Held on 13 May (Old May Day) each year, the Garland Day celebrations have taken place in the Dorset village of Abbotsbury since about the early nineteenth century. They were first described in Hutchins’ History of Dorset published in 1867. The custom was originally associated with Abbotsbury’s fishing fleet: garlands of flowers made by the fishermen’s children were blessed at the village church in a special service, then hung on the boats and taken out to sea.
This marked the opening of the fishing season, and then the children would dance and play games on the beach to celebrate. From around the time of the First World War, the custom changed somewhat in that children of non-fishermen started to take part. This was probably due to the decline of the local fishing industry. The garlands – one with wild flowers and one with garden flowers – are still made but they are hung on poles, carried from house to house and laid on the local war memorial at the end of the day.
The children receive coins from admiring residents as a reward for their efforts but on 14 May 1954, The Daily Express reported that the village constable of Abbotsbury had stopped the children’s Garland-Day Procession as it danced its way through the fishing village to the sea, on the ground that it was “begging” and was against the law. He also confiscated the collection amounting to £1 1s. 7 1/2d. This caused uproar in the village and the policeman found himself transferred to another locality!