American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 1
April, 2005

This Issue | Past Issues | Useful Links | Team Directory | Team News | Wiki! | Search This Site | Contact Us
 AMN Article open journal systems 

[ed. note: This article had originally been submitted for publication by the AMN in 2001. Unfortunately, the disk that it was on had suffered serious sector corruption. Having the means neither to recover the file nor to repair the disk, AMN staff set the disk aside. We found the disk in the archives, recovered most of the data on it, and present this article as a tribute to Mr. Ashman, who had unfortunately passed away in the intervening years. Some of this article has not been successfully recovered even now, and is designated by elipses [...]; however, John Burke and Isabella Ashman are looking for the original, and, once found, we will present the corrected version in a later issue.]

Border Morris: Roots & Revival (Transcript of Talk)

Gordon Ashman

Morris means a lot of different things to different people, doesn't it? If you've got your programs handy, it says:- "Boder Morris," "B-O-D-E-R Morris." (laughter) It's an interesting, and really very complicated subject, isn't it? As I say, Morris means different things to different people. Just last week, in the Daily Telegraph, there's a little note saying, "A Birmingham reader recounts the following conversation between her two grandchildren. Grandson One: 'What's a transvestite?' Grandson Two: 'A man who wears women's clothing.' Grandson One: 'Oh, Morris dancers!'" (laughter)

It's not just Morris dancers overall. I think it gets even more complicated when you start talking about something like Border Morris. Because I'm still not very clear what Border Morris is, and I'm not sure, at the end of the day, whether you're going to be very much clearer about the subject in your minds, or not. A lot of it is to do with the fact that it does mean different things to different people.

This arises not least because the Border Morris side which I led for three days and danced in much longer was once described by me as the second worst Cotswold side in the world. I gave a lecture some time ago, and as a historian, with some regard for historical accuracy, I didn't dare say we were the worst Cotswold side in the world. I just had the feeling that somewhere in the world, there might be one worse. Oh, yes!! [laughter] So I said, "We were the second worst Cotswold side in the world," and Roy Dommett piped up from somewhere in the middle of the hall, "No, no, no, you were actually the third worst side." [laughter] As an aside, we became a very good Border Morris side and appeared at all the major English Festivals. This was my sort of Border Morris.

I retired, as an arthritic wreck, from dancing, but came out of retirement briefly, at Whitby, about four or five years ago, when the Iron Men were short of a dancer. And the Severn Gilders [female dance side who perform with the Ironmen and took their name from the girls who gilded china in the 19th C] were also short of a dancer so my wife rejoined them. We went up to Whitby and I was doing some historical lectures for the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library as well featuring with the Ironmen. It happened that one day, I was out, gently wandering around the town. I'd finished my lecture; I was in "civilian clothing," so to speak, i.e., not in Morris kit. Drifting through the town, I chanced upon this side that were really, really dreadful. It was a mixed-sex side. I have no difficulty with mixed sides. The difficulty I had was with the fact that the whole thing was so weak and weedy, wet and limp. They had some tiny patches of green on their faces, and you couldn't really call the uniform they wore "tatters." They weren't good enough to qualify as tatters. And tiny, little, thin sticks. And they were, to say the least - I hope I don't offend: they were pissing about! It was the essence of what Morris isn't, to my mind. But as an interested spectator, of course, I was able to stand there at the end and say, "Gosh, that's interesting! What are you doing?" And they explained that it was Morris dancing. "Oh," I said, "There are different sorts of Morris dancing, aren't there?" They said, "Yes, this is Border Morris dancing." "Oh, gosh!" I said, "How did you get started?" And they said, "Well, a few years ago we saw this side called the Ironmen, and we thought they were so good, we decided to copy them." (laughter) Look what we started! That's a bit of their Border Morris roots.

The workshop today is about roots. I'm going to talk about what may be a part of the historical roots of Morris dance in this area. I did a talk similar to this not very long ago, and I put "Border ? Morris" and a couple more question marks. Someone came up to me just before the lecture started, and did nothing for my self-confidence by saying, "Gosh, all those question marks: does that mean you don't know what you're talking about?" [laughter] I will leave you to judge at the end of this talk. 

What I'm going to try to do is cover about 400 years of Morris dance which have taken place not very far from the area we're in today. And cover-there are one or two-really, to my mind-critical references, that tell you a great deal about what was going on. And then look briefly at the Morris dance that took place round about the area. We're talking about the Welsh Border, aren't we? There's not much difficulty with that, geographically, but other things were happening both to our left (if you regard that as Wales), and to our right, in the bits about Staffordshire, Wolverhampton, Warwickshire, and places like that. 

So let me try and place things, first of all, by showing the general area that we're in. [Map 1]


The area on which I am going to concentrate today, the one that I know best, is Shropshire. It's the biggest inland county. [Map 2] 

And it's, in some senses, a fairly artificial county. I mean, the Borders weren't finally settled until just a little over a hundred years ago. But it's an interesting place, physically divided by the river Severn, that neatly cuts it in half. And the top bit is flat with big open fields, and the bottom bit tends to be much more bumpy and hilly, rather like the stuff you've got around here. In terms of administration, those who looked after it, those who were in charge, played a major part in the lives of Morris dancers. It's interesting that it was also divided roughly into two [other diagonal] halves by the church authorities, into the diocese of Lichfield, to the north and west, and Hereford to the south and east. Let me try to give you an idea of the reported Morris dance in the area. [Map 3]


Everybody thinks of Shropshire as being a very rural county. But that was only true before the early-nineteenth century, and nowadays. Certainly in the nineteenth century, it was the biggest center of industry in the world. There were more blast furnaces concentrated in Shropshire, particularly near Ironbridge, than anywhere else in the world. Now, in a similar fashion, the Clee Hills, which are remote, and now mainly agricultural, were a great center of industry. There is a concentration of Morris dancers within what became known as the East Shropshire coalfield. Many of the Morris dances around there were danced close to the River Severn.

I'll tell you later in some detail about the Clee Hills and the things that went on there, because they do have a lot of bearing on the Morris that went on in the area. Now let's run through, very briefly, a kind of historical summary of what went on.

The earliest I can get back to is 1553. This is in Shrewsbury, and there are a whole series of accountants' entries about expenses incurred in garnishments, liveries, and minstrels, and things like that, in May of 1553. There is mention of pay for the repairing and painting of the arbor of the Abbot of May Voll [a false Abbot for the day, or lord of misrule] followed by "pay for the jackets and other vestments and the paying of the same, for Robin Hood: 59 shillings and tuppence." Which in 1553 was an enormous amount of money. It was a huge expense. Now, if we take Robin Hood's Garlande [a popular chap-book of those times] which is the thing that tells you about what they were doing with Robin Hood, the play took place at Corpus Christi, mid-summer time, one of the great church festivals of the year, when a major place like Shrewsbury would turn out it's civic pomp, splendor, heraldry and the great Trade Guilds would each seek to excel each other in ostentatious display. Robin Hood always included a Morris dance. I know that those of you who are interested in Cotswold Morris are familiar with the Betley Window. The Betley Window is an historic stained-glass window, from about this time, and it depicts several Morris dancers. It's the Morris dance of the Robin Hood, of the friar, Maid Marion, an abbot, and all those things. It's the typical Old English Morris dance, or at least, most people's idea of what such a dance should be.

Mike Heaney, a much-respected authority on English Morris Dance refers to this kind of Morris that I'm talking about as the "Whitsun Ales type." I called it the "Robin Hood type," because where I first found it, in Shrovesbury, 1530 - 1553, it was associated with Robin Hood. Essentially, the two are the same. The Shrewsbury version is right in the middle of the Border area but it's certainly not the Border Morris Dance as we know it today, is it?

 Now, I'm not sure that that's real evidence that there were Morris dancers there. I think they were actively seeking out Morris dancers, and trying to put them down. And I think this tends to be confirmed by those who've done a lot of research. You'll find throughout the country that at this same time there are many mentions, in parish records, of them seeking out and trying to suppress unofficial activities. It's one thing to have them in the official, if you like, the equivalent to the Lord Mayor's show. That was OK. That was organized. That was official and recognized. But other things happened. People were doing things unofficially. Mucking about; perhaps taking some of the dignity away from the big show, and this wasn't to be countenanced. Authorities were trying to suppress such activities.

Moving on and jumping forward to 1616. This is a reference not many of you will know of. It's in the Clee Hills. Alan Somerset, who's a professor of English at Toronto University, found this out. He found that in Clee St. Margaret, at Whitsuntide, which is in the middle of the Clee Hills, a Morris dance. It lasted for two days. It included at least eight dancers. It had a Lord's Son, so by implication there was a Lord of Misrule. A sword carrier, a hobby horse, a drummer, and a friar. I'll come back and talk in detail about it, because it is an absolutely marvelous reference, but, to my mind, it again suggests this Robin Hood, this Whitsun Ale-type Morris, smack bang in the heart of the Border Morris area.

Move on a few years to about 1627. Dr Christopher Cawte has written extensively about the Border Morris at this time. In one of his definitive articles, Cawte quotes from a terrific reference to a man called Richard Baxter, who was a real hell-fire preacher. If you ever get into the British Library, and get into the catalogue, there are, I think, something like 20-odd titles of pages of his sermons alone, that he had published. And it really was hell-fire stuff. He was writing about his youth, in Eaton Constantine, which is a village on the River Severn, not very far north of Ironbridge, and he complained about "the noise of the pipe and tabour, and the hootings in the street, and sometimes the Morris dancers would come into the church, in all their linen and scarves, and antic [grotesque] dresses, with Morris bells jingling at their legs." He was furious that that sort of thing went on. As an aside, in so many cases we've got details about what Morris dancers and others were doing only because the local vicars, or those in authority really were furiously upset with these traditions, complained about them, and brought those who practised them up before the local courts, civil or religious.

We move to Broseley and again, jump forward just a few years, to 1652 where, "at Whitsuntide, there came forth a Morris dance, with six sword bearers, and a rude company of followers." * I think it's fair to say that the Ironmen certainly, coming from Broseley patterned themselves on that quotation. The 1652 side had their lord of misrule, they had a lord's son, six sword bearers-now, I wonder about this sword business. It was 1652. Let me place that for you:- it was smack bang in the period of the Commonwealth, when Cromwell laid his iron hand upon the land. And there wasn't much fun going on around there or indeed anywhere. But they flew in the face of that. They Morris danced out there but I wonder whether they were really sword carriers, or whether these were wooden swords; perhaps just sticks. So there's a suggestion here. We've had several references now to the Whitsun Ales, to the Robin Hood-type Morris, to something that perhaps isn't very far removed from Cotswold, to something that's a bit different. Sticks, sword-bearers, and a rude company of followers.

Jump on now about 30 years, to 1688. Go back to Shrewsbury, to the Shrewsbury show, again around about Whitsuntide. The old feast of Corpus Christi, and the account books of the Glovers' Company. They are quite well known. Shrewsbury Show used to be an absolutely magnificent affair. They pulled out all the stops. The various trade companies, the guilds, each put on its own tableau and paraded through the town in great splendour, all at the greatest expense. And in this case, they kept their account books. They paid, in 1688, to the "Bedlam Morris, one shilling." And then there's another entry, same year, to "Ye Bedlam Morris, ten shillings." And then a few years later, in 1699, there are entries such as, "Paid the Bedlams five shillings." But those entries are, I think, fairly well-known, and quite often quoted. The things that aren't as well-known and quoted, is the fact that the next entry in the payment books to the Bedlams, records a payment of two shillings to "Ye King of Morocco." Now I think you may fairly conclude that Ye King of Morocco, appearing in something like this, would not be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant King. I think we've got the first suggestion from which we may reasonably infer, that the King of Morocco probably had a black face, and would have been dressed and disguised in that way. When you're talking about Bedlams associated with it, I think you could guess that there might have been black faces. You know, the king is not going to be a king on his own, is he? He's almost certainly going to have a company of followers. If he's got a black face, I think there's a possibility they may have had black faces too, and in the band as well.

Now there's a huge gap. Everyone who researches the Morris is, I think terribly aware that in the eighteenth century, there are hardly any references to Morris dance at all. Very sad, and as long as we keep researching, I'm sure eventually we shall find them. I'm sure Roy [Dommett] will confirm that there aren't many eighteenth century mentions of Morris, and virtually none in this area.

Roy Dommett: They're finding it hard work in the eighteenth century, but they are coming. Yes. They will come, undoubtedly. We haven't got them yet. 

The only one we have found for this area, is a reference to a lady called Marjorie Brider [which was an alias,] in the 1750s. It is said that she danced with the Morris dancers in a village called Willey. That's not very far from Broseley It's the heart of the Ironmen country. She danced with the Morris dancers at the age of 112. (laughter). I have investigated this reference that says she was "buried at Willey." She's not. There's no record of her in the parish entries, there's no gravestone, or anything like that. I've worked around fairly thoroughly; the only thing I've found in connection with her, and you may conclude on these grounds that she was a Morris dancer, is that she mothered various bastard children, who were generally a great nuisance about the village. (laughter)

 But I jump through that century, and go to the early nineteenth century. 2 August in 1817, and to London. I jumped to London, and you thought I was talking about the Border Morris dances. But, I'm actually talking about colliers from Shropshire. They were out of work in the first post-Napoleonic Wars depression, and there was a most wonderful account that no one had picked up, for many, many years, in the Times. For the moment, let's just summarize it by saying that a side from the heart of Shropshire, from the coalfields in Shropshire was found in London, in 1817, including nine men, "decked out in all the colours of the rainbow, with ribbons of various colours; red, white, and yellow paper around the edges of their hats, to imitate silver and gold lace and other absurd imitations of finery. One bearing in his hand a tambourine, the others with sticks in theirs, dancing in their usual grotesque way.

The fascinating thing about this entry is that they actually danced in Westminster, outside the Alien's Office. The Alien's office was in fact just another name for the magistrates court, and the chap who saw them thought, as they were creating such a disturbance outside the magistrate's court, they ought to see the inside of it, and they were promptly whistled into clink. 

Let's get back from the colliers in Shropshire, misplaced in London get back to Madeley near to Ironbridge and the historian, John Randall, [...] who I'm not mistaken, attached to their knees, trousers being little worn then by the lower classes. The Morris dancers came around Whitsuntide, and of course, expected a dole from the spectators." So, what have we got here? Short, thick sticks? That sounds just like some Cotswold dances, doesn't it? Hats with ribbons? Bedlam dancers do that. Came round about Whitsuntide? It's a Whitsun Ale. We're getting, I think, I hope you're picking up what a very complicated picture we're dealing with here, when we start looking for these roots.

1840. Just a little later. Ketley; again in the heart of the Ironbridge area. "A troupe of Morris dancers used to visit during Christmas week. They were colliers from Ketley, and were dressed "in grotesque attire, in which a profusion of gaudy ribbons predominated. Each performer carried a short truncheon, and these they struck together while dancing. There was a good deal of patter indulged in."

1855. "In the winter of 1855, I witnessed a similar performance in the market square at Shrewsbury. The dramatis personae were some frozen-out bricklayers under the directorship of an old army pensioner, who used to represent the Black Prince in the Shrewsbury shows."

Now, I find this reference fascinating. I wonder if the Black Prince wasn't the Black Prince Edward, known for his black suit of armour or his foul Angevin disposition. Was this Black Prince the Prince of Morocco, who was mentioned earlier? I suspect it may well have been the same. Because, when we go on to the next reference from 1880, someone is asking questions, in the local papers, about earlier mentions of Morris. "Can X supplement his account of the Broseley Morris dancers, by an account of their antics as performed in the present day ? He says "they now black their faces." This is surely a modern custom, though I've seen the Black Prince personated by a Morris dancer got up as a nigger. What music do the dancers have now? Not, I fear, the tabor and pipe, to the music of which an old man of 89 has told me, he danced in the dale." [That's Coalbrookdale, near Ironbridge.] Is there any singing?" And there was a response to it, that said, "A Morris danced in the streets of Newport in 1878 - 79, they also sang, they were said to come from Madeley."

So, again, it's building up a picture. But it's a picture that is, I think, changing all the time, as you go along, isn't it? You're just about to pin something down, when it slips away from you.

1872. "About 12 years ago, it was customary for mummers or Morris dancers from Newport, to go into the surrounding countryside at Christmas and act the version of the history of St. George and the dragon. The clown presents the small dripping pan." I'm sure you've seen the mummers: "here comes I," and all that stuff? - "presents the small dripping pan," which is a long tin ladle, to receive money. Now that entry starts relating mumming to Morris dancing, collating the two things into one. One of the aspects I find fascinating about it is, people often wrote to the papers in those days under pseudonyms. The pseudonym in this case was Wildmoors. I've discovered in some of my other researches that a lady called Charlotte Sophia Burne, who wrote the definitive folklore book of Shropshire, Shropshire Folklore, used to write to the papers under the pseudonym Wildmoors , and several others, and replied to her own questions! (laughter) Which is a wonderful way of triggering all this stuff off. Doesn't it give you a fascinating view of history?

Move on up a few years: Shrewsbury; winter: "Eleven dancing men, with pieces of ribbon of various colours attached to their hats all round. Five of the men carried short thick sticks; five more carried trowels. The 11th man was the fool in the party, who presented a very grotesque appearance. Coloured face. A man who carried a violin. The men forming the company were supposed to be bricklayers thrown out of work by the continued severity of the frost. The avowed object of the performers was to collect contributions towards their support, until the frosty weather gave way, and they were able to resume work." There is, I think, creeping into this, a kind of moral aspect in the reporting, isn't it? "...supposed to be bricklayers." But it goes on to say, "... and they were able to resume work. After every good collection, these necessitous workmen beat a hasty retreat to the nearest public house (laughter) before resuming operations in some other street. The practice was I believe, kept up for many days."

Just a few years later, 1878, "While passing along the street the other day, my attention was called to a number of men, slowly proceeding down the street, to the sound of a concertina and drum. They were performing a rustic dance, said to be that of the Morris dancers. Upon inquiry, I ascertained that they were bricklayer's labourers, out of work in consequence of the continuous severity of the weather. And judging from the appearance of some of the men, they must have been pinched hard." Very different aspect of reporting, though, isn't that? Some sympathy for what they were doing. But again, the picture's changing. It's changing from one of fun in the middle of summer, to one of hardship. Bitter hardship, in the middle of winter.

Roy [Dommett] came up to me, just before I started speaking, and said, "We should have got together to decide whether we were going to overlap. And he then told me what I could say! (laughter) I promised that I wouldn't go too much into this century. But just to fill out the whole picture of what I've been talking about, I will stray into it just slightly into the 1900s.

Shifnal, which again is not very far from Ironbridge, in 1911. "For several years, a party of youths from Shifnal have visited the surrounding villages on Boxing Day, dressed up in fantastic attire, and calling themselves Morris dancers. They dance with a sort of dance, beating time to the music of a concertina, by striking their sticks together, each one hitting that of his vis a vis."

And just a year or two after this, in 1914. A wonderful collecting experience. We [the Ironmen]were dancing not long after we became a Border side. We were dancing Bridgnorth, in one of the nicer pubs, where they welcome Morris dancers. The landlady stuck five quid in the hat and said, "There's an old dear next door. You really ought to go and talk to her. She says she remembers the Morris dancers." So we went in and had a chat to Mrs. Beetlestone, known to all as Auntie B, who was then in her 80s. And she told us that we were quite good, but we weren't playing the right tune. We danced to Kafoozalum, with a bit of doggerel thrown in. She said, "No, no, it's not that one at all. You should have danced to This Old Man." Now, she was actually talking about 1914-she had married as a young servant girl, but she'd had enough money to pay have the Morris dancers at her wedding for luck.

And so, just to round-out these references, in the 1930s, in Much Wenlock, at Christmas time, you could choose from a multiplicity of accounts of the Morris. Maud Karpeles, the lady who took over from Cecil Sharp, in terms of folk dance collecting, visited there; Dave Jones visited there. They've all got accounts, and there are some absolutely marvelous ones. The tales that you can get about these times are incredible. They nearly all come from quarrymen, in that particular area. One of the most delightful men I've ever met, in his late 70s, told me all the things that went on in that period. He recollected in absolute detail, all of the things that they had done. When Maud Karpeles, famous Dr. Maud came from London, and stayed at the Raven, the big posh hotel, they got these quarry men to dance for her. Sadly he had had a stroke not long before I visited him and I was talking to him generally afterwards, and sadly I'd switched my tape recorder off-you always miss the jewels, don't you? I complimented him on his memory-he was remembering back over 50 years. "Oh, yes," he says, "it's since this stroke; I can remember backwards, but I can't remember forwards." (laughter) That's what a stroke does to you. He and his brother-in-law told me at that at the end of that Great Depression, in the 1920s they used to dance at Shrewsbury on Boxing Day. They used to do that because they were quarrymen, thrown out of work by the hard times. Literally, frozen out of work. There was no little aid help at that time except for pleading for a little bread or money from the cruelly-named Guardians of the Poor

So, I won't go beyond that point. Roy is going to talk about that period in time. But what I want to do now, is go back in these roots, and talk about this absolutely marvelous reference to Clee St. Margaret, and the things that went on there, which give you some idea, I hope, of the kind of complications you've got to deal with in this particular area of tradition and history.

Now, it is, to say the least, a very remote and highly rural area. I have included a few illustrations to give you the feel of the area. First is Ashes Hollow, a delightful, sylvan setting.

Next comes a view of Abdon Church and the view of Brown Clee Hill from Abdon.

Next comes the church at Barrow and the interior of St Milborough's church, dedicated to a female early English saint.

Finally we see the church at Clee St Margaret...

 and a "Bedlam" area on top of the Clee Hills.

There are tiny little churches everywhere. They're delightful, and even though in the 19th century there was this great vogue for going and messing the churches about considerably, "improving them," they said, but to my mind it did nothing of the sort. They knocked down the west galleries, they got rid of the old singers in the churches, they put in barrel organs. These illustrations, of course, are after all the improvements of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century.

 Now lets go back to the early 1600s. The Morris dance that gave such offence happened in this area. In 1619, on Whit Monday and Tuesday, at Clee St. Margaret. Do you know anything about consistory courts? They were equivalent to the magistrate's court, organized by the church, and people like the vicar and the churchwardens could "make presentments," i.e., arraign before the local authority, people who they thought had done anything that was wrong. And it's one of the great sources for information about Morris dancing. We find, not very far from here, just a little bit south, a wonderful presentment before the consistory court, of a man who "tempore divinorum "[-it's all mixed up with dog Latin]-"tempore divinorum" at the time of divine service, was pissing and farting and jingling his Morris bells!" (laughter) And when they spell pissing, "pyff," it sounds much worse, doesn't it, when you spell it that way? So those are the kinds of things that went on in these consistory courts.

So before one of these courts, in October, 1619-but the events actually took place on Whit Monday and Tuesday-they called various people before the court, and said that they had done many sorts of dreadful things. People who appeared before the court were Nicholas Mylychap, for using the communion cloth of Abdon for a flag in a Morris dance. (laughter) The cloth was lent to a man called Isaac Evans and John Meole; Nicholas Mylychap of Clee St. Margaret borrowed it. Thomas Chellmicke of Abdon took it out of the church, "profaning the same by using it as a flag in a Morris dance." Thomas James was also accused. He claimed that Randall Bailey, [but that name was crossed out for] Thomas Chelmarsh did fetch the communion table carpet from the church to the parson's house, where was then the said Millichap, the parson's wife, maid, and mother-in-law, and the said Millichap took it and carried it to the place where the same was used. Thomas Chelmicke, John Chelmicke, Nicholas Evans, alias "Tudge" of the overland [rough heath or common land] in the parish of Munslow, John Barrett, William Millichap, Joseph Tedstall, Walter Pugh, servant of William Knott of the Heath, and William Amaund danced. Edward Millachap carried the flag. William Millichap and Walter Pugh denied they were party to the borrowing, though they admitted dancing, and knowing that it was the communion cloth. William Amaund "heard talk that a cloth should be borrowed at Abdon," and knew when he danced, but not before, that it was the communion cloth. Edward Millichap said that "he and divers others did agree to dance a Morris, and to borrow a flag from Ludlow." Said that he didn't know it was a communion cloth "until it had been one day by him used," but "did bear the said carpet as flag, two days after the said Morris dance." Nicholas Millichap believed Mr. Tasker, [the parson,] did not know the use to which the cloth was to be put; it was "used as a flag in a Morris dance in the parish of St. Margaret Clee on Monday and Tuesday in Whitsun Week last, and that he is very sorrowful of the said offence. John Barrett said it was agreed that they should try to borrow the cloth. He went to Isaac Dewse and Francis Weaver of Abdon to get it, but they refused to lend it, and told him to go to the churchwardens. He admitted knowingly dancing before it. Joseph Tedstall denied knowing it was a communion cloth until long after the dancing. John Bottrell, cited "for carrying a sword in Morris dance;" denied knowing the cloth's nature, Adam Wilding, the drummer at the dance, said the same. Richard Eudlicke "the hobby horse" admitted the offence. Walter Millichap "my lord's vice or son," admitted knowing about the cloth, and said John Barrett and the rest of the Morris dancers, "were consenting."

 Now there's a whole load of more detail about this, finishing off with the fact that Nicholas Reynolds was the "friar" of the Morris dance. It is an absolutely wonderful account. Look at what we've got, positively described: The lord's son, and they actually name him, there's a sword bearer named. The hobby horse is named, the flag carrier, the friar, the drummer, and it names the dancers. It gives the names of eight dancers and, by inference, if there was my lord's son here there may well have been the lord [of misrule].

 It happened at Whitsun time, the May Games, or the Robin Hood time. The friar, the hobby horse, they're all there! Whit Monday, and the following day. But it gets complicated. I mean, the participants came from different parishes within this rather complicated area. And didn't they go to enormous trouble to borrow the flag? This is where I start getting really interested. What were they doing; why were they doing it?

Let me diverge just for a moment. I give a lot of talks. I get invited to talk to women's institutes, and places like that, which is always delightful. And one of the things I hate going to talk to are historical societies. Because historical societies usually turn out to be an absolute bunch of plonkers (laughter) who aren't interested in history at all, but like to pretend that they are, and go there to spend a so-called "interesting evening" being entertained. One of the things I can do very easily, is get these people wound-up. It doesn't take very long when I give a talk about folklore before they agree with me that, "There's not much folklore around now, is there?" "Oh, no, no," shaking their heads, negative. "Well, I'll bet there used to be, in your grandma's day." "Yes," and heads start nodding. And they start talking about the odd, peculiar, cracked, and crazy things. And everyone's in agreement. And some of them actually stand up and wave, and say, "Oh, my grandmother was peculiar, she used to do this, that, and the other." And eventually I stop this and say, "Well, it's interesting. You've now all told me you're descended from a long line of fools. Of village idiots, who went around doing the most stupid things." And there's a kind of embarrassed silence when they realize what they've admitted.

Now, I could have done the same today - I could have tried to do the same. (laughter) I don't suppose I would have got away with it, would I? (laughter & comments) But, really the point that I would get to with them, and that I'm trying to get to with you, is that, things that happened in the past often seem very odd and peculiar. That's because we're judging them by our standards. We simply can't understand them, by our standards of today.

Yes. Grandparents did very odd things. Who would take a child who was ill, and pass it seven times under an arch of a bramble, or blackberry bush, that crossed a parish boundary? What a stupid thing to do! But what else could you do? There was no effective medicine. They couldn't afford to go to the doctor. And your child was there, lying in your arms, dying of tuberculosis. You would try anything, wouldn't you if you were faced with that situation today? Those were the situations that they faced.

It's interesting, I'm sure, when Roy comes to the later mentions of nineteenth century events, an awful lot of what was being done then was, if you like, a legitimated a form of begging. They could say "We're not begging because we're Morris dancing. We're doing something that's been done for a long time. And we're doing something official. And I think this is what they were doing here. Let me try and give you a few ideas of why I think this.

What you've got here is Clee St. Margaret 

which I'm sure you'll recall was actually at the heart of what was going on there, and the surrounding parishes. Places which were mentioned like Ludlow and Abdon, Heath, Clee St. Margaret, Stoke St Milborough. Now, parishes were very complicated things then and they often defined the parish by walking its boundaries. In Shropshire, in dialect, bannering was going to beat the bounds of your parish. You took the little boys out, you took them on a perambulation. It sometimes lasted a couple of days, and at significant points of the parish: where a road crossed the parish boundary, where a stream crossed the parish boundary, where perhaps there were significant stones, trees, or something like that, the little boys would usually be whipped-perhaps quite gently, by the standards of the day-we mustn't judge it by today-in order to make them remember that that was the parish boundary.

Why were these things so important? Several reasons. If I ask any of you where you come from, you'll tell me the name of a town or a village, and within that, the area in which you live; you have special associations with it. People do need a place to be located. I don't think you exist unless you know who you are and where you come from. That's why there's all this research on family history: who am I? where did I come from? what do I belong to? what am I? There is that, which is a very important aspect, but beyond that, in these times that we're talking about, I think if you didn't get your parish boundaries right, there was a jolly good chance that you went hungry in winter. It was all to do with who owned what, by way of land, and what rights they had, grazing etc. The rights in this area became very important.

Maps 1 - 5 zoom in on the area that interests us. Map 1 shows the British and Irish Isles and the English/Welsh Border.

 Map 2 shows the county of Shropshire [sometimes called Salop].

Map 3 gives an idea of the density of Morris dancing in Shropshire.

Map 4 show the complex parish boundaries near Clee St Margaret.

Map 5 shows chapelries, hamlets and townships that belonged to other parishes in the area.


One of the most important laws concerned the places where people had the rights to graze their cattle. But the only right that was wholly common was the bit on top of Brown Clee , and through the middle of all these little villages, were things called green roads, ginnels, or cattle tracks. These were routes by which, without paying any tolls, you could take your cattle, or sheep, or whatever, up on the top of Brown Clee Hill to graze for free. I start to make a bit more sense of this Morris dance, and their need to get a flag, and be at the front, and I think go bannering, round the parish boundaries, and up through these tracks to the common land. They were legitimating what they were doing. They had the flag from the church, the banner at the front: it's official. They marched through here, and once you've established a right like that, you've got a custom.

 Let me remind you, custom was defined by Richard Gough [18th century parson of Mydlle, Shropshire] as: "That which hath been and is daily practiced by our ancestors, time out of mind." Now the really fascinating thing is we're talking about going back hundreds of years, but it has been established - modern research has established that "time out of mind" meant no more than 20 years. So I think they were in process of establishing a custom, mixing in the Morris dance with bannering. Maybe for those people it was exactly the same thing. But they were pulling all these things together, and that's the only way I can make sense of that very complicated situation. 

Let's jump forwards, and look at some more of the things that went on in the Clee Hills. Let me try and give you a few ideas about how we learned such a lot about Morris dancing almost exactly a hundred years ago. I think a lot of things were going on that we can only appreciate by studying them in a fair amount of detail. I think it's significant-anyone who's done research on the Morris will have found a great deal of activity around the 1870s and 1880s. And there are lots of complicated reasons. Again, we're trying to get to the roots of these aspects of the Morris.

It's necessary to know, amongst other things, that we don't talk about that which goes on all the time. Think about your everyday lives. And there are some things that are so taken for granted, you don't ever think about mentioning them. And I suspect that for much of the time I've been talking about, Morris dance is probably one of these things. I've picked out and highlighted various areas, and these are the places where we've found records, and have established it, but in all the other historical research I've done, I find increasingly that there's this great body of everyday things that simply weren't reported. And I begin to think that Morris dance was one of those things. I think it went on almost everywhere, but simply wasn't reported. The only cases you find, is somewhere where perhaps, as in this one, they went over the top, and were hauled up before the magistrates, the consistory court, and it was reported there.

I believe that it was extensively reported, a little over a hundred years ago, in the 1870s, for some rather complicated, intertwined reasons. The first one is, not long before that date, polite society, in England in particular, had suddenly developed an interest in antiquity, and such things. We all use words like "folklore," and "folk dance," and we use them as though they've been there for ever. But, the word "folklore," was coined. It was never used before 1856. It was coined by a man called Richard Thoms, who said, "Rather than talk about antiquities, why not talk using the old language of our forebears; why not use Anglo-Saxon words? Folk-lore. The knowledge of the people." So, soon after that, a lot of people started taking an interest in folklore. It's rather like the historical societies that I talk to, I think. It was a dilettante kind of interest. They started messing about in it, but some got absorbed, and worked really hard at it. Charlotte Sophia Burne was one of them. Ella Mary Leather from Hereford another. These are typical of the people who went out and searched for these things especially in the area that interests us today.

We see this great burst of activity, but that's just because it was reported. I think it was there, at a kind of level that took place all the time, every year, taken for granted, not reported upon, until suddenly, people started getting interested in things to do with "Ye Olde Englande." We haven't necessarily got a great increase in activity at that time, although there is a great deal of increase in reporting what went on at that time. But two other things were happening that were really terribly significant: the first of them was, Germany and America were just finding their feet as nations, and were just beginning to compete with Great Britain industrially. And times suddenly started getting very hard for people in the British Isles, particularly the people at the bottom end of the working classes. Associated with that was a period when-perhaps you remember some of the things I cited; I talked about bricklayers being frozen out, quarrymen being frozen out. Hard times. There was also a series of absolutely terrible winters, that went on in the late 1870s, early 1880s. Typically collectors heard phases like: "Oh, you'll see the Morris men out today. It's a hard night; the Severn's frozen over."

I think that all those things combined. An increase in interest, an increase in reporting, very poor economic conditions, and some dreadfully hard winters. Throw all these things together, and it meant you got a sudden, dramatic increase in reporting of Morris and other folkloric activities.

But let me, since it's getting [...] conjecture. I witnessed, during the Christmas week of 1858, in an old farmhouse kitchen, situated at Bromdon between the two Clees, Titterstowe and Brown. Having some inquiries made of the occupant of the farm, Mrs G-, I was invited to partake of the hospitality which half a century ago abounded during the Christmas time. Upon preparing for departure, I was informed that the Morris dancers were expected, and invited to remain over their performance. I gladly accepted the invitation. The truth differed but slightly in appearance from those I had seen previously, saying they were of a somewhat higher grade; whilst the dresses and general getup were far superior. One of the performers, I remember, wore a turban. Another, a crown. The one wearing a turban had his face blacked, and was known 'Melchior,' or 'Melchedesic,' [There is a well-known English hymn-tune called Melchisedec] I cannot remember which. Another represented Judas Iscariot, and another the king of the Romans. I will not, at this distance, pledge the correctness of these designations, though I believe them to be perfectly correct. One represented His Satanic Majesty, another, a mischievous imp. There was also a clown and there was a fiddler. Altogether, they formed a very picturesque, well-equipped party. Upon entering the kitchen, it formed up in two lines, facing inwards. The conductor, stepping forward, made a short speech. Afterwards the whole party, including the fiddler, performed a very graceful dance, to the accompaniment of the clatter of truncheons. After this, the real Morris, or mummer dance began, interspersed with dialogue, and figures of a dumbshow. There was little if any patter. I fancy it was intended to represent some episode or other, the true meaning of which I could not fathom. In fact, I question if the performers themselves knew more than the mechanical parts. This, however, they performed to perfection, leaving an impression on my mind which the lapse of more than half a century has not served to obliterate, of a scene which the eye of memory is able to rehabilitate." 

Lovely report. Now let me offer you this from just a few years later, among the Clee Hills. It's from the St James Gazette, [The official Court journal of the government and Royal family,] so it's sometimes thought to be an impeachable source. "The place where I am spending a lazy holiday in a scattered hill parish, many miles from a railway station, very difficult of access by road, and altogether behind the times. It is now very much as the majority of other country parishes must have been 80 or 100 years ago. The people live in a strange little world of their own, and their mode of life contrasts so strangely with that of their fellow subjects, that notes concerning it cannot but be of general interest."

So he describes the household, the commons, the mining, the customs. And he concludes, "The truth is, that the recesses of the Clee Hills have little or nothing in common with such places as Oswestry, Shrewsbury, and Wellington. These towns are well within the borders of civilization; but until within the last four or five years, the rural postman only came here twice a week. And I doubt whether any native of this parish has either dispatched or received a telegram. Mr. Ruskin [John Ruskin, great critic and pleader for life as in earlier times,] would delight in the place! No steam ploughs, no public houses, no post office, no shop. Unless, indeed, the house of a cottager, who sells candles, boot-laces and sugar, and who gets his stock -in-trade by ten shillings' worth at a time deserves the name."

A very clear picture of this remote, and almost uninhabited and very poor area. A few weeks later, in the Shropshire Guardian, is a letter by a man called Vindex , which is to do with truth and vindication, wrote, "No doubt Mr. Ruskin would delight in the place, from what I have read and heard of him, he's a man who speaks and writes the truth, which is certainly more than the writer in the St. James Gazette does! I have just been to the Post Office and offered the shop-keeper ten shillings for the stock-in-trade. I was quietly told to step out, or I should be helped to do so! (laughter) I was taken, it seems, for the "chap that wrote to the paper." (laughter).

This was just to give you an idea of how reporting can change the whole face of things, totally. And, lastly, just to mention, as I said I would, the Morris in the surrounding area, and then I'll do a very brief summary.

Again, it took place at the same sort of dates, just spread out a little bit around. Remember, talked about Morris of the Robin Hood at Whitsun Ales type. I've talked about something I think you would probably see as approximating to Cotswold. I've talked about some Morris that must have looked like Bedlam. There are all the characters associated with every form of Morris dance that we know, contained within this area we call the Border, and which is said to have its own special form of Morris dancing. Let's see what went on in the bits surrounding this area.

Wolverhampton, 1652. That's as close to us as Shrewsbury is. "On the 1st of July, 1652, were seen nine dancers, a fool, a sword bearer, a flag carrier, and two tabourers. One dancer was lying in the minister's porch, so drunk that he could not go, nor stand, and the others were but little better." (laughter) Sounds much the same, doesn't it? Flag carrier, sword bearer, fool, nine dancers, tabourers, and drummers.

There follows a typical eighteenth-century gap as in most areas, so we move to the early 1820s. Try to guess where. Let me describe it, first of all. "Christmas time, dressed in short jackets, which, as well as their hats, are decorated with a profusion of paper ornaments, dancing a sort of reel. The heys and the settings"-and we all know Border Morris is all reels, isn't it, and heys? Same thing. "... heys and setting. The dancers by turn take hold of each other's waists, and continue turning round for a much longer time than would be sufficient to make an ordinary head completely giddy." It then goes on to describe "a man in a mask of some animal skin, and a woman personated by the tallest man the party is able to procure. The horse, highly decorated with ribbons and paper, the skeletal bones of the horse's head with artificial eyes and ears." Of course, we're in Wales, and we're in the Mari Llwyd country, aren't we?

1820. Birmingham. "The dancers were about eight in number, they were all uniformly dressed. They had on knee britches, and were in their shirt sleeves. But their shirts were very gaily decorated with ribbons that were tied round their arms and arranged in small bows, as well as on the knees of their britches, and round the waist. And likewise there were attached to their dresses a very great number of small round bells that jingled very much when they danced." Birmingham, of course, was the centre of what was called the "toy trade." That's not making toys. It's making small metal objects, and particularly making small bells. "Each man was provided with a stout, stable truncheon about two feet long, and repeatedly in the dance they confronted each other and clashed their sticks. The music that accompanied the dance was the pipe and tabour." Pipe and tabour? That's Cotswold, isn't it? In Birmingham with all the other bits that sound like Bedlam, or Border Morris?

1863, in South Staffordshire. "The last time I remember seeing a party of Morris dancers was during the great colliers' strike in South Staffordshire, somewhere about the year 1863 or '64." The description of the dancers is almost identical to the Birmingham side. Only the musicians differ. "They, in this case have, a fiddle and a flute, and some other, which I have forgotten. There were two men with them, dressed more fantastically than the rest, with a can or a box, collecting coins, who caused much amusement of the spectators by their droll ways and sayings." We've got the modern fool going around entertaining the crowd, haven't we?

1884, The Black Country. "Morris dancers have revived the custom, during the present colliers' strike. The dancers were about eight in number, dressed in ordinary clothes, but gaily decorated with streamers of coloured paper. They had with them a man playing concertina."

I've got just a couple of minutes to summarize what I've been telling you about. We've talked about all these different forms of Morris dance. They are, if you consider them such, the roots of Border Morris dance. Well, goodness, don't they intertwine? Don't they go off in all different directions? Don't they, as the roots of trees do, find their way around stones and difficulties? Or dive down, and they find a source of nourishment. And adapt to local conditions. And that, I think, is what Morris dancers have done all along.

I suggest very tentatively, you've got to conclude that, as I talked about people in the past, their customs often appeared strange or foolish, they are not to be judged by our standards and our times. They were doing something that at the time was absolutely logical. It made sense. It was fun; it was entertainment. It helped them turn a few pennies in times of economic hardship. Sometimes it was done for no other reason than to deny authority. And all through is this is an attempt to establish legitimacy for their customs and traditions. It happens still. The kind of things that we, as the Ironmen, did recently were no different. We were stopped once from dancing in Bridgnorth. We hadn't got the appropriate police permit, and Constable Parsons came up [any unknown policeman in England is referred to thus] and he said the usual thing: "'Hello, 'ello, 'ello, who's in charge of this?" It happened that I was at the time. He told me that "You can't do that there here." I explained that it had been done by Morris dancers for hundreds of years. All he need do was go down to the station, speak to his superintendent, who I had no doubt would confirm that we had always done this. [Bear in mind that we became a Morris dance side in 1976, and only started blacking up in 1980. "Oh, we've done it for hundreds of years!" He sent Constable Julie Wendt to find out whether this was true. We hurriedly did our dancing, collected money from the crowd, and disappeared into the nearest pub." (laughter)

You know, what we're seeing today, the things that we as Morris dancers do, are, I am sure, no different than the things that Morris dancers did in the past. And that's really the story of what this is about. None of us, I suspect, is dancing the same dances we were doing last year. You'd die of boredom if you did exactly the same, wouldn't you? I mean, the lovely thing about Morris dancing is what a marvelous organic growing thing it is or can be. If you set up your own side, and research its antecedents, and find out these things, then you dance with a great deal of authority and assurance. Those who haven't, those who are merely copying others, lack that. They are not organic and growing. They're part of a museum snap-shot. It's dead. It doesn't live. Those who've got the dances, have them, flaunt them, use them, and make their own use of them. And they grow, develop, and change. And I think this is what we see in the evidence I've presented before you today, why Morris dancing changes, and will always continue to grow and change.

Thank you very much.

The whole quotation is "August the 9th, 1652. To the worshipful the bailiff and justices of the town of Much Wenlock, certifying that all we whose names are subscribed, inhabitants of the parish of Astley-Abbots, do certify that upon Monday in Whitsunday week, being the 7th of June last past, there came a Morris dance forth of the parish of Broseley, with 6 sword-bearers and a rude company of followers though ye whole body of this our said parish, being uninvited or desired by anyone in the said parish that we do know of. And, coming to Nordley and coming to the house of Richard Pyncham, a licenced ale-seller, calling for what drink they pleased, left most part thereof unpaid, and not only insulted the people of the house but also all the rest of the neighbours and people there present. The leader of them, or Lord of Mis-Rule, was John Johnson, Jr. The Vice, called the Lord's Son, was William Holmes, Jr. The most abusive were Thomas Lee, sword-bearer, who formerly and in ye last service at Worchestershire bore arms against ye Parliament, and John Evans, badger of Flamon, a revolted Parliament soldier as he confesseth, and says he will continue a cavalier as long as he lives."

 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 1, April 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689