Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Morris dancer's costume

Mike Heaney
Executive Secretary, Oxford University Library Services (Bodleian Library).


1895.46.1 Morris dancer's costume

1895.46.1 Morris dancer's costume

The morris dancer's costume [1895.46.1] was acquired from Mr T. J. [Thomas James] Carter on 8 April 1895, for the sum of £2/11/3 [£2.56], as an Oxfordshire costume. It comprises several elements which have been variously identified and listed at different points in the Museum's history:

[1895.46.1.1] Shirt and baldricks

Accession Book entry (1) White shirt w[ith] standard front, pink and blue ribbons w[ith] rosette. The Added [Geographical] Card Catalogue entry describes the shirt front as 'starched' not 'standard'.
Length 1055 mm
It is unfortunate that the entry combines the shirt and the baldricks as they are separate items. The white shirt has gathered body and sleeves.
The baldricks (crossed ribbons) and associated armbands are pink and blue. These are unusual colours and suggest a connection with Kirtlington, matching the colours of the arms of the Dashwood family. The manuscripts of Percy Manning confirm that the Kirtlington Morris had these colours for their costume, the only team known to do so. [Oxf. Bodl. MS Top. Oxon d. 200, f.214]

[1895.46.1.2] Trousers with bell pads at the knees

Accession Book entry (2) White trousers with bells at knees. Trousers length 1110 mm. Bell pads length 250 mm

It is unfortunate that the entry combines the trousers and the bell pads as they are separate items
The trousers are well made in a style already old-fashioned by the second half of the nineteenth century (the double front flies had largely been replaced by a centre fly by the middle of the century). Many morris teams wore breeches but these were supplanted by trousers as the nineteenth century progressed.

The bell pads are bright red braid, in four vertical strips with long horizontal strips top and bottom to join the vertical strips and act as leg ties. There are additional vertical strips of palited braid down each outer edge. Each pad has 20 small crotal bells in a 5x4 pattern along the vertical strips of braid. All the bells are the same size. [See the separate discussion of morris bells and other examples in the Museum.]

[1895.46.1.3] Waistcoat

Accession Book entry (3) White waistcoat with blue lines 545 x 480 mm

Not many morris teams are known to have worn waistcoats and those that are known (Bampton, Field Town [Leafield] and Marsh Gibbon) are invariably white. Wearing it while dancing would hide the baldricks; it may be extraneous to the costume.

[1895.46.1.4] Top hat

Accession Book entry (4): Black top hat with pink and blue ribbons and rosette. (The same text is at (5) in the Added [Geographical] Card Catalogue entry.) 180 x 245 x 305 mm (h x w x d)

Top hats were common headgear for morris teams although later in the nineteenth century other headgear was also found (for example bowlers at Bampton, cricket caps at Headington Quarry). The colours of the ribbons decorating the hat clearly link it to the baldricks at 1895.46.1.2.

[1895.46.1.5]; [1895.46.1.6]

Accession Book entry (6) 2 cylindrical red & blue sticks. Length: [5] 304 mm; [6] 307 mm.

Two cylindrical wooden sticks, each painted blue at one end and red at the other, with a small unpainted strip in the middle. They may be compared with the similarly painted Headington sticks collected by Percy Manning, pictures of which were published by him [Percy Manning, 'Some Oxfordshire Seasonal Festivals, with Notes on Morris-dancing in Oxfordshire', Folk-lore, 7(1897), 307-324; Plate IV, items 2 and 3, identified in Oxf. Bodl. MS Top. Oxon d.200, f.5 as from Headington] Manning's sticks are approximately 380 mm. Most morris dance teams used even longer sticks (up to 750 mm) so it seems very likely that the Museum's sticks may be from Headington.

[1895.46.1.7] Collecting box

Accession Book entry (7): Collecting box 224 x 175 x 170 mm (w x d x h)

The box is varnished and has a slot approximately 40 mm in the centre of the lid, which is screwed down. The initials 'J.T.' are inked on the inside of the lid.

'J.T.' is in all probability Joe Trafford. Trafford is pictured in the photograph of the team taken c.1875 [Oxfordshire Photographic Archive/National Monuments Record negative CC71/70], the leftmost figure seated on the ground. It is possible that this collecting box is also in the photograph, being held by the boy on the right.

The proceeds from a week's dancing could be considerable and the screwed-down lid helped to ensure that none of the members of the team (or anyone else) could easily open the box and help themselves to the taking.

[1895.46.1.8] White handkerchief

Not listed in the Accession Book but listed in the Added [Geographical] Card Catalogue entry (5) White handkerchief. 980 x 930 mm

The handkerchief has the initials 'E.C.' embroidered into one corner. (The cloth has been termed a handkerchief and many modern morris dancers use handkerchiefs, but it is too large to be effective as such and we can say no more than that it is a square of cloth, by implication used by the dancer in morris dancing.) The names of several morris dancers with these initials are known. Of the teams with which the collector Carter is known to have had contact, only Headington Quarry and Kirtlington offer possibilities. Ernest Coppock danced with Headington Quarry, but only from 1899. He was born 1872 and is probably too young. (We have rather detailed knowledge of the Headington Quarry dancers of the period, and it is unlikely that 'E.C.' is an otherwise unknown dancer from Headington.) Several members of the Cato family were dancers at Kirtlington. One member who is not explicitly named as a dancer but may have been involved is Edmund Cato. From census records he was born circa1830 and would be the right age to have danced in the last decade of the Kirtlington team's existence in the 1850s.
[Keith Chandler, Morris Dancing in the South Midlands 1660-1900: A Chronological Gazetteer. Enfield Lock: Hisarlik, 1993, 170-177, 180-185; letter, Paul Davenport to Mike Heaney, 9 June 1979]

Additional to the costume and not listed elsewhere:

[1895.46.1.[9]] Ribbon

Part of the costume but not listed separately is a white ribbon woven with purple and gold thread. It bears no obvious relation to the rest of the costume. It is too short to tie around the waist and bears no marks indicating that it may have been fastened to anything else (e.g. the treasury box). Its purpose is unclear.

Provenance of the costume

Although the costume came into the Museum in 1895, it apparently lay unexamined for many years. The costume was kept in a wooden box with 'Oxfsh. B.I.53' (the original accession number) and an attribution to Headington Quarry written on the outside. The box was opened circa 1952 by Bill Brice, who was cataloguing and sorting an overflow from the Museum which had been moved for storage to a cellar of the Examination Schools in High Street shortly before the Second World War. It was returned to the main Museum and examined by Brice and Jim Phillips, the then leader of the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers, but no record of that examination survives. [Letter, Bill Brice to Mike Heaney, 26 August 1987]

The collecting box and the sticks seem to be entirely consistent with a Headington Quarry provenance.

The baldricks and the top hat strongly suggest Kirtlington, and the handkerchief perhaps also comes from there.

Line illustration in The Oxford Journal, 21 February 1912, with an account of a lecture by T. Tindall Wildridge.

Line illustration in The Oxford Journal, 21 February 1912, with an account of a lecture by T. Tindall Wildridge.

The presence of Joe Trafford in the early photograph taken twenty years before the Museum acquired the costume shows that he wore different styles of shirt and trousers from those in the costume, as well as the characteristic Headington Quarry headgear of a cricketer's cap.

The shirt and trousers may be from Kirtlington (see the line illustration in The Oxford Journal, 21 February 1912, accompanying an account of a lecture by T. Tindall Wildridge on the Kirtlington Lamb Ale, showing a morris dancer wearing a high hat, broad baldricks with a rosette at the chest but not at the hips, and narrow armbands. The hat has a rosette but no silk bands.)

The early Headington picture, and the picture published by Manning, show that Headington Quarry bell pads were made of leather. The Museum bell pads are therefore also likely to be from elsewhere than Headington. [Oxfordshire Photographic Archive/National Monuments Record negative CC71/70; Percy Manning, 'Some Oxfordshire Seasonal Festivals, with Notes on Morris-dancing in Oxfordshire', Folk-lore, 7(1897), 307-324; Plate IV, items 6-7, identified in Oxf. Bodl. MS Top. Oxon d.200, f.5 as from Headington]

There are strong indications, therefore, that the costume has a mixed provenance. Either Carter assembled it himself from disparate sources, or Carter's source himself assembled it in similar fashion. Given the attribution on the packing box to Headington Quarry and the presence of items strongly indicative of Headington Quarry, the obvious candidate for such an origin would be Joe Trafford.

Carter had certainly encountered both Headington Quarry and Kirtlington by 1894 - in 1894 he even acquired a collecting box from Kirtlington for Percy Manning. We have detailed records of Carter's search for various morris-related objects for Manning [Oxf.Bodl.MS Top. Oxon d. 200, passim; and see the related article on the whittles-and-dubs in the Museum's collection]; but Carter seems to have kept the various strands of his dealing in collectible objects separate - there is no indication in his dealings with Manning that he was simultaneously collecting for and selling to the Museum, Balfour, Tylor or other local scholars.

When Manning exhibited the morris dancing items he had assembled, probably at the 1899 concert, he did have 'Trousers (with bells) taken from the body of live Morris Dancer, Bampton, 1891' [sic] and 'Shirt (with ribbons) worn by Morris Dancer at Headington c.1880' but as the bell pads, collecting box and sticks exhibited at the same time were not those then owned by the Museum it seems unlikely that the trousers and shirt are the ones now under discussion. [Oxf. Bodl. MS Top. Oxon d.200, f.4]

Joe Trafford (1838-1920)

Joe Trafford was a dancer with the Headington Quarry Dancers from at the latest 1847 (i.e. as a young boy) to about 1880, and 'foreman' (leading dancer) of the side for part of that period. Trafford is pictured in the photograph of the team taken c.1875 [Oxfordshire Photographic Archive/National Monuments Record negative CC71/70] , the leftmost figure seated on the ground.

Like many of the Headington Quarry dancers, Trafford worked in the building trade, being recorded as a brickmaker in the 1861 and 1881 censuses (and as a labourer in 1871). He had long retired from dancing when the morris dancing revival - first by Percy Manning in 1899 and then by Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal from 1905 - began. The first dancer with whom both Sharp and Neal had contact was William Kimber (1872-1961), and it was Kimber who first taught the dances to the Espérance Club girls. However, Mary Neal returned to Headington Quarry and met Trafford. As dancing is inherently a mutable art form, Trafford's versions of the dances differed in some points of technique and content from Kimber's. This was one of the stimuli which led to passionate arguments between Sharp and Neal about accuracy, authenticity and authority in the early days of the revival. An example of the attitudes underlying this approach is given by Mary Neal:

'I remember that old Mr Trafford, of Headington, told me that one day when he heard a military band playing, he went and listened at the door of the barracks, and that he was so attracted by the tune that he at once hummed it to the Morris dance fiddler [Frank Cummins, also in the c.1875 photograph] and adapted it to a Morris dance. To this day he likes the tune, which he calls "Buffalo Gals", so much, that he wanted Mr Carey [Clive Carey was a professional musician assisting Neal] to take it down and use it. There is no doubt that at any given time the musicians used to adapt to the dances any popular tunes that took their fancy, and I think that probably the name of the dance was altered to fit the tune. Anyway the tune which Mr Trafford liked, called "The Buffalo Girls", had certainly been taken for the name of a dance.'

[Sources: Keith Chandler, Morris Dancing in the South Midlands 1660-1900: A Chronological Gazetteer. Enfield Lock: Hisarlik, 1993, 170-177; Keith Chandler, Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles: The Social History of Morris Dancing in the South Midlands, 1660-1900, Enfield Lock: Hisarlik, 1993, 147-157; Frank Kidson and Mary Neal, English Folk-song and Dance, Cambridge: University Press, 1915, p.131]]

The morris costume in its social context


Carter sold the costume to the Museum for £2/11/3 [£2.56]. It was clearly seen as a valuable acquisition. In this context it is worth reflecting on the cost of a costume to the participants, most of whom were agricultural labourers or engaged in similar occupations at the lower end of the economic scale. We have two instances where we know how much was paid to equip a team, both of them from the archives of Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, where the Duke of Buckingham paid to equip teams of dancers from Stowe itself and from nearby Wotton on the occasion of the coming of age of his son the Marquis of Chandos in 1844. The Stowe dancers' costumes (including a Squire's coat but not sticks) cost £17/2/8¾ [£17.14] while the Wotton costumes cost £18/10/6½ [£18.53]. These figures indicate the average price of a costume to be £2.55 in 1844 (equivalent to £190 using the RPI today, but about five times the average agricultural labourer's weekly wage then). Because of inflation and deflation the value of the sum Carter received was much the same in today's terms (£203).

The acquisition of a costume was therefore a significant investment for the typical morris dancer in the nineteenth century. Most teams toured for just a week at Whitsuntide and were dependent on community support to recoup the expense. The same Stowe archives also give a good picture of disbursements to visiting morris teams in the early nineteenth century, and show that a return of three times the investment was certainly a possibility. A week's dancing at Whitsuntide was therefore a profitable week for the dancers, provided that people were willing to give them money when solicited. Conversely, when support lapsed, so did the dancing. One old dancer from Ascot-under-Wychwood told Cecil Sharp that 'it got like begging' so they stopped.

[Michael Heaney, '"With Scarfes and Garters as You Please": an Exploratory Essay in the Economics of the Morris', Folk Music Journal 6.4 (1993), 491-505; Cambridge, Archive of Clare College, Cecil J. Sharp MSS, ACC1987/25, Folk Dance Notes, vol. 2, ff.41-45. Value equivalents from http://www.measuringworth.com]


Many villages in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire organised fetes known as Ales, usually Whitsun Ales, during the nineteenth century. Percy Manning and George Rowell both wrote wrote accounts of the event at Kirtlington, where it was held a week after Whitsun in the week of Trinity Sunday and was known as the Lamb Ale.
In 1886 George Rowell published 'Notes on some old-fashioned English customs: the mummers; the Morris-dancers; Whitsun-Ales; Lamb-Ales', Folk-lore Journal 4.2 (1886), 97-109. This contained a detailed account of the Lamb Ale festival of Kirtlington, at which a 'Lord and Lady' were elected among the villagers. They held a mock court with its own inverted etiquette, and innocent transgressors who breached the rules of conduct suffered a forfeit. The court was held in a bowery or temporary structure of wood and greenery. Ale was brewed (hence the name) and cakes baked and sold. Morris dancers toured the home and surrounding villages both advertising the Ale and soliciting contributions. (Percy Manning published a similar account in his article on the subject.) [Percy Manning, 'Some Oxfordshire Seasonal Festivals, with Notes on Morris-dancing in Oxfordshire', Folk-lore, 7(1897), 307-324]

At many Ales, morris teams from surrounding villages would visit and dance in competition. These competitions led to the development of a common repertoire with local variations (for example there are versions of the dance 'Trunkles' from ten locations including Kirtlington and Headington Quarry. Competition also led to a higher artistic standard in presentation and performance; 'Trunkles', for example, contains complex steps and a complex dance structure. Examples of both the Headington Quary and Kirtlington versions of 'Trunkles' are available from the Digital Video Research Archive held at Boston University:

Headington Quarry Morris Dancers video [requires real player] (recorded 1970)

Kirtlington Morris Men video [requires real player] (recorded 1979)

(The Kirtlington version of the dance has been reconstructed from partial information preserved in Cecil Sharp's manuscripts.)

The Kirtlington Lamb Ale was revived circa 1979 as a morris dancing festival. It is held on the weekend of Trinity Sunday except when this coincides with the Spring Bank Holiday weekend. This is because the Bampton dancers host a similar gathering of morris dancers on that weekend, having transferred to that date when the Spring Bank Holiday was divorced from the feast of Whitsun in 1967. Headington Quarry Morris Dancers have also transferred their traditional appearance in their community from Whit Monday to Spring Bank Holiday Monday. Apart from a few traditional or revived community appearance such as these, morris dancing of the kind exemplified by Headington Quarry and Kirtlington is now most often encountered outside pubs on summer evenings (sometimes with more than one team coming together for a convivial evening); or at folk festivals as 'concert' performances and in workshops to teach the dances. Many teams perform dances from different sources; a handful of teams claim descent from 'traditional' teams, others are revivals of local dances within their original communities. Still others create new styles or new dances within existing styles.

Morris dancing in England

The examples of morris dancing equipment and regalia in the Museum are all from what is generally known as 'Cotswold' or sometimes 'South Midlands' morris dancing, as encountered in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. This was the focus of the first stages of the folk dance revival started by Percy Manning, Cecil Sharp, Mary Neal and others at the turn of the nineteenth century. Other kinds of morris dancing may also be seen. Regional styles of dancing seem to have evolved in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, although they may now been seen in any part of the country. The main kinds are:

North-west morris: originally from Lancashire and Cheshire, often in urban settings. Many of the dances are 'processional', i.e. they are designed to enable procession along a street in a parade. Dancers often wear clogs, and have very ornate costumes bedecked with ribbons and beads.

Border morris: from the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire. Dancers typically wear rag coats and often black (or otherwise paint) their faces. The dances are often perceived to be more unrestrained than those of Cotswold morris.

There are also dances from Derbyshire and the Forest of Dean, and 'molly' dances from East Anglia which are perceived as belonging to the same family. Because of the history of the revival of folk dancing as it developed under the aegis of Cecil Sharp, English sword dances (longsword and 'rapper', or short-sword) dances are often performed in the same contexts as morris dances.

6 March 2008.