Sonner Townsend

Thomas Albert Townsend “Son”

24th May 1914 – 24th December 2008

On Christmas Eve an era in the history of the traditional Bampton Morris dancers came to an end with the death of Sonny Townsend, a man whose family connections with the tradition went back over two hundred years.

Although he was known all his life as ‘Son’, ‘Sonny’, or ‘Sonner’, and he never answered to his proper name, he was christened Thomas Albert Townsend: born on 24th May 1914 to the landlord and landlady of The Elephant & Castle pub in Bampton in the Bush, Oxfordshire. At that time the public house was the headquarters of the Bampton Morris Dancers, and as a boy Sonny would watch at their practices and occasionally he was allowed to dance in. A few days after his eleventh birthday at Whitsun 1925 he was told he was needed to dance out with the team as one of the Tanner brothers was unwell.

Young Sonny wasn’t keen to get all dressed up in his white clothes, bells and beribboned bowler hat and join the Morris dancers in their traditional Whitsun festivities dancing round Bampton all day. But as they were one short, needed him, and it is a tradition that’s been going for hundreds of years, he received a traditional persuasion – a clip across the ear from his grandfather. Mindful that his Grandfather had once danced with the team, young Sonny forgot his shyness and joined in the Whitsun dancing.

When once questioned about it Sonny explained it: “One of the dancers dropped out at the last minute and I was told to take his place. I didn’t want to do it, but Grandfather soon settled that and in those days you did as you were told.” He admitted how much he had enjoyed that day, starting off the dancing at 8am, but the fun had started before that. He would relate about how everyone had come into his Dad’s pub and enjoyed a drink or two before setting off. Beer was 2d and 4d a pint, and whisky 6d a shot. They danced all round the village until mid morning when they returned to the Elephant and Castle for bread, cheese, pickles and more beer; then carried on dancing.

In the afternoon they went round all the big houses, dancing on the lawns and were treated to more refreshments. In the evening there was more dancing round each of the pubs until about 8pm, and then it was back to the Elephant & Castle for a barn dance in the yard joined by all the wives, girlfriends and other villagers. The pattern he described at that time can still be seen in Bampton these days, and Sonny kept up his association with the Morris in Bampton for some eighty years.

Sonny was certainly a link with the past history of Bampton Morris and had a fascinating pedigree. His grandfather already mentioned was Thomas Porlock, one of three brothers who danced in the last half of the 19th Century. Thomas Porlock was married to Elizabeth, sister of Harry Radband, one time leader of the team, and she was Aunt to William “Jinky” Wells. Son’s mother, Elizabeth was granddaughter of Thomas “Jingle” Radband, born in 1776 and went on to lead the Bampton Morris for fifty years and was also their musician.

Sonny’s father , Albert, was not a dancer. As well as keeping the pub he had a fruit and vegetable business and Sonny could remember boyhood trips to Ilmington in Warwickshire (another Morris village) where he met up with the traditional fiddler Sam Bennett. He went there to help his father pick plums in Sam’s orchard. It was Sam Bennett who took over the musician’s role at Bampton when Jinky Wells left the team.

The members of the old original team Sonny had joined had argued with their musician, William “Jinky” Wells, best known as the provider of the dance information to the folk dance and song collector Cecil Sharp. The following year Jinky broke away from the team, teaching a new side of boys in the village later to be led by Francis Shergold whose obituary recently appeared (The Guardian 13/1/09). In order to carry on, the old side recruited Sam Bennett for Whitsun 1926, and up to 1940 there were two teams in the village, but the difficulties of the wartime period saw them come together for several years. Then in the 1950’s the two sides separated again and the old side was reformed under the leadership of Arnold Woodley and Son Townsend became their Clown and instructor of the dances.

In his working life Sonny served in the Fire Service for many years, and later worked at the famous Early’s Blanket Works in Witney. In his retirement he served on the committee of the Windrush Club also in Witney, and was involved in the various charity fund raising efforts. Sonny kept up his interest and support of Bampton Morris and he continued to administer the smacks with his bladder to keep the dancers on their toes until he was well into his eighties. In 2005 Sonny was presented with an engraved tankard by Bob Cross, Squire of The Morris Ring to mark his eighty years of association with Bampton Morris. At that ceremony the old fiddle once belonging to Jinky Wells was played, being the same instrument that Sonny had danced to at his first Whitsun in 1925. He was quite overcome on that occasion. For the last few years he spent his time in a retirement home in Bampton, but always pleased to see old friends. The Tradition Bampton Morris Dancers called in to see him during the Spring Bank Holiday Monday dancing in May 2008 and danced several jigs for him. He died peacefully on Christmas Eve 2008 and his funeral was at Bampton Parish Church on Monday 5th January 2009. Bampton Morris musicians played his favourite tune “Old Tom of Oxford” at his graveside, something he had requested. He lies among so many other past dancers in the peaceful village cemetery.

Barry Care M.B.E.
Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers


Below are memories of Sonner written by Paul Smith, musician, dancer and former bagman of the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers.

 When I joined the side around 1978 there were two men who took the lead in everything we did. Arnold Woodley the squire and Sonner Towsend the fool or clown.

Sonner didn’t come to practices often in those days but he was certainly around if anything else was going on. And stuff was always going on. Shirt race, mummers, Christmas party, folk club, barn dance. Sonner and Arnold didn’t need much of an excuse to book a coach and take us off on an outing. A day of dancing at Bourton-on-the-Water, a guest appearance in the EFDSS stand at the Town and Country Show in Warwickshire, a couple of weeks touring in the USA. Any old reason to fill up the coach with families and friends and anyone else who fancied a trip out. We took beer and sandwiches and always an evening pub stop on the way home with the inevitable gentleman’s line-up behind a hedge on the homeward road. The rest of the world was in the late seventies but for us it was still 1955.

And what do I remember of Son’s dancing? Well, he was our fool and his job was meant to be keeping us dancers in order. On Whit-Mondays I don’t think he quite saw it that way. He had so many, many friends and those friends came from miles around to be with him on the day so he made sure he met them all with the warmest of welcomes and he was determined to give all the ladies a kiss. Not many ladies were to be seen in Bampton without a smudge of greasepaint on their cheek by evening time.

He did make the occasional foray into the midst of his 'lazy lot of rascals’ to give one of us a whack on the bum with his bull's bladder from time to time. Then, just as suddenly as he had arrived, he’d caper out to say 'hello' to yet another friend. But when it came to the time for a single or double jig, Son was there. Eyes fixed, concentrating hard, smile on his face, and the first to yell the encouraging ’higher, higher’ to the lad doing the caper and always, always a few kind words of praise at the end of the dance.

His favourite jig was ‘Old Tom of Oxford’ but he danced it with the old double-step which Arnold disliked and so he wouldn’t play his fiddle for it. There was no bad feeling as far as I recall. Arnold just didn’t play that one. So I started to play it for Son so he could dance his jig. Every time, on the finish, ever the gentleman. he would say to me ’Thank you, Paul’ as he faced me, huge in his billowing clown suit, arms outstretched and bladder aloft before turning to the applauding, adoring crowd to take his bow. Guess he was in his mid-sixties around that time.

How many times I have played it now I don’t know. Now there are others in the side who dance ‘Old Tom’, Brien loves it and dances it and teaches it the way Son danced it with the old chicken-chasing double-step in the chorus that’s so different from all our other dances.

I guess it’s ten years since Sonner last danced on a Whit-Monday but he still came out to watch us and say hello to his friends. He was too unwell to get out to see us last Whit-Monday so we took the Morris to him in the Rosebank nursing home. They let us dance there for him and we played his tune as he smiled and nodded in time.

Simon and I played it for him on Monday too. It was cold at the grave-side and my freezing, stiff fingers made some variations to the tune that I‘d never heard before. But on the inside I felt that warm, familiar feeling that’s always there when I play ‘Old Tom’ for our Sonny each Whitsuntide.