The founding National Association of Morris and Sword Dance Clubs

South Berkshire Morris Men Uncovered

South Berkshire Morris Men Uncovered

This “history” of the South Berkshire Morris Men resulted from researches into the origins of the Kennet Morris Men and their predecessors, The Wargrave Morris Men, for the recent revision of “The Kennet Morris Men – A Foolish History (also on Kennet’s web site”).
 
Searches of early Morris Ring log books had formed the basis of much of the information about Wargrave MM. It was from the account in the Morris Ring log book of the meeting Ring Meeting at Bedford 1950 attended by Wargrave I uncovered the first reference to the forgotten club, their admittance to the Morris ring and the presentation of their staff of affiliation. In my role as Website Editor of the Morris Ring I obviously turned to our online records – there was no mention of The South Berkshire Morris Men in any searches – even in the listing of side histories. Further scrutiny of the Ring’s log books recorded their attendance at Ring Meetings in Oxford 1951, Abingdon, 5th – 7th September, 1952, Tonbridge, 4th - 6th, September 1953, Salisbury 3rd - 5th September, 1954, Abingdon 14th- 16th September 1956 and Oxford, 3rd-5th September 1965, which Kennet also attended. The research began in earnest.

A search through Kennet’s scrapbooks revealed nothing more. Coincidentally Jameson Wooders had presented a Zoom Event on the subject of Morris in Berkshire, but it became clear that South Berkshire had not revealed themselves in his research which, to be fair, concentrated on the 18th century. Another blank, as had enquiries with Duncan Broomhead, the Ring’s photo archivist. Chris Wildridge, the Ring Archive Group Chairman located the only record on his data base - a letter to Wortley from John Gillett “Formation of South Berkshire Morris Men, (1950)”. This is in the Essex Record Office and we will have to await the end of lockdown before we know of its content.

Fortunately Dave Spiers, the archivist for the Abingdon Traditional Morris Men, had previously been extremely helpful in shedding much light on Wargrave’s activities as they shared a common driving force, their President and benefactor in Major Francis Fryer. Dave had pointed me at Abingdon’s online diaries, a marvellous resource covering 1919 to 1959, as well 21st century records. From that I found Wargrave had danced with South Berks, as they were known, in Reading on Wednesday 26th March 1952 –event unknown – just recording that they couldn’t make Abingdon’s practice. South Berks also joined Abingdon and The Beaux of London City at an EFDSS summer festival at Windsor on May 24th of that year. The following year they were invited to the Abingdon Coronation celebration in June 1953 (along with OUMM, Bampton and 2 boys teams) and later that month to Abingdon’s Mayor Making. Their last recorded appearance with Abingdon was at the 1954 Windsor EFDSS gathering. This also recorded the name of South Berkshire’s bagman – Rupert Tofield.

I returned to Kennet’s records, enrolling the assistance of Ray Annetts, a Kennet founder member dancer and now musician, who also plays for Mr Hemming‘s Traditional Abingdon Morris Dancers. He is the son of Reggie Annetts, a founder member of Wargrave MM and Major Fryers “man”. Ray lived with his father at Wargrave Hall, Major Fryers home and the HQ of Wargrave Morris (and the location for the 1936 September Ring Meeting). Ray knew of South Berkshire MM and believes they were the part of the folk community left in Newbury in which Major Fryer played a key part before he moved to Wargrave.

A further search of Kennet’s bagman records discovered a couple of Berkshire District EFDSS programmes revealing that South Berkshire Morris Men met alternate Wednesdays & Fridays at Band Room Newbury 1961 and Shaw Social Club Newbury from 1962, again naming the Bagman as Rupert Tofield. The EFDSS also organised annual Whitsun tours for local sides and I uncovered Kennet archive picture of the 1965 tour which clearly shows a South Berks man dancing with Kennet.

1965 W

EFDSS Whitsun Tour - The Bell, Waltham St Lawrence

Delving deeper, I found a programme for an Oxford University Morris Men’s Day of Dance for the 19th June 1965. Bruce Tofield was the OUMM Squire and Rupert Tofield again was the South Berks Bagman, who toured that day with Kennet and Whitchurch MM, surely not a coincidence. I had been unable to find any internet record of Rupert, but Dr Bruce Tofield had published many learned papers on the chemistry of materials in a distinguished career at Oxford but was now associated with The University of East Anglia. They, helpfully, had a message board where I was able to leave an explanation of my findings – and hoping it would find him. No sooner than I had pressed send than this email arrived from Dave Spiers:

Hello again Peter.
Probably the last living link to the South Berks men is my friend Bruce Tofield who danced with them as a boy, along with this father Alec (a stalwart of Berks EFDSS) and his uncle Rupert. Bruce also danced with Abingdon from the mid 60s to the late 70s and is like me a past squire of Oxford University Morris Men in the very distant past. After our recent emails about South Berks I contacted him and it is OK if you want to contact him directly about their history.

Serendipity at work!

Bruce had replied to him and subsequent contacts between us have fleshed out much more of the side’s origins, including the fact that two of Kennet’s founder members Bobby “Billy” Burns – our first Squire and Foreman, and Paddy O’Neill our first Bagman, had danced with the team. More importantly, Bruce had first-hand knowledge. He had danced with South Berks as had his father, Alec, and his Uncle Rupert, the name I had as their Bagman – and before he could dance was inserted in a hobby horse for the amusement of the crowds.

He recalled “We danced at May Morning in 1966 (at least Dad, Rupert and me - can't recall if others were there) and the last ever event was at a fete at Hermitage in 1966. I remember that because it was the day of the world cup final which I had to miss because of this wretched morris event.”

Bruce also has lasting memories that they met for practice in the Sun Inn in Cheap Street, Newbury (sadly now demolished) as in those days under-18s were strictly forbidden from entering pub bars. He has made up for that since.

Further contributions by Bruce include pictures of one of the South Berks baldricks and the collecting box made by his dad. He was a patternmaker by trade and an exceptional craftsman in wood and Bruce guesses he made this in the 1950s some time.

We were now able to capture the names of many of the dancers, with Bruce’s recollections and Dave’s further discovery that The South Berks team that attended the September 1951 Ring Meeting in Oxford were: T. Morton, M. Willoughby, C(?) Bowden, John Gillett (bagman), N. Godari(? Godon?), D. Slade, H.R. Tofield (Rupert), A. Tofield (Alec), plus a fiddler called Preston. The ?s indicated that their signatures were not that clear. He has the original bagman's notebook for that event and each man had to sign it.

So a fine collaboration resulting in something of the past of this Morris Ring side. And if you’re thinking “Why South Berks if they’re based in Newbury?”, you have to remember the Boundaries Commission removed the 'leg' from the Berkshire boot in 1974 and with it annexed the Berkshire Downs, Wantage, Didcot, Faringdon, Wallingford, Abingdon and the Vale of the White Horse (which provided the county's emblem), allocating them into Oxfordshire. They have not been forgiven.

 

 

The South Berkshire Morris Men 1950 - 1966

First Name

Initials

Surname

Position

Known Year

Bobby (Billy)

R

Burns

Dancer/Musician

1950

Benny

B

Bushnell

Dancer

1950

Billy

W

Bushnell

Dancer

 

Barry

B

Ford

Dancer

 

Eric

E

Ford

Dancer

 

John

 

Gillet

Dancer/Bagman

1951

 

N

Godari (Godon?)

Dancer

1950

Tom

T

Morton

Dancer/Squire

1950

Paddy

P

O'Neill

Dancer (occasional)

 
   

Preston

Fiddler

1950

 

D

Slade

Dancer

1950

Alec

A B

Tofield

Dancer

1950

Rupert

R B

Tofield

Bagman

1950

Bruce

B C

Tofield

Dancer

1954

 

M

Willoughby

Dancer

1950

 

Alec Tofield (centre) dancing with Oxford University MM in the 1970s
(photo from his son, Bruce Tofield, dancing #3 next to him!)

The Morris Ring’s online Side’s Histories has now been updated and the entry linked to this article for posterity.

If there's anyone out there who can add to the story we'd love to learn more. You can contact me at the usual address webeditor [at] themorrisring [dot] org (subject: South%20Berkshire%20Morris%20Men)

Peter de Courcy
ably assisted by Ray Annetts, Dave Spiers, and Bruce Tofield.