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The Abingdon Morris Tradition 1918 to 2018

In the previous article the story was told of how the Abingdon traditions of morris dancing and electing a Mayor of Ock Street, despite a certain amount of local disdain and opposition, managed to survive into the early twentieth century. The last known appearance of the morris dancers before the outbreak of the First World War was in 1911. This article picks up the story, showing how these traditions initially disappeared from public view for around a quarter of a century but then re-established themselves as an important and distinctive part of the town’s life.

It might be thought that the 1914-18 war was responsible for the demise of morris dancing in Abingdon, but, as mentioned above, it seems to have already gone into decline a few years before. However, of those men involved in the 1910 revival two are known to have died in the conflict.[1]

morris_tree_2.png

The Hemmings family as mentioned in this article

The renowned folklore collector Cecil Sharp followed up his 1910 visit to James and William Hemmings in Abingdon with another on 21 September 1922. Sharp was one of the founders of the English Folk Dance Society in 1911 and was always on the lookout for traditional dances. James and William were the sons of Thomas Hemmings who had been a morris dancer since 1840 and ‘Mayor of Ock Street’ from 1860 to 1885; the title having then passed on to William, also known as ‘Patch’ Hemmings. On this second visit Sharp commented that the dancing was ‘clearly corrupt from forgetfulness’; however the brothers still had sufficient recollection to supply him with the details of three morris dances and four morris dance tunes.[2] Sharp obviously felt that William deserved recognition as he persuaded members of the English Folk Dance Society to pay for a new concertina to be made for him at a cost of £14 (the average labourer’s weekly wage at that time was £1 and 8 shillings)

The local newspaper took up this story and pictured the brothers with the new concertina.

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‘OLD MORRIS DANCERS.  The Hemmings brothers of Ock Street are well-known in the neighbourhood as old Morris Dancers[3]
 

The publicity generated by this event did not spark off another revival; other than James' son Tom, there do not seem to have been any younger men interested in performing the dance at this time. However, William Hemmings taught the tunes to Harry Thomas, a melodeon player who lived opposite him in Ock Street. 

Nationally there was a revival of interest in morris dancing and in 1924 a group of Cambridge students formed ‘The Travelling Morrice’ undertaking tours of various towns and villages in England, including a visit to Abingdon in 1925.

People came out in quantities; tears stood in their eyes.  A sweep, the brother of the original accordian player, driving by, threw his cart away and joined in.  The women particularly were entranced: they said - "but they haven't got the buffalo horns."[4]

The ‘sweep’ was Henry Hemmings, aged 79, another of Thomas Hemmings’ sons, who was actually a coalman.  

In 1929 there was an attempt to re-stimulate interest in Abingdon morris dancing.  Mary Neal, who had also collected dances from the brothers before the War, brought a press reporter and a photographer from Fox Photos of London to meet the Hemmings family and friends. They took a set of photographs in the back garden of the Cross Keys pub in Ock Street which appeared in various publications, including the Daily Mirror.[5]  By this time, although there were no elections, James had taken over the position of Mayor of Ock Street from William. The latter was likely to have been gravely ill as he died shortly after, in January 1930, at the Abingdon Poor Law Infirmary. His death was reported in the local paper which cited the lack of dancers being responsible for the decline of the tradition over the previous years.[6]

morris_2_2.png1929 Hemmings family and friends[7]

Although members of the Hemmings family seem to have made a serious attempt to gain wider support for the tradition in 1929, there was no public revival of morris dancing at this time. James Hemmings senior died in January 1935, but on 6 May of that year members of the family took part in the procession through the town carrying the Ock Street Horns and associated regalia. This was as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations for George V.

morris_2_3.png1936 at the Happy Dick[8]

A photo taken in the backyard of the Happy Dick in Ock Street shows the Hemmings family together with Wiblins (in-laws to the Hemmings) wearing decorated top hats accompanied by Harry Thomas as musician. It was at this pub that the Hemmings got the morris going again by inviting some of the regulars to join in.  It seems to have been the previous year’s Jubilee celebrations that provided the impetus, although a dancing team did not appear at this time.

Well when we first set up in 1935... that was at the Happy Dick yard, old Mr. Hemmings, that was the landlord there, used to come out with these two tea-towels and sort of jump about and one thing and another.  Mr. Harry Thomas... was our musician at the time... He knew all the old tunes... and he started seated outside in the big yard, playing... one joined in then another, Tom Hemmings and Percy…  Tom Hemmings sort of knew the steps...  We started off more or less, you could say as a bit of fun really.  Something to do when sitting around on a summer's evening drinking.[9]

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The former Happy Dick pub,
now a private house
© Michael Harrison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A national organisation, the Morris Ring, had been set up in 1934 to: ‘encourage the performance of the Morris, to maintain its traditions and to preserve its history.’[10]  Francis Fryer, a retired army Major, who lived at Wargrave Manor near Henley, hosted a weekend meeting of Morris Ring teams in 1936 and they danced at Abingdon on Saturday 29 September. In a reprise of the 1925 encounter, Henry Hemmings, who was passing by, couldn’t resist joining in. As a result, Fryer and three other men from the Morris Ring visited the Hemmings in October 1936 to find out more information about their tradition.

In 1937 on 12 May the Hemmings family and friends wearing decorated top hats and carrying the Ock Street Horns took part in a procession through Abingdon to mark the coronation of George VI. Later that day they danced at various places throughout the town. Word of this revival reached Major Fryer and he invited the team to dance at an event at Wargrave Hall on 29 May. This was a success and from this point on Fryer took a particular interest in the Abingdon team, attending their practices, providing financial support and transport to venues beyond Abingdon to perform their dances. On the traditional date of the old Ock Street June Fair the team performed their dances and Henry Hemmings was appointed Mayor of Ock Street, although no election was held. According to the local press this was first performance of its kind for 25 years.[11]

Inspired by their contact with Fryer and his friend Dr. Kenworthy Schofield, the Abingdon men formed themselves into a properly constituted club with Fryer as its President. James Hemmings junior (son of old James} was Treasurer, Percy Hemmings (son of Henry) was Secretary and Tom Hemmings (another of old James’ sons) was lead dancer. Other members at this time were Charlie Brett, Johnny Grimsdale, Charles Hemmings, George Hemmings, Ray Hemmings, Harold Matthews, John ‘Slim’ Mooring, Harry Thomas and Frederick Wiblin. They joined the Morris Ring and continued to perform in Abingdon and beyond until the outbreak of the Second World War and were joined during this period by other local men including James ‘Ducky’ Allen, Ernie Constance, Jack Hyde and George Wake. They were also supported at times by members of the Wargrave Morris Team led by Major Fryer who had learnt the Abingdon dances.

The first election of the twentieth century for the Mayor of Ock Street was held on 20 June 1938. Henry Hemmings was elected standing against Tom Hemmings. Another election was held in 1939 again with Henry being elected against Tom. By this time many of the dwellings crammed into the ‘courts’ off Ock Street had been demolished with residents being rehoused in Saxton Road and at other new council housing developments. Notwithstanding these demographic changes, the level of support shown for the old custom is indicated by the number of votes cast by Ock Street residents: 199 in 1938 and 182 in in 1939.  

Just when things were gaining momentum war broke out. Major Fryer returned to military service and many of the dancers were called up. Those men remaining managed a few performances to raise funds for the war effort, but no elections were held. Henry Hemmings died in October 1945 and Harry Thomas, the team’s musician, died in 1947. It seemed as if the Abingdon morris tradition was going into decline again and Percy Hemmings was reported to have lost interest in it. In response the team approached Major Fryer in 1948 to see if he could help out again. Fryer was willing and in 1949 team practices were held twice a month at the Happy Dick with music played by Fryer. No election was held but Tom Hemmings took on the role of Mayor of Ock Street. Some of the Wargrave morris men attended practices to help make up the numbers.

In 1950 the first Ock Street election since the war was held with Tom Hemmings receiving 119 votes to Charlie Brett’s 20. In October of that year the team started practicing at Boxhill School and a team of boys there were taught dances from a range of morris traditions. When they switched their practice venue to Caldecott House they also taught dances to a team of boys from the Dr. Barnardo’s home there. Throughout most of the 1950s the team were quite busy with many appearances including some high-profile events such as Windsor in 1951, the Royal Albert Hall in 1952 and Trafalgar Square in 1956. In 1952 they hosted a Morris Ring meeting in Abingdon, a large event with many teams touring the town and surrounding area. In 1956 they and the Barnardo’s boys’ team danced for the Queen’s visit to Abingdon, an event filmed for Pathé News.[12]

morris_2_5.pngAbingdon Morris Dancers 1956[13]

By 1957 Major Fryer had health problems which reduced his involvement with Abingdon. Len Bardwell a concertina player and member of Oxford City and East Surrey Morris Men provided much of the music, which he had learnt from Fryer. In 1958 Mayor’s Day was held as usual, but regular practice sessions had ceased and the team had to rely on men from Wargrave and other local morris teams to make up numbers for public performances. Tom Hemmings remained Mayor of Ock Street until his death in 1960, often standing against his nephew Ray Hemmings, landlord of the Happy Dick. Then Major Fryer died in January 1961 and James Hemmings, Tom’s brother, died in February.

.. the side dropped in numbers. Outsiders became the mainstay rather than occasional support and even major town events found only four dancers active. Enough men with roots in north Berks came in from Oxford and University sides to keep the dancing going ...[14]

In 1962 Ray Hemmings was elected with 80 votes against Charlie Brett with 20 votes and Brian Clark (grandson of Tom Hemmings) with 17 votes. Ray was the last in a long line of Hemmings to be Mayor of Ock Street; he became too ill to stand in 1963 and there was no election that year. In 1964 Charlie Brett was elected Mayor, a post he held until his death in 1979. Charlie often stood against Johnny Grimsdale, another dancer from the 1930s, who died in the same year. Information on subsequent Mayors of Ock Street up to the present day can be found on the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers website.[15]

For a while, during the 1960s, things were looking uncertain until there was an unexpected upturn.

Abingdon went through a terrible patch in the early sixties when they couldn’t get enough men to practise… and each time they went out over a period of years, they thought it would be the last time they would be seen. And then the local Rover Scouts at Longworth… were taught the morris and they liked it so much that five joined the club just like that. That then made them viable, they could then dance on Saturdays during the rest of the season, and of course the townspeople then got interested as well. And they were able to build up a club which at its peak had some forty-odd people attending practises.[16]

From 1964 to 2019 Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers (ATMD) has maintained the annual ‘Mayor-Making’ ceremony in Ock Street without a break, a considerable achievement considering the way the custom dipped in and out of existence in the past.  A significant development happened in 1979 when a separate Abingdon team was formed taking the name “Mr Hemmings’ Morris Dancers” (now known as “Mr Hemmings’ Traditional Abingdon Morris Dancers”). This team, which has no involvement in the Mayor-Making, started up with strong local and family connections:

Old Tom Hemmings was a leading member of the Abingdon Morris Dancers from the turn of the century until his death in 1960. Now three of his grandsons, four of his great-grandsons and two other relatives, are keeping up the family tradition.[17]

At the start both teams performed the same repertoire of Abingdon dances. Although there was undoubtedly a strong sense of rivalry between the teams in the early days, the two teams have subsequently co-existed quite happily. There has been a certain amount of toing-and-froing of members between the teams and now there are some men who are active members of both. On one special occasion the two teams came together:

On Saturday 13th September 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1, there was dancing on the Market Place by ‘The Morris Men of Abingdon’ with ATMD and Mr Hemmings dancers in the same set, wearing no baldricks, sashes or ribbons, just white clothes, hats and bells.  Two sets of dancers, four musicians, 2 fools and a large crowd to watch.[18]

One thing that has distinguished the Hemmings team is a relaxed attitude towards the involvement of women in morris dancing. At the outset they invited the first women’s team, Windsor Morris, to dance in Abingdon; for many years they had a female musician and, in 2017, admitted women as full dancing members. Both teams have contributed significantly to the ongoing survival of morris dancing in Abingdon and indeed, in recent years, have added to it. In 1922 only four dances out of an original twelve were known well enough to perform, by 1979 that number was back up to twelve and since then the Hemmings team have added one new dance and ATMD four.

In the hundred years or so covered by this article Abingdon has seen many changes and its traditions of morris dancing and electing the Ock Street Mayor have changed with it. At the same time these customs have provided a certain continuity with the past and have maintained a truly local character. Far from being disdained, as in days gone by, the morris teams have become a key part of the civic life of the town, often appearing at important local events, as well as representing the town further afield.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Dave Spiers of Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers who has spent much time and energy transcribing and making available the past records of that team. I would also like to thank Keith Chandler who has so generously shared the results of his researches into the history of morris dancing in the South Midlands.

Jonathan Leach

© AAAHS and Contributors 2020

 

[1] See the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers website for more details http://atmd.org.uk/ww1/ (accessed 12/11/20).

[2] Cecil Sharp Field Note Book, 1922, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.  

[3] Photo from the archives of Mr Hemmings Traditional Abingdon Morris Dancers, text from North Berks Herald, 6 January 1923.

[4] Sharp correspondence.  Folder K, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.  Letter from the Kettlewells, West Hall Hill, Burford.  18.7.1931.

[5] The Daily Mirror, 29 September 1929, p. 22.

[6] North Berks Herald, 17 January 1930, p. 5.

[7] Photo from the archives of Mr Hemmings Traditional Abingdon Morris Dancers.

[8] Photo from the archives of Mr Hemmings Traditional Abingdon Morris Dancers. On the back row: Tom Hemmings; Myra Hemmings; Hilda Wiblin; Mrs Wiblin; Ray Hemmings.  Front row: Fredrick "Derby" Wiblin; Henry Hemmings holding the fool's bladder: George Hemmings with grandson John on his knee; Harry Thomas with melodeon.

[9] John ‘Slim’ Mooring interviewed by Keith Chandler and Jonathan Leach, 4 February 1985.

[10] The Morris Ring, https://themorrisring.org (accessed 12/11/20).

[11] North Berks Herald 25 June 1937, p. 4.

[13] Photo from the archives of Mr Hemmings Traditional Abingdon Morris Dancers.

[14] Roy Dommett, (1979) Sidmouth Lecture. http://www.chezfred.org.uk/for/pdf/1979RoyDommettDocument.pdf (accessed 12/11/20).

[16] Roy Dommett (1979) Sidmouth Lecture. http://www.chezfred.org.uk/for/pdf/1979RoyDommettDocument.pdf (accessed 12/11/20).

[17] Oxford Journal, 30 April 1982, p. 9.

[18] Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers website http://atmd.org.uk/brief-history/  (accessed 12/11/20).

 

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