There is much that is unexpected about Rochester’s annual Sweeps Festival, held every May Day for the last thirty four years. It is of course a re-make of a much more ancient festival – one at least 400 years old, and that in turn was probably a re-make of various spring-time rites from distant antiquity. As you scan down the photos you may notice a plethora of cultural references, some of them wholly inexplicable, but all thrown in – in the name of jolly good English fun.
But first a bit of real history, at least to explain the ‘sweeps’ bit of the proceedings. In Britain chimney sweeping was once big business. Until the Climbing Boys’ Act 1868 which made it illegal, children as young as four were employed by Master Sweeps to clean inside the nation’s chimneys. This practice was even officially sanctioned. The Master was paid by parish officials to take on climbing boys (and sometimes girls) as indentured apprentices. They then underwent a 7-year training, after which, if they survived, they could become journeymen sweeps and work for a Master of their own choosing. The children were usually workhouse orphans and paupers, and the aim was to launch as many of them into the trade and up sooty flues so as to reduce their cost to the parish. It was a filthy, dangerous and vicious business, and you can read more about it HERE.
May Day was traditionally the only day of the year that chimney sweeps had as a holiday. Here in Kent the day’s festivities traditionally began on Blue Bell Hill, at Chatham just outside Rochester (a hill also known for its Neolithic chambered tombs). At dawn the merrymakers would awaken the giant Jack-in-the-Green who would then accompany them in the parade.
And here he is, recreated anew – the ‘tree’ between two ‘sweeps’:
There are of course obvious references here to the Green Man, the Green Knight and various symbols of tricksterism and fertility. There are also similar festivals involving tree-figures in Europe, particularly Switzerland, and it is possible that some of the notions associated with these carnivals go back to Stone Age times.
Welded onto all of this is the ancient English pastime of Morris Dancing, a form of folk dancing that has many regional expressions, and dates back to at least the 15th century. It had a great revival at the start of the 20th century when folklorists such as Cecil Sharp set about documenting traditional dancing and music. Below are some ‘traditional’ looking Morris Men. They are members of one of the sixty Morris bands that take part every year at the Sweeps’ Festival.
And then there are the black face Morris dancers, the Goths, the Fabulous Fezheads who sand dance, Morris dancers from the US, all women groups, clog and longsword dancers. There are even hints of S & M and nosferatu, or was that just my take on things. In any event, please enjoy the cultural concoction.
21 thoughts on “Unexpected with bells, sticks and hankies at the Sweeps Festival”
I have to say I prefer the look of the black-clad ‘morris dancers’ to the more traditional chaps with bells.
I agree, Robin. They definitely have more than a little edge, don’t they. And thiese are only a few of the variations on dark looks. Wish G had captured the guys in long black frock coats, top hats and cobalt blue shades…
Looks so much fun, and enough variety for everyone!
Yes, and I didn’t even mention the Real Ale Festival (Kent is a great beer brewing county) or the fair with makers of traditional musical instruments and clogs, or the white witches who bless the place first…
Oh my, what an event! I love fairs with traditional crafts, witches are always interesting too…Ale not so much for me 🙂
Looks like a lot of fund – how brilliant that a modern take on such an ancient festival is continuing loud and strong.
Yes, people definitely put their hearts, souls and good humour into this festival.
Sorry about typo – should read – a lot of fun. 🙂
Fantastic post and images. I think I told you before that I went to art college in Rochester, when the school was at East Gate…loved it in those days…but have never been to this festival….You have wetted my appetite for next year. Thank you:)
Definitely so much there to appeal to your artist’s eye, Janet. Street theatre I suppose, and people turning themselves into art works. Also very good real ale!
And not only that Fairport Convention who seem to have become quite the thing in Medway. Their audience is now several generations strong.
It’s thrilling to touch our roots. I love your ‘sooty flues’ and much more. Thanks
We sure have improved in labour practices. Who can work and under what conditions. There is still some work to be done though.
I like the photos
Enjoyed your photography of the festival very much, Tish. You have some beautiful works of art here.
Regards to Graham.
G, thanks you for kind comments re his photos and your greetings, Shimon. I’m afraid I’d been pilfering his files again.
In the years I grew up in Chester I never experienced a fair such as this; sadly.
I remember as a nipper going with my dad to an auction held on a market day in Ramsay where there were various things ‘going on’. I must have been five or six?
In Portugal, where my wife hails from, they have festas ( similar to this) all the time it seems. We were chatting via Skype to her brother last weekend and he was off to a local festa – it was seven in the evening!
Every town, village, city, has a saint’s day. One probably could drive around the country and visit a festa almost every day of the year I shouldn’t wonder!
I imagine it is similar in every Catholic country.
I like the idea of a real ale festival!
Great post Tish and some lovely photos Graham. I’m the current custodian of The Company of the Green Man and maintain a gazetteer of all the current and historical Jacks-in-the-Green. I’m aware that at least three Jacks that went out on May day c 1870 in the Rochester Chatham area but had assumed that the revival in the 1980’s was the first time that Blue Bell Hill awakening of Jack became part of the tradition. Your post suggests that this might have formed part of the earlier tradition and I wondered where this might have been sourced from? It would be great to track this tradition back to an earlier source but I suspect it was a wonderful addition bought in as part of Gordon Newton’s magical revival. And if anyone reading this post has information or pictures of any of the revived or historical Jacks I would love to hear from them. If Tish doesn’t mind me being cheeky and blatantly advertising my website and free archive of images and information on The Jack in the Green I can be contacted via http://www.thecompanyofthegreenman.co.uk
More than happy to have your link here. I think the sources I used were all Wikipedia ones Jack in the Green etc. They did give me the impression that the Blue Bell Hill awakening was part of earlier rite. I confess, I did not follow this up. So yes, I would like to know some more historical background info too.
Many thanks Tish, do feel free to have a wander around The Company of the Green Man website, there are pages on the historical and revived Jacks as well as the beginnings of a gazeteer of every Jack reported from 1775 onwards. I would really appreciate it if anyone spots any mistakes or can add to the information in any way. And I would really recommend going to see one of the 20 or so Jacks that parade every year, they can be magical events.