Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Deptford Jack-in-the-Green, 2017

Posted on by royvickery |

In about 1900 the photographer Thankful (sometimes spelled Thankfull) Sturdee took a photograph in Deptford, now in the London Borough of Lewisham, which he labelled ‘An Old May-Day Custom – Jack in the Green’.  About 80 years later, in 1983, a replica of his Jack was constructed in the garden of the Dog and Bell pub in Princes Sreet, Deptford, and paraded around the local streets.  This revival has continued on the May Day bank holiday ever since.

At about 6 o’clock on Sunday evening people gather at the Dog and Bell and start decorating the Jack, which consists of two parts, a lower frame, which is covered with twigs of cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) and a smaller, upper frame, which is decorated with flowers.  There appears to be a division of labour with the men being responsible for decorating the lower frame, and women being responsible for the upper (but see comment below).  Most of the flowers used are florists chrysanthemums, but a few people responded to an appeal in publicity for the event, and brought along flowers from their gardens.

On the following day, the Monday bank holiday, people gather again at the Dog and Bell, and from 12 noon until 6 p.m. the Jack is paraded around the neighbouring streets in Deptford and Greenwich.

Although Jack-in-the-Green was, at one time, considered by folklorists be be a curious survival of an extremely ancient rite – ‘the annual victim of the vegetation drama’ – research by Roy Judge in the 1970s revealed that Jack evolved towards the end of the eighteenth century as one of a variety of begging activities practised on May Day.  These activities continued until early in the twentieth century, when they died out, to be revived by folk enthusiasts in the 1980s.

Comment from Sarah Crofts, November 2018:  There is not a particular male/female division of labour between the lower part and the crown of the Jack. It simply depends on who gets there first and whether all the laurel for the body of the Jack has arrived.  We just get going as soon as we can.

Updated 29 November 2018.

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