Green Women and Green Beasts - Milkmaid

On May 1st 1667, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary: “Thence to Westminster; in the way meeting many milk-maids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them” [1].


The milkmaids' 'garland' consisted of (often borrowed) silver plate decorated with flowers and ribbons which they carried on their heads. Accompanied by musicians they would go dancing through the streets collecting donations. As time progressed the headdresses became more complex and trades began to take part, especially chimney sweeps.


Either due to suppression, or changes in propriety (the celebrations included alcohol), May games in London fell away by the eighteenth century. The tradition was thought to be kept alive by certain occupations, particularly milkmaids.


This custom was seemingly in decline by the time Hone's Every-Day Book was published in 1826, with its lament that


 “In London thirty years ago, When pretty milkmaids went about It was a goodly sight to see/Their May-day pageant all drawn out/ Such scenes and sounds once blest my eye/ And charm'd my ears; but all have vanish'd,/ On May-day now no garlands go/ For milkmaids and their dance are banish'd'” [2].


As well as the milkmaids there are also references in the 18th century to 'bunters' May Day - bunter being a term for a prostitute. According to Judge, “The Bunters were, in fact, a kind of parody of the Milkmaids' custom, with their pewter in place of silver... giving a deliberately grotesque show as public entertainment” [3].


A 1770 print purporting to depict this includes the verse “What Frolicks are here /So droll and so queer/ How joyful appeareth the day/ E'en Bunter and Bawd Unite to applaud /And celebrate first of the May”.





[1] Samuel Pepys 'The Diary of Samuel Pepys'

[2] William Hone 'The Every-Day Book'

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