First published in fRoots magazine, June 2014 (issue 372)

The Morris At War

It’s often said that many morris sides were decimated by the First World War, breaking traditions. Jo Breeze digs into the archives for their stories.

Cecil Sharp, Armistice, 1918: “A wonderful day, but I do not feel like making a noise. The lifting of the cloud makes me feel thankful in a quiet way – I cannot forget poor Butterworth, Tiddy, Percy and the many others. Here [in America] they have made few sacrifices.”

2014 marks the start of nationwide commemorations of the Great War, an event which lends itself to proving whatever political point you care to make; if you want brave patriotic Tommies, or futile sacrifice in muddy trenches, or a revolution in class and gender, you can find stories to prove it.

The folk world is not immune to the seductive myth-making of the First World War. Morris dancing in particular collects origin myths and legends as time goes on, and the myths can cling more tenaciously than the facts. One common narrative is the way the losses of the First World War not only devastated a generation, but also ended the indigenous traditions of Britain, removing a whole generation of performers and breaking the essential link in the chain for an oral tradition to be handed on. As ever, the real story is more complicated.

A great deal of research over the last century and more – starting with Cecil Sharp, Janet Blunt, Alfred Williams and other early collectors, and continuing through the work of researchers like Keith Chandler and Doc Rowe – shows that the morris was already considered by many to be in decline by the time Sharp and others began collecting. Accounts of the time as well as historical documentation show that the heyday of morris might have been in the mid-19th Century; by the beginning of the 20th Century, many previously-known morris sides had already faded away.

Sharp’s legendary meeting with William ‘Merry’ Kimber in 1899, leading to Sharp’s interest in the morris, was itself not quite an example of the unbroken rural tradition. Indeed, Headington Quarry had actually had their last regular performance in 1888; in 1899, the side had been revived, and some of the men were apologetic about dancing out on Boxing Day as it wasn’t the usual custom.

Sorting truth from compelling fiction, especially for events that are fast retreating out of living memory, can be hard. In an attempt to provide a complete and accurate memorial to all those who contributed to the war, the Imperial War Museum is launching a new project in collaboration with DC Thomson Family History, called Lives Of The First World War. A crowd-sourced digital memorial, it lists millions of men and women who were part of the war – not just soldiers but workers, conscientious objectors and more – and invites the public to begin piecing together their stories. Beginning with official documents like service records, census returns, birth and death records, with the option to upload photos and documents, it provides a way to build up incredibly personal accounts of individual lives.

Working on the project means I’ve had early access, so I wanted to see if I could find dancers from English traditions. As well as the facts of their military service, I want their cultural contributions to be recognised against their names.

Inspired by Tim Plester’s film The Way Of The Morris, I began by looking for the men of Adderbury. All but one, Joseph ‘Charlie’ Coleman, died in the war: two brothers, Ronald and Percy Pargeter, George Robins and Harry Laurence Wallin.

Private Wallin with the Border Regiment died on 19 May 1917. Private Percy Pargeter with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry died on 7 October 1916, aged 20. Two days later, Private Robins in the Gloucester Regiment died on 9 October 1917 – marked on his records as dying intestate. Percy’s younger brother, Ronald, served with the Royal Berkshire Regiment and died less than two years later on 27 April 1918, aged just nineteen. Charlie Coleman was the one man who survived the war, and after he came home he later said that he didn’t have much enthusiasm for continuing the dancing – it didn’t seem right. But he lived long enough to see a revival side of young men pick up the village traditions again in 1977.

From Headington Quarry, William Kimber did not serve – but his son Bill Kimber signed up in 1917 aged seventeen with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Julie Kimber-Nickelson said of her uncle Bill that he was “left for dead in a trench and survived the war”, and his records note he was “wounded in action (gas)” in 1918, though after the war she says he didn’t dance again. Richard Kimber, who also danced with Headington Quarry, served briefly with the Training Reserve, but he died of cerebrospinal fever in 1917 aged eighteen. The church in Headington Quarry lists 45 men on its memorial plaque; many of the men from the village joined the Second Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Of that battalion, only a handful survived the war.

To identify these men, I relied on the work already done by historians and morris experts to match biographical details to military service. But far easier to trace are the men of Cecil Sharp’s EFDS demonstration team, largely well-documented by their contemporaries and later researchers. Of the seven men (Butterworth, Tiddy, Lucas, Wilkinson, Wright, Paterson and Kennedy) who made up the side, four died on the Somme.

Sharp himself spent most of the war on extended collecting trips in America, accompanied by Maud Karpeles. His diaries from the time are punctuated by the arrival of mail from England bearing war news, and though his entries are usually sparse notes on daily details, his genuine emotion at the loss stands out: “Now that Tiddy, Butterworth, Lucas and Wilkinson have gone I seem to have lost all my pillars except one… I feel too sad to get to work to do anything.”

George Butterworth, dancer and composer, served with the Durham Light Infantry as a Second Lieutenant. He died on the Somme in August 1916, killed by a shell and hastily buried in the side of a trench by his men, though his body was never recovered. His brigade commander described him as “a brilliant musician in times of peace, and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress.”

Reginald Tiddy, dancer and researcher of mummers’ plays, died in August 1916. Tiddy joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in 1915 as a Second Lieutenant. Though his friends urged him to accept less dangerous work with the Intelligence Corps, he refused, writing “I don’t at all agree with you that any one kind of person ought to risk his life any more or less than any other”. On his death, three months after arriving in France, a letter from his friend and servant Ralph Honeybone explained “Mr Tiddy was killed by a shell on the night of the tenth, he must have died instantly as he did not look to have suffered much… I saw him before he was buried and he looked very peaceful and lovely as his face was not touched… I am his broken-hearted friend.”

Perceval Drewett Lucas, dancer and editor of the Journal of the EFDS and younger brother of the writer EV Lucas, joined the Royal Fusiliers in September 1914 and was commissioned to Second Lieutenant in the Border Regiment in June 1915. He too died on the Somme, in July 1916, leaving behind his widow Madeline (née Meynell).

George Jerrard Wilkinson, dancer and professional musician who succeeded Sharp as a music teacher at Ludgrove school, served as a Private with the Middle­sex Regiment; he died on the first day of the Somme in July 1916. His musical compositions were published posthumously.

Arthur Claud Wright, along with Paterson, was a dancer drawn from the Chelsea Polytechnic. He served in the Royal Flying Corps – in fact, he taught himself to ride a horse in order to join the prestigious RFC (then a requirement). He threw himself enthusiastically into his military career, writing eloquently about his love of flying, and was rapidly promoted through the ranks. Wright survived the war; in its later years he founded an Air Training School in Egypt. He never reconnected with Sharp and the EFDS after disagreements over Wright’s work in America on behalf of the Society, and he rarely spoke of his pre-war dance career. Instead, he continued a distinguished military career into WW2, and spent his retirement in Devon until he died in 1977.

James Paterson survived the war; later he was involved with welfare work, but continued to maintain links with the EFDS. Like Wright, Paterson came from the Chelsea Polytechnic – and the two men were close enough that Paterson was staying with Wright at the time of the 1911 census. Unlike Wright, he continued working in physical education in later years, and Kennedy occasionally met him at related meetings.

Douglas Kennedy was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant with the London Scottish, and of course went on to become the Director of the EFDSS and a tremendously influential figure until his death in 1988. Kennedy appears never to have served overseas: designated medically unfit for overseas service, he remained in the UK and was awarded an MBE for his contributions, ending the war as a Captain.

In 1915, under the editorship of Perceval Lucas, the Journal of the EFDS included a list of Folk Dancers in the Services, giving names alongside regiment and EFDS branch. Represented are many of the men I’ve already mentioned, as well as more from all over the country. Some died in the war, but many survived; later researchers’ work shows there were still many older dancers for them to speak to.

There is so much to put together about the lives of these people, and this is only the beginning. I want to find out more about the lives of dancers from other traditions like Grenoside, Abbots Bromley, the Britannia Coconut Dancers. I want to add information about other figures, like Maud Karpeles’ work as a clerk in the Women’s Land Army, or the effect on musician Scan Tester when his brother brought a bandoneon home from the war. Some early users of Lives Of The First World War have already begun building on the basic information I’ve added, and I hope to learn more through my own research and from the contributions of experts.

The advantage of a project like this is that it can take statistics and turn them into millions of personal stories. These people weren’t just soldiers who lived or died, they were dancers and musicians, with histories and cultural contributions that were only just beginning to be recognised when war broke out. Who else was there in the war records? Who else today has more pieces of the puzzle? Lives Of The First World War will be collecting contributions from millions of members of the public for the duration of the centenary commemorations. I hope, amongst so many other stories, people will help tell the stories of the bearers of English traditions in the Great War.