The remarkable discovery of a stone sarcophagus in Lant Street, Southwark last year spurred the Museum of London to collate forty years of work into one exhibition. How did Roman London commemorate death and what can we learn from what they’ve left behind?
Exhibition curators Jackie Kiely, Rebecca Redfern and Meriel Jeater have put together a collection that looks at the Roman way of death and Britain’s place on the edge of the Roman Empire.
There is a murderous tradition associated with Mayday or May 1st. For on this day the Jack or Jack in the Green must be slain and his body torn apart and thrown to a waiting crowd. Of course it an also happen on May 7th if that’s the date that the Mayday bank holiday falls on.
Jack’s murder marks the coming of Summer as he is also seen as the Green Man or the embodiment of Nature. There are also associations with Puck. Mayday also coincides with the Celtic festival of Beltane which is a fire festival. It burst forth with abundant fertility although Beltane is one of the names for the god of death. But there’s no blood spilt in Jack’s murder. Instead his large, tall body is formed from leaves and flowers which is why he’s known as Jack in the Green . You’ll find him being pulled apart at various locations within the UK.
According to The Living Myths Celtic Year website
‘Beltain is the origin of pagan May Day festivities such as that of the Padstow Hobby Horse, and maypole dancing, of the ‘Queen of the May’, and of ‘well dressing’ – decking holy wells with flowers, as still practised in some rural communities.’
The tradition carried on in England as, according to the Hastings Jack in the Green website:
‘In the 16th and 17th centuries in England people would make garlands of flowers and leaves for the May Day celebration, they became increasingly elaborate. Works Guilds would try to outdo each other, in the late 18th century this became a matter for competition, milkmaids in London carried garlands on their heads with silver objects on them, but the crown had to go to the chimney sweeps. Their garland was so big it covered the entire man. It became known as Jack in the Green.’
The Jack has a conical or pyramidal framework on which the greenery is entwined with a man inside to ‘walk’ it along streets and in procession. Mayday celebrations were often rowdy, drunken affairs with the Maypole as a very obvious phallic symbol in a festival dedicated to fertility. It, the May Queen and the Jack are the only survivors. I found this 17th century image of a Jack on Wikipedia.
As you might imagine it was the Victorians who called time on Jack in the Green declaring it unruly and raucous (surely not). They replaced the merry stumbling prance or stagger around the Maypole with a smaller one for children to skip round. Then most of the celebrations vanished apart from the May Queen and well dressing in some regions.
But you can’t keep a good Jack down forever and in the 1980’s he was slowly brought back to life.
In 1983, the Hastings Jack in the Green was revived by Mad Jack’s Morris Men. They take their name from Mad Jack Fuller with their symbol being that of his pyramidal mausoleum in Ditchling churchyard which is also known as the Sugarloaf.
The festival is a 4 day event in the town culminating in a parade of giant figures and the releasing of Jack before he takes centre stage in the procession along the High Street and onto West Hill. The Jack stands in waiting on his own stage with his attendants, known as ‘bogies’ or Green Men as morris dancers and singers take to the centre stage. Here is a selection of images from the Hastings Jack in the Green from 2012 and 2018:
Morris dancing has been around for over 600 years and there are several regional variants. He wears a beautiful crown of flowers on top. The costumes have become more ornate and decorative over the years since I first came upon the celebration by chance on a visit to Hastings in 2001. Then it was within the grounds of Hastings Castle and I sat and listened to Maddy Prior singing as the sapphire sea below glittered under the afternoon sun. The Hastings Mayday also coincides with hundreds of bikers descending on the town but there’s not trouble as they are much more interested in buying insurance or bathrooms.
The final event is the slaying of Jack and he is walked to the stage surrounded by his entourage and spun round to the sound of massed drums. Then the ripping apart of him begins in earnest and sprigs and branches of evergreens are tossed out to the eager crowd as having a piece of Jack is meant to ensure you good luck for the coming year.
I am indebted to Sarah Hannant’s invaluable book Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids – a Journey through the English Ritual Year for the information on my local Jack in the Green which takes place around Deptford. There Jack’s slaughter takes place on May 1st regardless of whether its’s a working day or not. The group are still known as Fowlers Troop and their version took place from roughly 1906 until 1924 when the police stopped it. Again it was associated with chimney sweeps. A local photographer of the time, Thankfull Sturdee, (now there’s a name) took photos of the 1906 Jack and his work can be found on the Fowlers Troop website and also in Lewisham Borough photos archives.
I saw it in 2017 and it followed a route through Greenwich which includes several pubs. Outside each one there was morris dancing and singing and two old sea dogs relating various tall tales. The Jack is very tall, roughly 3m, decorated with flowers at the top and has to have a guide to lead him forward as it must be difficult to see his way. I followed them through the wet grounds of the former Royal Naval College and enjoyed seeing the looks of amazement on car drivers and casual bystanders faces as we passed by. Sadly, I missed the killing of Jack as I lost them at the Rose and Crown. Here is a selection of photos from the 2017 Deptford Jack – look at the size of the Jack!
A Jack in the Green is an event worth seeing as it’s always very lively and there’s a pub or two involved if that’s what you fancy. It’s a celebration of English culture, albeit slightly watered down these days, and an acknowledgement of the changing of the seasons.
So support your local Jack!
There are several Jack in the Greens in the UK:
Brentham, North Ealing, Guildford, Kuntsford, Oxford, Rochester, Whitstable, Bristol, Carshalton, Central London at Conway Hall, City of London, Highworth, Wilts, Ilfracombe, Knutsford, Oxford,,
The theatre is dark, the audience and backstage staff have all gone home or off to the pub and the final curtain has been brought down. The end of a show, the end of the evening and, in funerary symbolism, the end of a life.
This fine example is from West Norwood Cemetery where it commemorates the Raikes family. Theatre was in their blood and so the sculpture of a theatrical curtain is very appropriate.
But curtains and draperies have always been associated with death and remembrance. There is the old saying which is sometimes quoted on headstones and memorials that the deceased has ‘gone beyond the veil’. An urn on top of a memorial will often have a sculpted piece of cloth draped across it which indicates the division between the living world and the realm of the dead.
In the 19th century and also well into the 20th century drapes were hung over mirrors with curtains and blinds drawn down at windows during the period of mourning. It was as if they were hiding death from the world or containing it within the family. On the Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery website they mention mirrors being covered with black crepe fabric in order to prevent the deceased’s spirit being trapped in the looking glass.
Curtains also feature on headstones where they are depicted as parted in order to display a meaningful symbol or to draw attention to an epitaph that takes centre stage. This example comes from Nunhead Cemetery where the curtains are parted to display a downturned dove which is a symbol of The Holy Ghost.
However the Raikes one is very obviously a theatrical curtain and it’s beautifully detailed. They were powerful players in that flamboyant world and the curtain is a direct reference to this. For example, in 1889, they had Sir Edward Elgar and his new wife, Caroline, as guests in their house, Northlands in College Road, Dulwich. This was just prior to his Salut D’Amour being performed at the Crystal Palace.
But the family home had a secret in its basement. This was where Charles Raikes (1879-1945) had constructed his own private theatre. He lived there with his mother, Vera, (1858-1942) and two sons, Raymond and Roynon, from his former marriage. Roynon’s wife, Greta, and their daughter Gretha were also part of the household. Charles lived and breathed theatre and he was ahead of his time when he converted a large billiard room into the Northlands Private Theatre. Nowadays it would be a lavish home cinema with comfy seats and popcorn on tap with his own home movies onscreen. He extended his pride and joy by removing a couple of inconvenient bay windows and then converting a coal cellar and wine cellar into dressing rooms. He was a talented scenic artist and stage carpenter and from 1924 – 1939 the Theatre put on nearly 23 productions a year to an invited audience. This was made up of the Raikes’ friends and relations and the actors and actresses friends as well. The lavish after show parties were renowned.
Charles’ sons continued the links to the entertainment world. Raymond (1910-1998) became a professional actor in the 1930’s and played Laertes to Donald Wolfit’s Hamlet at Stratford upon Avon.
However he eventually became a BBC producer, director and broadcaster. He won several awards over a long career which included pioneering the use of stereo sound in radio drama. In 1975 he retired and is known as one of the three greatest radio drama producers. Roynon became a professional photographer specialising in theatre pictures and also as a stills photographer for the BBC. Greta, his wife, became a theatrical costumier and drama teacher and her daughter, Gretha, in turn became a speech and drama teacher. In a 1997 Dulwich Society article she was also credited with being the curator of the archives of the Northlands Private Theatre.
The quotation below the curtain is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It comes from the 21st, 22nd or 23rd stanza depending on which version you read. This is the verse in full and is taken from the 1859 translation by Edward Fitzgerald
Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.
He saw them as a selection of quatrains or Rubaiyats that had been attributed to the Persian poet who was also known as the Astronomer Poet of Persia. Although Fitzgerald’s translation was initially unsuccessful, by the 1880’s, it had become immensely popular. It has influenced many creative people over the years including the Pre-Raphaelites and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oscar Wilde was also a fan and mentions ‘wise Omar’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, H P Lovecraft and Daphne Du Maurier are amongst many who may have borrowed a line a s a book title or used an Omar like figure within their works. Interpretations of the Rubaiyat can be very free and as a result the quatrains can change their wording. The underlying message of the Rubaiyat appears to be Seize the Day or Carpe Diem in Latin. There are also several references to drinking with the implication that once drinking is over so is life. But this particular line seems appropriate for its use on a headstone.
And so the curtain has bene brought down on the Raikes family but, as I took my photos, I thought I detected a faint smell of greasepaint and the appreciative sound of applause……