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Jack in the green am I and master have I none and whilst there are trees upon this land the woods shall be my home.
To the seasons kings I bow my head as they do bow to me, for my faces are as many as the leaves upon a tree.
The Company of the Green Man gathers, archives and makes freely available* information and images relating to the traditional Jack-in-the-Green. The Company supports current traditions that feature the Jack-in-the-Green.
The Jack-in-the-Green was (and indeed is) a traditional participant in May celebrations and May Day parades in the UK. A large framework is covered in combinations of foliage and flowers and is often topped with an intricate crown of flowers. The Jack then parades or dances, often accompanied by attendants as well as Morris Dancers, musicians and assorted unusual characters.
The tradition of the Jack-in-the-Green most likely stems from the creation of intricate garlands of flowers during the 17th century which were carried by milkmaids during May Day celebrations. Over time the garlands became more elaborate until milkmaids would sometimes be seen balancing garlands on their heads covered in huge quantities of silver household objects. As guilds and other trade groups became established they joined in and tried to outdo the other participants in an attempt to receive more coins from the watching crowds. It was probably the Sweeps Guilds intent on earning as many coins as possible, to help them through what was traditionally the quietest part of their year, who first expanded the size of the garland to such an extent that they came up with the idea of the all covering structure, now known as the Jack-in-the-Green. May Day was traditionally a holiday for the Chimney Sweeps and became known as “Chimney Sweeper’s day.” The connection between the Jack-in-the-Green and chimney sweeps continues today. Some organisers and participants still have direct or distant connections with the trade. The character of the sweep is a participant in many of the current Jack-in-the-Green parades or is represented by his accoutrements (the sweep’s brushes) or blackened sooty faces.
Varied musicians became involved as did dancers, mummers, Morris dancers and a host of strange characters including the Lord and Lady, clowns, men dressed as women, blind fiddlers, dragons, the “traditional” fairy on stilts and a number of named characters. These included Black Sal, Dusty Bob, May Day Moll, Grand Serag, Jim Crow, Master Merryman and Maid Marian.
The earliest known record of a Jack-in-the-Green is from The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser of 2 May 1775. “Jack of the Green had made his garland by five in the morning, and got under his fhady building by seven…” By the early 1800s the Jack-in-the-Green had spread from London following the rapid unregulated growth of the chimney sweep’s profession through the suburbs across the south of England and beyond. Most towns had at least one, and often many sweeps many of whom paraded rival Jacks on May Day.
From the mid1800s May Day celebrations and the Jack-in-the-Green began to die out. Victorian sensibilities clashed with the bawdy working class practices involving the Jack-in-the-Green. Newspaper reports of the events became increasingly negative and disparaging of the general mayhem and at times riotous behaviour that ensued at these events. In 1875 the Chimney Sweepers Act was passed. The practice of sending boys up chimneys was banned and all chimney sweeps had to be registered with the police. The Sweeps May Festivities were changed irrevocably and by 1875 the heyday of the Jack-in-the-Green was over. By the early years of the 20th Century the Jack-in-the-Green had all but died out across the UK. From the mid-1800s a number of Jacks were already tame ’revivals’ or even replacements created by the Victorians to become a part of their own more genteel May celebrations of the English Idyll.
The Jack-in-the-Green also emigrated during the 1800s, in many cases accompanying Sweeps’ families heading out to find work in the colonies. Jacks appeared and, in some cases flourished, as far away as Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Jamaica before eventually meeting the same fate as the Jack-in-the-Green in the UK.
The Knutsford Jack is probably the oldest continual annual Jack-in-the-Green. Apart from the war years it has paraded every year since 1890. However the Knutsford Jack was not one of the early Jacks but like many others in the late 19th Century was a Victorian revival having first appeared in May 1864 “based on earlier traditions and festivities.”
Brentham’s May Day tradition became established in 1919, after the end of the First World War, and expanded considerably for 1920 when the first Jack-in-the-Green appeared. The time between the wars up to 1951 seem to be the dark ages with regards to information about Jacks. Apart from Knutsford and Brentham there are illusive reports of a Jack sighted opposite Guy’s Hospital in Borough, London in 1923 and a Sweeps’ Jack in St Ebb’s, Oxford that went out until 1939. A number of other sightings appear to be smaller Jacks created by children, including one at Ely.
The Oxford Jack was revived in 1951 by The Oxford University Morris Men. At the time they were unaware that it was a revival and that a Jack had appeared in Oxford before. Another revival appeared as a one-off in Hollington, near Hastings in the 1950s. This Jack was a small one built for a child as part of the May Day celebrations. 1974 saw the publication of Lionel Bacon’s ‘Handbook of Morris dancing’ which actively encouraged the revival and evolution of Morris traditions. Then in 1976 the Labour Government announced the introduction of a new May bank Holiday to start in 1978. May Day in 1976 was on a Saturday and in 1977, the year of the Jubilee, on a Sunday. All these factors provided the impetus for new Morris sides to form and for existing Morris sides to do something bigger and better than before.
A number of revivals occurred seemingly independently within the space of a few years. In the mid-1970's, Simon Garbutt built a reconstruction of a traditional Jack for a May Day celebration in Kingston and Surbiton, Surrey. His Jack was based on a photograph of May Day Festivities at Oxford by Sir Benjamin Stone c.1900. In 1976 Pilgrim Morris of Guildford created a contemporary May Day celebration using a number of traditional elements from various sources including a Jack-in-the-Green.
The Whitstable Jack-in-the-Green was revived in 1976 by Dixie Lee and a local folk group for their folk festival. In the late 1970's Morris dancers from various sides would gather to dance-in the summer on May Day in the Guildhall Yard, Leadenhall Market and various pubs in the City of London during their lunchtime. Dave Lobb and Greenwood Morris used to dance at dawn at Alexandra Palace, then bring their Jack into the City for an evening tour of London Wall and the Smithfield area. Dave Lobb and Mick Skrzypiec of the Earls of Essex Morris Men were discussing old May Day customs over a pint one lunchtime and decided to make it an all-day event and the concept of the City of London Jack-in-the-Green was born. In 1983 Mo Johnson made a Jack-in-the-Green in the back garden of the ‘Dog and Duck’ and Blackheath Morris (a side morphed from the Blackheath Foot’n’Death Men who used to dance at events featuring bands like Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies) revived the Deptford (Fowlers Troop) Jack. Mo was inspired by one of Thankful Sturdee’s photographs c.1900 of the original troop and Jack.
On May Day in 1984 the Earls of Essex Morris, with Mick Skrzypiec in the Jack, met at dawn on Wanstead Flats to see the sun rise. After breakfast they travelled by commuter train into Liverpool Street and started the first City of London Jack-in-the-Green procession. They were joined at the Magog’s pub in Milk Street by Blackheath Morris’s Deptford (Fowlers Troop) Jack and a Jack carried by Mike Mullen of Hammersmith Morris. On subsequent occasions they were joined by the Jack from Royal Liberty Morris and members of other Morris teams and the Grand Order of Guisers (GOG) with Alan Pearson carrying the Greenwood Jack.
The Bluebell Hill or Rochester’s Sweeps Jack was revived in 1981 by Gordon Newton as part of the Sweeps Festival. The Hastings Jack was revived by Keith Leech (formally of GOG and the Earls of Essex) in 1983. The Rye Jack-in-the-Green was briefly revived by Daisy Roots Morris dancers from Hastings. John Major’s Conservative Government tried to remove the new Bank Holiday in 1993. A group made up of representatives of all the active Jacks protested at Parliament. The Rochester Jack danced in Downing Street and the Hastings Bogies (Jack’s mischevious attendants) were allowed access to Parliament in full Bogie costume. It was most likely the appearance of the Bogies that caused the government to back down (I like to think so anyway).
In Oakhanger, Hampshire in 1991 a Jack-in-the-Green was an addition to a new local tradition of Bower Decking that was started in 1988 by the local community and morris dancers. Jack led the procession. Bristol (a scion of the Hastings Jack) was revived by Pigsty Morris in 1992. Ilfracombe has had a Jack since 2000 and many other places have since followed suit including High Wycombe, Highworth, Winchcombe, Tunbridge Wells, and Lands End. A Jack has also been known to parade in the Pagan Pride Parade or Beltane Bash. 2013 saw a brand new Jack go out in Yaxley Cambridgeshire. A Hop Jack appeared for the first time at the Faversham Hop Festival in August 2013. There are also a small number of Jacks who parade privately in the UK each year.
The modern Jacks are often accompanied by musicians and Morris dancers or attendants sometimes known as Bogies dressed in green rags adorned with leaves and flowers and with their faces arms and hands covered in green paint. Some Bogies interact with those watching the proceedings as the Jack is paraded by handing out small gifts to children or by adorning the watchers faces with some of “Jacks magic” which to the uninitiated may look remarkably similar to green face paint! Some Bogies like those at Hastings are particularly fierce and will protect Jack from the unwanted attentions of those who get too close to Jack before he wakes or try to steal leaves from him during the procession. Jack often dances and cavorts along, sometimes chasing those he takes a fancy to or who simply get in his way. He has also been known to have a voice on occasions and has been heard by the author to shout the words “bogey, bogey, bogey” before trying to invite himself into someone's house.
Many argue that the Jack is in no way connected with the Green Men of Churches, particularly because there is no evidence of any extra attention being paid to the Green Men residing inside and outside places of Christian worship at this time of the year. Others are convinced that the connection is a strong one, and that they are merely different aspects of the ancient spirit of the wildwood, of re-birth and renewal and of the coming of summer.
For further reading I highly recommend two books both of which have been invaluable as source material for this article:
· The Jack-in-the-Green by Roy Judge: ISBN 0 903515 20 2
· The Hastings traditional Jack in the Green by Keith Leech: ISBN 078 0 901536 10 5
Details of where to purchase both books can be found HERE
This article is the basis for a forthcoming book on the history and revival of the traditional Jack-in-the-Green. It is a work in progress and the author would be very grateful to hear from anyone with any corrections or further information about historical or modern Jacks.
The continuation of these traditions is extremely important and I encourage everyone to head along to support their nearest Jack. I am in the process of visiting and photographing every Jack in the UK to create an archive of information and images and to provide as much publicity to these events as possible. If anyone knows of any current Jacks I may have missed I would love to know. I would also be very interested in receiving photographs and finding out more information about all the existing Jacks and the traditions that surround them.
I’m building an archive of information on all historical Jacks in the Green, building on the phenomenal body of work that Folklorist Roy Judge left behind. For a Gazetteer of historical Jacks-in-the-Green click HERE
Knutsford Jack-in-the-Green (Since 1890)
The Knutsford Jack in the Green is probably the oldest continual annual Jack in the Green. Apart from the war years it has paraded every year since 1889. May Day in Knutsford (Cheshire) is celebrated over the May Bank holiday weekend. The main focus is the May Queen. The person who plays Jack is chosen each year and is now played by a youngster rather than an adult as it used to be.
Oxford Jack-in-the-Green (Revived1951)
The Oxford Jack-in-the-Green appears in Oxford on May Morning. OUMM (Oxford University Morris Men) introduced Jack-in-the-Green to their May Morning festivities in 1951. At that time they were unaware that a Jack-in-the-Green was a common sight in and around Oxford in the 19th century. The Oxford Jack is usually first seen near Magdalen Tower just before 6am and leads an informal procession up 'The High' to Radcliffe Square, where the first dance of the day: "Bonny Green" from Bucknell, starts at about 6.25am. Jack then moves through New College Lane and Broad Street, concluding with a massed 'Bonny Green Garters' outside St. John's College in St. Giles around 8.30am. After breakfast the University & City Men usually take Jack to a display for the children of St. Ebbe's school when May Morning falls on a weekday.
Guildford Jack-in-the-Green (Revived 1976)
Whitstable Jack-in-the-Green (Revived 1976)
Deptford (Fowlers Troop) Jack-in-the-Green (Revived early 1980’s)
City of London Jack-in-the-Green (Started 1984)
Rochester (Blue Bell Hill) Jack-in-the-Green (Revived 1981)
Hastings Traditional Jack-in-the-Green (Revived 1983)
Bristol Jack in the Green (Revived 1992)
Ilfracombe Jack-in-the-Green (Started 2000)
High Wycombe Jack-in-the-Green (Revived 2005)
Highworth Jack-in-the-Green (Started 2006)
Winchcombe Jack-in-the-Green (Revived 2009)
Tunbridge Wells Jack-in-the-Green (Started 2010)
Lands End Jack-in-the-Green (Started 2011)
The Lands End Jack-in-the-Green first went out in 2011. He greets the Dawn at Chapel Carn Brea on May Day accompanied by Boekka Border Morris and sometimes by Penkevyll, the Lands End Obby Oss.
Beltane Bash/Pagan Pride Jack-in-the-Green
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The Company of the Green Man