Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).
What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?
Capers against the Commonwealth On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.
The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.
The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).
Public nuisance, party, or Sedition? In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.
While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).
However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, which docked in London on 21 June 1948 carrying 492 passengers from the West Indies who planned on settling in the UK. The arrival of the Windrush is traditionally taken to mark the beginning of a period, lasting from 1948 to 1971, of migration from the Commonwealth to the UK – the “Windrush Generation”.
To celebrate the arrival of the Windrush and its passengers, and to mark Black History Month, we have put together the exhibition ‘Wiltshire Remembers the Windrush Generation’ to showcase the stories of some of the many West Indians who came to settle here in Wiltshire.
The exhibition draws on recollections gathered as part of the SEEME project, a Heritage Lottery funded community project where local people and organisations worked with Wiltshire Council, Wiltshire Music Centre & Salisbury Playhouse to collect life story testimonies from Black, Asian & minority ethnic (BAME) elders across Wiltshire to ensure that their stories are recorded and archived for future generations.
Using these recollections it covers the story of the Windrush Generation in Wiltshire, from their reasons for leaving the Caribbean and their first impressions of the UK to their working lives and sense of identity. One of the key themes that runs through all of these areas is the relationship between the new, Black, arrivals and the existing, White, communities in Wiltshire.
For example Rollin, who came to Britain in 1956, remembered clear examples of experiencing racism at work. In particular he recalled “working with a bloke and we’re working, he's my work mate, two of us are working. And he says why don't you go back on your banana tree and all that sort of thing, and I thought why, why you have to say that, y'know? Cause it's stupid! I’d say it's so good I have a banana tree I can go back, but what did he have?”
Likewise Glenda remembered experiencing casual racism throughout her life here, even very recently. “When I first came, I remember someone asking me if we lived in trees, and if we had a tail like a monkey, and but eventually comments like that sort of tailed off. But work wise, I've had problems with work. I mean just before I retired somebody I worked with called me a "black bitch” … I experienced other prejudices, like not being encouraged to further my training … And those sort of things stay with you for such a long time, and you end up getting sort of fearful for how people are going to treat you.”
The racism that many experienced was not confined to words, either – many people we talked to remembered experiencing, witnessing or hearing of physical attacks. Even before coming to Britain in 1961, Sylvia remembered hearing “that they attack black people” in Britain. Whilst living here “I never experienced it, but people would be pushing their babies - black people would be pushing their babies in a pram and some white people would come up and spit on the baby.”
Scotch had a more direct personal experience with racial violence: “in those days there what you call Teddy boys and Angels they used to walk with bicycle chain, knuckle duster and knife and things like that, ready to fight the blacks we have to prepare ourselves to protect ourselves otherwise we wouldn't be here. My brother almost got killed where four white blokes beat him up badly.”
Not all racism was as obvious as this. Tom joined the armed forces and remembers a more subtle (relatively speaking) form of discrimination. “In those days, wherever you got posted, the first thing that would happen was you would go to the camp, hand your papers in and whoever was sitting on the other side of that desk would say ahhh, a West Indian, cricket! And I would say, I do not play cricket. And they couldn’t understand that, you know they’d continue, you guys can really play cricket, what are you, batsmen or a bowler? I do not play cricket. You really don’t play cricket? And that was it. That was me ignored for the next three months. That happened everywhere I went.”
Whilst Tom’s experience of cricket was a tool of exclusion, for others it helped to bring the community together. Bert recalled that “Where I first started off in the type of work I was doing, back in 78/79 actually, there was a police who was killed by a black man in Trowbridge. And it was underlying tension, so I formed the Cavaliers, which was made out of all black people, who played for the Cavaliers. And each year we have two cricket matches against the police, we bring the black community and the police together.”
The joy of working at the History Centre is that every day is a learning day with the added pleasure of discovering treasure!
My latest magical tour through the archives has taken me back to one of the most turbulent and important times in our history – the English civil wars, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the fight to restore the monarchy.
I was hooked the moment a beautiful chancery document from 1655 appeared in our office. Archivist Steve Hobbs dug out the document for our recent open day and it had not just one, but two remarkable features: a superb portrait of Oliver Cromwell and a complete Commonwealth Seal showing parliament on the obverse (front) and a map of the Commonwealth – England, Wales and Ireland – on the reverse.
The illuminated document (2057/D4/81) is part of the Wilton House archive and relates to the estate of the Earl of Pembroke. I was not too concerned with the content (although it was in English as opposed to Latin). It was the portrait and seal that drew me in to a fascinating period in our history and opened up all sorts of questions about how power and authority are conveyed through images as well as words. Here I was, handling (very carefully) a 361-year-old seal and looking at a contemporary portrait of Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of an English republic!
I would have been happy if this journey into 17th century Wiltshire had stopped there. But it didn’t – it was just the beginning of a voyage of discovery that took me to documents written by a condemned man, heartfelt letters from his wife to Cromwell and then back to a document signed by a king who lost his head.
As the education officer here at the History Centre I look for ways our archives can support learning for all ages. I mentioned the Cromwell portrait and seal of 1655 to an historian friend who has been teaching the English civil wars and interregnum for 20 years. She responded immediately with two words – Penruddock’s Rebellion.
I have to confess that Penruddock and his rebellion had passed me by (my areas of expertise are the 20th century, early medieval and pre-history), and I felt somewhat shamefaced to discover that this short-lived but significant event began in my hometown Salisbury.
So off I went to fill this rather glaring gap in my historical knowledge and was rewarded with a fascinating story and a treasure-trove of documents from our archive and John Penruddock himself. The story is one of plot and intrigue, of secret (or not so secret) societies, and of paying the ultimate price for ones beliefs.