Bampton Morris dancing on the streets of Oxfordshire for Whit Monday

Customs uncovered: Bampton Morris dancing, Whit Monday

Bampton Morris dancing is known worldwide for its extraordinary lineage. We chat to one of the tradition bearers and dig into the history.

In his book, The English Year, Steve Roud describes the Bampton Morris dancing tradition as, “one of the classic scenes of the English village idyll”. It’s hard to disagree. Arriving in the midst of things early on a Whit Monday morning, there’s a strong sense of having been transported somewhere timeless. Morris dancers in full regalia flock the streets, monarchs for the day, crowned with bowler hats and floral wreaths. A Cake-Bearer ushers forth, carrying a lucky fruitcake on the hilt of a sword, distributing fortuitous pieces to those that make a donation. Extravagantly dressed Fools patrol the sides, a confusing mix of frivolity and menace as they punish misplaced steps, whipped into shape with a pig’s bladder on a stick. Crowds mill about in lush Cotswold gardens, the gates thrown open in a dew-soaked celebration of tradition. There is nowhere and nothing quite like this.

People throng to see Bampton Morris dancing on Whit Mondays to experience what is thought to be one of England’s longest, unbroken traditional spectacles. Quite when the tradition began is unclear, but historians believe that annual dances have been taking place here for centuries. From early in the morning until late at night, this Oxfordshire village plays host to a kind of Morris dancing relay. Sides dance continuously throughout the town, in pub car parks, out in the streets, in the shadow of the church, and in picture-postcard English country gardens (private, but temporarily open to the public). For a day, visitors to rural, remote Bampton might feel that they are witnessing something entirely unique – perhaps even something they’re not supposed to see, such is the symbioses between town and tradition.

Our advice is simply to go and soak it all in, should you get the chance. Passed down from generation to generation, the Bampton Morris dancing events on Whit Monday represent the chance to see a living, thriving tradition with your own eyes.

Note: Due to the Queen’s Jubilee, the events in 2022 will take place on Saturday, June 4th, returning to Whit Monday in 2023.

In this article you’ll find…

What is Whit Monday?

Whit Monday is the holiday that falls after Whit Sunday, the English nickname for the Christian commemoration of the Pentecost. Traditionally, the Pentecost falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter, when the Holy Spirit (taking the form of tongues of fire) was believed to have descended on Christ’s disciples.

According to Professor Ronald Hutton, the Pentecost has been known as Whit Sunday since the 11th century, although the reason for the nickname is unclear. Some historians believe it has to do with the large number of baptisms that took place at this time of year, with the baptees all wearing white, although folk historian, Steve Roud, has dismissed this as being unlikely. There is also disagreement as to whether it should be Whit Sunday or Whitsun Day: both now seem to be acceptable.

Whit Monday (or should that be Whitmon Day?) was, at one time, a rival to May Day, its calendrical position near the beginning of summer proving ideal for outdoor frolics and fervent quaffing of ales. It was officially recognised as a bank holiday in 1871, although it lost its status in 1971 when the Spring Bank Holiday took precedence.

A brief Bampton Morris dancing history

A Morris dancer at Bampton, Oxfordshire, on Whit Monday

It is generally accepted that the village of Bampton has seen an unbroken chain of Whit Monday Morris dances for centuries. Quite how many centuries seems to be the only question, although a common local estimate plumps for around 400 years.

It is no wonder that visiting romantics have thought they have seen pagan rituals to welcome the spring, or visions of a golden age of Merrie England.

Steve Roud, folk historian

“Of all the Morris dancing that takes place in the country,” states Roud, “the Bampton men have the strongest claim to being ‘traditional’; in the sense that they perform their local dances in their own style, and they have performed every year since before the folk dance revivals of the early twentieth century created a new nationwide interest in the subject.”

Roud continues, “The dancing is unhurried, almost perfunctory, but with the indefinable grace that revival teams never seem to be able to manage. It is no wonder that visiting romantics have thought they have seen pagan rituals to welcome the spring, or visions of a golden age of Merrie England.”

The earliest documented reference to Bampton Morris dancing comes from an account by the Reverend J. A. Giles in 1847. However, much of what we understand about its modern guise comes from a legendary Morris figure, William “Jinky” Wells.

Who was William “Jinky” Wells?

William “Jinky” Wells (sometimes “Jinkey”, sometimes “Jingy”) was born in 1868 in Buckland, Oxfordshire, where it is thought his mother was in service. Schooled in Bampton, Wells became a butcher’s boy at the age of 14 – the first in a line of odd jobs that he recalled much later on. “I’ve been working on all sorts of work. I’ve been fagging, mowing, worked on the farms, thrashing – all sorts of work. I’ve walked six mile to work and six mile back at night for two bob – two bob a day.”

William "Jinky" Wells, a key figure in the history of Bampton Morris dancing
William “Jinky” Wells, a key figure in the history of Bampton Morris dancing

William came from a long line of Bampton Morris dancers. In a recorded interview made by Peter Kennedy in 1952 that paints a vivid picture of what the tradition looked like in the late Victorian period, he recalled that his grandfather’s grandfather, Tom “Jingle” Wells, had been “head of the Morris, leader of the Morris, trainer of the Morris” some 200 years earlier (his own calculations), and passed the roles to the next generation. William’s own grandfather also inherited a form of the family nickname, but was known locally as “Jinkey the Green Pea”, on account of being, “a terrible man, years ago, for growing green peas”. By William’s reckoning, the name and the roles had come down to him through seven generations.

Jinky Wells became the fiddler in 1899 when the incumbent, Dick Butler, broke his fiddle in a drainpipe.

By the mid-1880s, William could be found living and working in London. On his return in 1887, however, he found that the local side had need of a Fool. “I come back the beginning of May and they’d got nobody to go Fool for ’em that year and they begged me… That was the year as I started. I was 19 when I started (with the Morris).” A competent dancer, too, he made his way through various roles in the side, eventually becoming their fiddler in 1899 when the incumbent, Dick Butler, broke his fiddle in a drainpipe.

In 1907, William, “put out a challenge that ours was the oldest Morris in the country”. Quite what led him to believe this, other than gut feeling, is not clear, but the ‘challenge’ was picked up by Cecil Sharp, who visited Bampton and interviewed William’s uncle, Harry, a dancer with 50 years of experience. When Sharp expressed an interest in the Morris tunes, Uncle Harry took him to meet young William, a meeting that broadened the Bampton man’s horizons considerably and furnished the collector with a small repository of tunes. According to the website, Cecil Sharp’s People, “William gave Sharp 13 morris tunes on August 11th, 1909 and then a further 5 tunes on August 17th, 1909. Sharp then invited Wells up to Stow-on-the-Wold between August 24-26th, 1909, and re-collected 13 tunes, this time detailing all the various steps and figures superimposed on the staves of the tune.”  

Through his association with Sharp, William “Jinky” Wells went on to achieve a degree of fame amongst those with an interest in the tradition. Such was his importance to the lineage of Bampton Morris dancing that when, in 1925, his leadership of the side was brought into question (a local, experienced dancing family, the Tanners, felt they had the right to lead the side), he formed a separate side – seemingly the first major split in recorded history. Although the two sides reformed after the second world war, William’s involvement reduced in his later years; increasing blindness made it difficult to teach dancing, while increasing deafness made it difficult to accompany the side as a musician. He died in 1953, not long after recording his interview with Peter Kennedy.

In comes Arnold Woodley

With the deterioration of William’s health, positions of leadership fell open. It was decided that Francis Shergold, formerly a member of Wells’s new side, should take on the role of Squire (leader), while Arnold Woodley – a member of the Tanners’ side – should oversee the dancing. The arrangement lasted for part of the 1940s, disintegrating in 1950 when the pair disagreed over the quality of the performances. Woodley went on strike for that year’s Whit Monday dances, before reforming what was essentially the Tanners’ side and pulling in younger dancers. As if things weren’t confusing enough, the two sides took on remarkably similar names. You could now visit Bampton to watch the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers (Woodley’s side) or the Bampton Traditional Morris Men (Shergold’s side).

Nothing was more fear-inducing than to finish a dance and find Arnold’s fiddle bow pointing at you.

The Traditional Bampton Morris Men

For the following 20 years or so, a period of calm settled over the village, culminating in a bitter dispute at Cecil Sharp House in 1974. A Sunday afternoon tea dance in North London sounds like a pleasant and delightful pursuit, but it came on the back of two other performances and the outfits had become crumpled. Many members of the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers felt that “minimal attire” would suffice for the final dance of the weekend, but this displeased their Squire. Woodley made light work of the scruffy rebellion, dismissing them by letter shortly afterwards. But the crumpled rebels were sideless for a short time only – they formed a third Bampton side, the Bampton Morris Men, as soon as the dust settled.

By all accounts, Arnold Woodley (who died in 1995) was a strict authoritarian. “For the younger dancers,” explains the website of the Traditional Bampton Morris Men, “nothing was more fear-inducing than to finish a dance and find Arnold’s fiddle bow pointing at you—that meant you hadn’t done it right and were in trouble.” However, his time at the helm included a number of high points, not least taking Bampton Morris dancing onto the world stage. In 1982, he oversaw a highly successful tour of the East Coast of the United States.

An interview with a Bampton Morris dancer

Mat Green, fiddle player, with his band Magpie Lane. Mat is also the Squire of Bampton Morris men.
Mat Green [far left], fiddle player with traditional folk band, Magpie Lane

In early May, Tradfolk had a chat with Mat Green, the Squire of the Bampton Morris Men, to discuss – as the 2009 film would have it – a life with bells on. Although Green has been part of the Bampton Morris tradition for the majority of his life, he is perhaps better known as the fiddler with the influential folk band, Magpie Lane. We chatted about his origins in Bampton, his role as a Morris Squire, and his plans for passing on the tradition to his grandchildren.

What does it mean to me to be a Bampton Morris dancer? Everything.

Mat Green, Bampton Morris Men

Which side do you dance with, and do you have a specific role?

I’m the Squire of the Bampton Morris Men.

How long have you been dancing?

Nigh short of 50 years. 49 this year.

A proper veteran, then. What made you start?

One or two of my mates started dancing in the village and that’s how I got into it really. My mates and I decided we’d have a go.

You’re from Bampton originally, then?

Yep, yep. Born and bred in Bampton.

There are three sides in Bampton. Do you all get on these days? Is there any rivaly?

Yeah, we all get on, but when I first started there were two teams, and there was a little bit of rivalry. That’s slowly died away over the years. I was first taught to dance by Arnold Woodley of the Traditional Bampton Morris. He was one of the last of the traditional fiddle players – great guy. I was with his team for many years and then, because of a difference of opinion, I left that team and joined the team I’m with now. And most of us Bampton Morris Men were all trained by Arnold, but they departed after a big argument up in London over a silly conflict, really [see above]. They went their separate ways and went out the following year as the Bampton Morris Men. After a few years I joined them, and now I’m the Squire.

What does it mean to be Squire?

Basically, I run the day and run the team. Most teams have a bagman, and I suppose my mate, Jeff, is sort of bagman. At the minute I’m trying to organise a couple of guest teams for Whitsun evening, so I do all that. I sort out the programme, and then on the day make sure all the team is there.

Is Morris dancing taken very seriously by the people of Bampton?

Very.

Regardless of age group?

Yes, it is. We as a team could do with some younger people. Unfortunately, we haven’t had any for two or three years now. It’s beginning to show, to be honest with you [laughs]. We’re all getting a bit decrepit. But Craig Godwin’s team, the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers, they’re quite strong – they’ve got quite a few youngsters coming through.

Is it the case that people who dance in Bampton Morris sides need to be from Bampton?

We have gone down the road of saying you have to have lived in the village or be related to a village person. In our team we have a few lads who come from Carterton and the surrounds, but their dads danced with the team, or their granddads danced with the team, and were still dancing with the team when they started dancing, if that makes sense. And with all the teams, people have moved away because there just isn’t the employment to keep them in the village, but they all come back to dance on Whit Monday. It’s worth coming back for. Unfortunately, the team that struggled with that is Arnold’s team. They have a lot of guest dancers just to make up a team to dance at all.

On Whit Mondays, anyone’s allowed to come and watch, aren’t they? It’s just that the teams have to be Bampton sides. Is that right?

On the day itself, anyone can come and watch. We tour ’round various gardens, round the church, all sorts of places. People can come and follow the team and take part in that way. In the evening we invite guest teams to come, from 6pm onwards. We’ll be doing our first dance at 8:30 or 8:45 in the morning. It’s on Saturday, June 4th, this year because of the Jubilee celebrations. We stay out until about 9pm with the guest teams. It’s a long day.

How many dances can you get into a day like that?

Now, there’s a question. I’ll have to do this backwards. We do about four or five dances in each location, so that’s about 14 locations, including the pubs. And then at night we go around the pubs again, and the market square, so… yeah… quite a few dances in a day.

It must take it out of you.

Yes! Although most of ours are six-handers – six people and a musician. In our team, we have enough to put up two six-handers at least. That’s at least 12 dancers, so you’re not doing every single dance.

It sounds like a relay.

It gets pretty tiring, yeah.

It must take a while to warm up for it.

We’re a strange lot. We don’t practice throughout the year. We start Morris practice the Sunday after Easter Sunday, whenever that falls, and then we practice every Sunday until the Whit Sunday, and then dance the following day.

Are there sessions after the dances that people can take part in?

Yes. In a normal year, there’s usually music on the Sunday and Monday nights. This year, there may be some on the Friday night, but there’ll definitely be some on the Saturday night. That’ll be most probably in a pub called the Morris Clown.

This may be a big question for you, but what does it mean to you to be a Bampton dancer?

Everything. I got involved with the Bampton Morris when I was 12. Through being involved with the Morris, I got playing the fiddle. Through playing the fiddle, I got to know all sorts of people all over the world, I’ve played in several bands – I was with the Woodpecker Ceilidh Band for 40 years, and I still play with a band called Magpie Lane – and the whole lot of it backdates to being with the Morris. So the Morris is the foundation of it all, really. I live for Whit Monday, and I think the rest of the team do, too. We don’t do a lot of festivals, we don’t go out on tour, but I can guarantee you they’ll all be doing their best for Whit Monday.

If you don’t mind me asking, do you have children, and do they dance?

I never had children, but my wife had four children so I’m now a grandfather to nine. Four of them live in Iceland, so they don’t do a great deal of Morris dancing, but my latest six-year-old stayed over the other day and I was messing around – got a couple of hankies, taught him a bit of stepping. His mum called up a couple of days after and said, “Please don’t do that again. He spent the whole time going ’round Sainsbury’s waving two hankies and stepping all the way!” To be honest, if he really, really shows an interest, I will teach him. Whether he comes and dances or not, that’s up to him, but I will teach him just so that he’s got the Morris in him. There are so many people you can meet and get involved with, not just in Bampton but in other teams around the country. It’s fantastic.

These pictures were taken in Bampton on Whit Monday, 2017.

The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).