Hidden-Highate.org was launched just before Hallowe’en in 2013. It seems appropriate therefore to mark the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane and the more secular ‘May Day’, which occur at the opposite point on the wheel of the year, with a long overdue blog post. Celebrated the world over for centuries, this special time of year traditionally marks the end of winter and the beginning of summer. This was a time when across the northern heights of London great bonfires could be seen in the fields, between which cattle were to kill the ticks which had afflicted them during their winter pasture. It is a time of fertility and re-birth, and in days gone by Highgate was certainly a jolly place to spend May Day.
The Literary Gazette and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c of 1841 cites the almanac, Poor Robin, of 1676 which tells us that:
A fair they hold.
Where cakes and ale
Are to be sold.
At Highgate, and
The like is kept
Here every day.
At Totnam Court
And Kentish Town,
And all those places
Up and down.
At Highgate, these festivities took place upon the village green. At the time of writing 44% of Highgate remains open, green space, and opposite St Michael’s Church, on South Grove, remnants of the old village green can still be seen, having been saved by the London Squares Preservation Act of 1931. These quaint parcels of grass with their ornate railings are not to be confused with the ‘Highgate Enclosures’ further down Highgate Hill, which find mention on a new website designed by The City Bridge Trust. The Trust recently approached Hidden Highgate, in the hope that we could assist them by suggesting open spaces around north London which the general public may not be aware of. We are looking forward to working with them.
An interesting interview with historian Patrick Nother, published in the Ham and High in March 2013, revisits the controversy surrounding the first attempts by prominent Highgaters to preserve the village green for future generations. Indeed, centuries before the inception of The Highgate Society, and before the concept of neighbourhood forums had become nationally implemented, some Highgate villagers were taking a leading role in the protection of historic public spaces. This spirit of environmental concern continues in an unbroken chain until the present day.
Highgate: Part 2 of 2, Old and New London: Volume 5 (1878) informs us that “Highgate Green, or Grove, is situated on the summit of West Hill, opposite St. Michael’s Church. Until within a few years ago, when the Green was completely enclosed with dwarf iron railings, and planted with shrubs by a committee of the inhabitants, aided by the assistance of the vestry of St. Pancras, it was an open space, having several seats placed for the convenience of those who were weary. The green was formerly a favourite resort of the London folk, as it afforded space for recreation or dancing. Almost in the centre of this Green stands the “Flask” Inn, which was formerly one of the head-quarters of revellers at Highgate, as was its namesake at Hampstead.
In a comedy, published in 1601, entitled Jack Drum’s Entertainment, on the introduction of the Whitsun morris dance, the following song is given in connection with the hostelry:-
Skip it, and frisk it nimbly, nimbly!
Tickle it, tickle it lustily!
Strike up the tabour,
For the wenches’ favour,
Tickle it, tickle it lustily!
Let us be seen on Highgate Green,
To dance for the honour of Holloway;
Since we are come hither,
Let’s spare for no leather,
To dance for the honour of Holloway.
It is perhaps amusing to visualise these bawdy and overtly sexual songs being hollered outside the headquarters of the refined and restrained Highgate Scientific and Literary Institute (founded 1839). As Highgate became increasingly gentrified, the rustic phallic symbolism of the maypole seems to have fallen from favour. Such revels were still popular in other parts of north London in Victorian times, however. Frank How, in an article published by the Hornsey Journal in the 1930s, and revisited by the Hornsey Historical Society in their annual bulletin of 1984, remembered:
“The rural character of Finsbury Park neighbourhood in 1875 was such that May Day was kept as a festival with the usual revels. I remember the maypole being set up in Ennis Road, the ropes garlanded with evergreens and flowers, and young girls, gaudily dressed, dancing as they intertwined the ropes.
‘Jack in the Green’ was in attendance, dressed in evergreens, seen on a frame which covered him from head to foot, only his face being visible. He whirled round while sundry men with blackened faces and in weird clothes played drums, blew whistles and other so-called musical instruments, including concertinas; they collected coppers from house to house, and from passers-by. May 1st was thus a ‘merry day’, especially for the local children.”
Whereas in days of yore May Day was celebrated by the whole community on the village green, in the present day the festivities have been driven deep into the woods, where along with the other seven major festivals of the Celtic calendar they are still observed and enjoyed by many dedicated Pagans.
How’s recollections of the unselfconscious frivolities and customs which were enjoyed in nearby Finsbury Park contrast sharply with the pompous attitude displayed by Highgate’s hoi polloi by this time. Honestly, who could see an erect and glorious maypole and resist grabbing a ribbon and dancing around it?!
May Day 2014 has been exceptionally damp and dismal in Highgate, so perhaps we can find some escapism in an interesting account of a May Day party held at Highgate’s Holly Lodge, as described by Leigh Hunt, writing in The Companion magazine of 1828. Enjoy!
MAY-DAY AT HOLLY LODGE
Walking up Highgate Hill on the evening of the first of May, we found a string of carriages lining that beautiful road [West Hill], and a throng of people collected at the lodge-door of her Grace the Duchess of St Albans. The hedges, instead of white thorn, blossomed with footmen in livery; little boys were in the elms and bushes, trying to get a sight over the way into her Grace’s paradise; and a sound of music, and the sight of blue favours at button-holes, told us, that something extraordinary was doing there, on this genial anniversary.
Surely, thought we, the Duchess is not snatching a grace beyond the reach of her title, and setting a good holiday example to the people in high life? If so, and the COMPANION of last week came in her way, we should be doubly sorry that anything we have said should chance to offend her. What we say at any time in this paper, even when apparently designed to offend, is never really so, but has a view to the many; and we have it not in us intentionally to offend a woman, much less a generous one, and one whose face we recollect with pleasure. But a sympathy with us on the subject of May-day is a tender point; and if it turn out, that she has been keeping it, we shall hardly be content till we call her as young as she is rich. Remorse will touch our excessive consciences, though we do not deserve it. These things may not absolutely make people young again; but they produce a pleasing confusion in our notions of their time of life; and at any rate they are the cause of a great deal of young merriment in others; and tend to keep the heart and the power of pleasing, young to the last.
It was even so: the music and the little boys were right: Mayday was being kept in all its glory at Holly Lodge, with a proper May-pole, and garlands, and dances. No: not all its glory, for the “great folks,” it seems, did not dance; they “felt ashamed,” we suppose, as the children say:—everything cannot be brought about at once. But then, did none but the poor or the peasantry dance? That would have been better than no dancing; but then it would not have been so pleasant to think of the mistress of the mansion looking upon it as a duchess. No: it was still better, we think, than this, though with a less natural look; for the dancers came from the theatres:—in other words, the association of ideas was not shirked: the Duchess was still Harriett Mellon; and this we used to think was the best thing she could be, till we found that Harriett Mellon could shew herself better for being a Duchess.
If these are the modes in which her Grace means to vindicate herself as an exception to the ordinary rules of matrimony, we say in God’s name let her go on, and be the cause of all the mirth, and youth, and love of nature she can think of. This indeed will be making a fine exception out of a monied common-place. But next time we exhort her to make the “gentlefolks” dance. It will be a great lift to the fashionable world; and may help them to find out, that not only chalked floors and stifling rooms, but Mayday, and the morning air, and a good honest piece of turf with health and vigour upon it, have their merits. The press and the steam-engine are bringing about great changes in the world; and the greater the sweetness in the blood of all parties, and the humaner their common knowledge, the more happily for all will those changes take place. It is not patronage that will do anything. The Duchess is wise in not affecting to patronise, and to distribute holiday beef and pudding. The poor do not want alms now-a-days. They are too poor, and too well informed. They want employment and proper pay; and after employment, a reasonable leisure. All this they will get by the inevitable progress of things, and by means of those very improvements which they contemplate at present with a mixture of pain and admiration. But meanwhile care forces them to think; the press enables them to do so with greater tranquillity; and the more they see the rich inclined to be just to them in a serious way, and partaking their pleasures in a lively one, the more the whole common interests of humanity will move forwards, to everyone’s honour, and no one’s disadvantage.
All the village dances in France, and all the holiday condescensions of the great to the poor, did not prevent the revolution; because in the meantime all the real injustice was going on,—the frightful game laws, the odious exactions of labour without pay, privileged classes sunk in luxury, and cities without bread. But the abolition of those frightful game laws would have assisted to prevent the revolution; the cessation of those odious exactions of unrequited labour would have assisted to prevent it; privileged classes, not condescending in the particular, but diffusing the means of knowledge and comfort in general, and making common cause with the poorest in a taste for nature, would have converted it into a happy reformation; and the world would never have had a proof of the stupidity to which the highest are made subject, in the famous speech of a princess, who when told that people wanted bread, asked why they did not eat cakes.
In short, we would have the rich and the poor exhibit as many tastes in common as possible, without being forced to shew one another either that the immediate possession of wealth is contemplated with impatience, or that good can only be done to poverty in the shape of alms-giving. The best way to further this mutual benefit is for both sides to learn as much, to teach as much, and to enjoy openly as much pleasure common to all, as they can discover; and therefore again we say, long life to the merry meetings at Holly Lodge, and may the sound of the pipe and tabor be heard on May-day again throughout England, among duchesses as healthy as peasants, and peasant-girls as much alive to the poetry of Mayday as duchesses.