On the 6th May 1892 the teacher at Valley End School added a resigned note to the log book.
Many children were absent on Monday “maying.”
The children had gone collecting with a May garland. This tradition was widespread. Flora Thompson knew it at Lark Rise in Oxfordshire in the 1880s.
“The May garland was all that survived …of the old May day festivities. The maypole and the May games and May dances in which whole parishes had joined had long been forgotten.
“..The garland was light wooden framework of uprights supporting graduated hoops, forming a bell shaped structure about four feet high. This frame was covered with flowers.”
Illustration of a May Garland from Hone’s Every-Day Book. A doll, the Lady, was often carried in the Garland. (1826)
The Lark Rise May Garland was an elaborate affair, carried in a procession led by the May Queen and heralded by a girl with a money-box.
Neighbouring villages had much simpler traditions. “Some of them, indeed, had nothing worth calling a garland at all; only nosegays tied mopwise on sticks. No lord and lady, no king and queen; only a rabble begging with money-boxes.”
The money boxes were important; it was one of the few occasions children had to get money of their own.
A procession of children carrying May Garlands.
In Surrey the children took the garlands around houses, showing the flowers and singing; one traditional ditty ran:
“The First of May is Garland Day,
So please remember the garland.
We only come here but once a year,
So please remember the garland.”
The custom was beginning to die out by the start of the 20th century. Children were expected to be at school on May morning, not wandering the village with garlands. But the schools solved the problem of absenteeism on May Day by taking over the custom. For example in May 1916 Farnham schools organised a garlands procession to the castle, led by the Queens of May.
Other schools taught the children maypole dancing. By the 1930s Valley End schoolchildren were celebrating May Day by dancing around the school maypole, plaiting ribbons as they went.
Maypole dance at Winterbourne Houghton, 2006.(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)
May Day was still remembered at Valley End – but this time the pupils celebrating inside the school.
The tradition of May Garlands still continues At Abbotsbury in Dorset.
Flora Thompson. “Lark Rise to Candleford.” Reprint Society 1948. (All quotes from Flora Thompson.)
Matthew Alexander. “A Surrey Garland: customs, traditions and folk songs from the Surrey of yesteryear.” Countryside Books 2004. (The song is taken from this book.)
Log book 1892, Valley End School.
Surrey Advertiser, Saturday 13th May 1916.
With thanks to Joan Weymouth.