The Personal Recollections Of A Founding Member
The first time I performed the Morris in Harthill was in 1974 with the (now defunct) Escafeld Morris men from Sheffield. In that year the recently revived village carnival was held on the cricket field and Escafeld were invited to give a display. My wife and I had moved to Harthill a couple of years earlier, were keen to get involved in the village community and as such I helped to form the Carnival Society. As well as planning the carnival itself, the Society also ran a year-round programme of social events including Edwardian evenings in the style of ‘The Good Old Days.’
It was towards the end of one of those very happy evenings when a slightly swaying gentleman by the name of Dan asked:
“Can tha’ teach us a couple of morris dances to show at next do?”
“Find me about eight willing men and we’ll give it a go,” replied I, thinking that in the sober light of day all would be forgotten.
Days passed without seeing Dan again as we lived at opposite ends of the village and he did his drinking in the Beehive whilst I did mine at the Blue Bell. One day however there was a tap-tap on my shoulder. It was Dan:
“I’ve got thi’ eight men. When shall we start?”
Well b****r me! Would you believe it? What I hadn’t realised in underestimating Dan was that he was part of a group of youngish fellas from his end of the village who did their weekly bondage (sorry, I mean bonding) in the Beehive snooker room. They had obviously decided that to put on ‘an entertainment’ in the form of a spoof Morris would be a good laugh! Whilst I’ve never been comfortable with this ‘Generation Game’ attitude towards our oldest living tradition, I decided to go along with it all the same. In any case I had a longer-term agenda in mind: a proper Morris side for the village!
So, in the early Spring of 1976 a group began to meet in the old church schoolroom on Thursday evenings at around 19:30 (7:30pm in old money). From memory there was Dan Turner, John Gunby, Brian Shutt, Terry Travis, Dave Lowe, Russel Parker, Keith Simmonite, Howard Poucher and myself. I’d taped a few tunes for us to practice to and Howard was trying to learn them on his fiddle. I’d decided on four dances to attempt for the Carnival Society’s forthcoming event; ‘Lads a Bunchum (Adderbury)’, ‘Bean Setting (Hedington)’, ‘Young Collins (Bledington)’ and ‘Shepherd’s Hey (Adderbury)’. (In the end we didn’t learn ‘Shepherd’s Hey’ as we were struggling with the others and decided to stick to three.)
For costume we really decided to ‘ham it up!’ Home-made smocks, straw hats, wellingtons (with loose straw spilling out of the tops). Well no-one was going to take us seriously dressed like that, were they?! Add to that the fact that our dance competence was anything but secure…not to mention Howard’s violin playing…was it all a disaster in the making?
Actually no, just the opposite in fact. Despite us being a bag of nerves our show went down a storm and we emerged from the experience on a high – which was to sow the seeds of things to come.
In the aftermath we decided to keep meeting and practising and not to let things drop. We identified Boxing Day as the next time on which to launch a display on an unsuspecting public!
With the nights pulling in during the Autumn of 1976 we decided to move our practices from the church schoolroom to the chapel schoolroom, which was slightly bigger. For music we battled on with a combination of Howard’s fiddle and a tape recorder. Afterwards we would retire to the pubs – some to the Bell, others to the Beehive. We started to speculate as to where all the practice was leading; some wanted to get more into the serious side of the Morris whilst others were content for us to remain as a light-hearted village entertainment.
By Christmas we were starting to get to grips with the basics of stepping, the hand movements and the figures so we met outside the Bell on Boxing Day – still in smocks, but now with bowler hats decorated with a yellow ribbon, black knee-length breeches, black shoes, white stockings and yellow handkerchiefs. At that time the Carnival Society held a fancy dress pram push round the village which started and ended at the Bell and it was agreed with the Society that the Morris men would dance before the pram push set off. For music we had ‘bribed’ Graham Moor of Lord Conyers Morris to come along and play for us. He came with another musician called Jan and both did us proud in our hour of need. I can’t remember now the dances we performed then, but it was probably a repeat of our first show, although I do remember the solo jig I danced – it was ‘Lumps of Plum Pudding (Bledington)’, chosen appropriately by its title for Boxing Day. Incidentally, Graham has always insisted he never got his ‘ten bob’ for playing and has never let me forget it!
It’s worth mentioning here that around this time – 1976 – it was the Blue Bell that was the focus for many of the Society’s activities. It held its meetings there in a side room (now knocked through into an enlarged tap room) and was well supported by Landlady Lily Froggatt and her family. A couple of years earlier the Society had embarked on a series of fund-raising activities in order to pay for the summer carnival events. One was the Boxing Day pram push when Lil would come out with a warming stirrup cup; this was a silver bowl of punch which was distributed to the participants and audience alike. It was certainly good stuff!
Another fund-raiser was the revival of ‘T’owd Tup’; originally a traditional Christmas custom of the mining community in Harthill but was last done in the village in the early 1950’s. It was revived in 1974 by a group of Carnival Society members who toured the Tup around the area’s hostelries. for a couple of years the Tup concluded its perambulations at the Bell on Christmas Eve with performances in the crowded tap room, lounge and finally the ‘snug’ which was the Society’s HQ.
We sang a few carols which included three I had introduced from the local Sheffield collection. These were ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’, ‘Christmas Tree’ and ‘We Singers Make Bold’. This last carol was also printed on the Society’s song sheets for the torchlight carol processions which walked through the village, usually led by members of the Killamarsh Silver Band. You will read later how the Harthill Morris eventually became involved with the local carols.
When Lil Froggatt retired from the Blue Bell and a new Landlord took over the Morris men who used to drink there started to join the others at the Beehive after practices, where Rex & Betty Allsop were the hosts. This has remained the ‘home’ of Harthill Morris ever since, even though there has been several changes of licensees in both pubs since then. In ‘our’ room at the Beehive you can see a collection of our famous (and infamous) photographs hung around the bar.
Early in the new year of 1977 the mood of the side was generally changing towards that of wanting to learn more about the Morris and its customs but unfortunately one or two didn’t like the idea and had dropped out. On the other hand I was still heavily committed to Escafeld Morris, the club that had given me so many magical Morris moments. I could foresee a time when I would have to choose between the two and I clearly hoped the Harthill men would ‘grasp the nettle’ and develop the tradition in the village seriously and properly.
We had fresh impetus when new men including Neil Fretwell and Ian Vernon joined us. This meant that membership was no longer 100% Harthill men, but the club became much stronger as a result. A particular boost at that time was when Pat Johnson, an accordian musician from Wales, came to join us. I won’t try to recall the names of all the men who started to come along at around this time for fear of leaving someone out and thus causing offence.
Our next gig was to be the All Hallows Church Fete. This was to be the last one in the grounds of the old rectory before the Church Commissioners sold it off. The rector at the time was Canon Charlie Richardson who was always a source of encouragement to us in our early escapades. We had decided on a proper costume by this time and had ditched the smocks. We had agreed on bowler hats for head-wear and had put out an appeal for these from which we had an excellent response from villagers who searched their top shelves and produced the goods. In many cases these donations of bowlers were a legacy from pre-Second World War times when they were worn for Sunday best. They must have had smaller heads then because unfortunately many didn’t fit our men! They came in useful a few years later when a short-lived boys side was formed. (They’ll be in their thirties now, many with kids of their own – oh dear!)
I still have my donated bowler which originally belonged to Major Wall. We wore our new costumes for the first time when we danced on the rectory lawn, except the bell pads hadn’t been made by then and the tabbard hadn’t been printed with our motif. The costume worn by us today is virtually the same as that first worn in 1977, except that the original motif by Ray Atkin was replaced later with a design by Pete Furnell. This in turn has recently been amended slightly.
Some will recall that 1977 was the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee and Don Conacher went round filming aspects of Harthill village life. One clip shows us dancing in our incomplete attire on the Old Rectory lawns; our hair was darker and longer then!
During the summer of 1977 we ventured out of our practice room at the chapel on around three occasions to perform outside a couple of pubs each night. I think we also went to a primary school fete at Thorpe Salvin. Our repertoire was still very small but confidence was growing and by then we had a complete costume. The buzz was evident.
Throughout all this I was still very involved with Escafeld Morris Men and in the late summer I had organised a Saturday day’s tour with guest teams. This culminated in a gathering that evening at Woodhouse by the old stocks and cross. Escafeld invited the men from Harthill to come along and although still very ‘green’ we were able to join in a few of the dances with the other sides and also do our own solo spot. The Harthill men got on particularly well with the Mansfield Morris and the evening ended with a very enjoyable sing over a few pints in the George. This was the start of a camaraderie between the two sides which was to last until Mansfield’s demise some years later.
In the autumn we held our first AGM and officers were elected; I became the club’s first Squire and Harthill Morris was official.
We had agreed that we would make a big effort to develop the Morris by improving our standards of dance, by learning some of the songs often sung at Morris gatherings and to try to recruit additional members. We also had a longer-term aim of applying for membership of the Morris Ring.
By Christmas 1977 the club’s momentum was gathering. The pressures of work and other commitments meant that sadly I would soon be leaving my friends in the Escafeld side but by this time I could see that my future in the Morris was in the yellow and black of Harthill.
After the final Thursday practice of the year I held a Squire’s Party at our house and we emptied a nine gallon firkin of Tetley’s bitter supplied by Rex, the Landlord at the Beehive. A few of our non-Morris friends from the pub joined us including local GP Derek McLoughlin. He was also leader of the local choral society so I got him on the piano and together we attempted to feel our way into one or two of the local carols which some of us had already sung elsewhere in the village in previous years. This led Derek to take on the task of informally teaching the local carols at the Beehive and although not exclusively part of the Harthill Morris, our members have given strong support to the singing over the years and this now appears to have grown into a custom in its own right.
I hope this account summarises how the Harthill Morris came to be and I trust it recalls the first 20 months or so reasonably accurately. Future accounts (from 1978 onwards) could well include: our early feasts, joining the Morris Ring, the Royal visits and much more. I look forward to someone else writing them!
Derrek Leigh (written May 2005)