Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Til May be out …

The saying ‘Cast ne’er a clout ’til may is out’, meaning that winter clothing should not be discarded until may is out, has occasionally caused controversy.  Does it mean that winter clothing should be worn until the month of May is over, or does it mean that such clothing should be worn until hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) blossom – commonly known as ‘may’ – appears?

However, it now seems to be generally agreed that the saying refers to the flowering of hawthorn, which varies according to local climatic conditions, rather than the month.  Thus,  according  a south London woman who in November 2017 recalled her youth in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire in the 1960s:

‘Ne’er cast a clout till may is out, i.e. never take off your vest or undergarments until the hawthorn is in blossom.  As a teenager for whom vests were anything but fashionable, this was a nightmare.’

Similarly, a Barnstaple, Devon, correspondent wrote in 1992:

‘Certainly it is the may or hawthorn and not the month.  As a boy here in Devon it was always the way of it and as soon as may blossom showed we were told we could leave pullovers and such off.  The old folk would  point it out and one felt spring was here.’

An alternative explanation was given by a correspondent from Hove, East Sussex, in the Daily Telegraph of 5 June 1993:

‘May was one Mavis (May) Dennison, a “four-penny drab” who slept out in the Itchy Park area of Spitalfields [London] in the mid 1840s.  A cunning old soak, she made it her business to spend each winter in jail, coming out reasonably well-fed and revived for the summer months, about the end of May or early June.  It was from this that her contemporaries – most likely jeeringly – took up what has become our most misquoted old saw.’

Is this a genuine legend, or was it created in Hove in 1993?

Image:  hawthorn flowering on Wandsworth Common, London, 20 March 2022.