Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Judy Atkinson at Jack in the Green

Judy Atkinson at Jack in the Green

Jack in the Green – looking ahead to the festival with Judy Atkinson

Rattlebag’s Judy Atkinson gives an introduction to the famous Jack in the Green Festival at Hastings and reflects on her own involvement. This year the fun happens FRIDAY 3 MAY – MONDAY 6 MAY. Report by Jude Montague.

Hastings traditional Jack in the Green is an annual event that takes place in the historic seaside town of Hastings. It’s a four-day event that attracts thousands of people for its long weekend event, including live bands, dancing and social events.

On the Bank Holiday Monday a procession winds through the streets of Hastings Old Town. The parade is full of unique characters, dancers, drummers, giants and more. The finale is the symbolic slaying of the Jack to release the spirit of summer which takes place on the green expanse of West Hill overlooking the sea.

Judy Atkinson is a member of Rattlebag, an acapella group who sing traditional songs and swell the atmosphere of the traditional rituals of the town. The vocalists are authentic interpreters of the old songs and such singing is a valuable part of festivities in Hastings. She is also an experienced Morris dancer, having been part of Mad Jack’s Morris, recently renamed RX Morris in order to let go of the conservative values that Mad Jack (John) Fuller held in the eighteenth century and help Morris to move with the times, with the new generations of dancers and the changing awareness in society in attitudes to the imperialist past. Judy now is an important consultant for the new Morris group of St Leonards-on-Sea, Rheda’s Dream.

Judy: “I first became aware of Jack in the Green way back, I think it was in 1991. My daughter Suzanne was four years old and we’d stopped in George St where there was some Morris dancing. My daughter was fascinated and I couldn’t get her away from it all. That began a long association for both of us with Laton Ash dance school. Scroll forward four or five years and we both went to a ‘taster’ session (with one of her friends) on the Saturday. We dressed up, made a garland and joined the procession on the Monday. This led to me joining Mad Jack’s Morris, eventually becoming squire some years later.

“Jack in the Green always had to compete with my daughter dancing in competitions on the same weekend, but I usually managed to take part in some of the dancing and maybe the procession. Once Suzanne had grown up and moved on from dancing (but I had not!) I was able to take part in the whole thing. My husband was usually happy to join in the social side (involving beer). Nearly ten years ago I was asked to join Rattlebag and then was able to take part in the procession fully ‘greened’ up.

“The one thing I really missed when I became part of Rattlebag was the bit at the beginning of the procession when Jack comes out from the Fishermen’s Museum. The crowd are going crazy, shouting and cheering. Then suddenly everything goes quiet and a single musician plays Drive the Cold Winter Away and Mad Jack’s women dance round the Jack, showering him with flower petals at the end of the dance. I’m still there in the crowd, but I miss actually dancing with Jack.

“The more often you take part in Jack in the Green, the more meaning it develops. From the start at the Fishermen’s Museum, when Jack emerges and is welcomed by the waiting crowd, through the noise of the procession with all the people watching and waving, to the moment on the stage when Jack is ceremonially ‘killed’ and stripped. You become invested in the whole event – for me it’s vitally important to get a spray of leaves from Jack at the end (these are kept and burned on the first fire of autumn).

“The procession participants gather in Rock-a-Nore. Rattlebag start the day early, meeting at one of our houses to get into our costumes and paint our faces. We have breakfast (with some fizz), people drop in and out, then we make our way to the Fishermen’s Museum to await Jack. The sense of mounting excitement is electrifying. Jack eventually comes out, preceded by his attendants, the Bogies. Their job is to look after Jack and make sure his path is clear. They take turns in carrying him (not an easy task as he’s heavy and vision is limited). In turn they are looked after by the Beer Fairies, who carry large horns and make sure all the Bogies are well-supplied during the procession.

“Then we all line up, with Jack and the Bogies at the front of the procession. There is a stop by the Jenny Lind in the High Street, Jack goes off to Butler’s Gap, Morris sides dance and refuel. Then the procession winds up to West Hill. RX Morris (formerly Mad Jack’s) are always immediately behind Jack, and when they reach the stage they form a ‘Guard of Honour’ to greet all the other groups. Once everyone has arrived, the stage entertainment begins: dancing, drumming and singing from Rattlebag. Last year a group of belly dancers were immediately before us and had to dance through heavy rain, which miraculously stopped just as we got on the stage!

“When everyone has performed, you notice that the drummers who are with Jack (who has been waiting on a separate small stage) are getting increasingly noisy. Jack makes his way to the main stage, where he dances and twirls for the last time. RX Men perform a final dance called ‘the Rose’ around Jack, then he is ‘slain’ – tipped over and stripped of all his leaves and flowers, which are thrown to the waiting crowds – releasing the spirit of summer. Then we all disperse, the event is over (and the serious drinking begins!).”

Jude Montague’s film about Jack in the Green 2023


“Rattlebag have become a central and popular part of JITG since our formation some 16+ years ago, with our ornate costumes, distinctive facepaint and tall tree-like decorated sticks and seasonal songs. We have many songs for the occasion, and our set changes each year, but 2 must-performs are “Hastings Jack in the Green”, written by the late Maria Cunningham, and the very traditional “Hal and Tow”, which comes from the May revels (Flora Day) in Helston in Cornwall and dates back to possibly the 16th century. As well as performing on the stage on the Monday of JITG, on the Saturday we busk around the Old Town and host a traditional singaround in the Stag in All Saints St for people to come and share their songs. A new feature of the weekend is a family singsong in the Fishermen’s Museum on the Sunday afternoon where we teach children a traditional song or two.

“During lockdown, when we were unable to hold Jack in the Green as normal, we had a much-reduced event at the Castle which was relayed by video on a live-stream, and I sang Maria’s song on the Castle walls as the sun came up – so magical!

“I danced with Mad Jack’s at Jack in the Green for many years, some special moments were: dancing ‘Drive the Cold Winter Away’ around Jack outside the Fishermen’s Museum before the procession, dancing the solo jig (twice) in the church at the special Sunday Morris service and of course, dancing ‘Bonnie Green’ round Ladies Parlour at dawn on 1st May.

“One of the very important aspects of Jack in the Green is the opportunity to meet and enjoy the variety of dancing presented by visiting Morris sides, many of whom are old friends and come every year. This meet-up usually starts on the Friday night when we gather in the Stag for a session (singing, tunes and drinking). I’ve got friends (ex-Hastings) who travel from North Wales every year, bringing their Morris side with them, and it’s wonderful to catch up.”

You can read the full Jack in the Green workshop on the festival website – and please make a donation to support the festival whilst you are there.


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Posted 17:22 Sunday, Apr 28, 2024 In: Heritage

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