May Day and Mrs Montagu

  • We couldn’t let today pass without a look at the holiday’s traditional association with chimney sweeps – the focus of our current ‘Sweepiana’ display at Central Library. Natascha Allen-Smith and Jonathan Wright investigate…

May Day is both a religious and secular occasion, celebrated as a devotion to the Virgin Mary but also a ceremony of dance and the crowning the Queen of May. It has been used as a fabled national day of aid for chimney sweeps – historically, their one day of holiday a year. Lots of stories from the books in Leeds Libraries’ Henry Collection relate to May Day.

‘The First of May’ poem and illustration (from London Town, 1883, by Ellen Houghton, part of the Henry Collection)

‘Jack in the Green’ was a character who would be recreated by people creating garlands of flowers and greenery to wear during the May Day celebrations. The rhyme above reads: Jack-in-the-Green from door to door, capers along with his followers four. As May Day mummers are seldom seen, let us all give a copper to Jack-in-the-Green.

Competition between different working guilds meant that, over the years, these wearable decorations became larger and more elaborate until they covered the entire man. Jack in the Green became associated with sweeps forever.

Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu (artist unknown)

In the eighteenth century, Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) provided food, drink and support for chimney sweeps on May Day. She became a social reformer and represents a time of increasing interest in workers’ rights. With a focus on literature, she also led the push for female equality in education. For some years before her death, Montagu entertained sweeps every May Day in the courtyard of her house in London. ‘The Little Sons of the Brush’ would be bought sausages until they tired of eating. The Henry Collection frequently mentions her, as well as other reformers across more recent centuries.

To learn more about the history and traditions of chimney sweeps, as reflected in Leeds Libraries’ collections, visit Room 700 at Central Library, where the Sweepiana exhibition will be in place until Friday 5 May.