The History of Barwick Maypole Back to the Main Historical Society page
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The History of Barwick Maypole

Including an extract of the poem by Edward Burlend

Barwicker No.5
March 1987

The history of the Barwick maypole is not well documented. The Rev. F.S. Colman, the Rector, in his "History of Barwick-in-Elmet", describes the situation as he saw it in 1908.

"The village Maypole, within a few yards of the Cross, would naturally have stood on an open space or green. When it was first erected no one knows. It is not mentioned in any of the old records. The custom, which has been held so long that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, is for it to be taken down every third Easter. So soon as it is carried into the Hall Tower Field, the inhabitants assemble round the Cross and publicly elect three "Pole Men" whose duty it is to collect the necessary funds, paint and otherwise decorate the pole and arrange for its raising on the ensuing Whit Tuesday. Then, in what may seem to an outsider a very primitive method, the pole is raised by means of clothes props, ladders, and ropes, sunk into its socket in the limestone rock, and there firmly set."

The frontispiece of Colman's book takes us back another 60 years or so. It is a water colour of the maypole and cross painted by W.R. Robinson in 1849. He demonstrates what can only be described as artistic licence by putting the cross on the other side of the maypole and adding a third storey to the cottages. But the maypole itself looks remarkably modern, tall and tapering, with a weather vane and spiral decoration. The four garlands are there, too, but look very flimsy constructions compared with their modern counterparts.

The poem by Edward Burlend describes the theft of the maypole in 1829. He was born in 1814 of Barwick parents.

In the part of the poem which describes the Gunpowder plot celebrations, Burlend says:

"On this famed hill, where stood a cross and pole, Ages before GUY's treason was unmasked ...... "

Tradition in his youth therefore places the origins of the Barwick maypole well before 1605.

Before the poem, the written record is blank. The account books of the parish officials - the churchwardens, constable, overseers of the poor and surveyors of highways - date back to 1734. They contain no reference to the maypole. Nor do the parish registers which go back continuously to 1653, and with interruptions to 1600.

George Plaxton, Rector from 1703 to 1720, was a prolific writer of letters, many of which still exist in original or printed form. Our investigations have revealed nothing about the maypole and very little about Barwick. And the same can be said of the writings of Ralph Thoresby, the Leeds historian.

The absence of historical evidence has led to speculation about the original establishment of Barwick maypole. Some suggest that it might celebrate the annexing of the Kingdom of Elmet by Edwin, King of Northumbria in 625 or the defeat of Penda by Oswy at Winwaedfield in 643. But these are guesses, and the search for the truth must go on.

Extract from the poem from Barwick-in-Elmet
by Edward Burlend

Thine old familiar May-pole I may not,
while brooding o'er thy varied scenes, forget,
The vi11age boast, envied by hamlets near.
A vestige of the simple rural sports,
Which ages far remote our fathers loved,
Demands a notice by the village Muse.
Oft have I seen it on a holiday
Tall as the steeple rise, when Hawthorn's bloom
Perfumed the gentle breeze, and wild flowers grew
On each adjacent hill, the gift of May.
Yes, I have seen it decked with garlands new,
Platted or woven by the village maids, -
Proud of the honour, emulous to aid
The harmless purpose of the sterner sex,
And give a graceful touch - 'tis woman's part -
To that which pleases all and injures none,
A rustic festival and social glee.

I do remember when our village pole,
Made ready for the rearing, was purloined,
By envious clowns beneath the shades of night.
'Twas a vile theft, and indignation roused
One common purpose to avenge the wrong.
Old men at eighty ambled to their doors,
Brandished their staff, and talked of village war,
While aged dames came forth - for dames were then -
And urged broad-shouldered men to seek redress,
A youth of fifteen summers, I was one
To join the band, with crab-tree cudgels armed,
Which in pursuit of justice, simple, brief,
Ransacked - but did not sack - a neighbouring town.
The pole was found, and, grievances redressed,
At the appointed hour in Whitsuntide,
With more than wonted honours reared its head.
Arthur Bantoft

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