My 36 Years with the Maypole

The article below is taken from ‘The Barwicker’ magazine, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society:-

View the original article here


My 36 Years with the Maypole

From the Barwicker No. 5
March 1987

Author: Stanley Robshaw

I first learned about the Barwick maypole customs from my father, John Robshaw, who was born in 1880 and who died in 1940. He was a maypole master and he told me that the tradition was handed on from generation to generation. This was confirmed by the knowledgeable people of Barwick, who told me, “It’s handed down, lad. You’ve got it. You hand it on”.

The triennial ceremonies were planned and organised by three elected maypole masters. The custom was for the pole to be taken down on Easter Monday for inspection, repair and repainting, followed by its re-erection on Whit Tuesday. The pole was then made from two seasoned larch trees, spliced and joined by metal hoops. Because the end of the pole in the ground deteriorated, about three or four feet were sawn off on each occasion. This meant that periodically the pole needed replacement. The trees required were supplied traditionally by the Lord of the Manor Col. R.T. Trench Gascoigne and later Sir Alvary Gascoigne.

Three years before a new pole was required, the maypole masters and the head forester of Parlington Park searched the woods for suitable trees. They were felled and their branches removed. They were brought to the village on horse-drawn vehicles, to be set up on trestles in Pullan’s saw-mills. There, they were barked and left for a year or two to season. They were then planed by hand, knotted, dressed and spliced. The iron or steel hoops were made and fitted at the saw-mills, and the pole was primed and painted. It was then left in Hall Tower Field or in the backyard of the Rectory. The first person I can remember who worked on the pole was Bill Stirk, the joiner at Pullan’s timber yards. I was born near there and, as a child, I spent a lot of time with old Harry Pullan and Bill Stirk. He was a real craftsman.

During the Second World War, the pole was taken down for reasons of safety. It was re-erected in 1947. It was then left till 1951, when my involvement with the ceremony began. A few days before Easter, I was approached by Willy Armitage, who had been pole master with my father, with the following sorry tale. “Stan. They (the pole masters) are going to get Evans to fell the maypole on Easter Monday. I’m too old to do anything about it. I thought you should know and, if it happens, that is the end of Barwick maypole. They say that they cannot get sufficient support to continue. I feel you will not let this happen after all your father and I did over many years. Do something, lad!” What a challenge! I spoke to Fred Evans, the head forester, at Parlington, and asked him not to fell the pole. He was reluctant to agree as I had no authority except that I lived in Barwick and that people there would vouch for me. Finally he agreed. I went to the maypole corner on Easter Monday evening and was soon joined by a few other people who had heard the rumour, and also by the pole masters. I told them that I had asked Evans not to cut down the pole and that if they did not want to continue, I would accept their resignations on behalf of the village, to which they agreed.

I personally called a public meeting to see what support there was for continuing the custom. Raymond Collett toured the village acting as town crier, announcing that the meeting would be held on 4 April. The school was packed and the meeting was strongly in favour of the continuation of the custom. A maypole committee of seven members was elected, with myself as Chairman.

We faced many problems. We had no money and no equipment, but we felt an awful lot of goodwill. We went round the village and collected about £70, a lot of money in 1951. We agreed that we must preserve the customs handed down to us. we must keep to the basic principles of using ropes and ladders to take down and put up the maypole. We borrowed ladders from farmers and builders in Barwick and Aberford. We borrowed stack ropes from the local farms and, with this primitive equipment, we took the pole down and put it up again for several years. We wouldn’t do it today.

The main piece of equipment used was Helm’s granary steps, which were like a flight of stairs in a house. They were very strong. They held up the maypole until it was lifted to 45° when the ropes could take over. Several people in the village had connections with Carrs, the rope makers of Leeds, and we borrowed several ropes from them in the guise of testing them for the local farmers. Finally, when Carrs were going out of business, we bought some ropes from them and they are of the very best quality.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Tony and Jack Shinn, we have a complete collection of ladders, made in hardwood, all in pairs of the required length, from 6-11 yards. They also made proper hooks to hold the ladders, instead of the hay forks previously used. The ladders take the weight of the pole and control its ascent and descent below 45°.

We have been fortunate in having over many years the services of Tony Shinn, who was Bill Stirk’s apprentice. He is a past member of the committee and is our mentor where the pole is concerned. Whenever repairs are needed, he carries them out. The pole is no longer made of larch. At present, it is made of two tanalised and celcured Norwegian red fir poles. The bottom section was new in 1960 and is 54 ft. 4 in. in length. The top section was bought in 1983 and measures 39 ft. The 5 ft. 4 in. splice brings the total length down to 88 ft.

The question of why the ceremony is triennial is often asked. I suggest that in the years prior to 1960, the larch pole needed inspection, repair and repainting at no longer intervals than three years. To leave it longer would incur a terrible risk of its being blown down in a gale, for instance. The garlands certainly need replacing after this time. The present pole has been so treated that it will not rot and could remain in its present position for 10-20 years without deterioration. But the triennial cycle remains.

To put up and take down the pole safely requires a team, and for the past 36 years the teamwork has been very good. The leadership has changed hands, and now John Leak is in charge of taking down the pole, and David Wall is the ladderman. John was the crown bearer in 1951, and David was a dancer a year or two later. I thought it was delightful when John and David supported me when I spoke to the Historical Society in December. Here are two young lads who are going to carry it on for the next thirty years.

Putting up the maypole is a terrible responsibility. There might be 10,000 people packed into the village. The pubs are open all day, except for replenishing before opening in the evening. There are a lot of inebriated fellows about who want to enjoy themselves. The pole master must use a lot of tact, but he must be firm, as nothing must be allowed to go wrong. Anyone who has taken the responsibility for controlling the situation, at the end of the day has a very proud feeling that a few hundred people will do what the pole master asks and are all pulling in the right direction.

The maypole gala is primarily a day for the children. It is not just an effort to raise funds to pay for the continuance of the maypole-raising but a way of instilling the custom into the children. They have the glory and happiness of the custom. Without the children it would not continue. All our maypole queens, crown bearers and dancers look back on the ceremony with pride, and they still come back on the day.

The children learn maypole-plaiting and country-dancing at school. The village has been fortunate in being blessed with wonderful support and co-operation from the teachers in the village schools, to my knowledge over the past 70 years. I should like to record, personally and on behalf of my committee, our thanks to our teachers and headmasters, from Eric Holmes and Charles Naylor to the present day. It is most important that the children are brought up in the custom so that hopefully they will carry it on.

One of the first events after the maypole has been taken down at Easter is the election by the children of the Maypole Queen. The girls eligible for election must be 12, 13 or 14 years old on Maypole Day, and they must have been resident in Barwick for at least four years. The voters must attend school in the village or be schoolchildren resident in the village. The girl with the most votes becomes the Queen and the runner-up becomes maid of honour. The crown bearer, the equerries and the train bearers are selected by the teachers. The Queen is dressed in white, with a blue velvet train provided by the committee, as are the outfits of the equerries and train bearers. The attendants and dancers are dressed in white, including socks and shoes.

The gala was traditionally held on Whit Tuesday, but with the change in the date of the holiday we reluctantly agreed to hold the ceremony on the Tuesday after Spring Bank Holiday Monday. This means that sufficient people are on holiday to raise the pole.

The procession round the village is led by a band, followed by a special float for the Queen and other decorated wagons. One year we had to organise the transport of 240 children. In earlier days we had horse-drawn vehicles, but now we use motor wagons, tractors and trailers.

The crowning of the Queen is an impressive ceremony. This was traditionally carried out by Lady Gascoigne, the wife of the Lord of the Manor. Since then, we have had a variety of well-known people, including Mrs. Barren, the retired Head of the Infants’ Department, and I have never seen anyone so delighted as she was on that day. Now that Barwick has been taken over by Leeds, we have, since 1978, invited the Lady Mayoress to carry out the ceremony. After the crowning, the children bow to the Queen and offer her presents, whilst the girls plait the maypole. This is a sign of festivity and happiness. They are not dancing for us; they are dancing for the Queen. We have a list of Maypole queens going back to 1922, when we had Nellie Stead. I voted for her when I was eight years old.

After the crowning, the maypole plaiting and the dancing, it was usual to hire professional entertainers; a concert party, Punch and Judy shows, hypnotists, escapologists and, in recent years, marching majorettes. in earlier years we had our own stalls and sideshows. In 1984 we let plots to professional showmen. The money raised at the gala and from parading the garlands is used to pay the expenses of the ceremony and to provide presents for retired residents.

We realised that when Dick Helm died, we might have problems concerning Hall Tower Field, which we rented. So we decided that we would try to buy the field. The committee members went round the village and collected, not £70 as we did in 1951, but £2,250 in 1976. Using this sum plus some money in the maypole fund, we purchased the field for £2,500.

I don’t know how long there has been a fox as a weather vane on top of the maypole. The most frightening event is the climbing of the pole to spin the fox, and we breathe a sigh of relief when the climber gets down safely. We take out insurance against accidents to participants and spectators on Maypole Day, and also for those working on the pole before then. In 1984, we took a careful look at our insurance and we realised we couldn’t be absolutely sure that the climber was covered. So, last time, we got the fire brigade to take down the ropes. Many people were disappointed, but we felt that we did the right thing.

I think we have done everything that is humanly possible to continue the tradition of Barwick maypole. I hope that the people following on will continue this marvellous custom. I appeal to them to do so. I shall come back to haunt them if they don’t. But I would issue this warning. If ever we go away from the basic principles of the way we erect the pole and the way we involve the children, and if we ever fall into the trap of treating the custom as a money spinner, it will die. So, please, keep to the tradition.

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