Early 20th century
Victorian photographer Henry Taunt (1842-22) produced many images of May Morning in Oxford, and the early years of the 20th century are described by Phyl Surman in her ‘Pride of the Morning – An
Oxford Childhood’. She recalls that in the 1920s horns were still being blown on May Day and Magdalen Bridge was garlanded by youngsters. ‘The younger children, wearing flower-decorated hats came with hoops and staves, gaily decorated with wild
flowers: primroses, cowslips, bluebells; and sitting against the parapet of the bridge displayed these works of floral art for all too see, inviting expressions of appreciation in a flower-bedecked collecting box’.
She also remembers that after
the singing by the choir on Magdalen Tower, ‘Many punts, mostly occupied by undergraduates and their lady friends, which, during the singing had been quietly moored to the bank, now moved into midstream and the fun began. Egged on by cheers from the
spectators, these young men leapt gaily from boat to boat resulting in the inevitable immersion of many of the participants. The onlookers, some hanging perilously over the balustrade of the bridge, jeered and encouraged this sport and offered nothing but
laughter to the bedraggled objects who were dragged or towed ashore by their companions.’
The celebrations involved the whole community. Phyl Surman decribes May Day processions of tradesmen with dray carts. Of the local coalman she writes: ‘Until
about 1912 he would enter his horses, groomed and decorated, in May Day processions with notable success and although these gathering ceased shortly after this date he would still, on the first of May, adorn his horses with coloured flowers and rosettes and
entwine their plaited manes and tails with red, white and blue ribbons.’
The crowds today
Colourful as the scenes were in the early 20th century, the sheer numbers crowding the bridge have soared since. Up to the end of
World War Two a couple of thousand people might be expected to turn up. In 1968 the number was 5000, and in 1974, 10,000. From 1978, when May Day became a bank holiday, there was a further surge in interest so that by 2011 The Oxford Mail was reporting
18,000 people gathering to hear the choir sing at 6am. In 2017, with May Day falling on a Bank Holiday Monday, the numbers were higher still - 27,000 were present.
Though undergraduates once leapt from punt to punt, the notorious practice of jumping
from the bridge is believed to have started rather later. Youngsters were jumping occasionally in the 1940s and 1950s, but news coverage - and controversy - seems to date from the 1980s. In 2005 the bridge was closed to the public after 40 people were hurt
plunging into the water. Three years later it was re-opened. Then it was closed again. Magdalen Bridge was re-opened in 2011 and crowd safety has since been successfully managed by the authorities.
For some years the Hymnus Eucharistus has been followed
by a singing of Thomas Morley's 'Now is the Month of Maying' - a part song first published in 1595. Entirely secular, the jaunty celebration of springtime frolics includes a saucy double entendre in its last lines: 'Say, dainty nymphs, and speak/Shall we play
barley break?' (Barley-break is effectively a 'roll in the hay'). For the full lyrics and a brief video click on The Month of Maying above.