Fortean London: Vote Jack-in-the-Green

By Scott Wood Last edited 105 months ago
Fortean London: Vote Jack-in-the-Green

Deptford Jack in the Green 2006
You’re lost somewhere on a side street in south London on May 1st. That’s fine, we’ve all been lost in the city in some point but then you hear ragged folk music echoing from somewhere just out of sight. Scared but curious, you are a Londonist reader after all, you’re pixie-led through this street, which could be Greenwich or Deptford or, this year, somewhere south of Borough Market.

Turning the corner you’re confronted with a mêlée of musicians in period costume, people with painted faces, bizarre costumes and the scent of real ale. Leading them all, circling and dancing, is an eight foot tall thing made up of flowers and leaves. This is the Jack in the Green.

You think that what everyone north of the river told you is true, that south London is a crazed cross between ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘The Wicker Man’ and that they’re here for you but do not fear, too much, as the celebration are, aside from some drinking, morris dancing and, hopefully, sunshine, hopefully harmless.

Some folk will tell you that the Jack in the Green is a representation of the “Green Man”, an amalgamation of different foliate folklores to form a contemporary god of greenery. The Jack looks and feels, to our twenty-first century eyes and nerves, like something genuinely pagan.

However there are no records of the Jack before 1801 and all nineteenth-century accounts of the Jack describe it as a drunken May celebration and procession by London’s chimney sweeps to earn some money before the summer put them temporarily out of work. As the twentieth century began the Jack-in-revive lost customs and Jack in the Green’s started to sprout up again, sadly not by our equivalents of chimney sweeps, office cleaners and fast-food workers, but by folklorists and folk dancers. The Jack is back in London.

To call the Jack ‘pagan’ is a disservice to the London poor of the past who participated in this custom, painting them with a green brush that doesn’t suit, but it could also be argued that celebrating a season by dressing up and dancing in the street is a nominal for of paganism and something almost all of us have within us.

But you can make up your own mind. The City Jack-in-the-Green is not dancing this year but is outside Atlantis Bookshop on 1st May, Cecil Sharp House is having a May celebration with Jack on 8th May and Sarah Crofts of the Fowler Troop is speaking on the Deptford Jack-in-the-Green at Lewisham History Society on 21 May.

For the most authentic London Jack-in-the-Green adventure this year, however, follow the Fowlers Troop around some pubs of Borough and the City on 1st May, starting and finishing at The Rake on Borough Market at 11.57am.

By Scott Wood

Last Updated 29 April 2010