Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mayday Mayhem

Mayday celebrations are always associated with maypoles, maypole dancing, and flower garlands, and the quiet Essex market town of Saffron Walden is no exception. But Saffron Walden was unusual as in the evening this gentle and picturesque tradition gave way to a riotous celebration.

This was the “game” called “Pig in the gutter” (known locally as “piggetty-gutter”) probably a relic of older May Day games, and dancing round the may pole. It consisted of the inhabitants of Castle Street and other nearby roads congregating at a given spot and time, joining hands and then forming a long line, rushing off through the streets, “yelling and shouting like a troop of wild Indians”.

Castle Street at that time was a crowded working-class street in which the poorest people of the town lived, crammed into tiny houses grouped around small squares. There are contemporary reports of some families so poor that parents and children slept on straw. But poverty could not break their spirit, and once a year, on Mayday, they overturned the “respectable” rules of small town life.

Writing in 1911, Frank Emson described the people gathering in the evening. “Headed by a merry old soul, ‘Royal Moll’, they danced round the town hand in hand about 200 strong. When a “Moll” saw a chance to suround a few persons she would lead on her tribe and hem them in, not letting them go until them had paid toll. The leaders were dressed in colours and adorned with flowers, and the townspeople turned out to see the fun.”

The colourful biography of Saffron Walden’s socialist mayor, Stanley Wilson, relates how: “On the evening of May Day after the garlands had faded and the Morris Dancers had finished their dances and jigs they adjourned to the ‘Eight Bells’ for their annual feast of beer bread and cheese. The town Bandsmen went to ‘The Hoops’ inn.”

Then about one hundred and fifty men and boys in their “beribboned smocks and Sunday best clothes and top hats would assemble at the top of Castle Street, borrow a very long rope from Bill Beans, the twine and ropemaker, and all line up holding the rope in the gutter down the street.”

Led by several men playing home-made wooden whistles (made from hazel with a pea in it) and beating pails, saucepans and frying pans, they ran through the town entering every public house by the front door and out at the back door, each having a mouthful of free beer in each pub.

As crowds ran down Castle Street, High Street, Gold Street to the Market Place, they would encircle and catch as many people as possible on their way. The price of release was a coin dropped into an old tin can which went towards more beer. “Those with no money were kicked up the backside and allowed to join on the end of the human snake. Boys loved to join the gang and to drink strong beer - an initiation into manhood” wrote Stanley.

Both Wilson and Emson stress that the “greatest good humour prevailed” throughout the evening. But they were writing about a tradition suppressed in the middle of the 19th century, within living memory of the bread riots of 1795 and the Swing revolt in local villages in 1830. The “respectable” and wealthier members of the local community were just too frightened to allow Mayday mayhem to continue - in case it became a more serious challenge to social order.

[Thanks to the anonymous librarians of nearly one hundred years ago, for preserving some yellowing newspaper cuttings in the local library, and to the late Stanley Wilson for recording the local folk memory of these events.]