Life Pack: Historic May Day Celebrations
Within this life pack, you will find photos, and a blog article relating to the history of May Day celebrations. The content for this life pack has been provided by Zoe van Well at Explore the Past - Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service.
Historic May Day Celebrations blog
May has always been a special time with celebrations going back centuries, and these can be found reflected in the archives.
In Hallow they had the tradition of the Maypole on 1st May, and it is referred to in the school logbooks as follows:
30th April The elder girls remained in school to make arrangements for May Day and to sing through their different songs.
1st May School closed. The elder girls went round the village with their May Queen and arrived at the school at 3 O’clock where they were met by all the other scholars after which they all went to the cricket field where they were supplied with tea and buns and engaged in various sports.
30th April No needlework today, the afternoon devoted to singing preparatory for May-day.
1st May Holiday – May Day.
30th April Lessons as usual in the morning. Afternoon devoted by elder girls to making their wreaths and garlands.
1st May Saturday. Customary May Day festivities.
Maypole dancing continued in the 20th century in Hallow, and we have a number of photos in the archives of the May Queens and their processions in the 1950s and 1960s.
It wasn’t just May Day itself. Each village usually had their own wakes or feasts, which often fell in May & June, and these could incorporate the maypole, as well as Ascension day holidays and Church or Sunday School outings. Wakes were originally church vigils, but turned over time into fetes and fairs. Climbing a greasy pole and gurning, races, music including brass bands, food. Farmers and other employers withdrew support over time, and some churches tried to bring back Christian elements. Some were raucous, others more sedate. Club Feasts were similar, although had later origins. Villages often had clubs and friendly societies which people would subscribe to, in the days before the welfare state, and would then receive help when they were in need. Each year they’d have a walk or a feast, in which they would have a tea and refreshments for members, along with games and entertainment.
Unsurprisingly these celebrations often resulted in poor attendances at school. From reading the logbooks it sounds like children used to go to the neighbouring Feasts or Wakes in addition to their own, and teachers complained about low attendances for those periods.
At Offenham they celebrated May Day at the end of the month 29th May, Oak Apply Day. This was also their village wake. Originally a church service and vigil it became a village fair, complete with a band. Included maypole dancing. Each village had theirs on a different day and it looks like some children went round the villages instead of coming to school. They also got very excited!
Offenham School Logbooks
29th May It being the Annual Village Wake, the children had a holiday this afternoon and were regaled with a Tea Drinking in Myatt’s Barn winding up with diversions on the Vicarage Lawn.
31st May Very small attendance this afternoon in consequence of a Tea Drinking at the Bethel Chapel.
7th June Broke up for the usual week’s holiday at Whitsuntide.
18th May A week’s holiday was given for Whitsuntide, and an urgent appeal made to the children not to let the wakes interfere with the following week’s attendance
23rd May The attendance today was very poor and the children were too excited to do any earnest work.
29th May Holiday for the wake
29th May School closed for the Wake. At 3:30 tea was served to the school children and those who have recently left, to the number of 140, and to the band. The tea is provided by the subscriptions of the parents mainly, some of the managers contributing milk etc.
30th May Only 16 infants present this morning, and 60 older children. At play time Mr H Cresswell came and distributed sufficient remaining cake to allow each child at much as it wished for lunch.
31st May Being Littleton Wake there was rather a small attendance this afternoon, the children from Bennetts Hill, Newtown and some from the Cross going there.
1st June As usual with Wake Week the attendance has been very irregular, ranging from 76 to 107. The children have been excited and restless, and the heavy thundery weather seems to have affected them.
8th June The attendance has varied to a remarkable extent during the week, from 61, the lowest I have recorded, to 111, almost the highest. The weather, and local ‘wakes’ have been the chief causes of the variation. Work has been somewhat interfered with, but has been satisfactory.
23rd May Miss Taylor asked permission to have holiday for tomorrow afternoon to enable her to attend an outing in connection with the Church choir. This was granted so that Tuesday afternoon’s lessons will be taken this afternoon and tomorrow afternoon’s lessons today.
24th May Miss Taylor absent today to attend a Choir outing. This outing accounts for the absence of six children this afternoon.
26th May The school closes today for the Wake held tomorrow and the Whitsuntide holidays next week
3rd June School reopened this morning after the Whitsuntide holiday. All except the savages and two who are ill, were present. The Maypole Dance given on Wednesday last was much appreciated and several have asked that it may be repeated.
On Whit Monday it was often a day for Sunday School treats and picnics, possibly after a church service.
In 1822 Berrow’s Worcester Journal tells us 502 children had tea and buns at Henwick Hill after going to Worcester Cathedral.
In 1887 Worcestershire Chronicle reports of what each Sunday School did on Whit Monday, Including All Saints & Huntingdon Chapel. Sadly the weather was a little wet, which can happen of course on a bank holiday.
The coming of the railways enabled longer trips at Whitsuntide, such as these trips to London advertised in Worcestershire Chronicle in 1849.
We shared some of these stories in a talk we delivered on YouTube which is still available.
Photographs from May Day Celebrations