Ickwell May Day - A Brief History

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In Celtic times, May Day was celebrated with the festival of Beltane (the Anglicised spelling of the Gaelic god Bealtaine) whose name meant good fire or God of Light. 
Our old documents show that celebrating May Day was an established custom at Ickwell as far back as 1563. Payments are listed in the Church Wardens’ accounts for the purchase of shoes for the dancers, bells for the shoes, food and drink. Payments were also made to various people for their paynes (efforts) and to mysnstrells. It was obviously a day of feasting and dancing.

A traditional feature of the Festival is the half-mile procession from the Church at Northill to Ickwell Green, which still continues today. In pre-Puritan times, the religious character was denoted by the custom of carrying at the head of the procession statues of Our Lady and the infant Christ - to displace the heathenish ideas associated with the maypole. When the Puritans objected to these images, the people substituted dolls, which they secreted in a basket, covered by a napkin, and devout supporters were invited to have a peep.

Up to the 19th century the maypole was erected each year and the usual practice was to cut down a tree - often a larch - and to bring the pole to the village and set it up to be festooned with greenery as a centre for the festivities. A permanent maypole (a ship’s mast according to one account) was erected in 1872 by the Squire John Harvey to celebrate the birth of his son. When the Squire died he left instructions in his will for the sum of £2 and 10 shillings to be paid every year for the upkeep of the festival. A bunch of mayflower (hawthorn) is tied around the pole every year before the May Day festivities start.

The ‘moggies’ with their blackened faces are another traditional feature of May Day. They are the sweep and his wife. Today we still have a ‘chimney sweep’s wife’ or ‘moggie’ as part of our celebrations. As in times past, ‘she’ plays an important part in collecting the funds to enable the ancient custom of our May Day celebrations to be perpetuated. You may also see ‘My Lord and Lady’ dressed in their gay finery.

In the 1880s the May Day at Ickwell underwent a change. A new style of celebration was introduced by Professor John Ruskin at Whitelands College in London. He had been inspired by European celebrations where a Queen of May was elected and coloured ribbons attached to the pole and woven and plaited by dancers. His pupils spread this new style of May Day throughout England. One of his pupils was Mrs Hodges, who became headmistress of Northill School in 1894.

The school in the adjacent village of Caldecote has had a half day's holiday at least since 1864 (when the school log book was started) to go and watch the festivities at Ickwell. In 1911, they were invited to send dancers to take part. Subsequently, Old Warden also joined in and it is residents from these three villages who perform the celebrations today and from whom the May Queen and her attendants, flower girls and page boys are selected. In 1945, the Ickwell and District May Day Committee was formed and it is that committee which currently organises the event.
May Day 2000 was a particularly joyous occasion with 50 former May Queens present. The presentation of the locket to the May Queen 2000, Stephanie Turner was made by Mrs Vera Randall, nee Wagstaff, who had been May Queen in 1920.
What may well be unique to Ickwell is that we have twenty-four adult dancers - the Old Scholars - who also plait ribbons around the maypole. Almost without exception they are former pupils of the village school and many of them have children and grandchildren also performing on the day.

Thanks to Rene Welch for the information relating to the history of May Day.

Click Here for some photographs taken 100 years ago.

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