Traditional folk music, dance and customs - Harrogate, North Yorkshire - Chas Marshall's Website
THE RETURN OF THE BLUE STOTS
An aspect of traditional drama in Yorkshire
By Stuart Rankin
Based on research by Stuart Rankin and Chas Marshall
The geographical county of Yorkshire has one of the richest and most varied traditions of folk drama in Britain. No other area of comparable size can show so diverse a heritage of differing performances, times of the year celebrated or costume worn; yet the county boundary itself seems to have had little significance, for records of particular customs ebb and flow between adjacent counties.
Yorkshire was also a major centre for the publication of chapbooks, the texts of which undoubtedly formed the basis for many "Mummers" performances noted in the 19th century much further afield than the county itself. William Walker of Otley might perhaps be described as the "Brand Leader" in this field, judging by the several surviving titles and editions, including "The Peace Egg" and "Walkers' New Mommer or the Wasail Cup". Both these texts clearly have traditional roots but have been heavily elaborated in early Victorian style. Other Yorkshire chapbook publishers producing play texts worked in Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, which implies a widespread and substantial demand from the populations of industrial towns, recently moved from rural areas. Later these little booklets came to be sold and even used in country districts. This suggests a level of literacy among the working population at the time of publication (ca. 1840 onwards) which was certainly not present in one particular group of contemporary workers - The Railwaymen - a substantial proportion of whom, even in the mid 1850's had to have rules and regulations read to them annually.
Nevertheless, these published texts somehow formed the basis for many recorded performances in cities, towns and villages, even if subsequent transmission, as we shall see, reverted to oral tradition. In the Leeds and Bradford areas, plays based on these printed texts were performed by "Mummers" at Christmas time, but further west, along the border with Lancashire and the Lake counties, "Mummers" were known as "Peace Eggers" or "Pace Eggers" and performed similar plays at Easter. Easter "Pace Eggers" could once be found from the mill towns of the Pennine watershed to the villagers of Swaledale giving performances virtually identical to those found in the North West - even including the Pace Egg Song at the beginning or end.
In South Yorkshire, many Christmas performances were similar to the short "Old Tup" plays of Derbyshire. While on the border with Lincolnshire and in the Southern part of the East Riding, the usual combat/death/revival type play shared a post Christmas to Epiphany time of performance with the Wooing type Plough Plays of the East Midlands. Moving into North Yorkshire, the Longsword Dances (also usually performed after Christmas) were sometimes an integral part of complex plays, often showing clear literary influences which must have been imposed locally by some educated person. Along the border with County Durham, guisers performed at Christmas time. There were also some oddities, like the "Poor Old 'Oss" Christmas performances at Richmond with parallels to be found in Cheshire, Kent and South Yorkshire, and a small group of "Tar Barrel" plays in the vicinity of Pickering. These were performed before November 5th, to raise money for the purchase of pitch to be burned on Bonfire night.
In those parts of Yorkshire where post-Christmas performances were the norm, they became inextricably linked with, and then replaced, a much older and better documented custom - "Plough Stotting". There are records of this throughout Eastern England back to the Middle Ages, when, on the first Monday after Epiphany, ploughs were blessed in church prior to the farming activities associated with the Spring sowing of crops. In many arable farming districts of Yorkshire this was preceded by the plough being dragged round the village by a gang of young farm workers, dressed in strange costumes, who took the place of the "Stotts" or bullocks normally used as draught animals. In the early 1800s they are reported in several Yorkshire locations as performing sword or other dances, details of which are now lost, as well as indulging in various types of rowdyism, exhorting money by non-too good-natured menaces! In mediaeval times, money collected by the "Stotts" paid for a "Plough Light" to burn in the church throughout the year. The reformation more or less stamped out that custom. In the materialistic 19th century money collected was spent on beer and a good feed; the proportions of expenditure on these items varying according to the predilections of the individual teams.
In North Yorkshire dialect, "Plough" was pronounced "Pleaf", "Pleaugh" or "Plew". By the late 19th century "Plough Stots" had become corrupted via "Blew Stots" to "Blue Stots". The plough itself had entirely disappeared from the custom, and for a period of at least 70 years (c. 1870 to c. 1940) teams of young men or boys, calling themselves "Blue Stots" and usually with blackened faces, are reported performing a distinctive version of the combat/death/revival play. These performances were usually between Christmas and Plough Monday, and seem to have been confined to the arable lands of Yorkshire, running in a band between Tees and Humber. Teams using the name "Blue Stots" are recorded at Thirsk, Coxwold, Kirkby Malzeard, Ripon, Skelton-on-Ure, Boroughbridge, Raskelf, Sherriff Hutton, Marton-cum-Grafton, Clifford (where the custom was later called "Niggering"), Thorner, the vicinity of Selby, Snaith and Bubwith. Where details have survived, these performances share some of the following distinctive features:
1. Post Christmas time of performance.
2. Face blackening by performers as a disguise. (One team, confused by the name, stained theirs blue! Red-faced performers are reported at Richmond).
3. Beelzebub, a frequent character as in Chapbook texts, but appears from the start of the play as a kind of presenter, instead of at the end.
4.Occasional alternative or co-presenter introducing himself with a variation of the "Bighead" lines which do not appear in Chapbook texts.
5. Fight between two characters, one or both of whom may have the title "King" (Suffix George/John/William/Slasher). Rarely does St. George appear.
6. Often a female character (un-named).
7. A "Doctor" performs the usual cure.
8. Number of characters: four to six, plays quite short - from a few lines to 3 or 4 minutes duration.
Taking these characteristics, and looking at other reported performances in Yorkshire where no specific name is given, the following places produce evidence of similar plays: Redmire, Richmond, East Harsley, Harrogate(possibly), Arkendale(possibly), Nether Poppleton , Aberford and Hutton Cranswick. This gives a total of over twenty locations where the surviving details of plays and performances are sufficiently alike, and sufficiently different from other Yorkshire Traditional Drama to constitute a recognisable group in their own right - the Blue Stot's Plays.
The following text, which appeared in the Yorkshire Post in 1937, is typical of the type, but unfortunately no definite location was given for its performance:
"This version .... was taken down a few years ago from a family whose predecessors had acted it from memory for many generations. It comprised four actors, who blacked their faces and borrowed their 'properties' from the household wardrobe."
In comes I, Beelzebub.
In comes King William, King William is my
Win the game you are not able
(Knocks down king William)
Who killed that man?
Who sends for a doctor?
No doctor to be had.
Ten pounds for a doctor!
No doctor to be had.
Twenty pounds for a doctor!
No doctor to be had.
Thirty pounds for a doctor!
I'm a little doctor
Who taught you to be a doctor?
By my travels.
Where did you travel?
England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain
(King William comes to life)
I am an old roger with me rags and me bags
Although parts of the above are clearly derived from a common source with the Chapbook texts other elements shared with the Blue Stots Plays are not, so how did these come to be widely distributed? The following letter from Mr. George Upton in the Yorkshire Evening Post, 18th January 1923, throws some light on this:
"As a boy I distinctly remember in the early seventies (1870's) seeing this play performed by the farm lads and young farmers around the neighbouring village of Thorner. Rehearsals were generally held ... after the conclusion of the day's work, known locally as 'foddering up' time... The proceedings were often enlivened by discussion or repetitions to the learner, of parts of the play not sufficiently known by the would-be actor. The parts were passed on from memory ... It was looked on by the farmers and scattered residents of the countryside as an omen of luck to be favoured with a visit by the mummers - or to give them their local name, Blue Stots ... The custom was undoubtedly carried far and wide by the yearly change of farm servants at the Martinmas Hirings..."
Like so many other things, Blue Stotting was brought to end in many villages by the 1914-18 war. It was revived briefly during the 1920s in one or two places only to die out again, but at Clifford the Blue Stots Play or "Niggering" still took place in the mid 1950's and at Skelton-on-Ure it took the Second World War to break the continuity of tradition.
Tom Dearlove played the part of King George at Skelton in 1938 and 1939; it is interesting to compare some of his recollections with those quoted above of 70 years previously.
"It was traditionally acted by four boys, usually nearest school-leaving age (then about 14). Some weeks before, the lads who had performed it the previous year (now left school, and therefore men) would approach the village boys who were in the last year at school.
"Is't going Blue Stottin' this year?"
And so the tradition passed on. The four lads met in Skelton village about 7 a.m. on Boxing Day morning, dressed in some of their father's clothes and with faces blacked." Their only rehearsal took place during the two-mile walk to their first performance at Newby Hall timed for 7.30 a.m.
In 1978, the Knaresborough Mummers, having searched in vain for a complete Harrogate or Knaresborough traditional text to revive for annual performance, decided to adopt the nearest known reasonably complete example, that from the Parish of Marton-cum-Grafton, and to attempt a revival. A copy of Mrs. Mary Hudleston's notes of an interview with Mr. William Curtis, a former participant, was obtained from Cecil Sharp House. Unfortunately, Mr. Curtis had died since being interviewed in 1962, and his daughter could add nothing to this information. As information about other Blue Stots Plays came to light during 1979, it became obvious that with the similarities between plays, and the supposed interchange of material via the movement of farm servants, it ought to be possible to produce a fairly complete reconstruction. This was eventually achieved by using a few lines from the nearest villages with recorded texts - Raskelf and Nether Poppleton - to fill in the obvious gaps in the Marton text as remembered by Mr. Curtis. There remained one outstanding problem, in that the Marton play unusually ended with a dance while the collection was taken. Apart from a vague description of a cross-over footstep no details had survived. Chas. Marshall therefore evolved a simple dance incorporating this, and preparations were made to perform at Marton-cum-Grafton on the Saturday preceding 12th Night, 1980. Few details were available of costumes worn at Marton, but as jackets worn inside-out were known to have been favoured at other North Riding locations, these were decided upon.
The villagers arranged various venues, including the Parish Hall, a large private house, two pubs - and a barn full of bullocks! Sadly, there were few surviving villagers old enough to remember the original performances, and those that were had been very small children at the time; however the general verdict was that the reconstruction "looked right" and no-one could suggest any specific changes which could be made.
Return visits were made on the appropriate nights in 1981 and 1982; the Knaresborough Mummers hope that Marton Blue Stotting Night will become a regular fixture for some years to come.
In 1982, members of Hornblower Morris revived the Skelton Play on Boxing Day, so after nearly 70 years and 40 years two Yorkshire villages have seen the return of their Blue Stots.
Knaresborough Mummers as the
Blue Stots - taken in the early 1980's the exact date is not known. Now
believed to be Saturday 3rd January, 1981 at the Shoulder of Mutton, Grafton.
Back row(left to right) - Henry Ayrton, Bob Thomas, John Burrell
Front row (left to right) - Chas Marshall, Dave Dearlove, Stuart Rankin