May Day with the Mackails

How did the Mackail family mark May Day? Both Angela Thirkell and her younger brother, Denis Mackail, recalled the view from their day nursery window in Young Street, Kensington.  These extracts are taken from their recollections, “Three Houses” (published by Oxford University Press 1931) and “Where Am I?” (Hutchinson 1948).

“Three Houses” – Next to the Greyhound

“In spring our nursery window was as good as a dress circle seat for seeing what went on in the square. On the first of May Jack-in-the-Green still came in his bower, accompanied by chimney sweeps dressed in gay colours who danced in the street for the pennies we threw down. On the same day all John Barker’s horse-vans were drawn up in the Square before starting on their rounds, each horse with its tail and mane intricately plaited and bound up in ribbons and bright rosettes. Wherever we were on May Day we met charming horses all bedizened and gay, up and down the streets of Kensington.”

“Where Am I?”- from A Nursery Window

It is the First of May again. May-day. …I am drawn to the window. A noise, a buzz, some rather primitive music, and then the approach of a small, gay throng. Its centre, or hub, is a man so completely concealed in a kind of framework of leaves that I can see nothing but his face, for which a hole has been left, and his feet. He is dancing, jigging, and twirling. Around him there is a group of supporters, perhaps a couple of whom are providing the music – as it might be from a tin whistle and drum – and all of whom are also dressed up. One of them has his jacket inside-out, with some ribbons attached to it. Another is plunging about – he looks nearly eight feet high, but of course he can’t be – in a sunbonnet and female attire. 

I am a little puzzled, though enchanted; for I still haven’t studied The Golden Bough, and no one has yet quite succeeded in explaining to me what they think they are up to.  I am aware, nevertheless, that the principal figure is called Jack-in-the-Green. …Part of his immortal spirit, no doubt, is welcoming the spring – as it has been welcomed here, and in the country, for thousands of years. Part of him in other words, is a priest in a way; but even priests must be paid.  So he pauses. He looks up; and so do his companions, …the householders know what to do. They open their own windows, if they are not open already, and pennies start tinkling down. With any luck I am given a penny myself, and with more luck will succeed in lobbing it over the area railings into the roadway – where the man-woman snatches it up. Will they dance again now?

But they don’t. They never do. For the chance that had wafted me into this nursery towards the close of the Victorian era had also arranged that it should be next door to a public-house. Though I knew very little about it – beyond the fact that it emitted a peculiar smell, and that on Saturday nights its patrons made a good deal of noise – the masquers or merrymakers must have been well aware what it sold. …The next phase [of the pageant] was a complete cessation of their activities and an absorption into The Greyhound.

[Now] when May-day comes round they no longer dress up, and haven’t for many a long year. I dare say they would be moved on now, if they made the attempt. But they don’t, for the old days are gone. I am still here myself, of course, or part of me is. So is the spring, though it is not quite what it was. Even others have noticed that it comes at the wrong time of year now; and perhaps – who knows?- this is because there is no Jack-in-the-Green.

diary of angela mcinnes – 1st may

Angela’s diaries, too, record how she spent May 1st.

1915: Lady Speyer took Jim [Angela’s first husband, James Campbell McInnes] and me to Clare’s hospital at Balham. Where they played and sang to the soldiers. Dined with Cherry and Ambrose.

1916: Back to lunch. Nanny away for her holiday. The temporary Nanny came at tea time. Dined out.

1918: Lunch Mrs Micholls. To tea with Margaret Costeker. To Suggia’s third recital at Kent House. Club for dinner.

The “Diary of Angela McInnes January 1915 – December 1918, and Angela Thirkell December 1918 to January 1919” has been published by the Angela Thirkell Society of North America, and is available from Amazon.

Angela and Denis’s mother, Margaret Mackail, records a very different May Day in her diary for May 1st 1919, written in her usual breakneck style and managing to fit far more into her waking hours than seems humanly possible! Margaret’s diaries have been published by the Angela Thirkell Society of North America, and are available from Amazon.

DIARY of Margaret Mackail – May Day (Thursday, May 1, 1919)

Pouring rain!  Up at 6.20; breakfast before 7 & soon after, Jane & Clare & I splashed along to High St Station where they took an omnibus & I met Betty Simon who was here last night, & took her by train to Charing + & we met the others at St Martin’s in the Fields: we were the first, & went into the church till the others came, & presently 15 singers went up & sang on the roof, & then outside in the porch.  Lovely.  When it was over Christine, Clare, Jane, Mr Steuart Wilson & I went & had breakfast at a Lyons.  Home on the top of an omnibus, the rain being over.  Directly after lunch to a May Day Festival at Faroe Rd School & crowned the May Queen & saw a touching little ceremony, & so sped away to Holy Trinity Church Sloane St for [Denis’s daughter] precious Pittenween’s christening, & she was so good & did not cry till it was all over & she was Mary Diana:  back to Walpole Street with her & her nurse & Diana [Denis’s wife], such a pretty tea, & friends & relations, & a home-made delicious cake with Mary on it, & [the] sweet heroine came down to be seen.  She looked so pretty at church in a lovely Bond St bonnet which Phil [Philip Burne-Jones] gave her, & a great soft shawl which Mother had sent her.  Phil & I left together & he drove me to Amy’s where I had tea with her.  Home about six & then round to see Edith Millar.  Clare out to supper.


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