Tuesday, 21 December 2010
The picture above comes from the sleeve of the Watersons' 1975 album For Pence and Spicy Ale. The photo, as far as anyone now knows, was an old postcard from Hunstanton in Norfolk and was originally untinted. It shows a troupe of "Molly Dancers".
Molly Dancers were still fairly common across the East Midlands and East Anglia in the 19c, but the last 20c appearance of dancers was in the 1930s. Dancers were usually unemployed ploughmen, and they would come out on Plough Monday, in the gap between Christmas and Spring celebrations, to solicit for contributions. Little is known of what the traditional dances were - the last recorded performance included a tango between two of the troupe, one in female costume - but the dancers wore a variety of outfits and disguises.
Interestingly you will see that two of the characters in the photo have blackened faces. Whether this owes any more to "minstrelsy" than any other instances in England which I have mentioned I wouldn't like to speculate, but I would hesitate to jump to any hasty conclusions beyond allowing a possibility. Most historical prints of Plough Monday celebrations do not seem to include anyone in black facepaint
An unusual tradition existed until 1909 in the town of Whittlesea, when an over-zealous Police Inspector banned it on the grounds that it was a form of begging. The tradition was the parading of a "Straw Bear" around the town.