Cornwall May Day celebration marred by tragedy

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PADSTOW, Cornwall – The May Day celebrations in Padstow in Cornwall were marked by tragedy this year when a young mother died, possibly as a result of an accident involving the traditional figure of the Padstow Obby Oss (hobby horse).

Padstow Obby Oss [Public Domain]

Having collapsed in a lane in the port, 34 year old Laura Smallwood was found unresponsive. She was airlifted to Plymouth Hospital but died from neck injuries on the morning of Saturday 4th May, after attending the Padstow May festivities. There have been suggestions that she may have been assaulted by another woman earlier in the evening, but the authorities are also looking at the possibility that her injuries were caused by an interaction with the Oss.

The Padstow May celebrations are famous throughout Britain and are prized by the nation’s Pagan community as they’re seen as a continuation of folklore practices. According to local historian, 83-year-old John Buckingham, the May Day celebration is “Christmas and birthdays and everything rolled into one for most people.” He adds that “There are young people in the town who can’t wait to carry the Oss, it’s a rite of passage. Cool or not, I do not know, but it’s cool if you’re a young Padstownian.”

The festivities, which attract up to 4,000 people, begin on May Eve at midnight, when townsfolk gather outside the Golden Lion pub in Padstow and sing the “Night Song.” Two groups are involved; one featuring the ‘Old’ Oss and one with the ‘Blue Ribbon Oss’ (it was the latter which was possibly involved in Mrs Smallwood’s death).

Padstow Obby Oss [Image credit: Andy F./WikiCommons]

The ‘oss’ consists of a wooden horse’s head and a large round structure over which a cape is hung (the Blue Ribbon Oss is actually made from a table top). Young women are encouraged to duck under the ‘oss’ (some folklorists hold that there is an obvious sexual subtext to this). The horses are accompanied by “Teasers,” who try to catch young women as they pass through the town on a 12 hour circuit, initiated by the “Morning’”or “Day Song.” The two horses meet at a maypole whereupon the horses return to their “stables.” They are said to die, and be resurrected on the following May Eve.

Whether the Obby Oss ceremony is genuinely ancient is debatable. There are extensive mentions of May Day festivities in the 16th century but the first mention of the Padstow celebrations comes in the early 19th, and it’s possibly no older than the 18th century.

However, there have been suggestions that such events originally come from Beltane celebrations (and certainly, many newer rites such as the Glastonbury Dragons Parade are recent and are explicitly Beltane-related). English historian Ronald Hutton says that when he visited Padstow in 1985, locals described the event as coming from an ancient fertility rite, but ironically they probably got this belief from early 20th century historians influenced by James Frazer’s work The Golden Bough.

Padstow Maypole [Image credit: Bryan Ledgard]

Certainly, the Blue Ribbon Oss is of recent origins, devised by the Temperance Movement in the late 19th century to try to discourage the excessive drinking which accompanied the event (there’s no evidence that this has succeeded). After the First World War it was known as the “Peace Oss.”

The Padstow event is not the only one that involves an “oss”: Minehead also has a similar celebration involving two boat-shaped costumes and in Chepstow on the Welsh Borders, the Mari Lwyd celebration in January, a Wassail-based event, has been steadily growing in popularity.

After last week’s incident, the Blue Ribbon Oss has been examined by police and returned. The Health and Safety Executive has also been informed.

An employee of a restaurant close to where Smallwood was found said that the festivities can often attract rowdy and aggressive behavior. Rose Barker is quoted as saying that, “There was a lot of pushing and shoving. A lot of people had too much to drink and one man passed out in the middle of the street near the harbour. I got shoved as I was walking to work.”

It isn’t clear yet whether Smallwood inadvertently suffered a glancing blow from the Oss, of whether she may have been caught up in a scuffle.

As investigations continue, tributes to Smallwood and to the town have been pouring in, with over 100 messages of support left on the Cornwall Live Facebook page. Padstow is said to be “shocked and heartbroken” by the death and some residents have been fearing for the event’s future.

A resident who wished to remain anonymous told Cornwall Live, “People get minor injuries every year. I saw a woman with a gashed arm this year. But for something like this to happen is truly shocking. I was speaking to someone who said they’ve seen this coming for years.”

And another resident is quoted as saying “I’ve always worried someone might get seriously hurt by an oss. They are very heavy and people get so close.”

One of the Padstow shop owners also commented, “It will be a real shame if this has a serious effect in the future, especially knowing what Health and Safety did to carnivals. This is very sad for the lady involved and very sad for the Obby Oss and Padstow.”

There has been a suggestion, however, that next year’s oss could be made from cardboard, which is obviously much lighter. It is perhaps too soon to decide the future of the event, however, given that it is as yet unclear as to the exact cause of death.

To have a death at this kind of event is unusual, but injuries are not infrequently reported at folk events: it’s reported that in the Haxey Hood in Lincolnshire, a kind of mass rugby game dating back to the 14th century in which up to 300 people take part, people are occasionally hurt.

The Shipwright’s Inn, owned by the St Austell Brewery chain, has issued condolences from Padstow to Smallwood’s family. The police have asked that any witnesses contact them as soon as possible.