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Anybody studying folk traditions in and around Essex will find that the Essex Records Office in Chelmsford is an excellent starting point.

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Morris Dance

This information was provided by and relates to the holdings at the Essex Records Office Sound and Video Archive in Chelmsford.

Cotswold Morris is usually danced by teams of six people (usually men) with bells at their knees and wielding hankies or sticks. The dance is athletic and some of the dances involve mock fights. The tradition of morris dancing goes back about 500 years (although elements of the dance may be older than this) and was danced in London and towns and villages all over the south of England and the Midlands, but by the time the dances were written down it was mainly danced in the villages of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire and is now known as Cotswold Morris (thus distinguishing it from North West Morris and Border Morris). Music would have been provided by a pipe and tabor (a small drum) or the English bagpipes, and later by a fiddle or some variety of squeeze box – concertina, melodeon or accordion. There are references to morris dancing in Essex as far back as 1527, where an entry in the Dunmow Churchwardens’ accounts seems to refer to a black morris coat. Records show that the morris was danced in Maldon, where the Chamberlains’ accounts for 1540 refer to payments for bells, minstrels and morris dancers; and the Barrington family of Hatfield Broad Oak made payments to morris dancers for Christmas entertainments between 1635 and 1660.

  • D/P 11/5/1: Dunmow Churchwardens Accounts
  • D/B 3/3/236: Maldon Chamberlains Accounts
  • D/DBa A2: Barrington Family papers

For a full discussion of morris dancing in 16th and 17th century Essex see “The Suppression of Pestiferous Dancing in Essex” by John Smith, ERO Library Folder: Dance

In Folklore of Essex and Hertfordshire (Essex Review 1896, vol.v, p.150) there is reference to a copy in the Bishop’s Stortford Churchwarden’s Accounts of Charles II’s orders to continue games, sports, dancing, wakes and Ales.

ERO Library E/DAGE: Morris Dancing in Dagenham in the 17th century, in History of Dagenham by J.P.Shawcross, 1904

But by the time Sharp and his friends were collecting morris dances in the early years of the 20th century, morris had entirely died out in Essex.

Thaxted and the Morris Revival

Morris dancing was introduced to Thaxted by Miriam Noel, wife of Conrad Noel the vicar of Thaxted. She had become aware of morris dancing through her interest in the work of Mary Neale who had introduced morris dancing to the girls in the Esperance Club in London. In 1911 Thaxted Morris consisted of a boys’ team and a girls’ team, but when Thaxted Morris re-formed after the First World War it was as a men’s team only. In 1934 the Morris Ring was formed, a federation of men’s morris clubs which has met annually at Thaxted ever since.

  • I/Mb 350/1/43: Thaxted Morris Dancers 1911
  • D/P 16/28/16: “Comes the Morris Dancer In. A Celebration of 50 Years of the Morris Ring” (1984)
  • SA 30/1/27/1: The Music of Thaxted
  • VA 30/25/1: Thaxted Ring Meeting 1963
  • VA 30/34/1: Thaxted Ring Meeting 2003
  • A 2/69/1: Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance at Thaxted

Morris dancing since 1950 The enthusiasm for folk dancing that took place after the war included morris dancing, and one of the first sides to be set up in Essex was the Benfleet Hoymen, a side that grew out of the Circassian Circle Folk Dance Club and who first performed in the Coronation year of 1953. Also formed in 1953 was Colchester Morris, successor to a pre-war side that had disbanded. Rumford Morris was formed in 1960 and Chingford Morris, which grew out of Chingford School boys morris team taught by Peter Boyce, first danced out in 1962.

  • VA 30/2/1: Benfleet Hoymen 1964
  • VA 30/24/1: Colchester Morris, 1960
  • ERO Library Box 111b: The Morris and Sword Dances of England, printed for the Morris Ring 1966

By the 1970s a new generation of young men was learning morris dancing. There were also some ladies’ sides and some mixed sides.

  • VA 30/14/1: Barnstaple Morris Tour 1983 (with Blackmore Morris and Chelmsford Morris)
  • VA 30/4/1: Barnstaple Morris Tour 1984 (with Blackmore and Chelmsford)
  • VA 30/15/1: Barnstaple Morris Farewell Tour 2001 (with Blackmore and Chelmsford)
  • VA 30/6/1: Chingford Morris 30th Anniversary (1), 1992
  • VA 30/7/1: Chingford Morris 30th Anniversary (2), 1992
  • VA 30/3/1: Moreton Millennium Festival (Blackmore Morris)
  • VA 30/5/1: Blackmore Morris, 2000
  • VA 30/30/1: Rise Bridge Ladies Morris
  • VA 2/69/1: Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance at Thaxted
  • VA 2/52/1: Mayflower Morris at Brentwood Summer Fair 1980
  • VA 2/51/1: Heart of Oak Morris at Horndon-on-the-Hill
  • VA 2/68/1: Hands Around Ladies Morris 1989
  • Acc. A8287 T3964A/14: Massed Morris in Basildon Town Square

There are sound recordings of Cotswold morris dancing as follows:

  • SA 30/3/5/1: unedited recording of Thaxted Ring Meeting 1976
  • SA 30/6/6/1: Chelmsford Morris
  • SA 30/6/13/1: Chelmsford Morris repertoire
  • SA 30/6/14/1: Chelmsford Morris repertoire
  • SA 30/6/26/1: Chelmsford Morris repertoire
  • SA 30/6/29/1: Chelmsford Morris
  • SA 30/6/33/1: Chelmsford Morris May Day 1980
  • SA 30/6/428/1: Chelmsford Morris at Chelmsford Folk Club 1982
  • SA 30/6/478/1: Blackmore Morris at Chelmsford Folk Club 1983
  • SA 34/1/1/6/1/1: Folk Dances of England by Carl Huson 1962
  • SA 30/2/3/8/1: songs and tunes from the morris tradition

Additional information about Cotswold Morris in Essex can be found in copies of Essex Folk News.

  • ERO Library: Essex Folk News
  • T/B 241/1: microfilm of Roding Valley Morris Men log books

North West Morris

In the 1980s there was in Essex an upsurge of interest in North West Morris dance and a number of ladies and mixed sides were formed. North West Morris was a style of dancing in clogs on paved or cobbled streets that evolved when people moved into the new towns of the north in the industrial revolution. The earlier processional dances (which were performed at Whitsun or Wakes Week or at Rushbearing ceremonies) gave way to dances with complicated figures performed at fetes and carnivals. Morris dancing competitions with strict rules were a feature of carnival morris.

  • VA 30/3/1: Moreton Millennium Festival
  • VA 30/5/1: Black Bull Clog
  • VA 30/16/1: Fiddler’s Brook 2000
  • SA 30/6/15/1: Chelmsford Morris, North West and Border dances
  • I/Ee 100/5: Chelmsford Ladies at Harlow Victorian Fair

Border Morris

A style of dance associated with the Welsh Borders. Little is known about Border Morris. There is enough information to deduce something about the steps and the style of dance but the scarcity of information has inspired Border sides to develop their own dances and styles within the overall tradition. The dancers disguise themselves – historically they would use soot or burnt cork – and they usually wear tatter coats (coats covered with brightly coloured cloth or ribbons) and top hats with feathers, partly to avoid identification and partly to add to the drama, excitement and “otherness” of the occasion.

  • VA 30/3/1: Moreton Millennium Festival
  • VA 30/13/1: Leigh Folk Festival Procession
  • SA 30/1/11/1: Border Dances
  • SA 30/6/15/1: Chelmsford Morris, North West and Border Dances

Sword Dancing

English Sword Dancing, using longswords or short, flexible, two-handled rapper swords, is characteristic of Yorkshire and Northumberland.

  • VA 30/3/1: Moreton Millennium Festival
  • VA 30/22/1: East Saxon Swordsmen 1986
  • VA 30/17/1: East Saxon Rapper, 2000
  • VA 30/2/1: Boys’ Rapper side at Southend Folk Dance Festival 1964

Molly Dancing and Stepping – two East Anglian Traditions

Step Dancing

English regions have a tradition of “stepping”, that is, individual dancing in clogs or shoes, which relies on complicated footwork and rhythmic tapping, somewhat similar to modern tap dancing. East Anglian stepping is done in heavy shoes. People danced in pubs and kitchens, sometimes on a small wooden board. It was widespread and is known to have been danced in Essex. Current exponents learned from “old boys” in Norfolk and Suffolk and from travellers. VA 30/18/1: Moreton Step Dance Competition 2002 ERO Library: Essex Folk News No.12, 1976. Description of “The Purleigh Hornpipe”

Molly Dancing

Another style of dancing, called Molly dancing (a Molly is a term for a man dressed as a woman) used to be performed in the 19th century by agricultural workers in East Anglia during the winter time. Molly dancing apparently took place on Boxing Day or Plough Monday when farm lads and men in their working clothes decorated with ribbons and with hob-nailed boots, faces blacked (probably to avoid recognition) would dance and drink and collect money for beer.

At least one of the group would be dressed as a woman and one would be designated The Lord. There are echoes here of older traditions involving the Christmas Lord of Misrule, the man-woman and disguising, but the dances were similar to social dances of the 19th century and were performed in a fairly rough and ready manner. The groups of dancers collected money, sometimes for themselves, sometimes for the poor. See ERO Library: Truculent Rustics, Molly Dancing in East Anglia before 1940 by Elaine Bradtke

There are references to Molly dancing in Essex in Ashdon, Helions Bumpstead, Great Chesterford and Great Sampford , and even Willingale, and though it was recorded in Little Downham in Norfolk as late as 1933 it seems to have died out in Essex by 1914.

In Ashdon, 8 or more blackface ploughboys, some in women’s clothes and one with a whip, danced to an accordion on Plough Monday before the First World War. In Great Sampford, a similar number of ploughboys are known to have danced, some in women’s clothes and with ribbons, on Plough Monday before 1900. In Great Chesterford they danced on Boxing Day.

In the 1970s an old man in Willingale told some morris dancers that he remembered similar dancing when he was a boy “but they called it Molly dancing then”. In the 1980s an old lady in Great Chesterford told how her father, the landlord of the Three Horseshoes, would have to bar his door against rowdy and drunken Molly dancers. See ERO Library: Molly Dancing in Essex, EFN No. 40 (1983)

There are no details of the dances in Essex but some were reconstructed from information collected in Cambridgeshire by Russell Wortley and others in the 1940s. The steps were simple (right hop, left hop) and the dances were similar to social dances popular in rural areas in the 19th century. The tunes were popular country dance tunes of the period.

Good Easter Molly, a revival side which first danced out on Plough Monday 1984, dances only those traditional dances, though other sides have developed their own dances.

  • VA 30/20/1: Good Easter Molly Dancers 2000
  • VA 30/21/1: Good Easter Molly Dancers 2001
  • SA 30/1/13: Trinity Road, Chelmsford, School scrap book describing a visit from the Molly dancers 1984
  • SA 30/1/14/1: Soken Molly Gang at the launch of exhibition “As Many As Will” at Essex Record Office 2004
  • ERO Library: Essex Review 1910, Dunmow Churchwardens’ Accounts 1526-43, collection of money for church lights on Plough Monday

Maypole dancing

Although dancing around the maypole is documented in England as far back as the fifteenth century, the ribbons were only introduced in the nineteenth century. In 1854 the people of Burnham attempted to revive the old May Day sports on the village green, including maypole dancing, but it was felt that dancing round a maypole “at sunrise in a hoar frost might not be attractive to modern young men and maidens” (Quoted in Essex Illustrated)

In Folklore of Essex and Hertfordshire (Essex Review 1896, vol.v, p.147) the author says that May celebrations “have of late been left to sweeps, but even they have almost entirely dropped it”

  • Acc. A9238 Box 1/023 15/40: Pitsea Congregational Fete Maypole Dancers 1911
  • ERO Library: Essex Review 1910, Mayday Festivities
  • VA 1/6/1: Maypole Dance 1964

Other dances and events

  • VA 30/12/1: Mexican Folk Dancers at the Leigh Folk Festival
  • VA 30/3/1: Appalachian stepping at the Moreton Millennium Festival
  • SA 30/1/14/1: CD of music played for Appalachian dance group Scrambled Leggs by their musicians
  • VA 30/12/1: Appalachian stepping at the Leigh Folk Festival
  • VA 30/2/1: Lancashire Step-clogging demonstrated by Pat Tracey at Southend Folk Festival 1964
  • VA 27/2/1: Folk/Morris dancers at Essex History Fair, Hedingham Castle 1986
  • VA 8/1/1: Mysterious Essex (Morris dancers)
  • VA 30/8/1: Chingford Morris Mummers 1992
  • VA 30/3/1: Thameside Mummers at Moreton Millennium Festival