May Day Customs

Thirteenth Report of the Committee on Devonshire Folk-Lore. Trans. Devon Assoc., vol. XXVII, (1895), pp. 72-73.


H.B.S. Woodhouse

Prepared by Michael Steer

The Folk-Lore Committee’s Report was read at the Association’s August 1895 Okehampton meeting. Down through the centuries ‘May Day’ has always been a significant day in the calendar with celebrations held in many or most Devon towns and villages. The roots of May Day can be found deep in beliefs, with Beltane which occurs from the 30th of April to the 1st of May. In old Devon, May 2nd was known as ‘ducking day’ and this was when in early times the village gossip or scold was taken to the pond and given a seat on the ducking stood. Latterly the children of the village or town extended the ‘duckings’ to anyone who came within range of whatever they were carrying water in. The report extract, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Among the May-day customs still lingering in Devonshire is that of throwing water over persons, especially strangers, from which the day is termed ducking-day, Mr. Elworthy (The Evil Eye, p. 62) suggests the custom to be a survival of the invocation of the rain spirit of ancient times. As this custom is now likely to cease, owing to the lamentable accident at Loddiswell, its observance on the occasion is worthy of record.

The following is an account of the trial at the Exeter Assizes, June, 1894:


"William John Luscombe, 13, and Samuel George Hine, 16, were indicted for the manslaughter of Dr. Alfred Hughes Twining, at Loddiswell. Hine pleaded guilty, and Luscombe not guilty. Counsel for the prosecution stated that this was a miserable sort of case. These two boys, who, for anything he knew, were very respectable, were charged with manslaughter. In that part of Devonshire in which the prisoners lived there was an idiotic custom practised on the 1st of May, called ‘ducking - day,' of throwing water over people. The prisoners, with others, amused themselves on the evening of that date in throwing water over a fence on to a road some distance below, where there was a passing carriage, containing the late Dr. Twining and Dr. Hellier, who were being driven by a servant. The water thrown over the fence frightened the horse, which collided with a fence. More water was thrown, with the result that the horse started off, the carriage was turned over, and its occupants were thrown out. Dr. Twining sustained an injury to his ankle, which, a few days later, necessitated the amputation of the leg at the thigh. As the outcome of that amputation, the doctor died. The learned Judge again expressed the opinion that there was no case against Luscombe, whom the jury found ‘Not guilty.' His Lordship: What is to be done with the elder boy? I have no power to order him a whipping. It would be utterly wrong to send the boy Hine to prison. He would be discharged on his own recognizance of £5, and his father's surety of £5, to come up for judgment when called upon." 

H. B. S. W.