Abingdon Morris Dancing and the Mayor of Ock Street before 1914
Abingdon is one of the few towns in the south of England that has an ongoing tradition of morris dancing dating back over hundreds of years and it is unique in combining this with another tradition, that of electing a ‘mock mayor’ (of Ock Street). Early historical sources are sparse but the local press provides more substantial accounts of the survival of these traditions into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This article explores the history of these customs up to the period preceding the 1914-18 War. A further article will bring the history up to the present day.
Old traditional folk customs tend to die out and, perhaps, be replaced by new ones. But some don’t. Where they continue, it is usually because they have close links to a geographical location or community which provides custodians or ‘bearers’ of the tradition. It helps if there is association with a recurring calendar event, and if there are favourable attitudes towards the custom in the local and wider society. All of these can be seen to have played a part in the survival of morris dancing and the election of a Mayor of Ock Street in Abingdon annually in June. Nevertheless, there were a number of challenges to be faced along the way.
Until the late 1930s the morris side was not referred to as ‘Abingdon Morris’ but rather as the ‘Ock Street Morris Dancers’ and the links with the street were, and remain, very close. An annual June Fair was an occasion for horse and cattle dealing and was also a special feast for Ock Street residents which included morris dancing and electing a mock mayor. The first printed reference to the Mayor of Ock Street accompanied by his morris dancers occurs in 1825.
On Saturday last the curious, laughable, and annual ceremony of choosing a mayor for the Ock Street in this borough took place according to ancient custom… It appears that although the Ock Street is situate within the borough, the inhabitants have always been considered a distinct people, and during the latter part of the 16th century, many and serious were the disputes between the rival parties. These continued till the renewal of the charter of the borough in the year 1700 (according to tradition), when it was agreed that all disputes should terminate in a contest for the horns of an ox, which was to be roasted in the Bury to commemorate the above event. The contest at length did take place… One of the privileges obtained on this memorable day was, that the victors should have the exclusive liberty to parade the town the day succeeding the Ock Street fair, with moris-dancers, accompanied by a mayor chosen by themselves, and preceded by a mace-bearer carrying the aforesaid horns erected on a pole. This ceremony has been continued from the year 1700 to the present year. It was the custom till within these few years for the mayor of the borough to be present at the installation of the Ock Street, mayor, to congratulate him on his promotion, to view the ceremony of chairing, and to invite him to parade the borough (according to ancient custom…)…
There are earlier references to morris dancing associated with Abingdon in 1560, 1722, 1768 and 1783 but these do not provide evidence for continuity with the form of dancing which took place at the Ock Street June Fair.
An account in 1835 makes reference to unsuccessful attempts by the authorities to stop this and similar customs. The article gives us the first known name of an Ock Street Mayor, Thomas Leonard, who was described disparagingly as ‘an individual every way qualified to fill the important situation’. Thomas Leonard is listed in the 1841 Census as a weaver, born around 1806, living in Ock Street.
The next newspaper reference is in 1849 when we learn that:
The election was productive of fine fun, the circumstance of the candidates styling themselves Sir. F. Thesiger (our respected member), and Gen. Caulfield (the late unsuccessful candidate for the Borough), and the election fell on the former by seven votes.
This description points to one of the functions of mock mayor ceremonies, that of poking fun at figures of authority.In Abingdon this would be quite understandable, as in 1590 the Borough Council decreed that:
…noe person caule any of the Principal Burgesses or Secondary Burgesses knave or other name of reproche upon payne to forfayt Vs. [5 shillings] or els be commyted to prisin for five daies without bayle…
This decree remained in force until 1835 and so the mock mayor ceremony could have provided an outlet for the poorer citizens of the town who wished to express their feelings about those in positions of power and privilege. This view is supported by the account of the ceremony given in 1855.
That portion of the Fair devoted to pleasure was as usual held and kept (for it partakes much of hospitality) in that portion of Ock Street known as the Fens. It was preceded by the ancient burlesque upon municipal institutions, the choosing a mayor of the locality for the year ensuing, who was duly installed and chaired with all the accustomed libations and honours, the individual selected for the mock civic dignity being one of the proper vagabond – we beg his worship’s pardon, we do not mean of the mean kind, but of the free and rollicking sort.
Following on from the election of Thomas Leonard in 1835 the next known Mayor of Ock Street was Thomas Hemmings. He started dancing in 1840, was first elected in 1860, and held office on a number of occasions before handing on the position to his son William shortly before his death in 1885. Thomas Hemmings was an agricultural labourer living in Smith’s Yard (Court 13) Ock Street. At least four of his children are known to have been morris dancers and three, William, James and Henry were later to become Mayors of Ock Street.Newspaper reports, covering the period 1870 to 1900, continue to indicate the poor reputation attributed, not just to the Mayor of Ock Street himself, but also to the morris dancers and the ceremonial proceedings as a whole. Nevertheless morris dancing and the election of the Mayor of Ock Street were regular annual events in the nineteenth century up to and including 1888 after which there are references to the absence of the custom or to it being ‘revived’. The account for 1893 speaks of a partial revival.
The old custom of the Ock Street Morris Dancers has been revived this week, and caused some amusement. On Monday [June 19th] residents were invited by bills to vote for Hughes, whilst others were asked to vote for Cox. Whether the voting took place or not is not clear, but Cox appears to have been elected to the honourable position of “Mayor”… The revival of this old custom is, however, far from what it used to be.
William Hemmings, interviewed in 1910, said that he had been ‘mayor of the morris nine times’, but on this occasion he was not a contestant. No further accounts of either Cox or Hughes being involved in morris dancing or mayor-making have been found.
In 1900 it was reported that:
Mayor choosing and morris dancing were regular institutions, intermittently revived in late years. This year the “Ock Street horns” were again brought out, but it must have required an effort to get up a team, who towards evening bore traces of having done a hard day’s work.
The absence of the dancers was commented upon in 1902 which suggests that they may have appeared in 1901. There seems to have been a lull in the ceremony until 1910 when visits to James and William Hemmings from London-based folklore collectors Mary Neal, Mabel Tuke and Cecil Sharp rekindled interest in the tradition.
REVIVAL OF MORRIS DANCING. The widespread attention given to the revival of Morris dancing led to the observance of an old Ock Street custom on the day following June Fair. There was no choosing the Mayor of Ock Street as in olden times, but William Hemmings, son of a former “Mayor”, was recognised as still holding office… A fiddler completed the party, and the Ock Street horns, dated 1700, were brought out for the occasion.The photograph below was dated on its reverse side ‘June 21st 1912’, but is much more likely to have been taken in 1910 (based on the fact that the fiddler pictured , “Gipsy” Lewis, died in August 1910). It shows the Ock Street men dancing outside the old Congregational Church in the Square in Abingdon and was borrowed from Lily Rant of Steventon (she was part of the family that ran a chain of local shops ‘Rant and Tombs’, including one at 56 Ock Street). Lily is in the picture on the right of the group holding her bicycle. In a letter written in 1938 she says that:
The figure in white at two o’clock in the picture is the famous Billy Hemmings – “King of Ock Street” – a title that has become extinct with the old man’s passing. So far as the dancing is concerned the occasion depicted was a revival. I believe the lapse in this case was somewhere between 1900 and 1902 and I believe I am correct when I say that the actual revival took place in either 1910 or 1911.This photograph does not give the impression of a well-prepared team of dancers. Only two dancers are wearing the proper costume of white trousers and shirts, ribbons and top hats. The dancers seem to lack a co-ordinated approach with the legs and arms of each person being in a variety of different positions. So the Ock Street dancers do not seem to have been in a very strong position at this time, nevertheless in 1911 it was reported that:
JUNE FAIR.-…For the first time in the memory of the oldest inhabitant there was no pleasure fair, but the old-time Morris Dancers went round on Wednesday.
There are no further newspaper reports of the Ock Street men dancing in the period before the First World War. Accounts from oral histories collected by the author, and the morris dance researchers Keith Chandler and David ‘Doc’ Rowe, indicate that the Hemmings family and their friends kept up aspects of the dancing in the back gardens of Ock Street after World War 1 and there is photographic evidence of this from 1929 onwards. But dancing in public did not resume until 1937.
Although the revival of morris dancing at the June Fair in Abingdon around 1910 may have been short lived it came at an important time, providing a link between the old performers and a new generation of dancers. Important information was collected by the visiting folklorists, and the Hemmings family received the necessary encouragement to keep the tradition going even when regular public performances were not possible.
I am grateful to Keith Chandler who has so generously shared the results of his research into historical accounts of morris dancing in the South Midlands in general and Abingdon in particular.
© AAAHS and contributors 2020
References and notes
 Berkshire Chronicle, 25 June 1825, p.3.
 J Ward, Archaeologia V.1 (1754) pp.13-25; Daily Post 13 October 1722, pp. 1-2; St James Chronicle 9 January 1768, p. 4; C Sharpe and H MacIlwaine, The Morris Book (1974), p. 113.
 Berkshire Chronicle, 27 June 1835, p.3.
 Berkshire Chronicle, 23 June 1849, p.2.
 For more details on mock mayor elections in England see the entry in J. Simpson and S. Roud, (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pages 242-243.
 Quoted in W. Liversidge, A Guide To Abingdon on Thames, Berkshire (Abingdon, 1979), p.45.
 Berkshire Chronicle, 23 June 1855, p.5. The Fens were apparently the part of Ock Street close to the present junction with Tower Close.
 Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 20 June 1885, p.6.
 Photo provided by Judy White of AAAHS, from a glass photographic plate found at Abingdon dump. ‘Thomas Hemmings after he voted for the last MP for the borough’.
 Oxford Chronicle, 24 June 1893.
 Neal (1910) op. cit., page 3.
 Abingdon Herald, 23 June 1900.
 Abingdon Free Press, 27 June 1902, p.4.
 The original copy of this photo is held at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in London.
 North Berks Herald, 25 June 1910.
 The three dancers nearest to the camera from left to right were identified in 1939 as: James Hemmings, Jack Hemmings, ‘Stodger’ Hudson. The three dancers furthest from the cameral left to right were: Tom Hemmings, Bob Martin, Bertie Hudson. With sword and collecting box William Hemmings. With Horns Willie Belcher. With ‘Mace’ (wooden cup) under his arm, wearing bowler hat near Bertie Hudson was Jack Hemmings (senior). Fiddler – Gipsy Lewis. (Information from Francis Fryer in a letter to the Librarian at Cecil Sharp House on 7 April 1939).
 Lily Rant, letter to Francis Fryer, 10 June 1938, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library collection. Author’s note: I have tentatively identified the man wearing a straw boater standing with his hands on his hips in the top right of the picture as being my father, Fred Leach, who would have been 20 at the time and whose place of work was a few yards away around the corner at the family’s stationer’s shop and printing firm in Bath Street.
 The original copy of this photo is held at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
 Faringdon Advertiser, 24 June 1911, page 5.
 There is sufficient material to justify another article exploring the development of morris dancing in Abingdon in the 20th Century after the 1914-18 War. In the meantime, thanks to the efforts of Dave Spiers, information about this period can be found on the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers website at http://atmd.org.uk/diary-for-1919-1949/ and at http://atmd.org.uk/diaries-of-previous-years/.