The founding National Association of Morris and Sword Dance Clubs

From the Squire of the Morris Ring, Peter Simpson on the use of full face black makeup in morris

From the Squire of the Morris Ring, Peter Simpson on the use of full face black makeup in morris

From the Squire of the Morris Ring, Peter Simpson:

Greetings All,

The last few months have been ‘interesting’ to say the least. While we may not have been dancing there has been plenty going on. As you will have noticed one of these is the black face paint issue. So, how come we are where we are? I hope these messages answer a lot of your questions. I don’t expect they will answer all of them but please read them in full and take some time to consider what message I and the other officers are trying to convey.

As you know since Shrewsbury Folk Festival banned black faces 5 years ago, we have been working with clubs to help them deal with potential and actual accusations of racism. After the killing of George Floyd and the BLM movement hitting the headlines The Telegraph contacted the Morris Ring and the Morris Federation Fed asking where we stood on the Black face issue? I advocated a low key response along the lines of ‘this is an ongoing issue and we are working with the clubs concerned to find an acceptable way forward for all concerned, etc’. An emergency JMO committee meeting was requested and held. Obviously, the Organisations had all been talking beforehand. The Federation announced that they will bring a motion forward at their AGM in September to ban full black face paint within their Organisation. The Open Morris said they would do the same at their AGM in November. As our ARM is not until March this put the Morris Ring in a difficult position.

Given Covid19 an EGM is not feasible (I don’t know how the other Organisations are going to run their AGMs. Zoom does not seem a good option to me but that is their problem).

So, the choices we were left with were do nothing and have 30 clubs or so knocking on our door to join. The press would decry us as racists, whether it is true or not and they would not listen to our arguments. This has been seen elsewhere recently.

We could deny them membership until we could debate the matter at the ARM leaving us with 16 sides (yes, we have counted them) who use full black face paint some or all of the time. Would the media listen to our arguments? I think not. As we would be in the spotlight it would leave the officers and members of the side(s) vulnerable to prosecution under the Equalities Act 2010. None of the officers want that. Please remember that prosecution under the Equalities Act can occur where offence has been given, regardless of intent – we are sure none of our sides is intentionally racist.

It left us with choice 4 - what we are doing. It may not be the way I would have chosen to do things. It may not be ideal or the way the Morris Ring is used to working but I for one am not prepared to have a criminal record to argue the case for something that is not as traditional as people like to think. I have yet to see proof we could use as a defence in court about blacking up.

I feel I should point out that I do have a vested interest in the matter of Guising. I am a longstanding member of the Original Welsh Border Tour and have, as a result, danced out with a black face over the last 10 years or so. I have witnessed an argument in Birmingham that ended up being reported to the Police as dancers felt so threatened. I have tried on several occasions to explain to members of the audience it is a traditional disguise only to be met with the reply ‘well I don’t care I find it offensive and I think you should change’. I accept no one blacks up to be racist or cause offence but the fact is blacking up DOES CAUSE OFFENCE and is therefore UNDIGNIFIED. I don’t Morris Dance to cause offence. Do you? I have yet to meet anyone who would say yes to that question.

I will agree it is an unfortunate situation based on misunderstanding but it is an argument with the world outside Morris we will not win. The Morris Ring does not live in a vacuum and sometimes has to react to outside forces. Strong and prompt action is required and this is what we are hopefully providing. Such action will always upset some but the Officers of The Morris Ring feel it is necessary.

To clarify some rumours that have crept in from somewhere:

We have no plans to change the constitution. If we do, we will follow the constitution.

We have never said it will not be debated at the ARM. While it will not be up to me to make sure it is, I expect it will be.

We have never said we have plans to expel any clubs.

We are working with clubs that black up and who want to work with us. If you are an affected club, have not heard from us and want to talk to us please contact us. Sometimes we do have problems contacting clubs despite everything.

I am sure many of you are still not be happy about aspects of the actions we have taken but I hope you have a better understanding of why we have.

Stay safe. Stay well.

Pete Simpson.

Squire of the Morris Ring.

From the Bagman of the Morris Ring, Jon Melville:

Considerations on the use of full face black makeup in morris

It is acknowledged that no side is intentionally racist in its intentions and is following what is believed to be a long tradition of disguise.

However, the Equality Act of 2010 extended equality legislation to voluntary groups including Morris and has provisions regarding ‘harassment’. A short guide produced by the Citizens Advice Bureau on this link gives a simple overview of how this works.

Good intentions are not a defence in themselves to Harassment, only if it was objectively reasonable for someone to act in that way in the circumstances.

In 2015, there was an issue with a side using black face paint at Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Potential legal action against the side, the Festival itself and the Morris Federation to whom the side belonged was threatened. The side in question changed their kit and the action did not proceed. However it has been clear since then that it was only a matter of time before a challenge was brought to court.

Legal advice was obtained by the Morris Federation following this event and shared with the Morris Ring and Open Morris. A ‘spectrum of risk’ was identified where a challenge would become more likely, and more likely to succeed, the less a side addressed the issue (the Morris Federation guidance to its membership is included as Appendix A below).

The recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought this matter to a head and led to three factors which precipitated action on the part of the Morris Ring:

  1. All people have become significantly more aware of racial issues and more prone to take offense, whether on their own behalf or on behalf of others. There is a much higher risk now on the spectrum the legal advice identified that a side using full-face black makeup would be accused of racial harassment, potentially as soon as performance recommences.
  2. Violent protest at some BLM events by both pro and anti protestors means the safety of all morris teams or the public at such an event cannot be guaranteed.
  3. The use of images and descriptions of morris to support the aims of far-right action groups, some of which are openly racist. This politicises the morris (and the Ring is apolitical) and aligns morris inappropriately with a movement which is considered offensive by many. That accelerates the likelihood of a legal challenge and adds weight to an argument of racial harassment.

The 3 Morris Organisations met and decided to take action against this backdrop.

In the case of the Morris Ring the following steps have been taken:

  • No new sides will be admitted to Associate or Joint Membership if they use black full-face makeup, as set out in Clause 8 of the Constitution: “Admission of a Club into Membership of the Morris Ring shall, after recommendation by the Officers, be effected by a majority of votes cast at the annual Meeting of Club Representatives.”  This is to prevent sides who may leave the Morris Federation or Open Morris following their AGMs joining the Morris Ring before our ARM.
  • Full membership applications are dealt with at the ARM, as Clause 8 above.  The Officers’ recommendation would be strongly against approval and applying sides will be notified of this.
  • A further consultation process has been initiated with affected member sides to encourage them to make sufficient changes to their makeup to avoid allegations of racial harassment.
  • Such further steps as may be required will be notified to the membership in time for the ARM.

Sides using black face paint have been members of the Morris Ring for many years and have been advised by successive Squires that these issues are real and a danger to them.  Also they have been advised that Public Liability insurance does not offer protection against such legal action and neither can the Morris Ring.

Arguments over the use and history of black face paint have now become political in a wider sense and that issue cannot be resolved within the Morris Ring.  Sides wishing to fight arguments about culture and tradition, or whether people should be offended or not, should do so elsewhere.

The Morris Ring Officers make no judgement on the moral rights or wrongs of using black face makeup in Morris.

However the risk of legal action and reputational damage to the Morris Ring, violence associated with protest, and the political nature of the issue taking it beyond the Morris Ring’s remit mean steps must now be taken.

 Appendix B contains a list of suggested reading material which is sufficiently robust in the legal sense to facilitate a defence to a charge of racial harassment. Please read this, it may change your opinion of how defensible the practice of black face paint may be.

In addition to the matters mentioned, initial indications were given by the JMO insurance advisor on the impact of these matters on Public Liability insurance cover. As was said in our statements to members in October 2019 and July 2020, further advice has been sought from the JMO Insurance advisor regarding the impact of these issues on our Public Liability cover. His advice is included as Appendix C. This advice is negative both for the sides themselves and sides hosting them who will need to mitigate their risks as event organisers.


There is a considerable likelihood that a team using full-face black makeup will face a charge of racial harassment in the near future. In addition there may be an immediate and unpredictable physical threat to the safety of morris dancers and the public at events.

We have been advised of an impact on the availability and affordability of Public Liability Insurance.

Action for racial harassment against a member side will impact on the Morris Ring and the standing of Morris as a whole, regardless of the outcome.


The Morris Federation and Open Morris are due to hold their AGMs in September and November respectively. At both meetings motions are proposed to ban the use of black face paint within their memberships. Those debates and the issues they may raise will need to be understood and evaluated before a clear path can be proposed for the Morris Ring.

Clearly becoming the only national Morris organisation that has member sides using black face paint may place the Morris Ring in an invidious position given the issues mentioned above.

Equally the possibility of sides dancing out before March may occur, subject to Government guidance on Covid19 which will better inform our understanding.

However sides who do not wish to change their approach to black face paint must appreciate that a renewal of membership later this year is done in the knowledge that this will be an active matter at the ARM. Similar motions to those to be debated at the Federation and Open AGMs about excluding sides from membership are possible.

Jon Melville

Bagman of the Morris Ring

Appendix A

Guidance issued to membership of the Morris Federation based on their legal advice, September 2016

Guidelines to teams using face paint as a disguise

The practice of ‘blacking up’ by morris dancers is traditional by way of disguise to prevent being recognised when asking for money. Many teams nowadays choose to use colours other than black, but the underlying tradition remains the same.

However, in the modern age we should be aware of the impact of such disguise on our audiences.

The Law

The Equality Act 2010 sets out protected characteristics and categories of conduct which are prohibited when directed at, or related to, protected characteristics. These include harassment as defined in Section 26 of the Act:

[1] A person (A) harasses another (B) if –

(a) A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and

(b) the conduct had the purpose or effect of –

i. violating (B)’s dignity, or

ii. creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for (B).

[4] In deciding whether conduct has the effect referred to in subsection [1](b), each of the following must be taken into account –

(a) the perception of (B);

(b) the other circumstances of the case;

(c) whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect

[5] The relevant protected characteristics are –

• age;

• disability;

• gender reassignment;

• race;

• religion or belief;

• sex;

• sexual orientation.

Please note that there is no need for a complainant to prove intent, nor to show that they were targeted. It is sufficient that the actions complained of took place and that the complainant can show they had the effects listed above.

Our Aim

To minimise the risk of having a claim made against a team, or individual, by a person, or organisation under the Equality Act 2010.

Reputationally, it is preferable that a claim be avoided rather than successfully defended. The Morris Federation would not wish member teams to be associated with the negative image and publicity that would inevitably follow, or to go through the inconvenience of facing a court case with the attendant risk of possibly large – and perhaps uninsurable – monetary damages.

The Risk

There is a ‘spectrum of risk’, defined at one end by sides using full black colour make up and at the other by sides using no disguise at all. It is logical to assume that the further sides move away from full black makeup, the further sides move away from the suggestion that what they are doing when adopting a disguise is related to race.


As much as ‘blacking up’ is seen by many to be a traditional form of disguise, in the culturally diverse society in which we live, we should consider its appropriateness.

While disguise may be an integral part of many teams’ performances, there are alternatives to blacking up that can be just as effective.

We would ask teams that use black face paint to recognise the impact that their disguise may have on their audience, and to consider:

• using a different form of disguise;

• changing the colour of their face paint.


Having taken these guidelines into account, if a team subsequently continues to ‘black up’ they do so knowing:

• folk festivals may decide not to book them;

• they may not be invited to certain events; and

• they accept the risk of litigation.

Issued September 2016

Appendix B – documents in the public domain relating to the practice of full-face blacking

Black Faces, Garlands, and Coconuts: Exotic Dances on Street and Stage

 Author(s): Theresa Jill Buckland Source: Dance Research Journal , Autumn, 1990, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 1-12 Published by: Congress on Research in Dance

‘Blacking Up’: English Folk Traditions and Changing Perceptions about Black People in England

Submitted for the degree of Master of Philosophy by Patricia Bater

National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, March 2013


Appendix C – advice to the JMO from their Insurance Officer, Michael Stimpson

Black Face Morris Sides.

I refer to the question of insurance cover for Sides who use Black or Skin tone full face make up where they are covered for Public Liability Insurance under the JMO Policy.

Such face coverings by both Border, Molly and other Morris and allied Sides has been part of the Morris Tradition since the time of Henry the VIII as a disguise and the easy answer was to turn your jacket inside out and black your face with burnt cork or mud so that you would not be recognised by those you were collecting from.

The use of these face coverings is not intended to be racist when used by such Sides in the modern day and is simply carrying on a Tradition which is centuries old.

However, in the present times, it would be prudent for Sides to either alter face covering to more than one colour or not use it at all as this might be mis-understood and result in problems both for the Sides themselves and others when dancing out.

The JMO Public Liability policy wording itself does not give any guidance in this respect. It is a general Policy wording used to cover many situations.

Any Insurer would, however, expect any Insured body or person to act at all times in a prudent manner and thus, if it was felt that a Side had disregarded advice regarding the use of a full black or Skin tone face make up and this, in turn, resulted in a situation where a third party claim was made against the Side, Insurers COULD avoid a claim.  This would be the case under any Public liability insurance policy.

So, my thought would be that a Side who use Black or Skin tone full face make up under present conditions could find themselves in a position of having a claim declined or that the future of the policy itself could be put into jeopardy.

Michael Stimpson

JMO Insurance Officer