Friday 15 May 2020

The Enduring Morris Dance

This blog post was written by our volunteer Megan, who recently catalogued and repackaged our Lesley Edwards collection.

The collection is made up of research papers, photographs and articles relating to Morris dancing in Cheshire, and covers several Cheshire towns and parishes in great detail. You can see the full catalogue for these records here.

Read on to find out more about this intriguing folk dance that has been an English tradition for more than six hundred years!

Cheshire Image Bank (c01114): Godley Hill Royal Morris Men,
prior to the start of the Knutsford May Day procession in 1906.

The Morris dance is distinguished by a specific set of characteristics, including rhythmic stepping, folk music, regionally specific costumes, bell pads and the use of sticks and swords. These elements have cemented the Morris dance as a unique, vibrant spectacle and an entertaining recreation.

Cheshire Image Bank (c08403): Fidlers Fancy Morris Group,
Wilmslow Carnival 1970s.

What is truly significant about the tradition of Morris dance, especially with regard to local history, is the settings in which it was found and what it can reveal about the communities that shaped it. 

For example, Morris dancing is often considered to have four distinct geographical variations, identified as Cotswold, Border, Sword Dancing (Yorkshire) and North West; each form shaped by culturally significant regional differences. 

As the centuries moved on and Morris dancing moved from the court out into the parishes to become a staple aspect of community celebration, the Morris adopted a regional identity, and in the North West this was influenced by the mill population.

The North West Morris dance, found in Cheshire and Lancashire, was popular at May and rose festivals, wakes week fairs and notably the rush bearing ceremonies of the 17th century. During this time rushes were brought to local churches and strewn on the floor in an effort to make kneeling more comfortable.  These ceremonies became processional, with the rush bearing carts flanked by Morris dancers. 

Cheshire Image Bank (c11524): Postcard showing
the Morris dancers at the Helsby Rose Queen fete in 1911.

The locality not only determined the ceremonies in which the Morris dancing was performed but also the music, form of the dance and the dress (which was often dependent on what was available). The North West Morris, for example, is described as being performed in a military drill like style. 

Societal shifts are evident in the rise and fall of the Morris dance. Its decline took place throughout the years of the industrial revolution, with the migration of communities away from the rural villages and agricultural lifestyles that had been the lifeblood of the dance.

Cheshire Image Bank (p4772): Chester Morris Women,
Bridge Street 1989.

Throughout the 20th century the Morris dance has undergone various resurgences, demonstrating the durability of the traditional folk dance and underpinning the enduring collective memory that allows it to thrive. 

Much of the research that has supported these revivals has come from the first hand accounts and memories of past Morris Dancers. The Lesley Edwards collection at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies provides a wealth of information on the Cheshire Morris dance, from steps, to costume and music. It is through the collation of research like this that the finer details of the regional forms of Morris dance are remembered and sustained.                                                                                                                                                    
Finally a quote from Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser gives a glimpse into the simple purpose of the enduring Morris dance by emphasising the joy it bought to Mayday summer celebrations:

‘‘Their peculiar mode of dancing is certainly very pretty. Their dresses are handsome in the extreme.’


  1. Hello, and thank you for sharing this fascinating research. Is it possible to find out more about Lesley Edwards and where and when the original research took place?

    1. Hello Brian, thank you for your comment! The Lesley Edwards collection was deposited with us in 1995, and consists mainly of research relating to Morris dancing in the following parishes: Alderley Edge & Wilmslow, Altrincham, Astbury & Congleton, Crewe, Godley Hill, Goostrey, Holmes Chapel, Knutsford, Lower Withington, Northwich, Peover, Stockport and Whalley. There is also more general research into Morris dancing in Cheshire and beyond, as well as publications and photographs.

      We are currently closed to the public and unable to check original records. If you'd like to get in touch with us once we've reopened then we'd be happy to tell you more about the Lesley Edwards collection. Updates on our service can be found on our website (