Ahead of the 40th Anniversary Sweeps Festival in Rochester this May Bank Holiday weekend, we caught up with Gordon Newton, founder of the festival, on its origins and plans for this year’s celebrations.
What is a Sweeps Festival?
A Sweeps festival is a traditional holiday that chimney sweeps enjoyed on May Bank Holiday each year. After working throughout the winter, they would welcome the much-needed break by processing through the streets of Rochester, accompanied by the Jack-in-the-Green - a 7ft green giant character. With the passing of the Climbing Boys Act in 1868, it was illegal to employ young boys to clean chimneys and the processions gradually stopped.
How did the Sweeps Festival first come about?
40 years ago, I was a musician for a Morris side called Boughton Monchelsea. Motley Morris (who helped developed the festival in the early years) and I celebrated the traditions of May festivals and wanted to carry on the legacy. Charles Dickens vividly describes the Sweeps celebrations in his book, Sketches by Boz, in the scene, First of May.
Why is it important to you?
It’s important to celebrate those who lost their lives cleaning chimneys. I love the festival although it started as a hobby. I wore the jack-in-the-green costume for many years and have organised the Morris sides since the beginning with some coming from as far as Canada, Alaska and New Zealand.
Why is it important for us to celebrate the Sweeps Festival?
To keep the tradition going. It brings hundreds of thousands of people to Medway and showcases what a great place it is to visit.
What can we expect to see at this year’s festival?
Be prepared for live bands, Morris sides, plenty of dancing, food stalls, fun fair and much more.
Thank you to everyone who has supported us over the 40 plus years. Special thanks to Doug Hudson, Music Director and Medway Council. This event couldn't work without everyone joining together.