Tuesday, 7 May 2013


This is going to be a very long post ... but I make no apologies

Yesterday, May 6th, was a Bank Holiday in England - Early May Day

We are a nation that loves its local traditions and May Day is probably one of the most fantastic examples of British eccentricity.  We love our traditional Morris Dancers and my new hometown 'Whitstable'  has its own dancing 'side' called the Dead Horse Morris Group..  they have a brilliant website which gives so much information about the traditions, dances, songs, history of Morris etc

This is a description of Morris Dancing generally:

The Morris Dance is extremely old. Although the earliest written reference is in parish records of the mid-16th century, it is certainly much older than that, as elements of the tradition appear to be of pagan origin, though later adapted for Christian society.

The dance seems to have been performed originally at the yearly sun festivals of Autumn, Winter and Spring. These were all fire festivals, where the men would burn the bones of a sacrifice (usually a horse) and dance round the "bone-fire" (or bonfire) wearing elaborate costumes and with faces blacked to hide their identities. These dance rituals were for the men only, as tending fires was for women only. One man would attend the bone fire disguised as a woman; this character is known today as the "Molly".

Although both Church and State have often disapproved of these traditions, and sometimes even outlawed them, the common people have kept them alive. Like all living things they have changed with the passage of time. Different styles have arisen in different parts of the country at different times. At one time all the dancers blacked their faces - perhaps one reason why they came to be called "Moorish" (Morris), as they were thought to be black-faced Moors.

Comparatively few Morris teams still use black-face today, mainly because it was illegal during the time of Cromwell. The form of Morris usually known as Cotswold and typified by bells, baldricks and handkerchiefs dates from just after this time, when Morris was revived along with the Monarchy.

The Morris Dance is still the traditional dance of England, with more than a thousand sides performing all across the country.

What is a Dead Horse?
Dead horse is navy slang for work that has been paid for in advance. Sailors would often be paid a months wages in advance to buy clothes required for the trip, although often this would be spent on drink or other vices. Working a dead horse, therefore refered to working for a month with no pay other than food - the infamous "salt house and biscuit".

Who are Dead Horse

Dead Horse Morris; width: 200px; height: 150px Dead Horse Morris are a Morris side (or team) from Whitstable in Kent made up of the Dead Horse Morris Men and the Broomdashers ladies team. We dance a regional style of the traditional English Morris Dance, although our hobnail boots and sticks lean more towards the "Border" style and "Molly Dancing" than the better known bells-and-hankies Cotswold dances.

Who are Dead Horse Morris Men?

Dead Horse Morris Man; width: 200px; height: 150px The Men's team wear a Morris kit of hobnailed boots, corduroys and cheese-cutter caps, with ribbon-decorated waistcoats, is based on the old dress of local fishermen when decorated for special events. In addition to the traditional dance, we are renowned for playing traditional music, singing tra


A couple of years ago I went to Birmingham for the UK Coloured Pencil Society Annual Exhibition and a local festival was taking place with some Morris Dancers from the Midlands.   We had a chat with them and discovered they'd been banned from 'blacking up' as the local council deemed that potentially offensive to the local community.   I find that very sad as its all part of our British cultural(?) history - and why is it more offensive to black the faces than to have the 'molly' a burly man dressed as a female?  

I often wonder if people really do take offense ... or if there's a whole department of Council/Government bods who are employed just to think up possible scenarios that MIGHT offend the odd person - my Mum would be good at that, she can predict disaster from a mile off!  sorry mum!

 So we Brits are totally nutty ... and personally I love these old traditions.   The sun was shining in Whitstable yesterday and there was a tremendous atmosphere in the town.  Bearing in mind we are a tourist seaside resort, dependent on Summer visitors, I think the combination of 'fun events' and beautiful sunshine weather has stood us in great stead.

Whitstable was a hive of activity all day.   We went to watch the Morris Dancers at 10am - at the first of the Whitstable venues - the dancers progressed through the town all day but with lots of stopovers at friendly pubs - Morris Dancers traditionally survive on a diet of 'real ale' and the routes must always be planned via local hostelries ... so its best to view the dancing early on before the ale takes hold!  You may notice in some of the photos that the dancers each have their own tankards (either in their hands or strapped to their waistbands) ready for the next pint!

These are some of my photos from yesterday

These are our very own 'Dead Horse Morris'

This isn't

Imposters - plastic beer glasses???  

A 'Molly' - this should offend lots of people potentially - cross dressing man with blacked up face!!

 I have no idea why a bear should be out and about on May Day ... he must have been SOOO hot in that outfit as yesterday was probably the warmest day of the year so far ...

some of the other 'sides' lining up by the pub ready for the parade through Town to the next 'watering hole'

Kentish Clog Dancers

A handy 'watering hole' - Shepherd Neame is our local real ale brewery in Faversham, Kent so most local pubs favour its beers.      No 'sissy' lagers for real Kent Maids and Men!

Not sure which 'side' this is, they seemed to be more tap dancing than morris dancing - but all part of the fun parade 

 and this is a Hooden Horse.

It's an East Kent tradition dating back at least to the mid-18th century.    A wooden horse's head mounted on a pole, with a sackcloth attached to hide the bearer. The head  normally has a hinged jaw which can snap shut with a mighty crack.
Hooden Horse groups used to tour the area in the period leading up to Christmas (or the Winter Solstice) engaging in tomfoolery (horseplay) at local landowners' houses and requesting 'largesse', i.e. funds to tide them over the slack period of the year.

You can't see it on this (reduced size) photo but the badge warns that 'Hooden Horses Bite' ... 

Another Kentish tradition (and one close to David's heart) is the Gypsy Tart (although that may also be a non PC name these days)

The story behind this very sweet/sickly pie is that during the early part of the 20th century a lady regularly saw undernourished homeless gypsy children playing in the fields next to her house. One day she decided to feed them but had nothing more than a pie crust, evaporated milk and brown sugar. She made the sweet tart and since then the tart has been a Kentish tradition, sold in many Kentish bakeries and of course, a regular on school dinner menus during between the 1950s and 80s.    I've never seen Gypsy Tart for sale outside Kent (but I don't like it anyway ... far too sweet for me)

This didn't even make it home yesterday - he ate it whilst walking to the car ....

Then in the afternoon we played lawn bowls at our local club which is overlooked by Whitstable Castle - a beautiful setting.     There were lots of events going on at the Castle whilst we were bowling - traditional MayPole Dancing, a Gospel Church choir, re-enactment of Robin Hood/Maid Marion for the kids and a BBQ - so lots to distract us.       David's rink was the slowest so I took the opportunity to get an 'action' shot as we finished 15 minutes earlier - David is on the right here.   Like cricket and tennis, bowls is usually played in 'whites' although each club will have its own uniform - ours has blue trim.    The castle grounds had cleared by this time - just a few die-hards enjoying the last of the sunshine

So a day of true British Traditional pastimes for a Bank Holiday Monday 


Polly Birchall said...

I love anything like this, so found your post very interesting. The Dancers look they have a good excuse for a pub crawl really! Being an area that is ex Lancashire (Now Merseyside) we have the traditional clog dancers. Love the sound though. What a super day you had. Is your bowls flat green or crown green (I think crown green may be a northern game). And what a lovely place to bowl. Lots of Tomfoolery definitely happening in Whitstable that day.

Jo said...

Looks a lot of fun. I see there were white faces as well as black?

I didn't even remember Whitstable had a castle. Never tried lawn bowling although we have very active groups here, even one down the bottom of the road and I know a few people who do lawn bowl.

Seems like its mostly the men tippling or is that not true?

Jo said...

Forgot to say, the hooden horse seems to have been adopted in Newfoundland and Labrador from TV ads I have seen. Never heard of the Gypsy Cake, David wouldn't have been able to hog it all if I'd been there. Got a recipe? If so would you email it?

Jan/PetsToPosies.com said...

Very interesting, Sue. I really like hearing about the traditions of different countries & even the different areas of our own country!

~Sia McKye~ said...

What an interesting post! Loved the pictures, too.

Some of this is new to me (hey, I'm a Yank, what do I know, lol!?) but I like your traditions. I HAVE heard of Gypsy Pie, though. What's with the painted faces?


Jennifer Rose Phillip said...

i can understand why they banned it, some people might be offended and not understand why it is tradition and not meant to be racist. maybe they should have done more educating about the outfits, explain why things are done the way they are. but because of the look, a lot of tourist might take it is racist and be very offended so i can see why it was banned, could cause endless problems

Sue Clinker said...

Sorry for the delay in replying ladies - had a hectic few days and also computer threw a wobbly (hence the changing typefaces etc on this post ... think I overworked it!

Anyway, Polly it was fun and I'm so pleased that our traditions aren't dying out.

We play flat lawn bowls (outdoors) although there is also an indoor lawn bowls centre in Whitstable. We only had lessons recently so started playing mid Season last year - we've got 30+ years to catch up with most of the members of the club.

I think Crown Green is Midlands, North England based and the green has a 'crown' or hump/bias in it?

Sue Clinker said...

Hi Jo. The Castle used to be a private home 'Tankerton Towers' and is now a wedding and events venue but its a very pretty building with lovely gardens overlooking the sea and of course our bowls club.

I've never made Gypsy Tart - got put off it by school dinners where it was often served as pudding - huge industrial trays of the stuff. David loves it though and as you've got a sweet tooth I think you would. I'll see what I can find and email you.

Sue Clinker said...

Hi Sia
It isn't easy to answer your question as Morris and Mummer troupes (sides) vary in different parts of the UK. They have different dress styles - some with bells on their legs and shoes and others with ribbons. Some use ribbons and others dance in hobnail boots wielding clubs, swords and sticks.

They've all evolved from working classes - fisherman and farmers etc and each has its traditional dances and music (and face painting black or otherwise). I believe they all have a Molly (bearded man dressed as a woman) and sometimes a fool to work alongside the dancers.

There is a lot of information on the internet but I'm most interested in the Dead Horse Morris as they are our 'local' team and we see them several times a year at holiday times.