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An 18th-century hand-coloured print of chimney-sweeps’ May Day “Jack in the Green” celebrations in London. The portly “May Queen” on the right of the picture is probably a man. Bawdy and Bacchanalian these exuberant drunken celebrations of the coming in of Summer were gradually suppressed during the formality of the late Victorian period…

Traditional celebrations of the arrival of Summer had a rich cast of characters, not least the foliate and mysterious figure of the sinister Jack-in-the-Green, who wore a large, foliage-covered, garland-like framework, usually pyramidal or conical in shape, covering the body from head to foot.

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The costume was a development of the 16th and 17th century custom of decorating homes (and people) with garlands of flowers and leaves for the May Day celebration.

Thomas Sevestre Jack in the Green, May Day Celebrations of the Chimney Sweeps of London

After becoming a source of competition between Works Guilds, the garlands became increasingly elaborate, to the extent that they covered the entire man. This figure of extreme garlanding became known as Jack-in-the-Green.

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Serious faces in the May Day celebration in Cheltenham, 1893, with Jack surrounded by attendants in the middle ground…

For some reason the figure became particularly associated with chimney sweeps, though quite why is disputed.

By the turn of the 19th century the custom had started to wane, as a result of the Victorian disapproval of bawdy and anarchic behaviour. The cross-dressing Lord & Lady of the May, with their practical jokes and excesses, were replaced by the chaste tableau of the May Queen, whilst the noisy, drunken Jack-in-the-Green vanished from parades…

Fowlers Troop
Turn of the 20th C., London, the Fowlers Troop and the Deptford Jack-in-the-Green. From the Kentish Mercury of 18th May 1906: “It is not more than 3 or 4 years since such a band were seen in the streets of Deptford. Jack in his greenery, twirling, and the male and female dancers with him pirouetting something after the traditional style – but there was a sad falling off. In olden days the dancers used to be sweeps, to whom money collected was a sort of annual perquisite and sweeps were very jealous of their privileges in this direction being usurped, latterly however, this rule was by no means adhered to.”

Until the 1970’s when increased interest in English folk heritage saw Jack revived in celebrations across the country, from Whitstable, Rochester and Hastings, to Ilfracombe and London.

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Tradition meets modernity, a Jack-in-the-Green at London Bridge station…
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1970’s Jack-in-the-Green figure, Kingston, London

The modern Jacks are equally ribald and colourful figures, often huge, up to  3m tall, covered in greenery and flowers, forming the centre piece of hugely popular reinvigorated celebrations.

Bristol

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In Whitstable, he is accompanied by two attendants, representing the legendary figures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. In Hastings, he is also accompanied by attendants, known as Bogies, who are completely disguised in green rags, vegetation, and face paint. The attendants play music, dance and sing as they guide Jack through the streets to celebrate the coming of Summer.

Welcome to Summer 2014 – enjoy!

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