History of the Sheffield City Giants

The Sheffield City Giants were presented to the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, who accepted them on behalf of the City on 4th July 1992. They had been created by the Catalan Giant maker, Jordi Grau (honoured in the dance Jordi’s) under commission from the Sheffield Festival to produce a pair of giants according to the theme of the festival ‘Life and Death’. It was, however, contrary to Catalan custom to represent Death and with this in mind, the theme was altered to ‘War and Peace’.

The hands and bodies were brought from Catalunya; the heads, manufactured from a material called cartró pedra – a kind of industrial grade papier maché – were made over a two week period in what had been British Rail’s Permanent Way Department workshops near Woodburn Bridge, Sheffield.

During the presentation of the Giants, the moulds of the Giants’ heads were broken with a sledgehammer on the steps of the Town Hall. The Sheffield City Morris Men were designated the official Custodians of the Giants, a role they still have.

The original designs for the Giants’ costumes have been simplified over the years and Peace replaced her ‘wedding dress’ for the millennium.

The Giants danced in the Lord Mayor’s parade for the first time in 1993, supported by the ‘Geganters de Manresa’ who had hosted Sheffield City Morris the previous year and were paying a return visit. The Giants went to Catalunya in 1995 as principal guests at the ‘Festa Major’ in Manresa. The Giants continued to participate regularly in the annual Lord Mayor’s parade throughout the 90s, as well as attending a number of festivals in Britain celebrating folk arts – Selby, Hastings’ Jack in the Green Festival, for example, culminating in an appearance at the ‘Sidmouth International Folk Festival’. Sidmouth was the principal international folk arts event in Britain at the time, involving us in parades, a performance on the main stage and the torchlight procession through the town.

Since 1998, the Giants have been resident at the Kelham Island Museum where the group of porters, musicians and catchers meets to practise on the first Sunday of each month. New members are always welcome. Get in touch via the Contact page.

The Giants have been even more active and high profile (no pun intended!!) in the new millennium than they were in the old one and the international nature of their performances has grown. The Giants celebrated their 10th and 12th birthdays with major events in the City of Sheffield and were also seen at major festivals, including a return to Hastings’ Jack in the Green, Towersey Village Festival in Oxfordshire in 2002 and a second appearance at the 50th Sidmouth festival in 2004.

In 2003 we took part in the Festa Catalunya in Manchester, organised by Manchester City Council in association with the regional government of Catalunya, involving giants, musicians and dancers from that region.

2004 also saw the Giants make an appearance in Riudoms, Catalunya and in 2006 we were part of the Quatrième Ronde de Géants Portés in Steenvoorde, France. This was an international event, involving 100 giants from all over the world and attracting over 40,000 visitors. As well as two lengthy processions, the weekend included a short performance by the Sheffield City Giants’ band, during a Saturday night concert, in front of an audience of 2,000 in the main marquee.

2007 saw us just as busy, the highlight being our part in the Lord Mayor of Sheffield’s St George’s Day celebrations and Civic reception. The Lord Mayor at the time, Jackie Drayton, herself a folk dancer, contributed to the performance by folk dance groups in the Town Hall Foyer.  The event.was also attended by a number of local dignitaries

Dancing the Giants in the Town Hall Foyer was a momentous occasion. We were particularly proud to have displayed Peace to the people of Sheffield  in the Town Hall Foyer during the previous week.

Following a contact made at Steenvoorde with Le Grand Esprit from Quebec, the Sheffield City Giants were invited to participate in La Grande Rencontre des Géants à Québec, part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City in 2008.  This was a massive undertaking which involved carefully packing the Giants for the trip, first to Antwerp and then to Canada. In Antwerp, they assembled with the other invited European Giants before crossing the Atlantic by ship.  The event was very successful and we made many friends.

The highlight of 2016 was performing with Sheffield Symphony Orchestra, who had invited a number of local dance groups to participate in a concert of classical dance music.  We were able to adapt the figures from “Jordi’s Dance”, along with a few specially choreographed moves, to enable War and Peace to dance perfectly to “The Montagues and Capulets” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.  The darkened hall of the Octagon Centre at Sheffield University provided an incredibly atmospheric setting for both the music and dancers.

In 2017 we celebrated the Giants’ 25th birthday with a performance on The Moor, in Sheffield City Centre.  The Lord Mayor was in attendance to watch some dancing and cut the giant cake (it was truly giant – we gave away over 300 portions!) and lots of children enjoyed colouring, face painting and stickers.

The Giants continue to perform at events of all kinds in Sheffield and around the UK.

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.