Dancing at Whitsun

A Chelsea pensioner walks through the new War memorial of ceramic poppies planted in the Tower of London's moat

A Chelsea pensioner walks through the new World War 1 memorial of ceramic poppies planted in the Tower of London’s moat

Whitsuntide used to be a week long holiday given to higher-level serfs in mediaeval Britain after the major hard work of the new season, ploughing the fields and planting the seeds, had been completed. The word Whitsun is thought come from ‘White Sunday’, but also alludes to the word wit, which in olden times also meant understanding. The actual day marks the Christian festival of the Pentecost, which occurs 7 weeks after Easter and celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s apostles.

White Sunday was a traditional day for both adults and the young to be baptised, and it was the custom for those due to be baptised to wear white clothing. The clergy also wear white robes on the day. As with other Christian festivals, Pentecost usurps the older pagan Festival of Beltane, which was the celebration of the start of summer. Druids to this day wear white robes on pagan festivals.

The Whitsuntide holiday was basically a week long community street party, with an associated fair and market, where the spring lambs and other livestock would be bought and sold. As part of the celebrations, the male agricultural workers  would wear white shirts and trousers and perform the Traditional dances that have come to be known as Morris Dancing or more accurately Cotswold Morris, named after the Cotswold hills which are a feature of the counties around Oxfordshire where the dances were most popular. Written records of Morris Dancing go back to at least Shakespeare’s time, with one of his acting troupe, Will Kemp, Morris Dancing from London to Norwich in 9 days spread over a couple of weeks, for a bet, and referred to as the Nine Daies Wonder .

Bampton Traditional Morris Dancers – Speed the Plough

The Whitsuntide holiday was in later years also adopted in other parts of the country, with their own customs being developed. During the Industrial Revolution, the cloth workers in the Mills of the Northwest part of the country were given the weeks holiday in order to clean and service the mill machinery and cotton looms, and other industries like coal mining followed suit. In the North West, the mill-workers traditionally wore wooden soled clogs, as most of the streets in the area were cobbled, and they developed a style of dance which highlighted the percussive effects of clogs on hard surfaces, and which is now referred to as NW Morris or more popularly ‘Clog Morris’.

Saddleworth Morris Men – NW Clog Morris

They also developed the customs of dressing the local water wells with spring flowers, and building a large ‘Rushcart‘ made with bullrushes. The Rushcart with its jockey sitting precariously on top would lead the processions around the local area, drawn by ropes and a large team of men.The Whitsun holiday is usually referred to as ‘Wakes Week’ in the North West.


Saddleworth Morris Men – The Greenfield dance

In the mining pit villages around  Newcastle and Durham on the North east coast, coal miners developed a style of English Sword dancing, utilising roughly metre-long flexible slivers of steel known as ‘rappers’ which are thought to have been used to scrape the muck off the pit ponies. These dances are nowadays referred to as Rapper Sword dances. The coal miners also used to wear clogs, and danced in them, as High Spen still do. Most modern rapper sides wear stout shoes.

High Spen Blue Diamonds – Rapper Sword Dance

From the agricultural areas of the North, particularly Yorkshire, but also found in parts of Scotland, come another set of dances which originally utilised the wooden laths used to drill seeds into the ground, but which for the most part since the Industrial Revolution now use use rigid metal ‘Swords’. The Longsword dances are thought to be the oldest form of traditional dances in the country, along with the ordinary ‘country dances’ which provide a model for both the Longsword and Clog Morris styles.

Redcar Sword Dancers – The Greatham  Longsword Dance and Play

Cotswold Morris Dancing had pretty much died out in the villages in and around Oxfordshire by the end of the 18th century as more and more farmworkers moved into the more urban areas with better paid jobs, and its only thanks to the work of a music teacher called Cecil Sharp and some of his contemporaries that it still exists today, albeit performed mainly by ‘Revival’ teams which have been formed since the 1930’s onwards. There are however a couple of traditional Morris sides which have unbroken histories of a couple of hundred years, whose biggest day in their dancing calendar was and still is Whit Monday, which has now been replaced by the fixed holiday known as the late Spring Bank holiday, and which occurs on the last Monday in May.

Already in decline, the Cotswold dances would have surely been wiped out completely during the 1914-18 World War 1, had it not been for the wives, girlfriends and sisters of the men who had gone to war, keeping the dances going and performing them on Whit Monday. Sadly as so many men didnt come back, these same woman were to become the core of Sharpe’s evangelist movement to revive the dances, and form what would finally become the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) whose headquarters is Cecil Sharp House in Camden, North London. CSH also houses the Vaughn Williams Library, which is the biggest collection of English Folk related materials in the country, and is also the home of the Morris Ring of England, which is the oldest association of English Morris Dance teams and now has affiliate sides world wide.

These women are remembered and honoured along with Cecil Sharp and his colleagues, at every Morris Ring meeting, with a toast to ‘The Immortal Memory’ at the communal ‘Feast’ which the dancers take together after the long day of dancing.

Shirley Collins was born in Hastings in 1939 into a socialist, folksinging family. She was a major contributor to the ‘second English Folk revival’ during the late 1950’s and 60’s, and who is best known for her work with her elder sister Dolly Collins, and her second husband Ashley Hutchings. She also worked with the American folklorist Alan Lomax, with whom she made an extended folksong collecting trip in the southern USA in the late 50s, and she also collaborated with many influential artists from that period, notably Davey Graham, Peter Bellamy and Martin Carthy. Her magnum opus is considered to be the ‘Anthems in Eden‘ album made with Dolly and a host of contemporary and ‘early music’ performers. The album contains a suite of songs charting the changes in society as a result of WW1. Shirley’s first husband Austin John Marshall produced the album and wrote the lyrics for the song ‘Dancing at Whitsun‘ which is a highlight of the album. Sadly, very little of Shirley’s work is available on the net, so here is a fine cover of the song, recorded by Tim Hart, before he became well known as Steeleye Span‘s frontman.

Tim Hart – Dancing at Whitsun


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