In 1907 Cecil Sharp had published his
first collection of Morris Dances. He had first seen Morris Dancing at
Christmas 1899 whilst staying with his wife's mother, who was then
living at Sandfield Cottage, Headington, about a mile east of Oxford.
On Boxing Day, as he was looking out of the window at the snow-covered
drive, a strange procession appeared: eight men dressed in white,
decorated with ribbons, with pads of small latten-bells strapped to
their shins, carrying coloured sticks and white handkerchiefs.
Accompanying them was a concertina-player and a man dressed as a 'Fool'.
Sharp was amazed
at the sight. An obscure world of culture had
been revealed to him and he plied the men eagerly with questions. They
apologised for being out at Christmas; they knew that Whitsun was the
proper time, but work was slack and they thought that there would be no
harm in earning an honest penny. These were the Headington Quarry
in 1910 Sharp had been told of the existence of the Grenoside Sword
Dance by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Williams and Sharp had a
mutual friend in Nicholas Comyn Gatty (1875 – 1946), who was a fellow
composer and the music critic for the Pall Mall Gazette; an important
periodical of the day which had, significantly, published an article on
the visit of the Grenoside Sword
Dancers to Wortley Hall in 1898.
He was educated at Downing College, Cambridge
and at the Royal College of Music where he met and became a lifelong
friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who from the 1900's spent many a
summer vacation with the Gattys at Hooton Roberts. Nicholas pressed
Sharp to contact his Aunt Horatia Eden. She was living in London and as
well as being an author was a collector of mumming plays, a collection
of which was published in 1948. Sharp went to see Horatia and she
arranged for him to stay at the Rectory in Hooton Roberts with her
brother (and the father of Nicholas), the Reverend Reginald Gatty.
Hooton Roberts is 10 miles north-east of Grenoside.
came to Hooton Roberts on Friday, 26th August 1910 and on the following
day was accompanied to Grenoside by Florence the wife of Reginald. They
would certainly have passed through Ecclesfield, a mere 2 miles from
Grenoside, and may have picked up other Gatty
family members en route. The
Reverend Dr Alfred Gatty (1813 – 1903) had been vicar of Ecclesfield
from1839 to his death. The Gattys of Ecclesfield were a highly cultured
family of writers and musicians.
is a small village, 6 miles north-west of Sheffield, on high ground
with splendid views of the Dearne and Don Valleys. It lies on the edge
of the industrial heartland of South Yorkshire and at the edge of the
Peak District. In the 1840s it had a population of about 1,100 people
(4,500 in 2000) who worked on the land, in quarries and in light
engineering – nail making and file cutting. In 1850 it received the
dubious honour of being given the “workhouse” for the parishes of
Ecclesfield, Bradfield and Wortley; a stark reminder of the
consequences of poverty! Before the development of railways it was on
busy trade routes, being at the cross-roads of the coaching road from
Sheffield to Halifax and the old salt routes from Cheshire. On the main
street there still exist three pubs, The Angel, The Old Harrow and The
Red Lion. These pubs would have given the team an opportunity to
perform for beer, money and celebrity.
The Gattys had been long-term supporters of the sword dancers, both
through their interest in local traditions and also as an act of
philanthropy. During the 19th century the sword dancers were drawn from
a small number of families whose men-folk worked in the local quarries.
Quarrying was hard, low paid work that had long lay-offs in the winter
months. Before the Great War the team consisted of a number of notable
familes and their friends, in particular the Housleys, Coopers, Woods
and Wraggs. The Housley dynasty can be traced from 1837 to this day.
During the Christmas period the Gattys had used their influence to
arrange for the team to dance at local “big houses.” At these events
the dancers would be fed and treated to drinks and also receive a
payment either as a fee or a collection. The dance would also be performed throughout the year if
the opportunity arose.
Sharp had seen his first sword dance in Kirkby Malzeard near Ripon. The
Kirkby Malzeard dance was performed by 6 dancers, a captain and a most
splendid fool. The fool sported a huge “wide awake” hat, a halbard to
ward off the encroaching crowd and a foxes tail. The dance was introduced by a splendid song entitled
“Ye Noble Spectators”, which can be heard, sung by the Watersons, on the album “Frost and
Fire” , on the Topic label.
Sharp travelled to Grenoside by horse and carriage, the Gattys having
arranged for the performance to take place in the barn of Hilltop Farm
at the top of Wheel Lane. It made a great impression on Sharp. He was
particularly interested in the ritual slaying of the Captain/Fool and
speculated in his book that this represented some previous human/animal
ritual sacrifice or slaughter. The Grenoside dance was the most complex
single dance that Sharp would see.
The dancers were by this time mainly coal miners and steel workers.
They were probably accompanied by Walter “Mallock” Wragg on the
flutina, a cheap and simple member of the accordion family. What Sharp
made of these hard working, hard drinking men is interesting to ponder.
Florence Gatty’s presence would certainly put them on their best
behaviour but it is pleasant to remind ourselves that such different
cultures were drawn together by the love of dance, culture and
Sharp returned to Hooton Roberts and after “an enjoyable weekend” took
the train on Monday 28th August to Newcastle, in which area he
collected the 'rapper' sword dances from Swalwell and Earsdon.
Sharp was somewhat critical of 'rapper' dancing, describing it as
decadent, meaning that it had drifted away from ritual roots, becoming
a pastime and competitive sport. Rapper was performed on music halls
and at village competitions and as such there was a drive towards
athleticism and showiness. It is interesting to note that today, Rapper
dancing is the most vibrant dance tradition in the country.
Sharp also travelled to the village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire
to record the sublime Horn Dance. This is an ancient dance performed
with deer antlers but still alive and performed around the village each
September accompanied by a large following.
Of the four sword dances collected, only the Grenoside team still
exists. The dances from Kirkby Malzeard and Swalwell are currently
performed by 'revival' teams although there are still living former
Earsdon dancers who are being encouraged to teach the dance to a
representative team so that it can be performed in 2010.
The Grenoside Dance is also performed by the Newcastle Kingsmen who
have taken the essence of the dance and adapted in their own style to
excellent effect. In terms of participation, sword and morris dancing
is probably stronger today than it was when Sharp was collecting. This
again is thanks to Sharp and his associates, in first collecting the
dances and then promoting them at clubs and in schools. Today, within a 10 mile radius
of Sheffield, there are nearly twenty teams
performing traditional style dances and keeping alive the spirit of