Knutsford Royal May Fair
For all children Christmas and birthdays are
the highlight of their year and, for Knutsford children, there is
also May Day, with the excitement of dressing up for a part in the
colourful procession, perhaps riding on a horse-drawn float, dancing
to the applause of the spectators or even playing a starring role
in the Queen's Court.
Knutsford Royal May Day is one if not perhaps
the most famous of all the May Day events still celebrated in the
United Kingdom. Celebrated on the first Saturday in May the small
market town of Knutsford in Cheshire becomes one large street pageant
as the procession takes winds its way through the town to the Heath
where the May Queen and her Court preside. Historically the May
Day festivities are not linked to any historic fair or charter but
can be traced back to 1864 when Knutsford itself has three historic
fairs listed in Owen's Book of Fairs in 1802. However, with the
growth in prominence of the May Day festivities from 1864 onwards,
by the 1880s the main fair associated with the town occurred at
the beginning of May. The celebrations were originally held on the
first Monday in May or May-Day but by the 1920s it had become associated
with the first Saturday in May.
The ritual of May Day is one of the four main
pagan festivals and in pre-Christian Britain the feast of May was
celebrated as Beltane. As a calendar custom it is associated with
the start of summer and would have been commemorated with bonfires,
dancing and can be linked to the Roman Spring Festival of Floralia
which was held from the 28th of April to May 3rd. Elements of the
May Pole dancing and the dressing of garments with flowers and garlands
have been regarded by folklorists from the nineteenth century onwards
as remnants of this Roman custom. The link between the Maypole and
the festival of Flora was one of the reasons why Oliver Cromwell
in 1644 banned the erection of maypoles which he declared to be
a heathenish vanitie, with the local parish being fined five shillings
for every week until the Maypole was taken down. Another association
with May is the linking in Roman Catholicism to the feast of Our
Lady, and many celebrations throughout Lancashire are historically
associated with Mary. However, although Knutsford claims to have
been part of this tradition of May Day festivities, the actual event
itself appears to have started in 1864 when the Misses Clowes, daughters
of the Rev Robert Clowes who ran a private girls school in Knutsford,
announced in the Macclesfield Courier their intention to
revive the May Day festivities:
The ancient custom of celebrating the commencement
of summer is to be revived at Knutsford on Monday next. The children
of the town are to march to the Heath headed by the volunteer band
and on arriving there the maypole wreathed with flowers and garlands
gay will be the signal where the Queen is to receive her honours.
This first revival was a great success and included
Miss Annie Sarah Pollitt as the first May Queen. With the introduction
of the railway to the area in 1862, Knutsford became a popular place
to visit from the industrial centres of Manchester, Liverpool and
Warrington. The committee deliberately emphasised the rustic and
traditional aspect of the procession by incorporating such rural
elements as shepherdesses, milkmaids, and folkloric figures like
Robin Hood, Little John and Maid Marion. The festival was such a
success that it was determined to carry on this occasion on an annual
basis. One of the fascinating features that grew up around the new
festival was the practice of sanding the pavement with local people
using coloured sand to make messages and patterns on the pavements.
Over the following years the event became bigger and better especially
in Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee year when the town was visited
by members of the royal family. From that time onwards the event
became known as the Royal May Day with the visit in 1887 of the
Prince and Princess of Wales. During the royal visit the Prince
and Princess of Wales witnessed the crowning of the May Queen and
were apparently so impressed with the event that according to the
report in The Guardian the following occurred:
Her Royal Highness readily acceded to the
request that she would witness the crowning of the May Queen and
Master Hoult, the crown bearer then advanced and placed the crown
upon the head of her mimic majesty amid much cheering ... Then follows
the most important incident at the festival. Again Mr Nicholls has
whispered conversation with Lord Egerton. He whispers something
in turn to the committee, who, rather, surprisingly lift their hats
and cheer, to which they are aided by the youngsters and the crowd.
His Royal Highness has been graciously pleased to allow them to
call this the Royal May Day Festival.
With the added advantage of a royal seal of approval
the festival continued to expand and so popular had the revival
of the May Day celebrations become in Knutsford that the Jan-June
edition of The Strand magazine in 1892 carried the following
We make bold to say that no-where is May Day
kept with real zeal, earnestness, and splendour, as at the quaint
old Cheshire town of Knutsford ... On this - the great annual festival
of the town - its streets are festooned and adorned with a profusion
of flags; a triumphal arch of greens and flowers span the chief
street and as the hour approaches for the children's fete, the merry
chimes from the church bells welcome the thousands of eager visitors.
The Strand article then records some
of the previous May Queens and the ceremony involved in the crowning
of the Queen:
The May Queen for each year is chosen by ballot,
by the ladies and gentlemen of the committee; and she is always
selected from the "maids of honour" who have attended the previous
"May Queens" ... Whilst rude carts and quaint vehicles pour in at
noon on May-Day, their loads of rustic visitors, special trains
every half an hour are discharging well dressed thousands from the
large towns near at hand and of these children form the large proportion
... As two o'clock approaches the vast crowds are kept on the side
walks at the entrance of the town, the roads are all cleared and
the processions come forth amidst the sounds of martial music of
two fine bands, the ringing of bells and the admiring plaudits of
The cortege included the Marshall of the Procession,
the Battalion Band, the Morris men dancing as they proceeded, Jack-in-the-Green,
Standard bearers, all the children from the schools and the workhouses
in the town, characters from children's stories such as Cinderella
and Bo-Peep, and local girls in a range of international costumes
from Italy, Australia, Africa, India, Wales and Scotland. The final
part of the procession consisted of the May Queen in white and ermine,
in her open carriage of state, drawn by four white horses, with
postillion and two pages in red riding behind with the six Maids
of Honour in white and purple velvet and ermine in open carriages
Considering the lavish and extravagant nature
of the event, it is not surprising that the fair that accompanied
the celebrations is not often mentioned in nineteenth century accounts.
Therefore the association of the fair with the celebrations cannot
be accurately dated. However, in 1880 the report in the local newspaper
The Guardian does include the following reference:
On vacant land near the Heath all the fun
of the fair went on - aunt sallies, roundabout and shooting galleries.
It would appear that the funfair was seen as an
adjunct to the main event that took place on the Heath itself. The
fair continued to take place opposite the Heath and did not become
part of the main event until later. The exact date when the fair
moved is not clear as both the local newspaper and the World's
Fair mention the Heath celebrations and the fairground as separate
events. By 1907 the reporter in the World's Fair stated:
The popular May Day Festival has this year
been a great success. Mr John Whiting the sole lessee having gathered
together a large number of Travellers and almost every kind of Travellers
amusements were represented.
Tenants included, John Collins with his four-abreast-jumpers,
Relph and Pedley and their Whirling the Whirl, A. Morley's Slipping
the Slip, and Richard's Steam Yachts. The shows on offer ranged
from a circus presented by the Proctor family, Frank Gess with his
Troupe of Athletes, Relph and Pedley's Cinematograph and Bessie
North's Giant Lady. Side shows, children's rides and food stalls
made up the rest of the attractions which were held on the Heath.
By 1911 the fair was presented by Mrs Whiting, the wife of the late
John Whiting who was the original lessee and many famous Lancashire
showfolk were in attendance. However, the report does not actually
state that the fair was held on the Heath:
The famous Heath at Knutsford was again the
scene of great revelry on Monday and thousands of people were present
to see the crowing of the May Queen. The fairground was under the
control of Mrs Whiting and in attendance were Mrs Whiting's Venetian
gondolas, John Collin's Jumping horses, racing motors, steam yachts
and haunted castle, Mitchell's joy wheel; Hurst's racing cockerels,
Royle's jumping horses, Crighton's place of light, Kemp's cinema
de luxe, Mander's star menagerie, Relph's midget town and a number
of other side shows.
In 1914 the town celebrated the Golden Jubilee
of the May Day with the original May Queen Annie Sarah Pollit taking
part in the fiftieth anniversary. Sadly this would be the last May
Day festivities for some time as the start of the First World War
limited the festival with the fair being eventually stopped. It
was not until the 1920s that Knutsford Royal May Day Fair became
once again an established feature of the region. The fair had since
moved to the Heath, which did not initially please the showmen as
the organisers charged an entrance fee to the Heath and the crowning
of the May Queen. The firm of John Collins had become the lessees
and they attempted over the decade to build the fair back up to
its pre-war standards. By 1930 the fairground was bigger and better
than ever with over ten large riding machines and eleven shows as
part of the equipment on offer to the public. These included Messrs
Collins Bros and their Swirl and Scenic Dragons, M. A. Collins'
Hurdle Racers, W. Green and Bros Caterpillar, and Martin's Razzle.
However, due to the entrance fee charged on the gate to the Heath,
the fair itself was not as well patronised as expected and by 1932
this practice was altered with only the carnival and sports arena
imposing a levy. The 1936 fair dawned bright and there was a mammoth
array of amusements in attendance wrote Salvor in the World's Fair,
with a little bit of something of everything. Showmen who attended
included the following: Harry Kid Furness and his boxing exhibition,
Alf Testo with three novelty shows, Jack Lemn the fairground strong
man and the Corbieries presenting the Globe infernal. Rides were
presented by John Collins, Walter Green, Walter Chadwick, Ted Morley
and many to numerous to mention. By the 1950s the reporter in the
World's Fair was writing:
May Day celebrations in the old town of Knutsford
in Cheshire attracts people from all parts of the country, They
come by car, coach and train to watch the time honoured festival
of the crowning of the May Queen. Knutsford Royal May Day Festival
is one of the oldest of its kind. It was first organised in 1864
and from a very modest beginning it has become one of the best and
most widely known May Day Festivals in the country.
The Festival fair opened on the Friday in anticipation
for the following day. As usual the procession was lavishly attended
by Morris dancers, pipers and bandsmen and a multitude of floats.
The 1954 May Queen was Miss Audrey Howarth who was attended by her
heralds, ladies, the Lord Chamberlain and other persons from her
"Court." The procession continued throughout the streets to the
Heath where the crowing took place. The fairground was presented
by the Collins family and included Michael Collin's Waltzer and
Autodrome, J. J Butterworth's Swirl and Jumpers which he had brought
out again for the first time this year. Walter Shaw's Moonrocket
and Green's Caterpillar ride. The shows were not as prominent as
in previous years but Mrs A. Price "had a smart new show, Glamorous
Eve, the Sleeping Beauty with rose coloured silk drapery around
the inside of the show. By 1963 the famous Burnley Cyclist was the
correspondent for the World's Fair and he noted that new faces could
be found attending the festival. The Wallis and Silcock families
presented their Cyclone, Dodgems, Swirl and Twist rides, with J.
Stokes and J. Cowie both bringing their galloping horses to the
town. A popular attraction was Herbert Silcock's Swirl with the
organ newly painted by Moons Ltd of Eccleston, near Chorley.
Knutsford Royal May Day has been a featured event
for over 130 years. What started as a local May Day custom incorporating
the children from the local school has grown into one of the largest
and most lavish calendar customs in the country. The combination
of the festivities with a travelling fairground once again shows
the manner in which fairground amusements can be incorporated into
local and national events. It is as popular today as it was in 1885
when the Macclesfield reporter wrote:
At no place in the North of England is the
ceremony of crowining the May Queen conducted with such pomp and
cermomy as in the case of the old town of Knutsford.
Collins' early Swirl in 1933.
Tommy 'Toes' Jacobsen (armless wonder) with wife.
Tommy as part of Tom Norman's Show.
Cubbins' Speedway, 1985.
Fun on the Waltzer, 1984.
Workers and showmen take a break, 1953.
J.J. Butterworth's enormous Mack tractor, 1953.
John Collins' brand new Miami debuting in 2001.
Freddie Stokes' Super Bob, 1985.
Modern aerial rides, 1993.
A local favourite - Wright's Dive Bomber, 1977.