by Rene Welch
Our first documented account of celebrating the coming of spring in the Parish of Northill is to be found in the Church Wardens' Accounts of c1565. Payments are listed for the purchase of shoes for the dancers, of bells for the shoes, food and drink. Payments were also made to various people for their paynes (efforts) and to mysnstrells. It was obviously a day of feasting and dancing.
It is probable that the Church was claiming an erstwhile pagan festival for itself. It is noted however that in 1565 Charges for the Maye were 55s 3d and a later entry gives receyts as £4 19s 4d: a pretty good profit!
During the time of the Puritans, all such activity ceased. However, with the return of the Monarchy, one presumes the local people once again were able to celebrate the coming of spring with feasting and dancing. The usual practice was to cut down a tree, often a larch, from the forest, bring the pole to the village and set it up to be festooned with greenery as a centre for the festivities.
Northill and Ickwell's next documented evidence is in the latter part of the 19th century. Squire John Harvey had a permanent maypole erected in 1872 (a ship's mast according to one account) to celebrate the birth of his son.
He died in 1877 and left instructions in his weill for the sum of £2 10s to be paid per annum for the upkeep of the festival "as it has been in my lifetime". One gets the feeling that perhaps he did not trust his villagers to get the festival organised.
There are many anecdotes about erecting a new pole; of the custom of 'touching the crown' and of trying to climb it. Important to the celebrations then were the Ickwell Mayers and the Moggies. The Mayers always had a Lord and Lady and their daemon counterparts and associated Moggies - many with blackened faces. The group was closely associated with Morris Dancing.
Listed in the archives are also accounts of various customs collected by Willy Marsom from local people.
All was about to change. In the 1880's, Professor John Ruskin introduced a new style of May Day celebration into Whitelands College in London. This is illustrated in The Girl's Own paper 1882 and 1889. He was inspired by what he had seen in his travels in Europe. A Queen of May was elected and coloured ribbons attached to the pole to be woven and plaited by the dancers. His pupils tripped out to all parts of England into the schools and May Day as we know it was established.
Mrs Hodges, one of these pupils, became headmistress of Northill School in 1894. Evelyn Woodward, then living in Thomas Tompion's Cottage on the green, became our first May Queen.
The school in the adjacent village of Caldecote has had a half day's holiday at least since 1864 (when the school log book was started) to go and watch the festivities at Ickwell. In 1911, they wre invited to send a team to actually take part. Subsequently Old Warden also joined in and it is residents from these three villages who perform the celebrations today.
In 1945, the Ickwell and District May Day Committee was formed and it is that committee which currently organises the event.
May Day 2000 was a particularly joyous occasion with 50 former May Queens present. The presentation of the locket to the May Queen 2000, Stephanie Turner was made by Mrs Vera Randall, nee Wagstaff, who had been May Queen in 1920.
What may well be unique to Ickwell is that we have a team of adults - the Old Scholars - who dance around the maypole. Almost without exception they are former pupils of the village school and some of them have children and even grandchildren also performing on the day.
Please click on the link HERE for an article on the history of May Day Dancing, first published in Dance Today! magazine in May 2005.