The Morris Dance Revival & The Morris Ring
By the end of the nineteenth century morris dancing was almost extinct, with a mere handful of dance sides still active. However the Victorian interest in folklore encouraged a number of folk music and dance collectors to seek out the remaining dancers and to try to record and revive the dances. This was the situation when Cecil Sharp chanced upon the Headington Quarry Morris dancers on Boxing Day 1899. The result was a revival of Cotswold Morris Dancing in England at the turn of the century, only to be savagely interrupted by the 1914/18 war. Many of the revival dancers lost their lives in this war, but enthusiasm and interest was not quenched and interest spread again through society in the late 1920's. A number of revival Morris clubs came into being to support the few traditional teams still dancing. In particular, see Roy Judge, Ian Hall and Gerard Robinson's 'The Ancient Men, the OUMM and Its Background' for a description of the period from around 1900 to 1930.
Then in 1934 the Cambridge Morris Men invited five other teams to join them in the formation of a national organisation, the result was that five of the revival clubs - Cambridge, Letchworth, Thaxted, East Surrey and Greensleeves - met at Thaxted in Essex on the 11th May that year to inaugurate The Morris Ring. Cambridge Morris Men describe the start of Morris in Cambridge during the winter of 1911/12 in the 1949 booklet 50 Years of Morris Dancing. Oxford were not at Thaxted, however they sent their apologies and were there in spirit, and agreed with the suggested constitution for the Ring.
Helmond Morris was the first group to start outside of the UK - in 1935. They even danced during the dark years of World War II!
The proceedings of the Inaugural Meeting of the Morris Ring at Cecil Sharp House on 20th October 1934 was described by Walter Abson in the "First Log Book":
... to the tune of the Morris Call the men assembled in the Main Hall, one representative from each club occupying a seat in an inner ring of chairs, the dancers sitting in large rings outside. The following clubs were represented: Cambridge, Chelmsford, Clifton, Lads of Southwark, Letchworth, Liverpool, Greensleeves, Bovington, Oxford, St Albans, East Surrey, Thaxted and Wargrave, and Mr William Kimber of Headington was present as a guest of the Ring.
Alec Hunter was elected as the first Squire of the Morris Ring and Walter Abson was elected as the first Bagman to the Morris Ring at the Inaugural Meeting in Cecil Sharp House. Alec was Squire from 1934 until 1936, being suceeded by Kenworthy Schofield, but Walter served from 1934 until 1946, announcing that he wished to retire at the 20th meeting in 1946, he was succeeded by Robert Ross. Walter died on 27th February 2005 at the grand age of 94. The picture shows Walter and Matthew Culf of Dartington Morris Men at the Morris Ring ARM in 2001. On March 28th the Times carried an obituary to Walter with the heading "Bagman of the Morris Ring who helped to revive the dance, having been elected while asleep". There is an explanation in Walter's "First Log Book" (by Arthur Peck in 1966) which also relates to the start of the Morris Ring:
"... the first occasion on which the name "The Morris Ring" was heard spoken - November 2nd 1933 in Joseph Needham's rooms in Gonville and Caius College.
The following April the Squire [of C.M.M. - Cambridge Morris Men] had arranged to have a week's dancing at Ringstead Mill, near Hunstanton, in Norfolk. This was an old windmill, which had been converted into a house, and at that time belonged to Professor Francis Cornford. If you haven't heard of him, you may have heard of his wife, Frances Cornford, the poet. Fourteen men in all took part, and Kenworthy [Schofield] took in hand the whole of the instruction, Stilton cheese was one of the main foods of the men during that week, and the consumption of alcohol was at a minimum, owing to the distance of the mill from any alehouse. As a comment on the value of money, I may say that the inclusive cost to each man for the whole week was 22/0d, and then we had 12/0d. left over to be given to local charities. Of course we had a very efficient Bagman and Professor Cornford probably let us have the mill free-of-charge or for a very small fee. During this week discussions took place about the proposal for the Morris Ring, and it was decided the Ring should be instituted the following Saturday, at the Tenth Annual Feast of C.M.M."
A further note about Professor Cornford explains Walter's election:
"... It was during the Ringstead Mill week that Walter Abson, after an active day of dancing, unfortunately fell asleep for the short time during one of the many discussions about the proposed Morris Ring. When he awoke he discovered that there had been unanimous agreement amongst the men present that his name should be put forward for the position of the first Bagman of the Ring. He did not succeed in reversing this decision."
In 1935, the Earliest Morris Ring Directory listed fourteen clubs. Between 1935 and 1940 The Morris Ring held 18 more meetings:
- (2) Thaxted, 31stMay - 2ndJune; (3) Stow-on-the-Wold, 13th - 15thSept.
- (4) Cecil Sharp House, 1stFeb.; (5) Thaxted, 5th - 7thJune; (6) Wargrave, 4th - 6thSept.; (7) Grasmere, 18th - 20thSept.
- (8) Cecil Sharp House, 13thMar.; (9) Thaxted, w/e 5thJune; (10) Tideswell, w/e 12thJune; (11) Kettering, w/e 18thSept.
- (12) Cecil Sharp House, th Mar.12; (13) Thaxted, w/e 11thJune; (14) Stow-on-the-Wold, w/e 17thSept.;(15) Manchester, 29thOct.
- (16) Cecil Sharp House, 18thMar.; (17) Longridge, w/e 13thMay; (18) Thaxted, w/e 10thJune
- (19)Cecil Sharp House, 10thMar
After the 19th Meeting clubs found increasing difficulties in arranging a Ring meeting due to the 1939/45 war. A number of clubs, for example Oxford with their May Day celebrations, did manage some dancing during the war, but there were no Morris Ring Meetings. A 20th Ring Meeting was organised as soon as possible after the war at Cecil Sharp House (23rd March 1946). In the Appendices to "The First Log Book", Arthur Peck observed that by the time of the outbreak of war in 1939, over thirty clubs were associated with the Morris Ring, and that by 1966 there were over seventy.
On Friday 8th July 1955 at Cecil Sharp House, on behalf of the EFDSS, Ralph Vaughan Williams, the President, together with Douglas Kennedy, the Director, presented Donald Cassels, the then Squire of the Morris Ring, with a large hallmarked silver badge to be worn by the Squires Of The Morris Ring. It has been worn by all subsequent squires on official occasions - and some unofficial ones - ever since.
The Ring organisation, run by a Squire, Bagman and Treasurer, currently has some hundred and fifty Member and Associate teams, yet the clubs retain their independence and The Morris Ring is basically still the simple organisation set up by the men at Cambridge in 1934. There is an annual meeting at Thaxted on the weekend following the Spring Bank Holiday During the year other Morris Sides organise three or four other Morris Ring Meetings around the country; Ring Meetings have also been organised in Helmond and Utrecht (The Netherlands), in Silkeborg (Denmark) and as far away as Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne in Australia (you can see a list of our 300+ meetings, from 1934, here).
At our 2018 Annual Representatives Meeting in Cannock, we took a momentous decision to drop references to gender in our constitution with overwhelming support from our member teams. Membership is now open to any established Club or Team which meets regularly for Morris or Sword Dancing or Mumming, and "endeavours to uphold the standards and dignity of the Morris".
The chances are that you will see Morris dancers at local pubs in the summer, at school and village fêtes, in processions, on TV, visiting Folk Festivals in the UK and abroad, and even on trade show stands from the Bahamas to Japan! The Morris has evolved into a worldwide dance form with over a thousand sides of dancers participating.