Lymm May Queen  - A Living Tradition

Visitors to the annual Lymm May Queen- held on the second Saturday in June ! -  have come for a fun day out.  And we are sure that is what they will have.  But many people may be unaware that they will be taking part in or watching  an event that has a history going back over 125 years and  has, along with Lymm Rushbearing, been an important chapter in Lymm’s history.

Lymm May Queen Festival  

The Band of Hope

In order to understand the origins of May Queen one must go back to 1847 and the founding of a movement by Jabez Tunnicliff, who was a Baptist Minister in Leeds at a time when hard liquor was  viewed as a necessity, next only to food and water.  The Band of Hope, as it was called, fought to counteract the influence of pubs and brewers, with the intention of rescuing 'unfortunates' whose lives had been blighted by drink. Their answer was to preach complete abstinence and their campaign was enthusiastically taken up by many branches of the church.

The Band of Hope provided activities for children that encouraged them to avoid alcohol problems.  Alcohol-free premises were established.  Lymm had a Temperance Hotel—On Church Road for example and a coffee tavern on Eagle Brow. (nothing new there then!)

Lymm & Oughtrington Band of Hope Festival

In 1889 local churches combined to create the first “Band of Hope Festival”. It drew on two existing traditions.

There were the walking days that were common in the area and which were aimed at keeping youngsters on the straight and narrow.   These were religious in nature, organised by  churches all over the North West. They  typically took place on Whit Friday.

Meanwhile over in Knutsford the May Queen Fair had been going for over 25 years.   The popularity of this  Victorian invention – or possibly reinvention of an older tradition  - seems to have been  fuelled in part by the popularity of Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The May Queen” , published in 1861. It was in a way a romanticised version of a vision of  “Merrie England”  that may never quite have existed.  Whatever its origin it provided a welcome distraction for the general population.  Lymm must have looked on a little jealously at the huge success of the Knutsford  event  whilst also remaining conscious of their church roots in seemly behaviour and abstinence.  So they tried to take on the best of both worlds with a serious procession that started with the singing of a hymn at the Cross but also a crowning, some  fun and games and the chance to dress up.

A Victim Of Its Own Success  

Lymm was popular with visitors by this time with crowds pouring in by train, canal boat and even bicycle.  So a new event quickly became a draw for the working masses. For them a trip to a rural village like Lymm was a welcome break from the daily grind.  Special trains brought in the multitudes from  Liverpool, Manchester and Stockport. Within three years the papers reported that the main  beneficiaries of the day  were the many licensed  premises—including The Golden Fleece, The Bulls Head and The Spreadeagle. Lymm had very quickly become serious competition for  the more established event in Knutsford.

New Century, New Name

By the start of the twentieth century the event was being referred to in the Manchester press as the “Lymm May Queen Festival” and many traditions that we still see today were established including the crowning, the attendants, the entertainment and maypole dancing as well as the presence of both Britannia and John Bull as symbols of patriotism.  

The event was regularly reported in local newspapers and these grainy pictures of the 1913 day give some idea of the huge scale of the event.

Why is  May Queen in June ?

The Lymm eventas it was originally conceived, was not specifically May Day related.  It was however tied to Whit week in order to attract maximum attendance. This was the week of the year when, more than at any other time, factory workers and families would seek out a pleasure trip. There was not the same sense of religious observance as was expected at Easter. At the same time Christmas was becoming a family festival best spent at home in front of a warm fire. 

Whitsuntide varies from year to year  being the seventh Sunday after  Easter.  Many people had time off through the week too and the event was typically held on Whit Thursday and later on Whit Saturday.  Such was the popularity of the Whitsun holiday that when the Manchester Ship Canal built a jetty at Statham to run pleasure trips from Manchester over 16,000 people came to Lymm from Manchester on a fleet of pleasure paddle steamers over the Whit holiday of 1895.

The movable nature of Whitsun must have, at some time, become too much for the organisers and they settled for the second Sunday in June.  Coincidentally perhaps this is the latest possible date that Whit Sunday can occur in the calendar.

The Great War Intervenes.

In 1914 the Whitelegg family posed in costume for a studio photograph. The picture was coloured in and outlined and handed down through generations. It is now in the possession of Lymm Heritage Group, thanks to the generosity of Hazel Warburton and will feature at the new Heritage Centre.  

The tall lady dressed as Britannia on the left was Sarah Whitelegg. She was 43 at time of this photograph and had been known locally since childhood as “The Lymm Giantess”.   This picture is particularly poignant, as the tradition, then exactly 25 years old,  was about to be cruelly interrupted for the first time by war.  

A Very Special Day

Being chosen to be Lymm May Queen was a huge day in the life of any girl lucky enough to be selected.  

Winnie Yearsley, May Queen for 1926,   has passed down her  life story to us in her own handwriting. She started work  on a farm in Broomedge at age 14 in 1925. Her first morning task was to deliver the milk - no bottles in those days. Winnie tells how she would measure out the milk from two large cans on the handle-bars of a bike. 

She goes on to describe her time as May Queen. It was clearly one of the highlights of her life, being taken all  round the village in a coach drawn by six horses and with eight little girls as maids of honour.  After her big day Winnie wrapped her crown away carefully and perhaps in later years would have taken it out from time to time to tell her own children and grandchildren about the day she was May Queen of Lymm. In 2016 Winnie’s descendants generously donated the crown along with a copy of the programme for that year and Winnie’s story in her own handwriting to the Heritage Centre.

1920 & 1948 - little changes in the traditional ceremony

The first seven May Queens 

1907 - procession on Elm Tree Road  

Lymm Station 1911... May Queen Day ? 

Huge Crowds 1913

The Whitelegg Family 1914 and May Queen Dorothy Pearson  

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Click on the programme to leaf through the pages. 

Statham & Booth's Hill Events 

Between the wars the idea of the event became so popular that individual neighbourhoods, like Booths Hill and Statham, staged their own events. We include here a picture of the Statham event in 1938 which was held near the Star on a field where Lymmington Avenue now stands and which  had earlier been used for workmens’ huts during the building of the Ship Canal.

The Modern Era

In 1939 war again brought annual festivities all over the country to a halt.  Even with the end of hostilities times remained hard due to rationing. Perhaps it was the severe winter of 1947 that finally prompted local organisers to strive to resurrect the event and put a little sunshine back into village life.  So in 1948 Dorothy Greenhalgh, who still lives in Dunham today, was named the first May Queen of the modern era and was driven through the village in a suitably grand motor car.  Dorothy treasured her album of photographs of the day  for nearly seventy years before donating it to the Heritage Centre in 2016.

Like any event May Queen has changed and developed over time. 

In the 1980s for example an important part of the procession were the troupes of American style “morris dancers” who, following the parade, would hold competitions till dusk at the top of the May Queen Field.

Lymm’s oldest residents will even remember the days when the fair which followed the parade was held on the Fair Field; on the site, of course, of what is now  Fairfield Road.

May Queen Today 

These days we occasionally hear the comment “May Queen is not like it was !”  It is true that there are more and more events and activities competing for people’s attention. But it also a fact that every year, still, young girls vie for the honour of being crowned May Queen while other youngsters  conscientiously attend rehearsals so that they can take on the role of attendants to the May Queen and Rose Queen.  And in spite of the village’s growth and large influx of new faces there remains at its heart a great sense of community spirit which events like May Queen help to foster.

It feels at the moment as if  the event is again “on the up” thanks to the hard work of a dedicated bunch of volunteers. 

Everyone is welcome and there is fun for all.  We hope that understanding just a little more of the event’s history may add to your enjoyment. find out more about how to get involved at 

 

 

 

 

Dorothy Greenhalgh the first post-war May Queen 1948

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