E. C. Cawte, Alex Helm, R. J. Marriott, and N. Peacock, 'A Geographical Index of the Ceremonial Dance in Great Britain', Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, 9.1 (1960), 1-41

Article excerpt

I have recently unearthed reports of a sword dance competition held at Blyth, Northumberland, in January 1881, enabling me to provide a supplementary list of thirteen additional rapper sword dance teams to this Index. Altogether, fifteen sets took part in the contest held in the Theatre Royal on 16 and 30 January 1881, thus establishing that the rapper sword dance was more widespread in the second half of the nineteenth century than previously indicated. (1) Two reports of the competition were published in the Blyth Weekly News on 22 January 1881 and 5 February 1881; my listing is taken from the first of these, to which I have added OS grid references for team locations where traceable:

The Wear Yule Dough Set
The Lads that Everybody Likes, Tyneside
The Excelsior Set, Seaton Burn             NZ2473
Henderson Gibson's Putter Set, Holywell    NZ3174
The Merry Lads, Choppington                NZ2583
Load's Old Set, Scotland Gate              NZ2584
First Rose of Northumberland, Cramlington  NZ2777
The Funny Lads, Dudley                     NZ2673
The Hastings Canny Lads, Hartley           NZ3475
Bob the Nailor's Young Set, Cowpen Quay    NZ3182
Dudley Putters' Set                        NZ2673
East Holywell Putters                      NZ3173
First Northumberland

In view of the dearth of records for nineteenth-century sword dance competitions, I quote here in full the two accounts of this tournament:


A monster sword dancing competition took place at this place of amusement on Saturday night last, and was perhaps the greatest affair of the kind that has ever taken place. The proprietor gave the munificent sum of [pounds sterling]5 for first prize when no less than fifteen sets of dancers contended, namely, The Wear Yule Dough Set; The Happy Lads of Hetton; The Lads that everybody likes, from Tyneside; The Excelsior Set, from Seaton Burn; Henderson Gibson's Putter Set, Holywell; The Merry Lads, Choppington; Load's Old Set, Scotland Gate; First Rose of Northumberland, Cramlington; The Funny Lads, Dudley; The Hastings Canny Lads, Hartley; Bob the Nailor's Young Set, Cowpen Quay; Dudley Putters' Set[;] East Holywell Putters; and first Northumberland. Messrs. William Dixon, William Oliver, Henry Gillis, Robert Crammond, Cambois, and Thomas Messer, Waterloo, officiated as judges. The sets balloted for turns, and the singer in of the set whose turn came first was to sing the well-known ditty beginning:--

  Six actors I have brought,
    Who were never on stage before,
  But they will do their best,
    And the best can do no more.

It is needless to say that the above novel contest drew together a very large audience who seemed to enjoy immensely the old fashioned pastime which dates as far back in England as the time of Edward III. The antics and grotesque figures of the Bettys and Tommys as they led their respective dancers on to the scene of action was highly amusing, and the performance of each set was very graceful as they whirled and eddied round each other. The conditions were for each set to pay an entrance fee of 10s. The entrance fee was divided amongst the losing sets together with [pounds sterling]1 to pay their expenses. At the expiration of the dancing it was very difficult for the judges to decide, but they eventually came to the conclusion that i[t] was a tie between 'The Jolly Lads Set', Seghill, and 'Load's Old Set', Scotland Gate. It has been since decided to dance the tie off on Saturday, January 29th, when as Mr. Fynes announced from the stage, he will give another prize of [pounds sterling]4 open to all with the exception of the winners of the above prize. (2)


Last week's proceedings were brought to a close on Saturday night last, by the interesting drama of 'Maria Martin' and the Sword Dancing Competition, which the judges were unable to decide the fortnight previous--the two sets on the occasion were 'Jolly Lads Set, Seghill', and 'Load's Old Set, Scotland Gate'. …


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