Each May Day, Londoners parade behind a giant human tree, accompanied by music and morris dancing. The parade begins at noon at The Dog & Bell pub in Deptford. It’s led by a banner-bearer, then comes Jack-in-the-Green, a huge faceless tree figure, with leaves and a floral crown. Drummers and accordionists follow. You can follow behind, as long as you’re dressed as a clown, an Edwardian or you’re wearing green. If your wardrobe doesn’t stretch to those, you can watch from a pub along the route.
When did this bizarre ritual begin?
When the mayflower blossoms, maidens traditionally gambol around a varicoloured pole, erected to reflect the earth’s fertility. Many floral rituals have also sprung up, including Jack-in-the-Green, which seem to have been invented in the seventeenth century by guilds of chimneysweeps. The Deptford Jack was instigated by an outfit called the ‘Fowlers Troop’, and revived by the Blackheath Morris Men in the 1980s. It’s now the tallest and heaviest in the country.
Want more May Day fun?
Once you’ve paraded in Deptford, head west. The Hammersmith Jack wears paper, fabric and plastic leaves created by local schoolkids, and a large crown of fresh flowers. He’ll be parading the streets of Hammersmith that afternoon, alongside blue-and-gold morris men known as The Smiffs. At the end of the day, he’ll be packed off for storage in Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
Words by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose, co-authors of Curiocity: In Pursuit of London. Illustration by Steven Appleby.
Not a fan of leggy foliage? Try our alternative May Bank Holiday guide instead.