Jack in the Green – a chimney sweep’s tale

Coming to the end of my internship here at Leeds Discovery Centre I was asked to think about an object from the Ernestine Henry Collection which had impacted on me in some way. The item that first came to mind was a nineteenth century theatre poster for the play ‘Jack in the Green’. Dr Sidney Henry the original collector of the archive had a fascination with everything relating to chimney sweeps and I feel this object best sums up some of the folklore relating to them.
Printed in London this brightly coloured poster clearly shows the May Day celebrations in their full glory, something which is core to the play’s storyline. The play focuses on Bob Bryanstone a 22 year old foundling who was raised by Mr Brown, a kindly chimney sweep. As the May Day celebrations draw closer, Bob refuses any part in it except that of Jack in the Green as for this part he can be incognito. This is because Bob is convinced, not knowing his real parents, that he is actually a lost nobleman and he does not wish to ruin his reputation by being seen celebrating the first of May.
We then meet Mr Durham, a gentleman who was saved from a frozen pond by Bob a year or so ago. Determined to rid his friend of these notions he sets about a plan to show Bob to be happy with his lot. After pretending to have found Bob’s real father, the Earl of Eaglesdown, Mr Durham sets about training Bob in the correct etiquette befitting his new status. After being chastised for his fashion in clothes, the manner in which he eats, the games he plays and the songs he sings Bob starts to feel very disheartened and heads home. Here he decided that he wants nothing to do with a father who would not love him for the way he is when Mr Durham enters with news. In the hope of drawing his clever plan to an end Mr Durham exclaims that another has been found to be the heir of the Eaglesdown name. Seeing Bob’s excitement at this news he exclaims “Be content with your station in life, whatever it may be; make the most of the little you have and never envy those who have more: think kindly of those below you – for a warm heart and good intentions may be found in a ‘Jack in the Green’.” Ending a play with a moral was popular during this period, as was the use of chimney sweeps in the plays and dramas.

The Jack in the Green became strongly associated with the chimney sweep profession but it was not always so. The tradition dates from the 16th and 17th centuries when people would create garlands of flowers and greenery to wear during the May Day celebrations. Competition between different working guilds meant that over the years they became larger and more elaborate until they covered the entire man. This is why they became known as Jack in the Green. No one is exactly sure why they became best associated with sweeps rather than the other guilds.
Accompanying the Jack in the Green would be the Lord and Lady (most often played by two men in costume) and later a clown was added to the procession. The Lord and Lady often played tricks on those watching whilst the clown’s job was to walk on his hands and dance around at the front of the procession. It has been suggested that the dancing performed by the sweeps was the precursor to modern Morris dancing. The purpose of these celebrations was to collect alms and generally have a good party, one which would often last for four days.

Popularity for this kind of event waned during the Victorian period as public displays of drunkenness and bawdry behaviour was frowned upon. It would instead be replaced by the young, pretty May Queen and a more tranquil procession.
However in recent years there has been a revival in the figure of Jack in the Green. He can regularly be seen during May Day festivals in London, Bristol, Hastings, Oxford, Whitstable, Rochester and Llfrancombe in North Devon. The modern take on this tradition varies slightly. More associated with ‘the green man’, spring, rebirth and renewal than the traditional whimsy character played by sweeps. For example in Rochester the Jack in the Green is awoken by sweeps and Morris dancers before being paraded through the town, to show his awakening symbolises the waking up of plants and animals after winter. Again in Bristol the Jack in the Green leads the procession through the streets before ending the day on Horfield Common where he is ripped apart by onlookers to ‘release the spirit of summer.’ Although we have chosen to revive an old and lost tradition by altering it to fit with an alternative modern outlook we can hopefully ensure that it will not be lost again.

Written by Lucy Lilliman, intern helping to catalogue the Ernestine Henry collection.

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