For hundreds of years, the Island has been renowned for its lace. A tradition passed from mothers to daughters. The lace was so pure and perfect that it punished any person black of heart who purchased it.
It seemed that the information I had been given wasn’t entirely accurate.
I arrived with ten minutes to spare, the time usually sufficient to find a place to park one’s bicycle on the island, but a rather reedy-looking procession of adolescent milkmaids was already underway. The railings along Castle Road were obstructed by ruddy-cheeked mothers and shy, appreciative suitors, so there was no hope of finding suitable place for the bicycle so I was forced to stand on the pavement with it, cursing my informant.
Still, I should be thankful, really, for the Milkmaids’ Association of Wight (MAW) is a notoriously secretive society that refuses to publicise their whereabouts: their meetings, their purpose and very definitely this: their Milkers Day.
It is thought Milkers Day evolved from the hiring fairs of yore, when farmers and milking shed owners bought in their maids for the new season. Over time, however, the milkers added their own flourishes, impenetrable to spectators and, especially, employers, but more of those secrets later.
Milkers Day takes place when the head milker, thought to be the President of MAW, though she would never acknowledge this fact – never acknowledge to be a member of MAW, or even that the association exists – discovers a double ring of bubbles in her morning pail.
The significance of the double ring is much disputed. Jeremiah Barnetby, the first to have concentrated his scholarly efforts on the working people of the Isle of Wight, said, writing in 1763, that ‘the double ring, the eye within the eye, the bullseye, made it plain that there were to be weddings and children, with milk, God’s own sustenance, spurting forth.’
It wouldn’t be until one century later, when the Right Reverend John Handiclough, following discourse with the sister of one of his maidservants, put forward a new theory. He recorded:
The milkmaid came forth and whispered “It be Milkers Day tomorrow. The head lady found the double bubbs.” I wondered what the little mite meant. “Speak up,” I told her, “did the cat get your tongue?”
“No sir,” she replied in earnest, growing bolder in both voice and carriage. “There are no cats. Only cows with their udders, and the pails by which we get their sweet stuff. And when there are two rings of bubbles, it means there’s the most auspicious day.”
“What means this Milkers Day?” asked I.
The little child had begun to redden as though she had spoken out of turn.
She whispered again. “It is the day the suitors line up to see us for the trial marriage.”
I make no apology for reprinting the length of this extract; it is worthwhile noting the Reverend’s observations regarding the young milkmaid’s behaviour.
Today, though, standing on the pavement, bicycle in hand, I was taken by the brazen gestures of the processing milkmaids: blowing kisses to young gentlemen, splashing milk across unsuspecting spectators, and exhibiting the MAW tattoo – a cloven hoof within two rings – in all manner of fleshy nooks and crannies. Little of the secrecy and discretion I’d read in connection with the Milkers was at work here; instead, this procession endeavoured to celebrate the milkmaid, however crass.
At first, I was horrified. What should prospective employers think of this ragtag bunch of loose women lasciviously baring all in in public? How did it reflect on such a noble, innocent profession? How would fathers let their daughters, husbands allow their wives, to join such a whorish cult? But such was the joyous atmosphere that it didn’t take long before I was merrily clapping along with the proud parents and patrons. Hell, when one young woman dashed her pail across the crowd and placed a platform boot on its upturned form, just so that she might reveal an enlarged MAW tattoo on her taut thigh, to the delight of her crowd and compatriots, I joined in with an enthusiastic holler! I felt alive!
Jeremiah Barnetby stated that, in his day, Milkers Day was an altogether more common occurrence, with each hamlet, village and township having their own iteration of the custom. Today, however, with the number of milkmaids on the island dwindled, there is only one which takes place at Cowes – all puns intended.
But this is no jovial affair. It appears I have missed the majority of the procession as the number of paraders soon comes to a halt, the rear brought up by a pantomime cow, her udders swinging sweets after which the children are released from parental hands and scatter.
‘First time?’ A woman I would have sworn was a fishwife, rather than a woman with connections in the dairy, leant over. I asserted it was. Though I was aware that the subsequent rituals of the custom – the swearing in of the President Elect, and the pairing of maiden and suitor – took place behind closed doors, this fishy woman took great pains in outlining what would happen next, at the Great Byre in Watchouse Lane.
'My ole gal, Sissy, has been courted by three young men and has her eye on one of them.’
‘Oh?’ I replied, patting my breeches pocket for my reporter’s notebook. Do go on, I thought, tell me what may happen next. A trial marriage, perhaps, until next Milkers Day?
But it was like the woman’s conscience caught up with her and she said no more. Or should that be ‘said no MAW?’ Indeed, she may as well have done, for she smiled her gold teeth knowingly and moved off into the crowd.
The procession completed, the sweets gathered, there was nothing left but for the crowd to disperse and the road sweepers to begin mopping up the milk puddles from the cobbles. I pushed my bicycle back to the main road and vowed to get to know a MAW milkmaid.
I wouldn’t be late again.
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