Tuesday, May 01, 2012

May Day Horse Parades

May Day greetings everyone, looks a bit wet right now to go and wash your face in the morning dew but hopefully it will have cleared up a bit by the time the Deptford Jack in the Green procession gets going later - not in Deptford or Greenwich this year, but around north Southwark and the City. They will be starting off around noon at The Wheatsheaf (24 Southwark Street SE1) and end up around 4 pm at The Charles Dickens, 160 Union Street, London, SE1 (full route here). On the political end of May Day, there will be the usual march in Central London and a day of action against workfare targeting companies involved.

From my pamphlet 'May Days in South London' (2011), here 's some information about a largely forgotten May Day custom - horse parades.

Horse Parades

A final group of workers associated with May Day was those working with horses. May Day 1860, saw  'the decorations of horses belonging to the several railway companies and other large establishments' in South London. The annual procession from the South-Eastern Railway Company from the Bricklayers Arms on the Old Kent Road 'created some sensation in the locality' with the streets crowded and the horses 'preceded by a band of music'. In the evening 'a supper was provided for the drivers, presided over by the principal officials, at which about one hundred sat down'. However another custom had already faded away by this date: ‘The procession of mail-coaches which formerly drew such crowds to witness at the General Post-Office on May-day, no longer exists’ (South London Chronicle 5.5.1860).

An annual May Day parade of horses was held in this period at Wellington Wharf, Lambeth by Eastwood and Co. Ltd. The event had outgrown the Wharf by 1899 when it was moved to Battersea Park and featured nearly a hundred 'gaily bedecked' horse drawn vehicles. In the same year St Olaves Board of Works in Bermondsey agreed to give 5 shillings to each carman and dustman in its employ for the 'parade of horses on May 1' (South London Press, 6 May 1899).

Local Council workers also held a parade. In 1892 ‘the Bermondsey dustmen and other servants of the Vestry turned out with twenty-two teams’, and prizes were awarded to the most effective of them' (The Graphic, 7 May 1892).

Bermondsey Horse Parade 1892
(The Graphic, 7 May 1892)

This event was still taking place at the turn of the 20th century: 'On Tuesday the annual May Day parade of the horses belonging to the vestry of Bermondsey was held. Twenty four horses, with their carmen, paraded in Spa Road... at the conclusion of the judging, the parade was continued through the streets of Bermondsey until 1:30 pm, the carmen being given the remainder of the day as holiday'. Prizes were awarded for the best cared for animal (SLP, 5 May 1900). In 1920, May Day horse parades were put on in Lee by employees of Mr. A. Manchester, horse and steam contractors (based at Dacre-Park) and at the Whitbreads bottling store in Lewisham, the latter a revival of 'a popular feature before the war' (KM, 7.5.1920).

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