Monday, October 02, 2006

The Mystery of the Morley Dancers

Somali dancers - like these ladies waiting to perform at Refugee Week in Harrow

AT a certain time of the year, in our little street on the Manchester and Salford border, one of the kids would say "We are going Morley Dancing". It was nothing to do with Eric Morley's Mecca ballrooms, but the signal to nip indoors, grab some old length of curtain or whatever brightly covered cloth you could find to drape over your shoulders, and dash out before your mother could demand to know what you were up to.

Joining the rest of the similarly-attired gang, you would now proceed along the street, knocking on doors, and treating the grown-ups who came to the door to a performance, singing "Morley dancers kicking up a row, kicking up a row, kicking up a row, one for me and one for you, and one for the Morley dancers!"

Or something like that. I think the grown-ups were supposed to give you money or sweets to get rid of you, bit like carol singing or Haloween, though being neither Christian nor musical I was never involved in the former, and Haloween was something I only knew from Yankee comics, I don't think it was celebrated in our neck of the woods till the supermarkets caught on to selling witches' outfits and pumpkins. We'd have been too busy gathering Bonfire wood.

My "Morley dancing" career was brought to an abrupt halt too, when my Dad said "Get inside!" and told the others to bugger off. I don't think my parents approved of their son prancing about exotically draped, let alone what they saw as begging door to door. Well, our performance could hardly be called entertaining.

Thinking back, I was puzzled about this quaint custom. What were its origins? Who decided what time of the year was the appropriate season? None of my friends seem familiar with it, and I've not seen kids doing it in other parts of the country. I have seen Morris Dancers, in the North-West and in London, but these are grown men, indeed often hefty fellows bit like Bill Tidy's cartoon series The Cloggies. A fellow I knew at uni, Ross Trench-Jellicoe, huge fellow, was accepted into the Galgate Morris Men, and a lawyer I know from Rickmansworth has been performing in London. I'm not sure what qualifications you need but assume it involves a sense of rhythm, and the ability to tie bells around your legs after quaffing copious quantities of ale, and not fall over.

They say that Morris Dancing was a corruption of "Moorish Dancing", inspired by sailors' accounts of what they had seen in North Africa. (Corruption? Well it certainly can't be a refinement). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, (first published 1870) gives a more definite and distinguished origin:
"Morris Dancing, brought to England in the reign of Edward III, when John of Gaunt returned from Spain...It was a military dance of the Moors or Moriscos,..."

A few years ago I enjoyed watching a lively and colourful dancing performance by some Somali women, part of Refugee Week in Harrow. Their bright robes and scarves reminded me of something, and later this set me thinking - Somali....or Mali (in West Africa)... and what had sounded to me like "Morley" ... Salford was after all a seaport, at the end of the ship canal from Liverpool, where Somali and West African seafarers had settled. But before I started theorising, I posted a message to photographer Aidan O'Rourke's excellent website Manchesteronline - Eyewitness in Manchester, EWM, which though mainly featuring photographs of buildings, and the changing street scene has also become a message board where expatriates and wanderers like me reminisce about schooldays at the Temple, and Nights at the Sale Locarno, or discuss What happened to the Seven Arches?

While I was waiting to hear from anyone else who remembered or knew about the custom, I also found a reference in Simpson and Roud's Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, to "Molly Dancers" - groups of men who went around villages in East Anglia on Plough Monday, just after the Xmas Twelfth Night, start of the ploughing season. It was quite possible that what I remembered as "Morley" - had been Molly, sung with the first syllable lengthened - "Mo-lly dancers. . .". And "kicking up a row" may have started as "jigging in a row", as the East Anglian ploughmen sang when performing for their beer money. The idea of an African connection might still hold - apparently the East Anglian dancers often blackened their faces.

There are websites devoted to "Molly Dancers" - it seems the custom that lasted in East Anglia up to the 1930s has enjoyed a revival. But how had it come to our street in the industrial North-West of England, a long way from any ploughed field, as a children's custom? And was it only confined to our street, perhaps through some chance connection?

Since then I have been happy to see at least one other contributor to EWM shares my memories.
"Someone mentioned as a child dressing up - we called it "Molly dancing" - used to go around the houses singing "Molly dancers kicking up a row" - it was on May Day and kids would either dress up to go Molly Dancing or make multocoloured Maypoles and take them around with their friends dancing around them.Good fun and earned some pennies for "toffees".This was in the forties in Higher Broughton, Salford.
Jean Nilan (nee Burgess)

I have also come across this on a website hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University and dedicated to the history of the Gorton Morris Dancers, on the other side of Manchester from where I lived:
"On the 9th September, 1874, a rush-cart was made in the old style. The morris-dancers (or molly-dancers, as they are now often called by the ignorant), were led by the fool, who bore the title of King Coffee inscribed on his hat. The dancers made a very pleasing march, wheeling round with a sort of salute, and falling into two lines facing each other. Their dress was remarkably gay, and. in good taste. It was almost a copy of the dress of Spanish dancers or bull-fighters red or blue shorts, or knee-breeches, long stockings, gaily coloured sashes over their full shirts, with plenty of brooches and other ornaments about chest and neck, straw [hat piled high with flowers, and curious long knotted skeins of cotton hanging from their wrists, which the dancers used ,somewhat in the way of castanets. The dance was gone through with remarkable precision, and even gracefulness. The procession was aided by two men carrying long carter's whips, and followed by the famous old rush-cart (Manchester Guardian. Notes and Queries, No. 456)

"About a week before the wakes a number of boys in the neighbourhood go about collecting money. Four of them, two at each end, carry a pole, astride of which sits a boy with his face blacked, his coat turned inside out, or,else wearing an old one torn to ribbons, and altogether dressed as outrageously as possible. They form a procession, headed by other boys with tin whistles and cans, and on arriving at a house sing the old rush-cart song...."

Rush gathering was an old custom of gathering rushes to strew on the clay or stone floors of churches, providing a bit of warmth, comfort and fragrance to the poor and perhaps barefoot parishioners. So, as with Jean Burgess' maypoles, customs from various origins were mixed and merged. As for the martial aspect to Morris Dancing, it seems this was not entirely lost, as when Gorton rush bearers and dancers got into a fracas with Irish people as their procession reached Newton Heath (referred to as "Little Ireland", and site of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Co. sheds whose works' football team -sometimes nicknamed the Heathens - eventually moved west and became Manchester United).

As for the African connection that I've suggested, note again those blackened faces. "Molly" could be a mistaken version of "Morris" as that Guardian note suggested, but why not from Mali?

Mali today is a poor, landlocked republic, formerly French Sudan, but in the fourteenth century it was an empire stretching from the region round fabled Timbuktu to the Atlantic coast, and reknowned for its salt and gold mines. Traders travelling to and from Mali linked Morocco with West Africa, and when Mali's ruler Mansa Musa made the haj to Mecca, pausing en route at Cairo, he impressed all by his intellect and lavish generosity (the price of gold in Cairo fell because of all the lavish gifts he dispensed). Musa returned with scholars and architects for Mali.

If English people heard only rumours of this faraway land they may have learned more of Africa when they became engaged in piracy and then the Atlantic slave trade. What they did not know could always be supplanted by imagination. But it was in the Ashanti wars during the 19th century that British troops invaded another gold-rich kingdom, in what is now Ghana.
During the fourth of these wars, in 1874, they laid waste much of the capital, Kumasi, or they spelt it, Coomassie, destroying the royal palace, and inspiring an epic poem by William McGonagall:

Sir Archibald Alison led on the Highland Brigade,
And great havoc amongst the enemy they made,
And village after village they captured and destroyed,
Until King Coffee lost heart and felt greatly annoyed.

Well you would, wouldn't you? A couple of years ago said king's gold-encrusted cap and slippers, captured by British soldiers, went on auction at Sotheby's. I don't know whether Scotland Yard's department dealing with trade in stolen goods took any interest in this trafficking. But note how King Coffee had already turned up as a leading character in the Gorton Morris, or Molly, dance, a topical reference in the year they destroyed his capital.

Today, Kumasi is a thriving commercial city and has aother even more famous son, in Kofi Anan, secretary general of the UN.

And so, I was just about to triumphantly offer my thesis on the African origin of Morley, or rather Molly dancing, when someone else who had read my postings to Eye Witness Manchester e-mailed me with something that adds a fresh dimension to the mystery:

When I was a child going to bed my dad would say "up the Morley Dancers" as we went up stairs. My dad died 20 years ago and I have just had my first child and have found myself saying up the Morley Dancers, hence my curiosity. My father was Irish so I thought it might have been of Irish desent. We were however brought up in Heywood near Rochdale so maybe he got the saying from there?


So, the investigation continues!

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At 11:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm 48 and my parents have both gone but I remember them saying what I heard as 'up the Molly Dancers' at bedtime. My father was born born and brought up in Moston on the outskirts of Manchester and my mother from Woodhouses near Failsworth where I was brought up. I never thought to ask where the phrase came from and now I am wondering, its too late to ask.


At 2:53 PM, Blogger Shirley Anderson said...

I can remember my parents using the expression "up the dancers" when referring to going to bed. I never knew where the expression came from but having read about Molly dancers I can see the connection. We lived in Hale Cheshire and never saw Molly dancers. I didn't even know they were in Manchester until enlightened by my husband. He remembers his Mother talking about them when they lived in Moston in the 30's and 40's. We watched Country File this morning and they were talking about Molly Dancers in Ramsey, Cambridgeshire. Isn't it fascinating to learn how words and phrases pass into everyday language?

At 6:33 PM, Anonymous Helen said...

My Dad also used to say "Up the Molly Dancers" for going upstairs, I am 55 and brought up in Gorton. He also said this to my daughter, who was 6 when he died, but she remembers it clearly and asked me if I knew where it originated after finding it on this sight. Unfortunately I don't but do wonder if it has links to the Gorton Morris Dancers. Another of mt Dad's sayings at bedtime was "Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire."

At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Rachel Sumner said...

I'm 41 and every single night as a child, bedtime would be signalled by the phrase 'Up the Molly dancers'. I've never questionned it until now, as my great grandmother, grandma and mum all said it. They all heralded from Manchester/Middleton.

At 2:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In The early fifties, I remember as a child going molly dancing from house to house, with my sister & other children where we lived in Manchester. We used to dress up with big hats or turbans and put bright red lipstick on our cheeks. The song I remember singing was
Molly dancer's Kicking in a row
Molly dancer's Kicking in a row
One for you and one for me
And a penny for the Molly dancers.
MY dad also referred to the stairs at bedtime as the molly dancers, but I never did see the connection.


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