Morris dancers march on UK Parliament

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LONDON – Furious Morris dancers are planning a march on Parliament this month in order to protest about a proposed Bank Holiday switch by the British government.

Currently, the May bank holiday is the focus of a number of celebrations: political, seasonal and social. May 1st is Beltane, celebrated in a number of ways by Britain’s Pagans and others – it is the scene of festivities around the country – but it also coincides with International Workers’ Day.

However, there is now a proposal to scrap this ‘early’ May holiday and replace it with one on the following Friday, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe.

Victory in Europe (VE) Day marks the formal acceptance by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender in the Second World War. The Trades Union Congress have called for the 75th anniversary to be given a separate bank holiday, a move supported by the recent Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark, who has asked the Chancellor to shift the date of the May bank holiday.

VE Street Party (1945) from the collections of the Imperial War Museums – Public Domain


This change has been met with dismay by groups around the country, who have already established festivities on the earlier date. Some of these are very extensive, such as the Sweeps Festival in Rochester. This is a big event: Morris dancers, folk-art and live music attract an estimated 150,000 people and generates £60 million for the local economy.

The Morris sides, in particular, are not happy about the proposed alteration.

Gordon Newton, who founded the Sweeps Festival forty years ago, lobbied Parliament on July 23, along with the organiser of the Hastings Jack in the Green festival, which also takes place on the first bank holiday in May. Morris sides from around the country will be joining in the protest. Mel Barnett from Medway’s Wolf’s Head and Vixen dancers (a Morris side well known to pagans in the UK as they often appear at Beltane and Samhain events) says, “We are passionate about Sweeps. It is the highlight of our calendar. This switch could be disastrous for us.”

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Image Credit: P. Dixon}

Pointing out that festival organisers have had less than a year’s notice regarding the change, Gordon Newton says,

“It will be a very colourful protest, with bells, Morris dancers and green men, a lot of them. It is not just our event, it is one of the most popular times for all types of festivals across the country. The impact on them will be massive. This was done without consultation. Of course we want to commemorate VE Day and we can still do that if we have an extra Bank Holiday on Monday.”

Newton adds:

“I am hoping Business Secretary Greg Clarke will realise what a stupid mistake the Bank Holiday switch is. It will bring a massive financial loss to local businesses up and down the country.”

He has petitioned the former Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, MP for Hastings, to retain the earlier date along with the VE commemoration. She took the matter further to then PM, Theresa May, and asked her to reconsider the switch of date. But the ongoing disruption is already considerable, with calendar makers Allan & Bertram reporting that it will cost thousands of pounds to change the 400,000 calendars that have been printed so far.

The government stands to ignore this at its peril. Morris dancing was first recorded in 1448, and there are accounts of it throughout the annals of British history. It’s not clear where the name comes from, although speculation suggests that it may refer to ‘Moorish’ dancing.

The dancing itself takes various forms, from ‘Cotswold’ Morris to Yorkshire’s ‘longsword’ dances, and more recent sides – such as the Wolfshead and Vixen – experiment with contemporary influences, such as steampunk. Terry Pratchett’s ‘dark morris’ has also generated some real-life sides of its own, such as the Jack Frost Morris and the Witchmen Morris.

In addition to the Morris sides in the UK itself, a familiar sight on high days and holidays, there are also around 150 sides in the USA, and more throughout the world (there’s even an Arctic Morris side in Helsinki). It is safe to say that Morris dancing is a thriving pastime in the UK and beyond: the Rochester Sweeps is expecting sides to come over from Canada, although these plans have now been thrown into some disarray by the proposed May bank holiday change.

Morris Dancer [photo credit: Kylie Moroney Photography]

And it’s not just Morris that stands to be disrupted by the new date. Howard Martin, of the Hastings motorcycle run, has also written to the government, stating that:

Over the past decade Hastings on May Day has become one of the biggest free to attend non-political May Day events in Europe. Up to 40,000 motorcycle enthusiasts visit the town to celebrate the welcome of the spring alongside the amazing spectacle of the traditional Jack in the Green folk festival and celebrations. The diverse and peculiar mix of motorcycles and Maypoles, green giants and Morris Men (and women) has turned Hastings into a unique May Day destination that now attracts visitors from around the globe.

He points out that moving the date with less than a year’s notice will overstretch the resources of the police and medical personnel, as well as those of event organisers. Shrewsbury Morris, who are not fixed to one particular date, endorse this view, commenting that:

“We try not to mix Morris dancing and politics but such short notice of this date change really does make it hard. Hopefully the bells will be heard and if nothing else happens politicians will at least acknowledge that changes to the traditional calendar need much better advance notification.”

If the change does go ahead, then the government is, as others have noted, likely to be facing a battle with bells on.