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Winster Morris celebrate 40 years of dancing

PUBLISHED: 09:56 25 June 2018 | UPDATED: 09:56 25 June 2018

Winster Morris dancing at the 2017 Winster Wakes Photo: Geoff Douglas

Winster Morris dancing at the 2017 Winster Wakes Photo: Geoff Douglas

geoff ford

The oldest surviving of the Derbyshire morris teams is celebrating the longest continuous period of dancing in its 150-plus years of history.

Roy Witham, heart and soul of Winster Morris for many years Photo: Derek SchofieldRoy Witham, heart and soul of Winster Morris for many years Photo: Derek Schofield

While Derbyshire is rich in customs and traditions, few set the pulse racing like the colour, vibrancy and music of morris dancing. Winster Morris, the oldest surviving of the Derbyshire morris teams is celebrating 40 years of dancing this year, the longest continuous period in its 150-plus years of history. To mark the occasion they began their season with an open day at Winster’s Burton Institute, displaying archive material and staging a workshop for visitors to try their hand and perhaps even join the group.

The present team owes its existence to the late Roy Witham. Having danced with the team before they disbanded at the end of 1954, Roy dusted off his old costume for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, performing a solo Fool’s Jig before encouraging villagers and visitors to join him in The Winster Gallop.

One interested visitor was folklore historian Dr Ian Russell. ‘I came to Winster for the afternoon and then spent around 10 days interviewing as many people as I could who were involved in the Carnival and Wakes. It was very rewarding, particularly when Roy asked if we could have a get-together and maybe start it up in the village again. I didn’t want to put the words in his mouth but they were in my head all the time!’

They arranged a meeting that September, which was attended by some of the old dancers from the 1950s as well as about ten people also interested in dancing. By their next meeting they had attracted enough people to form a team and, after a lapse of 24 years, Winster Morris returned to action in 1978.

Richard Bryant, Winster Morris' Leader of the DanceRichard Bryant, Winster Morris' Leader of the Dance

Roy Witham became 
the heart and soul of morris in Winster. Born in the village, he had danced with the team in the 1950s and he became an inspirational leader and figurehead of the group for 37 years until his death, aged 83,
 in 2016.

‘He was absolutely brilliant,’ Ian reflects. ‘He had such a wonderful temperament as well, always a smile. Many-a-time we just fell about laughing.’

The Winster Morris is quite different from the six-man Cotswold Morris popular with many teams. ‘We dance with 16 at Wakes, although most of the time we are dancing with eight or 12,’ Ian Russell explained. ‘Sixteen is the optimum and allows us to do all the dances in all their shape and form. With eight or 12 you have to make a few adjustments.

‘Looking down the column from the head the “ladies” (male dancers signified with flowers around their hats), are on the right and the “gents” on the left. The musicians always stand at the head, as do the King and Queen characters. The Jester and the Witch generally interfere with the dancing and the crowd, they’re just there to be a nuisance! Nobody minds because it adds to the humour. The role of gents or ladies changes as required, depending on who is available. I have flowers on my hat that can be taken off.’

Richard Powley, Winster Morris secretaryRichard Powley, Winster Morris secretary

Recruiting new members to field a dance team of 16 is sadly becoming an issue as many of the village’s youngsters head off to university and find new lives elsewhere. With the average age of the team constantly rising, chairman Mike Hatfield says they are breaking with recent tradition to address the problem.

‘Two or three years ago we felt the numbers of fit and able men dancing was diminishing. We had a guest speaker from a team of longsword dancers in Goathland, a small village near Whitby. He mentioned that to ensure their survival they had opened their membership to women and children, with a women’s side and a junior side which feeds in to the men’s and women’s sides.

‘A number of women in Winster came and asked us how they could help to support traditional morris dancing in Winster, and if they could come and learn the dances. Now we have ten women dancers who are really enthusiastic and have learned all the dances. We can now dance with a mixed team and, potentially, a men’s team and a women’s team.’

In the early 20th century Winster also fielded a very successful women’s team. ‘We know that there was a women’s team dancing morris,’ Mike adds, ‘and I recently received a newspaper cutting from that time explaining that the women had had to teach the men to get the morris dancing going again!’

The current men’s team has been greatly boosted by people who have moved to the area, Mike Hatfield being one of them. ‘I joined Winster Morris after moving to the village in 2004 as a morris dancing virgin. The dancing is good for all sorts of reasons, the fitness side is one, and so is the social aspect. Winster Morris has travelled to Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, Lithuania and various other places – travelling is as good a reason to join Winster Morris as any.’

The Winster Morris now performs on 15 to 20 occasions during the season, which now includes visits abroad. Winster is twinned with Monterubbriano in Italy, famous for it’s flag-waving ceremony, and has strong links with the German village of Ungstein. Nearby Darley Dale is twinned with Onzain in the Loire region of France which is another regular destination.

‘I’ve been a member since 1991 when we moved to Derbyshire from Cumbria,’ says the group’s secretary Richard Powley. ‘I danced in Cumbria and when we moved here I found the Winster group – and am very pleased I did! Cumbrians dance in the Cotswold style but, while the Winster style has some similarities, it is fairly unique.’

As visitors to The Burton Institute were swapping memories over the photos, books and videos downstairs, some members of the morris were holding a workshop in their practice room above.

Visitors were shown a dance by a mixed Winster team and invited to join in. They were talked and walked through the dance before having the opportunity to try it to the music. Winster’s Leader of the Dance, Richard Bryant said, ‘I came to Matlock to work in 1978 and within a few weeks came across the Winster Morris Dancers. They had advertised that they were going to dance in Matlock Bath at The Fishpond. I thought “I must see this” and it immediately grabbed me, it was so unusual. I’d never seen any morris dancing like that anywhere else. Sixteen dancers, and four characters, the King, Queen, Jester and the Witch – no-one else has that. It gives us the opportunity to do bigger figure arrangements.

‘I got talking to one of the dancers and discovered that we worked at the same place. He introduced me and I haven’t been able to put it down. I just love it. The dances are special to a particular season and must take place at a particular time. Our season begins midway through spring and continues to mid-autumn but Winster’s special time is the middle of the year, around the saint’s day of our church, St John the Baptist’s, which is 24th June and also marks Wakes Week.

‘Morris is still a huge part of the community here in Winster,’ Richard Bryant concludes. ‘There is a lot of pride. As you can see from all these records here today, it goes back a long way and has a very firm place in everyone’s perception of what Winster is.’ u

Winster Wakes Week runs from Sunday 24th to Saturday 30th June, for a detailed programme go to winsterwakes.wordpress.com. On 30th June the Main Street is closed for Morris Dancing, stalls and other entertainment.

The origins of Morris Dancing, Winster Morris and Cecil Sharp

The origins of morris dancing are shrouded in the mists of time, the name is probably a derivation of Moorish Dance first referred to in the 15th century. The first record of morris dancing in Derbyshire is from Tideswell in 1797. The morris tradition in Winster is well over 150 years old and was well established by the time the Derby Mercury mentioned the morris in an account of Wakes Week in 1863.

An issue of the Derbyshire Times dated 12th July 1873 reported: ‘On Saturday the Morris Dancers again enlivened the village with their picturesque and excellent dancing, which was kept up with vigour for a few hours – the admirable precision with which they went through the intricate movements of the various dances, the gay and colourful dresses which they wore, covered with a profusion of gaily coloured ribbons and flowers, the stately bearing of the Queen and her military attendant, the never tiring drollery and wit and humour of the Clown and the Witch were pleasant to behold, and won the admiration of all.’

Winster was a centre for lead mining, which reached its peak in the 18th century, and the miners formed the core of the morris group in the village although, at that time, there were frequent breaks in the continuity of the tradition.

The famous folklorist Cecil Sharp visited Winster in 1908, following a revival after a lapse of some 15 years. He went to meet the miners as they came off their shift at the nearby Mill Close Mine, once the largest lead mine in the country. Sharp made a written record of the Winster dances and their music and returned the following year to photograph the dancers in action. Winster Morris also had a successful ladies team at the time but the First World War caused another break in the tradition and several team members were killed in action.

The team reformed in the 1920s and dancing continued until the outbreak of war in 1939. Another revival in the 1950s lasted for only four years and it was 24 years before Winster Morris danced again.

Cecil Sharp was highly impressed – the Winster Morris is quite different from the six-man Cotswold Morris popular with many teams.

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