On the 2 May 1914 the Hampshire Advertiser described the “revival of an old-time custom:” the St Mary’s choir singing from the battlements of the Bargate at 6 am. This was the second year of the revival, and “thousands upon thousands” of people choked Above Bar to “listen to, or str[i]ve to catch, the sound of voices above,” and to be showered with spring posies.
The reporter evokes “the atmosphere of the Merrie England of the past,” but in fact the custom dated only as far back as 1884, when the Advertiser announced (30 April): “Following a custom prevalent in the university towns and other classic regions, a male voice choir will arrange to sing one or two old English glees tomorrow. One of the Church towers has been selected for the experiment, and the time will be 6am.”
Holy Rood had been selected as the most suitable site, but the choir could not get permission to use the tower. However, the mayor “readily granted the use of the ancient Bargate,” and on the fine still morning the sixteen-strong choir could be heard “with charming effect to even, it is said, Cumberland Place and East Park.”
In 1884, the event was described as a novelty, in 1885 as a revived classical celebration, in 1887 as established custom, in 1888 as an annual festival. Crowds would gather in expectation, and programmes were printed and sold among the gathering. In 1889 a little girl held up a card with the item number from the top of the Bargate, and tickets were sold to a select few to join the choir there. The performance lasted an hour.
The weather could make things difficult. High winds made the choir inaudible in 1887, when a northerly wind blew into their teeth, and carried the sound away from the audience. The borough surveyor had built a platform behind the northern battlements, which, said the Advertiser, was “undoubtedly a mistake.” In 1891, the wind was south-westerly, and the programme consisted of band music only, performed by Southampton Town Band, conducted by Mr Watson. The May Choir joined the band and friends afterwards in the Guildhall, with their choirmaster J F Sharp.
It had been Mr Sharp’s idea to perform from a tower on May Day, in imitation of Magdalen College, Oxford, which had been singing from their tower since the 16th century. James Frederick Sharp had a music shop in St Mary Street, where he ran dances in the winter, the Wagner House Quadrille Assemblies, and he could be found entertaining the Oddfellows and other groups. 1891 would be the last time he led his May Choir, as he died on the 4 May 1891. His health may have been one of the reasons for their failure to perform outside that year.
A forty-strong choir sang in 1892, and the Southampton Band played in 1893, both under Mr Alfred Watts, but nothing happened in 1894.
In 1895, the Hampshire Advertiser was saying, as if it had been a long time ago “there was once an attempt to interest the public at ‘peep of dawn’ by glee singing on top of the bargate. Even this has been discontinued.” (4 May 1895)
“Where are the May morning revels of my youth?” asked the Advertiser in 1906. “We don’t even sing and have hot coffee on the Bargate now!” (The performers used to be treated to coffee and refreshments by the Inspector of Police)
In 1913, the Rector of St Mary’s, Rev Neville Lovett, and Mr R E Nicholas had brought about the “reintroduction of the May Day greeting.” It had acquired a more religious tone: in 1914, apart from one part-song, Mr Sharp’s glees had been replaced by hymns.
The 1915 ceremony was “a simple little service”, with prayers and the National Anthem. In 1916 “the songs of May gave place to the singing of hymns in which the huge assembly that thronged the street joined.” In 1917 “the hymns selected were probably the best known in the hymnal,” and the Rector prayed for the wounded, and the prisoners of war, and a victorious peace. In 1918, the function was “entirely of an intercessionary character.”
1919 was wet and the assembly “quite a small one,” singing from under their umbrellas. The wartime ceremonies had boasted the joint choirs of St Mary’s and All Saints, but this first peacetime celebration had “Mr George Leake and a few choirmen, accompanied by members of the Police Band.”
Early risers were disappointed in 1920 and 1921, but in 1922 St Mary’s choir, and a quartet part of the Police Band, rendered hymns, part songs and glees under their conductor Professor Leake, organist and choir master at St Mary’s. The “ancient custom” was revived again.
In later years the ceremony would be performed by the choir of King Edward VI School, and more recently King John's Morris Dancers have welcomed the May from ground level.

Above Bar, May Day 1915

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A wartime crowd gather to hear St Mary's choir

Bargate, May Day, date unknown

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The photograph has been dated to 1906, but there was no ceremony that year.


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