All Things Green Man & The Traditional Jack-in-the-Green

Jack-in-the-Green Now and Then

Winchcombe Jack  2013

With the main Jack-in-the-Green season over I am able to report that at least 14 Jacks were spotted this year! They were:

  • Winchcombe
  • Fowlers Troop Deptford/Greenwich
  • Bluebell Hill/Rochester
  • Lands End
  • Oxford
  • Guildford
  • Bristol
  • Knutsford
  • Highworth
  • Hastings
  • Whitstable
  • Ilfracombe
  • Brentham
  • Yaxley

Sadly I have no reports that the  High Wycombe Jack was sighted this year. I have had confirmation that  the Tunbridge Wells Jack and City of London Jacks didn’t go out this year although many of the City of London (and Hastings) Jack followers joined the Fowlers Troop Jack in Greenwich.

I’m also still trying to get hold of photos of the following Jacks: Bluebell Hill/Rochester, Ilfracombe and Oxford. If anybody has pictures they could kindly send me or could put me in touch with someone who can I would be very grateful, it would be great to be able to publish pictures of every Jack of 2013.

If anyone knows of any other Jacks I may have missed I would love to hear about them. The Beltane Bash event didn’t take place again this year but the Pagan Pride Parade looks like it will take place in August. I would be grateful if anyone taking part in the parade who is aware of a Jack-in-the-Green participating would get in touch.

For those interested in the history of the Traditional Jack-in-the-Green here’s a short version of the updated article on the website which I am hoping to expand into a book over the next few years, any comments, amendments or corrections are always very welcome:

The History of the traditional Jack-in-the-Green

The Jack-in-the-Green was (and indeed is) a traditional participant in May celebrations and May Day parades. A large framework is covered in combinations of foliage and flowers and is often topped with an intricate crown of flowers. The Jack then parades or dances often accompanied by attendants as well as Morris Dancers, musicians and assorted unusual characters.

The tradition of the Jack-in-the-Green most likely stems from the creation of intricate garlands of flowers during the 17th Century which were carried by milkmaids during May Day celebrations. Over time the garlands became more elaborate until milkmaids would sometimes be seen balancing garlands on their heads covered in huge quantities of silver household objects.   As guilds and other trade groups became established they joined in and tried to outdo the other participants in an attempt to receive more coins from the watching crowds. It was probably the Sweeps Guilds intent on earning as many coins as possible to help them through what was traditionally the quietest part of their year, who first expanded the size of the garland to such an extent that they came up with the idea of the all covering structure now known as the Jack-in-the-Green. Hence the continuing connection of the Jack in the Green with sweeps and May Day or “Chimney sweepers day.”

The earliest known record of a Jack in the Green is from The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser of 2 May 1775 . “Jack of the Green had made his garland by five in the morning, and got under his fhady building by seven…” By the early 1800’s the Jack in the Green was widespread, in the south of England most towns had their own sweeps who boasted at least one and sometimes multiple rival Jacks. Varied musicians became involved as did dancers and a host of characters including the Lord and Lady, clowns, men dressed as women, dragons etc.

From the mid 1800’s May day celebrations and the Jack in the Green  began to die out. Victorian sensibilities clashed with the bawdy working class practices involving the Jack in the Green. Newspaper reports of the events became increasingly negative and disparaging of the general mayhem and at times riotous behaviour that ensued at these events.  In 1875 the Chimney Sweepers Act was passed. The practice of sending boys up chimneys was banned and all chimney sweeps had to be registered with the police. The Sweeps May Festivities were changed irrevocably and by 1875 the hey day of the Jack in the Green was over.  By the early years of the 20th Century the Jack in the Green had all but died out across the UK.

From the mid 1800’s a number of Jacks were already tame ’revivals’ or even replacements created by the Victorians to become a part of their own more Genteel May celebrations of an English Idyll that never really existed.

The Jack-in-the-Green also emigrated during the 1800’s, in many cases accompanying Sweeps families heading out to find work in the  colonies. Jacks appeared and in some cases flourished as far away as Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Jamaica before eventually meeting the same fate as the Jack-in-the-Green  in the UK.

The Modern Revivals

The Knutsford Jack in the Green is probably the oldest continual annual Jack in the Green. Apart from the war years it has paraded every year since 1890.  However the Knutsford Jack was like many a tamed Victorian revival and part of a more genteel May pageant  having first appeared in May 1864 “based on earlier traditions and festivities.” Brentham’s May Day tradition became established in 1919 after the end of the First World War and expanded considerably for 1920 when the first Jack-in-the-Green appeared. The time between the wars up to 1951 seem to be the dark ages with regards to information about Jacks. Apart from Knutsford and Brentham there are illusive reports of a Jack sighted opposite Guy’s Hospital in Borough, London in 1923 and a Sweeps Jack in St Ebb’s Oxford that went out until 1939. A number of other sightings appear to be smaller Jacks created by children.

The Oxford Jack was revived in 1951 by The Oxford University Morris Men (although at the time they were unaware that a Jack had appeared in Oxford before). Another revival appeared as a one off in Hollington Near Hastings in the 1950s. This Jack was a small one built for a child as part of the May Day celebrations. 1974 saw the publication of Lionel Bacon’s Handbook of Morris dancing which actively encouraged the revival and evolution of Morris traditions. Then in 1976 the Labour Government announced the introduction of a new May bank Holiday to start in 1978. May Day in 1976 was on a Saturday and in 1977 the year of the Jubilee on a Sunday, all these factors provided the impetus for new Morris sides to form and for existing Morris sides to do something bigger and better than before.

A number of revivals occurred seemingly independently within the space of a few years. In the mid-1970’s, Simon Garbutt  built a reconstruction of a traditional Jack for a May Day celebration in Kingston and Surbiton, Surrey. His Jack was based on a photograph of May Day Festivities at Oxford by Sir Benjamin Stone c.1900. In 1976 Pilgrim Morris of Guildford created a contemporary May Day using a number of traditional elements from various sources including a Jack-in-the-Green. The Whitstable Jack in the Green was revived in 1976 by Dixie Lee and a local folk group for their folk festival.  In the late 1970’s Morris dancers from various sides would gather to dance-in the summer on May Day in the Guildhall Yard, Leadenhall Market and various pubs in the City of London in their lunchtime. Dave Lobb and Greenwood Morris used to dance at dawn at Alexandra Palace then  bring their Jack into the City for an evening tour of London Wall and the Smithfield area. Dave Lobb and Mick Skrzypiec of the Earls of Essex Morris Men were discussing old May Day customs over a pint one lunchtime and decided to make it an all-day event and the concept of the City of London Jack-in-the-Green was born. In 1983 Mo Johnson made a Jack-in-the-Green in the back garden of the Dog and Duck and Blackheath Morris  (a side morphed from the  Blackheath Foot’n’Death Men who used to dance at events featuring bands like Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies) revived the Deptford (Fowlers Troop) Jack. Mo was inspired by one of Thankful Sturdee’s photographs c.1900 of the original troop and Jack.

On May Day in 1984 the Earls of Essex Morris with Mick Skrzypiec in the Jack met at dawn on Wanstead Flats to see the sun rise.  After breakfast they travelled by commuter train into Liverpool Street and started the first City of London Jack in the Green procession. They were joined at the Magog’s pub in milk street by Blackheath Morris’s Deptford (Fowlers Troop) Jack and a Jack carried by Mike Mullen of Hammersmith Morris. On subsequent occasions they were joined by the Jack from Royal Liberty Morris and members of other Morris teams and the Grand Order of Guisers (GOG) with Alan Pearson carrying the Greenwood Jack.

The Bluebell Hill or Rochester’s Sweeps Jack was revived in 1981 by Gordon Newton as part of the Sweeps Festival, and Hastings by Keith Leech (formally of GOG and the Earls of Essex) in 1983. The Rye Jack-in-the-Green was briefly revived by Daisy Roots Morris dancers from Hastings. John Major’s Conservative Government tried to remove the new Bank Holiday in 1993. A group made up of representatives of all the active Jacks protested at Parliament. The Rochester Jack danced in Downing Street and the Hastings Bogies were allowed access to Parliament in full Bogie costume. It was most likely the appearance of the Bogies that caused the government to back down (I like to think so anyway).

In Oakhanger, Hampshire in 1991 a Jack-in-the-Green was an addition to a new local tradition of Bower Decking that was started in 1988 by the local community and morris dancers. Jack led the procession. Bristol (a scion of the Hastings Jack) was revived by Pigsty Morris, in 1992. Ilfracombe has had a Jack since 2000 and many other places have since followed suit including High Wycombe, Highworth, Winchcombe, Tunbridge Wells, and Lands End. A Jack has also been known to parade in the Pagan Pride Parade or Beltane Bash. 2013 will see another new Jack go out in Yaxley Cambridgeshire. There are a small number of Jacks who parade privately around the UK each year.

The modern Jacks are often accompanied by musicians and Morris dancers or attendants sometimes known as Bogies dressed in green rags adorned with leaves and flowers and with their faces arms and hands covered in green paint. Some Bogies interact with those watching the proceedings as the Jack is paraded by handing out small gifts to children or by adorning the watchers faces with some of “Jacks magic” which to the uninitiated  may look remarkably similar to green face paint! Some Bogies like those at Hastings are particularly fierce and will protect Jack from the unwanted attentions of those who get to close to Jack before he wakes or try to steal leaves from him during the procession. Jack often dances and cavorts along, sometimes chasing those he takes a fancy to or who simply get in his way. He has also been know to have a voice on occasions and has been heard by the author to shout the words “bogey, bogey, bogey” before trying to invite himself into someone’s house.

Many argue that the Jack is in no way connected with the Green Men of Churches, particularly because there is no evidence of any extra attention being paid to the Green Men residing inside and outside places of Christian worship at this time of the year. Others are convinced that the connection is a strong one, and that they are merely different aspects of the ancient spirit of the wildwood, of re-birth and renewal and of the coming of Summer. The continuation of these traditions is extremely important and I encourage everyone to head along to support their nearest Jack.

For further reading I highly recommend two books both of which have been invaluable as source material for this article:

  • “The Jack-in-the-Green”  by Roy Judge ISBN 0 903515 20 2
  • “The Hastings traditional Jack in the Green” by Keith Leech  ISBN 078-0-901536-10-5

Details of where to purchase both books can be found HERE


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