Knutsford Royal May Day
Knutsford Royal May Day is one if not perhaps the most famous of all the May Day events still celebrated in the United Kingdom. Celebrated on the first Saturday in May the small market town of Knutsford in Cheshire becomes one large street pageant as the procession takes winds its way through the town to the Heath where the May Queen and her Court preside. Historically the May Day festivities are not linked to any historic fair or charter but can be traced back to 1864 when Knutsford itself has three historic fairs listed in Owen's Book of Fairs in 1802. However, with the growth in prominence of the May Day festivities from 1864 onwards, by the 1880s the main fair associated with the town occurred at the beginning of May. The celebrations were originally held on the first Monday in May or May-Day but by the 1920s it had become associated with the first Saturday in May.
The ritual of May Day is one of the four main pagan festivals and in pre-Christian Britain the feast of May was celebrated as Beltane. As a calendar custom it is associated with the start of summer and would have been commemorated with bonfires, dancing and can be linked to the Roman Spring Festival of Floralia which was held from the 28th of April to May 3rd. Elements of the May Pole dancing and the dressing of garments with flowers and garlands have been regarded by folklorists from the nineteenth century onwards as remnants of this Roman custom. The link between the Maypole and the festival of Flora was one of the reasons why Oliver Cromwell in 1644 banned the erection of maypoles which he declared to be a heathenish vanity, with the local parish being fined five shillings for every week until the Maypole was taken down. Another association with May is the linking in Roman Catholicism to the feast of Our Lady, and many celebrations throughout Lancashire are historically associated with Mary. However, although Knutsford claims to have been part of this tradition of May Day festivities, the actual event itself appears to have started in 1864 when the Misses Clowes, daughters of the Rev Robert Clowes who ran a private girls school in Knutsford, announced in the Macclesfield Courier their intention to revive the May Day festivities.
This first revival was a great success and included Miss Annie Sarah Pollitt as the first May Queen. With the introduction of the railway to the area in 1862, Knutsford became a popular place to visit from the industrial centres of Manchester, Liverpool and Warrington. The committee deliberately emphasised the rustic and traditional aspect of the procession by incorporating such rural elements as shepherdesses, milkmaids, and folkloric figures like Robin Hood, Little John and Maid Marion. The festival was such a success that it was determined to carry on this occasion on an annual basis. One of the fascinating features that grew up around the new festival was the practice of sanding the pavement with local people using coloured sand to make messages and patterns on the pavements. Over the following years the event became bigger and better especially in Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee year when the town was visited by members of the royal family. From that time onwards the event became known as the Royal May Day with the visit in 1887 of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
It would appear that the funfair was seen as an adjunct to the main event that took place on the Heath itself. The fair continued to take place opposite the Heath and it is unclear when it became part of the rest of the festivities.
Tenants included, John Collins with his four-abreast-jumpers, Relph and Pedley and their Whirling the Whirl, A. Morley's Slipping the Slip, and Richard's Steam Yachts. The shows on offer ranged from a circus presented by the Proctor family, Frank Gess with his Troupe of Athletes, Relph and Pedley's Cinematograph and Bessie North's Giant Lady. Side shows, children's rides and food stalls made up the rest of the attractions which were held on the Heath.
By 1911 the fair was presented by Mrs Whiting, the wife of the late John Whiting who was the original lessee and many famous Lancashire showfolk were in attendance.
In 1914 the town celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the May Day with the original May Queen Annie Sarah Pollit taking part in the fiftieth anniversary. Sadly this would be the last May Day festivities for some time as the start of the First World War limited the festival with the fair being eventually stopped.
It was not until the 1920s that Knutsford Royal May Day Fair became once again an established feature of the region. The fair had since moved to the Heath, which did not initially please the showmen as the organisers charged an entrance fee to the Heath and the crowning of the May Queen. The firm of John Collins became the lessees and they attempted over the decade to build the fair back up to its pre-war standards.
By 1930 the fairground was bigger and better than ever with over ten large riding machines and eleven shows as part of the equipment on offer to the public. These included Messrs Collins Bros and their Swirl and Scenic Dragons, M. A. Collins' Hurdle Racers, W. Green and Bros Caterpillar, and Martin's Razzle. However, due to the entrance fee charged on the gate to the Heath, the fair itself was not as well patronised as expected and by 1932 this practice was altered with only the carnival and sports arena imposing a levy. The 1936 fair dawned bright and there was a mammoth array of amusements in attendance wrote Salvor in the World's Fair, with a little bit of something of everything. Showmen who attended included the following: Harry Kid Furness and his boxing exhibition, Alf Testo with three novelty shows, Jack Lemn the fairground strong man and the Corbieries presenting the Globe infernal. Rides were presented by John Collins, Walter Green, Walter Chadwick, Ted Morley and many too numerous to mention.
The Festival fair opened on the Friday in anticipation for the following day. As usual the procession was lavishly attended by Morris dancers, pipers and bandsmen and a multitude of floats. The 1954 May Queen was Miss Audrey Howarth who was attended by her heralds, ladies, the Lord Chamberlain and other persons from her "Court". The fairground was presented by the Collins family and included Michael Collin's Waltzer and Autodrome, J. J Butterworth's Swirl and Jumpers which he had brought out again for the first time this year. Walter Shaw's Moonrocket and Green's Caterpillar ride. The shows were not as prominent as in previous years but Mrs A. Price "had a smart new show, Glamorous Eve, the Sleeping Beauty with rose coloured silk drapery around the inside of the show. By 1963 the Wallis and Silcock families presented their Cyclone, Dodgems, Swirl and Twist rides, with J. Stokes and J. Cowie both bringing their galloping horses to the town. A popular attraction was Herbert Silcock's Swirl with the organ newly painted by Moons Ltd of Eccleston, near Chorley.
Knutsford Royal May Day has been a featured event for over 130 years. What started as a local May Day custom incorporating the children from the local school has grown into one of the largest and most lavish calendar customs in the country. The combination of the festivities with a travelling fairground once again shows the manner in which fairground amusements can be incorporated into local and national events.