Towards the end of the nineteenth century so much had been lost of the Morris tradition that a few collectors were inspired to save what they could before it was too late. Amongst these collectors, Percy Manning and Thomas Carter from Oxford, persuaded some members of the old Headington dancers to start dancing again. The result was a public performance of the Morris on the 15th March 1899 at the Oxford Corn Exchange. All of this revived the dancers enthusiasm, especially since they could earn some money via their dancing. So it was that Cecil Sharp chanced upon the Headington Quarry side dancing in 1899. This was a momentous occasion, both in changing the course of Sharp’s life, and for English folk dance and especially the Morris. You can find more about Cecil Sharp here.
In the closing years of the nineteenth century, one woman, Mary Neal, helped generate a huge revival in folk dancing and singing when she sought out songs and dances for working girls in a deprived area of London. In 1905 she contacted Cecil Sharp for songs and Morris dances that her girls could use. At first she worked closely with Cecil Sharp, but the two were soon to fall out. He, wanting to keep to the rigid tradition of the dance as he saw it and she having a far looser approach. Lucy Neal, her Great-Great-Niece and the co-founder of the London International Festival of Theatre, has decided that Mary’s papers should be kept in Cecil Sharp House. She explains why in this article about Mary Neal published in the Guardian on February 7, 2009.
The Yateley ‘Fool’…….”It’s Not A Frock, It’s A Manly Smock!”
The shape of a smock is not unlike that of the Roman ‘tunica’ which was still worn in Saxon times in England. Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages depict labourers working in loose fitting garments reaching to their knees, very similar to the 18th and 19th century smocks that have survived. From the 17th century, illustrations of smocks, as protective over-garments worn usually by men, became more common. A playing card of 1676 shows a wagoner whose smock is described as ‘straight and rather full, worn to just below; the opening (at the neck) reaches almost to the waist and there is a small turned down collar; there is no smocking or decoration.’ Smocks were worn as overalls and were the usual outdoor clothing of rural workers especially shepherds and wagoners who were exposed to the full force of the British climate.
In Wessex they were made of bleached linen or coarser cotton twill, but in other parts of the country they were sometimes dyed, blue in the Midlands, olive green in East Anglia. Some smocks were oiled to make them almost waterproof, and most had several layers of material over the shoulders and a wide thick collar like a cape for extra protection. The delicately embroidered decorations on the front panels of country smocks were thought to distinguish the occupations of the wearers; shepherds’ smocks for instance were thought to bear emblems of crooks, sheep and hurdles, while carters’ smocks had wheels, whips and reins.
Much of the needlework on a smock is purely decorative, however where the material is gathered at the chest, back and wrists the smock becomes very flexible, comfortable and practical. The current wearer can testify to that! The gathers can be performed in a number of ways and many smocks (including the smock currently worn by the Yateley Fool) display different gathering styles. It goes without saying that making a good quality smock is technically demanding and very labour intensive.
Thomas Hardy, in his play “Under the Greenwood Tree”, describes the rural scene in which ‘stalwart ruddy men and boys were dressed mainly in snow-white smock-frocks, embroidered upon the shoulders and chest with ornamental forms of hearts, diamonds and zig-zags’. It is likely that these specially decorated smocks were far too good for practical use in heavy agricultural labour but were for Sunday best, perhaps made as love-tokens.
In 1874 Hardy noted that the ’long smocked frocks and the harvest home…nearly disappeared’. Smocks continued to be used until the 1920s on remote farms. Today most surviving smocks are found packed away in tissue paper in regional museums.
The Yateley Fool’s Smock
It is still possible, though, to see a smock in action by joining Yateley Morris Men in one of their public displays of dance. The smock currently in use by the Yateley Fool was made by a former Yateley dancer (John Irwin), specifically for a past Yateley Fool (the memorable John Farrant). See if you can guess his occupation from the designs on the smock!
John Farrant was dancing at Thaxted one year and an American was in the crowd who followed the Yateley Morris Men most of the day. He was fascinated by the smock and during the afternoon approached John and asked to buy it, offering a very large amount of money. Many people do not believe that it could have been made by a man and John Farrant had great difficulty in convincing people!
Sadly John Irwin died at an early age. His quart pewter tankard was presented to Yateley Morris Men by his widow, Sue. It is now presented by the squire to the Yateley Morris Man of The Year and is beautifully engraved. I am sure that John would be pleased to know that both his tankard and one of his wonderful smocks are in active use every week.
SMOCKING DISASTER PREVENTED! HERRIARD RESIDENT TO THE RESCUE!
Tuesday 8th May 2007 was a dark, wet and windy night in Herriard, Hampshire. The bleakness of the evening was only lifted by the warmly welcoming interior of the excellent ‘Fur and Feathers’ and the unbridled vivacity of the dancers. One knowledgeable group showed particular interest in the Fool’s manly smock and an informed discussion followed.
Mention was made by the Fool of the ‘trivial’ wear and tear sustained to the smock over 25 years of energetic use. The Fool was aghast to learn that the damage was far from trivial and that he might need to learn to wield needle and thread! Many of the ‘gathers’ were failing, unkind (but probably accurate) suggestions as to the increasing girth of the fool being the cause were brushed aside.
Over more excellent Fuller’s beer and more red wine, Barbara Jeremiah (our needlework expert) very kindly offered her expertise to undertake some restoration work and prevent the Fool and smock from literally unravelling. The offer was very quickly and very gratefully accepted. The smock was then borne away in to Herriard’s dark night……..
Gathers re-gathered, buttons re-buttoned, stitches re-stitched and cuffs re-cuffed (?!) the smock was quickly back into use. The restoration work and further wise words from Barbara on smock care should ensure another 25 years are required before another smock MOT is due.
We are really very grateful to Barbara for her work on the smock which, it transpired, was far less straightforward than originally thought. It’s a pleasure to be able to acknowledge our thanks publicly. At the Fool’s insistence, Barbara has added a new thing to the smock to mark the works of her expert hands.
See if you can find the monogram ‘B’ on the smock!