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Daily Archives: April 29, 2013

The maypole

Maypole on the village green

Standing high it could touch the sky

Coloured ribbons cascading down,

With children dancing all around

Singing songs and having fun

Mayday history is carried on

Now all the April showers have gone,

Lambs in fields skipping around

Morris dancers join in the the mayday fun,

Banging their sticks upon the ground

Everyone enjoying the May day sun

Thomas Sims

Workers maypole

World Workers, whatever may bind ye,
    This day let your work be undone:
Cast the clouds of the winter behind ye,
     And come forth and be glad in the sun.

Now again while the green earth rejoices
     In the bud and the blossom of May
Lift your hearts up again, and your voices,
     And keep merry the World’s Labour Day.

Let the winds lift your banners from far lands
    With a message of strife and of hope:
Raise the Maypole aloft with its garlands
     That gathers your cause in its scope.

It is writ on each ribbon that flies
     That flutters from fair Freedom’s heart:
If still far be the crown and the prize
     In its winning may each take a part.

Your cause is the hope of the world,
     In your strife is the life of the race,
The workers’ flag Freedom unfurled
     Is the veil of the bright future’s face.

Be ye many or few drawn together,
     Let your message be clear on this day;
Be ye birds of the spring, of one feather
     In this–that ye sing on May-Day.

Of the new life that still lieth hidden,
     Though its shadow is cast before;
The new birth of hope that unbidden
     Surely comes, as the sea to the shore.

Stand fast, then, Oh Workers, your ground,
     Together pull, strong and united:
Link your hands like a chain the world round,
     If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,
     Shall build, in the new coming years,
A lair house of life–not for others,
     For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

Walter Crane 1894

may pole

History of Maypole Dancing   

Elizabethan maypole with dancers accompanied by pipe and drum player.

The Betley window may have been created as long ago as 1509 and shows a stripy maypole in the centre

A painting of around 1750 in Elmbridge museum, Weybridge showing maypole dancing on Monument Green. This unknown amateur artist has portrayed ordinary people enjoying themselves .Click on this picture to enlarge it

May Day in Kings Lynn. The maypole is carried and bears a garland with a doll in the middle (The May Queen?)

London children (1892) improvise a maypole dance around a lamp post on their street corner.

The earliest Maypoles were part of a celebration of Summer which would be linked in with mystical things like tree worship and more basic things like an excuse for dancing and having a good time.

They were probably just simple trees cut down and re-erected in the centre of a village green.  We know that by the 16th and 17th centuries they were often very tall as we have paintings showing people dancing around them and the Puritans, who hated them, described in great detail what they were destroying, although the actual dances were not recorded.

After the Restoration many Maypoles were re-instated and a notable one was in the Strand.  This was 134 foot high (41m) and stood there until Sir Isaac Newton used parts of it as a base for his telescope!  Some of the maypoles from that period still survive in villages around the country.  None of these maypoles had ribbons so the dances were probably any circular dances that were popular at the time.

Other countries also had maypoles and there are pictures from Germany showing Maypoles with ribbons and from France and the court of Louis XIV.  There were also pictures showing Maypoles with Ribbons at Vauxhall Gardens in the 18th century.

 The Maypole Dancing that people know today, happened because John Ruskin introduced it at Whitelands College in 1881 and created a series of dances and a May Pageant.

Generations of teachers learnt all about these and took them wherever they went on to teach and by the middle of the 20th century it had become a major tradition, much of which survives to the present day but for some years had been dying out as fewer teachers knew the dances.

Fortunately over the last few years Maypole Dancing has had a bit of a revival for all sorts of reasons to do with a greater awareness of our own culture and the sheer enjoyment by dancers and audience alike.  The difference now is that there is a far greater degree of creativity with new dances and styles being invented all the time.


 In the early days the music would have been played on instruments like the Pipe & Tabor or the English Bagpipes and we can see these in those early paintings.  By the time John Ruskin came along the concertina or the fiddle would have been added and then later instruments would have included the accordion, flutes or any instruments that were loud enough to work in the open air.  That still hold true but now often people dance to recorded music, whether recordings of country dance music and instruments like those mentioned or even pop songs and rap.


Originally children would have worn their best clothes.  By the time we reached Victorian times there was a deliberate attempt to re-create an image of “Merrie England” (which never really existed) and so costumes would have been chosen to reflect that.

Nowadays anything goes.  There are Tudor Peasants, Victorian Gentlemen & Ladies, Medieval Costumes which can be quite grand, Sports Kit, Simple variations on school uniform or just sashes to identify dancers from spectators.

Other Maypoles & Traditions

While Maypoles are regarded as something very English they exist in many other parts of the world , although sometimes in slightly different forms.  We have already mentioned Germany & France.  There are traditions in Galicia (in Spain), Finland & Mexico. We have come across people who learnt Maypole Dancing 60 or more years ago in Jamaica and Trinidad.  We have also heard about a tradition in Iran.

A country maypole.

The Rotunda, Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea, London, May 1759. Earliest known depiction of ribbon and pole dance in England.

Ribbon plaiting was performed in pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall, Ranelagh & Cremorne Gardens (above) in the late 18th & early 19th century.

A traditional English maypole is shown in this 18th century print. The dancers hold hands and circle around the pole

Whitelands teacher training college 1889. The May Queen ceremony was instigated by John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and writer. It was from here that the ribbon dance spread through schools up and down the country

This traditional tall maypole is raised at Barwick-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, 1951. When it was raised some brave soul would climb the pole and spin the weather vane at the top.

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