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Hundreds of Morris dancers to perform at Sweeps Festival

11 April

Morris dancers from across England will be sweeping across Rochester in celebration of a festival which started hundreds of years ago.

The annual Sweeps Festival, which is being held on Saturday 29 and Sunday, 30 April, and Monday, 1 May, celebrates chimney sweeps on their traditional holiday.

Three hundred years ago children were used as chimney sweeps, earning very little. Their traditional holiday, on 1 May, gave them the chance to leave the soot behind and have some fun. The chimney sweeps of Rochester annually staged a procession to collect money, but in 1868 it became illegal to employ climbing boys to carry out the trade and the tradition began to fade.

The final May celebration was held in the early 1900s until local keen historian Gordon Newton revived the celebration in 1981. In conjunction with Gordon, Medway Council has continued to support the festival in Rochester ever since.

Annual traditional festival

Hundreds of Morris sides have continued to support the Sweeps Festival performing a variety of regional dance styles from throughout England, as well as taking part in this ancient ritual.

Morris dance is a form of English folk dance accompanied by music. There are many different styles of Morris dancing and their traditions usually vary depending on the region. Border Morris and the Cotswold Morris are just two of the types of Morris dancing groups which are attending this year’s Sweeps Festival.

Border Morris dancers

Border Morris dancers are great fun to watch. Their colourful, noisy and energetic form of traditional dance originates from the borders of England and Wales. The blackened faces of the dancers are a ritual disguise, and they perform with sticks and never with handkerchiefs. The jackets worn by Border Morris dancers are colourful and made of strips of material sewn onto jackets. Top hats are frequently worn which are highly decorated with feathers and flowers.

Cotswold Morris group

The Cotswold Morris group consists of dances performed by teams of men or women usually dressed in white and with ‘Baldricks’ - coloured bands across their chests denoting their team colours and bells around their legs. The style of dance usually encompasses both the use of white handkerchiefs and sticks. Hats are normally covered in flowers and ribbons, and the music is usually provided by concertinas, melodeons or in some cases by a whistle and tabor. Many of the dances emanate from villages within the Cotswolds, with each village having its own style.

Jack-in-the-Green

Then there is the Jack-in-the Green; an eight foot walking bush which has been associated with the Rochester Chimney Sweeps since the mid 1600s and featured in Charles Dickens’ article ‘Sketches by Boz’. It is the ancient symbol of the arrival of spring and is awakened each year on May Day. The Jack-in-the Green will be attending this year’s Sweeps Festival and will be leading the procession of dancers, chimney sweeps and climbing boys through the streets of Rochester on Monday, 1 May.

Gordon Newton, who founded the festival 37-years ago, said: “The Sweeps Festival has become part of my life and it is wonderful to see how it has grown to be the largest festival of Morris dance in the world.”

Kick start your summer with our May Day festival

As well as street performances, there will be even more fun activities for the family to enjoy at Rochester Castle Moat. This year’s Sweeps Festival sees Splat! heading to Rochester on Monday 1 May, with free craft workshops, children’s shows and roaming performers to entertain the family between 11am and 4pm.

Throughout the weekend, there will be five outdoor stages with live music to add to the exciting atmosphere of the festival, as well as a musical instrument fair, record fair and artisan produce fair.

Check out the full list of performances and activities taking place over the weekend.

Sweeps Festival will entertain thousands 

Medway Council’s Portfolio Holder in charge of events, Cllr Howard Doe, said: “We’re pleased to be hosting traditions that date back from hundreds of years ago and hope people locally and from further afield continue to support an occasion which marks the historic trade of chimney sweeping.

“Sweeps Festival attracts thousands of people from across the country and provides a weekend packed full of street performances and activities for all the family. I have no doubts that this year’s celebration will continue to impress.”