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Three Bampton morris dancers: Thomas Albert 'Son' Townsend, Francis Shergold, and George Hunt.

The old custom of morris dancing in villages of the south midlands, already generally defunct as a viable cultural expression by the final quarter of the nineteenth century, nevertheless lingered on in a handful of locations, periodically stimulated by infusions of encouragement or practical assistance from the broader folk revival community. Of these, the village of Bampton in Oxfordshire benefited most often, and the annual Whit Monday performance tradition was maintained during the last century for all but two wartime years (1917 and 1918), and continues unabated to the present day. More than a hundred men and boys passed through the system between 1900 and 2009. Some of them danced for one or two years only before moving on, while others gave a considerable portion of their lives, helping, as dancer, fool, and long-term musician William Nathan 'Jingy' Wells (1868--1953) once said, 'to keep the old thing going'. Three such men have passed on during the last twelve months.

Thomas Albert 'Son' Townsend (born 1914) was the only one of the trio to have antecedents who were active in the Bampton set. His grandfather, Thomas Portlock-Clarke (1844--1936), plus two of his brothers, had been dancers during the previous century. As 'Son' often told me, on Whit Sunday in 1925 one of the six regular dancers dropped out. Rather than have the set go out with only five men the following day, his grandfather and father separately told him he would have to dance. He refused twice and received a clip round the ear from each of them, after which he acquiesced. He danced for a number of years during the 1930s and 1940s, but really came into his own during the following decade, when he assumed the role of fool for the side of youngsters raised by Arnold Woodley. Arnold's side folded after 1959, but after a short hiatus 'Son' continued fooling, but now for the 'rival' side led by Francis Shergold. Arnold reorganized a team in 1970, and 'Son' went back to him, continuing until a full day of activity on Whit Monday got too much. Even then, he would often meet up with them for part of the day, latterly in a wheelchair. He was especially important for my early fieldwork in Bampton, putting me up several times before I relocated to the area in late 1979, and introducing me to both retired and active dancers. I last saw him about six months before he died, and he seemed in good spirits. At the funeral a number of dancers from the side he was active with for so long appeared in morris kit, and his favourite jig tune, 'Old Tom of Oxford'--I had been honoured over the years to have played for 'Son' Townsend and Arnold Woodley to dance this as a double on a number of occasions--was played over his grave.



Francis Shergold (born 1919) first became involved by carrying the coats of the morris dancers on Whit Monday 1935. His great-grandfather was Robert Lock (1819--1907), who, with two of his brothers, had been a dancer in the set at Field Assarts, half a dozen miles distant, during the first half of the nineteenth century. Francis himself danced regularly from 1935 onwards, even during the war, when he was given special leave to return home for the regular day of dance. Francis told of how, on his deathbed, 'Jingy' Wells made him promise to keep the morris in performance, which he did even through the lean years of the late 1950s, when on occasion it was possible to mobilize only four dancers for a show. In 1996 he was awarded the Gold Badge of the EFDSS in acknowledgement of his considerable and extensive efforts. He danced until ill-health prevented it, but even after handing over the leadership reins to Tony Daniels in 1996, he appeared in whites on every subsequent Spring Bank Holiday Monday, the final occasion being six months prior to his death.


George Hunt (born 1926) was the youngest of the trio and began dancing much later, not joining the set until 1949, and then only as substitute for one of the regulars on a tour to Stratford-upon-Avon. Once involved, however, a man was fair game, and George danced annually (as fool on at least one Whit Monday) until he broke his leg in, he thought, 1958. When I interviewed him almost a quarter of a century later he still had fond memories of his time as a dancer.

The character of the morris has been altering for many decades, and as the older men die, the associated traditions, attitudes, choreographic nuances, and memories pass from human knowledge. It has been a privilege to know these men and to preserve their life histories for posterity.


South Leigh
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Author:Chandler, Keith
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Previous Article:George Withers (1924-2009).
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