Pit or Pole?
At the April meeting of the Abram Community Link, I was asked "Which came first - the pit or the pole?". The question refers to the Maypole Colliery (now the Maypole Industrial Estate on Park Lane) and the Maypole that was previously located at the Morris Dancersí Ground, which is roughly opposite the site of the pit. Around the same time, I received a message of support for our project to restore the Morris Dancersí Ground from Mike Stevens, Squire of Peterborough Morris, who suggested that "Abram is probably more famous for its Morris Dance than its coal".
I could answer the question about dates with the certainty that the Morris dancersí Maypole predated the Maypole Colliery by many years, but that it is not possible to quote the exact dates. My belief is that the use of the land on Park Lane for Morris dancing and the erecting of a Maypole dates at least a century before the nearby coal mine. Eventually research may establish specific dates. I understand that the mine was built towards the end of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the Morris Dancersí Ground was recorded by the Ordnance Survey on a map of Abram of 1846. Further along Park Lane on the same map was Maypole (or May Pole) House Farm. It is likely that both the farm and the colliery took their names from the Morris dancersí Maypole. It is unlikely that the Morris Dancersí Ground would have been recorded as one of Abramís few landmarks in the 1840s if it had not already been of long-term importance to the local community. The likelihood is that it had been in use for several generations, at least since the eighteenth century.
Unfortunately, Abram did not have a diarist or local news reporter to document its customs in the eighteenth century. Other Lancashire towns and villages were more fortunate. Some useful details about the association between Lancashire Morris dancers and Maypoles are given in "The great diurnall of Nicholas Blundell of Little Crosby, Lancashire":- 16th June 1715 "Mrs Barker, my Wife and I went to Ailes Mellings, we saw the Morris Dansers of Sefton as were going their Round in order to Rear a May-Pole in Sefton..."; 9th July 1715 "The Little Boyes & Girles of this Town diverted themselves with Rearing a May-pole in the West-Lane, they had Morrys dansing & a great many came to it both old and young ..."; and 24th June 1721 "... coming home I overtook the Morris Dansers as were going to Flower the May-Pole in Magull". I cannot say whether Abramís Morris dancers and Maypole date back as far as this, or whether the custom was introduced at a later date in the eighteenth century from another Lancashire village, perhaps when an experienced dancer moved to Abram. The association between Morris and Maypole died out in all other Lancashire towns and villages, so that it is likely that Abramís dance is the oldest surviving Lancashire Morris dance.
It is interesting to note that none of Blundellís diary entries refer to the Maypoles being raised during May. This was, and still is, the case in Abram as well. The traditional dancers are recorded as performing in early July; and the present Abram Morris Dancers do their round of Abram, Bickershaw, Hindley and Platt Bridge (on foot!) on the last Saturday in June (June 30th this year).
Locally, the most significant thing known about the Maypole Colliery is the disaster of August 18th 1908, in which 75 men died as a result of an explosion. A memorial stands in the churchyard, but there is no obvious memorial at the actual site, other than derelict buildings surviving from the colliery to remind passers-by of the industrial estateís previous history. Abram Morris Dancers are intending to restore the Morris Dancersí Ground during 2001 and wish to include an interpretation board that will remind visitors of the history of the former Maypole Colliery and will honour the memory of the men who lost their lives there.
The site of the Morris Dancersí Ground was preserved through the efforts of William Wright, who worked at the colliery and was a former Chairman of Abram Urban District Council. His father-in-law had been a Morris dancer in 1901 and his sister-in-law was in a girlsí Morris dance team known as Abram Morris Dancers between the wars. He achieved village green status for the site in 1972 and it was registered as common land in 1976. Having protected the site from development, it is now our job to restore and enhance it so that it becomes an asset to the community of Abram. At present it is probably the most derelict and least accessible village green in England. Our partners, Groundwork Wigan, have designed a restoration scheme that is sympathetic to the siteís village green status. It is intended to provide a grass surface suitable for performing the ancient Abram Morris Dance and allows for the erection of a Maypole. With the support of the Abram Ward Councillors and Abram Community Link, we have been awarded substantial financial support by Wigan Council, Shell Better Britain Campaign and Lancashire Folk. We await the results of other grant applications. Until the end of June, there is a display in Abram Library which includes a copy of the project design and more information about the history of Morris dancing in Abram.
In addition to the support from the local community, without which we would have no chance of success with the project, we have received messages of support from Morris dancers around the world, including Holland, Nigeria and New Zealand. We have found that the Abram Morris Dance is not only performed by many teams throughout England, but is also popular in countries as far apart as North America and New Zealand. In such circles, Abram is better known for its Morris Dance than its mining history. Similarly, such people are more likely to know of the Morris Dancersí Ground than Wigan Pier! Unfortunately, they are more likely to know of the dance and its traditional site than are the local people in Abram. Abram Morris Dancers are trying to change that.
Please visit the display in the library. Please come and watch us dance on Saturday June 30th or Sunday 1st July, the anniversary of the last performance by the traditional Morris dancers of Abram.
Michael L. Jackson
This article first appeared in the parish magazine during 2001.