Why did Morris survive in Abram?
Survival of Morris Dancing in Abram
No-one knows precisely when Maypoles and Morris dancing were first introduced to Abram. Popular throughout England until the Civil War, they were outlawed by the Puritans but became popular again under Charles II. There are references to Morris dancers being associated with Maypoles in eighteenth century Lancashire, at Little Crosby and Sefton (1715), Magull (1721) and Middleforth Green, Penwortham (1790s).
Though the first description of the Abram Morris Dancers and their Maypole dates from 1880, the Ordnance Survey map of 1846 records the existence of the plot of land in Park Lane known as the Morris Dancers’ Ground. This is adjacent to May Pole House, a farm that took its name from the dancers’ Maypole. When a coal pit was opened on Park Lane in 1895, it was named Maypole Colliery because of its proximity to the Morris Dancers’ Ground. It is likely that the customary use of the Park Lane plot for the erection of a Maypole and Morris dancing around it dates back to the eighteenth century (or earlier) and the tradition in Abram may be contemporary with the Maypoles in other Lancashire towns and villages.
If the customs in the other settlements were similar to the Abram Morris Dance, none have survived to permit a comparison. Abram is the only Lancashire town where a Morris dance continues to be performed around a Maypole. Why should such a custom have survived in Abram and not elsewhere?
A significant factor is the Morris Dancers’ Ground itself, a plot of land dedicated to the performance of the Abram Morris Dance. It was donated to the people of Abram with the requirement that the dance be performed at regular intervals, reported to be as long as every twenty one years in some sources. At present, the donor of the land is not known for certain, but research is continuing in the hope of establishing who was Abram’s benefactor. To ensure the continuing use of the plot may have encouraged the dancers to keep performing when those in other villages stopped altogether or abandoned their Maypoles in favour of other styles of Morris dancing.
A handful of individuals are worthy of mention in the context of the survival of the Morris dance in Abram: Adam Ingram (Abram), Richard Porter (Hindley), Maud Karpeles (London), Bill Wright (Abram) and Geoff Hughes (Platt Bridge). Each has played a part in ensuring the survival of the dance in Abram to the present day.
Adam Ingram became a Morris dancer in Abram when in his mid teens, around 1868. In the early 1880s, Richard Porter made a notation of the dance, which he called ‘Old English Morris Dance’, said to be one hundred years old at that time, though it may have been older. Adam took part in the last known performance by the Abram dancers, on July 1st 1901, though not as a dancer.
We are fortunate that Maud Karpeles decided to investigate the Abram Morris Dance in the early 1930s and used information from Adam Ingram and Richard Porter to publish a dance notation that allowed it to be taught around the world. The dance was adopted by many Morris teams throughout England, some being very creative in their interpretations. Often called ‘Abram Circle Dance’, it is now performed wherever there are Morris dancers, including North America and New Zealand.
Bill Wright was the son in law of one of the 1901 team. His role was to ensure the protection of the Morris Dancers’ Ground from development. In 1972 he obtained village green status for the plot of land, and in 1976 it became registered as common land. It is registered in the ownership of Wigan Council, who are co-operating with the Morris dancers and local community to restore the plot to being a proper village green.
In the 1970s, Geoff Hughes, an experienced Morris dancer, moved to Platt Bridge. He had already learned the Abram Morris Dance and set about researching its history and establishing the most authentic version of the dance. By 1984 he had recruited a team of men willing to revive the dance in Abram and that year the Abram Morris Dance was performed for the first time since 1901 on the Morris Dancers Ground. Rather than waiting another 21 years, the performance is now an annual event, the dancers going about their rounds of Abram, Bickershaw, Hindley and Platt Bridge on the last Saturday each June.
This year was the centenary of the last performance by the traditional dancers, so the current dancers turned out again on Sunday July 1st 2001. The highlight of the morning was a ceremony at the grave of Adam Ingram, at which we laid flowers in the presence of Adam’s surviving relations.
Next year, we hope to celebrate the restoration of the Morris Dancers’ Ground. The team will keep busy fund-raising and aims to give Abram an asset it can be proud of.
Michael L. Jackson
This article was written in 2001 for the benefit of those interested in the Abram Morris Dance.