Posts Tagged ‘Chislehurst May Queen’

The Sultan’s Elephant, Buddha’s Birthday & May Queens

Friday, May 6th, 2022

The Sultan’s Elephant, Buddha’s Birthday & May Queens – Satiurday May 6th was another varied day for me.


The Sultan’s Elephant – Westminster

Just why does it take so many people to drive an elephant when one elephant can do it on its own?” was the question that came to me while watching the Sultan’s Elephant making its ponderous way around central London. The 12 metre high mechanical elephant, along with the Little Princess was constructed by French company Royal De Luxe and appeared to have around 20 drivers as well as a cast of under-employed actors.

And, as I commented, “it did occur to me to ask why the Arts Council was spending so much of our money on guys who wanted to play with big toys.” Rather than art it seemed to me to be “more or less a larger version of model railways to me, or perhaps even more a simplistic version of a computer game fantasy made manifiest” and little about art. “More Disneyland.”


Buddha’s 2550th Birthday – Leicester Square

A quarter of a mile to the north, celebrations were taking place in Chinatown of Buddha’s 2,550th birthday, organised by London Fo Guang Temple, one of two UK branches of the Taiwanese Fo Guang Shan Order who have a temple in Margaret St in a rather nice Grade II listed former Parish School and Church House designed by William Butterfield and built in 1868-70.

The festival was continuing over two days, but I only stayed for around an hour, photographing a colourful procession which included two lions and the Mayor of Westminster.


Chislehurst May Queen Ceremonies – Chislehurst

Chislehurst is around ten miles from the centre of London, in Kent until brought into Greater London on the edge of the London Borough of Bromley in 1965. Fortunately trains from Charing Cross go there in around half an hour, which makes it a popular commuter town, and took me there, where I had been invited by the organisers of the Chislehurst May Queen to photograph their May Queen Ceremonies.

Traditionally May had been a time when the New Year and Spring was celebrated, when young men and women danced together and often rather more, and a queen of the may was chosen to lead the event. Oliver Cromwell banned the celebrations as sinful pagan events, and although they came back after the restoration the events slowly died out or became more formal.

As I noted: “There was a revival of interest in old customs in the Victorian era, with various ‘Merrie England’ events being organised. Some schools had maypoles and learnt the dances and many Sunday Schools had their may queens who often took a leading part in Whit Walks.

I became interested in these continuing events in 2005, going to photograph the Merrie England and London May Queen Festival at Hayes, Kent (also in LB Bromley.) It was the start of a project that led to my self-published book London’s May Queens (ISBN: 978-1-909363-06-9) and almost to a major museum exhibition, plans for which fell through at the last hurdle.


London's May Queens

Book Preview

The book preview contains an essay on the history of London’s May Queens and a number of photographs from various May Queen events. Although print copies of the book are expensive you can purchase a reasonably priced PDF version.


But putting the pictures from this first event I photographed in 2005 on-line attracted a great deal of interest, particularly among the families involved, and led to me being invited to other events such as this at Chislehurst, who were particularly keen that I should photograph their proper maypole dancing.

Last year’s Queen crowns the new May Queen

As I explain on My London Diary, “Any girl five or over who lives or has grandparents who live in Chislehurst can join the retinue. They then work their way up the ranks, with the oldest girl of the year of joining having the choice of being Queen or Prince. Several months of twice-weekly rehearsals are required, and as well as the festival they also perform at other events.” From the various ‘realms’ such as Chislehurst, the girls then move on to become a part of the London May Queen group. The Chislehurst group is now open to both boys and girls.

Chislehurst first took part in the London May Queen festival in 1923, ten years after it was founded by Dulwich schoolmaster Joseph Deedy in 2013 – there is more of the history in my book. Their festival involved other groups in the area and seemed very much a community festival. It ended with a tea for the May Queen group in the Methodist church hall, and I waited for the May Queen to cut the cake with the help of her ‘Prince’ before leaving to catch the train back home.

I’m pleased to see that the Chislehust May Queen Society is still continuing – and has a Facebook group and a web site. They will be crowning their 99th May Queen tomorrow, as usual on the first Saturday of May.


More on all these events on the May 2006 page of My London Diary.


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