It has been suggested that my recent articles have been full of doom, with invasions and so on. Recently I saw a sundial dated 1767 with the inscription “Let others tell of Storms and Showers—only count Your Sunny Hours”. An inspiration!
Trying to turn over a new leaf, I shall pull on my dancing boots, bells and hat with floral arrangements. I only hope I shall not be hit by those sticks during the dance.
John Symonds Udal in Dorsetshire Folk-Lore, published in 1922 after a long gestation and partial publication, writes that “It was anciently the custom for all ranks of people to go out a-Maying early on the first of May; but I do not think that there exist now in Dorsetshire many traces of the old merry dances and games, such as the Maypole dance, the Morris dancers, the milkmaids, the chimney-sweeps, the maidens’ garland or flower dances and processions, which used to be so prevalent in many parts of England on May Day”.
During the Long Parliament in April 1644 the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell insisted that all maypoles were to be taken down and removed by constables, churchwardens, and other parish officers. There was considerable resistance to this, but the law prevailed until King Charles II came to the throne and maypoles were set up again. Cerne Abbas apparently made a new one each year from a “fir-bole” and raised it up in a night. It was erected in the ring just above the Giant. It was decorated and the villagers went up the hill and danced around the pole on the 1st of May. In some areas the performance took place at Whitsuntime. The origin of the maypole is uncertain, but it is suggested that it started in Germany as a pagan ritual, or may even date back to the Druids. It was certainly recorded in the early 1500s.
We also see Morris Dancers from the spring time, dancing in a circle in open public spaces in their traditional dress of knee breeches, white socks with bells just below the knees, a coloured waistcoat, braces (Baldrics) crossed over the chest and two handkerchiefs tucked into the belt front, all topped by a straw or felt hat, often decorated with flowers. There are usually 3 men per side, 6 in all, but sometimes 8 or 10 maximum. We usually see men dancing the Morris, but there are some female groups too. Music is generally from a concertina or melodian, a fiddle and a small pipe and tabor. The name has been said to be a corruption of Moorish or a French word for a dance, but it was first recorded in Cornwall in 1466. Some have suggested it originates in fertility rites. Morris Dancing was also referred to in Tudor and Elizabethan times. In the 16th century it was called the “Devil Dance” whilst the dancers processed to church. The Puritans banned dancing, but the Morris became popular again under Charles II, especially in villages, when men might walk 20 miles to dance for money, supplementing their wages. It was said that the higher the dancer jumps, the higher the corn will grow. And many dance names include “hay”, so very close to the soil. Shakespeare writes of “capers” as leaping steps and some Morris steps are called “capers”, others called “galleys” and “hook leg”. Some old Morris tunes were collected by Cecil Sharp in the early 1900s and may have increased their popularity in modern times. The Wessex dances are similar to those of the Cotswolds, but Morris dancing is widespread throughout the country. I have been lucky to see a performance in the north Midlands and it is popular throughout the north of England.
Something which we see less often than the previous items is the old practise of “Beating the Bounds”. Udal says the general custom in olden days was for persons to go round, or perambulate the boundaries or limits of their own particular parish in Rogation Week or to be more precise, on one of the three days before Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. He quotes Brand that “the minister, accompanied by his churchwardens and parishioners…beg a blessing on the fruits of the earth, and preserve the rights and properties of the parish”. He also quotes William Barnes “In order that they may not forget the lines and marks of separation they ‘take pains’ at every turning. For instance, if the boundary be a stream, one of the boys is tossed into it ; if a hedge, a sapling is cut out of it and used in afflicting that part of their bodies upon which they rest in the posture between standing and lying….if the boundary be a sunny bank, they sit down upon it and get a treat of beer and bread and cheese. When these boys grow up to be men, if asked if a particular stream were the boundary of the manor, he would say… ‘Ees, that ‘tis, by the same token that I were tossed into’t.’ If he should be asked whether the aforesaid pleasant bank were a boundary: ‘O, ees it be’, he would say, ‘that’s where we squat down and tucked in a skinvull of vittles and drink’. After that he would declare ‘I won’t be sartin; I got zo muddled up top o’ the banks, that I don’ know where we ambulated arter that’ “.
In 1898 Thomas Wainright transcribed some early Bridport Records and one related to fines levied at a Court held on 30th September in the 36th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, AD 1594, which Wainwright believed resulted from Beating the Bounds “Mr Henry Wade hath forfeited his payne of 30s for not plucking down a wall and setting up a gate in the way of the perambulation upon the muridg near Pink Mead”. So in those days it had a worthwhile effect.
Udal records an unfortunate occasion in 1891 during Beating of the Bounds in Bridport. A large millpond marked a boundary and needed to be crossed. The Mayor, Borough Surveyor and another man embarked on a large raft to be towed across. Soon after starting off the raft started to sink and the occupants were thrown into the water. The Mayor and the third man managed to swim ashore, but the Surveyor regained the raft to be towed to land, completely drenched. It is not recorded if they went on to complete the event.
The town of Bridport for many years kept up an old flower custom on the first Sunday in May. Udal states that school children assembled at schools in Gundry Lane and marched to the parish church, carrying flowers. Divine service followed and the church bells were rung. In 1788 the children had also processed around the parish boundaries.
Now we have looked at four aspects of early May over several centuries. Think of them this May.
Bridport History Society meets on Tuesday 8th May at 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall to learn about the “Magnificent Obsession : Victoria and Albert” from Helen Rappaport. All welcome, visitors entry £3.
Cecil Amor, Hon. President Bridport History Society.