Northumberland's Dancing Miners

The following article is reproduced from ‘Coal News’, the magazine of the National Coal Board. It was originally published in 1947 - the year the mining industry was nationalised. Unearthed by Phil Heaton, who writes that the original is a film roll believed to be held in Mansfield or Gateshead – but which is reputed to be lost. Two photographs also appeared with the article, both showing a fiddler. One showed a dancer holding aloft a lock, while the other shows the team performing what appears to be a Curly figure. Sadly, both were too feint to reproduce here.

SEVEN Northumberland miners are meeting once a fortnight to practise dancing for a festival at the Albert Hall in London on January 3. Four of them normally work underground, the other three are engaged in transporting coal from the mine, and all belong to the oldest institution in England.

Surrounded by the Backworth group of collieries, the village of Earsdon has preserved the miners' traditional sword dance from prehistoric times. The Earsdon ‘Guizards’, as they were called, used to dance once a year on Christmas Eve. Now they dance on any great occasion. The present team consists of five dancers, a ‘Captain’ and a ‘Bessie’.

The dance is a combined operation: the five performers are linked together by the swords and execute a series of complicated evolutions at high speed. At intervals they pause in their winding of figures and, still linked closely together, perform a step dance with wonderful unanimity.

The sword, or ‘rapper’, as it is called locally, is a flat piece of steel about 2 feet long, with a rotating handle at one end and two flat pices of wood clamped over the other. The implement no longer resembles a sword, nor is it in the least like a rapier, which is supposed by some people to be the origin of the local word ‘rapper’. It is much more like the knife used for tanning hides, and quite possibly was derived from some old trade implement used as a scraper.

Rosette of Swords

At one point in the dance a particular evolution results in the formation of a five-pointed star, the swords being held aloft in a compact rosette. This rose is believed to be a symbol of the sun, and the dance is thought to go back to the times when our ancestors were sun worshippers.

The rose is not only used as a symbol of sun worship, but also to “hang the Bessie” – who is one of the characters in a drama, much of which has now been lost.

This ancient dance survives in a number of villages in the coalmining region round Newcastle- on-Tyne. The Earsdon team is unique in having kept more of this ancient ritual drama. The actors were, of course, the dancers, but their individuality was always disguised in some way - that is the reason why they are called ‘Guizers’.

When the Captain summons each one in turn to introduce him to the spectators, he gives him some ficticious character - usually the name of a famous personage in history. At one time it is belived that the dancers hid their identity by wearing masks or blacking their faces. Earsdon have a ‘calling-on song’ which identifies the dancers with such heroes as Nelson, Wellington, and Bonaparte, and a second song which proudly links the men with their ancient trade of getting coal:–

The first that I'll call on
He is a pitman bold
He works on underground
To keep him from the cold.

The next that I'll call on
It is his heart's desire
He hews and puts the coals
The old woman makes the fire.

After the dance is finished, and the ‘Bessie’ has had her head crowned by the rose of swords, there is a fight, and one of the dancers falls to the ground, ‘dead’. Then a ‘doctor’ is called for, and brings the ‘dead’ man to life.

The miners who are coming to town from Newcastle will bring a treasured tradition of which they have been the custodians for longer than any man can tell.