The early days
The Gloucestershire Morris Men were formed in the early part of last century reviving the Morris traditions that were seen to be fading in the villages of the Cotswolds. The exact year of formation has always been a mystery, however, through recent research the following account vividly depicts those early years.
Thanks to the resurgence of interest in traditional dancing caused by the activities of the folk dance and music collectors Cecil Sharp, Percy Granger, Vaughan-Williams and others in the early years of the 20th century, by the mid to late 1920s folk dance was still quite highly regarded by the intelligentsia and it was considered to be a perfectly respectable pastime.
Jim Jefferies came from a musical family and he and his sister were quite interested in country dancing. His earliest recollection of getting involved in folk was when his sister persuaded him one day in 1928 to play the fiddle for the local country dance team who used to meet at the Bayshill Unitarian Chapel in Cheltenham. In those days the country dance team was interested not only in country dancing but in morris and sword dancing too. Jim had a photograph, taken some years later, of six men and women, the men dressed in baldrics morris style, with their teachers Miss Hancock and Miss Pat Hitch, whose mother played the piano for the dancing. Many of the dancers in the Bayshill Social Club also danced with the Cheltenham Country Dance Club, which was affiliated to the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Jim remembered that Miss Audrey Armstrong (who later became the EFDSS Gloucestershire District Secretary) taught them morris.
The District minutes of the 1930s often refer to the annual Country Dance Festival held at Bathurst Park, Cirencester, mentioning that The Morris Men would be dancing.
At what point the name Cheltenham Morris Men came into existence is uncertain, but the First Log Book of the Bagman of the Morris Ring records that the Cheltenham Morris Men were formally presented with their stave (i.e., they were admitted to the Ring) at the12th Meeting of the Morris Ring, held at Cecil Sharp House in London on Saturday 12th March 1938.
We also know that they attended a ring meeting in 1938 at the Unicorn Hotel in Stow-on-the-Wold, where 75 men were present for the Saturday evening feast. The Ring Bagman’s spirits were drooping, as this was 25 more men than he had been led to believe would be eating. It is noted in the Log Book that …the feast was not the gastronomic success that had been hoped for, but after a good deal of preliminary chaos, food was at last procured and in a series of relays the Feast reached a conclusion.
There were other dance sides in the local area before the war, one in Sapperton and one in Dursley. One of the leading lights associated with these sides was Alf Cobb who was an excellent dancer and an excellent fiddler, although it was said that he played too fast; and who played on occasions for the Cheltenham Men and also for the newly named Gloucestershire Men just after the war.
Alf was also renowned for playing the saw – an ordinary woodsaw which he played with a violin bow, obtaining different notes according to how much he flexed the saw. He had won or Dursley had won many competitions. The festivals at the time were very competitive, and Gerry Phelps won certificates for dancing morris jigs in 1939 or 1940. One of the other Dursley Men was Eric White who taught them morris and was an excellent dancer, being renowned for his Ladies Pleasure jig. He also danced with the Cheltenham Men. The Dursley Men, besides doing morris, also did a mummers play called Rags and Tatters.
The post-war years and first performances as Gloucestershire Morris Men
To be continued…
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