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“Dancing with Giants, Hobby Horses and Morris” – a talk by Stephen Rowley

Review of the talk “Dancing with Giants, Hobby Horses and Morris” presented by Stephen Rowley on 5th March 2023 via Zoom, attended by an international audience of over 35 participants from UK and USA.

Sarah Eykyn of the Sheffield City Giants, South Yorkshire, writes:

“Stephen spoke of his long involvement with Giants, Hobby Horses and Morris Dancing, which was fascinating and enlightening.

“His first encounter with a Hobby was at the age of sixteen when he met  Billy the Goat who, like himself, was part of the St. Albans English Folk Packet. From this point on he was smitten!

“His first foray into horse making was the creation of Blanche, the Banbury Town Horse, made for their first Hobby Horse Festival in 2000. It was at one of these Festivals he came across some Hoodeners and was very taken with the design of their animal. Following on from making Blanche he spent time making and mending Hobby Horses, Tourney Horses, Dragons and other beasts while he explored methods of building a Hooden Horses.

Stephen Rowley and Coppin“Although he has a wide knowledge of the construction and use of many different types of Hobby Horse, it is clear his passion lies with the making and animation of the Hooden Horses. These are made from a broomstick, a sacking cloak and a head with a clacking jaw. They are three legged, two legs provided by the carrier and the front one being the broomstick. His most well-known creation in this style is Coppin who appeared with Wet Leg, and of course Boss Morris and the other beasts, at The Brits 2023.

“Over and above Coppin he has been instrumental in the making of more of a similar design, numbering in the hundreds, as part of Schools projects centered round the reintroduction of Mummer’s Plays in Gloucestershire . He is responsible for putting in place various events that embrace a wide variety of animals, some of which border on the bizarre! In 2016 Stephen was a co-founder of the Sidmouth Horse Trials which are held on the Sunday of Sidmouth Folk Festival. These have taken on a life of their own with many people going south to just take part in them.

“He discussed the history of the Hobby Horse, most of which was gleaned from parish records and accounts – not forgetting the famous stained glass window, that depicts a Tourney Horse, formerly in the house of George Tollett, of Betley, in Staffordshire – now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – which dates back to between 1509 and 1536:  See V&A Betley Window.

giants and hobby horses stephen rowley“Moving on to Giants, which is actually where Stephen started the talk, his first Giant crafted was the Thrupp Giant, Blaise 1.  Fifteen years later he was commissioned to build a new St Blaise as part of a community project in 2015 to celebrate the seven hundredth anniversary of the dedication of Frampton Church. St Blaise is still going strong and now performs with his own group on the Sunday nearest the 3rd February. Last year Blaise visited Sidmouth and danced around the town with the local Giants, Sabra and George.

Giants in Ath Belgium“Concerning European Giants he gave us a guided tours of Arbúcies in Catalonia, Gerona, Douai in France, and Ath in Belgium.

“He talked us through the rise and fall of recent British Giants. At one time in the last forty five years, sixty four were active – this number is now greatly reduced. There were mentions of among others, the Sheffield City Giants War and Peace, the Sidmouth Giants, Gogmagog, and Nathandriel of Huddersfield.

“Historically giants in England, and in Europe can be traced back hundreds of years. Stephen showed us records from Evora; Portugal dated 1265. There were Giants in Reading in 1513 as well as the documented Chester Giants of the Midsummer Watch 1564. St. Christopher, the Salisbury Giant, can be dated to the 1570’s. The historical Giants were associated with bodies such as the Merchant Tailer’s Guild, as was the case of St. Christopher.

“Morris dancing is discussed throughout the talk it being Stephen’s introduction to the world of Hobby Horses and Giants, as well as the context in which some of these structures performed.

“To conclude – I give you – Stephen Rowley – man of many talents, a Carnival Master, who can turn his hand to anything from astrophotography to Giant building. Now watch the Video! (1hr 27 mins)

by Sarah Eykyn of the Sheffield City Giants, South Yorkshire

Sarah Eykyn is dresser and publicity officer for the Sheffield City Giants – they are recruiting at this time, in the hope of rebuilding the team, see: http://sheffieldcitygiants.co.uk, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sheffieldcitygiants
Sarah is also Director of Mister Fox, see Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mrfoxdance

Donations

Donations from participants raised money for Bowel Cancer West: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/stephen-rowley3

Resources

Here are some books you might be interested in:

  • The Ancient English Morris Dance, by Michael Heaney
  • The History of Morris Dance 1458-1750, by John Forrest
  • Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England, by Twycross and Carpenter
  • Discordant Comicals, by George Frampton
  • Animal Guising and the Kentish Hooden Horse, by James Frost
  • Ritual Animal Disguise, by E.C. Cawte
  • The Hobby Horse and Other Animal Masks, by Violet Alford

About Stephen Rowley

Mummers-screenStephen Rowley founded the Mummers Symposium in 2011 – an annual meeting of mummers, folklorists and academic researchers from around the world.  He is also a musician and dancer, founder of the International Mummers Festival, the International Pipe and Tabor Festival, and The Taborers Society.  He has performed and taught widely in Europe, USA, Russia and Australia.  He has a particular interest in the festival procession dances of the Iberian peninsular and their music.

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