Green Women and Green Beasts - Jack in the Green

Jack in the Green is a different character from the Green Man, though they are often confused with each other. There are numerous theories about Jack. That he represents and ancient pagan tree god, a nature spirit, emerging from a rural background. The folklorist Roy Judge [1] rejects the notion that the Jack in the Green represents some kind of pagan survival from ancient times of a Green Man figure, pointing out that the first descriptions of a Jack on May Day date from the late 18th century.

 

Chimney sweeps in need of supplementing their income during the warmer months, became part of the May Day procession, wearing ever larger garlands in competition with each other and other trades until eventually the whole body was covered, which is how the Jack In The Green came into being:

 

“The Jack-in-the-Green consisted of a frame of wood or wicker work, made in the form of a sugarloaf, but open at the bottom, and sufficiently large and high to accommodate a man. The frame is covered with green leaves and bunches of flowers interwoven with each other, so that the person within may be completely concealed, who dances with his companions, and the populace are mightily pleased with the oddity of the moving pyramid”.


An observer of this custom complained: “Unfortunately, the apparently innocent and somewhat child-like capers of the Jack-in-the-green and his jovial troop engender and increase the vice of drinking. At each halt, more refreshments are produced, and sobriety is not a distinctive quality of the poor in general, or of chimney-sweeps in particular” [2].

 

A photograph survives of the Deptford Jack in the Green on the back of which is a note from the photographer, Thankful Sturdee, believed to have been written in about 1934, which reads: “Jack in the Green. Fowlers troop of Mayday revellers. 'Jack in the Green' was an old institution in Deptford and regularly kept up until about twenty years ago, when the police stopped all such customs” [3].
 

The Jack in the Green fell out of favour, as the celebrations became increasingly rowdy and frowned upon. By the late 1880's, Jack in the Green was seen as “a relic of old times stranded on a shore where he attracts little attention and less sympathy”, as noted by South Bucks Free Press in 1888 [4]. He had disappeared completely from the streets by the arrival of the 20th century. However, Jack has now been revived as a custom, finding a new relevance within the communities who celebrate him.

 

 

 

 

[1] Roy Judge (2000) ‘Jack in the Green’

[2] John Thomson and Adolphe Smith (1877) 'Street Life in London'

[3] Sarah Crofts (2002) 'Fowlers Troop and the Deptford Jack in the Green'

[4] South Bucks Free Press (1888) quoted in Neil Transpotine (2013) 'May Days in South London: A History'