The History of Brentham May Day

Curiously, the first maypole dancing in Brentham was not connected with May Day celebrations. In 1906 fifteen “gaily dressed maidens” danced round the maypole at a party to mark the fifth anniversary of Brentham Garden Suburb. In the years leading up to the outbreak of war they made several further appearances, none more memorable than a stiflingly hot day in May 1911, when Queen Victoria’s youngest son, the Duke of Connaught, opened the suburb’s social institute. After a tour of Brentham in which the Duke “expressed appreciation of the gardens and tenants”, the royal visitors watched the plaiting of the maypole, “a scene of much interest”. mayday

It was not until after the First World War that the Brentham May Day tradition became established. On 3 May 1919 the pupils of Miss Molly Duncan, a teacher of acrobatic dancing and ballet, gathered inside the Brentham institute to crown the May Queen and dance round a maypole. The day was a resounding success. A year later, perhaps because so many children had turned up to watch the proceedings the previous year, Miss Duncan expanded the ceremony. Joining the children were several adults in fancy dress and a traditional May Day character in a framework of dense foliage, or “Jack-in-the-green”. For the first time the children walked in procession around the neighbourhood, and this time the dancing took place outside, on the recreation ground next to the institute. 

If the 1920s stand out in the history of Brentham May Day, it is for the increasingly exotic and fanciful fancy-dress costumes worn by the adults. In 1923 old favourites such as Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and St George and his dragon, were joined by a “posse of cow punchers” and someone dressed as a sports car. Perhaps the most exotic addition was a resplendent Tutankhamun, whose presence spoke for a nation in the grip of Egypt fever: six months earlier Howard Carter and his patron, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, had made one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century, when they discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in Luxor.

Although May Day had by now become a popular part of Brentham life, there were no festivities between 1927 and 1930. Had it not been for Mr E.P. Ephgrave, a dapper, mustachioed stalwart of Brentham society, stepping in to help, the tradition may have died out. Mr Ephgrave’s efforts in 1931 were to mark a turning point, because from then on, except for the war years, Brentham May Day has had an uninterrupted run.

During the postwar period Brentham May Day continued to grow in popularity as an annual neighbourhood event. But there was one year – 1981 – when the procession around the suburb very nearly did not take place. With just one day to go to the celebrations, the organisers received a letter from Scotland Yard instructing them to observe a 28-day ban on marches in London. Ironically, it seems that “May Day procession” had suggested extreme leftwing intentions to Scotland Yard. With extraordinary speed the May Day organisers arranged a High Court hearing, where the judge was shown photographs of past May Day processions. He concluded that the children “did not look like a very subversive lot”, and he gave permission for the procession to go ahead. In the meantime the police had exempted the procession from the ban, though, curiously, on “religious” grounds. May Day that year will be remembered as the first and only time in the history of the Brentham tradition that prayers were said at the beginning and the end of the proceedings.

Today Brentham May Day is one of only two long-standing May Days in London. Only the May Queen of All London Festival at Hayes Common in Bromley has a longer unbroken history, and since that began in 1907, it is a year younger than Brentham’s May revels.

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