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Ickwell May Day

Ickwell maypole and war memorial April 2007
Ickwell Maypole and war memorial April 2007

Ickwell, insofar as it is renowned for anything, is renowned for its maypole. This stands on the village green and is the focus of celebrations each May Day. The national and local celebrations of May Day go back well before the creation of records, and have their roots in the pagan festival of Beltane. On the introduction of Christianity the church, seeing the popularity of such events, sought to take them over and manage them in a way which did not draw attention to their roots. 

Interestingly the parish of Northill has very detailed 16th century churchwardens' accounts [P10/5/1] and a long list was prepared for expenses paid out on 19 May 1563 "for all our Maye". The list included expenditure on: spice and fruit for baked meats; hops to brew beer; wheat; three calves; a minstrel; gunpowder (presumably for fireworks); making of Morris coats; shoes for the Morris dancers and Morris bells. Sadly the account does not state whether the festivities were held in Northill, Ickwell or both.

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service hold no further documents about May Day in Ickwell until 1873 when, in his will of that year [CD866], John Harvey of Ickwell Bury leaves £2/10/- to the Northill churchwardens "to be expended yearly in keeping up Mayday at Ickwell as has been done during my life". Harvey died on 7th April 1879 and his will was proved on 12th June of that same year.

CRT130Northill21 is a description, printed in the Bedfordshire Times of 5 May 1899,  of how a permanent maypole was erected on Ickwell Green in 1872. The tree had come from Warden Warren and was a larch, 67 feet high and four feet around at the base. The pole had been embedded in six feet of cement for stability. Hitherto poles had been erected on the night before May Day and taken down at the end of the Day itself. The article relates that a few years before a group of village youths had been: playing cricket and "amusing themselves by trying to throw the ball over the Maypole, when a youth named Mark Endersby threw it with such accuracy that the ball actually lodged in the crown, where it has remained".

May Day procession through Ickwell in 1911 [Z50/84/15]
May Day procession through Ickwell in 1911 [Z50/84/15]

Interestingly the Victoria County History noted in 1912 that Ickwell had no maypole as it had got rid of it in the near past. This, however, seems contradicted by an account in the Bedfordshire Times for 1911 of the festivities of May Day - the prose is the typically florid fare found in newspapers of the era:

"At Northill School we found them lining up for the procession. Behold a regal chariot bedecked with coronals and festoons of spring flowers in blue and gold and white; and drawn by a milk white steed! Enthroned on a flower dais, on the aforesaid chariot, were the May Queen for 1910-11, Mary Law, and the May Queen elect, Agnes Woodward, attended by a full retinue of squires, pages and maids of honour. Nice, chubby little girls were delightfully arrayed as spring flowers. The country dancers from Caldecote were charming Quaker costumes of blue and brown, the boys with three-cornered hats and the girls with snowy coifs. The Morris dancers from Northill were resplendent in the quaintly flowered muslin of a bye-gone day, and, honouring tradition, there wore bells on their ankles. There was the usual charming bevy of dairymaids, rosy, plump, sweet-voiced, and pig-tailed, at the rear. In front of the car (we beg their pardon for leaving them so late), were the pretty little girls and boys who perform the cobweb dance, the girls in blue frocks and Dutch bonnets, and the boys in smart white sailor suits, and last, but certainly not least, the merry maypole dancers themselves, the girls in simple white dresses, flower garlanded, and with glowing faces that surely were washed in May dew that morning; and the boys in smock frocks. At the head of all marched the Biggleswade Brass Band, making brave music, though, alas! there was no fiddler there. During its marshalling, the troop faced a heavy fire of camera clickings with conspicuous coolness, and presently a move was made for the sister hamlet, half a mile distant. A vast concourse of people was waiting on the Green, and a reverent hush was maintained while the Coronation of Queen Agnes was performed with all due ceremony. Truly, it was Queen's weather, the sun shining kindly from a dappled sky on the idyllic sward, surrounded by cottages that were picturesque enough for stage scenery, snowy orchards, and magnificent trees. The ring was packed many deep, chairs inside were captured in a twinkling, and there was an outer circle of motors and carriages".

However, the mystery is explained by the following paragraph: "As all the world knows, May day was not celebrated at Ickwell last year owing to divers reasons, including the alleged unsoundness of the Maypole, which had dominated the Green for over thirty years. The new pole, a present from Warden Warren, is broader but not quite so tall, and considerable difficulty was experienced in planting it owing to the presence of a subterranean spring. However, the obstacle was finally overcome, and the pole was a goodly sight in its brave coat of red and white paint, surmounted by a great Union Jack".

In the Northill school deposit is the school logbook of 1863-1916 [SDNorthill1/1] which has, at the back, a list of the May Queens from 1906 to 1920, which is as follows:

  • 1906: Dora Flinders;
  • 1907: Eva Sims;
  • 1908: Hilda Ebbs;
  • 1909: Winnie Endersby;
  • 1910: Mary Law ("the first to be "crowned" & held at school");
  • 1911: Agnes Woodward;
  • 1912: Marjorie Marsom;
  • 1913: Ruth Richardson;
  • 1914: Mabel Course;
  • 1915: Phyllis Marsom (this and the next four entries "No ceremony on "The Green" owing to the Great War");
  • 1916: Lily Cooper;
  • 1917: Ivy Matthews;
  • 1918: Gladys Humphries;
  • 1919: Elsie Bligh;
  • 1920: Vera Wagestaff ("on Green again")

May Day procession in 1911 [Z50/84/16] 
May Day procession in 1911 [Z50/84/16]

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service also has a pamphlet of the May Day celebrations of 1968, which includes some traditional songs, a short biography of the year's May Queen (Caroline Adams, aged 13) and a programme as follows: 

2.30 p.m.: beginning of the procession from Northill to Ickwell Green;
3 p.m.: crowning of the May Queen;
3.10 p.m.: judging of decorated hoops;
3.20 p.m.: Maypole dances by local children (braiding, single plait, double plait and treble plait)

There followed: dances by the Irish Folk Dancers; Durham Reel and Ribbon Dance by the local children; dances by Ickwell & District Country Dancers (Jubilee Roundabout, Four Hand Reel, Morpeth Rant, Cumberland Square Eight and Lucky Seven); a display by Luton Sea Cadet Band; Maypole dances by Old Scholars (Single Plait, Spider's Web, Double Plait and Treble Plait); and Circassian Circle "for everyone to join in". Pony rides, a balloon race and other attractions also took place as did a cricket match on the Green (Ickwell versus Knebworth Park).