The catalyst: Headington Quarry Morris Re-started

By the end of the nineteenth century so much had been lost that a few collectors were inspired to save what they could before it was too late. Amongst these collectors, Percy Manning and Thomas Carter from Oxford, persuaded some members of the old Headington dancers to start dancing again. The result was a public performance of the Morris on the 15th March 1899 at the Oxford Corn Exchange. All of this revived the dancers enthusiasm, especially since they could earn some money via their dancing. So it was that Cecil Sharp "chanced upon" the Headington Quarry side dancing in 1899 (in fact the visit had been arranged by his mother-in-law). This was a momentous occasion, both in changing the course of Sharp's life, and for English folk dance and especially the Morris.

A "Chance Encounter" ...

"Sharp and his family spent that Christmas (1899) with his wife's mother, who was then living at Sandfield Cottage, Headington, about a mile east of Oxford. On Boxing Day, as he was looking out of the window, upon the snow-covered drive, a strange procession appeared: eight men dressed in white, decorated with ribbons, with pads of small latten-bells strapped to their shins, carrying coloured sticks and white handerkerchiefs; accompanying them was a concertina-player and a man dressed as a 'Fool'. Six of the men formed up in front of the house in two lines of three; the concertina player struck up an invigorating tune, the like of which Sharp had never heard before; the men jumped high into the air, then danced with springs and capers, waving and swinging the handkerchiefs which they held, one in each hand, while the bells marked the rhythm of the step. The dance was the now well-known morris dance, 'Laudnum Bunches', a title which decidedly belies its character. Then, dropping their handerchiefs and each taking a stick, they went through the ritual of Bean Setting. This was followed by 'Constant Billy' (Cease your Funning' of the Beggar's Opera), 'Blue-eyed Stranger', and 'Rigs o' Marlow'. Sharp watched and listened spellbound. He felt that a new world of beauty had been revealed to him. He had not been well; his eyes had been giving him pain, and he was still wearing a shade over them, but all his ills were forgotten in his excitement. He plied the men eagerly with questions. They apologised for being out at Christmas; they knew that Whitsun was the proper time, but work was slack and they thought there would be no harm in earning an honest penny. The concertina-player was Mr William Kimber, junior, a young man of twenty-seven, whose fame as a dancer has now spread all over England. Sharp noted the five tunes from him next day, and later on many more." Cecil Sharp by A.H.Fox Strangeways, In collaboration with Maud Karpeles, Oxford University Press, London 1933. 

Cecil Sharp was born on St Cecilia's Day, November 22nd 1859. He died on Midsummer's Eve, June 23rd, 1924. He started school in Brighton, then at 10 went to Uppingham where music-making and theatricals became a major interest. He entered Clare College Cambridge to read mathematics in 1879, however music was a greater interest. After Cambridge his father suggested he go to Australia to seek his fortune. He arrived in Adelaide, where his first job was washing hansom-cabs, then as a bank clerk. He also taught violin, and continued with his amateur musical interests, for which he became well known in Adelaide. From the bank he moved to a legal firm. However he resigned this job, and started on a full-time musical career, as an organist, pianist, conductor and then as a teacher at Adelaide College of Music. He returned to England in 1892, taking various musical jobs as a conductor and teacher. He was appointed music-master at Ludgrove, a preparatory school for Eton. Sharp married Constance Dorothea Birch at Clevedon on August 22nd 1893. They had four children, Dorothea, Charles, Joan (listen to samples of Joan playing pipe and tabor) and Susannah.

Sharp was attracted to folk music by the encounter with Headington, initially he turned to folk songs collected by others, such as in Chappell's Popular Music of the Olden Time, for his school teaching, but realised the huge difference between the book versions and the transcriptions of the recent collectors such as Lucy Broadwood. He teamed up with Charles Marson, a drinking companion and friend from his Adelaide days, now a curate at Hambridge in Somerset. This led to the three volume Folk-Songs from Somerset, with Marson. As Laudnum Bunches had been Sharp's introduction to the Morris, so The Seeds of Love, sung by Marson's gardener, John England, introduced folk song.

From this encounter Sharp became the most enthusiastic of the Morris collectors, travelling the length and breadth of England in search of the dances and their associated tunes. Particularly before the Great War, Sharp cycled and walked many miles, collecting folk songs and morris, sword and country dances. Other parts of The Morris Book were published, with Part 5 in 1914, in association with George Butterworth. As a result of these labours he also published The Sword Dances of Northern England (1913), 3 parts, and The Country Dance Book, (1909), 6 parts. A number of morris and sword teams started up, notably Thaxted Morris Men in 1911.

The story continues when a request came to Sharp for songs suitable for a club of working girls - the Esperance Club in Cumberland Market, St Pancras. It was under the care of Mary Neal, with Herbert MacIlwaine as choir master; the girls amusements were singing and dancing. The folk songs that Mary Neal obtained from Sharp and introduced to the Esperance girls were such a success that she determined to discover dances to go with them. Sharp told her of the morris dances and of William Kimber, whom she went to Oxford to interview, but in vain. She wrote instead and eventually terms were agreed and Kimber and his cousin Richard cam to London to teach the girls. This led to a public performance in Small Queen's Hall of folk songs, dances and singing games. In July 1907 Sharp published, in collaboration with Herbert MacIlwaine, The Morris Book, Part 1, the accompanying music was in two sets with pianoforte arrangements by Sharp. In the first edition of The Morris Book the notation was based partly on the dancing of the Esperance Club girls, in the second edition (1912), the dances were noted directly from Kimber and other traditional dancers. In 1910 Mary Neal published her Esperance Morris Book, and the Esperance Morris Guild was formed, lasting until 1914 when it lapsed. In 1911 The English Folk Dance Society was formed, among the names on the first committee were Lady Gomme, Dr R. Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth.


See also:

Cecil Sharp and the Quest for Folk Song and Dance a new biography of Cecil Sharp, written by David Sutcliffe
Cecil Sharp and English Folk Song and Dance before 1915 by Derek Schofield (Country Dance and Song Society online April 2016)
Cecil Sharp and the Morris Men by Colin Irwin (Number 1 in the Guardian's  series of the 50 key events in the history of world and folk music June 2011)