A Short History Of Samhain Morris
By Peter Russell, 14th April to August 2006.
The story began in the summer of 1992, when Moira Young and I noticed morris dancers gaining free entry to Trowbridge Folk Festival. I suggested we form a morris team.
Moira considered this idea FOR EIGHT YEARS, before mustering a group of friends for our first morris meeting on 27th October 2000. At the time we didn't realise that we had taken our first naive step towards a very unusual morris happening: that of forming a team (or side) with a group of people who had no previous morris experience whatsoever.
During our first year, the morris side was seen by onlookers as being little more than an excuse for weekly drunken gatherings. Our perceived inactivity was due to our lack of a vital ingredient in any morris side; a dance teacher.
An experienced dancer we knew, Jenepher Parry, taught us our first steps in the two practices we had during that first year. The second of these was two days before our first ever attempt at morris dancing in public, which was on 24th June 2001 at Exbury Gardens in the New Forest. Jenepher needed a side to fulfil a gig she had arranged, and we were drafted in at the last minute. Two of us performed (or danced out) after only half a practice; experts on morris we were not.
In August 2001 we met Bob Swallow, a morris dancer of 30 years' experience, who had been dance teacher (or Dancemaster) for a number of morris sides. In October Bob began teaching us at weekly practices in the beer garden of Legends pub, Bevois Valley, Southampton. He had said he'd teach us six dances in six months, but actually taught us seven in seven. These were: Bean Setting, Beaux of London City (or Shooting), Bonny Green Garters, The East Acton stick dance, Not for Joe, The Rose Tree, and Shepherd's Hey.
Those months were a flurry of chaotic activity, as much away from the dance floor as on it, as we prepared for our first season of dances out.
In November 2001 we adopted our now legendary green and yellow kit, and cleaned-out Southampton's charity shops of garments in these colours.
Also in November 2001, after a couple of discarded working-titles, we finally became Samhain Morris. Martin Fletcher suggested this name, because the date of our first ever morris meeting is close to that of Samhain, which is the pagan name for what became Halloween.
After surviving arctic conditions in the beer garden, between January and May 2002 we moved a few doors up the road to the luxurious rear marquee of the Study pub. On wet evenings we'd slide around the waterlogged carpet; then as our post-dance body-temperature dropped in the near arctic conditions, hold meetings of the shortest possible duration (which usually wasn't very short). In our brief residency there major decisions were taken, you could say none were morris minor decisions.
Our search for a logo took place between January and March 2002. James Mansfield (who later joined as a dancer) quickly came up with a promising idea, which I adapted into our now legendary apple/leaf logo.
In January 2002, our first official membership was agreed. It went up to eleven: Bob, Debra, Janet, Julia, June, Lois, Marjory, Martin, Moira and Peter (dancers), and Zach (musician).
We joined the Morris Federation in April 2002. We were a real morris side now, there was no turning back (to back). This also insured our audience against injury; should there be any bizarre hankying incidents, we were covered.
Our logo'd T-shirts arrived days before that major morris milestone, our first real performance. After seven months of Bob's patient tutoring, on 1st May 2002 we danced at dawn as Samhain Morris, in our new kit resplendent with hankies and bells. The first of our members' rag coats were not made until later in the year, but for now, for the first time we felt we'd arrived as a morris side.
The very next day we began our second and final residency at Legends, where shortly after two key players joined our side, storyteller Gary Llewellyn (orb-gatherer and current Squire) and Steve Sharples (our one and only Music-master), in July and August 2002 respectively.
Before the arrival of Steve and his guitar, our practices and performances had been accompanied only by the sound of recorded morris tunes playing on a portable CD player, and our bodhran player, Zach Marky.
Our bid for international morris renown came in October 2002, when we performed before an audience of two bemused English schoolchildren whilst on a side-building trip to France.
Also in October 2002, we held the first of our now legendary birthday bashes.
Dancing with us were our guests Red Stags (another Southampton side), and Tricolex from Fareham. They easily deserved their cheese and pineapple on sticks.
May 2003 brought the sad departure of three of our original members. After 19 months (they only threatened to be with us for six!) Bob and his wife Marjory danced their final dance with us on Mayday, before hanging up their hankies and emigrating to France. Then after much valuable input in all we had achieved, Zach was tempted from us by greater career prospects in sunny Guildford.
Bob left us not only much more accomplished in all our original dances, but also with three more to work on: Lads a Bunchum, Nutting Girl, and The Upton on Severn Stick Dance.
In July 2003 Ken Stephens joined us as accordion player; a well-known figure on the local folk-scene, he brought with him a wealth of experience as a morris dancer, semi-professional musician, and teller of endless corny jokes.
2nd November 2003 was an historic day for morris dancing. Along with over a hundred other sides, we danced in Trafalgar Square to celebrate the passing of the Public Entertainment Licensing Bill with the amendment we helped to campaign for, allowing morris sides to perform on premises where no such licence is held.
Our by now legendary practice venue, Legends, closed in March 2004. The Study's marquee was under redevelopment. Our practices continued in yet more beer gardens until in the summer of 2004 we were offered our current practice venue, Bedford House in Amoy Street (off Bedford Place), Southampton.
After years of practising outside all year round, we had to acclimatise to our new indoor venue, and to a garden with no beer! We now quench our post-morris thirst in one of the many pubs nearby.
On Mayday 2004, we found we had foolishly agreed to four separate gigs from dawn to dusk. Although that day was a victory of foresight and planning over blind panic, this is a record we don't intend to break.
By now things had long settled down in the Samhain Morris camp. We had a core of established members, an ideal practice venue and our kit was mostly complete.
Things have ticked along pretty smoothly since. Arrowhead Morris (now incorporated into Belles and Arrows) taught us the dances Ducking and Diving and Pride of Holland Street, which we've added to our repertoire. We've a growing number of events at which we have danced, many of which we hope to continue dancing at in the future (especially the ones who supply us with free alcohol).
As I write the side is in a healthy state with many promising new dancers and musicians having joined over the last year.
On a personal note, I shall be leaving Southampton next week to become a full-time student. But as I'm moving to the hotbed of the morris that is Oxford, I shall be joining another side and so intend to bring new dances and ideas back for the benefit of my fellow Samhain Morris dancers.