A North East Tour
Prior to the DERT '94 tournament in Newcastle upon Tyne, George Wallace, of High Spen Blue Diamonds, conducted a tour of the real roots of rapper sword dancing. For the benefits of those who could not make the trip, he wrote it up in installments in The NUT. The complete series is shown below.
Swalwell and High Spen
Here, in 1910, Cecil Sharp collected the first rapper sword dance to appear in his Sword Dance books. At that time, there were three brothers in the team, which wore white shirts, spotted about with red, blue and white bows and rosettes of ribbon, a red tie, red sash or belt. The long trousers were then dark in colour, with a red stripe down the side but sometimes they wore white trousers and were even known to wear white overalls with the red stripe.
In the mid-1880s, the team wore the more usual breeches (or hoggers) with white stockings and long ribbons tied round the knee. The Betty and Captain wore bold-patterned clothes.
The swords were quite wide - 1¾ inches (4.5 cm); owing to breakages, the blades used varied in length up to about 22 inches (56 cm), with short pieces of wood tied onto the fixed ends.
The dance had a very basic set of figures and in 1910 was performed to the melodeon. On Christmas day there was much rivalry with the team from Winlaton (a mile (1.6 km) or so away up the hill) to get to the big houses - and the whisky - first.
The tradition here is at least 100 years old. Geordie Gibbon - the present leader Ricky Forster's great uncle - was a member of the first team we know about. In 1926, he helped Fred Forster (Ricky's grandfather) to train the young Blue Diamonds, who included Ricky's dad, Freddie, as the Tommy.
A new adult team, the Amber Stars, was formed shortly afterwards, with Fred and two more relatives dancing. Teams continued up to the war, but one was not reformed until 1954. By 1968, it was based at Birtley and included Freddie and his four sons. Later still, it was once more revived in 1982 after a short break.
The calling on song in its full version introduced the dancers as members of Robin Hood's gang. It became a "speech" through acting Tommies claiming they couldn't sing! The Betty - who in one of the figures ends up with the swords fastened around his neck - at one time carried a pig's bladder on a stick, a feature usually associated with Cotswold Morris dancing.
The dance here has the reputation, as does Earsdon on the other side of the Tyne, of being the oldest in the area. There was a mention of the Winlaton Sword Dance in a song written from gaol in 1813. The Bessy is described as looking like a Devil in a dress, patched and torn, and sporting horns and a tail.
Many of the early references to sword dancing in the area mention the Tommy, Betty or Captain wearing animal skins. We don't know, of course, at this date, what form the Winlaton dance took.
The White Star - the Winlaton team which Sharp saw in 1912 - he described as being “well advanced in years”, yet they continued performing regularly and with few changes in membership up to 1936 and, finally, at the end of the war in 1945, by which time their youngest member was 75 and their Tommy, “Boxer” Prudhoe, was 87.
One year, having in the morning buried the whistle player who had been with them 45 years, they turned up in the afternoon to dance at the Newcastle competitions; they came 2nd to Earsdon.
They had a great propensity for drink and thought nothing at any time of year of a 20-mile dance tour, walking all the way. They became so well known at the pubs, outside of which they danced, that there was always a row of free pints lined for them on the bar when they'd finished.
Their costume was similar to Swalwell's, with long trousers, coloured belts and ties. In the early days, their Tommy and Betty were both dressed in flowery materials.
Since the war, there have been many teams taught the Winlaton dance, but not always from the town. In 1956, eight Winlaton teams – including six of girls – were entered in the Darlington competitions.
Although Jack Atkins, the dancer who taught the teams, has now passed away, I recently heard that a junior school boys' side is still being taught by a former teacher.
Blaydon and Lemington
A small but busy town on the south bank of the Tyne, Blaydon lies at the foot of the "bank" from Winlaton. We know of two teams from Blaydon, one of which existed before the First World War and the other taught by a Winlaton dancer around 1920. These had an extra figure to the Winlaton dance and used a double shuffle.
The dancers dressed in dark blue breeches fastened below the knee; their sashes, ties and stockings were black and their shoes patent leather. The Tommy and Betty wore clothes of flowery material and the Betty had a wig beneath his hat. The dancers formed part of a concert party, which were very popular at the time, going around with a group of singers performing locally.
Of the earlier team, little is really recorded. They seem to have performed over a wide area, and in a similar fashion to Winlaton and Earsdon. We do know that they danced to a tin whistle and wore breeks with rosettes at the knee.
A team from Blaydon Burn, about half a mile to the west of Winlaton, was also around at this time and, when they disbanded in 1913, some of the dancers joined together with members of the former Blaydon side for a short while. The Blaydon men apparently did no stepping at all in their dance.
Our tour now crosses the River Tyne, from County Durham into Northumberland, to the village of Lemington, virtually opposite Blaydon. The team here was formed around 1928 by a chap called Billy Clark, originally a Westerhope dancer, who moved first to Newbiggin (teaching a dance there) moving back to Westerhope, rejoining a Westerhope side and then moving to Lemington. Later he was found to be living in Cumberland.
The Lemington team danced during the Depression years and referred to themselves as the “The Northumberland Acrobatic Sword Dancers” in their attempt to get bookings at local halls. Their performance included a large number of somersaults – backwards and forwards – for which, on entering the Newcastle Competitions of 1929, they were criticised by the judge from the English Folk Dance & Song Society (Helen Kennedy), who told them that it wasn't really rapper. Actually, the other teams were also very critical of their performance.
The following year a different judge (Kenworthy Schofield) disqualified them, legend has it for wearing taps on their shoes, but the real reason he gave at the time was that they weren't doing the dance from their village. Whatever he meant by that, we can only surmise.
Anyhow, after a few years they started entering the competition again, but now under the name of North Walbottle... which we'll visit next.
Walbottle and North Walbottle
One and a half miles north-west of Lemington, we come to Walbottle, situated on Hadrian's Wall. Before the First World War, there were two teams referring to themselves as Walbottle, probably because they worked in different pits of the Walbottle Colliery.
One of these teams was more associated with Throckley, just to the west of Walbottle. A most unusual feature of this team was their costume, which consisted of tartan shirts, green velvet breeks, buttoned below the knee for about six inches, and blue sashes which hung from the left hip down to the knees.
Their Betty wore a wig under a round hat piled high with flowers and the Tommy had a false beard. The Betty would sometimes come into the set at the end of the performance and a six-sword star would be tied.
It is possible that the Tommy would have also joined the set (as he did at North Walbottle) for a photograph of the team shows a star tied with seven swords.
Nothing much else is known of their dance, but they did do a spin as in the Winlaton tradition.
The other Walbottle team was connected with the Blucher pit, to the other side of Walbottle. Records of this team are extremely scant but there is a photograph of the team showing the men in their ordinary clothes, clutching their rappers and accompanied by their bairns and whippets. Whippet racing was another popular pursuit of the North East pitmen.
Less than a mile to the north, we come to North Walbottle, where the dance was collected by Cecil Sharp. It was taught in the village in 1906 by a dancer from a former Bedlington side (a place visited later in the tour).
The team variously called themselves North Walbottle, High Pit (from the mine where they worked), or Whortlon (the place they practiced in the smithy).
Their purple velvet hoggers were set off with a gold stripe and were fastened below the knee by three gold buttons. They had white stockings, a very short black tie and around their waist a wide gold sash, tied in a bow in front of the left hip.
The team danced up until the time they joined the army at the start of the Great War. Their junior team, however, continued the dance afterwards - this was the famous Westerhope team, which will be covered next.
Westerhope village now lies about three quarters of a mile to the east of North Walbottle. It is now swallowed up in the Newcastle conurbation, yet at the time when the team was on the go, it was quite a small place.
Under the name of the “Northumberland Traditional Prize Sword Dancers,” the team toured theatres all over the country and even performed at the London Palladium.
They added a small pair of cymbals to the insteps of their shoes for their stage performances!
Their fame had been achieved by winning the firsty three years of the competitions in Newcastle, which had been instigated by Cecil Sharp.
In the fourth year (1922), Sharp (who had also been the judge over its early years) placed them second to Winlaton because their dance, he claimed, had become “too much of an acrobatic display.”
The team were offered a three-year contract touring theatres, for two years in Britain and the third in America, but turned it down, even though they would have earned a small fortune compared with their pit wages. As fortune would have it, some of them suffered accidents at the pit and then came the General Strike, leaving them to rue their decision.
There was a further adult team performing in Westerhope during these years and they too entered the competitions, but under the name of Whorlton. A change of membership saw some of these dancers living beside the North Walbottle pit, where the colliery houses were known as Callerton, and they adopted this name as they continued dancing up to 1928.
In addition, there were also junior Westerhope sides and, with some of their number replacing older dancers, an adult Westerhope team continued up to about 1932.
There was a revival for a while in the 1970s, when the first leader of Sallyport (who lived and taught at Westerhope) met some of the old dancers and helped them to form a school team. However, as the youngsters left school, the team folded. Some were incorporated into the Sallyport team and one eventually became a member of Royal Earsdon.
Newbiggin to Guide Post
Three miles or so to the east of Ashington, lies the small town of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. Here we know of two different dances. One of the teams was around until about 1908 and consisted of local clog dancers who got together each Christmas time to perform the sword dance.
Each wore his own clog costume but they exchanged their dancing clogs for their pit ones with irons on the soles for performing in the streets. They used "threble shoffles" as well as singles and doubles in their stepping to the music of their Melodeon player. Each had a different coloured velvet for their hoggers and the small clog dancers' waistcoasts with Gold braid edging. They had a Tommy and Betty with them for the "cadgin".
The other team was around from 1920 and used the same melodeon player as the earlier dancers. Their dance was the one collected and published by Marjorie Sinclair and it had been invented by The Westerhope dancer Billy Clark who, as we saw before, later on also taught the Lemington Dance.
This Newbiggin team also wore clogs and brown velvet hoggers with a gold sash, white stockings and a black tie. Later on they adopted black hoggers with a red sash.
Various teams performed this dance over the years, right up to the 1960's. They included one of Sea scouts and also a girls' team. It was also being danced 2½ miles away down the coast at Cambois (pronounced "Cammus").
Heading back south again, we come to Guide Post. This is another place which had a dance at the turn of the century. As usual, they danced at Christmas and were invited into every house of the village to perform. They also danced at other times to collect for the local soup kitchen.
The dancers' costume was quite plain. Their breeches were black with a narrow stripe, fastened Below the knee, where a rosette was added. A snake belt was worn around the waist. The white Shirts sported two rosettes on the chest, one either side of the narrow tie.
The team had two musicians who played the highland pipes (!) And a single, new melodeon. Their Betty wore a large bonnet and a long, plain dress, while they called the male fool Punch. This Character wore large, baggy trousers and jacket and a high, soft hat - all made from Paisley material.
Bedlington to Earsdon
Bedlington Station: 1¼ miles east of Bedlington itself, this was where Bedlington Colliery was and the team from here included men from Bedlington Village. It seams to have survived for a while until World War 1 (1914-1918).
Bedlington: We know of two different dances here. I have already mentioned one of these - that which ended up in North Walbottle. It died out here early this century. The other Bedlington dance has also been collected (by Brian Hayden of the King's College team in 1961) and was last performed in 1926. The team wore bow ties and green hoggers with long, mainly red, ribbons hanging from the knee. They had the usual footwear we found the sword dancers using in this area - clogs with irons on. Like the Guide Post team, they performed to Highland bagpipes or melodeon but also danced to fiddle and even a piano inside pubs. Both of their fools were called Betties - the man Betty and the female Betty.
For those that do not know the dance, the star is displayed at the end of every figure, as at Earsdon, but is tied in an unusual way - each dancer having to cross his own arms over the to the elbows to get it fastened. Their stepping was a "lazy shuffle" (two beats instead of the usual three in the single shuffle), often using the heels as well to get a better sound.
Seaton Delaval: We now come to Seaton Delaval, where a team was in existance in the early years of this century. Tommy Armstrong, the Captain of Earsdon, lived two miles to the south of here and also ran this team and they performed the same dance.
Holywell: A mile to the south, we pass through Holywell. We know of a team of Sea Scouts here (we are only a couple of miles from the sea) who were dancing in 1934. There was also a team who performed in their pit clothes in the years up to the Second World War (1939-1945), possibly the same team.
Earsdon: Last, but not least, we arrive at Earsdon. It's possible that the dancers never actually lived in Earsdon itself, as it was not a colliery village. Recent teams have got around this by saying that they were from the Parish of Earsdon. The dance for most of this century has been centred on Backworth (about 1.25 miles to the west of Earsdon) and prior to this, most of the team lived in East Holywell (½ mile north-west).
The earliest mention of the Earsdon dance seems to be of a performance in 1829 at Alnwick Castle, which is the seat of the Duke of Northumberland. They performed at many Christmases there, as well as at other times up to the start of the First World War. In 1906, a young Earsdon team danced at the Castle in front of Edward VII, and, because later on the older team were getting bookings on the strength of this performance, the young ones added the epithet "Royal" to their name.
World War I put an end to the dance for a while but they reformed in 1921 during a big lock-out (strike) to make some money. Both teams entered the competitions in Newcastle that year, coming joint second behind Westerhope, but Earsdon Royal in fact won the competition 16 times during its run up to 1954. They were dancing at least until 1986.
After a break, Earsdon reformed in 1996. They wear crimson hoggers, with black clog dancer's waistcoat with rosettes front and back and a yellow sash.