After the excitement of the concert came the long winter months, when snowstorms left patches on the ploughed fields, like scrapings of sauce on left-over pieces of Christmas pudding, until the rains came and washed them away and the children, carrying old umbrellas to school, had them turned inside out by the wind, and cottage chimneys smoked and washing had to be dried indoors. But at last came spring and spring brought May Day, the greatest day in the year from the children’s point of view.
The May garland was all that survived there of the old May Day festivities. The maypole and the May games and May dances in which whole parishes had joined had long been forgotten. Beyond giving flowers for the garland and pointing out how things should be done and telling how they had been done in their own young days, the older people took no part in the revels.
For the children as the day approached all hardships were forgotten and troubles melted away. The only thing that mattered was the weather. ‘Will it be fine?’ was the constant question, and many an’aged eye was turned skyward in response to read the signs of wind and cloud. Fortunately, it was always reasonably fine. Showers there were, of course, at that season, but never a May Day of hopelessly drenching rain, and the May garland was carried in procession every year throughout the ‘eighties.
The garland was made, or ‘dressed’, in the schoolroom. Formerly it had been dressed out of doors, or in one of the cottages, or in some one’s barn; but dressed it had been and probably in much the same fashion for countless generations.
The foundation of the garland was a light wooden framework of uprights supporting graduated hoops, forming a bell-shaped structure about four feet high. This frame was covered with flowers, bunched and set closely, after the manner of wreath-making.
On the last morning of April the children would come to school with bunches, baskets, arms and pinafores full of flowers — every blossom they could find in the fields and hedges or beg from parents and neighbours. On the previous Sunday some of the bigger boys would have walked six or eight miles to a distant wood where primroses grew. These, with violets from the hedgerows, cowslips from the meadows, and wallflowers, oxlips, and sprays of pale red flowering currant from the cottage gardens formed the main supply. A sweetbriar hedge in the schoolmistress’s garden furnished unlimited greenery.
Piled on desks, table, and floor, this supply appeared inexhaustible; but the garland was large, and as the work of dressing it proceeded, it soon became plain that the present stock wouldn’t ‘hardly go nowheres’, as the children said. So foraging parties were sent out, one to the Rectory, another to Squire’s, and others to outlying farm-houses and cottages. All returned loaded, for even the most miserly and garden-proud gave liberally to the garland. In time the wooden frame was covered, even if there had to be solid greenery to fill up at the back, out of sight. Then the ‘Top-knot’, consisting of a bunch of crown imperial, yellow and brown, was added to crown the whole, and the fragrant, bowery structure was springled with water and set aside for the night.
While the garland was being dressed, an older girl, perhaps the May Queen herself, would be busy in a corner making the crown. This always had to be a daisy crown; but, meadow daisies being considered too common, and also possessing insufficient staying power, garden daisies, white and red, were used, with a background of dark, glossy, evergreen leaves.
The May Queen had been chosen weeks beforehand. She was supposed to be either the prettiest or the most popular girl in the parish; but it was more often a case of self-election by the strongest willed or of taking turns: ‘You choose me this year and I’ll choose you next.’ However elected, the queens had a strong resemblance to each other, being stout-limbed, rosy-checked maidens of ten or eleven, with great manes of dark hair frizzed out to support the crown becomingly.
The final touches were given the garland when the children assembled at six o’clock on May Day morning. Then a large china doll in a blue frock was brought forth from the depths of the school needlework chest and arranged in a sitting position on a little ledge in the centre front of the garland. This doll was known as ‘the lady’, and a doll of some kind was considered essential. Even in those parishes where the garland had degenerated into a shabby nosegay carried aloft at the top of a stick, some dollish image was mixed in with the flowers. The attitude of the children to the lady is interesting. It was understood that the garland was her garland, carried in her honour. The lady must never be roughly handled. If the garland turned turtle, as it was apt to do later in the day, when the road was rough and the bearers were growing weary, the first question was always, ‘Is the lady all right?’ (Is it possible that the lady was once ‘Our Lady’, she having in her turn, perhaps, replaced an earlier effigy of some pagan spirit of the newly decked earth?)
The lady comfortably settled in front of the garland, a large white muslin veil or skirt, obviously borrowed from a Victorian dressing-table, was draped over the whole to act as drop-scene and sunshade combined. Then a broomstick was inserted between the hoops for carrying purposes.
All the children in the parish between the ages of seven and eleven were by this time assembled, those girls who possessed them wearing white or light coloured frocks, irrespective of the temperature, and girls and boys alike decked out with bright ribbon knots and bows and sashes, those of the boys worn crosswise over one shoulder. The queen wore her daisy crown with a white veil thrown over it, and the other girls who could procure them also wore white veils. White gloves were traditional, but could seldom be obtained. A pair would sometimes be found for the queen, always many sizes too large; but the empty finger-ends came in handy to suck in a bashful mood when, later on, the kissing began.
The procession then formed. It was as follows:
Boy with flag. Girl with money box.
THE GARLAND with two bearers.
King and queen.
Two maids of honour.
Lord and lady.
Two maids of honour.
Footman and footman’s lady.
Rank and file, walking in twos.
Girl known as ‘Mother’. Boy called ‘Ragman’.
The ‘Mother’ was one of the most dependable of the older girls, who was made responsible for the behaviour of the garlanders. She carried a large, old-fashioned, double-lidded marketing basket over her arm, containing the lunches of the principal actors. The boy called ‘Ragman’ carried the coats, brought in case of rain, but seldom worn, even during a shower, lest by their poverty and shabbiness they should disgrace the festive attire.
The procession stepped out briskly. Mothers waved and implored their offspring to behave well; some of the little ones left behind lifted up their voices and wept; old people came to cottage gates and said that, though well enough, this year’s procession was poor compared to some they had seen. But the garlanders paid no heed; they had their feet on the road at last and vowed they would not turn back now, ‘not if it rained cats and dogs’.
The first stop was at the Rectory, where the garland was planted before the front door and the shrill little voices struck up, shyly at first, but gathering confidence as they went on:
A bunch of may I have brought you
And at your door it stands.
It is but a sprout, but It’s well put about
By the Lord Almighty’s hands.
God bless the master of this house
God bless the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.
And now I’ve sung my short little song
I must no longer stay.
God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a happy May Day.
During the singing of this the Rector’s face, wearing its mildest expression, and bedaubed with shaving lather, for it was only as yet seven o’clock, would appear at an upper window and nod approval and admiration of the garland. His daughter would be down and at the door, and for her the veil was lifted and the glory of the garland revealed. She would look, touch and smell, then slip a silver coin into the money-box, and the procession would move on towards Squire’s.
There, the lady of the house would bow haughty approval and if there were visiting grandchildren the lady would be detached from the garland and held up to their nursery window to be admired. Then Squire himself would appear in the stable doorway with a brace of sniffing, suspicious spaniels at his heels. ‘How many are there of you?’ he would call. ‘Twenty-seven? Well, here’s a five-bob bit for you. Don’t quarrel over it. Now let’s have a song.’
‘Not “A Bunch of May,”’ the girl called Mother would whisper, impressed by the-five-shilling piece; ‘not that old-fashioned thing. Something newer,’ and something newer, though still not very new, would be selected. Perhaps it would be:
All hail gentle spring
With thy sunshine and showers,
And welcome the sweet buds
That burst in the bowers;
Again we rejoice as thy light step and free
Brings leaves to the woodland and flowers to the bee,
Bounding, bounding, bounding, bounding,
Joyful and gay,
Light and airy, like a fairy,
Come, come away.
Or it might be:
Come see our new garland, so green and so gay;
’Tis the firstfruits of spring and the glory of May.
Here are cowslips and daisies and hyacinths blue,
Here are buttercups bright and anemones too.
During the singing of the latter song, as each flower was mentioned, a specimen bloom would be pointed to in the garland. It was always a point of honour to have at least one of each named in the several verses; though the hawthorn was always a difficulty, for in the south midlands May’s own flower seldom opens before the middle of that month. However, there was always at least one knot of tight green flower buds.
After becoming duty had been paid to the Rectory and Big House, the farm-house and cottages were visited; then the little procession set out along narrow, winding country roads, with tall hedges of blackthorn and bursting leaf-buds on either side, to make its seven-mile circuit. In those days there were no motors to dodge and there was very little other traffic; just a farm cart here and there, or the baker’s white-tilted van, or a governess car with nurses and children out for their airing. Sometimes the garlanders would forsake the road for stiles and footpaths across buttercup meadows, or go through parks and gardens to call at some big house or secluded farmstead.
In the ordinary course, country children of that day seldom went beyond their own parish bounds, and this long trek opened up new country to most of them. There was a delightful element of exploration about it. New short cuts would be tried, one year through a wood, another past the fishponds, or across such and such a paddock, where there might, or might not, be a bull. On one pond they passed sailed a solitary swan; on the terrace before one mansion peacocks spread their tails in the sun; the ram which pumped the water to one house mystified them with its subterranean thudding. There were often showers, and to Laura, looking back after fifty years, the whole scene would melt into a blur of wet greenery, with rainbows and cuckoo-calls and, overpowering all other impressions, the wet wallflower and primrose scent of the May garland.
Sometimes on the road a similar procession from another village came into view; but never one with so magnificent a garland. Some of them, indeed, had nothing worth calling a garland at all; only nosegays tied mopwise on sticks. No lord and lady, no king and queen; only a rabble begging with money-boxes. Were the Fordlow and Lark Rise folks sorry for them? No. They stuck out their tongues, and, forgetting their pretty May songs, yelled:
Old Hardwick skags!
Come to Fordlow to pick up rags
To mend their mothers’ pudding-bags,
and the rival troop retaliated in the same strain.
At the front-door calls, the queen and her retinue stood demurely behind the garland and helped with the singing, unless Her Majesty was called forward to have her crown inspected and admired. It was at the back doors of large houses that the fun began. In country houses at that date troops of servants were kept, and the May Day procession would find the courtyard crowded with house-maids and kitchen-maids, dairy-maids and laundry-maids, footmen, grooms, coachmen, and gardeners. The songs were sung, the garland was admired; then, to a chorus of laughter, teasing and urging, one Maid of Honour snatched the cap from the King’s head, the other raised the Queen’s veil, and a shy, sheepish boy pecked at his companion’s rosy cheek, to the huge delight of the beholders.
‘Again! Again!’ a dozen voices would cry and the kissing was repeated until the royal couple turned sulky and refused to kiss any more, even when offered a penny a kiss. Then the lord saluted his lady and the footman the footman’s lady (this couple had probably been introduced in compliment to such patrons), and the money-box was handed round and began to grow heavy with pence.
The menservants, with their respectable side-whiskers, the maids in their little flat caps like crocheted mats on their smoothly parted hair, and their long, billowing lilac or pink print gowns, and the children in their ribbon-decked poverty, alike belong to a bygone order of things. The boys pulled forelocks and the girls dropped curtseys to the upper servants, for they came next in importance to ‘the gentry’. Some of them really belonged to a class which would not be found in service today; for at that time there was little hospital nursing, teaching, typing, or shop work to engage the daughters of small farmers, small shopkeepers, innkeepers, and farm bailiffs. Most of them had either to go out to service or remain at home.
After the mansion, there were the steward’s, the head gardener’s and the stud-groom’s houses to visit with the garland; then on through gardens and park and woods and fields to the next stopping-place. Things did not always go smoothly. Feet got tired, especially when boots did not fit properly or were worn thin. Squabbles broke out among the boys and sometimes had to be settled by a fight. Often a heavy shower would send the whole party packing under trees for shelter, with the unveiled garland freshening outside in the rain; or some irate gamekeeper would turn the procession back from a short cut, adding miles to the way. But these were slight drawbacks to happiness on a day as near to perfection as anything can be in human life.
There came a point in the circuit when faces were turned towards home, instead of away from it; and at last, at long last, the lights in the Lark Hill windows shone clear through the spring twilight. The great day was over, for ever, as it seemed, for at ten years old a year seems as long as a century. Still, there was the May money to be shared out in school the next morning, and the lady to be stroked before being put back in her box, and the flowers which had survived to be put in water: even tomorrow would not be quite a common day. So the last waking thoughts blended with dreams of swans and peacocks and footmen and sore feet and fat cooks with pink faces wearing daisy crowns which turned into pure gold, then melted away.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00