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Friday, 13 May 2016

Herald the spring its Garland Day - the custom of Abbotsbury's Garland

The painting of
"Garland Day, Dorsetshire Coast" by P. R. Morris,
exhibited at the 1893 Royal Academy summer show
and since lost to view
Held on 13th May (Old May Day) each year, the Garland Day celebrations have taken place in the Dorset village of Abbotsbury since about the early 19th century. They were first described in Hutchins' History of Dorset published in 1867. The custom involves the making of garlands by the children of the village. Originally only the children of local fishermen took part. The garlands were blessed in a church service and some were then rowed out to sea to be tossed into the water, a donation to the local sea god. This marked the opening of the fishing season, and then the children whould dance and play games on the beach to celebrate. From around the time of the First World War the custom changed somewhat in that children of non-fishermen started to take part. This was probably due to the decline of the local fishing industry.


Herald the spring its Garland Day
So please remember the garland.
We don't come here but once a year,
So please remember the garland.
The village school gave the children a day's holiday and they would set about constructing two garlands, one of wild flowers and the other of garden flowers. These were held aloft on poles and paraded from house to house in the village with the intention of collecting money which the children would keep. Later in the day older children who had been at school in nearby Weymouth would arrive home and make a more elaborate garland which would also be taken around the houses. From after the First World War two garlands would be placed on the local war memorial.

The Abbotsbury village school closed in 1981 and the children no longer get a day's holiday. This has led to the celebrations taking place in the evening or on the nearest Saturday.

On 14th May 1954, The Daily Express reported that the village constable of Abbotsbury had stopped the children's Garland-Day Procession as it danced its way through the fishing village to the sea, on the ground that it was "begging" and was against the law. He also confiscated the collection amounting to £1 1s. 7 1/2d. The uproar reached Mr. John Fox-Strangways, Chairman of the parish council and son of the Earl of Ilchester, lord of the manor. He rang up a solicitor and said that the village would take steps to preserve its ancient and picturesque custom. The Thanksgiving Garland is blessed annually and thrown into the sea from whence comes their livelihood. In the evening the children put the Garland on its pole and again danced down to the sea, while the police were busy preparing a legal action.

On 20th May, The Times announced that the Chief Constable of Dorset had expressed his sincere apologies for the "unfortunate occurrence" to the Abbotsbury parish council and said that the constable had acted on his own initiative, without the knowledge of the divisional superintendent. "It is no part of my policy to interfere with old village customs," he stated. Mr. Fox-Strangways was authorised to take any necessary action to establish the legality of the Garland Day custom.

However, a determination amongst the villagers has ensured that this English tradition survives, albeit in a form slightly different from the original.

Below: The procession of the Abbotsbury Garland, 13th May 2005



Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 about the Abbotsbury Garland Day custom:

"Flower Custom (Garland Day). — They refer to a pleasing custom which still obtains on Old May Day (13th May). The children belonging to the crew of each boat build up a large garland of handsome flowers upon a frame, and carry it from house to house, usually getting a few pence apiece from those who can afford it. The people throng the beach, weather permitting, in the afternoon, when the garlands are taken out in boats and thrown into the sea. The late Lord Ilchester, the lord of the manor, had of late years provided an entertainment for the children, often close upon 200 in number, and was accustomed to attend them to the beach, where the vicar read a suitable portion of scripture, a psalm was sung, and prayer offered for the general welfare.

This custom is alluded to at somewhat greater length by Canon Mayo in a communication to Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries, vol. iii, p. 231 (1893), entitled " Garland Day ", in which he states that it is also observed in the neighbouring villages of Swyre and Puncknoll, but that in them only one garland is provided, not one for each boat.
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