May Day Customs and Traditions in Dorset

The most well known symbol of May Day is the maypole. The custom of dancing around the maypole is thought to be an ancient fertility rite, which is still performed today on village greens and at spring fetes throughout the month of May.

May Queen and Maypole , The Keep, Dorchester 1845 DCM © 2015

May Queen and Maypole , The Keep, Dorchester 1845 DCM © 2015

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book ‘Dorsetshire Folklore’ published in 1922 about May Day customs and traditions in the county:

It was anciently the custom for all ranks of people to go out a-Maying early on the first of May” says Brand; but I do not think that there exist now in Dorsetshire many traces of the old merry dances and games, such as the Maypole dance, the Morris dancers, the milkmaids, the chimney-sweeps, the maidens’ garland or flower dances and processions, which used to be so prevalent in many parts of England on May Day.

Flower and Maypole Dance, Chardstock.— In some parts of Dorsetshire, however, some few such observances still take place. For instance, in the parish of Chardstock, on the Somerset and Devon border, according to the Dorset County Chronicle in May, 1884, the children of the parish brought round garlands as usual on May Day; in the afternoon upwards of seventy of them sat down to a feast at which the local squire, the vicar, and other gentlemen and ladies were present. “Dancing round the Maypole concluded the keeping up of this old English custom’

Crowning the May Queen and Maypole Dance (Bridport).— The Dorset County Chronicle, in June, 1918, gives a very recent instance of this as occurring in the West Dorset town of Bridport: —

“On Thursday the girls of the National Schools had their annual festival of crowning the May Queen and dancing round the Maypole. There was a very good attendance of the general public, the ceremony taking place in the school-yard. Favoured with fine weather, the scene was a very picturesque one, and the proceedings were watched with the greatest interest and pleasure. The children, as is their custom, were dressed in white, and with their Queen (Vera Meech), who is elected by the votes of her schoolmates, they paraded the Rope Walks, St. Michael’s Lane, and Gundry Lane, and returned to the playground. Here the Maypole was set up and the Queen was then enthroned. She recited a verse of Tennyson’s May Queen, and then the Rector ‘ crowned ‘ her with a wreath of flowers. Some very pretty Maypole dances were then gone through, and some nicely rendered songs gave variety to the programme, while at the close a collection, which realized £4, was made to defray the cost of a new set of strings for the Maypole.”

I have since been told that this is not a genuine folk-lore survival, but rather a sham revival, having been introduced from Whitelands College by the National Society of School teachers, taught by Ruskin. The recitation of Tennyson’s May Queen would seem to confirm this ; but even if this be so, it is a decided improvement upon the usual School Board methods of recent years, which tend to destroy all traces of local folk-lore in the young people of the present age.

Maypole: Cattistock. — There is an interesting reference in H. N. Cox’s serial History of Cattistock, published in the Southern Times in 1886, to the ” old custom of the Maypole “, which would appear to have been regularly kept up in that village until 1835. Mr. Cox alludes to a decree of Parliament in 1644, which ordered every Maypole in England and Wales to be taken down and none afterwards to be erected. Presumably Cattistock obeyed the mandate, at all events until the Restoration. Mr. Cox goes on to say that probably as time passed on the Maypole festivities were bereft of many of their ancient customs, but even at the last there was an immense assemblage of people, and the merry dance around the gaily decked pole with its thousands of May flowers was indulged in by all parties. He remembers on one occasion the Maypole being “set up ” in the open space near to the main entrance to the church and rectory, but that generally it was opposite ” The Fox “, no doubt one of the principal hostelries in the village. Cattistock is still to this day an important hunting centre. Mr. Cox is of opinion that the custom was permitted to die out, not because the people disapproved of it, but that the expense of getting good music for the dance was not met by the subscriptions.

Maypole: Cerne Abbas. — Dr. Collcy March, F.S.A., in his paper on ” The Giant and the Maypole of Cerne ” in the Dorset Field Club’s Proceedings (1901), vol. xxii, p. 105, speaks of the ordinance of the Long Parliament in April, 1644, whereby all maypoles were to be taken down and removed by the constables, churchwardens, and other parish officers; but it met with no little resistance.(Dr. March states, p. 105 (n.), that the Cerne maypole was destroyed in 1635) After the advent of Charles II the Maypole was set up again, and had a long life. Dr. March quotes from an old sexton at Cerne, who well remembered it: —

“It was made,” he said,” every year from a fir-bole, and was raised in a night. It was erected in the ring just above the Giant. It was decorated, and the villagers went up the hill and danced round the pole on the 1st of May.”

This hill was Trendle Hill, situated about half a mile from the town, upon the steep southern declivity of which the famous figure of the giant was cut in the chalk.

Maypole dancing infants at Coronation Celebration, Evershot DCM © 2015

Maypole dancing infants at Coronation Celebration, Evershot DCM © 2015

According to authorities cited by Dr. March, “the festival of the maypole” was not unattended by scenes that “called forth ample invective”. Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomic of Abuses, 1583, refers to a custom when “hundreds of men, women, and children go off to the woods and groves and spend all the night in pastimes, and in the morning they would return with birche boughes and branches of trees to deck their assembles withal. And they bring home with great veneration the Maie-pole, their stinking idol rather, covered all over with flowers and herbes, and then fall they to leaping and dancing about it, as the heathen people did. I have heard it crediblie reported by men of great gravity that, of an hundred maides going to the wood, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again as they went.”

Maypole: Shillingston. — William Barnes in his Fore-say (ante) speaks of this decline in the old maypole customs. He says: “Dorset formerly had its maypoles, but Shillingston, clustering round its softly rising knap, may now be the only Dorset village which keeps up the tall token of a merry May Day.”

In the Life of William Barnes, by his daughter, Mrs. Lucy E. Baxter, published in 1887 under the pseudonym of “Leader Scott “, she gives (p. 150) a poem of her father’s, hitherto unpublished, called ” Our Early Landscape “, —  in which the poet alludes to the maypole at Shillingston in the following lines :—

“And Shillingston, that on her height
Shows up her tower to op’ning day,
And high-shot Maypole, yearly dight
With flow’ry wreaths of merry May.”

Stocking of Poundbury Field, Dorchester. — William Barnes in the above Fore-say also refers to the annual stocking of Poundbury Field, near Dorchester, on May Day under the head of customs at set times or given days of the year. The field is now enclosed, but ” Dorchester folk were wont in olden time, it is said, to go forth to its flowery and airy sward a-maying and to drink syllybub of fresh milk”.

Flower Service: Bridport. — The town of Bridport in West Dorset has for many years been prominent in keeping up an old flower custom on May Sunday — the first Sunday in May. The Bridport News in May, 1885, gave an interesting account of the ceremony, where on “May Sunday ” the children, to the number of 312, assembled at the schools in Gundry Lane, and having been duly marshalled in procession, marched to the parish church, carrying flowers. They came up South Street as far as the old castle, and going down the east side of the street crossed again by the rectory, and entered the church by the west door, occupying seats in the nave, which were given up to them for the occasion by the parishioners who generally used them. The children were accompanied by their superintendent and also by their teachers. Divine service followed, and in the afternoon the usual children’s service was held. The bells were rung spiritedly at intervals during the day and a flag was hoisted, as usual, on the church tower.

Again, in May, 1890, the Bridport News recorded that, in accordance with the usual custom, the first Sunday in May was kept by the scholars of the Bridport Parish Church Sunday Schools by the usual special and joyous services. Shortly after 7 a.m. the bells of the parish church (St. Mary’s) pealed forth to herald in the school anniversary, and at 8 o’clock there was a full choral celebration of the Holy Communion. In his sermon the Rector, the Rev. E. J. B. Henslowe, alluded to the origin of May Sunday celebrations in Bridport, and to the fact that it was an institution not celebrated to his knowledge in any other town, but was peculiar to Bridport. He said that years ago there was no proper school, but classes were held by different people in their own houses’; these classes used to meet once a year, and have a procession and go to church.

In the afternoon the usual flower service was held. The scholars formed in procession and again marched to the church. The rector officiated. The service commenced with a hymn, and then the scholars passed up to the chancel steps and presented their floral offerings. While another hymn was being sung flowers were presented by members of the congregation. The service was then proceeded with. The flowers were afterwards packed and forwarded to London for some of the hospitals. Again, in May, 1905, the Bridport News contributed a long leading article on the subject which it styled ” May Sunday : A Link with the Past”. It dealt fully with the origin of the present flower-custom in Bridport, and referred to the institution of Sunday Schools in Bridport in connexion with St. Mary’s Church in 1788. At that time the procession formed almost a complete “perambulation” of the parish boundaries, and many visitors would come in from the country “to see the children walk”. The writer of the article thinks that this “walking” may have been but a survival of a much older custom — that of “beating the bounds ” — which prevailed in many parishes at Rogation-tide ; and that “May Sunday” occurring near the same time of the year the one custom had at the end of the eighteenth century merged into the other. As we have seen, the custom of “walking” still continues, but only to a very limited extent.”

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A Fisherman’s Tale: The Monster Fish of the River Frome

Monster Fish -  The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum

Monster Fish – The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum © DCM

Visitors to the Dorset County Museum may have noticed the large fish suspended in the Victorian Gallery. Believe it or not this is a Common Sturgeon (Acipenser Sturio), also known as a European or Baltic Sturgeon, is one of the largest fish ever to be caught in an English river using a fishing rod. Nearly three metres in length and weighing 92 kilograms, this fish was caught by Major Charles Robert Eustace Radclyffe of Hyde House, Bere Regis in the River Frome at Bindon Mill on 2nd July 1911.

Here is his amusing fisherman’s tale taken from the Dorset Year Book 1918 -1919 from Major C.E. Radclyffe’s article ‘My Years of Sport in Dorset’:

“And now we tune to the gentle art, so well beloved by Issac Walton.  Here again in Dorset rich in rewards for those who frequent the banks of her silvery streams.  True it is that the River Stour is not so noted for its pellucid waters as for the size of the great course fish which frequent its dark and deep pools.  But in the clear waters of those beautiful streams, the Frome and the Piddle, which teem with all kinds of fish from salmon and trout to grayling pike, roach and dace, an angler must be hard to please if he cannot there find anything to amuse him.  No two men beautiful streams are to be found in England than these which meander over their winding courses and glide gently into Poole Harbour by two months situated a short distance apart.

The Frome in its upper reaches yields magnificent trout fishing, whilst in its lower stretches salmon run up to 50 lbs. in weight, and enormous pike and countless coarse fish, and a few sea trout, frequent its waters.  The Piddle is without doubt one of the best trout streams in England, and teems with fish for many miles.

Born and bred on the finest stretch of the latter river, it is not to be wondered at that in early youth I took fishing as a duck takes to waters to their mouths, that I have not explored and fished in the past 35 years, and during that time have taken from them many hundreds of fine trout, and many scres of salmon.

An angler is always expected to have some great yarn to tell of each river he has fished, and the writer does not plead to be an exception to this rule; in fact he could fill a book of yarns on Dorset angling.  The difficulty is to get people to believe them all.  But the following is a well authenticated event which happened seven years ago.

Radclyffe Family and the Sturgeon

The sturgeon after its capture, on top of the roof of Major Radclyffe’s Daimler. In front are his four daughters © DCM

Early in the season I was fishing the lower waters of the Frome for salmon with a friend. Shortly after we had started, my friend came running wildly towards me across the meadows, as if chased by a mad bull. Breathlessly he explained that he had seen the biggest salmon in the world I reasoned with him that even a 40-pound salmon looked ‘some fish’ in a small river like the Frome. Whereupon he swore solemnly that this fish was at least 140lbs. As the old saying goes ‘seeing is believing’, so we went to the spot, and soon in the centre of the pool appeared a huge back fin shaped like that of a shark. A closer inspection showed the back of an enormous fish, which my friend had clearly underestimated at 140lbs. But this great back with scales like armour plating was familiar to me, since I had killed sturgeon in Russia, and hence was able to say at once that my friend is a sturgeon, and a big one; but how to land him on our light tackle is more than I can say. Repeatedly the monster rolled on top of the water close between our feet, and finally we decided to borrow a gun from a neighbouring farm and shoot the fish.

The gun having arrived we waited until the fish again showed on top of the water, and then gave him both barrels in the head at a distance of five yards. The only result was to make him take a series of wild rushes across the stream, where he began to roll about as before, apparently none the worse for a double dose of No. 5 shot.  Seeing that big things required strong measures, I sent my car home for an elephant rifle, and we waited. Just before the rifle arrived the fish disappeared in a deep pool, and although we patrolled the river, and had scouts out looking for him for days afterwards, we did not then find further traces of the fish, and decided he must have returned to the sea.

Two months later, a man arrived from Bindon Abbey with a request that I would go next morning to try, and catch the biggest salmon in world, which was then in a big weir pool. From the man’s description I had no difficulty in deciding that here was our long-lost sturgeon.

Early next morning, armed with the strongest rod and line I possessed, and having rigged up a grappling tackle of the largest-sized salmon flies, a party of five of us stood watching the weir pool. After an hour’s waiting, there suddenly appeared the great shark-like fin, and then the back of our friend the sturgeon.

Major Radclyffe and Sturgeon

Major Radclyffe (right) and his Gillie with the 230lbs. Sturgeon, caught by the Major near Bindon Abbey. The largest fish ever caught in fresh water in England. © DCM

Since a sturgeon belongs to the family of bottom-feeding fish, it was obviously impossible to hook this one with any form of bait. Hence it became a problem of casting over the monster and trying to get the hooks to grapple in some soft spot. This was no means easy owing to the thickness of its skin and armour-plated scales. Finally, however, I grappled the fish under the jaw, and then the fun began. For one hour and forty-five minutes I and a friend took turns at the rod, as the continuous strain on one’s arms was more than one man could stand for long; and at last it felt like trying to hold or turn a motor car with a rod and line.

As a last resource we had to requisition services of a small seine net, and floating it down stream until the fish struck into it. The fish tangled itself up like a fly in a spider’s web, and was thus hauled into shallow water. It took three men with two gaffs to land this leviathan, which measured no less than 9 feet 3 inches from nose to tail; verily the largest fish ever captured with rod and line in an English river.

According to a time honoured custom, I presented the fish to His Majesty King George, who graciously returned it to me with a request that it might be preserved in my private museum at Dorchester; all of which was done in due course.

An amusing incident occurred as the fish was landed. A local labourer arrived with a towel on his shoulder for a morning bathe.On seeing the fish he said, ‘Lord, zur, do ee think there’s another of they girt brutes about, cause if ‘tis I bain’t agoin’ to bathe in thik pool agean,’ and I don’t believe he has done so since then.

I have often heard a fine fisherman say he considrers the Frome to be the most sporting, and best all-round river in England.  And although I can claim a somewhat unique record of having caught salmon on almost every country in the world where they are known to exist, from Iceland Scandinavia and Russia, to Siberia, Kamchatha, Japan and Alaska; and from the Bristish Columbia to Newfoundland; yet I look back with great pleasure of all to the days on which I have landed my first and many subsequent great salmon, on the banks of the dear old Frome.

‘Big things with fins’

SturgeonSturgeon are rare visitors to our rivers. Most of the population is found in the Rivers Gironde, France and Guadalquivir, Spain and in the Baltic and Russian rivers. They have four barbels which are tactile organs in front of their toothless mouth that seek out food on murky river bottoms. Sturgeon are covered with bony plates called scutes rather than scales; the Victorians made jewellery out of these, setting them in silver and gold.

Most species of Sturgeon are highly prized for their caviar and, as they are slow growing and mature very late in life, are consequently at risk of extinction, as a result of over fishing, poaching, black market trading, and habitat loss. Caviar comes from the Persian word Khaviar which means ‘bearing eggs’ and can cost several hundred pounds for a small pot. Now the Common Sturgeon is protected and can no longer be caught for its caviar.

It has been suggested that sturgeon have been the origins of some sightings of the Loch Ness Monster.

In Morris Collman’s book ‘Hants and Dorset’s Legends & Folklore’, published by James Pike ltd, 1975. He mentions a local Dorchester tradition that monster fish once inhabited a lake near Poundbury Hillfort.

“Poundbury is an ancient British earthwork which the Romans adapted for their use.  It was placed on high ground above the river, and in its early days a great lake which fed by the river Frome, lay to the north of the camp. There are stories of monsters which used to inhabit this lake, but no description of them seems to have been attempted.  They were just monsters, ‘Big things with fins’ according to one old Dorchester lady.

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