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Cat on the stairs |Publications| Cornwall  

May Festivals and Traditions and songs in Cornwall in the Nineteenth Century

M.A. Courtney 'Cornish Feasts and Folk-lore'

In 1890, Margaret Ann Courtney (1834-1920) published ‘Cornish Feasts and Folk-lore’.  In the book Courtney gives a detailed description of the festivities, superstitions and traditions associated with May Day in Cornwall at the time she was writing. Courtney’s work was compiled from various sources including other writers and from the mouths of people.

The text describes an interesting diversity of May related traditions and festivals that were present in Cornwall in the nineteenth century as well as giving an indication of change. This provides some context to today's revived May traditions. Courtney was Penzance born, with family from the Scilly’s and she lived in Cornwall;  she had an insight into the culture of the community around her but also compiled her collection from other authors. The book was written at a time when there was a growing consciousness to preserve aspects of folk-culture and the start of what became the early English folk revival as gentlemen collectors traversed rural Britain to discover and record the culture of the rural, working classes.  

I have decided to include Courtney’s text in full rather than summarise although some aspects are relevant to the case studies and will be discussed further where relevant the case case of St Germans May Tree Fair. 

The only May-pole now erected in Cornwall is put up on April 30th, at Hugh Town, St Marys, Scilly. Girls dance around in on May-day with garlands of flowers on their heads, or large wreaths of flowers from shoulder to waist.

Dr Stephan Clogg, of Looe, says that:

May-poles are still to be seen on May-Day, at Pelynt, Dulver, and East and West Looe” 

(W Antiquity, August 1884).

 In the beginning of the century, boys and girls in Cornwall sat up until twelve O’ clock on the eve of May-Day, and then marched around the towns and villages with Musical instruments, collecting their friends to go a-maying. May day is ushered in in Penzance by the discordant blowing of large tin horns. At daybreak, and even earlier, parties of boys, five or six in number, assemble at the street corners, from whence they perambulate the town blowing their horns and conchshells. They enter the gardens of detached houses, stop and bray under the bed-room windows, and beg for money. With what they collect they go into the country, and at one of the farmhouses they breakfast on bread and clotted cream, junket etc. An additional ring of tin (a penn’orth) is added to his horn every year that a boy uses it.

"Formerly, on the May-morn, if the boys succeeded in fixing a “May Bough” over a farmer’s door before he was up, he was considered bound to give them breakfasts; and in some parts of the county, should the first comer bring with him a pieces of well opened hawthorn, he was entitled to a basin of cream.

“In West Cornwall it is the custom to hang a piece of furze to a door early in the morning of May-day. At breakfast time the one who does this appears and demands a piece of bread and cream with a bason of ‘raw milk’ (milk that has not been scalded to take the cream off). In Landrake, East Cornwall, it was the custom to give the person who plucked a fern as much cream as would cover it. It is also the practice there to chastise with stinging nettles any one found in bed after six on May-morning”

 – Rev S. Rundle, Vicar of Goldolphin

Young shoots of sycamore, as well as white thorn[, are known as May in Cornwall, and from green twigs of the former and from green stalks of wheaten corn the children of this county make a rude whistle, which they call a “feeper”.

Until very lately parties of young men and women rose betimes on May-Day and went into the country to breakfast; going a “Junketing” in the evening has not yet been discontinued.

At Hayle on May-Day (1883), as usual, groups of children, decorated with flowers and gay with fantastic paper-clothes, went singing through the streets, In the evening bonfires were lit at various parts of the town, houses were illuminated with candles, torches and fire balls burnt until late hour. The last is a new and dangerous plaything; a ball of tow or rags saturated with petroleum, set fire to, and then kicked from one place to another; it leaves a small track of burning oil wherever it goes.

“On may morning in Polperro, the children and even adults go out into the country and fetch home branches of the narrow-leaved elm, or flowering boughs of white thorn, both which are called ‘May’. At a later hour all the boys sally forth with bucket, can or other vessel, and avail themselves of a licenses which the season confers- to ‘dip’ or wellnigh drown, without regard to person or circumstance, the passenger who has not the protection of a piece of ‘May; consciously stuck to his dress; at the same time they sing; ‘The first of May is Dipping-day’, this manner of keeping May-day is, I have heard, common n Cornwall. We are now favoured with a call from the boy with his pretty garland, gay with bright flowers and gaudily painted birds-eggs, who expects some little gratuity for the sight”

– T.Q. Couch

“At East Looe the boys dress their hats with flowers, furnish themselves with bullocks’ horns, in which sticks of two feet long are fixed, and with these filled with water they parade the streets and dip all persons who have not the sprig of May in their hats”

– Bond

First of May you must take down all the horse-shoes (that are nailed over doors to keep out witches etc.) and turn them, not letting them touch the ground “

 – Old farmer, mid-Cornwall, through TQ Couch, West Antiquity, September 1883.


May-day at Padstow is Hobby-Horse day. A Hobby-horse is carried through the streets to a pool known as traitors-pool, a quarter of a mile out of the town. Here it is supposed to drink; the head is dipped into the water, which is freely sprinkled over the spectators. The procession returns home, singing a song to commemorate the tradition that the French, having landed in the day, mistook a party of mummers in red cloaks for soldiers and hastily fled to their boats and rowed away.

The May pole on the first of May at Padstow has only been discontinued within the last six or eight years (1883). It was erected in connection with the ‘Hobby-Horse’ festival by the young men of the town, whop on the last eve of April month would go into the country, cut a quantity of blooming yellow furze, and gather the flowers in season, make garlands of the same’ borrow the largest spar they could get from a shipwright’s yard, dress it up with the said furze and garlands, with a flag or two on the top, and hoist the pole in a conspicuous part of the town, when the ‘Mayer’s, male and female, would dance around in on that festival day, singing-

‘And strew all your flowers, for summer come in to-day.

It is but a while ago since we have strewed ours

In the merry morning of May’

The May pole was allowed to remain up from a week to a fortnight, when it was taken down, stripped and the pole returned”

-          (Henry Harding, Padstow.  West Antiquity August 1883)


“Formerly all the respectable people at Padstow kept this anniversary, decorated with the choicest flowers; but some unlucky day a number of rough characters from a distance joined in  and committed some sad assaults on the old and young, spoiling all their nice summer clothe, and covering their faces and persons with smut. From that time – fifty years since (1865) the procession is formed of the lowest”

“The May-pole was once decorated with the best flowers, now with only some elm branches and furze in blossom. The horse is formed as follows;

The dress is made of sackcloth painted black, a fierce mask, eyes red, horses head, horse hair mane and tail; distended by a hoop – some would call it frightful. Carried by a powerful man, he could inflict mischief with the snappers etc. no doubt it is a remnant of the ancient plays, and it represents the devil, or the power of darkness. They commence singing at sunrise.

‘The morning song

Unite and unite, let us all unite,

For Summer is comen to-day

For whither we are going all will unite,

In the merry morning of May.

Arise up, Mr – and joy you betide,

For summer is comen to-day;

And bright is your bride that lays by your side,

In the merry morning of May,

Arise up Mrs- and gold be your ring,

For Summer is a comen to-day;

And give us a cup pf ale, the merrier we shall sing,

In the merry morning of May

Arose up, Miss-, all in your smock of silk

For summer is a comen to-day.

And all your body under as white as milk,

In the merry morning of May.

The young men of Padstow might if the would,

For summer is a comen to-day;

The might have built a ship and gilded her with gold,

In the merry morning of May.

Now dare you well, and we bid you good cheer,

For Summer is  comen to-day

He will come no more unto your house before another year,

In the Merry Morning of May


George Rawlings, September 1865, through R. Hunt FRS Droles etc. Old Cornwall


Mr Rawling all through his song has written ‘For summer has come unto day’ but this is clearly a mistake. He also gives another which he calls the May-Song but it is not as well worth transcribing: it bears in some parts a slight resemblance to that sung at the Helston Hal-an-Tow.

Mr George C Boase, in an article o ‘The Padstow May Songs’ has many additional verses in ‘The Morning Song’. He also gives ‘The Day song’ sung in honour of St George, of which I will quote the first verse and the last paragraph of his paper.

“Awake, St George, where is he O!

For summer is a-come and winter is a-go,

And everyday God give us his grace,

By day and by night O!

Where is St Georg, where is he O!

He is out in his long boat, all on the salt sea O!

And in every land O! the land ere we go!


 And for to fetch the summer home, the summer and the May O!

For summer is a-come and the winter is a-go”


The only account of “The Hobby-Horse” found in the Cornish histories is in Hitchin’s and Drews Cornwall (Col. 1. P. 720, vol. ii pp 525-529) where it is stated that there is a tradition of St. George on horseback having visited the neighbourhood of Padstow, where indentation of his horse’s hoofs caused a spring of water to rise. The spot is still known as St. George’s well, and water is said to be found there even in the hottest summer”

– W. Antiquity

In East Cornwall they have a custom of bathing in the sea on three first Sunday Mornings in May. And in West Cornwall children were taken before sunrise on those days to holy wells, notably that of St. Maddern (Madron), near Penzance, to be there dipped into the running water, that they might be cured of the rickets and other childish disorders. After being stripped naked they were plunged three times into the water, the parents facing the sun, and passed round the well nine times from east to west. They were dressed, and laid by the side of the well, or in an artificial mound re-made every year, called St. Maddern’s bed, which faced it, to sleep in the sun: should they do so and the water bubble it was considered a good sign. Not a word was to be spoken the whole time for fear of breaking the spell.

A small piece torn (not cut) from the child’s clothes was hung for luck (if possible out of sight) on a  thorn which grew out of the chapel wall. Some of these bits of rag may still sometimes be found fluttering in the neighbourhood bushes. I knew two well-educated people who in 1840, having a son who could not walk at the age of two, carried him and dipped him in Madron well (a distance of three miles from their home) on the first two Sundays of May; but on the third the father refused to go. Some authorities say this well should be visited on the first three Wednesdays on May; as was for the same purpose another holy well at Chapel Euny (or. St Uny) near Sancred.

The Wesleyans hold an open-air service on the first three Sunday afternoons in Mau, at a ruined chapel near Madron well, in the south wall of which a hole may be seen, through which the water from the well runs into a small baptistry in the south-east corner.

Parties of young girls to this day walk there in May to try for sweethearts. Crooked pins, or small heavy things are dropped into the well in couples; if they keep together the pair will be married; the number of bubbles they make in falling shows the time that will elapse before the event. Sometimes two pieces of straw formed into a cross, fastened in the centre by a pin, were used as divinations. An old woman who lived in a cottage at a little distance formerly frequented the well and instructed visitors how to work the charms; she was never paid in money, but small presents were places where she could find them. Pilgrims from all parts of England centuries ago resorted to St. Maddern’s well: that was famed, as was also her grave, for many miraculous cures. The late Rev. R. S Hawker, vicar of Morenstow, in East Cornwall, published a poem, called ‘The doom well of St. Madron’, on one of the ancient legends connected with it.

“A respectable tradesmen’s wife in Launceston tell me that a swelling the neck may be cured by the patients going before sunrise on the first of May to the grave of the last young  man (if the patient be a woman, to that of the last young woman( if a man) who had been buried in the churchyard, and applying the dew, gathered by passing the hand three times from the head to the foot of the grace, to the part affected by the ailment. I may well add that the common notion of improving the complexion by washing the face in the early dew in the fields in the first of May prevails in these parts (East Cornwall) and they say that child who is weak in the back may be cured by drawing him over the grass wet in the morning dew. The experiments must be thrice performed, that is, on the mornings of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of May “

(H. G.T Notes and Queries, 14th December, 1850)


The 8th of May is at Helston given up to pleasure, and is known as flora-day, flurry-day, furry-day and Faddy. To ‘fade; meant in old English to dance from country to town. from country to town. A legend says this day was set apart to commemorate a fight between the devil and St. Michael, in which the first was defeated. 

The name Helston has been fancifully derived from a large block of granite which until 1783 was to be seen in the yard of the Angel hotel, the principal inn of the place. This was the stone that sealed Hell’s mouth, and the devil was carrying it when met by St. Michael. Why he should have burdened himself with such a “large pebble” (as Cornish miners call all stones) is quite unknown. The fight and overthrow are figured on the town-seal. The week before Flora-day is in Helston devoted to the “spring-clean,” and every house is made “as bright as a new pin,” and the gardens stripped of their flowers to adorn them.

 The revelry begins at day-break, when the men and maidservants with their friends go into the country to breakfast; these are the “Hal-an-tow.” They return about eight, laden with green boughs, preceded by a drum and singing an old song, the first verses of which ran thus:

 “Robin Hood and Little John They both are gone to fair, O!

  And we will to the merry greenwood

To see what they do there, O!

And for to chase—O!

To chase the buck and doe.

Refrain—With Hal-an-tow! Rumbelow!

  For we are up as soon as any O!

And for to fetch the summer home,

The summer and the May O!

For summer is a-come O!

And winter is a-gone O!


The whole of this song may be found with the music in the Rev. Baring Gould’s “Songs of the West,” and the first verse set to another tune in Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect, by Uncle Jan Trenoodle.

 The Hal-an-tow are privileged to levy contributions on strangers coming into the town. Early in the morning merry peals are rung on the church-bells, and at nine a prescriptive holiday is demanded by the boys at the grammar-school. At noon the principal inhabitants and visitors dance through the town. The dancers start from the market-house, and go through the streets; in at the front doors of the houses that have been left open for them, ringing every bell and knocking at every knocker, and out at the back, but if more convenient they dance around the garden, or even around a room, and return through the door by which they entered. Sometimes the procession files in at one shop-door, dances through that department and out through another, and in one place descends into a cellar.

All the main streets are thus traversed, and a circuit is made of the bowling-green, which at one end is the extreme limit of the town. Two beadles, their wands wreathed with flowers, and a band with a gaily-decorated drum, head the procession. The dance ends with “hands across” at the assembly room of the Angel hotel, where there is always a ball in the evening. Non-dancers are admitted to this room by a small payment (which must be a silver coin), paid as they go up the stairs either to the landlord or a gentleman,—one stands on each side of the door. The gentlemen dancers on entering pay for their partners, and by established custom, should they be going to attend the evening ball, they are bound to give them their tickets, gloves, and the first dance.

 The tradespeople have their dance at a later hour, and their ball at another hotel. The figure of the Furry dance, performed to a very lively measure, is extremely simple. To the first half of the tune the couples dance along hand[1]in-hand; at the second the first gentleman turns the second lady and the second gentleman the first. This change is made all down the set. Repeat. I have appended the tune, to which children have adopted the following doggerel:


“John the bone (beau) was walking home,

When he met with Sally Dover,

He kissed her once,

  he kissed her twice,

And he kissed her three times over.”


 Some writers have made the mistake of imagining that the tune sung to the Hal-an-tow and the Furry dance are the same. Formerly, should any person in Helston be found at work on Flora-day, he was set astride on a pole, then carried away on men’s shoulders to a wide part of the Cober (a stream which empties itself into Loe-pool close by), and sentenced to leap over it. As it was almost impossible to do this without jumping into the water, the punishment was remitted by the payment of a small fine towards the day’s amusement. Others say the offender was first made to jump the Cober and then set astride on a pole to dry. In many of the villages around Helston the children, on Flora-day, deck themselves with large wreaths, which they wear over one shoulder and under the other arm; and at Porthleven I observed, in 1884, in addition to 38 these wreaths, several children with large white handkerchiefs arranged as wimples, kept on their heads with garlands of flowers.

One of the first objects on entering the village of St. Germans (East Cornwall) is the large walnut-tree, at the foot of what is called Nut-tree Hill. Many a gay May-fair has been witnessed by the old tree. In the morning of the 28th of the month splendid fat cattle from some of the largest and best farms in the county quietly chewed the cud around its trunk; in the afternoon the basket-swing dangled from its branches filled with merry, laughing boys and girls from every part of the parish. On the following day the mock mayor, who had been chosen with many formalities, remarkable only for their rude and rough nature, starting from some “bush-house” where he had been supping too freely of the fair-ale, was mounted on wain or cart, and drawn around it, to claim his pretended jurisdiction over the ancient borough, until his successor was chosen at the following fair. Leaving the nut-tree, which is a real ornament to the town, we pass by a spring of water running into a large trough, in which many a country lad has been drenched for daring to enter the town on the 29th of May without the leaf or branch of oak in his hat”

-          R. Hunt, Drolls etc. Old Cornwall


The wrestlers of Cornwall and their wrestling-matches are still famous, and in the May of 1868 4,000 assembled one day on Marazion Green, and 3,000 the next, to see one. The wrestlers of this county have a peculiar grip, called by them “the Cornish-hug.” Any odd, foolish game is in West Cornwall called a May-game (pronounced May-gum), also a person who acts foolishly; and you frequently hear the expression—“He’s a reg’lar May-gum!” There is a proverb that says—“Don’t make mock of a May-gum, you may be struck comical yourself one day. Make mock of a May-gum, you may be struck comical yourself one day.

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