The earliest reference to Morris dancing is around the 15th century.
It was popular rural entertainment for the next 200 years, especially at Whitsun, but following the Civil War, when England became a Commonwealth in 1649, Oliver Cromwell banned it. The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 is celebrated in the Morris Dance ‘The 29th of May’ and Morris Dancing continued to be popular until the late 18th century.
It all but died out when the Industrial Revolution resulted in mass-migration from countryside to city. Only four Morris sides can claim a continuous unbroken tradition: Abingdon, Bampton, Headington Quarry and Chipping Campden.
Boxing Day 1899 saw the start of a revival when folklorist Cecil Sharp had a chance meeting with William Kimber, musician with the Headington Quarry side in Oxfordshire. During the early years of the 20th century Sharp and other folklorists, including Mary Neal, recorded the dances and traditions.
Mary Neal founded the Esperance Club for young working women in London and it was these women who performed the first revival Morris dances in public. In 1925 she purchased a large house in East Street, Littlehampton and set it up as a holiday home for the young dancers.
In 1978 two Worthing postmen joined forces with five friends who all frequented the now defunct Half Brick pub on the Brighton Road and formed a men’s Morris side. A year later wives and girlfriends, who weren’t content to remain on the sidelines, formed a ladies side and joined them to form Sompting Village Morris.*
*We are grateful to Christine Elson, a member of svm, for allowing us to quote from her article ‘Morris Dancing is Fun’ which appeared in the Littlehampton Civic Society’s annual ‘Link’ magazine No 63.