ENGLAND: THE OTHER WITHIN

Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Morris Dancers' Bells

Mike Heaney
Executive Secretary, Oxford University Library Services (Bodleian Library).


1895.45.10 Bell pad worn on knee, Finstock sold by Bateman

1895.45.10 Bell pad worn on knee, Finstock sold by Bateman

[1895.45.10] Bell pad

Finstock bells. Purchased December 1895. Bateman. 185 x 144 mm

These are the earliest morris dancers' bell pads acquired by the Museum. They were acquired from a 'J. Bateman' at Gloucester Green in Oxford, about whom nothing more is known, though he is likely to have been an antiques dealer.

This pair of bell pads came from Finstock, one of the major dancing centres in the Morris stronghold of the Wychwood Forest area of West Oxfordshire in the first half of the nineteenth century. Finstock used to hold a kind of village festival known as a Whitsun Ale; Finstock's ceased to be held by about 1850. Much of the life of the community revolved around Wychwood Forest, and when this was disafforested in 1857 there was enormous disruption to the social fabric. The evidence suggests Morris dancing in the community ceased around the same time.

The Finstock pads are made of braid. Originally each had twenty small crotal bells (pellet bells) arranged in a 5 x 4 pattern along the vertical strips of cloth, but on one pad some bells have been lost. Across the top, middle and bottom of each pad are four small cloth rosettes, mixed blue and white, with one pad also having some red; all are home-made from old rags. The blue is a patterned cloth; the white is silk. The bells are very flat. They are tied with four pieces of string at the rear of the pad; there is a horizontal piece tying the central rosettes. The ornateness of the bell-pads shows the care and pride exhibited by the dancers in their public performance: each pad has a dozen tiny rosettes made from scraps of cloth in different colours. They also reveal the lack of resources: the rosettes are made from scraps saved from old pieces of material.

The names of one set of Finstock morris dancers were recorded by the field collector Thomas James Carter for the antiquary Percy Manning in 1897 as: Edward Oliver, John Oliver, William Dore, Charles Dore, John Dore, Stephen Dore, Thomas Langford (musician), James Turner (swordbearer) and George Stratford (the squire, or leader, of the team). Three of the team were carpenters. To judge from their ages this team danced around the 1830s. [Mike Heaney, 'Distentangling the Wychwood morrises'. Traditional Dance 3 (1985), 44-81 (pp. 55-58); Keith Chandler, Morris Dancing in the South Midlands 1660-1900: A Chronological Gazetteer. Enfield Lock: Hisarlik, 1993, 166-169]

1938.34.6 Bell pad from Ramsden donated by Henry Balfour

1938.34.6 Bell pad from Ramsden donated by Henry Balfour

[1938.34.6] Bell pads

Morris Dancer's bells for wearing at the knee, from Ramsden near Finstock. Purchased 1896 [by Henry Balfour]. 'small brass pellet bells attached to leather background' Ramsden bells. Purchased 1896. dd [donated] H. Balfour 1939 185 x 152mm

These bell pads were purchased by Henry Balfour in 1896 and bequeathed to the museum in 1938. The pads are red leather, the leg-ties thin red braid. Originally each had twenty small crotal bells arranged in a 5x4 pattern along the vertical strips of leather, but some bells have been lost The ribbons decorating the pad are red, white and blue; the white may in some cases have faded from an original yellow or cream, and the other colours may also have changed over the years. The cross ribbons are now white, the corner rosettes blue on white. There is a simple cloth cross at the centre top of the bell pad, in blue. Three slots have been cut in the leather to form 4 strips joined top and bottom. There are 20 bells, 5 on each of the 4 strips. The bells are treble bells, all 20 bells are tied with a single piece of string at the rear of the pad

We know very little about morris dancing in Ramsden. One informant talked of 'Ramsden men' in allusion to dancing, and one or two possible names are known; but if so it is odd that Thomas James Carter and Percy Manning did not record the existence of a team in their extensive research into morris dancing teams in the area during the 1890s. One dancer living in Ramsden is said to have danced with the team from nearby Leafield. [Mike Heaney, 'Distentangling the Wychwood morrises'. Traditional Dance 3 (1985), 44-81 (p. 68); Keith Chandler, Morris Dancing in the South Midlands 1660-1900: A Chronological Gazetteer. Enfield Lock: Hisarlik, 1993, 196-197]

[1903.57.1]; [1917.53.468]; [1945.11.65]; [2008.59.1]

Four pairs of bell pads made of red leather with green ribbon around the perimeter, gathered into small bows at the corners and midpoints of each side, and with light brown braid for leg ties. Each has twelve crotal bells arranged 4x3 on the three central vertical strips of leather. 200 x 149 mm

The 1903 pair was bought from Thomas James Carter for 3/6 [17.5p] in March 1903. Museum records state that these are 'Morris bell sets, made for the revival of Morris dances arranged for the Coronation festivities in Oxford 1902 (the dances were not held owning to the King's illness). [King Edward VII had appendicitis shortly before the date arranged for the Coronation, 26 June 1902, and the event was delayed until 9 August 1902.] They are described as being from 'Oxford'

The 1917 pair was donated by Anna Tylor from the collection of Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in 1917. At this point the maker was declared to be 'F.J. Carter' who was surmised to be Thomas James Carter who had supplied the 1903 pair. Although the correction of 'F.J.' to 'T.J.' is plausible, it is unlikely that he was the maker, as Carter was primarily a collector working for and/or selling to local antiquaries and museums. He was known to seek out and find - or have made - objects reflecting English culture, but not to have made anything of this nature himself. This pair is described as being made for the 'Headington Morris dancers'.

The 1945 pair was found in the Museum and presumed to have been acquired by Henry Balfour.

The 2008 pair was examined by Mike Heaney on 25 February 2008 and identified as belonging to the set made for the intended performance for the Coronation festivities. Its date of acquisition by the Museum is unknown.

2008.59.1.1. Morris bellpad

2008.59.1.1. Morris bellpad

2008.59.1.2. Morris bellpad

2008.59.1.2. Morris bellpad

It is likely that there were six sets of bells in all and plausible that all were acquired by Carter when the arrangements for the Coronation festivities fell through. He sold a pair direct to the Museum and another pair to Tylor. It seems likely that he sold at least one other pair to Balfour. Another recipient may have been Percy Manning who actively encouraged Carter to seek out items of morris regalia and bought several items from him. However, there is no actual record of Manning having acquired such a pair.

The timing of the proposed performance is interesting in itself. It antedates by four years the discovery and revival of morris dancing by the middle and upper classes in 1906 (when concerts were staged in London and the first edition of The Morris Book by Cecil Sharp and Herbert McIlwaine was published), and springs from an earlier revival by the local antiquary Percy Manning.

The Headington Quarry Morris Dancers had performed regularly until 1887. In 1898 Manning acquired a photograph which he thought dated from about 1864 but was probably taken around 1875. (The photograph is Oxfordshire Photographic Archive/National Monuments Record negative CC71/70 on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum exhibition until 2009). It is described in the photographer Henry Taunt's notebook as 'Copy of Gp Morice Dancers Mr Manning'.) Manning identified dancers in the photograph and got some of them together, with other of their colleagues, to put on a performance of the dances at the Corn Exchange in Oxford (now the Old Fire Station, in George Street) in March 1899. The performance was well received and the team continued to dance on its own initiative throughout 1899. On one of these occasions, on Boxing Day 1899, they were seen by Cecil Sharp, who noted down the music. However, Sharp did not become further involved with morris dancing until 1905 when Mary Neal asked him if he knew of English dances to complement the English folk songs which he was publishing. She wanted dances for the working class girls of her Espérance Club in London. Sharp unearthed the details of William Kimber, the musician from whom he had noted the tunes in Headington, and Neal brought Kimber to London to teach her girls.

In 1902, therefore, any activity was part of the aftermath of the local revival by Percy Manning three years previously. The fact that morris dancing was included in the planned festivities is a sign of the growing middle-class interest in 'Merrie England' and antiquarian revival, which was to come to fruition under the leadership of Sharp and Neal a few years later.

The colour of the ribbon -- green -- is not a colour normally associated with the Headington Quarry dancers (whose colours are red and blue, see item 1986.17.2), but the team kitted out by Manning for the March 1899 concert had colours of orange, blue and green (two dancers wearing each colour).

[Sources: Bob Grant, 'When Punch met Merry', Folk Music Journal 7.5 (1999), 644-655; Bob Grant, Mike Heaney and Roy Judge, '"Copy of Gp Morris Dancers Mr Manning"', English Dance and Song, 43.2 (1981, 14-16.)]

[1986.17.2 ] Bell pads

1986.17.2.1.a Morris dancer's bell-pad

1986.17.2.1.a Morris dancer's bell-pad

1986.17.2.1.b Morris dancer's bell-pad

1986.17.2.1.b Morris dancer's bell-pad

1986.17.2.2.a Morris dancer's bell-pad

1986.17.2.2.a Morris dancer's bell-pad

1986.17.2.2.b Morris dancer's bell-pad

1986.17.2.2.b Morris dancer's bell-pad

ENGLAND Bell pads used in morris dancing. d.d. Headington Quarry Morris Dancers, 1986. These are leather pads with crotal bells in a 4x4 arrangement. The top right bell (seen from the front) is missing from 1986.17.2.1 and the bottom left from 1986.17.2.2. The bells are loosely covered over by strips of red and blue braid attached to the top of each pad. 220 x 180 mm

After the revival of morris dancing from 1906, in which the Headington Quarry dances and dancers played a prominent part, a series of teams, led by William Kimber, danced in the interwar years. The current incarnation of the team had its inception in 1948 and has danced every year since then. The design of the bell pads has remained the same since 1948.

Morris bell pads

The bells - together with the handkerchiefs and sticks - are probably what identify morris dancers to the average spectator. Bell pads generally consist of rectangular pieces of leather or braid, cut (with joins top and bottom) into vertical strips, with small crotals (pellet bells of the kind also associated with jesters' caps) attached to the strips. Each pad is decorated with a combination of any of strips of ribbon or braid, often with small rosettes or bows. They are tied around the leg just below the knee by longer strips of braid extending horizontally in each direction from the top and bottom of the pad. At Bampton, Oxfordshire the pads are called 'ruggles'.

The smallest bells are about 15 mm in diameter. These are found on the older sets of bells. Later bells are about 20 mm in diameter. They are sometimes known as treble and tenor bells. The largest bells may reach 30 cm.

The bells sound as the dancers move, of course, and the rhythm of the steps is accentuated as the bells sound more loudly at each footfall. In addition, many dances have more complex steps (e.g. the 'galley', in which one leg is raised and shaken in a circular movement), which are designed in part to sound the bells.

Ambrose Preston, a former swordbearer with the Field Town [Leafield] Morris Dancers, recounted to Percy Manning in 1903 that a blind fiddler for the team once criticised a dancer for starting on the wrong foot - detected from the sound of the bells. [Oxf. Bodl. MS Top. Oxon d.191a, f.196]

The bell pads in the Museum each have bells uniform in size, but Percy Manning reports mixtures of treble and tenor bells. [Percy Manning, 'Some Oxfordshire Seasonal Festivals, with Notes on Morris-dancing in Oxfordshire', Folk-lore, 7(1897), 307-324.]

6 March 2008.

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