Sunday, 27 January 2019

Good Golly, It's Molly!

(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).

They were at it again at the weekend!

In the city of Ely as the good citizens were going about their shopping, when the boat club were out rowing on the river, while dogs were being walked in the park and tourists posed for photos in front of the cathedral, they gathered in front of the Cutter Inn and began dancing.

A car driver rounded the corner from Victoria Street and was confronted by.....

… dressed as women, women dressed as men, people in tweed or technicolour, men carrying brooms, someone pushing a pink plough, grunting and wheezing squeezeboxes, fiendish fiddles and devilish drums, knees lifted high and hands held higher, swinging and stamping and swaying and stepping.

Yes, it's those Molly Dancers again.

This is the traditional dance of the plough men of the Fens and parts of Eastern England. I've photographed it and written about it in various posts and if you want to know something of its history then I wrote about it back in 2014, in this post. But there are also other ways of looking at it.

Everything they are doing - dressing outlandishly, disguising themselves, dancing in the street, playing jaunty tunes and generally making a noise, behaving foolishly, sending up their superiors, drinking beer and having a good time - is guaranteed to annoy those in authority but, and here's the crux of the matter, not actually breaking any laws.

It's a very English form of expression, a gentle but meaningful thumbing of the nose at those in power and all that is staid and conventional. You can trace it from court jesters, mummers plays, through folk tales and songs, music hall and pantomime, the Goons, British pop and psychedelic music of the 1960s, Monty Python, street buskers and steam punks. And you can find elements of most of these incorporated into what passes as Molly dancing today.

Like all traditions Molly is constantly evolving - you need to put in a lot more effort to be outrageous in these permissive times (!) - but there is still respect for the history of the dances, or at least those few that have survived.

The purpose of all this tomfoolery was probably a very necessary safety valve for a discontented populace. And for centuries here in the Fens the poorer classes had much to be discontented about. 

Nowadays our problems are of a different kind, though a homeless man selling The Big Issue magazine reminded us that poverty is still with us.

Take care.

The following dance sides were in attendance: 


  1. Really, what fun! thanks for all the great photos. I just read an Ian Rutledge (by Charles Todd) mystery set in the Fen country in 1920.

  2. Very strange people on the Fens.:))

  3. Wonderful fun,, and yes, interesting how they manage to evolve and yet still keep faithful to the traditions.

  4. What a hoot!! Ely is a delightful town! Visited it in 2004.

  5. THis is such fun! What a joyful silly occasion!

  6. Wonderful - I used to visit Ely when my brother was at school there (centuries ago)

  7. Love this glimpse into the culture and customs of the area!

  8. What a rollicking good time that must have been. Wonderful, colorful, joyous photos.

  9. Great photos and wonderful to see the colourful costumes and smiling people enjoying themselves:)

  10. The plough men of the fens must have been a right jolly group of folks in the good old days. It’s wonderful that the tradition is carried on. I love the colorfulness of it in the middle of winter.

  11. There would be so much to would be hard to see it all. Or them all...

  12. Marvelous! Thanks for photos and comments - being of English descent it is lovely to think of the wonderful things they get up to, and so famously costumed!

  13. Brilliant! Never seen them in person, but I do remember one of your earlier posts featured a video, which I think I'm going to look for now. It strikes me that it's a very good moment to irritate the hell out of anyone purporting to be in authority in the UK; if anyone actually is.

    1. You do wonder just who's driving the charabanc at the moment - maybe it's Prince Phillip!

  14. Hi John - fantastic photos ... while your descriptions are perfect for what you've shown us - we do have our way of doing things ... good traditions. I'm not sure I'd taken in their origin - so thanks for that reminder - cheers Hilary


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