Jack in the green

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May Day in Cheltenham, 1892, from Folk-Lore Vol 4 (1893)
A Jack in the Green in Kingston, London in the mid-1970s

A Jack in the Green (also Jack in the green, Jack-in-the-green, Jack i' the Green, Jack o' the Green, etc.) is a participant in traditional English May Day parades and other May celebrations, who wears a large, foliage-covered, garland-like framework, usually pyramidal or conical in shape, which covers his body from head to foot. The name is also applied to the garland itself.


A chimney sweeps' Jack in the Green dances with the "Lord and Lady of the May" (probably both played by men) in 18th-century London
Hastings Jack in the Green procession
A Bogey at Jack in the Green, Hastings
Jack in the green in Onex, Switzerland, 2011

In the 16th and 17th centuries in England, people would make garlands of flowers and leaves for the May Day celebration. After becoming a source of competition between Works Guilds, these garlands became increasingly elaborate, to the extent that it covered the entire man. This became known as Jack in the Green. For some reason the figure became particularly associated with chimney sweeps[1] as, for example, in Cheltenham;[2] there are several explanations thereof, but none has been proven conclusively.[3]

By the turn of the 20th century the custom had started to wane as a result of the Victorian disapproval of bawdy and anarchic behaviour. The Lord and Lady of the May,[1] with their practical jokes, were replaced by a pretty May Queen, while the noisy, drunken Jack in the Green vanished altogether from the parades.


Jack in the Green was revived in Whitstable, Kent in 1976 and continues to lead an annual procession of Morris dancers through the town on the May Bank Holiday. Rochester, also in Kent, revived the May Day Jack tradition in 1980, as the Rochester Sweeps Festival[4] with an associated awakening of Jack-in-the-Green ceremony held on Blue Bell Hill at sunrise.

Another revival occurred in Hastings in 1983 and has become a major event in Hastings Old Town calendar. Ilfracombe in North Devon has had a Jack in the Green procession and celebration since 2000. It is supported by local schoolchildren, dancing around the May Pole on the sea front, and by local morris men and dance groups from in and around the district.

Jack is a colourful figure, almost 3m (nine feet) tall, covered in greenery and flowers. In Whitstable, he is accompanied by two attendants, representing the legendary figures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. In Hastings, he is also accompanied by attendants, here known as Bogies, who are completely disguised in green rags, vegetation, and face paint. The attendants play music, dance and sing as they guide Jack through the streets to celebrate the coming of Summer.

Revivals of the custom have occurred in various parts of England; Jacks in the Green have been seen in Bristol, Oxford and Knutsford, among other places. Jacks also appear at May Fairs in North America. In Deptford the Fowler's Troop and Blackheath Morris have been parading the tallest and heaviest modern Jack for many decades, either in Greenwich, Bermondsey and the Borough or at Deptford itself, and at the end of May a Jack is an essential part of the Pagan Pride parade in Holborn.

Current Jacks in the Green

A large number of Jacks parade each year keeping the tradition alive. Some are revivals based on traditional customs that died out in Victorian times. Whilst others are brand new, based on writings or pictures depicting earlier Jacks. The following list are all currently active:

Brentham Garden Suburb, London. Brentham has a big celebration every May which includes a Jack in the Green described as "a walking, talking bush" who sometimes parades barefoot.[5]

Bristol. A Jack in the Green was recorded in Bristol around 1865 by a lady who remembered seeing him with a sweep and a queen on the outskirts of the city. The revived Bristol Jack in the Green appears on the first Saturday in May starting from the historic Harbourside (outside the Arnolfini Gallery) and leads a procession through the streets of Bristol, eventually ending the day on Horfield Common where he is "slain" (and ripped apart by onlookers) to "release the spirit of summer".[6]

Carshalton, London. A Celebration of Harvest, this takes place in September each year. The straw Jack is ritually stripped in the evening so that all present can take a keepsake and then he is burnt in a brazier. It is hoped that he will be burnt as a complete figure one year.[7]

Central London. The parade starts from the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1, led by traditional giants, the Jack-in-the-Green and Bogies.[8]

City of London. Rather than a revival, the City of London Jack-in-the-Green is based on descriptions and illustrations from early writings. In the late 1970s Greenwood Morris, who danced at Alexandra Palace, would bring their Jack into the City for an evening tour of London Wall and Smithfield. Over a pint one lunchtime an all day event was discussed and the City of London Jack was born and was first paraded in 1984. Tradition has it that the City of London Jack only comes out on City working days.[9]

Deptford, London. The Fowlers Troop Jack was revived in the early 1980s by members of the Blackheath Morris Men and friends. It is a revival of a Jack in the Green from about 1906 which was paraded by the original Fowlers Troop. The Fowlers Jack goes out on the streets of South East London or the City of London each May Day. The Jack is usually dressed on 30 April and is paraded on May Day.[10]

Hastings, East Sussex. The Hastings Jack-in-the-Green festival was revived by local group Mad Jacks Morris Dancers in 1983 and is now one of the biggest annual gatherings of Morris Dancers in the country. The Jack is “released” every year and is central to the festival. The main procession of the Jack takes place on the May Bank Holiday Monday through the streets of Hastings Old Town, starting from the Fisherman's Museum. The Jack is accompanied by Mad Jacks Morris, the Green Bogies, dancers, giants, musicians and various others. The procession ends on the West Hill where Jack is "slain" to "release the spirit of summer".[11]

Knutsford, Cheshire. May Day in Knutsford is celebrated over the May Bank holiday weekend. The main focus is the May Queen but there is a Jack in the Green.[12]

Oxford. A Jack in the Green appears in Oxford on May Day. A traditional Jack was famously photographed in Oxford by Sir Benjamin Stone.[13]

Rochester, Kent. The Rochester Sweeps festival was revived in 1981 and still has a Jack in the Green Ceremony where the Jack is awoken by dancers and sweeps on Blue Bell Hill at dawn on May Morning (approximately 5:32am) at the Bluebell Hill picnic area . The Jack is paraded through the street (usually on the Bank Holiday Monday) starting in Rochester Castle Gardens and taking a circular route. The festival is attended by hundreds of Morris sides.[14]

Whitstable. Oyster Morris have their own Green Man who combines the roles of Jester and announcer dressed in white and green. The Jack is central to the Whitstable May Day celebrations.[15]


Amongst modern "folkies" and neo-pagans the Jack in the Green has become identified with the mysterious Green Man depicted in mediaeval church carvings and is widely felt to be an embodiment of natural fertility, a spirit of the primeval greenwood and a trickster; by extension he is linked to such mythological characters as Puck, Robin Goodfellow, the wild man, and the Green Knight, among others such as the folklore behind the legend of Robin Hood.

Similar characters to the English Jack in the Green were known in parts of Europe and Russia, and may be still. Some were involved in mock sacrifice, where the leafy framework was thrown or ducked into a pond or river (sometimes with the person still inside it). These festivities were variously associated with Easter Monday, St George's Day (23 April), May Day, and Whitsuntide. Occasionally the disguise was straw rather than leaves, a link with the straw bears of German Carnival (and the sole English example, the Whittlesea Straw Bear), suggesting these particular figures personified Winter rather than Spring or Summer. Folklorist Sir James Frazer cited many examples in The Golden Bough.

Other related figures in Britain include the Burry Man of South Queensferry and the Garland King of Castleton, Derbyshire, who parades on Oak Apple Day.

Modern popular culture

British progressive rock group Jethro Tull recorded a song called "Jack-in-the-Green" on their 1977 album Songs From The Wood.

Northamptonshire folk band Empty Pocket included "Jack in the Green" by Paul Rogers in their 1995 album of the same name.

Oxford folk band Magpie Lane's fourth CD, Jack-in-the-Green (1998), includes a song of the same name, written in the traditional style by Martin Graebe.

Pianist Jools Holland wrote a track called "Jack O The Green" in conjunction with Suggs of Madness after Suggs witnessed the ceremony in Whitstable, mentioned above, where the coming of Spring is celebrated with the Jack in the Green parading through the streets to an old English folk melody. Having heard this each year Suggs was captivated by it. On holiday in Tuscany he saw a band of local musicians gather with traditional Tuscan instruments in a small village square. Their own Jack in the Green appeared and much to Suggs' surprise they played the same tune.[citation needed] Their collaboration takes the folk melody, creates a variation on it, and sets them to ska rhythms.

"Jack in the Green" is the name of Painting No. 10 in the Masquerade by Kit Williams. The main character, Jack Hare, appears in disguise on each page of the story: in this picture he is a transparent green jelly in a shop window; this is a pun on Jack in the Green and the moulded shape of the jelly itself bears a vague resemblance to a Jack in the Green.

A character called Jack in the Green has appeared in a number of comic books, including Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days, Swamp Thing Vol.2 #47 and Hellblazer: Lady Constantine #s 1, 2 and 3, as an early incarnation of the Swamp Thing character.

Jack o' the Green (credited as Jack) was played by Tom Cruise in the film Legend, where he serves as the protagonist.

In episode four of Cranford (2007), Jack-in-the-Green appears in the May Day celebrations, portrayed by the character Jem Hearne.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Mayhew 1861, p. 370
  2. Wikisource: Folk-Lore Vol 4 "May Day in Cheltenham"
  3. Pattie Lawler. "The Dirt on the Jack-in-the-Green". Adf.org. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Medway Web Site:Sweeps". Medway.gov.uk. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Brentham Jack-in-the-Green". Brentham.com. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Bristol Jack in the Green". Home.freeuk.net. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Carshalton Straw Jack". Strawjack.co.uk. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "'''London Jack-in-the-Green (Beltane Bash)'''". Paganfestivals.com. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "City of London Jack-in-the-Green". Cityjackinthegreen.com. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Deptford Jack-in-the-Green". Deptford-jack.org.uk. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Hastings Traditional Jack-in-the-Green". Hastingsjack.co.uk. 7 May 2012. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "'''Knutsford Jack-in-the-Green'''". Virtual-knutsford.co.uk. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. uk2.net. "Oxford Jack-in-the-Green". Am39.com. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Rochester Jack-in-the-Green Archived 7 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  15. "Whitstable Jack-in-the-Green". Oystermorris.org.uk. Retrieved 26 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


External links