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Reviews

Reviews of ‘Carnivals, Contests and Coronations: A Social History of Morris Dancing in Trafford before the Second World War’

 

The Folk Music Journal, The Journal of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol 12 Number 4, 2024.

As a native of Trafford myself (born and brought up in Stretford) I was looking forward to acquiring this book as a niche product of local interest, but little more. I was wrong. Richard Nelson has produced a major contribution to morris literature and added greatly to our knowledge of the significant but neglected transformation of North-West morris of the end of the nineteenth century into the carnival morris of today. His sources include the local newspapers (most of which remain undigitized) and, from local studies centres and archives, ephemera such as event programmes, photigraphs, and early films, as well as manuscript collections. For the biographies of the dancers he relies not just on news reports and census records but on electoral rolls and street directories, as well as local memories.

Trafford is a modern construct arising from the local government reforms of 1974, straddling the old border between Lancashire and Cheshire across the River Mersey. In the period under review its constituent districts north and south of the river were separate communities with little in common, and Nelson deals with the two foci of activity, Altrincham and Stretford, separately. His opening chapters, however, deal with the historical background of rushbearing, May Day, and morris dancing in broader perspective, setting the scene for twentieth century developments. He covers the characteristics of the dance in the wider North-West area and the disparaging attitude of luminaries of the English Folk Dance Society to the evolving morris of the North-West.

The meat of this book, however, is the set of chapters on the individual teams of the future borough. Nelson covers not just the appearances of the teams at events, but also the biographies of significant individual dancers, allowing us to follow the genealogies of teams’ histories, such as the transmission of dances from the Mobberley team to the Bensonians and thence the Ashfield team, and the parallel transmission from Mobberley to the Oldfield troupe, all three teams being based in Altrincham.

Activity north of the Mersey was centred around the Gorse Hill Morris Dancers who performed from 1910 into the 1970s. Nelson notes that the team’s dancing style differed from that of the Cheshire teams and that Stretford Pageant (the Gorse Hill team’s primary focus for performance) did not introduce a competitive element, which drove the evolution of carnival morris elsewhere, until the 1930s. Despite his subtitle, Nelson follows this team’s history through to the 1970s, and reports his conversation with one dancer who averred that in the 1960s they still avoided competitions and their costumes remained much the same as during the interwar period.

 

Although this is primarily a social history, Nelson does include descriptions of the choreography in many instances, in some cases reconstructing it for the first time from contemporary newsreel footage. He also places the morris dancing within the context of the other dance styles that morris dances both participated in and competed against in carnival competitions, often covered by the umbrella term ‘entertaining’. His contribution to this topic is truly original. As an example, he describes how Eric Benson, who originally performed gymnastic drill routines with Indian clubs at carnivals, had his troupe, the Bensonians, perform in a variety of styles. At the Macclesfield Carnival in 1930 they won both the morris-dancing prize and the award for ‘troupe dancers other than morris’. Their morris roots could still be discerned, however, in their use of ‘traditional’ North-West morris tunes such as ‘Old Ninety-Five’ and ‘A Hundred Pipers’.

Nelson has laid down solid foundations for the further study of the evolution of twentieth-century morris dancing in the North-West. The book is the fruit of the assiduous and penetrating pursuit of hard-to-find source material, marshalled intelligently to provide a coherent narrative of developments. His comprehensive citation of the sources provides and excellent base from which to take the research further. The fact that he has unearthed so much treasure from a limited geographical area should inspire others to mine similar resources which must exist in communities in the region. If they can do it half as well as Nelson we shall be much the richer for it. Every student of morris should buy this book.

Review by Michael Heaney, Oxford, author of ‘The Ancient English Morris Dance, 2023’

Fed Extra, The Morris Federation, Spring/Summer 2023

 

Richard looks at a small area (the Borough of Trafford, now part of Greater Manchester) and mainly considers the development of Morris dancing, and the associated carnivals and competitions, from before WW1 to the outbreak of WW2, although there are references to events before and after that period to provide context.

 

The book is extremely well researched with copious notes and appendices for anyone wanting to follow up references etc., although many newspapers are now digitised, and many of the local papers that Richard had to use are not. Much of the information has come from what must have been many hours spent in the North West Film Archive and other local archives.

Richard has had access to much of the research done in the 1970s when teams such as Poynton Jemmers were starting. What Richard has shown is how many more teams there were in the 1920s and 1930s. It is a pity that more active research wasn’t done in the 70s when participants would still have been alive. That’s not to denigrate the collectors – it is just that with hindsight, so much more could have been collected.

Many of you will have come across Johnny Haslett’s books based on newspaper reports for West Lancashire up to 1929. Richard takes this forward ten years.

Trafford lies to the Southeast of West Lancashire and he shows that different things appear to have been happening there. During the period that he covers, one style of Morris dancing is gradually turning into a competitive carnival style. It appears that this happened more so in Cheshire than in Lancashire, although many Lancashire teams were travelling to take part in Cheshire competitions.

Richard shows that even within a small area like Trafford, the development of Morris dancing in two sub areas, Altrincham and Gorse Hill (Stretford), was quite different despite them being only 6 miles apart.

The book also gives the context of Morris dancing during this period. Some of the teams from Altrincham had associated entertainment troupes. Despite being much older than the Altrincham troupes, the dancers from Gorse Hill did not start entering competitions until 1931 and never had an associated entertaining troupe.

For many years I have said that there is no such thing as ‘Northwest Morris’, as the Pennine and Lancashire Plain forms are very different. This book shows that there were differences even within very small areas.

Where possible, many of the dancers have been identified and their backgrounds given. Particularly interesting is the Gorse Hill troupe, where families mainly moved into the area in the early 1900s; many were railwaymen and a 1907 newspaper article refers to them as being ‘of the highly respectable class’.

There are a number of photographs of the various troupes included, together with some of the entertaining troupes. Also included are the notations for some of the dances.

The book can be purchased from the Shuffleback Press website where there is also a blog with the latest research news:https://www.shuffleback.co.uk.

All in all, it is a fantastic resource that fills a gap in the history of Morris dancing and leads nicely into the work that Lucy Wright has produced on Carnival Morris.

 

Review by Peter Bearon,The Rumworth Morris, Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers, Lymm Morris and Abram Morris Dancers

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