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History of the Sweeps Festival


Chimney sweep

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.

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 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.

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.

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.”

Meanwhile, Doug Hudson is the festival’s music director, a role he has held for many years. He now has 5 outdoor stages to programme as well as many of the local pubs. Doug is well known on the local and national folk scene and is also a member of the Hot Rats.

Now in its 38th year, the festival is funded by Medway Council and managed by its Events Team.