Morris History

The History of Morris

(Written by Roy Smith, Preston) 

Morris Dancing is a very ancient form of dance: it was considered to be 'an antiquity' in the time of William Shakespeare. There are theories about it being derived from pre-Christian fertility rites, being based on 'Moorish' dances which spread up through Spain into Europe in Medieval times, being a rustic version of the dances of the Tudor court, or being attributed to the troubadours of the Middle Ages. Nobody knows for sure. However, high up in the Zouche Chapel of York Minster is an illustration of a Morris dancer/musician - dated to the late 15th century, and there are many written references to Morris Dancers going back to the 16th century eg. "For VI peyre of shones for ye Mors dauncers 4s" (1509).

Several varieties of the Morris dance exist: that which most closely resembles what is shown in early illustrations is the Whitsuntide Morris of the Cotswold villages. It is characterised by the predominantly white clothing, bells tied around the shins, and white hankies or sticks held in the hands. Generally the dances are scored for six, although a Morris jig is usually danced by either one or two, and remain within a limited patch of ground.

In the 19th century the North West gave rise to a very different concept of the Morris: processional dances - often associated with rushbearing, with Wakes Week festivities or with local (often religious) processions. No-one is certain what it was based upon - if anything. These dances were scored for a minimum of 8 dancers, and going up in multiples of 4 or 8 thereafter; they were spectacular in the numbers taking part, in the costume, in the musical accompaniment (often a full brass band) and sometimes in the vigorous 'stepping' in clogs.

Simpler forms of the Morris dance are used by the 'Molly' dancers of East Anglia and the Christmastime Morris dancers of the border area between England and Wales. The transitional area between the Cotswolds and the North West includes the Morris of Derbyshire - NW processional form, Cotswold costume; the processional Abbots Bromley Horn Dance - which may have very ancient roots; and the Lichfield dancers - Cotswold concept but scored for 8 dancers.

Those taking part in various seasonal customs in many parts of England are - in their own localities - also referred to as 'Morris' dancers, although they may be acting a play (Mummers) or performing dances which vary greatly in character. Mummers Plays usually belong to Christmastime, Plough Monday (January), Easter or All Souls-tide (end of October). In Northumberland and North Durham dancers traditionally danced at Chrismastime with double-handled flexible strips of metal known as 'rappers', and are generally referred to as sword dancers - though the implements bear little resemblance to swords. In Yorkshire and South Durham the implements used by the Sword dancers are rather more sword-like: longer, more rigid and single-handled, but blunt and, again, held at both ends by the dancers.

The girls' Carnival Morris is a 20th century off-shoot of the men's North West Morris. It has developed its own format and has continued to evolve, as seen in the 'Entertainers' sections of their competitions.

The History of Leyland Morris Team

(Written by Roy Smith, Preston)

The first Leyland May Festival took place on 29th May 1889. It was organised by the teachers for the children of both the Day and the Sunday Schools of St Andrew's Parish Church, as an 'adjunct' to the morning perambulations of the local Friendly Societies. It was a great success and plans were put in hand for a bigger event the following year, and which was to include adults. Accordingly the men's Morris team first appeared in 1890 as an integral part of the May Festival.

Very soon after their debut they were invited to an event in Chorley; this saw a Chorley team appear in 1891. The Chorley team, in turn, was invited to Horwich, and a Horwich team appeared in 1892. The visit to Preston in 1892 of both the Leyland and Chorley teams saw a Preston team emerge for 1893. So, like dropping a stone into a pond, the ripples spread outwards: teams appeared at Blackrod, Adlington, Mawdesley and Longridge and juvenile teams appeared at Leyland (1895) and at Preston, for example.

But where did the people of Leyland get their idea for a Morris team? The first trainer of the Morris Dancers was Josiah Kirkman, head gardener for the Stannings family - owners of the local bleach works. Was it his idea? What was the source of his knowledge? The Abram team was already in existence, was there any connection? Some locals believe that representatives from Leyland had already visited Knutsford to see the May Day there (founded 1864) even before the first Leyland May Festival took place - no doubt to see what they could copy! Well, is it true? To date we don't know, but we do know that they were there in both 1890 and 1892. If they went to Knutsford before their own Festival began, might these people have brought back the idea for a troupe of Morris dancers? We know that visiting Morris teams were a regular feature of the Knutsford event, particularly the Godley Hill team from Hyde. Might they have carefully copied the steps and figures used by just one of the teams? Might they have copied fragments from several teams? Or might they simply have gained an overall impression, returned to Leyland and made the rest up for themselves?! We don't know.

We do know that - apart from a break for the Great War - the Leyland Morris Dancers continued until 1936, when the May Festival ceased because of financial difficulties. Immediately after the Second World War the dances (the Street Dance and the Stage Dance) were revived by a mixed team from the youth club of the parish of St James, on the western side of Leyland, for their Parish Walking Day. Their leader and teacher was 'Gus' Harris of the 1930's Leyland team, with help from Jimmy Grant who had been leader of the Leyland team from the early 1920's.

The appearance of this mixed St James' team at the Festival of Britain celebrations (1951) in Leyland, aroused interest (and, in some, annoyance!) sufficient to see a brief revival of the men's team. Again there was a lull until Mrs Hilda Ratcliffe - leader of the Leyland Folk Dance Group, and daughter of a past Leyland Morris Dancer - began to work towards a further revival of the men's team in time for National Folk Week 1967. Since that time the modern Leyland Morris Men have continued to keep alive the Leyland dances, and have added to them a wide variety of other types of dance.

The team has a close relationship with the local community, and especially with the modern Leyland Festival - which is regarded as one of the highlights of their annual programme.

The team have danced at venues as far apart as Kent and the Isle of Man, Devon and Scotland, and they regularly exchange visits with a dance team from Angers in the Loire Valley of Western France. They have been heard on both Local and National Radio, been seen on Regional TV and have appeared on the stage of the Dominion Theatre, London, and at the prestigious Sidmouth International Folklore Festival.

Whatever the event they try to bear in mind that it is a chance to keep the world smiling. They are always glad to hear from anyone interested in joining the team to dance or to play an instrument. If you feel you could work hard at enjoying yourself then the learning curve begins Mondays at 7.30 pm. Beginners are especially welcome, whether young or just young-at-heart.

For further details contact:

Len Daniels (01772 434458)

Alan Cowie (01772 743916)

Roy Smith (01772 716772)


Written by Gladys Jones



You're really pleased to see, a 

Leyland Morris Man 



Dismal - full of glee. 

Musicians playing 

Often saying, "We are 

Really quite the best" - 

Round every corner 

Impatient children 

Shout and cheer - full of zest.

Mums and Dads and 

All the neighbours 

Never will forget 

A Leyland Morris Man!