A Short History of May Day

Kick off the merry month of May with this short history of May Day from Sophie, complete with an exploration of the significance of May Day to some of Walter Crane’s works.

Walter Crane (1845-1915), A Garland For May Day, c.1895. Proof. Ink on paper. Accession number: WCA.1.8.80 Source: the Whitworth.

Happy May Day from the gallery! I hope wherever you are, you are having a bright start to the summer-although in Manchester a sunny day in summer months is never a guarantee! This blog aims to give a short history of May Day celebrations, and how they have evolved from an ancient festival to welcome summer to the bank holiday we now enjoy. It will also look at some of the works of Walter Crane, who used May Day as a recurring theme in his art.

Sitting in between the spring equinox (where the sun is above the equator and day and night are the same length) and the summer solstice (the longest day) May Day has historically provided a time to celebrate springtime and the abundance promised by the incoming summer. Originally the Floralia celebration in Ancient Rome to celebrate the coming of springtime would involve athletic events and feasts over a number of days. The typical inversions and air of mischief characterising many carnivals was also present, with societal rule and behaviours subverted for the duration of festivities. The evolution of the Floralia saw it turn into a number of different summertime festivities, each taking on a unique character depending on the region and the peoples celebrating. In Gaelic speaking areas this became the Beltane festival, where a tradition of bonfires being lit to bless cattle began and the May Eve provided “a liminal moment of transition, the veils between the ordinary world and the divine Otherworld” [1].

Some of the more common associations with the start of the month include maypole dancing, which is still popular in some rural areas of Britain. The tradition of crowning a May Queen is still practised in
some areas, and is also one that we will see referenced a little later on. The festival has evolved over time into various festivities varying across different regions, although in the UK it is perhaps better known and enjoyed as a bank holiday! In fact it was James Callaghan who created the 1st May bank holiday to coincide with International Workers Day in 1978 [2], in commemoration of May Day taking on a new meaning for people worldwide.

As well as being a seasonal festival, May Day is also celebrated as International Workers’ Day, sometimes known as Labour Day. It was chosen to commemorate the efforts of striking workers who were demanding better pay and conditions, originating in America before spreading as its own holiday across the world. The trade union movement grew significantly in the 19th century, formed to protect their members from exploitation, as well as to fight for better workplace rights where protection for labourers was practically nonexistent. The length of the working day, as well as working conditions were both contentious issues that working class movements had rallied around, bolstered by leftist political organisations. Previous efforts to organise workers to rally against poor working conditions in the US had led to some federal legislation being passed that purported to shorten working days but would often contain loopholes that would allow businesses to continue demanding long working hours and fire employees who refused to comply [3]. The 1st of May was chosen to commemorate the events of the Haymarket Affair, which took place in Chicago in 1886.

The protest began on May 1st and was part of a national movement demanding an 8 hour working day. What began as a general strike and peaceful protest soon descended into violence. On 3rd May, police open fired on protesters- killing some of the workers (the exact number is disputed, but different accounts suggest between 2 – 6 were killed). Immediately responding to the police violence, several political organisations and anarchist groups called for a rally the following day. On the morning of May 4th at Haymarket square, following speeches by labour activist and anarchist Rev. Samuel Fielden the police began to march en masse against the assembled protestors. A petrol bomb was thrown by an unknown person, killing a policeman and acting as the flint for violence to spark across the assembly as police again opened fire. In all, seven police and at least four workers were killed, and the likely much higher number of civilian injuries remains unknown.

What followed was a swathe of anti-union action on the part of both companies and government, and as outpourings of support for the police continued the general public’s opinion of the striking workers turned hostile. The Mayor Carter Harrison announced a period of martial law, and so law enforcement began raiding worker’s organisations- often forgoing the legal warrants required to do so. Hundreds were arrested, and from those 8 men were selected to stand trial. In these men, business leaders and government officials who had long sought ways to clamp down on the labour rights movement, found an opportunity to set an example to other potential agitators. The fact that most of the men had not even been present for the rally was of little consequence, their radical anarchist politics was enough to secure a conviction of conspiracy [4].

A kangaroo court was set up with the express design of condemning the men and the judge presiding ordained that, due to the charge of conspiracy, if just one of the men were guilty then all were guilty by association. After the prejudiced trial was complete, 7 of the men were sentenced to death by hanging, and one to 15 years in prison. After an appeal, 2 had their sentences commuted to life sentences, with one man Louis Lingg dying by suicide that night. In all, 4 of the scapegoated men were killed by the state; George Engel, August Spies, Albert Parsons and Adolph Fischer. The Haymarket riot was a hugely significant moment in the fight for workers’ rights, and Rosa Luxemberg recalls how the American struggle for fairer labour conditions coupled with the wider labour movement across the globe led to the International Workers’ Congress in 1889 in Paris adopting the 8 hour day as a core demand, and enshrining May Day as the time to strike [5]. May Day as a workers’s day was enshrined in subsequent international congresses, and became an annual celebration of workers across the world, as well as a rallying point for innumerable strikes, actions, rallies and demonstrations that continue to the present day.

I want to take a moment to look in a little more detail at how May Day is represented in the collection, with a look at one artist in particular for whom the pastoral and even pagan roots of the festival as well as its contemporary significance for the workers movement were equally influential on his work. How one artist, Walter Crane, married the two May Day’s together, uniting the pastoral imagery of a summertime celebration with the honouring of the labour movement, seeing the fight for workers rights as one in harmony with the natural world.

Following the conviction of the Chicago anarchists, international condemnation by socialist and worker organisations led to a number of protests. On 13th November 1887, 2 days after the execution of the 4 Chicago men, Walter Crane attended a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square. Also in attendance were other notable socialists and marxists; Eleanor Marx, William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and Annie Besant to name a few. The meeting which had also been set up to protest political repression in Ireland and worsening working conditions in Britain and abroad, and included members from the Fabian Society as well as the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League. Mounted police broke up the protests with violence, several protestors were wounded and some died from their injuries. Crane remarks in his autobiography; “I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life — only the attack was all on one side” [6]. Following the protest, Crane was moved to produce a number of works in support of the condemned men, including widely disseminated prints in reverence to the ‘Chicago Martyrs’. In an earlier poem he wrote, ‘Freedom in America’, Crane writes;

“America, beneath thy banded flag
Of old it was thy boast that men were free
To think, to speak, to meet, to come and go.
What meaneth then the gibbet and the gag
Held up to Labour’s sons who would not see
Fair Freedom but a mask—a hollow show?”

Here ‘gibbet’ means gallows, as he decries the death sentence passed upon the men. While Crane himself was an avowed socialist, the treatment of the anarchists shone a light on the treatment of those who took an abolitionist stance against the state and corporations, rather than a revisionist one seen in more mainstream leftist organisations. This poem – as with much of his work – seeks to present a united front for different leftist factions, with freedom and liberty for all as the rallying cry.

Crane was deeply impacted by the events of the Haymarket affair. His support for the Chicago Anarchists who had been scapegoated became a point of contention when he travelled to America. After the death of their infant daughter Myfannwy, Crane and his wife Mary and their children travelled to the US for a year. Arriving in Boston, the artist’s welcome reception was brought to an abrupt end due to the publication of his political views. After exhibiting across the country and meeting with labour organisers, Crane attended and spoke at a Haymarket commemoration event, reading aloud his poems for the crowd. Upon return to his hotel he found
a letter sent to warn him of financial and social ruin should he continue to declare his support [8] and a swift media attack soon followed. Crane was labelled an anarchist and financial support being withdrawn as well as events in his name cancelled (although he notes this created a significant buzz prompting a huge turnout for his exhibitions!) [9] prompting him to write a letter in the Boston Herald defending his position. Thus passed one of the most controversial periods in Crane’s career, but he never abandoned his support of the Haymarket Eight. In fact the events in Chicago that led to the establishing of International Workers’ Day on May 1st remained a source of inspiration for the artist, and he went on to combine the modern celebration of the labour movement with the ancient summertime May Day festival in his work.

Walter Crane (1845-1915), The Triumph of Labour. Proof. Ink on paper. Accession number:
WCA.1.8.29 Source: the Whitworth.

The Whitworth along with the John Rylands Library acquired the Walter Crane archive in 2002. It contains over 4000 pieces of his work, ranging from drawings and studies to prints and wallpaper. While discussions around his legacy may often focus on his undeniably huge influence on children’s illustration, it is his political art that is the focus here, moreover how he created an identifiable style through which to communicate and disseminate socialism to the masses. The three works I want to reference here are each connected to the birth of May Day becoming a workers’ celebration, and those are A Garland for May Day (top image), The Worker’s May Pole (furthest bottom image) and The Triumph of Labour (below).

The Triumph of Labour is one of Crane’s most famous designs, a woodcut print engraved by his contemporary Henry Scheu. Within an ornate boarder, the work details a procession of workers; “both manual and mental, marching out to celebrate the International May Holiday” [10] according to Crane. They are celebrating under billowing banners stating “The Land For the People”, “International Solidarity of Labour”, “Wage Workers of the World Unite!” all following the personification of Freedom leading the march. Crane has inserted himself into the image; above the last wheel of the cart on the left hand side of the picture, placing himself with palette in hand bearing witness to the utopian procession, under the banner “Wage Workers of All Countries UNITE”.

Detail from The Triumph of Labour by Walter Crane. Source: the Whitworth.

I see Crane’s purpose of including himself as twofold. Firstly, reaffirming to the viewer his staunch leftist politics, but more significantly to unite art and socialism as a whole. In Morna O’Neill’s account of Crane’s political work she states “Design has the power to communicate the harmony and the utopian ideals of a socialist society, and the form of the design itself enacts this utopia” [11] The piece as with all of Crane’s work is full of symbolism, most notably with the personification of Freedom wearing a phrygian cap, popularised during the French Revolution. He also borrows ‘LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ” and a central bundle of wheat sheaves acting as a “long-standing symbol of fertility, bounty and resurrection.” [12].

Helen Stalker in her writing on the Walter Crane archive describes The Triumph of Labour as “an intricate and highly detailed depiction of the heroism of labour and the potential abundant rewards that could result from social equality” [13]. Here in The Triumph of Labour the procession of workers are joyfully marching towards this golden future as if buoyed by the natural world. The natural motifs that Crane uses so frequently in his works are in no way solely confined to his explicitly political cartoons. Rather, their purpose in his invoke an almost fantastical natural setting, harking back to pre-industrialisation where the artist suggests people were in better harmony with nature. Stalker continues “Crane regularly and fruitfully adopted the theme of May Day as the basis for his imagery in which a nostalgic, rural utopia was a setting for social and political reform” [14]; He unites the vision of a pastoral idyll with the values socialism extolls. The Arts and Crafts movement of which Crane was a significant member was in part born in opposition to what was seen as a corruption of nature through the all encompassing march of industrialisation. Having an immediately identifiable style, cracks and rifts in the different socialist movements throughout the country could be pasted over with the instantly recognisable works that Crane produced for a vast number of publications. A unified front through art, Crane gave socialism an identifiable style and form through which to convey its ideas to the masses; the medium becomes the message.

There is certainly criticism to be made as to how far removed the arts and crafts movement’s politics was from the realities of labour struggle during the rapidly expanding industrial age. The pastoral utopia Crane invokes at every turn is certainly a fantasy setting, and the artist’s political works -or cartoons for the cause- are not so different from his nursery fairytales or illustrated myths and legends. The same natural motifs permeate throughout his work, his May Queen and Fairy Queen characters often indistinguishable from each other. In both A Garland for May Day and The Workers’ May Pole, the central figure remains the same personification of Lady Liberty. In the former she stands barefoot in the grass, adorned in a classical tunic and surrounded by an abundant garland proclaiming various slogans of the cause. In the latter, labourers use the strands of Freedom’s dress to create their maypole, and again she is wearing the revolutionaries cap. In the script accompanying the work Crane describes it as an “Offering for May Day”, once again invoking the idea of an ancient harvest time offering -in the pagan May Day form- to ensure good fortune. Crane offers his art, just as the workers he depicts offer their labour, and together sets the stage for a utopian scene where solidarity ensures boundless rewards for those that fight for it. Here Crane’s May Queen is the central figure of both works, linking the workers’ movement to the pastoral cultural heritage of the much older May Day tradition; or as Laura Forestar writing on the development of progressive ideas through 20th century English artists states that in the work Crane “brings together English folk tradition and the demands of the international labour movement.”[15] 

Here I see Crane firmly uniting the pastoral with his vision of a socialist future; the natural world in harmony with the workers that inhabit it, for whom abundance is promised, and the rewards of community achieved through collective action. I think all of these evoke a return to the garden of Eden, although the religious basis for paradise is replaced with the secular idea of empowerment for all workers. Foster, in writing on the radial history of his May Pole works continues “Walter Crane is often thought of as a purveyor of Englishness, particularly one associated with medieval, rural, and religious allegorical tropes. He is often taken as a symbol of English socialism – a socialism distinct from its fiery continental contemporaries, and one that looked instead to a distinctly English, pre-industrial past” [16]. Despite its fantastical elements, Crane’s resolute socialism was reinforced time and again through his work, where many of his peers kept their politics and art separate. His staunch support for international socialism is reflected in his huge body of work for numerous campaigns and political causes, and the recurring motifs and stylistic language in his cartoons for the cause and the other bodies of his work (wallpaper, prints, nursery books) I think speak to the consistency and conviction of his political beliefs.

Crane gave the socialist movement an identifiable style, one that is still invoked and built upon today. One such example is the 2015 work by Andrea Bowers The Workers’ Maypole, An Offering for May Day 1894 (Illustration by Walter Crane). Bowers has replicated Crane’s image of the maypole, recreated with black felt tip onto multiple pieces of reclaimed cardboard inspired by the type of signage the artist saw used during the 2012 Occupy protests. Crane’s slogans that adorn the maypole, lifted by the workers, have been adapted to the context of the contemporary protesters’ demands: “For instance, ‘Adult Suffrage’ becomes ‘Equal Pay’ and ‘Neither Riches Nor Poverty’ becomes ‘Healthcare is a Human Right’. In the centre of the composition, the ribbon that in Crane’s image reads ‘Eight Hours’ has become ‘Which Side Are You On?’. [17] Although not all of the slogans have been adapted; “Land For the People” remains unaltered, a reminder of how the erosion of community rights to the spaces they inhabit, alongside the decimation of the commons is just an important issue now than it was when the work was first created. The reinterpreting of Crane’s work in a contemporary political context highlights the relevance of his messages today. Though Crane offers a fantasy through his works it is one that still speaks to the struggle for workers to live a happy and dignified life.

I find that as well as a (hopefully!) sunny day bringing some seasonal joy into your lives, this May Day could provide a time to think about the hard won working rights we enjoy today, ones that many are still fighting for. Especially at a time of historical industrial action is taking place in the UK, with a number of strikes led by trade unions across sectors demanding better pay and conditions for workers during the cost of living crisis. Walter Crane’s vision of a future where workers are fairly treated, and his idea of art as central to that future is still one that I find resonates more than ever today.



[1] George, A. and George, A., 2020. May day: Beltane fires and the May Queen-Goddess. The Mythology of
America’s Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae
, pp.121-133.

[2] Trades Union Congress, May Day- the strength of collective power. TUC website.

[3] Foner, P.S., 1986. May day: a short history of the international workers’ holiday, 1886-1986. International
Publishers Co.

[4] Ibid

[5] Luxemburg, R. and Howard, D., 1973. Selected political writings of Rosa Luxemburg, Science and
Society, 37(2).

[6] Crane W. An artist’s reminiscences. Macmillan; 1907.

[7] Crane, W. Freedom in America, 1886 in Renasence, A Book of Verse, The Project Guenberg 2016.

[8] Crane, W., 1907. An artist’s reminiscences. Macmillan.

[9] Ibid

[10] 10 Crane W. An artist’s reminiscences. Macmillan; 1907.

[11] O’Neill, M., 2008. ‘Art and Labour’s Cause is One’: Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915. Whitworth Art Gallery.

[12] 12 Unnamed, Wheat Symbol, Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum. 2010.

[13] 13 Stalker, Helen. From Toy Books to Bloody Sunday: Tales from the Walter Crane Archive. Whitworth Art Gallery, 2009.

[14] Ibid

[15] Laura Foster, 2020. Radical Object: Walter Crane’s The Workers’ Maypole (1894)

[16] Ibid

[17] Andrea Bowers The Worker’s Maypole, An Offering for May Day (Illustration by Walter Crane) 2015 TATE.


Crane W. An artist’s reminiscences. Macmillan; 1907.

Crane, W. Freedom in America, 1886 in Renasence, A Book of Verse, The Project Guenberg 2016

Foner, P.S., 1986. May day: a short history of the international workers’ holiday, 1886-1986. International Publishers Co.

Foster, L. 2020. Radical Object: Walter Crane’s The Workers’ Maypole (1984), History Workshop

George, A. and George, A., 2020. May Day: Beltane fires and the May Queen-Goddess. The Mythology of

America’s Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae, pp.121-133.

Godfrey, M. 2015. “Andrea Bowers The Worker’s Maypole, An Offering for May Day (Illustration by Walter Crane) 2015” TATE. Available from: Tate.org.uk

Luxemburg, R. and Howard, D., 1973. Selected political writings of Rosa Luxemburg. Science and Society37(2).

O’Neill, M., 2008. ‘Art and Labour’s Cause is One’: Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915. Whitworth Art Gallery.

O’NEILL, M.O.R.N.A., 2008. Walter Crane’s Floral Fantasy: the Garden in Arts and Crafts Politics. Garden History, pp.289-300.

Stalker, H., 2009. From Toy Books to Bloody Sunday: Tales from the Walter Crane Archive. Whitworth Art Gallery.

Trades Union Congress, May Day- the strength of collective power. TUC website. Available from: TUC.org.uk

Unnamed, Wheat Symbol, Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum. 2010.

Further Reading

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-labor-and-working-class-history/article/soci al-revolution-in-america-european-reactions-to-the-great-upheaval-and-to-the-haymarket-affair/D5 DF6C57A975A94893B564ECF8B16EA9


https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=bJCPDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=arts+and +crafts+nature+socialism&ots=Bsw_XJL4-v&sig=iaui5TQopphf63mfUpgGJD4Le2w#v=onepage&q =arts%20and%20crafts%20nature%20socialism&f=false



https://www.jstor.org/stable/40649461?saml_data=eyJzYW1sVG9rZW4iOiJmYWJiOWUyNS0wNzlm LTRkOGYtODgyYS0xY2MxMDcwNjNmOGYiLCJpbnN0aXR1dGlvbklkcyI6WyJjMTI3MDY3MS1iYzdiL TQyNTYtYWFiMC04Y2QzZjA0ZDcwZTAiXX0&seq=4

https://www.jstor.org/stable/40347136?searchText=&searchUri=&ab_segments=&searchKey=&refr eqid=fastly-default%3A694f7237f4759593cd13b8be709207d3&seq=8


One thought on “A Short History of May Day

  1. I knew WC was a big May Day fan but this puts much context as to why. His own experiences lasted a lifetime. With Nurses ‘out’ today, this is a timely and relevant read. From history to present day, there is much to ponder on working conditions and pay just now. Terrific read.

    Liked by 1 person

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