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  • rjnelson03

Morris Dancers or Majorettes - the hazards of identifying old photographs.

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

This postcard appears in a book entitled ‘Altrincham’ in the ‘Britain in Old Photographs’ series published by Sutton Publications in 1996. The legend below the postcard reads:

‘Majorettes in the same carnival procession as on the previous page – or rather majorettes and majors, for the dashing figures on the near side of the road are young men, niftily attired in knee breeches and turbans. What a brave breed of youths Altrincham could boast in those days, young men happy to endure the hoots of mirth of their pals and workmates for the sake of communal dancing….’

The postcard is undated, as is that on the previous page mentioned, which is attributed to the 1920s. The town is Altrincham, the setting is Railway Street, and the event is one of the Altrincham Carnivals which ran every year from 1924 until 1932.

Although aware of this image, it was not included in ‘Carnivals, Contests and Coronations’, as there was insufficient evidence to identify the troupe. I am still unable to do identify it with confidence, but, having studied and thought about the image and the legend beneath it carefully, I can no longer refrain from presenting the evidence that might have improved the accuracy of the book of photographs entitled ‘Altrincham’.

A glance at some editions of the Altrincham Guardian from the 1920s and 1930s would perhaps have informed the author of the work in question that these were not Majorettes. There is no mention of the word ’Majorette’ in the detailed reports of carnivals contained in editions of that newspaper or other contemporary titles. Majorettes were not yet a feature of British carnivals. However, there are plenty of references to Morris Dancers. These came from Cheshire and Lancashire to participate in the dancing competitions held at Altrincham Carnival. Good prizes were on offer - £4, £3 and £2 for the first three places (the Bank of England Inflation Calculator shows that £4 in 1924 would be worth a few pence short of £200 in 2023). As many as fifty-four dancing troupes, including many Morris troupes, were recorded as taking part in this carnival in 1928.

The male dancers in the photograph may have been, as the author of the book of photographs suggested, ‘brave lads’, but they were by no means unique. Before the First World War there were plenty of teams of men who were dressing in a similar fashion to the men on the postcard and dancing at carnivals in North Cheshire villages such as Alderley Edge, Goostrey, Holmes Chapel, Peover, and Wheelock. After the war many men took up the Cheshire style of Morris dancing for the first time in places such as Altrincham, Knutsford, Mobberley and Northwich, and they paraded and danced throughout the summer months at carnivals in these towns and further afield.

Men such as these took part to have fun, to be able to enjoy the post-war freedom to mix, unchaperoned, with female dancers. More significantly, they were willing to give up their hard-earned leisure time to train hard in order to become good enough to dance with sufficient precision and energy to win money prizes and silver cups against fierce competition. The prize money perhaps helped them to supplement their incomes in what were hard times. People turned out in their thousands to see these dancers and admire their dancing. The dancers took pride in their successes and had their photographs taken with the trophies that they won. There is no evidence that they were ‘happy to endure the hoots of mirth of their pals and workmates…’!

What year was it?

The spectators lining the streets are wearing coats and hats, but don’t seem to be carrying umbrellas, so it is worth considering the newspaper reports of each carnival, as it was de rigueur for any reporter worth his or her salt to make a comment on the weather. The Altrincham carnivals of 1929 to 1932 enjoyed hot or warm sunny weather, so perhaps did not warrant the outer clothing as seen on spectators in this photograph. For the 1927 carnival the rain was so incessant that the crowning of the first Altrincham Carnival Rose Queen was postponed until the following Monday. 1924 and 1928 were plagued with showers, though 1928 was deemed an improvement on the previous year. That leaves 1925, which was cool but alternatively cloudy and sunny, and 1926 when, ‘though it could hardly be described as a June day, the proceedings were not marred by rain.’ This description perhaps best fits the image of the crowd on the postcard but it is by no means certain that the year depicted was one of these two.

Which troupe was this?

On the basis of current available evidence, it is not possible to draw a confident conclusion. It is notoriously difficult to distinguish Cheshire Morris troupes by their outfits. Surviving photographs are monochrome and, like the Girl’s Carnival Morris Dancers of today, troupes of this period are known to have changed the style and colours of their outfits from time to time. Both the male and female dancers in the postcard image are wearing standard Cheshire Morris costumes, but normally each troupe adopted a slight variation to distinguish one troupe from another. That said, the detail of the outfits does not match any of the descriptions or known images of the Altrincham teams or any other local troupe. The stripes on the sashes of the male dancers are the only distinctive feature. These have not been seen elsewhere.

If the picture was taken at Altrincham Carnival in either 1925 or 1926, no evidence has yet been located for the participation of Altrincham Morris troupes at this carnival in those years, apart from the all-girls Bollington Morris Dancers who placed second in the under-sixteen Morris competition in 1926 and Altrincham St George’s troupe which placed third in the Morris dancing in 1925 when there was no competition specifically for junior Morris dancers, and which was highly likely to have been a school troupe. No other Altrincham-based troupes featured in the competition prize lists for these years and they were not mentioned in detailed newspaper reports in either the Altrincham Guardian or the Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser. Of course, that does not eliminate them from having taken part in the procession.

Carnival reports from throughout the North West show that the Altrincham troupes - Ashfield (1928); Bensonians (1927); Oldfield (1928); Linotype (1930) and Stamford (1929) were not taking part as Morris dancers until the years indicated in brackets. There are a number of photographic images of the other contemporary Cheshire adult troupes mentioned in the reports in various collections, such as Gaskell and Cranford (both from Knutsford) and Mobberley. None of these look like this troupe.

The fact that a mixed troupe is depicted does not help with identification as many other Cheshire Morris troupes were mixed after the First World War. It is noted that a children’s troupe are following the adults, and the girls are clearly wearing an outfit very like that of the adults, though it is not clear from the image whether they were connected with the adult troupe. Some of the Altrincham troupes are known to have had junior teams, notably the Bensonian junior troupe, which was placed at Altrincham Carnival in 1929 and 1930 and took part in Morecambe Carnival in 1930 and 1931. The Bensonian troupe was described as ‘a youthful set’ at Chester Autumn Sports and Carnival in 1930 (Chester Chronicle, 9 Aug 1930, p.4), but the dancers on the postcard look to be children.

The Bensonian troupe (extant 1926 – 1932) is a possible candidate as the men in that troupe in images that can be identified wore their sashes on the right shoulder, as did the dancers depicted on the postcard. However, their leader and trainer, Eric Benson, is not visible and he is easily distinguished by his short stature. In addition, there are no known images of the Bensonian troupe wearing striped sashes. The males in the Linotype (Altrincham) troupe also wore their sashes on the right but only danced between 1930 and 1932, years of good weather, and are not known to have has a junior section. Ashfield (Altrincham) can be eliminated as the men wore their sashes from the left shoulder. There are no clear images of Stamford Morris Dancers (Altrincham) and they are not known to have had a junior section and were only active from 1929 – 1932. The Oldfield Morris troupe, also from Altrincham, was a young troupe that was only active in 1928 and 1929.

This discussion illustrates well the problems of identifying old photographs and those of Morris troupes. It must be admitted that the Cheshire style Morris troupes could look strange to those used to seeing Morris dancers in the typical Cotswold, Border and North-West Morris costumes of the last fifty or so years. However, a little research would have shown that the classification of these Morris dancers as baton twirling majorettes does not have any historical basis.

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John Jocys
John Jocys
Nov 02, 2023

That makes for an interesting read - especially as it features Altrincham.

Thanks for publishing!


Peter Bearon
Peter Bearon
Nov 02, 2023

Hi Rick

The fact that there is a nun walking alongside, might imply that this was a troupe attached to a Church. However, I don't remember any of the teams in your book as having Church connections.

Peter Bearon

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