This well known picture of the Westerhope team was published in “Contact - The Quarterly Journal of Newburn UDC” Volume 1 No. 3. The date and names are as above and the photograph is published by courtesy of Frank Lee. (Spooky!) The musician is not named in this publication.
The Westerhope sword dance team were founded in 1906, taught by a rapper dancer from Bedlington called Billy Raine. The men in the team worked at nearby North Walbottle pit, opened in 1896, and so when Cecil Sharp visited them in 1912 and recorded their dance, he called it ‘North Walbottle’ rather than Westerhope. The leader of the team at that time, Billy Clark, moved to Newbiggin in around 1920 and founded the team there.
The team participated enthusiastically in the North of England Musical Tournaments of the 1920s, winning in the inaugural event in 1919, and in the following two years. In 1921 they were the first side to win the Cowen Trophy, only to lose it the following year to Winlaton White Star, because the judge, Cecil Sharp, felt their dance had become too much of an acrobatic display. The junior of the two adult teams was entered each year under the name of Callerton or Whorlton, two villages close to Westerhope, and school teams were also entered from 1921 to 1926.
In many ways Westerhope were the Black Swan of their day, with forward-facing figures, multiple tumbles and a crowd-pleasing presentation style.
Winning competitions was a major motivator for the dancers, who went professional for short periods from 1921 to 1925. They toured England, and even performed at the London Palladium, but turned down a three-year professional contract to tour Britain and the USA (apparently because they were not offered enough money).
The team also performed to collect money for charity, notably for widows and orphans of miners killed in the Montagu pit disaster in Scotswood in 1925, and to fund the local soup kitchens during the General Strike in 1926. Pit accidents also took their toll on the team members, who had to stop dancing later in 1926. The junior, Callerton, team took over until they too stopped dancing in 1928, although the school team continued until 1932.
There was a revival of interest in the early 1970s, led by Les Williamson of Sallyport, and a school team was founded. However, this team later folded when the participants left school.
Less than a mile to the north, we come to North Walbottle, where the dance was collected by Cecil Sharp. It was taught in the village in 1906 by a dancer from a former Bedlington side (a place visited later in the tour).
The team variously called themselves North Walbottle, High Pit (from the mine where they worked), or Whortlon (the place they practiced in the smithy).
Their purple velvet hoggers were set off with a gold stripe and were fastened below the knee by three gold buttons. They had white stockings, a very short black tie and around their waist a wide gold sash, tied in a bow in front of the left hip. The team danced up until the time they joined the army at the start of the Great War. Their junior team, however, continued the dance afterwards - this was the famous Westerhope team...
...There was a further adult team performing in Westerhope during these years and they too entered the competitions, but under the name of Whorlton. A change of membership saw some of these dancers living beside the North Walbottle pit, where the colliery houses were known as Callerton, and they adopted this name as they continued dancing up to 1928.
In addition, there were also junior Westerhope sides and, with some of their number replacing older dancers, an adult Westerhope team continued up to about 1932.
The picture of the "Westerhope" team with the Cowen Trophy, also hangs in Cecil Sharp House and on the back of it are a set of notes written by Bill Cassie in November 1970, who describes them as “The North Walbottle Sword Dancers” and names them as captioned above:
This photograph shows the team which danced on the stage of the London Palladium in the normal show in 1920/21. The numbers danced by these men were: No. 1 Davison, No. 2 Jarvis, No. 3 Taylor, No. 4 Hall, No. 5 Lee. Taylor “couped the rapper” or turned a back somersault over the sword. Dickman was spare and could dance any position, an accomplishment not common amongst the traditional rapper teams.
The earliest record of rapper in this area was the WHORLTON team of 1906. Unlike the team shown in the picture, the earlier one had a Tommy – Bob Nesbitt and a Betty – Jimmy Patterson. This early team started under Billy Raine, and had Joe Hutchinson as one of its members.
The team shown in the photograph was started by Richard Davison (elder brother of Joe, above) Richard was killed in the First World War. The William Clark mentioned by Cecil Sharp came later than Richard Davison into the team, and was better known as “Pottsy Bill” because he married a Miss Potts. This nickname distinguished him from another William Clark in the village.
The dancers were known indiscriminately as the WHORLTON SWORD DANCERS, or the HIGH PIT SWORD DANCERS. Westerhope village and the Whorlton Pit at North Walbottle are close together.
The concertina, also in the possession of the Society, seen in this picture, is held by John Hall who was playing it when Cecil Sharp collected the dance. The instrument had a long career, and was used for playing the Northumberland Fusiliers “over the top” in the First World War. It was damaged by shrapnel and repaired by Harry Boyd whose name is worked into the decoration.
The North Walbottle dancers last performed in aid of the relief fund for the Montagu Pit Disaster in 1926.
In 1963, all the people on the photograph, except John Hall were living in the region.
So it would appear that we have a group of pits around the Walbottle/Westerhope area, all of which lent their names to dance teams over a 26 year period (1906-32) The choice of name seemed to be determined by where the men worked at the time and whether it was a junior or a senior team. It would appear likely that there was a regular interchange of dancers, and musician John Hall, appears to have been in great demand by all of them!
Steve Taylor is certain that his grandfather is seated front left in the team photograph. The contributor to ‘The Contact’ has Sam Taylor as the 4th Dancer from the left, but Bill Cassie agrees with Steve. Any further information about these teams would be welcome. Ed