The last Sword Dancer
In the early months of 1903 a Stillington resident, Thomas Scaife, was interviewed by Cecil Sharp who was undertaking a fact finding tour of England for a book on the grand tradition of Morris Dancing.
Thomas Scaife was born in 1818 at Marton cum Moxby and had spent most of his life in Stillington. At the time of his interview he was 84 years old and died only a few weeks later, just short of his 85th birthday. Sharp dubbed him ' The sole survivor of Stillington's sword dancers'.
Thomas Scaife gave Sharp the following account.
The sword dance had been discontinued for 25 or 30 years. They had danced with swords 3 feet long and 11/2 inches wide, with wooden hilts. They were made by the local blacksmith named Richardson. (There's some confusion over the blacksmith's first name, but it would have probably been Thomas Richardson who was responsible for the sword making.) The swords weren't conventional, having heart shaped tips instead of points.
Eight men danced. First round in a ring, jumping the swords, under the swords, finally locking their swords together as 'Merriman' took them on his head in the centre of the ring. Scaife says 'You had to mind what you were doing to keep it right'. Six men could dance but there was a difficulty in locking the swords together. The performance took about five minutes accompanied by a fiddler, or concertina player, with a drummer. The music was usually 'To The Girl I Left Behind Me'. No singing. This all took place at New Year over 3 or 4 days.
As well as eight men and two musicians there were two men to beg with one other to act as 'pack horse' : that is to carry all the clothes and equipment.
Practices took place in the school, probably the National School as it is known that dances did take place there rather than the Wesleyan, though this point isn't made clear by Scaife who said he was foreman of the group.
They wore white jackets with red trimming, white trousers or overalls with red stripes down the sides. Their headgear were caps or round hats, again trimmed in red.
Thomas Scaife's last recorded words to Cecil Sharp is a promise that he would try to obtain one of the original swords.
Cecil Sharp went on to found the English Folk Dance Society in 1911. He published numerous books on the subject, in the process saving many regional dances from obscurity. The above interview, with the last of Stillington's sword dancers, is all that is known of this type of folk dancing in the village.
© E A Cole 2009-2016