Lost Rapper Teams:
The Sheffield Cutlers
A Story of Gown & Town
The Sheffield Cutlers were a rapper team of distinction drawn from the student ranks of the University of Sheffield. Starting around 1959/60, the first year or so was spent learning their craft. The were taught and led by Graham Cole and Joss Mellor, who had moved to Sheffield after graduating at Newcastle, where he had also researched dance with Bill Cassie and learned his rapper. Ex Cutler John Parsons, who came to Sheffield in September 1961, recalls that he joined immediately but, “there was no uniform at that stage” though they were dancing in kit soon after his arrival (white shirt and stockings, black breeches with a royal blue sash sporting a yellow tail bearing the team logo). Other members of the team at this time were John Graham and Brian Mason, later joined by Tony Poile. John also recalls that the team regularly danced at Sidmouth, his home town, and on one occasion with Dave Swarbrick as musician! On a less happy note he remembers dancing in clogs on a polished floor in one of the Sheffield halls of residence, slipping, and the rapper severing a small artery in his wrist. He became aware of the injury when the shirt of the dancer in front turned red. Someone stepped in while John received first aid and the team finished the dance. The team appeared at events and festivals throughout the region, and at the 1965 Morris Ring meeting in Sheffield, hosted by Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers.
The Cutlers usually danced to a free call – No. 1 calling figures at random, rather than a recorded tradition. The team performed this innovation at the Newcastle Ring meeting before a very critical audience of traditional teams. They also experimented with the Amble processional dance.
Watching and admiring the Cutlers at Sidmouth Festival during 1965, 66 and 67, were a group from Sheffield drawn mainly from the Barley Mow Folk Club. This group included Gerry and Paul Bates, Pete Civico, the late Malcolm Fox, Dave Brooks and John Ledbury. Back home they decided they would like to try rapper and contacted Joss Mellor, persuading him to do some teaching. This new group practiced in several Sheffield pubs including ‘The Queens’ on Scotland Street and at Croft House Settlement. The name The Sheffield Apprentices was soon adopted, not only in deference to their relative inexperience but also an allusion to the song of that name. The team danced regularly in the Sheffield area and performed at the Late Night Extra in the Drill Hall in Sidmouth in 1967 as part of a Mumming Play when the group from Sheffield was invited to put on a ‘Sheffield Night.’ Surprisingly, they never got round to agreeing on a kit.
By 1968 the Apprentices had run out of places to practice (What were they doing to alienate so many pubs?? Ed.) and given the transient nature of University students, the Cutlers were running out of members. Joss Mellor proposed that they come along to Cutlers' practices and given the transient nature of University students, it became a welcome lifeline for the Cutlers who tended to lose members year by year. So gown and town were united to give the Cutlers an extended and distinguished life span. Fewer student recruits were coming forward so, were it not for the inclusion of the Sheffield based dancers, the team might have expired by 1970.
In this manifestation, the team performed extensively, including Sidmouth in 1973, Whitby Folk Week, Abbeydale Folk Festival, Grenoside on Boxing Day, countless local events and... The Glossop Road Nurses Home Open Day... (Hmm! Ed.) They also appeared on ‘Look North’ the local TV current affairs programme, dancing at the ‘Admiral Rodney.’ The team also danced at a London Ring meeting and recall meeting the late Rev. Kenneth Loveless.
This team continued to dance until 1975 when the Sheffield based dancers were lured away to form Sheffield City Morris. The University Morris and its rapper team continued to function until it faded away in the late 70's.
Most of the Sheffield Apprentices remain actively involved in the Sheffield folk scene to this day, Gerry Bates and Dave Brooks both captaining the Grenoside Sword Dancers. After a break of some years, the University rapper team reappeared as Eastwood Rapper in the late 80's, competing at DERT in Newcastle... but that's another story.