The Cats whip Murton out of the archives!

by Nicola Rushton

October 2002. Whip the Cat Rapper from Nottingham wanted a traditional dance to learn and perfect by April 2003 for DERT. It was suggested that Murton would be good to learn as “not many teams dance it because it's complicated!” According to my research (correct me if I'm misinformed), the only other team currently dancing it are Sallyport.

Eager to confirm our commitment to rapper we decided to learn this ‘complicated’ dance! Little did we know what we were (initially) letting ourselves in for. The first hurdle was to obtain the notation. After searching on the internet I came across a reference which was in fact the notation and held at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library from where I obtained a copy.

The notation was written by Dr Cawte and Dr Soper, and I've since learnt that Dr Norman Peacock collected the dance with Cawte. It was Peacock who noticed the dance was numbered the opposite way round when he and Cawte subsequently saw it danced by the Newcastle Morris Men in 1956. According to Peacock it was Lowerson senior who had devised the dance this way as ‘something different’ and that “no-one else danced the same dance.” There are suggestions that the dance was actually one danced at nearby Hetton-le-Hole, and simply turned inside out!

The Murton team goes back as far as 1902. Members of EFDS (Miss V.I.Orde, Miss Derry and Mr and Mrs Schofield) saw the dance in 1926, though the notation they collected was lost during the war. The team continued until about 1934. It was in 1955 when Peacock and Cawte met with Harry Lowerson II (son of Lowerson senior) that the current notes were made. Miss Orde and Dr Schofield both saw the dance in 1926 and contributed to these notes. In 1956 Lowerson II and Lowerson III saw the dance (by the Newcastle Morris Men), making a few alterations to the style and detail. Tom Smith, the original fiddler, also contributed to the notation. From this evidence we feel that the dance today is as close as can be to that danced in the 1900s – a truly traditional dance.

To find out more about the Murton dance I have been in touch with Dr Cawte and Dr Peacock, both of whom spent time talking about their experiences collecting the dance. Dr Cawte remembers the day that he and Norman Peacock went to Murton. On Boxing Day he and Norman made their visit to Murton, and the same day visited a retired miner and a dentist – from both of whom they collected songs! Harry Lowerson II was their next visit. It was on this visit to Murton that Lowerson produced some exciting finds from his attic: a set of rappers used by the original team and a pair of blue velvet breeches. Dr Cawte remembers that the rappers were made from old saw blades – the teeth simply cut off... although some were still wavey along one edge. Imagine the insurance claim today! Dr Cawte also said the Murton dancers liked to keep their dance a ‘secret.’ They were happy to teach it to people, but not to have it written down and published – “In 1955 Mr Lowerson said the rapper dance was something you only pass on to your sons.” At the time of publication in 1967, the writers tried in vain to contact a member of the Lowerson family. On a visit to Murton, Charles Soper discovered the row of cottages where the Lowersons had lived, demolished. No-one in the village knew the whereabouts of the family. Subsequently Dr Cawte received a request for a copy of the published notation, from a Mr Lowerson in Murton. On hearing only 250 copies were published, his mind was put somewhat at rest.

It turns out that Murton is a unique dance in its formation! Our first two practices were spent trying to work out the figures. Apart from having ‘alien’ names, eg. ‘scringes’ and ‘girdles,’ the dance just didn't work – the numbering is reversed. To further complicate things... the ‘star’ is tied upside down, with the left hand on the right!

The Murton dancers were ‘gentle’ and ‘relaxed,’ in comparison to the ‘quick and slick’ style of High Spen and Winlaton (Cawte). We really love dancing this dance – it feels gentle and un-rushed. The style of this dance was closely linked to the longsword dances of the time. The majority of figures are ‘running’ figures and traditionally the only ‘display’ figure is the lock which is shown only twice. Dr Peacock commented he much preferred to see the moving figures.

Dr Christopher Cawte was a musician and dancer with the Kings College Morris Men, the team later became the Newcastle Kingsmen. Besides rapper, they also danced several Cotswold traditions.

Dr Norman Peacock danced and was a Betty with Leeds Morris Men, Clydeside and the Travelling Morris.