The Jack-in-the-Green was (and indeed is) a traditional participant in May celebrations and May Day parades in the UK. 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 garlands to such an extent that they came up with the idea of the all-covering structure, now known as the Jack-in-the-Green. May Day was traditionally a holiday for the chimney sweeps and became known as “Chimney Sweeper’s day.” The connection between the Jack-in-the-Green and chimney sweeps continues today. Some organisers and participants still have direct or distant connections with the trade. The character of the sweep is a participant in many of the current Jack-in-the-Green parades, or is represented by his accoutrements (the sweep’s brushes) or blackened sooty faces.
Varied musicians became involved, as did dancers, mummers, Morris dancers, and a host of strange characters including the Lord and Lady, clowns, men dressed as women, blind fiddlers, dragons, the “traditional” fairy on stilts, and a number of named characters. These included Black Sal, Dusty Bob, May Day Moll, Grand Serag, Jim Crow, Master Merryman, St George, the May King and Queen, and of course Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
The earliest known record of a Jack-in-the-Green is from The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser of 2nd May 1775:
“Jack of the Green had made his garland by five in the morning, and got under his shady building by seven…”
By the early 1800s the Jack-in-the-Green had spread from London, following the rapid, unregulated growth of the chimney sweep’s profession through the suburbs across the south of England and beyond. Most towns had at least one, and often many sweeps paraded rival Jacks on May Day. From the mid-1800s, 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 heyday 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-1800s, 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 the English Idyll.
The Jack-in-the-Green also emigrated during the 1800s, 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 Knutsford Jack is probably the oldest continual annual Jack-in-the-Green. Apart from the war years, it has paraded as part of Knutsford’s Royal May Day every year since 1890. However, the Knutsford Jack was not one of the early Jacks. Like many others in the late 19th Century, it was a much-tamed Victorian revival having first appeared in May 1864 “based on earlier traditions and festivities” by the Rev. Robert Clowes the Vicar of Knutsford.
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, including one in Ely.
The Oxford Jack was revived in 1951 by the Oxford University Morris Men. At the time they were unaware that it was a revival and that a Jack had appeared in Oxford before.
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 in Oxford by Sir Benjamin Stone c.1900.
Rumford Morris Men from Essex used to have a Green Man (which they called Jack-in-the-Green) back in the mid-1970s. Their Jack-in-the-Green wore a boiler suit (dyed green) upon which were sewn dozens of cotton strips of differing shades of green cut into the shape of oak leaves. The leaves were cut from sample material cadged from a Laura Ashley shop. The material was not only different shades, but was of various pattern (striped, paisley etc.). Jack also wore a pith helmet adorned with long strips of the same material hanging down and covering his face and extending down to his chest. Apparently, it was extremely warm to wear, and Jack often had to be refreshed with lots of ale to prevent wilting!
In 1976, Pilgrim Morris of Guildford created a contemporary May Day celebration using a number of traditional elements from various sources including a Jack-in-the-Green known as “The Guildford Bush.”
The Whitstable Jack-in-the-Green was revived in 1976 by Dixie Lee, Oyster Morris, and a local folk group for their folk festival. Independently around this time a Jack-in-the-Green was also briefly revived in Rye by Daisy Roots Morris from Hastings.
In the late 1970’s, Dave Lobb of The Greenwood Morris Men and later The Earls of Essex Morris formed GOG (The Grand Order of Guisers). As well as reviving dancing giants that can still be seen parading to this day (including Gogmagog the London Giant), GOG also revived the Islington Milkmaid’s Garland Morris and a Jack-in-the-Green that paraded in Covent Garden.
Around this time, Greenwood Morris used to dance at dawn at Alexandra Palace, then bring their Jack-in-the-Green into the City for an evening tour of London Wall and the Smithfield area and Mick Skrzipiec. The Earls of Essex Morris Men would parade a Jack-in-the-Green around the City of London.
The Bluebell Hill or Rochester’s Sweeps Jack was revived in 1981 by Gordon Newton, as part of the Rochester Sweeps Festival. The Rochester Jack was based on accounts written by Charles Dickens in his Sketches by Boz. The revived Rochester Jack-in-the-Green is brought to life during a fantastic ceremony that takes place at dawn on May 1st at the top of Bluebell Hill. Jack is woken by Morris dancers whilst surrounded by twelve ‘bonfires.’
In 1983, Mo Johnson made a Jack-in-the-Green in the back garden of The Dog and Bell in Deptford, 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.
Also in 1983, as May Day fell on a Sunday, a number of Jacks were paraded in London. Dave Lobb and Mick Skrzypiec of The Earls of Essex Morris were discussing old May Day customs over a pint one lunchtime and decided to create an all day event and the concept of the City of London Jack-in-the-Green was born.
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 sunrise. 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, the Jack from Greenwood Morris (Carried by Alan Pearson), and members of other Morris teams and the Grand Order of Guisers (GOG).
The Hastings Jack was revived by Keith Leech MBE (formally of GOG and the Earls of Essex) and Mad Jack’s Morris in 1983 after he moved from London to Hastings. Working with folklorist Roy Judge, Keith pieced together late 19th century references to the Hastings or, as Roy would correct him, The St Leonards on Sea Jack-in-the-Green.
In Tasmania, the Hobart Jack-in-the-Green was revived by The Jolley Hatters of Hobart Morris Team in 1987 and was still known to be parading in 1998. I have been unable to ascertain whether the Hobart Jack it is still active, and would love to hear from anyone with any information.
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. The Bristol Jack-in-the-Green (a scion of the Hastings Jack) was revived by Pigsty Morris in 1992.
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 (Jack’s mischievous attendants) were allowed access to Parliament in full Bogie costume.
Ilfracombe (another scion of Hastings) has had a Jack since 2000. Many other places have since followed suit including High Wycombe, Highworth, Winchcombe, Tunbridge Wells, and Lands End, some of which have become annual events and some of which have sadly disappeared. A Jack has also been known to parade in the Pagan Pride Parade or Beltane Bash.
A May Day celebration was established briefly from 2006 to 2011 at Edwinstowe, Nottingham, which included a Jack-in-the-Green. 2013 saw a brand new Jack go out in Yaxley, Cambridgeshire. A Hop Jack appeared as a one off at the Faversham Hop Festival in August 2013, and 2014 saw a revival of the Cheltenham Sweeps Jack.
In 2016, Hever Castle in Kent started their own annual Jack-in-the-Green as part of their May Day celebrations. In 2016, Kentwell Hall in Suffolk started an annual Jack O’Green as part of their Tudor May Day Celebrations. In 2016, Wythenshawe Hall in Manchester started an annual Jack ‘O’ Green accompanied by Bogies as part of their Summer wake up to raise funds for the Hall.
In May 2017, Grand Hama Morris paraded a Jack-in-the-Green in the city of Isehara in Japan, accompanied by the Grand Hama Morris team who are based in Kanagawa and were established in 2015.
2018 has so far seen at least seventeen Jacks parade:
The Hastings Traditional Jack-in-the-Green
The Oxford Jack-in-the-Green
The Whitstable Jack-in-the-Green
The Ilfracombe Jack-in-the-Green
The Bovey Tracey (Grimspound Morris) Jack-in-the-Green
The Fowlers Troop (Deptford) Jack-in-the-Green
The Hammersmith Jack-in-the-Green
The Guildford Bush
The Bluebell Hill (Rochester Sweeps) Jack-in-the-Green
The Highworth Jack-in-the-Green
The Winchcombe Jack-in-the-Green
The Dead Horse Morris (Whitstable) Jack-in-the-Green
The Bristol Jack-in-the-Green
The Knutsford Jack-in-the-Green
The Brentham Jack-in-the-Gree
The Isehara (Grand Hama Morris) Jack-in-the-Green
The Hever Castle Jack-in-the-Green
And on September 8th, the wonderful Carshalton Harvest Jack in the Green will parade bringing the total number of 2018 Jacks to at least eighteen.
There are also a small number of Jacks who parade privately in 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 “Jack’s 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 too 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 known 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 found adorning churches, particularly because there is no evidence of any extra attention being paid to them at this time of 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 rebirth 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. I am in the process of visiting and photographing every Jack in the UK to create an archive of information and images, and to provide as much publicity for these events as possible. My progress so far can be seen on the website. If anyone knows of any current Jacks I may have missed, or any additions or amendments to the information contained in this article, I would love to know. I would also be very interested in receiving photographs and finding out more information about all the existing Jacks and the traditions that surround them.
References and Further Reading
For further reading I highly recommend the following publications which have been invaluable as source material for this article:
Judge, Roy (1979) The Jack-in-the-Green, Hisarlik Press.
Judge, Roy (1999) May Day in England An Introductory Bibliography, FLS Books.
Leech, Keith (1989) The Hastings traditional Jack in the Green, Hastings Borough Council.
Leech, Keith Jack-in-the-Green in Tasmania 1844-1873, Folklore Society Library.
Buckton, Henry (2012) Yesterday’s Country Customs: A History of English Folk Traditions, History Press.
Crofts, Sarah (2002) Fowlers Troop and the Deptford Jack in the Green, Rainbarrow Press.
Rowe, Doc (22006) May Day – The Coming of Spring, English Heritage.
Another excellent source of information has been Keith Chandlers ‘It is the First of May’ – ‘Jack in the Green Revisited’ an online gazetteer of references to historical Jacks. Roy Judge’s own gazetteer included references sourced by himself and a network of correspondents (Keith Chandler included) and was updated and considerably expanded in the revised 1999 second edition of “The Jack-in-the-Green.” When Roy died in 2000, Keith took on the task of continuing to gather references for the next decade on the MUSTRAD website. Keith’s article adds significantly to Roy’s work and includes more than a hundred new references.