FREDERICK HAMER LEADING LIGHT OF AN OLD ENGLISH TRADITION

FREDERICK HAMER LEADING LIGHT OF AN OLD ENGLISH TRADITION

When we think about old English folk traditions what comes to mind first of all are things like dancing round the maypole or wassailing, and then there are the heroes such as King Arthur, Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter and The Green Man. But to many people perhaps the most stereotypical image of English Tradition is Morris Dancing. It’s a well-known but often little understood feature of life in many parts of the country and buried in Bedford Cemetery is a leading and respected exponent of the tradition.

FREDERICK HAMER
Frederick Hamer was born on 12th December 1909 at St Helens in Lancashire, later moving to Preston. He studied History at Bristol University where he met his future wife, Olive Newman. He moved to Bedford in 1931, living at 19 George Street in 1935 and was a teacher at Clapham Road School. The headmaster, Tommy North, taught senior pupils Morris Dancing for performances on Empire Day and at local fêtes. Fred joined in enthusiastically, adding his knowledge of Cotswold Morris, which he had developed on motorbike travels in the Cotswolds with Olive. In due course the school side formed the basis of the town Morris side. He became an Assistant Schoolmaster at the Modern School, specialising in English and History. He and Olive had two children, and moved home to 20 Bushmead Avenue, 108 Howbury Street and then 13 Abbey Road where he died on 28th November 1969.

Coming from the industrial north-west, with its strong tradition of Morris dancing, it wasn’t surprising that when he moved to Bedford he was a leading light in the formation of the Bedford Morris in 1932. He became its Squire in 1936 until 1948. (The Squire is in overall charge of a Morris “side.” See later for more details of Morris terminology).

For many years the Bedford Morris gained a high reputation nationally for the quality of their performances of the dances Frederick had himself performed since childhood in Lancashire. The Brackley Morris even asked his Bedford side to teach them how to dance their own Northamptonshire dances, such was his knowledge of various regional dancing variations. He became a member of the Executive Committee of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and in 1950 he was installed as the Squire of the Morris Ring of England, perhaps the highest compliment he could have wished for.

In the 1950s, perhaps because of Frederick’s enthusiasm, Morris performances locally were commonplace. For example, in September 1950 the Morris Ring met in Bedford for three days, with sides from all over England performing in villages around Bedford, dancing their way into town and assembling at Castle Close, and dancing in full regalia along the High Street to St Peter’s church for a service.

He carried on the work of Cecil Sharp, another pioneer who decided that Morris dances should be collected, writing down the choreography so they could be preserved and if necessary revived by future enthusiasts, rather than be forgotten forever. He also founded “Fine Companions,” an organisation devoted to English Folk Dance generally, and which still flourishes, based in Bedford.

Sadly for such an active man he became blind in 1952, a few weeks before he was due to hand over his office, but this didn’t stop him being involved, such as by playing the fiddle. He turned his interest more towards folk song collecting, compiling tapes of songs especially from Bedfordshire, Lancashire, Cornwall and Shropshire. He was a pioneer in recording these songs, and without him many would have been lost forever, just as with the dances. To do this when blind must have been a triumph of determination…although in some ways his blindness helped in that people were often more inclined to be sympathetic and cooperate with him. Most of his song collection is now kept at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, as well as the notation of the traditional dances.

 

 

 

He died in 1969, and is buried with his wife in Bedford Cemetery, grave ref T835.

 

 

 

 

MORRIS DANCING – A LITTLE OF WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Put simply, Morris is a form of traditional English folk dance which has many regional differences and styles but emerged from the working-class life of centuries ago.

Perhaps the typical idea of Morris is the Cotswold Morris tradition. They’re the ones with handkerchiefs, who hit sticks together, and wear white with ribbons, waistcoats and decorated hats. Recorded as long ago as the 1460s, their dances were considered heathenish and profane by the Roundheads. It was practised especially in the Royalist villages of Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. It is perhaps because Cecil Sharp concentrated his work mainly on the South Midlands that the Cotswold tradition is the most well-preserved.

The North-West tradition originated in the mill towns and pit villages of the North-West. Unusually, dancing was carried out by women and children as well as men, often wearing the clogs commonly worn in the industrial towns. Villages, mills or foundries had their own teams and dances, and their repertoire was updated constantly with new dances to reflect the changing world. As opposed to the static Cotswold dances, this tradition was more processional, as the performers would head long processions of bands, civic dignitaries and other groups.

You can find variations on Morris in other parts of the English-speaking world, but in England, other variations include Longsword dancing (Yorkshire), Molly dancing (Cambs), Rapper Sword (North-East), Stave dancing (South-West) and the rather noisy and raucous Border (Welsh Borders). These all have their unique and striking features, all of which deserve to be preserved and enjoyed.

There are three national Morris organisations, to which most groups are affiliated: The Morris Ring, the Morris Federation and the Open Morris. We are lucky in that Bedford has at least three groups: Bedford Morris Men, Hemlock and Red Cuthbert.

SO HOW CAN YOU GET INVOLVED IN MORRIS DANCING?
You might contact the Squire (the one in overall charge) though you’ll probably be referred to the Bagman or Baglady (the one who does all the admin work). You’ll become an Apprentice with the Foreman teaching you the steps to the music made by the Musician. Once you are a competent member of the Side you might perform as Stand on a Day of Dance, or just go Busking. Apparently, you might want to be a Fool or a Beast, but I’m fairly sure you’ll want to join in with the Ale (another old English tradition that sides try to preserve).

Contact:
Bedford Morris Men
HEMLOCK MORRIS – HEMLOCK MORRIS
Home – Red Cuthbert Morris

Sources:

Bedford Morris Archives
Bedfordshire Times & Independent – Fri 19 May 1950

With thanks to research carried out by Anni Berman

 

 

 

 

 

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