Sticks and hankies – a tale of Red Stags

I took up Morris dancing while a student at the University of Southampton. This is how it all started and how the Red Stags came into existence.  

I came up to Southampton in October 1967 to read environmental botany and geography. I had a place in South Stoneham House (SSH) hall of residence in Wessex Lane (now closed down – riddled with asbestos and no longer safe for human habitation) for my first two years at Southampton. Botany and SSH have a lot to do with the founding of the Red Stags.

I’d always had an interest in folk music (especially Irish music) but had never taken part in any folk dancing whatsoever before arriving in Southampton. Well, during Freshers’ Week (the introductory week for freshman) in 1967, I attended an event known as the Bun Fight where all the Student Union societies tried to sign up as many new members as possible. Well, I happened to sort of dawdle in front of the stall of the English and Scottish Folk Dance Society (ESFDS), and before I knew it, I’d been signed up to join. And so the following Monday I went along to the Union and started to learn to dance English and Scottish dances – nothing about Morris at this time.

At the end of the first year, all botany students had to attend a field course in the summer vacation, held at Lisdoonvarna on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare – lots of Guinness and good music and dancing. I guess we must have done some work as well since the area of the Burren close to Lisdoonvarna is a limestone of outstanding natural beauty and botanical interest. While on that course, one of my fellow students, Gloria Davies mentioned that Dr. Joe Smartt, a geneticist, was involved in folk music, and apparently had danced with the Winchester Morris Men (WMM). Joe didn’t teach first year students, so I had not met him – in fact, I didn’t really know who he was.

At the beginning of the second year, in October 1968, the Botany Dept. held a welcome party for incoming freshman. After a few glasses of beer, maybe wine, I decided to introduce myself to Joe. I told him that I’d heard he was a Morris dancer. He told me about the WMM, and that he’d also danced with the Westminster Morris Men. On the basis of what he told me, I asked him that if I could find five others who were interested, would he teach the Morris to us. And, lo and behold, within two weeks, the Red Stags Morris Men was founded, and registered as a society in the Students’ Union.

In October 1968 I was Vice President of the SSH Junior Common Room, and managed to persuade a number of friends there to join the Red Stags – Neil Freeman (Law), Simon Newman (Maths), Chris Lovegrove (Music), Derek Gorham (English freshman), and Clive James (Accountancy). Joe had a collection of 78 rpm recording of William Kimber (Headington) playing Morris tunes, and we used to meet once a week in the seminar room on the first floor of the Botany Dept. (now the Shackleton Building where Geography is housed). Joe would bring a portable record player and the records; we cut short and long sticks for the stick dances, and settled on learning the Cotswold Morris traditions from the villages of Headington, Adderbury, and Bampton.

We were also joined by some friends not in SSH – Colin Anderson (Accountancy), Rob Williams (Electronic Engineering), and Steve Jordan (Maths). We were also joined from time-to-time by Russell Meredith (Maths), a year ahead of us in SSH, who was primarily with the WMM. Colin was a member of the ESFDS, and that’s where I had met him – I think he also danced with the WMM. Others joined the Red Stags after its foundation, but sadly, I can’t remember all the names.

It took a little time to decide on a name for the side, finally settling for Red Stags, as that was the university’s crest in those days. Colin’s girlfriend Veronica worked somewhere in the university’s admin, and she kindly knocked up the tabards we designed, in the university colors of gold on the front and black on the back, with the silhouette of a red stag’s head on both sides. Our choice of tabards and black hats was made to set us apart, to some extent, from the WMM. The Westminster Morris Men also wear black hats, and I guess it was Joe Smartt’s association with them that set us on that course. We had to search out a supply of straw hats in Southampton – not the easiest thing to do in mid-winter. We finally found a supply in Dunn & Co in the High Street – we caused some amusement asking for about 10 hats, different sizes. Then we had to spray them black.

Our practices continued through the autumn term of 1968, and we made our first public performance in February 1969. I was also a regular member of the folk club that met in the Students’ Union on Sunday evenings. I persuaded the club to let me organize a ceilidh at which the Red Stags would make their first performance. But we needed a musician! Joe did take up the pipe and tabor later on, but in early 1969 (and on many other occasions) we were supported by Dudley Savage, a fiddle player of considerable skill whose playing could really lift the dancers. He played also for the WMM and as lead in a local folk band. The star turn were the Red Stags – making their debut, processing on, and dancing maybe four or five Headington and Adderbury dances. Needless to say, we were very nervous, but the reception was great. And I think we went from strength to strength.

We joined up with the WMM during the summer term on their tours throughout Hampshire and especially in the New Forest. We also joined with them in West Sussex to meet up with the Martlet Sword and Morris Men from Chichester. I certainly had some great times out with the Red Stags and the WMM.

I think the Red Stags were in demand, and we did quite a few shows, at University Open Days, in the city and around. The local TV used a film of us dancing Above Bar street in Southampton for the closing credits of a weekly news program, and this was shown for well over a year.

Today the Red Stags is a border Morris side, with both men and women dancing together, and is a member of the Morris Federation.

In September 1969, Joe Smartt, Russell Meredith and myself (as Red Stags) joined a group of dancers and pipers from Newcastle, including Colin Ross – of The High Level Ranters fame – and his wife Ray Fisher (a well-known Scottish folk singer, who sadly died last year), to participate in a bagpipe festival in Strakonice, Czechoslovakia.

We danced our way across Holland, Germany and into Czechoslovakia. Our stay in Strakonice was sponsored by the local brewery! Highlights included a fabulous Breton pipe band from Brest and a dance group from Concarneau. We danced Morris and Rapper that the group had taught me very quickly in Newcastle before leaving*. A baptism of fire. Although I didn’t get the stepping entirely correct, it was more important to get the movements, patterns right. We went round workingmen’s clubs in the Newcastle area on the Saturday night – and those men know their rapper! Our stay in Strakonice was sponsored by the local brewery! 

The Red Stags were represented at only one meeting of the Morris Ring, in Bristol 1970. We were unable to field a full side unfortunately, but had a good time nevertheless. Joe was not with us – being otherwise engaged, getting married in Southampton!

Well, 42 years later, what are we all up to? Joe Smartt retired from the University a few years ago, and living still in Southampton, although not in good health. Neil Freeman is semi-retired, a solicitor and senior partner in a practice in Aylesbury. He still dances with Albury Morris Men in Hertfordshire. Chris Lovegrove is a music teacher as far as I know in Bristol. Si Newman is still around in the Southampton area. I believe that Steve Jordan dances sometimes with the WMM, as does Derek Gorham occasionally. I just heard from Derek who found this post! I don’t know about the others. As for me, my Morris days are long past. I danced in Birmingham with the Green Man’s Morris & Sword Club

in Birmingham from 1970 until I headed off to Peru in January 1973, and for a while in 1975 when I was back writing my PhD thesis. I danced with them in the 1980s and became Squire 1982-1983. I gave up from the mid-1980s because I developed arthritis in my hips, and was advised that such energetic exercise was not good. Two members of Green Man I danced alongside became Squire of the Morris Ring (John Venables and Ray King), as did Geoff Jerram of the Winchester Morris Men.

This photo was taken at the annual feast where I ‘danced in’ as Squire. The group photo was taken in Lichfield in about 1982, when the side was presented with a recognition of the many years that it had led the Lichfield Bower Procession.

* Just last night (3 May 2012) I was looking for some information about Strakonice and came across a link about a rapper team that had been formed in 1969 to attend a bagpipe festival in Czechoslovakia. It seems that the Sallyport Sword Dancers continued from a nucleus of the group that went to Strakonice – and they are still active and successful!

2 thoughts on “Sticks and hankies – a tale of Red Stags

  1. Derek Gorham says:

    Hello Mike

    Not very good with technology so I hope I am making contact with you. What a find your article was and what pictures. I have been taught to email by our children so give me a whatever you do …… it doesn’t sound right to say drop me a line…….. and I’ll share my memories with you.

  2. Colin Ross says:

    Dear Mike,
    Ray died last year and I have not been the best health since then with a stroke and had one of my kidneys taken out and with having variable good health which I hope will get better.
    I am in my late seventies now but I am still making my pipe making and going up to the Bagpipe Museum every month. I have not played with the High Level Ranters since last year but I might be geting my fiddle out in to play.
    I rembering Strakonice playing in the ’60’s and was good to see the photo you sent with Ray and Forster with me beside them.
    Thanks for sending your post.
    Colin Ross

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