The Stansted Morris Men

The Society would like to express its thanks to Tony Tomlin of the Hartley Morris Men, for providing research material for this article.  The majority of research was undertaken by Bob Tatman (now deceased) in his booklet ‘A Personal Recollection of more than 40 years of Morris Dancing’ in 1992 and thanks go to Bob’s son, John Tatman, for permission to reproduce his father’s work.

The year is 1934 and King George V was still on the throne of a Britain, ruling an Empire over which the sun never set.  There were rumblings in Germany, of course.  Behind the scenes, however, two meetings were held and two new organisations founded which were to have a significant effect on the lives of a considerable number of local people, most of who were as yet unborn.

The first of these took place at 8 pm in the evening of Saturday, 2nd. June, in the front room of Mrs King’s house in Newbiggin Street, Thaxted, when representatives of six of the early “revival” dance teams met to discuss the feasibility of forming a federation of Morris Clubs from all over the country, to be known as the Morris Ring.  It was duly agreed to go ahead, and the Inaugural Meeting was held at Cecil Sharp House in London on September 20th. of that year.

Fairseat Folk Dance Society 1935
The Fairseat Folk Dance Society at Hythe, July 6th. 1935

The second of the two significant meetings took place in the barn of Goodmans Farm in Tumblefield Road, Stansted – a few hundred yards up the road from the Black Horse.  Mrs Ethel Hunt, who was the owner at that time, was a keen folk dancer, and she had a small barn standing empty which she thought would make an ideal practice site.  Accordingly, she invited other interested parties from the Stansted and Fairseat area to discuss the formation of a local country dance group, and so it was that the Fairseat Folk Dance Society (FFDS) came into being in the Summer of 1934.

If the villagers in remote villages wanted entertainment, they had to make it for themselves.  Dancing was one obvious solution to the problem, and country dancing was increasing in popularity at that time.  As a result, folk dance clubs sprang up all over the place, sometimes in most unlikely locations.

Dancing at Goodmans Farm 1938

Often they wore a distinctive Club dress.  The Fairseat ladies wore emerald green dresses with red, yellow & blue braid on the sleeves and skirt.  It was this combination of four colours which was eventually to determine the kit of the Stansted Morris Men.  On practice nights, any men present wore ordinary clothes, but for parties and special events white shirts, trousers and socks were the norm, with the inevitable white plimsolls!

As indicated, the backbone of these early folk dance clubs was always provided by the local village women, but there were occasional visitors – mainly from nearby towns where folk dance clubs, if they existed at all, tended to be rather formal and academic, lacking the spontaneous gaiety of the village groups.

One of the FFDS regular visitors was a Mr H. Bentley Thorne, an experienced Morris Man who was a member of Douglas Kennedy’s display side.  He lived in Bromley, which was in Kent at that time.  In the Autumn of 1934, he met some of the younger men of Stansted village at a country dance party given by Mr. & Mrs Hunt in Goodmans Barn and persuaded them to take up Morris Dancing.  Mrs. Hunt willingly offered the use of the oast house which was adjacent to the barn.

Subsequently, the Stansted Morris Men came to be formed in the Winter of 1934/5.  One or two older men helped to complete the side. Practices were held every week in the Goodmans Farm Oast House, and once a month Mr Thorne would make the journey from Bromley to teach them new dances.  In the intervening weeks, the men would practice the dances they had learnt to date under the foremanship of Stanley Chapman, the verger of Stansted Church.

Stansted Morris Men - Hartley 1937
The Stansted Morris Men – Hartley 1937

When Mr Thorne visited Stansted, he would usually bring his own musician with him, a violinist named Willy Ganiford.  He was an excellent musician, but not really a Morris “fiddler”.  For special events and on day tours the pair of them would accompany the Stansted Morris Men, but on all other occasions, the music was provided by their own musician, Robert Dixon, who played the fiddle.

They concentrated on the Adderbury and Headington Quarry traditions, and occasionally performed Quarry jigs in massed display form.  By the end of the following Summer, such good progress had been made that on a Saturday afternoon in September the Club was able to undertake a tour around the neighbouring villages.

Stanstaed Morris Men Bell Pads

Their kit consisted of white shirts, trousers & shoes and green baldricks with a red & yellow rosette in the middle.  The bell pads had the green, red, yellow & blue colours of the original Fairseat Folk Dance Society and they wore no hats.  The Stansted bell pads shown were modelled by a man in Hartley shoes and are from the Percy Sephton collection.  Since the Club was an integral part of the FFDS it had no finances of its own, and therefore had no need of a Bagman.

The activities of the side were limited mainly to local fetes and shows, and to public displays in conjunction with the FFDS at various functions.  These were held fairly regularly during the summer months at such places as Allington Castle and Tonbridge Castle Lawns.  On these occasions, the whole Club would be transported in the back of a lorry driven by a Mrs Butcher, whose father owned a transport firm in Wrotham.  The side would also occasionally go on tour by themselves around nearby villages, but not basing their stands on the local pubs as is the tradition today.

They were encouraged by Mr Thorne to take an active interest in Morris Ring events.  The Club regularly attended the various London gatherings.  They applied for full Ring membership in 1936 and were formally admitted at a meeting held at Cecil Sharp House on March 13th. 1937, together with Cheltenham and Springhead. Thereby bringing the total number of Member Clubs at that time up to 28.

People known to have danced with the Stansted Morris Men include:

    • Bentley Thorne (Squire)
    • Stan Chapman (Foreman)
    • Percy Sephton (Fool)
    • Alf Burkin
    • George Crouch
    • Fred Walters
    • Bert Stephens
    • George Blake
    • Mr Martin
    • Mr Marchant and his two sons Dennis and Charlie

 

The musicians were:

    • Robert Dixon, fiddle
    • Willy Ganiford, Violin (Visiting)

The outbreak of the second World War put an end to the Stansted Morris’ Men’s activities, as it did to almost all Men’s Sides throughout the country.  The changed circumstances after the war made it impractical for it to re-form.  Percy Sephton, Alf Burkin, and George Crouch from the Stansted Morris Men were later to become founder members of the Hartley Morris Men which were formed in 1954 and continue to the present day.

The Hartley Morris Men
The Hartley Morris Men at dawn near Coldrum Stones, Trottiscliffe

For information on the Harley Morris Men please visit: http://hartleymorrismen.btck.co.uk/

A Brief History of Morris Dancing

Morris dancing is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music.  It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins.  Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers.  In a small number of dances for one or two people, steps are near and across a pair of clay tobacco pipes laid one across the other on the floor.  They clap their sticks, swords, or handkerchiefs together to match with the dance.

The earliest known and surviving English written mention of Morris dancing is dated to 1448 and records the payment of seven shillings to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London.  Further mentions of Morris dancing occur in the late 15th century, and there are also early records such as bishops’ “Visitation Articles” that mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities, as well as mumming plays.

While the earliest records invariably mention “Morys” in a court setting, and a little later in the Lord Mayors’ Processions in London, it had assumed the nature of a folk dance performed in the parishes by the mid 17th century.

Illustration of William Kemp Dancing from London to Norwich in 1600

While the earliest (15th-century) references place Morris dancing in a courtly setting, it appears that the dance became part of performances for the lower classes by the later 16th century.  In 1600, the Shakespearean actor William Kempe Morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his ‘Nine Daies Wonder’.

Almost nothing is known about the folk dances of England prior to the mid-17th century.  While it is possible to speculate on the transition of ‘Morris dancing’ from the courtly to a rural setting, it may have acquired elements of pre-Elizabethan (medieval) folk dance, such proposals will always be based on an argument from silence as there is no direct record of what such elements would have looked like.  In the Elizabethan period, there was significant cultural contact between Italy and England, and it has been suggested that much of what is now considered traditional English folk dance, and especially English country dance, is descended from Italian dances imported in the 16th century.

By the mid 17th century, the working peasantry took part in Morris dances, especially at Whitsun.  The Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell, however, suppressed Whitsun ales and other such festivities.  When the crown was restored by Charles II, the springtime festivals were restored. In particular, Whitsun Ales came to be celebrated on Whitsunday (Pentecost), as the date was close to the birthday of Charles II.

By the late 19th century, and in the West Country at least, Morris dancing was fast becoming more a local memory than an activity.  D’Arcy Ferris (or de Ferrars), a Cheltenham based singer, music teacher and organiser of pageants, became intrigued by the tradition and sought to revive it.  He first encountered Morris in Bidford and organised its revival.  Over the following years he took the side to several places in the West Country, from Malvern to Bicester and from Redditch to Moreton in Marsh.  By 1910, he and Cecil Sharp were in correspondence on the subject.

Headington Quarry Morris Dancers 1895

Several English folklorists were responsible for recording and reviving the tradition in the early 20th century, often from a bare handful of surviving members of mid-19th-century village sides.  Among these, the most notable are Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, several men’s sides were formed, and in 1934 the Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides.  In the 1950s and especially the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, some of them women’s or mixed sides.  At the time, there was often heated debate over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the Morris, even though there is evidence as far back as the 16th century that there were female Morris dancers.  There are now male, female and mixed sides to be found.

The local Stansted Morris Men were formed in the Winter of 1934/5 but the second World War put an end to the Stansted Morris’ Men’s activities, as it did to most Men’s Sides throughout the country.  The changed circumstances after the war made it impractical for the Stansted group to re-form.  Several members of the Stansted Morris Men were later to become founder members of the Hartley Morris Men which were formed in 1954 and continue to the present day.

Select the link below to view a video of the Hartley Morris Men performing ‘Dancing up the Sun’, at the Coldrum Stones, Trottiscliffe, Kent.