THE CROSS ON THE GREEN - Otley Back to the Main Historical Society page
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Yorkshire Maypoles No. 11 "THE CROSS ON THE GREEN"

from The Barwicker No.39
Sept. 1995

Otley maypole occupies a prominent position in Manchester Square in the centre of the town where Boroughgate and Walkergate meet. It is 75 feet long - 8 feet of it being underground. It is painted green with a weather vane on the top and it stands in a raised garden. A notice from Otley Town Council reads "A maypole has stood on this site for many centuries. Present pole erected 1962'. The cost of this pole was 64 with 230 for the raising.

For something of the history of the Otley pole we are most grateful to Mrs Pat Pickles of Walton, Wakefield, and Tom Chambers of Stockton-on-Tees, both maypole enthusiasts and readers of 'The Barwicker', for supplying us with the following extract from 'On Foot through Wharfedale' by Fred Cobley published in 1882. The combination of cross and maypole is reminiscent of Barwick.

"What Knutsford is to the historic old county of Cheshire in the way of May-day festivities, Otley must be considered to the West Riding of Yorkshire. From time immemorial Otley has possessed a Maypole and up to ten years or so ago May-day was to the lads and lasses of all others a day of frolic and boisterous merriment. Like many old customs, however, the celebrations attendant upon the advent of May are slowly but surely dying out.

Though Otley can boast of having a Maypole for upwards of two hundred years, it is not clear when the first was erected. It is tolerably well known, however, that within the last ninety years or so three poles have been destroyed. About eighty or eighty five years ago, a fierce storm swept over Wharfedale and among other erections which fell before the blast was the Maypole.

After a while it was repaired and a portion of it re-erected. A few years later that too was blown down and so much was it damaged that it was beyond repairs Not liking to see his native town without its much-prized pole, Mr Maude, who was a timber merchant, in business in Leeds, very kindly presented the town with a new one, which was re-rected amid considerable rejoicing on the part of the inhabitants. But it was not to remain long. It was erected without a lightning conductor, and on the 12th. of June 1871, it was completely shattered.

Notwithstanding these several misfortunes, the inhabitants seemed as if they could not fancy their town minus a pole, amd on the following May-day, the Maypole, at present standing, was raised. The occasion was one of great festivity, and many thousands of persons flocked from Leeds and Bradford and the surrounding district to witness the novel proceedings. The streets were literally thronged for a greater part of the day, and flags and banners were most freely displayed.

The 'Cross Green' of today bore not only a different name but bore a widely different aspect some seventy or eighty years since. The open space thereabouts was known as 'The Cross on the Green'. This name was given to the spot owing to the fact that it was almost covered with a sward, and surrounded by grass fields; whilst in the centre was a cross with a Maypole towering through the middle of it. Stone steps led up to the cross, and the farmers, butter dealers and others attending the market were accustomed to sit on the steps and dispose of their produce."

In an article written in an attempt to assist local plans to rejuvenate Otley's Maypole, Mr Paul Wood, Keeper of Otley Museum, looks at some of the phases in its long history. He describes the huge and very well documented celebrations organised by a committee led by Thomas Fisher in 1872. He then takes a critical look at a fictional account by Albert Walker of the Otley maypole celebrations of 1811.

"On May 1, 1872, local chemist Thomas Fisher addressed a large crowd assembled on Cross Green in the following words, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, I am happy to be able to congratulate the inhabitants of Otley on the successful raising of another Maypole. On behalf of the committee I avail myself of this opportunity of tendering our best thanks to those who have subscribed so liberally and so cheerfully to the Maypole fund and although considerably short of the sum required to finish the undertaking judging from the past I have very little to fear from the future. I ask now for three cheers for the Queen.' Albert Walker in his contemporary novel 'Rose of Wharfedale' takes us through an epic version of May Day events in a fictional Otley of 1811. His vision is one of rustic Arcadia pure and simple. (His) fictional account begins bright and early with 'a dozen stalwart fellows' hanging twenty strings of leaves and flowers from the Maypole summit. The church bells have been ringing from sunrise and houses, shops and streets are decorated with flags and bunting. The procession itself assembled outside the Church gates after dinner with 'Jack-i-the Green' as its focal point. Jack was literally a towering pile of foliage with a square hole from which he grimaced to the population. The procession went down Kirkgate, passing the Green Man Inn on the way. Across Market Place and down Boroughgate, the revellers were preceded by a tradesmans band. Twenty dancers at the Maypole plaited and unplaited the floral cords while Jack collected money for the poor among the crowds. It was not until 8 o'clock that celebrations ceased."

Mr Wood is of the firm opinion that the above account owed more to Walker's involvement in the 'epic' celebrations of the 1870s rather than of any proceedings in 1811. He goes on:

"By 1873 the May day festivities had become distinctly carnival-like in content. Knights in armour, Halberdiers, foot guards and Beefeaters had joined the May Queen in procession. Merry England had well and truly joined the throng. Hidden in the more general multitude were some very mysterious characters for which no real explanation is offered. The celebration committee's accounts for 1874 list the hire of donkeys, oats for feeding and refreshment for drivers - the cost 2.5s.3d. What were these 'nondescript figures, riding donkeys and wielding bladders with which they belaboured their not too willing steeds'? The unrecognised buffoons were in fact the traditional chimney sweeps whose fertility accompanied Jack-i-the Green in much earlier processions. Less enigmatic was the band of the Otley Engineers Volunteers, Otley's fire engines and the carts, waggons and horses of the Leeds Corporation engaged in the building of the Washburn valley reservoirs. Dancing did take place at the Maypole but the main festivities had been moved to Otley Cricket Club." Mr Wood is clearly disappointed with the present lack of interest in the Maypole and he paints a gloomy view of its future. "If things stay as they are, we might as well come clean and describe the Maypole as a large starling post in the middle of a flower bed and marking the ancient site of a traffic island or a car park!".

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