in their vessels, though they starve or pine for it all the year after’.

On December 27th, 1650, Sir Henry Mildmay reported to the House of Commons that on the 25th there had been:

“…very wilful and strict observation of the day commonly called Christmas Day throughout the cities of London and Westminster, by a general keeping of their shops shut up and that there were contemptuous speeches used by some in favour thereof.”

Several newsbooks reported a similar complete closure in London in 1652, and on Christmas Day 1656 one MP remarked that ‘one may pass from the Tower to Westminster and not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’.

However, as time went by, and puritan culture achieved ascendancy through the 1650s, Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. The Anglican diarist John Evelyn could find no Christmas services to attend in 1652 or 1655, but in 1657 he joined a ‘grand assembly’ which celebrated the birth of Christ in Exeter House chapel in the Strand. Along with others in the congregation, he was afterwards arrested and held for questioning for some time by the army. Other services took place the same day in Fleet Street and at Garlick Hill where, according to an army report, those involved included ‘some old choristers and new taught singing boys’ and where ‘all the people bowed and cringed as if there had been mass’.

Despite this government pressure, however, Christmas festivities remained popular, and successive regimes throughout the 1650s felt obliged to reiterate their objection to any observance of the feast.

In February 1656 Ezekial Woodward had to admit that ‘the people go on holding fast to their heathenish customs and abominable idolatries, and think they do well’. The same fact was also obvious to those few MPs who attended the Commons on Christmas Day 1656. One complained that he had been disturbed the whole of the previous night by the preparations for ‘this foolish day’s solemnity’, and John Lambert warned them that, as he spoke, the Royalists would be ‘merry over their Christmas pies, drinking the King of Scots health, or your confusion’.

Traditional Christmas festivities duly returned to England with Charles II in 1660, and while the Restoration’s association with maypoles and ‘Merry England’ may have been overstated in the past, there is no doubt that most English people were very glad that their Christmas celebrations were once more acceptable. According to The Kingdom’s Intelligencer, at Maidstone in Kent, where there had been no Christmas Day services for seventeen years, on December 25th, 1660, several sermons were preached and communion administered, ‘to the joy of many hundred Christians’. On the Sunday before Christmas, Samuel Pepys’ church in London was decorated with rosemary and bays; on the 25th Pepys attended morning service and returned home to a Christmas dinner of shoulder of mutton and chicken. Predictably, he slept through the afternoon sermon, but he had revived sufficiently by the evening to read and play his lute. The Buckinghamshire gentry family, the Verneys, resumed their celebrations on a grand scale; in 1664 a family friend wrote that:

… the news at Buckingham is that you will keep the best Christmas in the shire, and to that end have bought more fruit and spice than half the porters in London can weigh out in a day.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Striking miners & anti-fascists beat off nazi attack on GLC festival, 1984.

On Sunday 10 June 1984, Greater London Council (GLC) leader Ken Livingstone held a free open-air concert to protest against unemployment and government spending cuts.

Thousands of Londoners turned out to watch acts like The Smiths and Billy Bragg. Most would have been attracted principally by the music and the summer weather. To leading nazi-skin activist Nicky Crane, however, anyone attending a left-wing-hosted event like this was a legitimate target. As The Redskins, a socialist skinhead band, played, Crane led an attack on the crowd. Around 100 fascists began setting about the audience closest to the main stage. The Redskins, who were known for their support of the Socialist Workers Party, were for them an ideal target (Shame they didn’t break Billy Bragg’s guitar and mike though, eh; or maybe they thought listening to his set was torture equivalent to a gestapo interrogation… Only kidding? No I’m not, I’ve been kettled with the ****er twice and he started singing both times. Neither time would the cops relent and let us out!).

Several skinheads stormed the stage, injuring one of the guitarists who was taken to hospital accompanied by the compere, Hank Wangford. The NF supporters were chased off by the festival security (Yorkshire miners who were on strike and had been employed as a way of providing support for the miners’ strike fund. Their employment was unusual because the GLC and its unions usually insisted that jobs be done within the GLC), allied with members of the anti-fascist group Red Action.

Crane was not cowed, however, and after regrouping his forces, he charged a second stage at the other end of the park where the Hank Wangford Band were playing. This time, however, the anti-fascists were better prepared. Festival goers grabbed empty cider bottles to use as improvised weapons. As the anti-fascists fought back, Crane broke away from the main battle, attacking the rest of the crowd, on his own, stripped to the waist. As Crane tried to make it over a barrier on to the stage, he was knocked over by a Red Action member. He escaped the furious crowd by using a female left-wing activist as a human shield, according to witnesses. As the violence subsided, anti-fascists confronted another skinhead in the crowd. His Harrington jacket was unzipped to reveal a slogan on his T-shirt. It read “Nicky Crane”, in tribute to the young man’s hero. Given the carnage Crane had just instigated, the left-wingers had little sympathy for his admirer. The skinhead was set upon and beaten.


For those too young to have known the GLC, it was an elected body similar to today’s London Assembly, with a set of powers over all of London – mainly strategic – responsible for transport, the fire service, a fair proportion of London’s social housing, waste disposal and so on… as well as taking some part in road maintenance, planning, funding voluntary sector etc. It had replaced the old London County Council.

In 1981 a leftwing Labour Party administration took power, led by Ken Livingstone. Yes, that one, just as gobby and self-promotional. The administration began to spend big on a leftist social democratic program, in vocal opposition to the national Conservative Thatcher government’s diet of austerity, privatisation, savaging of industry and restructuring. The GLC set about cutting bus fares, as well as supporting a plethora of projects, many of which had evolved from the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s – the feminist movement, black and other ethnic minority groups, gay and lesbian projects… Thousands of advice centres, childcare groups, adventure playgrounds, women’s groups, organisations campaigning for rights, equality etc for various minorities, and numerous other causes, which often started out organising voluntarily, gradually accepted funding from the GLC (and local boroughs). This allowed them better facilities, wider reach and stability, enabled many groups to run from better premises, open longer hours, and produce better printed materials, help people directly… There’s no doubt that official funding for broadly progressive projects improved the lives of large numbers of people.

It was the latter effect that rapidly made the GLC a target of tabloid media frothing –“loony left subsidies for one-legged black lesbian feminists on the rates” (together with a collection of the London boroughs also controlled by the labour left, Lambeth, Hackney, Islington etc.)

Much of the Livingstone GLC administration’s politics was radical posturing, however; when challenged on the legality of some of their policies they backed down; as with the cheap bus fares, and their opposition – abandoned at the last minute – to government ‘rate-capping’, basically vicious cuts to the amount they were allowed to charge as rates (like modern council tax) to raise money to pay for stuff. Partly they backed down because you can’t really have socialism in one city, partly because there were just serious limits to how deep their commitment to real change was. For all the financial support for grassroots projects, the hierarchical nature of the Council remained, with a strong element of the old Labour attitude of doing things for people.

During the 1980s many people invested much support and hope in their elected representatives, in the GLC and elsewhere; disillusion was probably bound to follow, partly because brave lefty leaders get cold feet, or end up sacking workers and making cuts in the end (‘with a heavy heart’), usually on the grounds that it’s better for them to be in charge than someone worse, they have no choice. In reality they do have little choice, because their real room to manoeuvre IS limited, by central government funding, legal obligations, and so on, even more now than in the ’80s. ON the other hand, the money ‘Red’ Ken’s tenure saw handed out was both a boon to lots of ground-level schemes that had a real benefit to people’s lives, and a poisoned chalice.; it also brought them under official control and tended often to hamper their independence. Their reliance on this funding could, and did, lead to toning down any challenging of state structures, campaigning against council or government policies and so on. It was never gonna last for ever. When the grants were withdrawn, people could no longer operate on without it, and projects collapsed. More radical projects were bought off, their challenge to the local or wider state neutralised in this way. The half-arsed social democratic approach was always two-faced, tinkering round the edges, while cheerfully administering exploitation and sending in the cops to squash dissent from below.

In the end, of course, the Thatcher government abolished the GLC, and other ‘metropolitan’ councils (like the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’, etc). The huge splurges on festival may have been fun, but in the end didn’t rally a people’s rebellion against the tories. Although the music may have been funky (mostly – Billy Bragg, Not In My Name!)

In the ‘80s, most anarchists, communists, etc, rightly critiqued the GLC and similar bodies as being mere window dressing, holding back more fundamental social change that we desperately need. Nothing has changed in that reality. However, in the last 30 years, our daily experience has got much worse… Capitalism has been reshaped, in the image of the wetdreams of the wealthy, and our collective project to oppose that, drive things in a different direction, while always alive, is fragmented. Nostalgia for the times the GLC operated in would be easy to fall into, since we’re in a much worse state. (is there an extent to which this feeling in part funded the pathetic Livingstone mayoralty of more recent times: an exposure if one was needed of the bankruptcy of the politics of the man. Now compounded by seeming verbal dementia, if his burblings on the subject of Hitler and Zionism are anything to go by).

To build a movement that can challenge the daily misery and poverty and bring about a way of life genuinely in the interests of us all, we need to avoid the cul-de-sacs of municipal ‘socialism’.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s reactionary history: Mayday revels turn end in a pogrom against foreign workers, 1517

May Day has a long history. Although since 1889 it has been celebrated as International Workers Day, celebration on the first of May goes back centuries. In the middle ages it was a holiday, a traditional day of carnival. It marked the arrival of spring: many people would take the day off work, gathering from the evening before to drink, dance, play games and get off with each other. In London was notably popular among the apprentices, who were always a rowdy lot. But days of celebration, drinking and partying could easily turn to rioting, especially when the city was disturbed by political or social tensions. In 1517, the Mayday party was to turn very nasty…

Londoners have often been suspicious of foreigners, particularly if they thought the newcomers represented competition for jobs. Even among the most positive class uprisings that have enriched London’s history, this element of xenophobia can be seen: for instance in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, some Londoners took the opportunity to attack Flemish craftsmen working in London. As today, the wealthy elite was quite happy to hire ‘cheap foreign labour’ & then fail, or be unwilling, to protect them from local resentment: playing us off against each other has always worked quite nicely for them.

During the reign of Henry VIII, there was an increase in the numbers of migrants living in London. Many were craftsmen who settled outside the City walls, often in Spitalfields and the Bishopsgate area. Some brought new skills and techniques,  in trades as diverse as weaving, silver and gold-smithing, jewellery making, tailoring, clockmaking and brewing. There were celebrated printers, basket makers, joiners and caterers. While some of these skills made them welcomed by the wealthy, they also aroused anger and resentment from the existing artisan population.

London actually had quite the racial mix of the time, with the Italians forming “a commercial and financial aristocracy”. There were Frenchman and Jews. Greeks, Italians and Spaniards comprised London’s physicians. Studying these migrants throws up some interesting parallels with the more recent targets of racism. Many arrived fleeing religious persecution in their home countries. There was also a tendency to work hard to establish themselves. In the way of things, in a pattern seen over centuries in London, such groups often become gradually assimilated, although not without hostility, ostracism and campaigns of denunciation and some level of abuse and attacks. On occasion, there are major outbreaks of mass violence. These usually spark from an external trigger – often economic hard times.

In the early sixteenth century, London was suffering from a trade recession. In 1517,  complaints started to rise, against the ‘large number of foreigners living in the city’. John Lincoln, described as a broker, or second-hand dealer, persuaded Dr. Beal, the vicar of St Mary’s Church in Spitalfields, to preach against the foreigners in his sermon in Easter week of 1517. Beal agreed and to a great congregation in the fields outside the city he “denounced the aliens who stole Englishmen’s livelihoods and seduced their wives and daughters; he said that even birds expelled interlopers from their nests, and that men were entitled to fight for their country against foreigners.” Over the following two weeks there were sporadic attacks on foreigners and rumours abounded “that on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens”.

Sebastian Giustinian, the Venetian ambassador in England, reported: “With this exasperating language and much more besides, he so irritated the populace that they threatened to cut the strangers to pieces and sack their houses on the first of May.”

The usual complaints, familiar in every generation against every new group of incomers, began to circulate. Edward Hall, a twenty year old student, wrote: “The multitude of strangers was so great about London that the poor English could get any living… The foreigners… were so proud that they disdained, mocked, and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge… The Genoans, Frenchmen, and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council that they set naught by the rulers of the city… How miserably the common artificers lived, and scarcely could get any work to find them, their wives, and children, for there were such a number of artificers strangers that took away all the living in manner.” Mod-up the language and its right of the Daily Mail.

On 28th April 1517 John Lincoln, clearly the Nigel Farage of his day, posted a bill upon the door of St Paul’s Cathedral, complaining that “the foreigners” were given too much favour by the king and council. It claimed that “the foreigners” had “bought wools to the undoing of Englishmen”. Sebastian Giustinian went to see Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and then king Henry VIII, on April 29th, worried about the rumours that “people would rise and kill the foreigners on May Day”…  

King Henry promised that all foreigners would be protected. Cardinal Wolsey instructed the Lord Mayor and the city officers to enforce a curfew on the eve of May Day.

Sir Thomas More, the Under-Sheriff of London and his men, patrolled the streets on the night of April 30th. Some young apprentices broke the curfew – when an officer tried to arrest one of them, a riot broke out. More’s men charged the rioters with their staves. This inflamed the situation – soon afterwards a large crowd of young people were attacking foreigners and burning the houses of Venetian, French, Italian, Flemish and German merchants. However this was only the prelude to the events of the following day…
Edward Hall reported that “diverse young men of the city assaulted the aliens as they passed by the streets, and some were stricken and some were buffeted, and some thrown into the canal… Then suddenly was a common secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, then on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens, in so much as diverse strangers fled out of the city.”

It was reported that rioters ran through the city with “clubs and weapons… throwing stones, bricks, bats, hot water, shoes and boots, and sacking the houses of many foreigners”. It is estimated that 2,000 Londoners sacked the houses of foreign merchants.

“…alderman Sir John Murray tried to arrest two boys enjoying a bout of ‘sword and buckler’ in front of a large crowd of apprentices they took it that the City authorities intended to suppress traditional rights. With a cry of ‘Clubs!’ poor Sir John was chased off and his quarry left to escape.
Frayed tempers and London gossip soon created a number of street-corner crowds led by both workers and ‘gentlemen’.
Then more people arose out of every quarter, and out came Servingmen, and Watermen, and Courtiers, and by a XI of the clock there were in Chepe six or seven hundred. And out of
Paul’s Churchyard came three hundred which wist not of the other, and so out of all places they gathered, and brake up the Counters, and took out the prisoners that the Mayor had hither committed for hurting of the strangers, and came to Newgate and took out Studley and Petyt, committed thither for that cause .
More, now in a funk over what to do next, tried to talk the crowds into going home when they reached St Martin’s Le Grand but his band of supporters were pelted, abused and forced to retreat, leaving the rioters free to attack property and passers-by in Cheapside, Cornhill and Fenchurch Street. A foreign merchant called John Meantys had his house wrecked. Originating in Picardy, Meantys was not merely the King’s French Secretary, he was also well known for sharp practice and illicit wool carding.”

The rioting continued all night and on the morning and afternoon of May Day. According to Jasper Ridley: “The hated Frenchmen were the chief target of the rioters. Several were assaulted in the street. The French ambassador escaped, when his house was attacked, by hiding in a church steeple… The London watch was quite incapable of dealing with the rioters. The Constable of the Tower opened fire on them with his cannon, but only shot a few rounds and did no damage.”

That afternoon, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, brought 1,300 soldiers into the city and mass arrests began to take place. The first batch of 279 people were brought before the courts later that day. Edward Hall described the prisoners as “some men, some lads, some children of thirteen years… there was a great mourning of fathers and friends for their children and kinsfolk.”

There is some disagreement about how many people were punished for the riotous events. Estimates for the number executed ranged from eleven to as high as sixty. Those executed suffered the penalty of being “hanged, drawn and quartered”.

John Lincoln was tried separately on 6th May. He was found guilty and executed. The public was said to be shocked by the way Henry VIII had dealt with the rioters, especially as they commented that no one had been killed by the rioters. Jasper Ridley points out: “For the first time since he became King, Henry risked his popularity with the people by his severe repression of the anti-foreign rioters of Evil May Day. The resentment felt against the foreigners; the sympathy for the young apprentices; the grief of the parents when their boys of thirteen were executed; the feeling that in many cases the more innocent had been punished while the more guilty escaped; and the tales, which Hall reported, of the brutality of the Earl of Surrey’s soldiers who suppressed the disorders, all aroused great sympathy of the rioters.”

Although the king was accused of being “far more sympathetic to foreigners than the common folk”, it was clearly very important for Henry “to show the foreign merchants that they could safely come to London and carry on their business there; and, even more important, he would not tolerate anarchy in his realm, or any defiance of his royal authority and laws.”

According to Edward Hall the rest of the captured rioters (said to be as many as 400), with halters around their necks, were brought to Westminster Hall in the presence of Henry VIII. He sat on his throne, from where he condemned them all to death. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey then fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out “Mercy, Mercy!” Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and “jumped for joy”.

Tensions over migration, however, have obviously cropped since… Many times. As they are again today. While the ability of malcontents like John Lincoln to involve hundreds in pogroms has diminished, there’s no telling how things will pan out. Especially with the plethora of sunny commentators and media whipping up hysteria against migrants wherever they can.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online