The North of England Musical Tournament: History of the Sword Dance Competition Trophies

By Ridgewell, Gordon | Folk Music Journal, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The North of England Musical Tournament: History of the Sword Dance Competition Trophies


Ridgewell, Gordon, Folk Music Journal


An aspect of the sword dance competition held in conjunction with the North of England Musical Tournament that has not received attention in the journal is the history of the challenge cups themselves. The first cup, presented to the tournament by Miss Jane Cowen in 1921, was pictured in the Illustrated Chronicle of 31 May 1921 (Figure 1). The caption reads:

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

  Miss Jane Cowen, of Stella Hall, Blaydon, has presented this
  beautiful cup as a challenge trophy for the sword dance competition
  in connection with the North of England Musical Tournament. The cup
  was designed and made by Messrs. Reid and Sons, of Newcastle. The
  ornamentation is taken from the beautiful decorations in the 'Book of
  Lindisfarne', a wonderfully illuminated copy of the Gospels done at
  Holy Island Priory about the year A.D. 730. The 'Book of Lindisfarne'
  is preserved in the British Museum, and after studying the wonderful
  decorations in it there, it occurred to Messrs. Reid to apply them to
  silver ornamentation. (2)

In 1924 the competition was won by Winlaton for the third time, which meant that they retained the cup outright:

  The event of the evening was the winning for the third time in
  succession by the Winlaton White Star Sword Dancers, of the Cowen
  Trophy which thus becomes their own property. It is the first time
  such an event has occurred in the history of the tournament and it
  is the more interesting on account of the mature ages of all the
  seven dancers-J. R. Davison (60), Robt. Bilcliffe (55), C. Boyd
  (60), J. Renwick (60), Joseph Gardner (56), Wm. Prudhoe (the 'Tommy'
  - 66) and James Murton (the 'Betty' - 48). George Gilfillan, the tin
  whistler, is aged (57).

  Miss Karpeles said their performance was an ideal example of the real
  traditional dance. There was just the right atmosphere about it.

  Warmly congratulating Westerhope, who have figured so prominently in
  this now historic contest she suggested that they were perhaps just a
  little inclined to put something into their dance rather than to get
  something out of it. (3)

As a consequence of Winlaton winning the cup for keeps, 1925 saw Jane Cowen presenting a replacement trophy to the tournament. This new cup, of solid silver, was again designed and executed by Reid and Sons. Compared with the original trophy, it was less ornate, with a shallow bowl on a slender stem. This cup was pictured in the Illustrated Chronicle, on 9 April 1925 (Figure 2). The caption reads: 'Solid silver cup, designed and executed by Reid and Sons, Newcastle, to the order of Miss Jane Cowen of Stella Hall. The trophy is to be offered for Traditional Sword Dance competition at the North of England Musical Tournament.' (4)

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The same year, 1925, also saw a long-sword team taking part in this historic competition for the first time:

  The evening historic contest among the crack traditional
  sword-dancers of the North, who mostly took the floor with their
  'funny men' and 'funny women' (otherwise 'Tommys' and 'Bettys')
  roused the audience to a fine pitch of enthusiasm.

  There came a team from further afield than usual this year - North
  Skelton White Rose. They together with Blaydon and the Newbiggin Sea
  Scouts, disputed the honours with Winlaton White Star and Westerhope,
  who in their own sphere are analogous in characteristics to the
  gleemen and the Wallsend Choir just mentioned, and who have figured
  just as prominently in the annals of the Tournament.

  The result of this, the principal sword-dancing competition, was that
  the Cowen Cup (thrice successively won by the Winlaton veterans, and
  therefore now their own property, but renewed by the donor) went to
  the Yorkshire visitors from North Skelton, above mentioned. … 

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