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The Tradition of Giants in Britain

Early References

Earliest references to Giants pre-date the name "Britain". The earliest British giant was Albion, translated by some as "White Land". At the time, people's names were taken from their place of origin. Albion was said to be the fourth son of Neptune. Another early British Giant was Gogmagog, who, after being captured by Brutus and Corineus, was killed by being thrown off a cliff by the latter, which is now known as "Giant's Leap". The names of many landscape features in Britain, mainly barrows, stone circles, hills and rock formations make references to Giants. The most famous is the Giants' Causeway in Ireland, said to have been laid by the Giant Irish Chieftain, Finn McCool. Giants are also mentioned in the Bible, Goliath being the most famous example. Less well known is that St Christopher, who carried Christ across a river on his shoulder, was also a Giant.

Processional Giants

The origin of Processional Giants, in Britain or elsewhere in Europe, is uncertain. Records show that Giants were used in Chester in 1498. There is reference to a Giant in use in Salisbury at about the same time. London, of course, also had its Giants, but the earliest known reference to these is 1605. In fact, it is possible that most major cities had Giants, owned and run by the Guilds who used them in religious and civic processions, in the same way that we now use carnival floats. Little record exists of them today.

The London Giants are called Gogmagog and Corineus (see above) and featured in the Lord Mayor's parade in 1605. The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed them. Although replacements were kept in the Guildhall in 1672, these, in turn, were also destroyed by rats and mice, being manufactured of wickerwork. Wooden statues replaced these in 1708, which lasted until the Blitz and the present Giants have existed since 1953.

The Salisbury Giant, first mentioned in 1784 but probably predating that, is called St Christopher. His last outing was in 1981, when he was moved to his present home at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, although his last regular performance was at the 1977 Queen's Jubilee. Alterations made to the doors of the museum which did not take St Christopher's dimensions into account have rendered him prisoner there, although there is now a replica which deputises for him! In the 18th and 19th centuries he had a large retinue. plus a companion, Hobnob.

The Giants of Chester, seen in the Midsummer Watch parade every two years since the 15th Century, were accompanied by various animals, one of which was a dragon, beaten by six naked boys! After about 100 years this practice was eventually banned and the whole parade was nearly stopped by the Mayor in 1599, but continued until the 1670's

The Revival of the Tradition

The revival began with the building of a new version of Gogmagog in 1971 by a group led by a man called Dave Lobb. The construction actually began in 1977 and was completed by 1984. It was an impressive 28 feet in height, the biggest in Europe. Our own Dave Ellis was involved in a more modest project to construct a Giant in Huddersfield in 1984. The finished product, Nathandriel, stands 14 ft high, the height of most Continental Giants. Derek Moody formed a group in 1987 to build the Dorchester Giants and also helped form BIGG (British Isles Giant Guild), providing a national network and insurance cover for Giants. Giants now exist in many parts of the country and are a thriving new revival of a tradition.

The Giants of Sheffield, called 'War' and 'Peace' were built to a Catalan design in 1992, following the Student Games, by a man called 'Jordi' and were presented to the Mayor of Sheffield in the July of 1992. Jordi ceremoniously broke the mould of the Giants on the steps of the Town Hall in front of the Mayor, making them irreplaceable. They stand 4 metres high and weigh approximately 46 Kilos and are carried on the head and shoulders of the porter. This requires changing the porters after each dance to allow them to regain their energy!! Surrounding the dancing Giants are 'catchers', there in case an accident should occur, to save the Giants and protect the audience!! The Giants are also accompanied by a band of accomplished musicians. War and Peace usually reside in the Kelham Island Museum and are probably the most impressive Processional Giants in Britain. The people of Sheffield can be proud that their city is playing such a pivotal role in upholding a tradition which encompasses imagination, skill, musical expertise and originality.