PRESTON ROYAL MORRIS DANCERS.
After a short time with the Clitheroe Morris Men, helping my old friend Bruce Dowles, I was invited to dance with the Preston Royal Morris Dancers.
The Preston Royal Morris Dancers, originally a late nineteenth century team, had recently been revived by Richard Boswell, Andy Anderson and Richard’s wife, Pruw. Richard had previously danced with Garstang Morris Dancers, whilst Andy had danced with Leyland. Preston Royal were getting invitations to dance at all the major events and some of my friends were dancing with them. They were also a folk orientated singing team and that is what attracted me to them. So, in the winter of 1979, I joined the Preston Royal Morris Dancers.
'Johnny Babe, we need a front right; you can dance there,' said Richard. 'The team are practicing for next year’s Sidmouth Folk Festival.' 'Oh great,' said I. 'I've always wanted to dance at Sidmouth. Garstang have danced there and they loved it.'
My first outing with Preston Royal Morris Dancers was at the Golden Lion public house, Higher Wheelton, near Chorley. No boater or flowers this time. According to research done in the seventies, the costume was of Victorian origin. Purple smoking jacket, hat with golden tassel, purple breeches, blue and purple cummerbund, white socks and black shoes. Comments from other teams were amusing, to say the least. This article appeared in Clitheroe Morris Men’s Weekend of Dance programme in 1985:
'(Preston Royal are) frightfully smart in their purple breeches, waistcoats, blue cummerbund, blue/purple hats, all set off by the most attractive trimmings. Formed in 1978, kit and dances have resulted from authentic research. Only the beer drinking is made up.'
A lady at the 1980 Saddleworth Rushcart Festival said to Richard Boswell: 'Hello, your team look like Spanish bullfighters.' 'Madam, how dare you!' retorted Richard. 'We look nothing like Spanish bullfighters. We are proper English Morris Dancers!' I found out later the origin of the costume. This advertisement appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post on 13th October, 1892:
AMALGAMATED FRIENDLY SOCIETIES’ BALL
In aid of the Benevolent Funds of the above societies will be held in the PUBLIC HALL, PRESTON.
ON MONDAY, OCTOBER 17th. 1892.
Under Distinguished Patronage.
PRESTON ROYAL MORRIS DANCERS
Will Open the Ball in Spanish Costume, under the conductorship of Mr. H. GENT, of Chorley.
Their first appearance before the public.
Doors open at Seven p.m.
Dancing to commence at Eight.
Admission: Ladies, 1s.; Gentlemen, 1s 6d.
In June, 1890, the Leyland Morris Dancers had danced at the first Rose Queen Festival held at Chorley. This article about Morris Dancing appeared in the Chorley Standard some time later:
'It will perhaps be of interest to our readers to know the meaning of the 'Morris Dance'. It is a peculiar and fantastic species of dance, commonly practised in the Middle Ages, and existing at the present day among the country people in several parts of England. Its origin is ascribed to the Moors, though the genuine Moorish dance (the fandango of the present day) bears little resemblance to it.'
After having watched Leyland Morris Dancers at Chorley's Rose Queen Festival, Chorley people had decided to have their own team of morris dancers. Local man Harry Gent became leader of the first Chorley Morris Dancers, but by late 1892, he was leading the Original Preston Royal Morris Dancers. Was the choice of costume for these new Preston Royal dancers influenced by that article in the Chorley Standard?
Apart from all the jibes and comments about the costume, the revived Preston Royal Morris Dancers started to get a reputation for being a very good dancing and singing team. They received invitations from all over Britain and abroad. Organisers of events would pay expenses for a coach and accommodation just to get the team to travel and perform at their festival or function. Sometimes Preston Royal turned out to be more expensive than the festival's headline artists.
Preston Royal Morris
August 1980 was my first Saddleworth Rushcart Festival with me wearing my Preston Royal costume. 'Johnny Haslett! Why are you wearing curtains and why have you got a lamp shade on your head?' That was the comment from Andy Dougall, leader of the Horwich Prize Medal Morris Men. (I first met Andy, founder member of the revived Horwich team when I danced with Leyland). 'Which team are you dancing with these days?' asked Andy. 'Leyland Morris won’t be the same without you.'
THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL.
In February 1982, the Preston Royal Morris Dancers performed at a Folk Spectacular, a weekend of dancing and singing at the Royal Albert Hall. Also there were the Green Ginger Clog Dancers from Hull, the Hoddesdon Crownsmen Rapper Sword Dancers, Tony O’Sullivan’s Irish Dancers, London Folk, and The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. Top of the bill that weekend were the Spinners, that very popular singalong folk group, and Alistair Anderson, best known as the 'King of the English Concertina'.
Preston Royal Morris Dancers performed eight dances over the weekend and this is what the Daily Telegraph had to say:
'This year’s annual festival at the Albert Hall, given its premiere last night - had taken care to include some outstanding artists. The Preston Royal Morris Dancers showed a splendidly stern, powerful and ritualistic combination of Morris dancing and Lancashire clog dancing. They used only a few steps, but made them ring in the memory.' (Thanks to Neil Wilson, for the newspaper report.)
Later, at the bar, the Spinners congratulated Preston Royal Morris Dancers for putting on a great show and they bought the team a drink. Cheers lads. Thanks for that. It's a weekend that will live in the memory forever. After that performance, Preston Royal Morris Dancers stopped getting silly remarks about their costume.
Whitby Folk Festival, Fylde Folk Festival, Bromyard Folk Festival, you name them, Preston Royal got invited to them. In 1986 the team got their second invitation to Sidmouth Folk Festival. I was leader of the dancers at that time.
It is said that dancers have one bad day during Sidmouth week. I had one of those. Firstly, I sprained my ankle. All I could do was stand at the front of the set shouting out the figures and blowing my whistle (Alan Whittaker, one of our dancers, said I was like the footballer, Bryan Robson; good, but always injured). Secondly, I called out the wrong figure twice in the same day. Embarrassing? Yes, it was.
A special thank you to the Fosbrook Juvenile Clog Dancers from Stockport. Each time Preston Royal performed on the main arena, we could hear them cheering for us. They give us lots of encouragement. Overall it turned out to be another great week; met lots of old friends, made lots of new ones.
In May 1992, the team were invited to Hungary. Off we went on a coach to Szekesfehervar, a small town south of Budapest. The Hungarian people loved Preston Royal Morris Dancers. Everywhere they danced they got a great reception. Dancing in Budapest, the team were invited to dance for the British Prime Minister, Mr. John Major (he thought we were Hungarian Folk Dancers until he heard the sound of the 'British Grenadiers'). After the team danced the 'Fleetwood Dance' the Prime Minister took time out of his busy schedule to talk to all the dancers. Thanks John, the team appreciated that gesture. We were on worldwide television for about twenty minutes that day; another moment to ‘live in the memory’.
Personality clashes with other dancers within the team, plus bad health, caused me to retire from Preston Royal Morris Dancers and dancing altogether. But there are no regrets. I would like to thank the dancers and musicians for putting up with me and my high standards for so long. Thanks lads, we had some great times together.
Bad health, redundancy, not working, missing the dancing, I had to find something constructive to occupy my mind. Having a drink at my local pub in Leyland one evening, an old friend and I got talking about Leyland Festival and morris dancing. He asked the question: 'What did the ‘Royal’ in Preston Royal mean? Did the team dance in front of Royalty? Did the dancers get ‘Royal’ bestowed on them by a member of the Royal Family?' I could not answer those questions, so I decided to visit my local Library and research the local newspapers and try and find a definitive answer.
Fifteen years later and after a million hours of research (it certainly feels like a million) from Leyland, Chorley, Preston, Ormskirk, Crosby, Lytham - St. Anne’s, Blackpool, Fleetwood, Blackburn, Burnley, Accrington, Lancaster, Wigan, Horwich, and Southport Libraries, I amassed enough material to compile a book on local May Festivals, Rose Queen Festivals, Lifeboat Processions, Hospital Parades and Cycle Parades, etc. entitled 'Morris Dancers & Rose Queens'. (Rose Queen Festivals are May Festivals which were held during later months of the year. Organisations decided that because of the usual inclement weather in May it would be better to have their celebrations and demonstrations at a later date. Some even had their May Festivals indoors).
I never found the answer to the Preston Royal question. Maybe they just liked the term 'Royal'. It could conceivably be justified since they performed in front of the Preston Rose Queen in 1893. However, I found this advertisement in the Lancashire Evening Post, October 8th 1892:
PRESTON MORRIS DANCERS,
who took part in the Lifeboat Saturday Procession, beg to inform the Public that they are in NO WAY CONNECTED with the organisation which styles itself Preston 'Royal' Morris Dancers. - Subscriptions for the Preston Morris Dancers should be forwarded to
Mr. LIVINGSTONE. 12, Fishwick-parade.