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The Morris Men of Bampton

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: December 10, 2009 
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Morris dancing nearly died out in the late 19th century.  Folklorist Cecil Sharp then published material in the early 20th century that led to a revival of morris dancing.  Sharp reported that the most vibrant sides he found a century ago were in Bampton, Oxfordshire.

Morris men making sure everyone's having a fun
Morris men making sure everyone's having a fun
Morris dancing in Bampton has continued nearly unabated for the past century.  Only in 1917 and 1918, during World War I, was the tradition suspended. Even during WWII dancing continued. On Whit Monday, 1941, Bampton's morris dancers raised £14 toward the purchase of a Spitfire for Britain's aerial defense. In 2009 the dancers who performed in the marketplace did so beneath a war memorial newly strewn with flowers to honor a town youth killed only weeks before while serving with the British military in Afghanistan.

One Bampton side dedicated this year's dancing to former dancer and squire Francis Shergold.  Shergold joined the side in 1935, was squire from 1949 to 1995, and honorary president from 1995 to the time of his death in November 2008.

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Shergold found it difficult to continue Bampton's morris dancing tradition following WWII.  Village rivalries had led to the formation of a breakaway side, and by 1959 his side, the Bampton Traditional Morris Dancers, was down to four dancers.

Shergold was unwilling to allow the village tradition to die, however, and by the time he retired as squire, in 1995, his side had nearly two dozen dancers.  The second folk revival of the 20th century in the 1960s spurred a renewed interest in morris dancing. Two other sides in Bampton, the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers and the Bampton Morrismen each have another dozen or more dancers.

Although dancing practice continues all year, the focus of Bampton morris dancing is on Spring Bank Holiday Monday. Dancing was formerly performed on Whit Monday, the day after Whitsunday, Pentecost, seven weeks after Easter. The change to the bank holiday was made in the 1970s, and the new date often coincides with the traditional day.

Training for Spring Bank Holiday dancing gets serious immediately after Easter: it had better. Dancing began this year at 8:30 a.m. and continued all day, concluding at dusk, and was then followed by music, singing and partying in the Talbot Hotel. A lad had better be in good physical condition to adhere to that regimen.

Dancing takes place throughout the day in a variety of locations; in the old town marketplace, in spacious gardens of private homes and in the street before pubs. The Bampton Traditional Morris dancers performed at 28 locations, taking time out only for lunch and tea. The Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers performed at 14 venues, and the Bampton Morrismen danced at 20 locations throughout the village.

Dating back at least to the 1400s,  morris dancing is a uniquely English  folk art, danced by "sides" to the  music of fiddles and concertinas.
Dating back at least to the 1400s, morris dancing is a uniquely English folk art, danced by "sides" to the music of fiddles and concertinas.

Morris dancing may be an ancient custom, steeped in tradition, but the participants are often young. Men with gray and thinning hair are joined by teens, who participate in the festivities with as much enthusiasm as their fathers. Children who are learning the steps are often allowed to join in a dance or two. These rookies can be identified by their black trousers. The oldest dancer this year was Roy Shergold, age 82, who joined one dance "for old time's sake." Roy began dancing with the Bampton Traditional Morris Dancers at age 14. I spoke to a woman spectator whose father had been a dancer, whose husband was cavorting this day, and whose son was a black-trousered beginner, maintaining the tradition for another generation. There'll always be an England!  

If You're in Town
If you ever find yourself near Oxford in late May, pay a visit to Bampton on the Spring Bank Holiday. Hundreds of spectators crowd Bampton then to enjoy the morris dancing spectacle. The town welcomes all, there is plenty of parking—none of it pay and display! There is also an inexpensive bus service from Oxford.  When hunger calls and a break is needed, the town offers several pubs: The Talbot, The Morris Clown, The Horseshoe and The Romany, and a sandwich shop on the marketplace at the town center. 

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One Response to “The Morris Men of Bampton”

  1. 1
    Lin says:

    If you can't get to England, there's plenty of morris dancing in the colonies….including Yanks and Canadians. Look for it on the web and come out!

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