Sword-Dancing traditions in Sheffield

The Grenoside Primary Team with their wooden swords, Boxing Day, 2019.

by Dr David Clarke and Andrew Robinson

The tradition of long-sword dancing continues in two suburban villages on the outskirts of the City of Sheffield, where the Centre for Contemporary Legend is based. Both are performed annually on Boxing Day, 26 December, at Handsworth and Grenoside and both teams have a busy touring schedule during the year.

The Handsworth team, recorded as early as 1870, were originally based in nearby Woodhouse but moved to Handsworth in 1890 as by that point most of the players, including four brothers from the same family, the Siddles, lived there. Cecil Sharp, founder of the English Folk Dance Society, visited Handsworth twice in 1913 to record the dance, taking notes and photos, which were included in volume 3 of ‘Sword Dances of Northern England’. The dance was traditionally performed throughout the midwinter months however in 1963 boxing day was fixed as a day of dance.

The eight Handsworth Sword dancers wear dragoon-type uniforms and carry steel longswords about a metre in length and perform at two locations each Boxing Day, first in the market square in Woodhouse at approximately 11:15am and then at around midday in front of St. Mary’s Church in Handsworth. Alongside their dance they also perform the ‘Derby Tup’ a mummers play associated with Christmas house visiting customs around Sheffield and South Yorkshire. The ‘Tup’ itself is similar to the Wild Horse of the Antrobus Soul Cakers another winter mummers play (see earlier post) and comprises of a head on a pole with snapping jaws and rams horns with a cloth to cover the performer. The play is accompanied by the singing of the folk song “The Derby Ram” and, also in common with Antrobus, other characters include a driver, Beelzebub, Little Devil Doubt and St George with the addition of a dragon (see below).

St George and the Dragon, St Mary’s Church, Handsworth, Boxing Day, 1997.

The Grenoside team consists of six dancers and captain who wear military-style uniforms of black caps, black and gold flowered jackets with red stripes, white trousers with red stripes and iron-shod shoes and are accompanied by a fiddler and accordionist. The captain carries a ceremonial edged sword and wears a fur hat which is removed in the ritual ‘beheading’ that takes place during the perfomance. The rhythmically complicated dance in which the circles of swords, held tip to base, remains intact requires a high standard of concentration and skill acquired through frequent practice. Although clogs are not usually part of longsword traditions, at Grenoside they add a rhythmic tramp that adds a certain magic to the performance.

The Captain watches on as the dancers weave in and out of one another without breaking the circle of swords. Grenoside, Boxing Day, 2019.

The Boxing Day performance takes place at 11am outside The Old Harrow Inn on Main Street, Grenoside. Before the First World War the team danced annually on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day and undertook extensive walking tours during the winter period to perform at cottages and larger houses in the surrounding district. An important aspect of the tour was the moeny collected which helped see members over the difficulties of the winter “Short Time” in the local steel and cutlery industries. On one occasion the troupe raised an astonishing £25 from the guests at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party at Wentworth. The walking tour has recently been revived as an annual ‘traipse’ around Grenoside village, on the first Saturday after the first Sunday in January.

This year the main team was accompanied by the Grenoside Primary team and visiting teams ‘Maltby Phoenix’ and ‘Six Jolly Miners’ along with a clog dance performed by Stephanie Besford. The dances were followed by carol singing in the ‘Top Red’ – the Red Lion public house.

Folklorist Cecil Sharp, who visited Grenoside in 1911 described how “at the climax of the figure they simultaneously and vigorously draw their swords across his neck, there is a grinding clash of steel, and the Lock is disentangled. So realistic is the scene in the actual performance, that when I saw saw it I should not have been surprised if the captain’s head had toppled from his shoulders and rolled to the floor!”

Grenoside Primary Team about to ‘behead’ one of their group, Boxing Day, 2019.

After the dance we were entrusted to guard the swords while the team revived themselves in the Old Harrow before all moved on to the Red Lion for Carols.

CCL’s Dr David Clarke with the Grenoside Swords, Boxing Day, 2019.

Photographs © Andrew Robinson 2020