Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

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Milkmaids on May-Day

On this gay festival, the Londoners of the present century have seen little. J.T. Smith, in his amusing Book for a Rainy Day, describes the carnival of nearly a century since, May 1771: “The gaiety during the merry month of May (says Smith) was to me most delightful; my feet, though I know nothing of the positions, kept pace with those of the blooming milkmaids, who danced round their garlands of massive plate, hired from the silversmiths, to the amount of several hundreds of pounds, for the purpose of placing round an obelisk, covered with silk, fixed upon a chairman’s horse. The most showy flowers of the season were arranged so as to fill up the openings between the dishes, plates, butter-boats, cream-jugs, and tankards. The obelisk was carried by two chairmen, in gold-laced hats, six or more handsome milkmaids in pink and blue gowns, drawn through the pocket-holes, for they had one on either side; yellow or scarlet petticoats, neatly quilted; high-heeled shoes; mob-caps, with lappets of lace resting on their shoulders; nosegays in their bosoms; and flat Woffington hats, covered with ribbons of every color. A magnificent silver tea-urn surmounted the obelisk, the stand of which was profusely decorated with scarlet tulips. A smart, slender fellow of a fiddler, in a sky-blue coat, wit his hat covered with ribbons, attended; and the master of the group was accompanied by a constable, to protect the plate from too close a pressure of the crowd, when the maids were dancing.”

One of Hayman’s paintings in Vauxhall Gardens, was the Milkmaids on May-day: here the garland of plate was carried by a man on his head; the milkmaids, who danced to the music of a wooden-legged fiddler, were very elegant. They had ruffled cuffs; their hats were flat, but not Woffingtons, but more resembled those of the Billingsgate fish-women. In Larcom’s Cries of London, published by Tempest, there is “a Merry Milkmaid;” she is dancing with a small garland of plate upon her head; and her dress is of the latter part of King William the Third’s reign, or the commencement of the reign of Queen Anne.

Francis Hayman’s May Day (Supper-box) Painting

From the V & A:

One of the ancient customs observed on May Day that persisted until the early 19th century was the ‘Milkmaid’s Garland.’ The milkmaids would dress in their best clothes and dance in the streets for their customers. A donation from the customers and from passers-by was expected. A ‘garland’ – a pyramid of borrowed silver tankards, plates and flagons decorated with flowers – was paraded by the milkmaids or carried, as in this painting, by a porter. Francis Hayman also included another May Day custom in his picture: that of the young chimney-sweeps noisily beating their brushes and shovels.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Francis Hayman, Vauxhall Gardens, supper-box painting, ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

See more about May-Day here. 

So… what’s a Woffington hat?

Here’s a portrait of famous courtesan Nelly O’Brien wearing what is described as a “Woffington hat” in Great Portraits Seen and Described by Great Writers. 

Actress and courtesan Nelly O'Brien in a Woffington hat

Actress and courtesan Nelly O’Brien in a Woffington hat

Apparently, this flat style of hat was named after Peg Woffington, Irish actress and lover of David Garrick in Georgian England.

Irish actress Peg Woffington

Irish actress Peg Woffington

Oh, and about Billingsgate fish-women…

In the 18th century, fishwives frequently appeared in satires as fearsome scourges of fops and foreigners. Their vigorous and decisive mien was contrasted with that of politicians who were, by contrast, portrayed as vacillating and weak. For example, in Isaac Cruikshank’s A New Catamaran Expedition!!!, a fleet of Billingsgate fishwives sails across the English Channel to terrorise the French and shame the British Prime Minister Pitt for his inaction.

By Isaac Cruikshank (publisher- Willm. Holland, London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Isaac Cruikshank (publisher- Willm. Holland, London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse

5 thoughts on “Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day

  1. I enjoyed seeing the paintings. I liked the painting of the lady holding the little dog and the one of the milkmaids in their pretty dresses. The cartoon was also funny. It reminds me of the Three Men in a Tub nursery rhyme.


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