Compiled by Vince Rutland, mostly from Phil Heaton’s notes and book “Rapper” and the accompanying CD from Chris Metherell, John Asher’s website http://www.rapper.org.uk/ and from George Wallace’s book
“Fit to jump ower the moon”
Origins: Rapper (or should that be “wrapper” with a “w”?) sword dancing has its origins in a much older form of sword dancing – these are recorded in places such as Rothbury and Hexham in Northumberland, and Haswell and Penshaw in Co. Durham. In Nothumberland and Durham, these were known as “feulploughs”, “full ploughs” or sometimes the “white plough”, in the same way as the Plough Stots continue in Goathland today. Some used wooden swords, others real ones. The first written record of a sword dance, by John Wallis, is in Tynedale in 1769. Born in 1714, Wallis had obviously seen much sword dancing before he wrote about it. In 1777, another writer refers to swords linked hand-to-hand. By the early 1800s, however, these were coming to an end as the pits were being dug and a workforce arriving from everywhere across the country.
But whilst these old traditions hailed mainly from rural locations where there were few towns, just large villages, rapper sword dancing is linked almost exclusively with pitmen and the industrial setting of pit heads, towns and single-row villages.
A century or more ago, many people in this part of the world would expect the sword dancers at Christmas as a commonplace event. Many dancers would have been part-time farm, field and allotment workers whilst a lot of the pits laid off workers during the deep winter, when the collier ships couldn’t get out of the small harbours to take their coal to London, mainly.
Although some danced throughout the year, every team would be out every weekend during the 10-week period around Christmas and New Year. Many would have a special day which they never missed – such as Christmas Eve for Earsdon, or Christmas Day for Murton and Winlaton. Beadnell was unusual in dancing on NewYear’s Day. At this time, they would dance round the streets and pubs to collect money, in a similar way to how the older longsword dancers did from house to house with the plough, with the children waiting excitedly for the dancers and the Betty’s invasion of their house.
A day of dancing round the houses would be followed by an evening dancing round the pubs and downing a good quantity of beer. If the pit was laid idle, the dancers would visit the towns to collect. They would also collect for charity, particularly if there had been an accident in the pit. In the 1920s depression, they often collected in aid of the soup kitchens.
What they wore: The old rural dances shared something with the newer rapper dances – shirts decorated with coloured ribbons, both as rosettes and free-flowing, were a prominent feature of their costume and continued in rapper until the early C20th.
Knee-length breeches were normally open at knee and known as hoggers. Typical pitmen’s clothing, they were ideal for kneeling to hew coal. In the mid-C19th, hogger suits derived from Sunday best clothing was popular, often made of velvet, with gold or other colour strips down the sides. By the early C20th breeches buttoned below the knees were equally popular with dancers and some teams adopted full-length trousers as breeches fell from fashion. Some dancers just wore ordinary clothes with a few ribbons etc.
In the 1850s one team was recorded performing in fairgrounds wearing cheap coloured calico and tinsel with faces daubed in paint, although this does not seem to have been typical.
In some places, such as South Shields in the 1860s, a more military style included a hat, also seen at Houghton Colliery in Co. Durham. So were these rapper dances where they took their hats off to perform (Throckley, sponsored by Spencers steel works at Newburn, are said to have worn their caps), or a transition from an earlier tradition? There is a theory that C18th and C19th local Militias used the sword dance as a recruiting attraction and introduced uniforms and ‘swords’.
Stockings were white or coloured, or dark blue pit socks. The Beadnell team, unusual in many ways, wore fishermen’s ganseys with a ribbon sash diagonally across one shoulder. Coloured shirts – as at Throckley – were also used.
Footwear varied from clogs – iron-shod for outdoor use – to boots or shoes. An early photo of Westerhope shows the dancers wearing a mixture of shoes and boots, while a later team there had wooden-soled brogues for stage dancing. Some frowned on Lemington were for having taps on their shoes and even patent leather pumps with cymbals in the instep! Little wonder Kenworthy Schofield of the EFDSS disqualified them from a competition in 1929!
Characters: Usually known as Tommy and Betty (or reported by the London newspapers as Bessie), these had one reason – to make people laugh so they gave money. Tommies in particular could be very vulgar.
Records exist of Tommies wearing fox skin on the head, or occasionally ox hide. References to the Betty begin later than those for the Tommy and the dress was exaggerated – for example, huge crinolines and sometimes a painted face.
Some teams had two Betties to collect more cash and they would often go inside people’s houses to collect. There are even a few references to a Betty with a gun who would shoot into the air just as the dance was finishing … perhaps a little reminder to dig deep?
Music: The fiddle ruled supreme in the earliest years but, by the late C19th, there are records of piccolo, flute, penny whistle, accordion, melodeon, mouth organ and concertina being used. Rarely were Northumbrian pipes used, although a C19th team in Washington, who were Scotsmen brought in to work the North Biddick pit, used Highland pipes.
The earliest tune noted as being used for sword dancing, on Wearside in the early C19th, was called “Kitty Bo-Bo” and was in a very quick ¾ time. Jigs became increasingly popular after the influx of Irish music in the 1880s, especially through Kerr’s music books, with Tenpenny Bit, Rollicking Irishman, Blackthorn Stick and Irish Washerwife (woman?) all used, as well as Oyster Girl and Keel Row, which can be played as jigs. Hornpipes were popular with some teams, such as Amble, who favoured the High Level Hornpipe.
Today, jigs are more or less universal, although High Spen switch to marches for trotting figures.
Calling on songs: These varied but sometimes used the same tune, called the Green Mossy Banks of the Lea. The first version was published in 1815 on Wearside and included a short play in which a dancer was killed and brought back to life by a doctor, similar to a local guisers play (Spen still tie the lock around the Betty and this was featured in at least four dances, including Westerhope and Murton – the latter flicking the Tommy’s hat off).
The most commonly used song today originates in Earsdon and was reputedly written by a personage of high status from Alnwick Castle, where Earsdon performed annually at a very high society event. A similar song, describing contemporary or recent British heroes, can be found at both Winlaton and High Spen. Earsdon had an earlier calling on song very similar to the Yorkshire longsword dances and which was probably another throwback to the rural dance but High Spen have different words and nowadays just speak them. Several verses often introduced a character, represented by each dancer in turn. Some teams began dropping some or all of the verses in the early C20th.
A calling on song from Shilbottle, near Alnwick, has completely different words and was sung to the “Keel Row”. Many teams, such as Whorlton, invented and sang their own songs. An intriguing one from an Earsdon or Holywell team began: “Noo we’ve just lyukedin, promiscuous like te gie ye a bit uv a dance…” (“Now we’ve just looked in, promiscuous like, to give you a bit of a dance…”)
Figures: More commonly known in Murton as “knots”, different teams often called the same figures by different names – for example Curlys, Scringes or 2s & 3s, likewise Single Guard or One-Turn-Off. Jigging knots involve some dancers stopping to perform stepping – sometimes of clog dance origin, while there were lines, jumps and “coups” (tumbles). There were few exceptions to the rule that dancers never let go of the swords – the Murton tumble requires this, as did that at Bedlington.
There were also display figures, in which the swords are tied in front of the dancers, such as Choker breastplate and the Spen and Earsdon figure Bulldog.
Teams dancing around the streets would often dance a few figures, then move off in a line, coach and horses, or abreast, still linked by the swords – for example, at Amble. Indoors, in big houses or pubs, they might perform more figures than outdoors.
Stepping, or jigging: Unlike today, this varied greatly in style. There is no doubt that some was superb – the top steppers until the mid-C20th were the Earsdon dancers, who as long ago as the 1900s began the regulated stepping we use today.
Many dancers were also champion clog dancers (another popular miners’ pastime) – but some stepping was also probably poor, particularly if they only danced at Christmas. In the early days, there is an impression that they didn’t necessarily do the same thing as each other, so long as it all sounded the same but competitions will have played their part in improving stepping. In Murton, the dancers scraped the soles of their feet forward on the ground between the stepping, giving a continuing sound like a sand dance.
At Bedlington, where another line of clog champions danced rapper, the moving around the set was done at a run… tap left left, tap right right, tap teft teft, etc. At Newbiggin, they used to brag about the Threble steps and Earsdon always danced a mixture of Single and Double shuffles. High Spen of course had and still does its trade mark of a Roll and Stamp finish.
Swords: There are no real clues as to the origin of the swords, or of the name ‘rapper’, although there are plenty of theories.
Sharp described them as having wrapped ends and so that was what he called them and the name stuck. However at a contest in Sunderland in 1885, won by a team from Seaton Burn, a report stated, “the Swalwell set, who slipped two wrappers in the middle of the dance, were third”. Intriguingly, Swalwell were the first team Sharp saw, more than 20 years later.
The most commonly quoted theory links the swords with a similar looking implement used to clean race horses – and let’s not forget there were thousands and thousands of pit ponies working in the area’s collieries, the last four remaining at Ellington Colliery in Northumberland right up until 1994. But this tool was never seen in a pit and has never been called a rapper, although the Swalwell dancers used the word ‘rubber’ as an alternative name for swords. Is this a clue? We’ll never really know although, in all likelihood, it is not a real contender since the pit ponies underground were washed down and carefully tended and regulated to save their skins from being rasped by dry cloths, so a scraper was never used. The ponies were much more valuable than the pitmen or pony lads.
(Ladies, we strongly advise against letting Aubrey demonstrate the pit pony possibilities).
Most teams had their swords made locally, sometimes in the pit workshops, and they often varied in width. Materials used included old saw blades and bed lats. The Beadnell swords were made of barrel hoop iron with fixed wooden handles at each end. Earsdon’s blades, on the other hand, came from Birmingham. Many were thick and didn’t bend a great deal – just enough to make the lock. Usually about 20” in length, they were shortened as the blades broke and were repaired. The Amble team were known to mend them during dance trips by using clothes pegs! They often had a swivel handle at one end, but this was not essential. In the late C19th, Earsdon tried a swivel at both ends, but this didn’t find favour.
Throckley dancers used blades from Spencer’s Steel works at Newburn on the Tyne, which also made small steel tools and implements for the both the local shipyards and Armstrong’s weapon works at Scotswood. They also made tools for a branch of Tyzack’s who were based in Sunderland at one time. Crowley’s Steel works, where the first commercial spring steel was made, was on the opposite side of the river to Spencer’s in the River Derwent Valley and Winlaton, Swalwell and Blaydon expanded as Crowley’s cornered the market in specialist steels. Chris Cawte considered it likely that Crowley’s made the steel used for the first dedicated rappers.
Tyzack’s swords appeared around the second decade of the C20th, with superior sprung steel blades. They were used by existing and new teams alike. In all likelihood, spring steel such as this revolutionised the dance, allowing the development of much more adventurous figures.
It’s probable that some bright spark either worked with saws or bought pliable blades, which were sold ‘all along the riverside’, that he thought would make good dancing implements.
Competitions: If there was something the pitmen loved, it was a competition. They had them for just about everything from leek and onion growing to pigeon racing and clog dancing, so rapper dancing would be no different. When two sword teams met, a dance-off was not unusual. The other possibility was a fight.
As nearly all the local newspapers show, contests were common all over the North East and regularly attended by crowds of, mostly, men. Many of them were for dances of five figures.
Blyth, Sunderland, Houghton le Spring, Durham, Stanley and so on were venues. The Contests were held mainly in pubs and attracted such bylines as, “Tremendous and unparalleled Contest…100 men in full Sword Dancing Costume will compete for Stuart H. Bell’s prize of £10…”
The Blyth Weekly News, from Northumberland, gave accounts of a sword dance competition which took place at the town’s Theatre Royal on 16th January 1881. This provides us with a good picture of just how widespread rapper dancing was at the time, as no less than 14 teams took part, most of them otherwise unknown.
The first of these reports says: “A monster sword dancing competition took place at this place of amusement on Sunday night last and was perhaps the greatest affair of the kind that has ever taken place.
“The proprietor gave the munificent sum of £5 for first prize when no less than fourteen sets of dancers contended, namely:
The Wear Yule Dough Set
The Happy Lads of Hetton
The Lads that everybody likes, from Tyneside
The Excelsior Set, from Seaton Burn
Henderson Gibson’s Putter Set, Holywell
The Merry Lads, Choppington
Load’s Old Set, Scotland Gate
First Rose of Northumberland, Cramlington
The Funny Lads, Dudley
The Hastings Canny Lads, Hartley
Bob the Nailor’s Young Set, Cowpen Quay
Dudley Putters’ Set
East Holywell Putters
and first Northumberland.
Messrs. William Dixon, William Oliver, Henry Gillis, Robert Crammond,
Cambois, and Thomas Messer, Waterloo, officiated as judges. The sets balloted for turns.”
The report describes how the very large audience “seemed to enjoy immensely the old fashioned pastime” which, it claimed, went back as far back as the time of Edward III.
“The antics and grotesque figures of the Bettys and Tommys as they led their respective dancers on to the scene of action was highly amusing, and the performance of each set was very graceful as they whirled and eddied round each other.”
Each set paid 10s to enter, which was divided amongst the losers together with £1 to pay their expenses. But the judges found it so difficult to decide a winner, they eventually declared a tie between The Jolly Lads Set of Seghill and Load’s Old Set from Scotland Gate.
The tie-off took place two weeks later along with a performance of the drama “Maria Martin”, when Mr. Fynes announced from the stage that he would give another £4 prize open to all except the winners of the earlier prize. To end your suspense, the dance-off winners were The Jolly Lads Set.
It is interesting to see where these came from – Choppington, Seghill, Dudley, Cramlington, Scotland Gate and other places were in the locality of Blyth but Wearside is a considerable distance and Hetton is around 30 miles south. East Holywell may well have been another name for Earsdon, as that is where many Earsdon dancers worked after the closure of Earsdon Colliery in the 1830s. One thing all these places had in common, though, was coal mines.
Indeed, Richard Fynes, who owned the Theatre Royal, was known as a champion of the miners. Chris Cawte says he was author of “The Miners of Nothumberland and Durham”, published in 1873, which outlines the miners’ struggles with the coal owners with respect to the bond, fines, inaccurate corfs and other iniquities and lists the strikes and attempts to get a union going. It is no surprise that the dancing competition took place in his theatre.
In March 1882, a contest In Backworth, near Earsdon, had these teams: Black and Red, Annfield Plain from Co. Durham; Hastings Warriors, Hartley; Nonpareil, Holywell. And three teams from Seghill – Claggers, Renforth and Slow Travellers.
A contest in Sunderland in 1888 had Merry Sprites of Hetton (Co. Durham); Lively Lads of Seghill; Lambton Heroes (Co. D); First Rose of Cramlington Set; Durham set of Jesters; Hebburn set of Jolly Warriors (Co. D); Merry Sons of Northumberland; Seghill Excelsior Set; Tyneside True Blues of Swalwell (Co. D); Hasten Wanderers; and Pity Me Rangers (Co.D).
Around the turn of the C19/20th, some competitions took place alongside clog contests, with one in Northumberland stipulating the performance of five knots, or figures. Other teams competed in wider Go as You Please talent contests, against all sorts of other entertainers. The North of England Musical Tournament in Newcastle began in 1919, helped along by the EFDS, and included sword dance as well as Cotswold, country dance and other classes. Entries in the first year were two, with one the following year, then four in 1921. By 1923, 11 teams had entered in four classes.
After Winlaton White Stars on the trophy outright in 1924, a new trophy was presented and the event was healthy until the war, with up to 20 entries, and including women’s classes but it last took place in 1954. There were other formal competitions in Hexham, Chester-le-Street and Durham, with Darlington being the last to disappear in the 1990s. DERT, NERC and even DART are the direct descendents of all of these.
Swalwell: Swalwell is next to what is today the Metro Centre but the rapper team was known to have existed here since around 1850. The first reference to a team from here is in a competition at Sunderland in 1888 when a team called Tyneside True Blues from Swalwell entered.
At Swalwell, in 1910, Cecil Sharp collected the first rapper sword dance to appear in his Sword Dance books. He found swords of “finely tempered steel as flexible as a harlequin’s wand” and quite wide – 1¾ inches, although because of breakages they varied in length up to about 22 inches. They had short pieces of wood tied onto the fixed ends. At that time, there were three brothers in the team, which wore white shirts, spotted about with red, blue and white bows and rosettes of ribbon, a red tie, red sash or belt. The long trousers were dark in colour with a red stripe down the side, but sometimes they wore white trousers and were even known to wear white overalls with the red stripe. Earlier, they had worn the more usual black breeches (or hoggers) with white stockings and long ribbons tied round the knee. The Captain wore bright coloured clothes rather than the formal appearance adopted by many other sides and the Betty dressed in similarly gaudy women’s clothing.
The dance had a very basic set of figures and in 1910 was performed to the melodeon. The side traditionally performed in public on either Christmas Eve and the following days, and on Christmas Day there was much rivalry with local rivals Winlaton to reach the pubs and big houses first and beat them to the drinks on offer.
Locally, both Sallyport, who practice in Swalwell, and Addison from just up the road, both perform the Swalwell dance, as well as other sides from further afield, such as Stevenage Sword.
Winlaton: The dance here has the reputation, along with Earsdon, of being the oldest in the area. Sword dancers are mentioned in John Leonard’s song, “Winlaton Hopping”, composed circa 1813. The Bessy is described as looking like a Devil in a dress, patched and torn, and sporting horns and a tail. Many early local sword dancing references say the Tommy, Betty or Captain wore animal skins, although we don’t know what form this early dance took.
Winlaton was the site of Ambrose Crowley’s steelworks, opened in 1691 and an important part of the development of the local steel industry. It was also important in the coal industry but by Sharp’s day there were no pits in Winlaton itself and the dancers he saw probably worked at the Blaydon Main, Blaydon Burn, Garesfield, Axwell (Bagnall) or Swalwell Garesfield collieries.
The team he visited in 1912, and whose dance he published in the third volume of The Sword Dances of Northern England, were the White Stars. He described them as being “well advanced in years”, yet they continued performing regularly and with few changes in membership up to 1936 and, finally, at the end of the war in 1945, by which time their youngest member was 75 and their Tommy, “Boxer” Prudhoe, was 87.
Stories by another team that the old White Star team had to spin with elbows interlocked because they were always drunk and needed to hold on to each other were not necessarily true. Nevertheless, younger teams often derided them because they were so old they couldn’t step properly but they had their own distinctive style none the less. They had a great propensity for drink and thought nothing of a 20-mile dance tour, walking all the way. They became so well known at the pubs they danced outside that there was always a row of free pints lined for them when they’d finished. Sharp mentions the Betty’s wild and uncouth cries. One of the dancers had four holes in his nose, from when his wife had thrown a fork at him!
The swords had thick blades and would not have bent a great deal, being thick, heavy and stiff, so to bend it outside the dance was considered a cardinal sin. The White Stars’ day was Christmas Day but they would be out every Saturday for the rest of the year, visiting all the farms, big houses and pubs they could. There are also photos of them dancing at the Big Meeting – the Durham Miners’ Gala. Film exists of the Winlaton dancers processing in a straight line.
They are most famous for winning the Cowan Trophy three years in succession to take it outright in 1924. This beautiful trophy, originally provided by Jane Cowan of Stella Hall, made an appearance at DERT in Newcastle in 1999. Sadly, its whereabouts are currently uncertain, last being heard of in Whickham with one of the dancers’ descendents but has since been rumoured to have been sold in the United States.
Their 1922 dance, at an average age of 57, brought the judge’s comment that “they really brought back one’s remembrances as a small boy of what the Northumbrian sword dancing of those days was, and probably preserved the tradition better than any other team forward.”
The White Stars, and younger Blue Stars, entered the competition up till the war, when they were aged from 68 to 81 and still put on an astonishing show. In 1930, they came 2nd to Earsdon hours after burying their tin whistle player – he had been with them 45 years. On one occasion, they paused when a dancer’s pants fell down, then went on to win their class!
Their costume was similar to Swalwell’s, with long trousers, coloured belts and ties. In the early days, their Tommy and Betty were both dressed in flowery materials.
Since the war, many teams have learned the Winlaton dance and, in 1956, eight Winlaton teams – including six of girls – took part in the Darlington competitions. Most of these were taught by Jack Atkins and, in more recent years, a former teacher taught a junior school side.
Douglas Kennedy, the 1923 judge, was as impressed by their performance as Cecil Sharp the year before, and awarded them the trophy. He said:
“Winlaton’s representatives were, each one of them, old enough to have fathered any one team that had danced before, and bore unmistakable signs of having lived, not unwisely, but fully. There was a ‘Betty’, who surveyed me with a roguish eye, and an Oxford Professor of Egyptology, or so he appeared to me, who carried a tin whistle, as the professor carries his umbrella…
“… They seemed to fall in love with their feet, as they flickered them. I believe now that the secret was in the keeping of the Professor of Egyptology, and he had bewitched them. Anyone within a hundred yards of his pipe would dance with same abandon….
“… My task had been made easy for me and, when later I was explaining to the audience the points on which my judgment was based, I felt that they were as definite as I was, that the winning team was to be the Winlaton ‘White Star’. Theirs was the simplest of the dances and yet, I should think, the hardest to emulate.”
The old men of the White Star were notoriously secretive about their figures, practising away from prying eyes and not teaching their figures even to the younger men of the village. The Blue Star men famously used the tactic of buying the gadgies enough beer to part with their figures.
Between the wars, the younger Blue Star team also competed in the Newcastle competions, albeit less successfully, and they helped continue the tradition locally after the War. By this time, the dance had become very different to that notated by Cecil Sharp, with Mary-Anne and Needles the only unchanged figures.
In 1955, they still used the whole calling-on song, although for that year’s Christmas Day tour they also sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. Interest in rapper lapsed generally in Tyneside after the war and the post-war Winlaton sides never lived up to past glories, finally folding after Jack Atkin’s death in the late 1970s.
High Spen: Around three miles south of Winlaton, rapper sword dances have been performed here since around 1880, when the dancers were lead by George Stobbs. Cecil Sharp is believed to have visited the village and recorded the dance but his notation was never published and is now lost. Although little is known of the dance, we know the dancers also included Robert D’eath and Jack Keith. Stobbs also taught George Gibbon, who founded the Vernon Troupe after World War One. Named after Fred Vernon, landlord of the Miners Arms where the side practised, these also included Tommy D’eath, Eddie Blyth, Eddie Gibbon, Jack Keith, John Coulson and Arthur Watson, with Victor Robson as musician.
Geordie Gibbon was present leader Ricky Forster’s great uncle and, in 1926, he helped Fred Forster (his brother-in-law and Ricky’s grandfather) train a children’s team called the Blue Diamonds after meeting some village boys carrying sticks and showing them how to tie a lock with them. They included Ricky’s dad, Freddie, as Tommy, and at first used greenwood sticks or bed lats with cloths tied round each end until they could afford Tyzack swords.
Practising in the Forster’s kitchen, they wore away the lino until Fred acquired a 5′ 6″ square wooden board from Victoria Garesfield Colliery to practise on. In 1927 they won the junior sword dance class at the Newcastle competitions.
A new adult team, the Amber Stars, was formed soon after, with Fred and two more relatives dancing. Their founding members were Eddie Gibbon, Fred Forster, John Coulson, Tommy D’eath, and Isaac Wood and they often placed second in the Newcastle competitions, but never won. In 1933, the Amber Stars went on a national tour, visiting the regional EFDSS branches to perform, thanks largely the support of Mr Priestman, the Manager of the Victoria Garesfield Colliery where most of them worked, who gave them indefinite leave of absence and kept their jobs open. Travelling as far south as Kettering, the EFDSS discouraged them from continuing to London as all their officials would be on holiday! They were filmed at the Newcastle tournament in 1934 but stopped performing soon after.
It was 1954 before a Blue Diamonds team was reformed by the same dancers and former Amber Stars members, partly due to the interest of the King’s College team, now the Kingsmen, who collected the notation in 1952-53. Fred Forster died in 1964, and was succeeded by Freddie, with Ricky, Freddie’s son, taking over in 1986. By 1968, the team was based at Birtley and it was again revived in 1982 after a short break. Ricky’s two brothers, two sons and nephew have all been active members, supported by other local dancers and musicians.
They have more than two dozen figures now but at one time had many more. The calling-on song in its full version introduced the dancers as members of Robin Hood’s gang. It became a “speech” through acting, Tommies claiming they couldn’t sing! Betty – who in one figure ends up with the swords fastened around his neck – at one time carried a pig’s bladder on a stick, a feature usually associated with Cotswold Morris dancing.
Blaydon Burn: A short distance west of Winlaton, little is known of this team. The Blaydon Burn Colliery opened in 1853 and closed in 1956. The previous year, Chris Cawte had spoken to Tom “Patsie” Fagan, who had been the Dolly – or Tommy – for the team, which disbanded about 1913. After this, some of the dancers joined members of the former Blaydon side for a short while. Fagan said they did no stepping at all in their dance, which involved several figures.
Blaydon: This small town lies at the foot of the “bank” from Winlaton and is totally changed since the 1970s. We know of two teams from here, the first existing before the First World War but little is recorded of them. They seem to have performed over a wide area, having been seen a number of times in Tow Law 20 miles distant, and in a similar fashion to Winlaton and Earsdon. We do know they danced to a tin whistle and wore breeks with rosettes at the knee. By the time Cecil Sharp visited Swalwell in 1910, they had ceased dancing but some of the dancers had joined with some of the former Blaydon Burn men, as previously mentioned. A team certainly started in Blaydon in about 1920, taught by a Winlaton dancer.
They added a Single Over figure to the Winlaton dance and used a double shuffle. They dressed in dark blue breeches fastened below the knee; their sashes, ties and stockings were black and their shoes patent leather. The Tommy and Betty wore clothes of flowery material and the Betty had a wig beneath his hat. The dancers formed part of a concert party, which were very popular at the time, going around with a group of singers performing locally.
In April 1925, they were one of several local teams to go busking in aid of the families of the 38 miners killed in the Montagu Pit disaster between Lemington and Scotswood, just across the river.
They regularly competed in the North of England Musical Tournament up until 1938, finishing second in 1925.
Lemington: Crossing the River Tyne, from County Durham into Northumberland, we reach Lemington. Billy Clark, originally a Westerhope dancer, formed a team here around 1928, after moving first to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea (teaching dancers there), then back to rejoin a Westerhope side and then moving to Lemington. Billy Clark moved on and was later found living in Cumberland.
Lemington danced during the Depression years and referred to themselves as the “The Northumberland Acrobatic Sword Dancers” in an attempt to get bookings at local halls. Their performance included a large number of somersaults – backwards and forwards – for which, on entering the Newcastle competitions of 1929, the EFDSS judge Helen Kennedy criticised them, saying it wasn’t really rapper. The other teams were also very critical and the next year a different judge (Kenworthy Schofield) disqualified them, legend has it for wearing taps on their shoes, but the reason he gave at the time was that they weren’t doing the dance from their village. Whatever he meant by that, we can only guess. After a few years, they entered the competition again, but under the new name of North Walbottle… which we’ll visit soon.
Walbottle: A mile and a half north-west of Lemington is Walbottle, situated on Hadrian’s Wall. Before WW1 there were two teams calling themselves Walbottle, probably because they worked in different pits of the Walbottle Colliery.
One was connected with the Blucher pit, just to the east of Walbottle. Records are extremely scant but a photo taken around 1908 shows the men in their ordinary clothes, clutching their rappers and accompanied by their bairns and whippets (whippet racing was another popular pitman’s pursuit). They wear flat caps – presumably taking them off to dance – and their swords have cloth wrapping at each end, with no swivel.
The other of these teams was more associated with Throckley, just to the west. In 1956, Chris Cawte interviewed Jackie Hepple, who had danced with the team during a pit strike in 1908 and whose father had danced with them in the 1880s. They had continued, with gaps, until 1926. Despite their origins, the always called themselves the Walbottle Sword Dancers and were quite separate from the North Walbottle team. In the 1880s, many of them came from the same street – Mount Pleasant – in Throckley, demonstrating the close communities which then existed, particularly in mining areas.
Their swords were fashioned by the nearby Spencer’s steelworks in Newburn. Their costume was most unusual, consisting of tartan shirts, green velvet breeks, buttoned below the knee for about six inches, and blue sashes which hung from the left hip down to the knees. Their Betty wore a wig under a round hat piled high with flowers and the Tommy had a false beard. The Betty would sometimes come into the set at the end of the performance and tie a six-sword star. Tommy may also have joined the set (as at North Walbottle) as a photo of them shows a star tied with seven swords.
We know only sketchy details of their dance. It started with the dancers standing around the edge of the peformance area, each coming out as his character’s name was sung in the calling-on song, which was a version of our old favourite Earsdon-style song. There were 24 figures including Waves (a single guard), a Cramper, a tumbler and a Winlaton-style spin. When moving down the street from spot to spot, they formed a long, linked line and then made the lock at the next dance place.
North Walbottle: Less than a mile to the north is North Walbottle. As you will hear, there are very close connections between the North Walbottle, Westerhope, Callerton and Whorlton dancers, and the team variously called themselves North Walbottle, High Pit (from the mine where they worked), or Whorlton (where they practiced in the smithy).
Sharp came here twice, in November and December 1912, and included their dance in Volume 3 of “Sword Dances of Northern England”. The first of these occasions was a competition in Newcastle organised by EFDS, in which they came second.
Having been in a former Bedlington side (which we’ll visit later), a dancer called William (Billy) Raine, or possibly Rainey, first taught them in 1906 and continued until about 1914. In 1912, Cecil Sharp recorded their dance as ‘North Walbottle’ although they were actually from Westerhope (which we’ll visit next) but worked at nearby North Walbottle pit.
Sharpe collected his notation from Billy Clark, who we first mentioned at Lemington, who danced with the team and from their musician, Jack Hall.
Their purple velvet hoggers had a gold stripe and were fastened below the knee by three gold buttons. They had white stockings, a very short, sailor-knotted black velvet tie and a wide gold sash, tied in a bow in front of the left hip. Their swords were thick and stiff and they began their dance in a circle, running forwards to clash their swords after the musician began before forming a ring.
The team joined the army at the start of the Great War but a their junior team, formed about 1910, reformed after the hostilities and was the origin of the famous Westerhope teams, which we will cover next.
In 1933, Billy Clark entered his Newbiggin team in the North of England competition under the name North Walbottle, possibly because he thought such a “traditional” link would give more credance with the judges.
Westerhope: Now swallowed up in the Newcastle conurbation, it was quite a small place at the time the team was on the go. Their kit resembled the current High Spen style, with white socks, breeches with a stripe down each side, white shirts and square-cut ties, but with their sashes tied in a bow on the left side. A photo shows two dancing in boots, with the other three in shoes. They wore wooden-soled brogues in 1920s for some of their stage performances, while for others they had patent leather pumps with a small pair of cymbals added to the instep!
In 1919, they won the first North of England Musical Tournament sword dance competition, with its £1 prize, although there were only two teams, the other being neighbouring and probably closely-related Whorlton. They won it again the following year as sole entrants but in 1921 took the first Cowan trophy against two Earsdon teams and one from Prudhoe. The Westerhope juniors also took their own class.
Their men’s dance was so good it earned them a two-week spot at the London Palladium under the name of the “Northumberland Traditional Prize Sword Dancers” and they also toured theatres elsewhere in the country. They were offered a three-year contract touring theatres, for two years in Britain and the third in America, at £10 per week – seven times the pitman’s wages. But they turned it down, even though they would have earned a small fortune compared with their pit wages, allegedly because the money was not enough. As fortune would have it, some of them suffered pit accidents and then came the 1926 General Strike, leaving them to rue their decision.
By 1922, they had honed their dance to ‘an extraordinary pitch of virtuosity’ but the judge – Cecil Sharp – thought the display too acrobatic and Winlaton won instead.
In some ways Westerhope might be considered the ‘Black Swan’ of their day, with forward-facing figures, multiple tumbles and a crowd-pleasing presentation style. Winning competitions was a major motivator for the dancers, who went professional for short periods from 1921 to 1925.
But whatever the truth of the wages offered to turn professional, they also performed to collect money for charity. In 1921, a newspaper commended the team for collecting funds for ‘necessitous children’. In 1925, they collected for widows and orphans of miners killed in the Montagu pit disaster in Scotswood and to fund local soup kitchens during the General Strike in 1926. In a contemporary photograph, the dancers seem relatively young – in their twenties or less – so it is sad that pit accidents put an end to their dancing days and they were last seen out during the General Strike.
There were also junior Westerhope sides and, with some of their number replacing older dancers, an adult Westerhope team continued up to about 1932. There was a brief revival in the 1970s when Les Williamson, the first leader of Sallyport who lived and taught at Westerhope, met some of the old dancers and helped them form a school team. But, as the youngsters left school, the team folded, although some joined Sallyport and one eventually became a Royal Earsdon dancer.
There’s another tenuous Sallyport link. In 1920 the leader, Billy Clark, moved to Newbiggin and founded the team there. Newbiggin and Clark are, of course, the source of no less than three of Sallyport’s principal dances.
Whorlton and Callerton: Whorlton was, and still is, tiny. Again intertwined with Westerhope and North Walbottle, the Whorlton team was formed by Charlie Bland and was sometimes known as Westerhope Juniors and Callerton – another tiny place, where two of its members came from. They took part in the first Newcastle competition in 1919, impressing the local papers, and practised in Westerhope Welfare Centre. In 1922, they were known as the Whorlton Excelsior Sword Dancers. The following year, at the Newcastle competition, they were said to have performed a somersault figure “all the way round”.
A change of membership saw some of these dancers living beside the North Walbottle pit, where the colliery houses were known as Callerton, and they adopted this name as they continued dancing up to 1928. The junior Callerton team took over until they too stopped in 1928, although the school team continued until 1932.
In 1951, Charlie Bland taught a version of the Whorlton dance to the King’s College Morris Men – now the Newcastle Kingsmen – and this is probably the origin of the dance still performed by Monkseaton.
Dinnington: Mentioned by Tom Fagan as a location for a sword dance team when interviewed in 1955, he later said he’d never heard of them. But a few years later, Brian Hayden met a man who remembered a team from there and even named of one of the dancers. Dinnington did enter a team in the Novice Class in the North of England competition in 1926 and the following year “Junington Team” entered the Boys – maybe a misspelling of Dinnington. The village is surrounded by collieries, the last of which closed in 1960.
Seaton Burn: The only reference to a sword dance from here is a newspaper report that a team called The Excelsior Set, Seaton Burn, competed at a competition in Blyth, Northumberland in 1881, eventually placing third. Seaton Burn Colliery opened in 1844, and closed in 1965.
Dudley: The same newspaper reported two teams – Funny Lads, Dudley and the Dudley Putter’s Set – competing in the same Blyth competition. Both were unplaced and we know nothing more of them. It was not uncommon for villages to support more than one team, as we’ll come to see. Dudley pit opened in 1856 and closed in 1977.
Cramlington: A team called The First Rose of Northumberland took part in the 1881 Blyth competition, as well as in a contest In Sunderland in 1888. At Blyth, they won a prize of £3. Opened in 1825, Cramlington Colliery closed in 1977. The village has now been swallowed up in modern housing developments and industrial estates.
Bedlington: At least two different rapper dances are known to have come from here, although there is no known link between the two.
Little is documented about the earlier team except that one of the dancers, Billy Raine, moved to Westerhope in 1906 and founded the team there, whose dance was collected by Cecil Sharp (who called it North Walbottle). Billy Raine may well have been the main force behind the Bedlington side, as they stopped performing around this time. Although nothing is known about the form of the dance, it may have been similar to the North Walbottle notation published by Sharp.
Of the later team, most information comes from the King’s College Morris Men in the 1950s and 60s. In 1956 Chris Cawte visited the Railway Tavern and Barrington Arms at Bedlington Station and the Black Bull at Bedlington (all recently closed) and learned of a team there about 1916-1926. One man said his wife’s first husband had been in the team before WW1. At the Black Bull another man said they danced until about 1934 and his uncle played accordion for them.
It took many visits to recover the figures from brothers Peter, Luke and Jimmy Muldoon, whose family had kept up the dance, having learned from their father, William. Two published notations were collected in 1961, that by Bill Cassie taking about ten visits to collect from dancers who had last performed 35 years earlier. Bryan Hayden collected the other. By now, the old dancers had forgotten most of the figures, so what we have today is incomplete.
They had performed regularly in the streets of Bedlington until at least 1926 or possibly later but also travelled to neighbouring villages and to Morpeth, dancing from pub to pub.
They wore white shirts, green knee-length trousers tied at the bottom with a ribbon in a bow (or perhaps hoggers) and white stockings. They may have sometimes worn bow ties and wore clogs with irons instead of shoes, as was common among sides in this area. Swords were painted or marked with ribbon to assist the dancers in selecting the right one in a star.
The Tommy wore a tail coat, top hat, hoggers and false moustache, while Betty dressed in any old women’s clothing with a bonnet and veil plus a false ginger moustache. Peter Muldoon called them both Bettys and they were clearly important as collectors. He recalled one Betty thrown out of the team for secreting money in an inside pocket rather than passing it onto the team!
They preferred a melodeon for the music as it could be heard better but sometimes danced to fiddle or pipes. Inside pubs, the musician often played the piano instead. Jigs such as “Irish Washerwoman” were used, with a calling on song as for Winlaton.
To teach them the dance, their father had used handkerchiefs if swords were not available. It included processional as well as stationary figures and the dancers would typically start at the eastern end of Bedlington’s wide main street, then move progressively west until reaching the Red Lion pub.
They used the Fiddler position or a Straight Line as the processional, in which either one man held up the Star, or they all held the linked swords from which they broke straight out into the first knot at the next pitch. They performed the knots in whatever order No 1 called, so each dance looked different. They said the dancers wore identical clothes to make it more difficult for others to work out the figures.
They used a “lazy shuffle” – a simple catch step of two beats instead of the usual three in the single shuffle – often using the heels as well to get a better sound, with half-running for processing
There were few names for the knots but they had at one time known nearly 30. Starting in a circle holding the swords up in the middle but without clashing, they then dropped them on the left shoulders and made the Star, which No 1 showed. All figures started from a star but the way they tied it is unusual, each dancer having to cross his own arms over at the elbows to get it fastened. They would open the swords into a ring when lowered by crossing hands in the opposite way to that used to tie the Star, then holding each sword at head height, bent between two dancers.
Several figures were exactly as in other traditions – Winlaton Needle and North Walbottle Figure Eight, which they called “Round-and-Round” and “Crossing-Over”, for example. First knot was a type of Single Guard, Second Knot was similar with two dancers running round together.
Third Knot was very odd but probably effective if the swords “spark” as they are supposed to do. The dancers step in the open ring with the swords bent above head level, then break out, individually or in pairs, and run round in any direction until the swords are tangled. They then return in the reverse order to their places! There is no attempt to tie a Star. It is probably a bowdlerised version of a complex knot such as Bulldog.
Fourth Knot involves No. 3 leaving the set and lying back on a bed of swords to be thrown into the air for a back somersault. The Kingsmen had a version using the Tommy, called Tommy Knot which can be interesting – ask Bob Wilson! Thrales Rapper from London currently perform a version of the Bedlington dance.
Bedlington Station: 1¼ miles east of Bedlington itself, this was where Bedlington Colliery opened in 1838, closing in 1971. The team from here included men from Bedlington Village and seems to have survived for a while until WW1.
Choppington: A team called The Merry Lads, Choppington, entered the 1881 Blyth competition and shared third place and the £1 prize with the Seaton Burn team. Sharp was told of a dance (probably by then defunct) from a place he noted as “Chapeltown” but the only likely location is Choppington, locally pronounced “Chopperton” – a mishearing of what was probably a broad local accent. The third snippet of information on a team from Choppington came from Westerhope dancer Matthew Hunter, who told Chris Cawte he thought there had been a team at Choppington and that the dance had spread there from Bedlington nearby. The first pit here was sunk in 1857 and closed in 1966.
Scotland Gate: In reality, this was part of Choppington, which effectively provided two teams for the Blyth competition. The members all probably worked at the same pit.
Guide Post: Another place which had a dance at the turn of the 19/20th century, they danced at Christmas and were invited into every house of the village to perform. They also danced at other times to collect for the local soup kitchen.
The costume was quite plain – black breeches with a narrow stripe, fastened below the knee, where a rosette was added, with a snake belt around the waist. White shirts sported two rosettes on the chest, one either side of the narrow tie. The team had two musicians who played the highland pipes (!) and a single row melodeon. Their Betty wore a large bonnet and a long, plain dress and they called the male fool Punch. He wore large, baggy trousers and jacket and a high, soft hat – all made from Paisley material.
Ashington: Developed from a small hamlet in the early C19th into the regional centre for the coal industry in the late C19th/early C20th. The huge Ashington Colliery itself opened in 1867 and was finally killed off in 1986. Woodhorn Colliery, just to the east, opened in 1894 and closed in 1981 but remains as a museum and is the home of the Northumberland Archives.
Sharp heard that Ashington possibly had a team and one man told Chris Cawte he recalled sword dancers from Ashington coming round his home village near Washington, in County Durham, at Christmas. A photograph (below) also exists of the 1st Ashington Boy Scouts’ sword dance team at their local carnival in 1913 but nothing else is known of them.
Newbiggin-by-the-Sea: This village was both a fishing and coal port, with coal mines nearby and was home to several rapper sides.
The first was not a formal side but a scratch team formed annually by local clog dancers who performed rapper at Christmas until 1908. They toured as far away as Sunderland, and one year stopped off at Earsdon on the way back “to show them how to dance”. Their kit included velvet hoggers and small clog dancers’ bolero-style waistcoasts with gold braid edging, but each dancer had different colours. They exchanged their dancing clogs for their pit ones with irons on the soles for street performances.
Their dances typically included five figures called 1s and 2s, 2s and 3s, Reverse, Fast and Guards. As clog dancers, they paid particular attention to their stepping, including single and double shuffles in the dance. But they were especially proud of their “threbble shuffle” which they claimed no other side could do, although Amble took it up later on.
Dancers included William “Billy” Raine (or Rainey) until 1906,
Jimmy and Jack Gladstone, Tony Harker and Dicky Ferrell, with a Melodeon/Flutina player called Ned Wilkinson and a Tommy and Betty for the “cadgin”. His instrument still exists and now lives in Peterborough.
Wilkinson also played for the later team, founded in 1920 by Westerhope dancer Billy Clark, who based it on the Westerhope style but changed some figures to make it different. He reportedly had ‘hundreds’ of bits of paper in the house, on which he was trying to work out new nuts. They initially wore clogs, along with brown velvet hoggers with a gold sash, white stockings and a black tie.
Brian Hayden collected information in the 1950s from a Mr Henderson who had been a member of this team. They competed in the North of England competition twice, in 1923, when five senior teams entered, and 1924. The 1923 judge, Douglas Kennedy, wrote: “… they had “Earsdon style”. They were young men and delightful dancers, with all the fluency and gentle fierceness as well. I was quite prepared for them to win the trophy, although I had never heard of them before. I heard afterwards that they had been learning from an Earsdon man for only eighteen months.”
By 1925 that team had folded but Clark went on to teach a team from the local Sea Scouts, and Henderson and two other members of the former team joined to do the dancing. They competed at the North of England Musical Tournament in 1925 under the name First Newbiggin Sea Scouts.
On 1st January 1926, the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS) organised its first major festival in the Great Hall of London University. Along with longsword teams Grenoside and North Skelton, the Sea Scout team attended after the local EFDS branch appealed for sponsorship to help with their costs and performing twice. Sleeping on a Scout Hut floor as they couldn’t arrange cheap accommodation elsewhere, they toured London between their two performances, apparently making a fair amount of cash.
The event was well-reported in the national press and British Pathe News had previously filmed them “rehearsing” in late 1925. Titled “Miner Dancers” and incorrectly stating they are from Co. Durham, it shows them first appearing out of the pit to practice, then walking through Newbiggin in full kit to dance in Bridge St.
By this time, the team wore black velvet hoggers with a red stripe and a red sash, Betty had a patterned dress, muslin hat and a small white fur round her neck and Tommy wore a tail suit made from the same patterned material, with a black top hat.
In 1926 a team calling itself Northumbrian Westerhope – in fact, a team from Newbiggin trained by Clark – entered the Newcastle competition but did not compete. The Newbiggin Kensingtons, a version of the team which had danced in London, placed 4th in 1927. Although they entered in 1928, they did not compete – when Chris Cawte saw an old programme in 1955, it had been marked “2 happened accidents at Colliery this week: Mr Clark, trainer“. The team folded that year, perhaps as a result of these accidents.
In both 1927 and 28, a girls team called the Newbiggin Dainty Dinahs appeared in the North of England junior competition, placing second in 1928. Little is known of them but they wore blue tunics and white blouses.
Tom “Patsie” Fagan recalled a team from Newbiggin called the Bank Top team, presumably named after the club of the same name, which still exists.
Marjorie Sinclair, of EFDS, recalled that Billy Clark had entered a Newbiggin team for the 1933 North of England competition under the name of “North Walbottle”, a name they also used in 1934, the final occasion they entered, being placed 2nd. Clark appears to have felt he was more likely to succeed if his team used a “traditional” name!
Clark attended the EFDS Staff Conference at Buxton in 1927, along with dance teachers from across the UK and most information on the Newbiggin dance comes from this event. Marjorie Sinclair and Elsie Whiteman published a widely-used version in 1931, with a straight line start and the figures as Prince of Wales (spin), Princess, Cramper No1, Moving Fixy, No1 Ring, Back-to-Back Guard, Doughnuts and Fast Fiddler or Figuree of Eight, with single stepping and a Nut and Single Guard between each. They were performed in any order.
Maud Karpeles also made a notation, with a different (ring) start, single and double shuffle stepping at the end of the dance (also shown in the film) and several different figures – No3 Guard, Navvy, See-Saw, Side-Step & Guard, Gymnac, Back Lock and Wheel of Fortune. Both sources noted that Clark had altered the figures he knew and made up new ones to construct the dance.
Somersault appears in the Pathe films, while Henderson recalled a double somersault figure called The Champion, which he considered their best. This film also shows that the team did not include a Nut and Single Guard between figures.
The Newbiggin Kensingtons developed the dance into a smooth, flowing performance not at all like the earlier Newbiggin. In the late 30s, the Dainty Dinahs with blue pinafores and white blouses also danced in the Newcastle competition.
All stopped before the Second World War and, despite some attempts to revive the dance locally, there is no Newbiggin team today. However, various teams performed versions of this dance right up to the 1960’s, including one of Sea Scouts and also a girls’ team. It was also danced 2½ miles down the coast at Cambois (pronounced “Cammus”).
Today, Sallyport Sword Dancers in Newcastle keep alive various versions of the dance and it has also been performed by many other teams over the years.
Cambois: The small coastal village of Cambois – pronounced “Cammus” – had a colliery from 1862 until 1968. Eddie Flanaghan of the Amble team recalled seeing dancers from here.
Cowpen Quay: The team called Bob the Nailor’s Young Set at the 1881 Blyth competition came from here. They were unplaced and nothing more is heard of them. However, Thomas Clark, the grandfather of Earsdon dancer Tom Young, came from Blyth and had lived in Cowpen Quay in the 1850s, so there may be a link. The Mill Pit here ceased operation in 1969 and the village now forms part of Blyth itself.
Hartley: Another place with a team in the 1881 Blyth contest. The Hastings Canny Lads, Hartley, were unplaced and nothing more is known of them. Lord Hastings owned nearby Seaton Delaval Hall or perhaps they drank in the Hastings Arms nearby. More probably it was the pit village of New Hartley. In March 1882, a team called Hastings Warriors from Hartley entered a contest at Backworth.
However, the colliery here is sadly best known for the terrible pit disaster on 16th January 1862, when 204 lives were lost. The pit only had a single shaft and the beam from the pumping engine broke and fell down the shaft of the Hester Pit. Along with other debris, it created a blockage 30 yards deep which proved troublesome to remove due to rock falls and a build-up of gas. There was no escape for the miners trapped below and, as the accident had happened just as the shifts were changing over, most men of both shifts were at the coal face. Rescue attempts went on for several days, during which many of the trapped miners, who included numerous teenagers, wrote heart-rending letters to their families, copies of which are at the Woodhorn colliery museum near Newbiggin. None of those trapped below survived and one household lost seven members of its family. Queen Victoria sent her condolences and a relief fund raised £83,000 for the 407 dependents. The disaster led to a change in the law, requiring two shafts to be sunk in all future pits. Hester pit never reopened but new shafts were sunk nearby and mining continued until 1959.
Seaton Delaval: Thomas Armstrong, the Earsdon Captain from c1880 until 1912, lived two miles away and also ran a team here. They did the same dance as that from Earsdon and must have been in existence at some time during this period. Dancers from around here were known to have visited Cullercoates and wore white shirts and red or blue sashes with no waistcoats, which does not quite match the Earsdon costume so these may have been the Seaton Delaval team. A rapper team competed in the North of England junior competition in 1933 under the name of Delaval Senior.
Seghill: Yet another place with a team at the 1881 Blyth competition, The Jolly Lads Set eventually won the £5 first prize but nothing more is known of them. Three teams from Seghill – Claggers, Renforth and Slow Travellers – took part in a contest In Backworth in March 1882, while Lively Lads and the Excelsior Set, both also from Seghill, competed at Sunderland in 1888.
One of the Seaton Delaval dancers named Maddison moved to Seghill and started a team which danced up until 1927. Seaton Delaval’s dance was similar to Earsdon’s and this probably was too. People interviewed by Chris Cawte confirmed there had been a team at Seghill, one remembering a Seghill team in about 1915, although this seems a little early for the Maddison team and rather late for the 1881 competitors, so may be misremembered.
Seghill teams appeared at the Newcastle competitions in the 1920s and seem likely to have been Maddison’s team, as the two teams which appeared in 1923 were both in the competition’s junior section as Seghill Colliery Welfare A and B, team A coming second. In 1924, the winners of that class had the name Seghill Colliery Welfare Boy Scouts and in 1925 came second under the name Seghill Colliery Boy Scouts.
A junior team calling itself Seghill Colliery Welfare came third in 1926, the same year a senior team danced under the same name, unfortunately coming last with 88 points, after which they made no more appearances. The colliery at Seghill opened in 1824 and closed in 1962.
Holywell: A mile to the south, a team from here called Henderson Gibson’s Putter Set competed at the 1881 Blyth competition but were unplaced. Henderson Gibson was a mining engineer living at Earsdon in 1881 whose son also had the same name. It seems the former was the eponymous sponsor of the set, strengthening the Earsdon connection. A man of some substance, he was manager of the East Holywell Colliery and owner of the Pegswood Drift near Morpeth.
The following year, a team called Nonpareil from Holywell entered a contest at Backworth in March 1882. A Sea Scouts’ team was dancing here in 1934, while another team who performed in their pit clothes in the years up to the Second World War (1939-1945) was possibly the same one.
East Holywell & Royal Earsdon: Although the team was based in Earsdon, it was not a colliery village and the dancers lived and worked in nearby villages such as Backworth, West Allotment and East Holywell. Later teams said they were from the Parish of Earsdon.
Sword dancers from East Holywell danced annually at Alnwick Castle, seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, for many years from 1856. In 1870, the Newcastle Courant contained the first reference to the “New” Earsdon calling-on song, so familiar today.
In 1881, the East Holywell Putters competed at the Blyth competition but nothing more is known of them and they were unplaced. Two years later, Joseph Crawhall published an account of the sword dance and gave two sets of verses, the second of which he said were those of the sword dancers from East Holywell. The Newcastle Courant carried a report of the East Holywell team performing at Alnwick Castle in 1888, naming John Patterson, reputedly the founder of the Earsdon team, as one of the performers.
Tom Armstrong, Earsdon Captain from c1870 until 1912, lived in East Holywell and it is likely that the Earsdon and East Holywell teams were one and the same, the latter perhaps being an earlier name. The two villages formed a contiguous area and the East Holywell colliery had shafts spread around the area. Mining began at Earsdon in 1826 and the East Holywell A pit opened in 1839 with further pits opening up until the Fenwick Pit in 1884 – it finally closed in 1973. At one time, 25 pits were within five miles of Earsdon.
Most of the 1920s and 1930s team worked at Maude Pit of the Backworth Colliery, in a variety of jobs from hewer to deputy overman. Jimmy McKay, Earsdon fiddler for many years, was also a deputy here.
The Alnwick Castle performances each Christmas were for the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and included, in 1906, dancing for King Edward VII, for which they introduced a new costume with boleros. On this occasion the Duke took no chances, arranging for coaches to meet the team at Alnwick railway station, with no stops for refreshment allowed! Two years later they performed there before the future King George V, after which they claimed the ‘Royal’ epithet; the Earsdon “Prince of Wales” figure probably dates from this performance.
Sharp visited Earsdon three times in 1920, firstly the day after he had seen his first rapper dance at Swalwell before returning two days later for more information and again later that year. The dance appears in volume one of The Sword Dances of Northern England. Their special day for dancing was Christmas Eve.
They may also have featured in Ralph Hedley’s famous painting, The Sword Dancers, depicted in an older costume at Tanfield Gates. However, some have suggested this picture actually shows the original Winlaton team but Hedley, bullied by Cecil Sharp, agreed to call it Earsdon. His notebooks from the time show he believed the team to be from Winlaton, which is just 5½ miles from Tanfield, Earsdon lying 18 miles away across the Tyne.
The Earsdon team enjoyed great local fame. One story is of another team setting up, also calling themselves Earsdon and gaining bookings on the strength of the real team’s performances before the King! It is more likely that the younger team added the “Royal” to their name while the others got bookings on the strength of their performance.
The team stopped during WW1, when they lost some key members but reformed in 1921 to make some money during a strike after George Osborn had trained some new dancers. Both teams entered the Newcastle competitions that year, coming joint second behind Westerhope. Earsdon were to win it 16 times up to the final one in 1954.
The Earsdon Nippers entered the junior competition in 1934 and 35 and there was a girls’ team during WW2. After the war, performances at the Newcastle tournament resumed until the event ceased in 1954. Nibs Pearson became Captain in 1955 until succeeded in 1970 by his son, Dave, who sadly passed away in 2018.
In 1956 a new junior team was formed and the whole organisation metamorphosed into The Northumbrian Traditional Group, which featured the Royal Earsdon team as part of a larger performance of Northumbrian music, song and dance, travelling widely in the UK and Europe. In 1963 Royal Earsdon were adopted as the official team of the town of Blyth, adding the coat of arms of the town to their sash.
They made regular appearances at the EFDSS concerts at the Royal Albert Hall between 1948 and 1974. Sadly, by the 1980s, the performances petered out, although the team appeared at Dancing England in 1980 and made its last appearance, at DERT at Ryton, near Gateshead, in 1998.
Appearing regularly at the Northumbrian pipers competitions from the 1880s, copies of their song were sold, probably prompting its spread to other teams. This is the origin of the most commonly-used calling on song today but with more verses – seven in total. With no tv or radio, this was the entertainment of the day. Characters included Elliott, De Winter, Nelson, Wellington and even Bonaparte.
Probably the most famous and influential Earsdon Captain was George ‘Geordie’ Osborn, an accomplished clog dancer who may have been responsible for introducing the stepping used in the modern rapper dance. He started to learn rapper in 1896 from then Captain Tommy Armstrong, joined the team in 1900 and became Captain shortly after Sharp’s 1910 visit. In the 1930s he worked as a waggon driver, delivering coal from Backworth Pit.
He preferred only to recruit established clog dancers – preferably of similar height to rest of the team – to help maintain his high standards. He reputedly introduced a new step after their stepping had deteriorated, this time of single and double shuffles, which are the basic steps of the local clog dance.
After 50 years as Captain, he was awarded an EFDSS gold badge in 1960 and the team reciprocated by presenting an inscribed sword to EFDSS.
Backworth: Although a contest here in 1882 has previously been mentioned, a team from here is first heard of in 1922, when the Backworth Council School Sword Dancers entered the traditional sword dance class in Newcastle. A 1926 team called Backworth Juniors placed third in the junior traditional sword dance class
Some of the Earsdon dancers came from Backworth and in 1925 George Osborne and Matthew Richardson were training a junior team here, perhaps that which competed in 1926. Just a mile and a half from Earsdon, Backworth has been a centre of coal mining since 1818 when the first pit opened here. By the late C19th there were six pits; the final one closed in 1960 but considerable mining presence remained here until the local network of pits closed completely in 1976.
In finishing, it is remarkable that this commentary contains references to nearly 70 teams over around 200 years – a staggering number and there probably a similar number in the parts of the North East we have not visited today, let along those for whom no record now exists.
Some were short-lived, others, particularly Winlaton and Royal Earsdon, enjoyed tremendous longevity and one in particular – High Spen – is the sole survivor of the teams which existed before WW2. The legacy is that this area still enjoys more rapper teams than any other part of the world, with Addison, Durham Rams, High Spen Blue and Pink Diamonds, Monkseaton, Newcastle Kingsmen, Sallyport and Star & Shadow, plus occasionally one or two others, still flying the flag for the North East and having existed far longer now than many of the ‘old’ teams we have mentioned during this tour.
All but one of these will be performing at this year’s DERT – we hope you enjoy what they have to show.