American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 28, Number 3
December, 2008

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 In Celebration of Morris in America  

Sleights Sword Dancers Go Walkabout
Ivor Allsop

In 1977 I was lucky enough to be introduced to the last compos mentis Sleights Sword dancer, the only other member being in a mental hospital somewhere near Goole. The story of how I came to meet Tom Woodward is, in itself, worthy of retelling.

At the Whitby Folk Festival of that year I was told about a set of swords which were in the window of an antique cum house clearance shop so I went along and had a look at them. The young man in the shop said they were not real swords but they were dancing swords, when I asked the price he told five quid.

'Each or for all five?' I asked.

'For all five!'

Since Whitby is near to several sword dance traditions I felt that I couldn't go wrong in buying these swords. They could have come from Sleights, Goathland, Egton or Egton Bridge. I asked the young man where the sixth sword was. He told me they had only ever had five swords and that they had come from a house clearance but he didn't know where, I would have to ask his dad but he was away for the duration of the festival but I could ring him when he got back from his holidays.

The swords were smaller replicas of the swords sold by the English Folk Dance Society and by the Country Dance Society of America even down to having the point cut at an angle. The length of the blade is 26 inches, width 3/4 inch and thickness about 1/8 inch; the hilt was a file handle 4 1/2 inches long and at its maximum diameter was approximately 1 inch wide. (See Figure 1)


Figure 1


Each handle was crudely decorated with cuts and notches. I have shown the three (of the five) most elaborate of the notches in Figure 2.

Figure 2

When I eventually contacted the boy's father I found out the house clearance had been in the village of Mexborough which is less than eight miles from home and on visiting the house found it still empty and no signs of anybody going to be in the house in the near future. The local school did not recognise the swords and felt they could not have come from there. So the trail ran cold.

Back in Whitby I mentioned my acquisition to a lady I knew, May Beeforth who came from Sleights, she was intrigued by the find and set about seeking information in the village beginning at the local pub, The Plough Inn. The landlord recommended we see a gentleman called Tom Woodward, who was something of a local historian, as he might have an idea about the swords and the Sleights Sword Dancers. The following day May Beeforth and I went to visit Tom Woodward who was at home. He, too was intrigued by the swords, but was certain they were not from Sleights1 as they were much shorter that the Sleights swords, one of which was the threshold of his back door, without the handle of course.

Over the next few weeks I got to know Tom very well and he had many extraordinary tales to tell mostly concerning the goings on of the sword team. I got him to write down some of his reminiscences together with a history of the team as he knew it. One of the most intriguing was the week's tour which the team undertook after Christmas.

The week's tour used to begin on Plough Monday, the first Monday after the 6th of January, with the full dance outside the Plough Inn before they commenced their perambulations around and through Sleights village, which is on the hillside leading up from the River Esk. Dancing a figure outside the homes of current or retired dancers was the norm. Tom's description will give some idea of this first day.

The proceeding commenced outside the Plough Inn with the full dance, Hill End came next (as many of the old dancers lived there). The four figures and No Man's Jig in front of the school and Ralph Stonehouse's cottage, then on to sleights Hall and Tinley Row, which used to draw water from the pump opposite, which is still there and as a matter of local interest, the stocks used to be next to the pump. On from there we would dance outside Billy Pearson's shop (now a house called Farthings) and often sampled his grand pork pies. Rich Breckon, brother of Ben Breckon Sharp's Sleights informant, had the Post Office opposite (now Greenside Stores).

We then went on to Parson Walker at the vicarage and from there to see Doctor English who always made us welcome. The No Man's Jig was then danced in front of the row of cottages where Harry Kennet had his baker's shop as a mark of respect for Harry Stonehouse, one of mates and a dancer who was killed in the First World War, his mother lived there. Alf Sargeant's shop and Will Helm's were next, and from there on to Pinkney's at the top of Back Lane, which is now Lowdale Lane. We then visited Esk Hall and the dance was performed at frequent intervals down to the station [by 'the dance' I later learned that he meant a figure from the dance not the whole dance]. When we danced at the station, we collected from the passengers if a train happened to be standing. The old stone bridge, which was washed away in the flood of 1935, was crossed and Grove Hall and Woodlands were visited. There was always refreshments at Woodlands, the home of Miss Yeoman, who took a great interest in us and later introduced us to competitive dancing, she was the president of the Eskdale Tournament and Harry Tuck, the butler, saw to it that we never came away hungry. Having refreshed ourselves we would next call on Alf Hoggarth, the chauffeur, and then on to retrace our steps and re-cross the bridge and so on to Lowdale and Lowdale Hall, where Colonel Buckle lived and after dancing our way up Back Lane we would arrive back at the Plough, tired and ready for a drink.2

This concluded the first day of their perambulations. It was necessary to get themselves ready for the next day's dancing.

On the Tuesday dancing usually began at Brigswath and then continued on to Aislaby dancing a figure at each cottage along the road; the full being performed in Aislaby before moving off along the road to Newholm, again performing a figure at each cottage before performing the whole dance at the Board Inn at Newholm and having a break for some liquid refreshment. It was then on to the blacksmith's and the adjacent row of cottages where the four figures of the dance were performed together with No Man's Jig. The blacksmith, Charles Dawson, made the last set of Sleights swords, unfortunately he died in 1973 before I could talk to him about the swords I had found in Whitby. From Newholm it was off to Raithwaite Hall where they were often given a gold half-sovereign, it was then on to the Hart Inn, East Row where the full dance was performed before they moved on to Sandsend front where they danced three or four times. Climbing Tea Pot Hill they arrived at Mulgrave Castle and the village of Lythe where the dance was again performed before the five mile walk home in the evening and a final drink in the Plough. They would have travelled nearly ten miles on foot from leaving the village to returning to it in the evening and they would have been performing figures or the whole dance at many places en route.

All the dancers knew that Robin Hood's Bay beckoned them on the Wednesday. Again they walked from Sleights village going via Alf Johnson's cottage, he was the father of the sword team fiddler, Jack Johnson in Iburndale, dropping down the hillside towards the River Esk before beginning the climb up the opposite side toward Ugglebarnby and Sneaton where five or six figures were performed before continuing to the Wilson Arms where they gave the landlord the full dance. From here it was through the woods to Stainsacre and to Lower Hawsker where they danced five or six figures before performing the full dance outside the Blacksmith's Arm where refreshment was taken before the two mile walk to Thorpeland Bay. At Thorpe school they were expected to give the children the full dance before descending into Robin Hood's Bay where they danced on road outside the The Dolphin. Night would have set in before they left the Bay to wend their weary way home having travelled some 12 miles there and back, going up hill and down dale, dancing many times in between. A truly gargantuan task.

After their exertions of the previous day the team took it at a somewhat more leisurely pace on the Thursday starting off at Ben Breckon's cottage where they performed the full dance and No man's Jig. This is the same Ben Breckon who was Sharp's main informant about the Sleights Sword-dance and it was he who also had a costume made and sent to Sharp in 1911. Tom told me that Ben would not hesitate to criticise them if he felt that they had not performed as well as he thought they should. Visits were made to all the cottages on the way to old Marsh Smith's farm dancing a figure at each one. Marsh Smith was one of their old fiddlers and after deciding which tunes they would dance to he would join Jack Johnson and play for a performance of the full dance which also included No Man's Jig. From Marsh Smith's farm they made their way to Grosmont dancing a figure at each house they came to before enjoying a pint at the local. From Grosmont they made their way along the main road to Egton and Egton Bridge dancing at each cottage along the way. This was their idle day as they caught the train back to Sleights, their fares being paid from the 'bag'.
Friday was another climbing day, it began by climbing Blue Bank to go and dance at the cottage of Jack Scarth, the leading light in the revival of Goathland Plough Stots in the early 1920s. From the top of Blue Bank they dropped down the hillside towards Littlebeck dancing a figure at each cottage they came to before stopping at the Bay Horse for much needed refreshment before continuing their perambulations into Ruswarp where more dancing took place. Up Ruswarp Bank and so to the outskirts of Whitby where more dancing took place. The pace of the day getting less as the week wore on.

The train was taken into Whitby on the Saturday, again the fares being paid from the bag. The first dance was performed immediately outside the station in Station Square. This was the full dance of four figures, Tom could not remember whether they danced No man's Jig on this occasion. The team went up Bagdale, Chubb Hill dancing figures as and when the mood took them. To enable the farmers time to get into Whitby the team would detour up Down Dinner Hill dancing as often as the could, before re-tracing their steps and crossing the swing bridge in the centre of Whitby to make their way along Church Street to the market place in front of the old Town Hall, now famous to sword dancers the world over since it was here that Sharp took his photographs of the 1912 team see Figure 3, before performing the complete dance with No Man's Jig. Leaving the market place they danced the length of Church Street which allowed the Toms to collect from all the shops, yards and passers by.

Through out this short account little has been said about the Toms, these were usually ex dancers and to them was entrusted the job of collecting as much money as they could from the local populace. Each day a visit was made to one or more of the "big houses" where the Toms would exhort the owner to part with a 'yeller' or a least a 'half yeller'. This was either a gold sovereign or a gold half-sovereign. Many of the donations were thrown from the open windows of the houses and some of the donors used to think it very funny to toss out of the window coins which they had had in the hot oven and watch the Toms burn their fingers. But the Toms quickly learned how to deal with these hot coins, they would flip the coins into their tobacco tins with the lid and spit on them before handling them. If steam rose the Toms waited for the coins to cool before handling them thus not giving the donor the satisfaction seeing them burn their fingers. The Toms called these "sizzlers" after the noise they made when spat on.

The dancers returned from Whitby by train and made their way to the Plough Inn where a dinner and dance had been planned and for which the touring party had paid two shillings each to cover the cost of the meal for their partner and themselves. This, then, was how the week of dancing ended, a meal, a dance, good company and an enjoyable time had by many.

The dancers had collected money all week and out of this came all their shoe repairs, often completed over night should it be necessary. It was possible to have to repair their shoes a couple of times during the week. After all expenses had been paid £1 shares were bought in Whitby Cottage Hospital, each share could be redeemed in kind 'a couple of weeks stay in the hospital' should anyone in the village or its surrounding be unfortunate enough to need hospital treatment. This was often done anonymously as the people of the east coast of Yorkshire are a proud people who were loathe to accept what they saw as 'charity'.

Just one anecdote to finish off with. Sleights church is in the middle of the village on the hill of the main road. It has the usual grave yard surrounding it which is bounded by a wall, the side nearer to Whitby being considerably higher than that which is closer to Goathland which is about three feet high. On the Whitby side there is a grave which has a pitched roof and when they were building the wall they incorporated drainage holes which let the rain water drain off the roof and through the wall and so on to the road. The various clubs which met in the village vied with each other for the spot outside the church wall so they could shelter there from the wind. On this occasion the Mothers' Union had got there before the sword team and had taken up residence of the corner. The sword team were left to face the biting wing when Tom had a bright idea. If they would make a noise like that of a ghost he would put his arm through one of the drainage holes and tap one of the women on the shoulder and they would be able to get out of the wind as the women would flee home. The following Saturday evening the village policeman tackled them about the previous Saturday's escapade and he told them 'that there had been more wet knickers in Sleights that night than ever before.'


Figure 3

From left to right: Fiddler Marsh Smith, Harry Stonehouse, Jack Smith, Jack Stonehouse, Tom Smith, Frank Smith, Jack Smithies, Toms: Kit Lythe, Will (Stilly) Mead



1  See Longsword Dances from Traditional and Manuscript Sources. Ivor Allsop. pp. 317, 318.
2  Personal communication.

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