Whilst 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, this year, celebrating 40 years of dancing, the longest continuous period of dancing in its 150-plus years of history. To mark the occasion Winster Morris began their season of events with an open day, at Winster’s Burton Institute, displaying much of their archive material and a holding a workshop for visitors to try their hand and, maybe, even join the group.

Winster Morris

Heart and soul of Winster Morris for many years, Roy Witham (photo Derek Schofield)

The present team owes its existance 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 and performed 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 and sampled the afternoon. I then spent around 10 days interviewing as many people as I could, over a dozen of the old dancers and ladies from the village, people 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 in the village in September of that year and some of the old dancers from the fifties came along, although not enough to form a team, together with another ten people interested in dancing. “We determined that we would do just that. The next time we met we had enough to form a team.”

Musician and Winster Morris archivist Ian thumbs through the group’s diary of the time, every detail meticulously recorded. “10th November, here we are practising the Procession… different dances. The old dancers argued about how it was done and which way to go. In the end we produced a compromise,” he laughs, “because they couldn’t agree!”

Winster Morris

Dr Ian Russell, musician and archivist

After a lapse of 24 years, Winster Morris returned to action in 1978 and with a repertoire that would include two versions of the Reel and Morris.

Roy Witham became the heart and soul of morris in Winster. Born in the village, Roy danced with the team in the fifties before going off to do his national service. Once dancing was re-established in the village, Roy 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.”

Winster Morris

Winster’s mixed dancers demonstrating during the anniversary day workshop

Winster Morris

Winster’s mixed dancers demonstrating during the anniversary day workshop

The origins of morris dancing are shrouded in the mists of time, the name probably a derivation of Moorish Dance first referred to in the 15th century while 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 well established by the time the Derby Mercury mentioned the morris in an account of Wakes Week in 1863.

Ten years later, the 12th July 1873 issue of the Derbyshire Times 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 Morris

Some of the historic artefacts on display to celebrate 40 continuous years of dancing

The village was a centre for lead mining, reaching 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 folklorist Cecil Sharp visited Winster in 1908, following the revival after a lapse of some fifteen years, and went to meet the miners as they came off their shift at the nearby Mill Close Mine, once the largest lead mines in the country. Sharpe 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.

Winster Morris

Winster’s mixed dancers demonstrating during the anniversary day workshop

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

Cecil Sharp had been highly impressed by what he had seen as the Winster Morris is quite different from the six-man Cotswold Morris popular with many teams.

“We dance with sixteen at Wakes, although most of the time we are dancing with eight or twelve,” Ian Russell explained. “Sixteen is the optimum and allows us to do all the dances in all their shape and form. With eight or twelve 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 of the music as do the King and Queen characters. The Jester and the Witch generally ‘interfere’ with the dancing and the crowd, just there to be a nuisance! Nobody minds because it adds to the humour. The roll of gents or ladies may change as required, depending on who is available. I have flowers on my hat that can be taken off.”

Recruiting new members to field a dance team of sixteen is sadly becoming an issue as these days 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 village near Whitby which is smaller the Winster. He explained what they had done to enable their survival. One year they couldn’t put a side out for their main event, the carnival, so they had to open their membership to women and children. They former a women’s side and a junior side to feed in to the men’s and women’s sides.

“A number of women in Winster came to us and said ‘We want to help support traditional morris dancing in Winster, can we come and learn your dances?’ Since then we have had ten women dancers who have embraced the whole thing, They 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.”

 

Winster Morris

Chairman Mike Hatfield

This harks back to the early 20th century when Winster fielded a very successful women’s team. The archive display included several photos of women’s and girl’s teams from before, and between, the wars. “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 to teach the men to get the morris dancing going again!”

Winster Morris

Richard Powley, Winster Morris secretary

While many of the sons of Winster are seeking careers elsewhere, the current men’s team has been bolstered by people moving 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. When someone pointed out that Winster Morris had 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 around fifteen to twenty occasions during the season which now, of course, includes visits abroad. Winster is twinned with the village of Monterubbriano in Italy, famous for it’s flag-waving ceremony, and has strong links with the German village of Ungstein, Darley Dale is twinned with Onzain in the Loire region of France another regular destination for the morris.

“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 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 are poring over the photos, books, videos and swapping memories downstairs, some members of the morris were holding a workshop in their regular practise 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 Morris

Richard Bryant, Winster Morris’ Leader of the Dance

Here I got to speak to Winster’s Leader of the Dance, Richard Bryant. “I came to Matlock to work in 1978 and, within a few weeks, I came across this old bunch called 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, there is nowhere quite like that and four characters, the King, Queen Jester and the Witch, no-one else has that. In the Cotswolds the custom was six or eight dancers and it gives us the opportunity to do bigger figure arrangements.

“I had dabbled in morris in places where I’d studied or worked. I was kind of tempted and had a taster but this was quite different. I got talking to one of the dancers and it turned out he worked where I did and 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,” Richard continued. “Here it’s the middle of the year, around St John’s which is the saint’s day of the church, June 24th, Wakes week. We’re on the next Sunday after that. Our season begins midway through spring and continues to mid-autumn.”

The spectacle of the dance is enhanced by the colourful sashes and rosettes. Each dancer chooses his own colour scheme to be worn over a white shirt and trousers and carries a handkerchief in each hand. The bells are fixed to the legs for the men’s team and to the shoes of the ladies. Winster does not traditionally use sticks, although it swaps wooden swords for the bells for performances of the Flamborough Sword Dance, a non-Winster dance that has been performed by them for over 70 years, now.

Winster Morris

Winster’s mixed dancers demonstrating during the anniversary day workshop

Winster has a number of its own dances that date back to the 19th century including the Morris, the Reel, the Blue-Eyed Stranger and the Gallop. More recently they have created new dances with local significance. Flag Waving is in honour of the twinned village in Italy while the Miner’s Standard is named after the village pub and a measure of lead ore. 1930s melodeon player Joe P Raines was also the village greengrocer. The Joe P’ s Morris has been created as a tribute to this well-loved musician whose nickname in the village was Joe Peas.

Winster Morris

Some of the men and women of Winster Morris celebrating 40 continuous years of dancing in the village

 

“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.”