Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A Bit Of History, And A Lot Of Fun - Straw Bear Festival 2

After the big procession to the Market Place the various groups of dancers - "sides" they are usually called - begin their dancing. Because there are so many dancers, over 30 sides, they perform at various locations around the town, often outside pubs funnily enough. This also has the effect of thinning out the crowds, a bit! 

A Cambridge dance side but with dances from elsewhere.
But even so I wasn't able to get any video till late in the afternoon when the audience dispersed sufficiently to allow me to get to the front without excessive jostling.

White Rose Morris
Not everyone is doing traditional Cotswold Morris, as you will see. Long time followers of "By Stargoose And Hanglands may be wondering, "Are those crazy Gog Magog Molly Dancers, that you told us about before, there?" Well, yes indeed and I'll include a video of their dancing (a new one you haven't seen before) at the end of this post. Here are their musicians...

Gog music!
That's just their interpretation of the old Molly dancing. There are others. But just what is Molly Dancing? Where did all this begin? Why Whittlesea? What on earth is that man dressed all in straw and calling himself a Straw Bear? 
Hang on a minute! One question at a time!

A traditional broom dance
Molly Dancing is a form of traditional dance which developed in East Anglia and is mostly known from Cambridgeshire and The Fens. A hundred years or so ago it was well known around here, though even then not as widespread as it once was. It was chiefly done by poor people, which meant farmworkers in this area, and was really a form of begging for money during harsh times. If the word "begging" is unacceptable then lets call it "charity", though with the needy actually doing something about it themselves!

Mepal Molly Men
At this time of year they would go around dancing from door to door and expect a contribution from their more wealthy neighbours. They would take a plough with them and threaten to plough up the ground outside the front doors of those who refused to pay up. The last two photos I've shown you are of The Mepal Molly Men, from a village in the Fens, who are probably as traditional as you can get.
Blacked up
In order to prevent the embarrassment of being recognised some  of the men would black up their faces and wear a disguise, often women's clothes. Perhaps this is where the word "Molly" originates. 

(You will see that some of the dancers depicted in the post have blacked-up faces. This was done historically as a form of disguise so that people would not know who it was begging for money. There was never any real attempt to imitate black people; the ears, neck and hands are never blacked-up. Many modern dance sides are aware of possible misunderstanding and have changed their facial make-up, to bright colours, strange designs or just a few smears to make them look more like Victorian chimney-sweeps. One or two sides are determined to stick to the traditional black faces. 
I hope this explanation will be accepted, but also apologise to anyone who may be upset by the inclusion of these pictures here).

Continuing tradition - children who've grown up in Whittlesea are keen to be involved
One of the last places this was done was Whittlesea so a little more is known about it here. It all came to an end when police stopped it. Officially this was because it was a form of begging but also because the day usually ended up with everyone drunk and disorderly. A mass punch-up often formed the finale to the evening!

Straw Bear and minder
In Whittlesea the dancing also included one of the ploughboys dressing up as the "Bear" by being shrouded in straw and being led through the streets. No one really knows where this originated though similar Straw Bears are also known in parts of Germany. Certainly a lot of Dutch people were employed to drain the Fens - could they be the link.....?

A smiling Gog
In 1980 the tradition was revived on a very small scale, but without the punch-up! Over the years it has grown and grown with dancers coming from other parts of England. We'll see some of them next time, but for now here's that video of the Gog Magog Molly doing their inimitable thing.

Take care.


  1. What an incredible look at these local traditions! I've not yet seen the Molly Men in action, and am loving the extra glimpses of the straw bears! Thank goodness the dispersed crowds gave you such excellent shots:)

  2. That dance is a good little work out. I'd need a pint afterwards.

  3. Great photos - I'd have loved to have been there!

  4. Another fascinating post with great people photos!


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