Sweeps' Day in Upper Lisson Street, London, British School, c.1835-37. Museum of London

May Day: the tradition of the Jack-in-the-Green and chimney sweeps

May Day, or, Jack-in-the-Green

We’ll banish Care, and all his Train

Nor thought of Sadness round us play

Fly distant hence, corroding pain

For happiness shall crown this Day.

(20th June 1795)

A Jack-in-the-Green was once a traditional sight amongst English May Day celebrations. Dancing at the head of processions on the day, often noisy and drunk, the Jack-in-the-Green was a man who covered himself in a conical or pyramidal framework decorated with green foliage, concealing his body. He resembled a walking tree or bush. The parades were riotous affairs, usually consisting of a King and Queen (or a Lord and Lady) as well as the Jack-in-the-Green, together with jesters, clowns, chimney sweeps and musicians.

A Jack-in-the-Green procession in a village, with the Jack in the centre flanked by two figures, and two children dancing in the foreground. c.1840. © The Trustees of the British Museum
A Jack-in-the-Green procession in a village, with the Jack in the centre flanked by two figures, and two children dancing in the foreground. c.1840. © The Trustees of the British Museum

It is believed that the custom began from the tradition of making garlands of flowers for May Day and got a little out of hand, resulting in the Jack-in-the-Green being covered head to foot. Although no-one is too sure why, the Jack-in-the-Green is usually associated with chimney sweeps. One theory is that it was the Sweeps Guilds who increasingly enlarged the size of the May Day garlands, hoping that the people watching the procession would give them their coins as they passed by rather than donate them to the other participants in the parade. (May Day was a traditional holiday for chimney sweeps; it is sometimes known as ‘Chimney Sweeper’s day’.) First recorded in London, Jack-in-the-Greens were soon appearing across the country.

Sweeps' Day in Upper Lisson Street, London, British School, c.1835-37. Museum of London
Sweeps’ Day in Upper Lisson Street, London, British School, c.1835-37. Museum of London

Although Jack-in-the-Greens can still be seen in some town and village May Day celebrations, often associated now with the custom of the Green Man and signifying spring and rebirth, the custom largely died out in the Victorian era, replaced instead by a more sedate May Queen.

We’ve found some references to eighteenth-century May Day celebrations which include Jack-in-the-Greens in the newspapers. The earliest known reference dates to 1775.

Jack of the Green had made his garland by five in the morning, and got under his shady building by seven…

(Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 2nd May 1775)

May Day - or Jack in the green, 1795. © The Trustees of the British Museum
May Day – or Jack in the green, 1795. © The Trustees of the British Museum

May Day in London, 1786 was awash with events which caused the newspapers to take note. Warren Hastings, statesman and first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal, India was facing questions by government ministers over his role in the Maratha War, Frances Lewis stood trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of Ann Rose and a Jack-in-the-Green merrily cantered through the London streets.

LONDON

Yesterday being the first of May, several curious Circumstances took Place. – The Sweeps and Milkmaids, with Jack o’ th’ Green, danced through the Streets – Mr. Hastings appeared at the Bar of the House of Commons to defend his Cause, though no Impeachment is yet made out – And a Woman tried a the Old-Bailey for the Murder of another Woman, was found guilty of Manslaughter.

(Northampton Mercury, 6th May 1786)

View of the large detached Montagu House at the north west corner of Portman Square, its name derived from Elizabeth Montagu, who the house was built for; figures in colourful costumes dance on street outside supported by men with instruments, a small crowd gathers to watch, the building was demolished in the Blitz. 1851 © The Trustees of the British Museum
A later view of the large detached Montagu House at the north west corner of Portman Square, its name derived from Elizabeth Montagu, who the house was built for; figures in colourful costumes dance on street outside supported by men with instruments, a small crowd gathers to watch. © The Trustees of the British Museum

LONDON

Yesterday being the 1st of May, the Honourable Mrs. Montague entertained the Chimney-sweepers according to annual custom, with roast beef, mutton, and baked plumb-pudding, in the lawn of her house in Portman-square, and after their regale gave them each a shilling. Mrs. Montague appeared in good spirits among the Nobility whom she invited to see the motley company. The outside of the place was thronged with people, carriages, and carts; among the latter several broke down by being overloaded with spectators. The Duchess of York, in her curricle, stopped some time, and seemed highly delighted with the Jacks in the Green, the pyramids of tankards, and the dancing of the sweeps and their ladies on the lawn.

(Staffordshire Advertiser, 6th May 1797)

Frederica, Duchess of York, 1795. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Frederica, Duchess of York, 1795. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

We’ll leave you with this video of a modern day Jack-in-the-Green, from the May Day Festival at Hastings in 2016.

Sources not mentioned above:

Jack in the Green – a chimney sweep’s tale by Lucy Lilliman, Social History intern at Leeds Museums and Galleries, 2013

The Company of the Green Man – The Traditional Jack-in-the-Green

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4 thoughts on “May Day: the tradition of the Jack-in-the-Green and chimney sweeps

    • Thank you for your comment. We don’t have any info on Morris dancing in the Georgian period, I’m afraid, but we may well do some research for a future blog post.

      Liked by 1 person

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