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.