Rochester Sweeps' Festival, KentMayday is celebrated in a multitude of ways in Britain, often with obvious links to pagan times. Such was the Sweeps’ Festival held for years in Rochester until Victorian prudery saw it end. Men who had spent most of the year in dark and dirty work were out in the light, bringing a giant figure covered in greenery into the town, not the subtlest of imagery. Happily the event was revived in the town in the 1980s.
The current festival is a five day celebration of folk traditions, the biggest Morris dancing event of the year. The original lasted just the one day, traditionally the sole day of rest for the always-in-demand chimney sweeps. The rarity of leisure time meant they were hell-bent on enjoying it and not in a sedate manner either.
The climbing boys, the poor lads who had to crawl through dirty chimneys to clean them, would begin at dawn (as is the custom with the current festival), awakening the Jack-in-the-Green, a figure of great stature bedecked in greenery to symbolise the new growth of the fresh spring. That it should be sweeps ushering in new growth is doubly significant, they were regarded as lucky in part because their work ushered in freshness to the houses whose chimneys they cleaned, just as May heralded the freshness of summer.
Making garlands for May Day was a great English tradition, and it is said that the trade guilds in London competed to create the most spectacular, with the sweeps renowned for their version covering a man from head to toe, rather than the delicate head-dresses their rivals produced.
The youngsters in the older version of the festival would dance and drink plenty of beer, another aspect of the tradition Morris Men are keen to devote themselves to, behaviour that was frowned on in staid Victorian times. When in 1868 legislation was passed to outlaw the use of children up chimneys there were suddenly fewer boys to dance and to accompany Jack-in-the-Green, so the various sweeps’ festivals around the country died out before the end of the century.
The modern day Sweeps’ Festival in Rochester retains the awakening of the Jack-in-the-Green, has a sweeps’ ball, and a sweeps’ parade, with real chimney sweeps and children dressed like them taking part. A further aspect of the celebrations that outraged Victorians was that sweeps were keen to remind ladies that it is good luck to meet them, and better to give them a kiss, yet another aspect modern participants are happy to continue.
The Rochester festival is a good way to see British folk customs in action, and to hear folk music in the pubs and on the street. Long may it continue.
More British Folk Customs?