Traditionally, on May Day, people danced around a maypole erected for the purpose, and although this custom was becoming less popular in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, it was still adhered to by some.
(Derby Mercury, 22nd May 1772)
We hear from Quarndon in Leicestershire, that the young People of that Village, on Old May Day last, erected a lofty Maypole richly adorned with Garlands, &c. which drew together a great Number of the younger Sort to dance round it, and celebrate with Festivity the Return of the Summer Season. Amongst the rest was a Body of young Fellows from Loughbro’, who formed a Plot to carry off the Maypole; which they executed at Night, and removed it to the Middle of the Market-Place at Loughbro’, a Monument of Pride to the Loughbro’ Lads, but which may be the Cause of Mischief and Bloodshed; for the Heroes of Quarndon vow Revenge and are forming Alliances with the Neighbours of Barrow and Sheepshead, and give out they will soon march in a Body to retake their favourite Maypole: In the mean Time the Loughbro’ Youths keep a good Look out, and are determined to preserve Possession of their Spoils.
Male and female couples danced around the maypole, holding and entwining lengths of brightly coloured ribbons, having first set out at dawn to gather garlands and boughs with which to decorate it.
On Monday last at Cheriton, near Alresford, the usual pastime of Maying commenced, where a Maypole was erected in commemoration of the day, and in the afternoon the sons and daughters of May, dressed in a very appropriate manner for the occasion, accompanied by a band of music, proceeded to a commodious bower, composed of green boughs, garlands of flowers, &c. erected for dancing; it was attended by upwards of 50 couple of the most respectable people in the neighbourhood, till the evening. This festive amusement was repeated the next day, with the same order, and, if possible, with greater spirit, as many more genteel couples were added to the gay circle, and the dancing was kept up to a late hour, when, after playing the national air of “God save the King,” the company separated with the greatest harmony and good humour.
(Hampshire Chronicle, 8th May 1815)
Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on the evening of the 9th November 1800, from their family home in Steventon in Hampshire, giving her the local news and the fate of their village maypole.
We have had a dreadful storm of wind in the forepart of this day . . . One large Elm out of two on the left hand side, as you enter what I call the Elm walk was likewise blown down, the Maypole bearing the weathercock was broke in two, and what I regret more than all the rest is that all three Elms which grew in Hall’s meadow and gave such ornament to it are gone.
The American author Washington Irving (1783-1859) recounted his memories of May Day in the early nineteenth-century whilst he was visiting England.
Still I look forward with some interest to the promised shadow of old May-day, even though it be but a shadow; and I feel more and more pleased with the whimsical, yet harmless hobby of my host… I shall never forget the delight I felt on first seeing a May-pole. It was on the banks of the Dee, close by the picturesque old bridge that stretches across the river from the quaint little city of Chester. I had already been carried back into former days by the antiquities of that venerable place; the examination of which is equal to turning over the pages of a black-letter volume, or gazing on the pictures of Froissart. The May-pole on the margin of that poetic stream completed the illusion. My fancy adorned it with wreathes of flowers, and peopled the green bank with all the dancing revelry of May-day. The mere sight of this May-pole gave a glow to my feelings, and spread a charm over the country for the rest of the day; and as I traversed a part of the fair plain of Cheshire, and the beautiful borders of Wales, and looked from among swelling hills down a long green valley, through which “the Deva wound its wizard stream,” my imagination turned all into a perfect Arcadia.
Sources used not referenced above:
British Library, letter from Jane Austen, 9th November 1800.
The Works of Washington Irving, volume 1, Philadelphia, 1840