Kent's colourful past
PUBLISHED: 16:08 23 April 2016 | UPDATED: 16:41 23 April 2016
May is filled with festivals, traditions and celebrations. Our history sleuth reveals some of Kent's finest.
Chislehurst May Queen Society
Just like everything else that could be considered fun, Maypole dancing was banned by Oliver Cromwell when the Puritans took control of the country in 1645. Instead of viewing it as a lighthearted way for a community to celebrate the arrival of summer, Cromwell saw it as, ‘a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness.’ Fortunately, with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the ban was lifted and, under Queen Victoria’s rule, the intricate ribbon dances were once again encouraged as part of the new ‘Merrie England Festival.’
Encouraged by the success of these festivals, Agnes Everist, the daughter of a bell-ringer at St Nicholas Church in Chislehurst, set up the Chislehurst May Queen Society in 1923 to bring back the traditional crowning of a May Queen to the town and re-establish maypole dancing.
That was 93 years ago and since Olive, Agnes’ daughter became the first May Queen in 1924, there has only been one year, 1941, when the ceremony couldn’t take place. Girls as young as five can join the society and, having risen through the ranks, the eldest each year is crowned Queen. The actual ceremony begins, not on the common where the crowning takes place, but at the top of Chislehurst High Street where, this year, the retinue of girls will be joined by a marching band, members of All the Arts Theatre School and the Morris Minors dance group.
Wearing yellow jackets and white dresses, as a symbol of purity, the procession is led by the Queen and her Prince, a flower girl, a sceptre bearer and the May Baby carrier. The May Baby is a costumed doll carried on a cushion and, as the tradition has pagan roots, is believed to represent the Spring Goddess Flora.
Once the parade reaches the Common, and the crowning has taken place, the younger girls perform four traditional maypole dances; the single plait, double plait, barber’s pole and the spider’s web. As the girls dance in and out of each other, an intricate pattern appears on the maypole before being unravelled when the dancers change direction.
The Chislehurst May Queen Society is one of the few groups left dancing these once-common steps and although this may be the highlight of the society’s year, the group regularly performs at care homes and village fêtes - wherever they are asked, in fact. Totally self funded, the group relies on fundraising events and kind donations at their dances to cover expenses. New members are always welcome and further information can be found at www.cmqs.org.uk
Above all, however, the dancers need an audience and everyone is welcome to join in the fun. This year’s parade will start at 3pm on 7 May at the top of Chislehurst High Street and travels to the Common where the crowning, maypole dancing and fancy dress competition will take place.
All aboard the Crab and Winkle!
Imagine the excitement of being able to board a steam train and go to the seaside for the first time. The clouds of steam, heat and noise of the engine as it pulls into the station and the thrill of passing through unseen territory as you travel further than you can walk in one day.
Until the industrial revolution occurred, holiday travel was largely restricted to the privileged upper classes while those lower down the economic scale lived, worked and played much closer to home. So the thought of being carried some seven miles to spend the day beside the sea must have been thrilling and on 3 May 1830, ‘nearly 300 excited passengers’ boarded a passenger train pulled by the Invicta engine and travelled to Whitstable Harbour. It was the first regular steam passenger railway in the world and it soon gained the nickname of the Crab and Winkle Line due to Whitstable’s famous seafood.
The line had many famous names and ‘firsts’ attached to it and the Invicta engine was built by George Stephenson and his son Robert. The little engine wasn’t powerful enough to tackle the lines many gradients though and was only used between Bogshole and South Street. For the rest of the journey, the carriages were hauled along by cables attached to stationary steam-driven, winding engines located along the track.
The line took four years to complete and was the first railway to issue season tickets. Passengers also faced the prospect of travelling through the world’s first passenger railway tunnel to reach their destination and, at the time, the half-a-mile-long tunnel dug through Tyler hill in 1826, was an incredible feat of engineering.
During the 1830’s the journey time was approximately 40 minutes but by 1846 when several improvements had been made and the Invicta engine had been replaced by a third winding engine, the excursion took just 20 minutes.
Passengers continued to use the railway until 1931 when it was changed to a goods only line and eventually, on 1 December 1952, it was closed all-together. Parts of the track were sold off but the tunnel remained intact until 1974 when a 30 metre section collapsed, taking part of the University of Kent which had been built over it, down with it. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Sadly, little now remains of the original railway line, although The Crab and Winkle Line Trust is busy turning the route into a pathway suitable for ‘walkers, cyclists and the disabled’ with the aim of providing ‘six traffic-free miles through unspoilt countryside and woodland’ between Canterbury and Whitstable’. The Trust hopes visitors will learn something of the old railway line along the way and news of events, path-clearing parties and plans can be found at www.crabandwinkle.org
Visitors to the Canterbury Heritage Museum at Stour Street, Canterbury, CT1 2NR can also stand just a few feet away from the original Invicta engine that once puffed along the track and discover exactly how those steam-powered stationary winding engines were used to haul the railway carriages up the lines many hills.
Have you seen Jack-in-the-Green?
If you have, you won’t have forgotten him for he is a tall, green, leaf-covered figure wearing a crown of flowers. He likes to dance and twirl and is frequently accompanied by a group of Morris dancers and the figures of Maid Marion and Robin Hood.
Believed to be an ancient pagan fertility figure, ‘Jacks’ were a regular sight during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and were sometimes called ‘chimney sweep garlands’ due to their close associations with that occupation.
Accounts of Jack’s antics appear several times within Kent’s archives and he was a popular figure in Whitstable until about 1910 when tragedy struck, as the records state: “The Jack-in-the-Green’s costume was originally constructed of greenery, ribbons, paper strips and long wood shavings from the boat yards. Then one year the figure was set alight during drunken horseplay, and the man carrying it was tragically burnt to death. The ceremony was then abandoned.”
In 1976, however, Dixie Lee and several members of Fiddler’s Dram, a local folk group, decided to revive the town’s May Day celebrations and in 1977 Jack reappeared for the first time in more than 65 years.
He’s now dressed in a hazel and wire netting frame which is covered in fresh greenery collected on May Monday from Strode Park in Herne. The wire frame is dressed by a local Scout Group and includes shoulder straps and handles to make it easier for one of the stronger Oyster Morris troop to carry.
Jack’s vision is limited to just a small peep hole which allows him to see but not be seen and he joins in the dancing procession when it reaches the Duke of Cumberland pub. He takes the lead for the second and third stages of the procession, as it heads first to the harbour and then on to Whitstable Castle. Once there, Jack is led to the centre of the lawn as everyone sings the May Day Song which includes the lines – ‘This morning is the first of May, the primest of the year. So people all, both great and small, we wish you a joyful year.’ His role now over, Jack is taken away to be stripped of his greenery and put in hiding until next year. So, if you want to catch him before he disappears, be sure to head to Whitstable on 2 May, where the day will begin with dancing on the forecourt of Whitstable Library at 10am and end at the Castle at 2pm.
Further information can be found at www.oystermorris.org.uk