The mystery of the missing maypole?

Back in the 1860s the antiquary John Noake penned a series of sketches of Worcestershire for the Birmingham Daily Gazette, republished in 1868 as a Guide to the county. Recounting his visit to Bayton, Noake drew attention to ‘a relic of old times…in the shape of a veritable Maypole’.[i]  As so often we’re indebted to Noake’s keen eye for this tantalising fragment of local heritage – there’s next to no trace of it in the present, and he seemed quite sure of its antiquity. So we’re justified to dig that little bit deeper – what can be said about the maypole, just how much of a ‘relic of old times’ was it, and why does it matter at all?

Tantalisingly terse - John Noake on the Bayton maypole

Tantalisingly terse – John Noake on the Bayton maypole

Somewhat paradoxically, going backwards necessitates going forwards – in this case to early 1887 when, with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations fast approaching, the parishioners of Bayton undertook to restore the village maypole. For around seven or eight years the wooden pole had lain unused and in disrepair, apparently because the family which could foot the bill for the festivities – the Wicksteads of Shakenhurst – had moved out of the area.[ii] The restoration efforts were evidently a success; the pole was back up in time for the year’s May Day celebrations, and the ensuing newspaper reports offer us some of the most detailed records we have for the revived custom. The day was a feat of organised quaintness:

  1.  In the early morning women and children started ‘wending their way towards the village carrying flowers and evergreens’, which they then tied onto garlands fastened onto the still-grounded pole;
  2. The flag was tied to the top of the pole, which was then heaved up by a group of men until it stood around 50ft in the air;
  3. The assembled crowd, which included the Mamble village band, performed patriotic songs and gave cheers for the Queen, the Vicar, and the Maypole, before breaking off into a dance.

After about an hour the crowd broke off, reassembling in the evening for more singing.[iii] The basic formula was repeated a couple of months later in time for the actual Jubilee – albeit then with the addition of food, sports, and the lighting of a beacon on Collier’s Hill.

The account reeks of twee Victoriana, probably because it is twee Victoriana – drenched in ‘Merrie England’ sentimentality and parochial romanticism, this is more Mary Berry than Medieval Bayton. Where it becomes more interesting is the claim that some parishioners had ‘helped to adorn the May-pole’ for 70 years, a fact independently verifiable in diary entries from 1801 onwards. So far so good – a terminus ante quem predating the wave of mid-Victorian revivalism, albeit still bearing the trademark gentry patronage of the revivalists. An earlier pedigree, however, was suggested by the eldest parishioners, who claimed that the pole had ‘been there long before them’.[iv] Assuming these claims were accurate, the custom of maypole rearing at Bayton is pushed back into the 18th century. Good stuff. Anything earlier?

Well, no. Anyone who studies vernacular culture has to make do with inadequate, incidental records, and in this part of Worcestershire the problem is amplified by the uneven survival of pre-18th century documentary evidence. Taken by itself, the evidence from Bayton would suggest that Noake’s ‘relic of old times’ wasn’t quite as old as he thought. Zooming out to the national scale, however, forces us to reconsider; the evidence of churchwarden accounts suggests that the rearing of maypoles, like many other May rituals, had been firmly rooted across southern Britain by the late 14th century, and early references can be traced in Worcestershire and Shropshire into the 17th century and earlier.[v] It’s therefore quite possible – likely, even – that the 19th century revellers were continuing a custom of later medieval precedent, albeit with much Victorian tat adhered to it. Importantly, however, we can’t yet prove it, mainly because we don’t have pre-19th century churchwarden accounts for Bayton or the nearby parishes of Mamble, Neen Sollars, Cleobury Mortimer, Lindridge, Rock or Pensax.[vi] Maybe something will turn up in future research, but maybe this is misplaced optimism. Some conjecture might not be amiss.

Stripped of the 19th century flags-and-flowers, we’re left with a big wooden pole standing in the village green.[vii] The evidence for its location is furnished by 20th century accounts and, importantly, the house name ‘Maypole Cottage’ on the east end of the green. No pre-19th century references can be found for this house name, although the building itself is a timber-framed structure of 17th century fabric – it may hint at earlier origins, or it may not. Either way, the monument would occupy a significant focal point in the local landscape visible from some distance. Its siting in the village green could be read as a metaphor for the significance of calendar customs in rural life; the ability of may rituals to ‘bring together’ otherwise fragmented rural communities would be expressed at the ideological and spatial levels. One poem in Corbett’s Poëtica Stromata, satirically addressed to the Vicar of Bewdley – around 6 miles due east of Bayton – gives us clues to visual appearances; ‘a Pole painted, and wrought…a lew’d Bird, towring upon the topp’.[viii] A post-medieval account, granted, but one which tallies with the gaudy decor so common to medieval monuments. Big wood implies trees, and the medieval parish had no shortage of woodland resources to draw on; one plausible source could be the extraparochial ‘Custom Wood’, a block of woodland in the Wyre Forest to which the parish had customary rights of housebote and timber, although many other sources are quite possible.

Speculation is indulgent and ultimately inconclusive, but serves to drag out a point; it’s quite plausible that the custom of maypole-rearing in Bayton was quite venerable indeed, perhaps even moreso than Noake had imagined. Despite Victorian reinvention, however, it was not to last. The maypole re-erected in 1887 was to be a permanent fixture in the village landscape into the early 20th century, featuring in the 1902 coronation celebrations of Edward VII; by the end of the decade, however, it had begun to rot, posing a danger raised at parish council meetings. At its AGM in April 1909 the parish council took the decision to remove the pole once the May Day celebrations were over, offering to cover any costs incurred by James Dunn, a local postmaster and grocer who had agreed to do the job free of charge. Execution was less than prompt, however, and a year later the rotting maypole was still standing on the village green awaiting replacement.[ix] Presumably before 1911 fresh wood had been found, when the council agreed – funds permitting – to organise a coronation party for the villagers of Bayton and Mamble, featuring ‘a meat tea for adults and tea with a souvenir of the coronation for children, also sports, bonfire and fireworks and raising of the May Pole’. It remained in the green as late as 1928, when Wedley could paint an idyllic picture of ‘the sports and pastimes of the England of long ago’.[x] Thereafter the trail darkens again – if anyone reading this knows about its fate, I’ll be pleased to hear it.

 

[i] J. Noake, Noake’s Guide to Worcestershire (London: Longman, 1868), 272

[ii] Worcester Chronicle, 7 May 1887, 5

[iii] Ibid.; Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 2 July 1887, 2

[iv] R. Judge, “May Day and Merrie England” Folklore 102:2 (1991), 135; Worcester Chronicle, 7 May 1887, 5; WAAS 705:126/BA 6442/3/iii. The authors of these diaries are anonymous but belonged to ‘the Meysey, Wigley and other families’; those of the 1870s are most likely to have been authored by Charles Wicksted, and make references to the ‘May Pole’ on 1 May. Unlike later volumes references in the diaries of 1801 and 1802 are less explicit, although both mark out 1 May in a way unparalleled for any other beginning of a month.

[v] R. Hutton, The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 233; R. Palmer, The folklore of Shropshire (Almeley: Logaston Press, 2004), 300

[vi] R. Hutton, Rise and fall

[vii] Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 2 July 1887, 2. Unsurprisingly this description is quite similar to Worcestershire examples from Hallow and Offenham; C. Taylor, “May celebrations” Explore the Past, May 6, 2013, http://www.explorethepast.co.uk/2013/05/may-celebrations.html. The danger in assuming that these reflect older appearances is stressed by V. Alford, “The Maypole: an engraving of 1751” Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society 4:4 (1943), 148

[viii] R. Corbett, “An exhortation to Mr. John Hammon,” in Records of Early English Drama: Herefordshire Worcestershire, ed. David Klausner (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 364

[ix] WAAS 268.1/BA 6137, particularly the entry for March 1909. I am indebted to Mary Swift and Sue Burrows for highlighting this reference.

[x] I. L. Wedley, Twixt Severn and Teme: The story of a delightful country (Kidderminster: Shuttle Press, 1928), 93

 

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