Rochester Sweeps Festival

Rochester Sweeps Festival
The Rochester Sweeps Festival is an annual festival honoring the old Jack in the Green tradition. It is held in the town of Rochester, Kent, England over the May Day weekend. Though not the only sweeps festival in the United Kingdom, it is the most popular one.

Chimney sweeps are workers who clear ash and soot from chimneys. In the United Kingdom, boys and sometimes girls from the workhouse or bought from their parents were technically called chimney sweep apprentices. They were trained to climb chimneys by the master sweeps, who being adults, were too large to fit into a chimney. Chimney sweeps had one day’s holiday a year, May Day (May 1st). They celebrated it by parading through the streets, dancing with Jack in the Green.

Jack in the Green was a traditional participant in May Day parades in England. It was a figure entirely covered with a large garland of leaves and flowers. For some reasons Jack in the Green became particularly associated with chimney sweeps. The tradition of sweeps festivals gradually began to fade in the late 19th century following the passing of several Chimney Sweepers Acts, and Jack in the Green vanished from the May Day celebration as a result of the Victorian disapproval of bawdy behavior.

The first revival of Jack in the Green occurred in 1976 in Whitstable, Kent. Rochester revived the historic tradition five years later by establishing the annual Rochester Sweeps Festival. The revival was inspired by the description of the celebration in Sketches by Boz, a collection of short pieces by Charles Dickens concerning London scenes and people.

What started in 1981 as a small gathering of local Morris dancers has grown to become one of the biggest sweeps festivals in the world. The festival begins at dawn with the Awakening of Jack in the Green ceremony where Jack is awoken by sweeps and dancers at the Blue Bell Hill Picnic Site and then paraded through downtown Rochester. The festival features hundreds of Morris sides (Morris dance teams) from all over England.

The Rochester Sweeps Festival lasts three days over the May bank holiday weekend. Its program features lots of attractions for visitors of all ages including dance shows, an arts & crafts fair, several stages of live music, fairground rides, food stalls and booths, special exhibitions, and more. The festival is a colorful mix of dancing, music and entertainment for everyone.

Rochester Sweeps Festival

Photo: Shanti Brophy




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