Bronica SQ-A camera. Zenzanon PS 150mm f/4 lens. Ilford HP5 Plus medium format film. Home developed in ID11.
I usually miss this local Fenland festival. I work with some Whittlesey families, and I have had previous invites – but last weekend was the first time that I made it. So I guess, first, a review of what it was all about.
Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
Yes I know that the modern town name is Whittlesey, but the festival organisers seem to prefer the older spelling of WhittleSEA. This is the background story: Towns and perhaps villages in East Anglia, the Fens, and the East Midlands of England, use to celebrate Plough Monday – the first Monday following the Twelfth Day of Christmas. It was apparently a functional holiday. Agricultural labour hire was at a low, just before the ploughing season commenced. I’ve checked historical sources, and this appears to be correct. There were celebrations in rural towns in this part of the World on Plough Monday.
However … theses celebrations could be rowdy. This became less acceptable during the late 19th Century, with the formation of an English Constabulary and Victorian values. Agricultural labourers and their families were going through the leanest part of the year. Traditionally, the labourers would dance and make music, down the streets, and solicit money. However, in particularly lean times, this solicitation would become more aggressive – as in gate crashing wealthy households until they paid up. If they didn’t pay up, apparently a certain amount of damage to property may occur. This was the original English Trick or Treat scam – long before Americans hijacked it as a Halloween feature.
Witchman molly dancer in the streets of Whittlesey at the weekend. Bronica SQ-A camera. Zenzanon PS 150mm f/4 lens. Ilford HP5 Plus medium format film. Home developed in ID11.
These trickster/dancers did not want to be recognised – after all, they would soon be seeking employment on the plough. Therefore they would blacken their faces with soot. Maybe even (as this was not a place for women), dress up as females! This activity on Plough Monday became known as Molly Dancing. It has been noted elsewhere, that 19th Century transvestite clubs in London were called “Molly Clubs”.
Another activity that took place on these festivities was the Straw Bear. With clear references – if nor origins, to pre-christian belief systems, one of the dancers would be clothed in a suit of the previous harvest straw. At the end of the celebrations, the straw bear suit may have been burnt in the style of the 20th Century Wicker Man movie.
Apparently the Plough Monday dances were banned in the Whittlesey area around 1909. Elsewhere in the Fens, they may have continued another thirty or more years.
The pagan Witchmen molly dance group, chatter between performances at the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival, last weekend. Bronica SQ-A camera. Zenzanon PS 150mm f/4 lens. Ilford HP5+ medium format film. Rodinal.
The modern festival was revived in Whittlesey, during the 1980s, but based on a more convenient (for the modern age) weekend in January. Although Molly dancing had long died – there had for some time, been a revival in English folk culture, and in Morris danciing. As Morris teams flooded to Whittlesey, local groups often focused on reviving the Molly dancing tradition.
What is quite striking, is how the whole scene – has modernised, and even embraced a degree of post modernism. As the revivalists correctly suggest – performance and shock, was a part of the old molly dancing scene. Modern Neo-pagans have also contributed, lured by the symbolism of the Straw Bear. The Witchman Molly Dancing group even states itself to be Pagan on it’s website.
The very local also contributes. A genuine festival atmosphere snakes through the town – and it’s pubs. This is not a case of middle class artists descending on a hostile Fenland town. It is a genuine festival where the locals also pour out into the streets, and from pub to pub. – watching the performers at each corner.
The Broom Dance, Whittlesey. Molly dancers performing the Broom Dance in Whittlesey. Bronica SQ-A camera. Zenzanon PS 150mm f/4 lens. Ilford HP5 Plus medium format film. Home developed in ID11.
English culture and identity. We are told that it has been in crisis for many years. We thought that we had disappeared as an ethnicity, into the British umbrella. Yet, 2015 – here it is. Real ale. Fiddlers. Blokes dressing as ladies. Dancing with brooms. A town still rich with English culture.