Today is May Day, although many of us may need to defer our celebrations until the bank holiday next week. Although traditional May Day festivities have a long and interesting history, when the May Day Bank Holiday was introduced in 1978 it was not timed to coincide with any pagan festival, but with International Workers’ Day.
The idea of a day devoted to the celebration of working-class culture has its origins in the 19th century struggle for an eight-hour day. In Brighton, as in many cities across Europe, history is often recounted through the eyes of the upper classes, those who rubbed shoulders with royalty, perhaps, and occupied the town’s grandest crescents and squares. But as historian Antony Dale pointed out in his introduction to Brighton Town and Brighton People, ‘these people were never the real residents of Brighton’. The real residents were ordinary, working people, many of whom lived in unimaginable squalor.
A local Trades Council was established in Brighton in 1890. The idea was to promote solidarity among workers belonging to different trades, but the council also tried to address some of the issues affecting the workers, such as health, housing and education. In the years leading up to World War One, a wide range of unions were active in the town, and Labour Day demonstrations were an annual affair. Flyers were distributed to promote the events, some of which were translated into French and German, to include foreign hotel and restaurant workers based in the town.
Despite the militant tendencies of some groups, there was often fun to be had at these gatherings. A procession would head from the Aquarium to The Level, where speakers would address the crowds. One of Brighton’s most memorable May Day Fairs took place in 1969; it featured activities for all the family, from live music and football matches to Punch & Judy shows, street theatre and, of course, food and drink. According to a report published in the Brighton and Hove Herald on 9 May 1969, ‘The posters billed this event as a “Levelution”. But it was really a workers’ playtime.’
For more about the history of ordinary Brightonians, Underdog Brighton by local author Rocky Hill is a fascinating account of life in ‘the other Brighton’. A reference copy is available at Brighton History Centre.
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre