IN the build-up to the 150th Anniversary of the Royal May Day, the Guardian is taking a look-back at a festival that also went down in history – Knutsford May Day 1914.

Through a series of excerpts from our predecessor’s festival coverage, we get an insight into the May Day celebrations of yesteryear. In this second instalment, we explore Alterations and Improvements, Selection of the Queen, and Development of Pageantry.


Knutsford’s May Festival
The Jubilee Year: Brief Retrospect
By Eric Barlow


In every particular the May Festival has been greatly improved upon. In the far-off days clever and picturesque dances were unknown. There was not that attractiveness about the pageant as marks the procession of to-day, while the proceedings on the Heath consisted in the main of the boys playing football and the girls “kiss in the ring” and in the latter the boys no doubt had a part. There was not the same strictness for the exact ceremonial as there is today. With such a full and difficult programme there is no time to dole out new coins of the realm to the subjects of the Queen, with the addition of indigestible buns. A present-day Queen would not dream of munching a bun while seated on the throne, yet this happened many a time in the good old days before the children’s gala day developed into a festival for the grown-ups of industrial Lancashire. [sic]


In the early days the Queen was selected by the senior boys of the old Parochial School. And it was always a high day and holiday. The boys were marched to the Tatton-street schools, [s-sic] and Miss Graham, the kindly headmistress, felt proud of her girls as she paraded them before the committee of selection. In those days the passport to Knutsford’s royal throne was good looks. And there must have been many good-looking damsels in Miss Graham’s school, for the selection always took a full afternoon. When this not unpleasant duty was imposed on the boys for the first time in 1864 there were a good many eligibles, but eventually all were excluded save Miss Darwell and Miss Annie Sarah Pollitt, and eventually Miss Pollitt was chosen, and on May 1st that year she was crowned, amid great rejoicing, Queen of the first May Festival of Knutsford. Miss Pollitt, now Mrs Jackson, of Stanley-road, will tomorrow, live over again the interesting and important part she took in the festival of 1864. She will on this occasion be seated in a carriage drawn by a couple of high-stepping horses.

As the first May Queen she was carried along the thoroughfare in the sedan chair, which is one of Knutsford’s oldest institutions. Years back it was the most popular conveyance. It is held that the present reigning sedan was a donation, or an heirloom, from a most excellent gentlewoman, the Lady Jane Stanley. She bought and maintained it, but did not keep it for her exclusive use. Her chairman, a fine, portly personage, was allowed by her ladyship to let out the aristocratic enclosure to any reputable persons in the town, charging fourpence for himself and his helper. The chair was in great request, and soon another lady, Mrs Blackburn, started a second sedan – and then Mrs Legh had a third; and very useful they were for the assemblies and other social parties. At each festival time the sedan comes out, and the little old lady occupant is always a source of much attraction.


There were not more than half a dozen characters in costume in the early processions. Knutsford had had no experience in pageantry, but as the years rolled on, bit by bit things were improved upon, until to-day there is nothing like it for effect in any of the May festivals, which are so numerous up and down the country. Up to 1877 the festival was largely dominated by the influence of the Vicar and Church party, but in that year the committee were involved in a lawsuit through one of the stands giving way and injuring a lady, and this little episode swallowed up £235. In the trial the Vicar’s name was prominently brought forward. This was evidently too much for the good man, and he declined again to identify himself with the festival. Thereupon a new committee of the most public-spirited Knutsfordians was formed, who took upon themselves all responsibility, and were determined to proceed in so open-handed a manner as to win support on every side. They resolved, therefore, to know neither party nor sect, and invited all the children of the township, whatever happened to be their belief or religious persuasion. The results far surpassed their most sanguine expectations and the festival now proceeds on such a tide of popularity as to render its safety secure for all future time.

NEXT WEEK: The Royal Visit, This Year’s Queen, and The Rev. Canon Dallow’s Impression