The origins of Morris dancing are lost in the mists of time and much disputed among scholars. What seems to be generally accepted is that Morris dancing probably has its roots in dances that originated in North Africa (“Moorish” dancing) as they were filtered through the cultures and courts of Europe on their way to these shores. The earliest references to the “Morys” date from the late 15th century and are found in a court context. There are references to Morris dancers in Shakespeare and one of his actors, William Kempe, famously Morris danced from London to Norwich in 1600 and reported his feat in a book that gave us the well known illustration of early Morris dancing accompanied by the pipe and tabor (which remained the traditional musical accompaniment until relatively recently). Around this time Morris dancing had become a common part of village celebrations. It was banned by Cromwell, but returned after Charles II and became a feature of rural seasonal festivities, particularly the Whitsun Ale. By the late 19th century the changing social landscape of Britain had reduced the Morris to just a few villages and towns when, in 1899, Cecil Sharp happened to witness a performance of the Headington Quarry Morrismen. For Sharp this sparked a lifelong interest in documenting the dances and the music of the surviving Morris sides. In the early twentieth century Sharp’s documentation and the enthusiasm of social activist Mary Neal made Morris dancing a cornerstone of a revived British interest in folk dance and music that continues to this day.
Local tradition claims that Morris dancing in Bampton goes back “at least 400 years” with some claiming a couple of additional centuries. The earliest documented reference to a Morris side in Bampton dates to 1847 when the Reverend J A Giles complained of a deterioration in the quality of the dancing, suggesting that a tradition of dancing was sufficiently well established to withstand a timely critique. The contemporary history of Bampton Morris begins with William (‘Jinky’ or ‘Jingy’) Wells (1868-1953) who came from a family of Bampton Morris dancers and joined the side in 1887 as the Fool. When Bampton’s long-time fiddle player Dick Butler abruptly left the side mid-performance in 1899 after breaking his fiddle in a drainpipe, Wells jumped in with his fiddle and the side carried on.(1) As the musician (and source of Sharp’s knowledge) of Bampton Morris, Wells shepherded the side through the First World War and on to a degree of fame in the early days of the English folk-dance revival.
And then there were two
In a town that cares passionately about Morris dancing there will inevitably be some upsets. In 1925, a leadership conflict arose within the team. Wells felt he should be the rightful leader through his long family connection with Bampton Morris. Most of the dancers of that day came from the Tanner family that had an equally long history with the side and they felt it should be one of them. As a result of this dispute (which also involved money, hard drinking, and perhaps even another broken fiddle)(2) Wells severed his connection with the side, ending a nearly 40-year relationship. In 1926, for the first time in memory, the Bampton side danced on Whitsun using ‘borrowed’ musicians Bertie Clarke of Alvescot and Sam Bennett of Ilmington. During the following year Wells formed a new side of younger dancers who made their appearance at the 1927 Whitsun dances. As the Second World War loomed the traditional Tanner side’s appearances became more sporadic and ceased entirely during the war years, however Wells’ younger side continued regular dancing through that period. After the war a shortage of both dancers and musicians led the two sides to come together again, and when Wells’ advancing deafness left him unable to play Clarke became the regular musician for the side.
But the unity was not to last. In the early post war years two names became associated with Bampton Morris. Francis Shergold had begun dancing with Wells’ new side around 1935. Arnold Woodley followed his brother and two cousins into the traditional Tanner side, first dancing in 1938. As Wells became less able to lead the post-war side it was agreed that Shergold would be the Squire (leader) and Woodley would teach the dances. That arrangement lasted only a few years until 1950, when, during Whitsun practice, Woodley and Shergold disagreed about whether some dancers were up to performance standard.(3) Woodley felt so strongly about the quality of the dancing that he himself did not turn out for the Whit Monday dancing. Shortly after that Woodley, along with Thomas “Sonner” Townsend, another veteran of the Tanner side (first danced 1925), re-formed the traditional side and augmented it with younger dancers.
Through the 1950s both sides regularly toured the town on Whitsun and, according to noted music and Morris historian Keith Chandler, “the two sides existed in apparent harmony, with Arnold doing the majority of the teaching in the village, and some of the youngsters joining the older set as they got older and taller.”(4)
Although periods of illness throughout the 1960s forced Woodley to curtail his side’s activities, by 1970 the side was again out for the Whitsun dances and more as Woodley launched into an active period of touring outside Bampton, the highlight of which was a very successful tour of the east coast of the United States in August of 1982.
Arnold Woodley died in 1995, but the Bampton Morris tradition that he nurtured and preserved continues today in the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers under the leadership of Woodley’s successor Lawrence Adams.
But now there are three
In his desire to preserve the Bampton Morris tradition, Arnold Woodley was known to be a demanding squire and a strict disciplinarian. For the younger dancers, nothing was more fear-inducing than to finish a dance and find Arnold’s fiddle bow pointing at you—that meant you hadn’t done it right and were in trouble. In the summer of 1972 the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers had a performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. On the following day they had an invitation to dance at Cecil Sharp House on their journey home but a number of the men objected to having to dance in full kit because that meant wearing it on the long coach ride. In what might be best described as a triumph of pique over common sense all of the rebellious dancers subsequently received letters from Woodley dismissing them from the side. These young men went on to form the third Bampton Morris side, the Bampton Morris Men.
These days the Bampton Morris sides are not often seen outside of the town, but should you be fortunate enough to find yourself in Bampton on a Spring Bank Holiday (the modern substitute for Whit Monday) you will be treated to one of the purest examples of a fine old English tradition as interpreted by three different teams drawing upon their unique histories and traditions, and all with a passion worthy of the Morris.