Who is Jack?

Jack has been part of Bristol's May Day celebrations for hundreds of years

About 200 years ago, the people of Bristol and many other places celebrated the coming of Summer with a Jack in the Green. Jack was part of the May Day celebrations, often associated with processions of chimney sweeps, for whom the occasion was a special holiday. 

In early 19th century Bristol, May festivities centred on Durdham Downs and the Zoo. There was social dancing between 5 and 8 o'clock on May morning, and horse racing on the first Wednesday and Thursday of the month.

Bristol's papers often reported May Day activities. In 1822, Felix Farley's Bristol Journal noted that 'kings and queens' paraded the streets in the morning, and that chimney sweeps made a splendid appearance. 

View of Clifton and the Downs, 1814
View of Clifton and the Downs, 1814 (British Library)

Almost 40 years later, in 1861, the Western Daily Press reported that:

"Throughout the city and Clifton there was the usual visitation of Royalty - perhaps a more plentiful crop of Kings and Queens than in former years - and Jack in the Green, with a band of music and a cohort of gaily dressed fraternal spirits, paraded the thoroughfares and drew much attention."

Bristol Quay, 1858
Bristol Quay, 1858 (British Library)

We don't have any pictures of the early Bristol Jacks in the Green but, in 1865, a possible description of a Jack in the Daily Times and Bristol Mirror talks of a 

"...floral, half-sized sedan, which, having no handles, compelled [the sweep] to pay for the luxury of occupying it by carrying it himself"

Pictures of early Jacks exist from other towns, and today's Jack is probably quite like his predecessors from centuries ago.

May Day Celebrations of the Chimney Sweeps of London by Thomas Sevestre, 1850
May Day Celebrations of the Chimney Sweeps of London by Thomas Sevestre, 1850 (V&A)

Apart from their description as "gaily dressed fraternal spirits", there is little to tell us what Jack's attendants wore in Bristol. 

In the 19th century, Jack is often shown with other May Day characters such as a Lord, a Lady and a Clown. 

The dress of the modern day followers is almost certainly nothing like what was originally worn.

Jack in the Green in Cheltenham, 1892
Cheltenham, 1892  (from Folklore 1893, vol 4, pp 50-54, London: Folklore Society)

Thanks to WHD Rouse, who wrote about 'May Day in Cheltenham' in 1892, we have a very detailed description of this one particular group of Jack's followers, based not far from Bristol:

"Three young men are crowned with complete caps (not garlands) made of all manner of leaves and flowers. Their dresses are red, blue, and yellow respectively, each of one colour; loose-fitting bodices and trousers of calico, with flower-patterns upon them ...

The rest of the party are two boys and two men, most fantastically dressed: it is almost impossible to describe the dresses. The leader of the whole procession — the Clown — wears a tall hat, whose crown has been cut almost round, and turned back, like the lid of a meat-tin ... Over a dress of chequered calico and trousers of red and black stripes, is a very large white pinafore, reaching from the neck to the knees ... and at the bottom is a yellow frill. 

The second man wears a red fool's-cap, with a tassel, all stuck with flowers. On the right and left breast of his white pinafore are stuck or painted black figures, meant for human beings; and behind, a large black pattern in the shape of a grid iron, with a red bar crossing it diagonally. 

The two boys have white pinafores, with similar figures, or stars, on the breast, and a fish on the back; their white pinafores are cut away in the shape of swallow-tail coats, the tails flying out behind. One wore a girl's hat stuck with flowers. 

Most or all of these last five carried in the left hand an iron ladle or spoon with holes pierced in the bowl, which they held out for contributions; in the right they had a stick, with some kind of a bladder hung on to the end. Whirling this, they ran about, and tried to strike the passers-by, who scampered off, shrieking, as hard as they could go. They sometimes danced, sometimes roared, and pretended to bite any child who ventured too near. Their faces, like their leader's, were painted in divers colours, fearful and wonderful to behold."

Jack in the Green sadly disappeared from Bristol's May Day celebrations for much of the 20th century, but he has become a regular feature once again in recent decades.

Bristol Jack in the Green on St Michael's Hill, Bristol, 2012
St Michael's Hill, Bristol, 2012

Where did Jack in the Green come from, before chimney sweeps?

Like sweeps, milkmaids also celebrated May Day as a holiday. They had a tradition of carrying pyramid-shaped 'garlands' on their heads, covered with flowers and decorative items (typically made of shiny metal, borrowed from their customers). 

This tradition was recorded before the first records of Jack in the Green appear. The sweeps may have adopted and evolved the  idea of milkmaids' garlands for their own purposes. 

May Day in London, showing milkmaids with garlands, 1784
May Day in London, showing milkmaids with garlands, 1784 (British Museum)

Some people believe that Jack in the Green is linked to the Green Man of ancient pagan celebrations, who often appears in medieval churches and on inn signs. 

Through his appearance at Maytide to mark the passing of the seasons and the start of Summer, Jack in the Green may suggest the idea of a more ancient and spiritual origin, but there is no actual evidence for a link. 

Like many old traditions, we will probably never know the full truth...

Green man, Derby Cathedral
Green man, Derby Cathedral