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.

Sweeping Through Time

  • Two weeks ago, we let you in on some of the secrets of the Henry Collection in Oliver Twist with a Twist. This week it’s over to our two experts on the subject, Jonathan and Natascha, to share a few of their favourite finds.

Did you know that Leeds Central Library holds extensive collections on the English Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, and the lives of chimney sweeps? Among its treasure trove of old maps, newspapers and microfilms are several boxes containing material collected in the early 20th century by Dr Sydney Henry: part of his renowned ‘sweepiana’ collection concerning all things chimney-sweep-related. At this cold time of year, when the hearth becomes once again a central feature in our home life, we want to bring this collection further into the public light…

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Our names are Jonathan Wright and Natascha Allen-Smith; we are both history students at the University of Leeds. At the beginning of this academic year we were tasked with collating and analysing the Henry Collection in the Leeds Central Library. With the ambition of constructing an exhibition, we compared and contrasted the lives of chimney sweeps and their representations in literature. The 1,500-item collection is spread across Leeds Central Library and the Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, as well as the Leeds Art Gallery. The biggest work of the future is to digitise all of the collection to make it more accessible.

Over the next few weeks, Natascha and I want to take you through our favourite discoveries so far. First up is a famous author with a lesser-known work: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep. It is a charming and romantic story about two dolls wanting to explore the wider world. Situated in books after The Ugly Duckling, the tale tells how the two lovers climb the chimney and witness a spectacular view of the world. However, this is all too much for the Shepherdess who has to return with the Chimney Sweep to their home. The significance of the work is that it shows how the idea of chimney sweeps could be bright. Also, the positive portrayal of the Chimney Sweep came at a time of generally negative portrayals in the Victorian era. 1845 was also 19 years before proper regulations for the use of chimney boys became law and it can be seen that progressive depictions such as this were helpful in changing the public and political mind-set.

One of the oldest items in the collection is a 17th century comedic play entitled The London Cuckolds. In this pre-industrial era, chimney sweeps were not yet the miserable, overworked, black-suited Victorian figures we most commonly associate with the title. This can be seen in the play’s depiction of them as rude, comical thieves and pranksters, making crude observations like “Oh I am damnably full of wind”.

In one scene, two sweeps trick a foolish gentleman into losing his wig and hat, blacking his face with soot in the process. Here, the play shares a theme with almost all the works in the collection, whether their portrayals of sweeps are positive or negative: ordinary people avoid going near them due to their filthy state, and when accidental contact is made, clean skin and clothing is instantly dirtied. Climbing boys were allowed to wash once a week at most, and consequently faced great alienation from their peers, particularly from richer children who could afford to attend school.

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A feature that runs through the entire collection is the handwritten notes, letters and bookmarks left by Dr Henry himself, which are scattered within the volumes. Henry scribbled page references in red ink on nearly all the books in the collection (for which we are extremely grateful, as most contain only one or two fleeting references to chimney sweeps). But working through the boxes in more detail means that you also stumble across folded-up sheets cut from 1950s newspapers, old pieces of paper on which Henry jotted down research notes, and even a typewritten card addressed to him by another well-known sweep enthusiast, Dr George Phillips.

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There are also occasional letters or inscriptions written by entirely different people, each giving another clue about how the book in question entered Henry’s possession and who may have owned it first.

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In our next piece, we’ll be taking a look at an item from the collection by a very famous writer, featuring some beautiful artwork that contrasts sharply with the often dark subject-matter described…