History and Origins of The Ravensbourne Morris
History of Ravensbourne Morris

By Malcolm Ward (2017)

With acknowledgement of the contributions of

Jim Bartlett, Kevin Bonner-Williams & David Jex

Ravensbourne Morris Men came into being in the aftermath of the Second World War. Five men got together from the rump of two pre-war sides which were unable to re-form – Morley College Morris Men and Balgowan Old Boys Morris & Sword Dance Club, plus a sixth man ex-St. Albans. The prime movers were two former members of M.C.M.M. – Geoffrey Metcalf, an accomplished dancer, musician and folk music enthusiast, and Walter Faires, who taught at Balgowan school and was the link between the two sides. A preliminary meeting was held in October 1946, but with only six men nothing further was possible immediately, but a musician was found and the first practice took place on 13th January 1947. Here the name Ravensbourne was adopted, after the river which rises in Keston and flows into the Thames at Deptford (a.k.a The Deptford Creek).

Our first public performance was given on 10th March 1947 at Beckenham & Penge County School to help illustrate a talk given by Douglas Kennedy, noted collector of folk dances and then Squire of The Morris Ring. The dances performed were Twenty-ninth Of May (Headington), Constant Billy (Adderbury), Nutting Girl (Fieldtown) & the Newbiggin Sword Dance. Our first full tour took place on 28 August 1948, dancing at Halstead, Knockholt and Downe and in May 1949 we ventured as far as Hythe to be part of the May Day festivities. This, together with our pre-war connections, makes us the oldest extant Morris side dancing in Kent, a tradition which we intend to maintain.

In 1949, Ravensbourne performed a folk play for the first time, namely the Soul Cakers’ Play from Guildern Sutton (Cheshire).

On 1st June 1953, a very wet Coronation Day eve, whilst dancing in the bar of the Bat & Ball at Leigh, near Tonbridge, Ravensbourne met 72-year-old Jack Medhurst who was the last of the local Mummers side and was word-perfect on the Westerham Christmas Play which he had last performed some 40 years previously. G.M. arranged to meet this man later, and collected the play which forms the basis of the Christmas Mummers Play which we perform to this day.

On Boxing Day 1963 we danced at The Greyhound on Keston Common for the first time (see Notable Public Performances), a tradition we have continued every year since, sometimes to an audience of as many as 500, the collection always going to a local childrens’ charity.

On 1st May 1978 at sunrise (in the pouring rain) Ravensbourne “danced the summer in” for the first time at Caesar’s Well on Keston Common, being the source of the River Ravensbourne. We have continued to do so, sometimes without the rain, every year since.

Ravensbourne and The Morris Ring

The survival of Morris Dancing as an art form dates from Boxing Day 1899, when Cecil Sharp, a musicologist and entrepreneur, met the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers led by William Kimber. Sharp and others became actively engaged in collecting and noting down the dances for publication. This stored information enabled enthusiasts to pick up the pieces after The Great War. Six clubs got together to form The Morris Ring in 1934.

Ravensbourne’s two original clubs, Morley College and Balgowan Old Boys were admitted to membership in 1935 and 1938 respectively. The newly-founded Ravensbourne Morris Men were admitted on 22nd March 1947, the Squire’s staff of office being that formerly held by the Squire of Balgowan Old Boys.

In November 1949, Ravensbourne went to the Jubilee Meeting organised by Headington Quarry Morris Dancers, at which William Kimber was present, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting.

In July 1951, to celebrate the Festival Of Britain, Ravensbourne organised what is believed to be the first outdoor gathering of Morris Clubs in London.

In 1953, Ravensbourne hosted a Ring Meeting based in Tonbridge, at which William Kimber was an honoured guest. In 1972 to celebrate our 25th year, Ravensbourne hosted a Ring Meeting centred on Bromley. We hosted a third in 1977, based on Keston, to celebrate 30 years and in 2007 were joint hosts with Hartley M.M. and White Star Sword Dancers at the Ring Meeting in Tonbridge.

In 1977, Ravensbourne participated in a re-enactment of Will Kemp’s “Nine Daies’ Wonder” when Shakespeare’s clown danced in nine (non-consecutive) days from London to Norwich during the period of Lent 1599 (1600 in the modern calendar). It snowed as we danced into Norwich (Easter Sunday!).

We shall be holding our 70th Anniversary Ring Meeting this coming summer of 2017, around the Tower Of London, St Paul’s and The South Bank.

Ravensbourne have been, and still are, enthusiastic supporters of The Morris Ring, and are the only club to have provided one of each of the Chief Officers, namely Squire (Geoff Metcalf, 1952-54); Bagman (John Wells,1971-77) and Treasurer (Steven Archer, 2013 – date)

Notable Public Performance

In January 1949 Ravensbourne performed at the Royal Albert Hall Anglo-French Festival. We danced again at various festivals at the Royal Albert Hall in 1950, 1951, 1953 and again in 1973.

On July 19th 1952, Ravensbourne toured all points from Wrotham to Dartford with Headington Quarry M.D. and William Kimber as guests. A photograph taken at Otford Pond during this tour appeared in National Geographic magazine.

On May Day 1954, Ravensbourne were dancing as guests of the Chanctonbury Ring M.M. when our performances were captured not only by the B.B.C. but also The Times.

On 27th May 1956 at Thaxted, several members of Ravensbourne were photographed admiring a new Ford Anglia, & this was used in Ford’s publicity brochure.

Sometime around 1962, Ravensbourne were photographed dancing outside The Castle Inn in Chiddingstone village, which appeared in the shops as a series of postcards entitled “Morris Dancing In Kent”.

On Boxing Day 1963, the actor Richard Chamberlain, famous for his role as Doctor Kildare on TV, paid an incognito visit to the area, and for his benefit a special performance was arranged at The Greyhound on Keston Common to an audience of about 30 people. This performance was repeated for public consumption the following year raising the princely sum of £9 14s 11d - quite a tidy sum in those days, probably more than the weekly take-home pay of a labourer at that time. This was given to a local charity, a practice we have followed every year since.

On 12th May 1971 founder member Geoffrey Metcalf was very recognisably depicted in a cartoon by “Zak” in the Evening Standard.

In April 1981 Jim Bartlett, a former Royal Marine, decided that if he could “yomp” 30 miles a day with a 60lb pack on his back, he could certainly dance 30 miles a day. So he did, dancing 202½ miles from Orpington to Worcester in seven days. Unfortunately, the Guinness Book Of Records declined to show any interest in this splendid achievement, so 25 years later Ben Dauncey decided to put matters right, and after much negotiation beforehand with Guinness World Records, he was awarded an official entry of 235.37km for the Longest distance Morris danced in seven days.

In 1989, we danced all day from Bromley to London waving collecting tins as we went, and raised £5,000 – a sum which would have bought you five brand new Ford Fiestas – for Children In Need. We ended up at the BBC TV studios, but could not gain entry to the TV set, but we did get to dance live on the radio.

On Saturday 6th September 1997 we curtailed our 50th Anniversary celebrations out of respect for the late Diana, Princess Of Wales, refraining from dancing until 2pm, after her funeral.

In 1999, Wayne Taylor appeared on the Esther Rantzen programme on BBC2 to illustrate the art of Morris Dancing in a well-balanced programme extolling different aspects of the terpsichorean art.

Ravensbourne and Royalty

In June 1950, Ravensbourne danced before the Duchess Of Kent at an Old English Fair at Tonbridge Castle, held to celebrate the purchase of the historic castle by the town.

In 1967, Ravensbourne were invited (?commanded) jointly with Kentish Travellers Folk Dance Club to perform at Buckingham Palace staff Christmas party, in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen, H.R.H. Prince Philip, H.R.H. Princess Margaret and several other members of the Royal Family. After the displays, the Squire and Bagman, together with representatives of Kentish Travellers were presented to Her Majesty.

...............and in 1993, one of our members escorted a Princess to a firework display. This is another story, but she was German, and they are a republic, so it probably doesn’t count.

Ravensbourne International

In November 1952, Ravensbourne performed at an International Dance Festival in Antwerp.

In 1980, Ravensbourne were part of the festivities at Dieppe Carnival. Our departure from foreign soil was curtailed by French fisherman protesting about something and blockading the port, so some members chartered a light aircraft to fly them back to England whilst others hired a motor-coach to take them to Ostend, selling the empty seats and covering the cost of the hire! The engagement was repeated the following year, but this time the only trauma was one member suffering from a bout of Napoleon’s Revenge after a fishy lunch.

In 1987 The London Borough Of Bromley signed a Town-Twinning Agreement with Neuwied, a town in the Rheinpfalz of Germany about 5 miles downstream from Koblenz. The following year, Ravensbourne were invited to accompany the Twinning Association on a visit to cement the twinning and to attend the opening ceremonies for Neuwied’s new Heimathaus. The hall was packed with about 1500 people for a banquet and show, and all the surrounding associated villages took turns to put on an act, so we represented Bromley. Five years later, we were invited back when Neuwied hosted the area festival, the RheinPfalzTag. They obviously liked us because we were invited back the following year to their annual Deichstadtfest. Ravensbourne have since become affiliated to the Bromley Twinning Association and we have formed a firm friendship with the people of Neuwied. We have to date amassed a total of 16 visits as a club; 10 Deichstadtfests, 3 Twinning Anniversary Celebrations, 2 RheinPfalzTags and a Picnic Concert with the Bromley Youth Orchestra.

In May 2003, some members accompanied Weald Of Kent (q.v.) to The Festival Of Flowers at Lucignano in Tuscany, where the highlight for us was to hoist the reigning Miss Italy during a performance of “The Rose Tree”, before the ceremony of the Election of the Captain Of The Town Gates. Later that same year we visited Normandy en famille for a weekend of dancing organised by Weald Of Kent.

In addition, Ravensbourne have been represented at overseas Ring Meetings at Adelaide, Helmond (Netherlands) and The Isle Of Wight.

Ravensbourne and other clubs

In the early 1950’s, some members left to form the Orpington Morris Men. Orpington attracted their own membership, but folded in about 1960, and the remaining members joined or rejoined Ravensbourne to make the club stronger.

In 1952, Geoffrey Metcalf helped to found the Hartley Morris Men, of whom he was their first Squire. Hartley have since spawned The Wadard Morris Men, so one could possibly claim that they are our grandchildren in the Morris.

During the Folk Revival of the 1960’s the Morris Ring encouraged an initiative whereby established clubs shared their knowledge and expertise with newly-formed clubs, and Ravensbourne are proud to have encouraged and assisted the Headcorn Morris in this way.

Two former members of Ravensbourne were instrumental in forming the Weald Of Kent Morris, who occupy an area to the south-east of Tunbridge Wells.

The Hooden Horse

No history of Ravensbourne would be complete without a mention of our Hooden Horse. It is customary for a Morris side to include supernumary characters in the company, one of which will be an animal of some description. What more appropriate choice for a Kentish Morris team than a Hooden Horse?

The practice of Hoodening is an ancient custom which originated in eastern Kent, and probably owes its origins to the Norse invaders (Hengist and Horsa et al) who worshipped Odin (or Wodin) and his magical eight-footed steed Sleipner. The custom was to take the Hooden Horse around the pubs and wealthier private houses in the days before Christmas. It is said that the practice was prohibited by law as a result of, shall we say, over-enthusiasm, and seems to have died out in the early 1900’s.

Six of the original horses are known to have survived and have been “resurrected”. Ours, affectionately known as “Dobbin”, was made in 1939 for a special demonstration event at Aylesford given by Balgowan (q.v.). He is the oldest “revivalist” Hooden Horse, and came to us with the Balgowan men on the formation of the club. For more information on Hoodening in Kent, go to hoodening.org.uk.