Whatever Happened to the May Queen?

May Day has long been a fixture on the South London calendar; after all, no less a person than Good Queen Bess herself is said to have gone ‘A-Maying’ in 1602 at Honor Oak whilst on a visit to Sir Richard Buckley of Lewisham. There was even an oak tree planted to celebrate the occasion, hence the name. Considering the steepness of the hill (also named One Tree Hill) and the age and state of health of the monarch (she died in the following year) her foray into Dulwich to gather Spring blossoms was clearly tempting fate.

May Day pops up again in 1902 with the staging of the comic opera ‘Merrie England’ at the Savoy Theatre in 1902 with music by Edward German and book and lyrics by Basil Hood (it was revived at Sadlers Wells in 1960), which sets the scene of the May Day celebrations at Windsor and the arrival of the May Queen. In the present Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation year some 500 amateur operatic companies staged performances of ‘Merrie England’.

Whether it was the success of this opera or the perceived high-jacking of what was once a festival celebrated by the Romans to herald spring by a nascent Labour Party led by the Arts and Crafts Movement which inspired a Mr Deedy, a Dulwich schoolmaster to launch the idea of May Festivals with May Queens and their attendants in London schools around 1910 is unclear. Apparently he was interested in English folklore and had a love of poetry and the countryside. Mr Deedy’s vision of celebrating Merrie England has lasted well and will next year reach its centenary at a number of schools on the fringes of South London, around Bromley and Hayes in Kent which have maintained the tradition.

Certainly some aspects of the comic opera are incorporated in the schools’ May Day celebrations, such as the inclusion of Robin Hood. The various roles in the pageant are decided by seniority and by popular vote among the children. Children can join as infants and continue until their sixteenth birthday.

At Hayes, after a procession around the Common, Mr Deedy’s folklore version script is still read out and the queen is crowned, and with her attendants, numbering around twenty, dances around a maypole and scatter flowers among the children of her ‘realm’.

The crowning of the May Queen was certainly celebrated post-war at Dulwich Hamlet School, but its demise sometime in the 1960’s followed hard on the heels of Commonwealth Day and Trafalgar Day. May Day as a public holiday was designated in 1978 and last year the Government was consulting on plans to abolish it and replace it with something more in line with its political thinking, perhaps something more straightforwardly nationalistic like UK Day or Trafalgar Day (again!), although recent moves towards Scottish independence undermine the former and fear of upsetting the French (again!) condemns the latter. Any suggestions? And who was Mr Deedy and at which Dulwich school did he teach?

A detailed account of the subject will be found in May Day in South London History written by Neil Transpontine and available price £3 including postage from Past Times, c/o 56a Infoshop, 56a Crampton Street SE17 3AE

Dulwich Hamlet School certainly still celebrates the arrival of Spring. In 2011 the School won the City of London’s De Luzy Challenge Cup for its efforts in growing spring bulbs. The children who grew the flowers were taken by their science co-ordinator, Nikki Thompson to the Guildhall in the autumn where they were presented with their trophy by the Master of the Gardeners’ Company and Janet and Jeremy Gotch. Jeremy is a former Sheriff of London and Janet co-ordinates the flower arranging at Christ’s Chapel.

Nikki Thompson said ‘The children work hard and take pride in making the school grounds look attractive. It also gives them a purpose and sense of responsibility. Each year group has its own flowerbed or pots as well as looking after communal areas’.