Hastings Jack in the Green

Hastings, of 1066 fame, is a town on the south coast of England, in the county of East Sussex. It’s an impoverished town, one of the poorest in the south east. Despite this, or maybe because of it, it has many events going on through out the year, attracting people from all over. The biggest of these is on the Mayday Bank Holiday weekend, where thousands of people descend on the town for the Jack in the Green festival and, on the Monday, Bike Day. Both of these have been going on for years and the Bank Holiday Monday is the most important in the financial fortunes of the town.

Jack in the Green in its present form was resurrected by Keith Leech, one of my former teaching colleagues, nearly forty years ago. He also revived Bonfire in Hastings. For his efforts, he received an MBE. The festival is a revival of the chimney sweeps’ Mayday festival from the 19th century and the milkmaids’ Mayday festival of the 18th. These were probably an attempt to christianise ongoing earlier religious traditions around the time of year.

Nowadays the festival has very strong pagan undertones, despite the inclusion of certain Christian elements. Whether the Jack itself is part of that is debatable, records don’t mention it before the 18th century. The Jack is a tall figure of leaves on a framework. It is escorted by green painted people, the Bogies, and at the end of the days’ events is sacrificed by being torn apart, which echoes the sacrifice of the May King to ensure successful harvests.

Also taking part in the procession are Morris sides and drum troupes, along with other related groups. Another important feature are the giants in the procession.

The procession starts on Rock-a-Nore, when the Jack is released from the Fishermen’s Museum and wends its way through the Old Town. There is a break for lunch (often liquid) in the High Street. This used to happen in George Street but that got too crowded so the procession halts earlier. After lunch the procession heads off to the West Hill where stages and stalls host the afternoon’s activities – Morris dancing, drumming, dancing and finally, the slaying of the Jack. Again, this has had a change of venues due to the crowds, it was previously held in the ruins of Hastings Castle.

Other events occur over the weekend – folk concerts, Morris dancing, drumming, a church service, welcoming the sun with dancing.