Centuries old tradition of celebration

editorial image

THE TRADITION of Crowning the May Queen has evolved from the centuries-old custom of ribald celebration of the arrival of May.

It is believed that chimney sweeps have been associated with May Day since the 1600’s, when they celebrated the end of a winter’s hard work by parading with garlands of wild flowers and ribbons.

In 1934 Miss Dorothy Catt asked Hastings Council if they would approve a local May Queen Pageant, and the Director of Entertainment, Mr J. Norman Gray readily agreed.

The first Hastings May Queen was Rhona Powell. She was crowned by the Mayor, Councillor Burden in 1934, at a ceremony in Warrior Square before a crowd of 5000; Pathe News regarded the occasion as sufficiently important to send a film crew to record it. Miss Catt arranged and produced the original event and did so for the next 42 years. Several of the early May Queens went to London to be interviewed on the BBC radio programme “In Town Tonight”. Apart from the first two years the May Queen has always been escorted by a chimney sweep to bring luck. Mr William Knight was the first, and for a few years he brought along the Jack-in-the-Green, to honour the traditional May Day sweep’s garland. The event’s current co-organiser, Barry Smith, is also the chimney sweep escort.

During the war the May Queen custom continued but as no large crowds were allowed to gather the ceremony was held in the gardens of St John’s Church, Hollington. Gwen Watford, famous actress of the late fifties and 1960s, was Hastings best known May Queen. When she was crowned in 1941, the war prevented her from receiving the customary shilling brooch from the council. This was rectified in 1961, when she was presented with the coin brooch during the pageant.

Warrior Square and Linton Gardens were also used as venues but from 1950 Alexandra Park became the regular home of the May Day Pageant. Apart from relocating a few times to the White Rock Pavilion in wet weather, the park saw the event for the next 40 years. During the late eighties the council was almost ready to scrap it, but when in 1990 Hastings Castle was appointed the new pageant venue it became part of the Jack-in-the-Green weekend and was thus given more support.

In 1934, the May Queen’s dress was designed by Miss Armitage of the Hastings College of Art. It was made by the dress workshops at Mastins of Hastings. This year, to commemorate this event and as part of the curriculum, South Coast College launched a competition to design a dress for the May Queen; the winning design, by Jess Wenden, will be worn by this year’s queen.

This year’s May Queen Pageant will take place in Alexandra Park on Sunday 4th May from 1.00 pm onwards, commencing with a Punch and Judy show. The crowning will be at 2.00 pm. Admission free. Further details: contact Barry Jones on 01424-423389 or jones855@btinternet.com. Thanks to Barry for historical research and Ion Castro for colour photos.