May 2010: May Day: Matthew Alexander

At our regular ‘Second Tuesday’ meeting in May we welcomed Matthew Alexander to tell us something of the significance of May Day in the social life of England and in particular the merry-making in Surrey.  The tradition of fun, festivities and fundraising probably reached its height in Georgian times when local parishes raised much of their money on that day.  By mid Victorian times that form of merriment had begun to decline but the ‘climbing boys’ who went up the inside of chimneys to sweep them, were still allowed the day off work for ‘collecting’.  They visited the local large houses and solicited donations, holding poles with floral decorations.

The exploitation of children for sweeping chimneys came to an end in1864 and by the time of compulsory education in the 1870’s, May 1st was not regarded as a holiday.

A more mild form of celebration with May Queens and dancers circling around a maypole platting ribbons took hold in the early twentieth century but the advent of WWI marked the effective end of this ‘new tradition’.  Now it remains for Morris Dancers to uphold the tradition of revelry and fundraising on May Day.  Matthew Alexander presented a fascinating insight into past activities on the first day in May.