‘Merrie England Once More’? The Morris Revival c.1886-1951 – Matt Simons

Review of the online talk by Dr Matt Simons on 3rd April 2021.  Dr Matt Simons is a dancer and researcher based in south Lincolnshire.  He is a part-time lecturer in Modern British History at De Montfort University, and full-time dancer with numerous sides including Peterborough Morris and Bourne Borderers.  This talk was based on Matt’s doctoral thesis in 2019, entitled ‘Morris Men: Dancing Englishness, c.1905-1951’.

Review by Dave Eyre

“The background to the Morris Revival was founded in an atavistic search for “Merrie England”; that search itself a product of the development of an antiquarian desire to find ancient origins and lineage; this rural past being idyllic, containing simplicity, beauty and purity. At the same time a long- standing industrialisation and urbanisation had led to the decline of rural pursuits in general and a decline in morris dancing which faded almost into obscurity. NB we are talking solely Cotswold or South Midlands in this talk.

“Morris dancing was collected in the 1880’s- 1900’s; to help reproduce in pageants by one revivalist; in the manner of a song collector by another.  Two people come into the story at this point – Mary Neal – who was running a project in London to help young working class girls and Cecil Sharp interested in making a music with a “national” flavour. They came together in Neal seeking help from Sharp first of all with song and then later with dances. Sharp pointed Neal towards the (revived) Headington dancers he had seen in 1899.

“The success of Neal’s dancers led to a rapid expansion – the beginning of a revival if you like – with full-time and part-time instructors and the writing down of dances in the first edition of the “Morris Book”. Relationships between the two broke down mainly over the best way to teach morris and, in particular, in December 1911 Sharp formed the English Folk Dance Society – whose ethos and policy was in opposition to Neal’s and they drifted apart. The Esperance Society closed during hostilities, Sharp’s classes went on once WW1 was over.

“Douglas Kennedy took over after Sharp’s death and began practical measures to expand the morris, rooted in informal village-like groupings and more and more groups; (Cambridge, Letchworth,Thaxted) and by the 1930’s weekend gatherings. These expanded into the Morris Ring in 1934 – to be an informal grouping of clubs, each with its own sense of identity. By 1939 there were 37 clubs.  There was an emphasis on “maleness”. 

“During WWII there had been a direct hit on Cecil Sharp House and after the war, to revive the EFDSS, Douglas Kennedy was keen to rescue the reputation of country dance from the old stereotypes leaving the development and growth of morris to the Ring and its constituent clubs to the detriment of women’s morris.

“The Festival of Britain 1951 was intended to give a sharp edge to the end of the war and the austerity that followed it, and whilst there was an emphasis on the new, the “old” got a look in too with morris featuring in street displays and even a festival at Thaxted, by now seen nationally as a place for morris dancing.

Thaxted Morris c.1911
Thaxted Morris, c.1911, on the Vicarage Lawn. Reproduced from Harry de Caux, Thaxted: “A Desperate Morris Place” (Thaxted Morris Men, 1983).

“That takes us to the end of the period under discussion, but it is hoped that the correct permissions can be obtained for a wider dissemination. If you missed it, are interested in morris dancing and would like to see it, do take the opportunity.

Review by Dave Eyre of Sheffield City Morris Men and Sheffield City Giants

Donations from the participants raised money for Samaritans and to help fund Matt’s ongoing research projects

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