By Henry Piper, aka Old Father Christmas
Some time in the Spring of 1979, a group of friends and I were sitting in one of the pubs in Sidmouth, probably the Dove, the Horse & Groom or the Mason’s Arms (now sadly all gone), discussing the fact that despite hosting one of the largest folk festivals in the country there was, at that time, practically no local contribution to the entertainment. We began to wonder whether there was something we could do to remedy this.
The idea of forming a morris dancing team was suggested and fairly swiftly abandoned when it was discovered that most of us had two left feet and very little musical ability. As I had already been involved with a mumming team whilst living in Kent I suggested we might be able to find a mummer’s play from somewhere in Devon to perform. Coincidentally one of the other members of our little group had been a pupil at Sidbury school and knew of his schoolteacher’s involvement in recovering a mumming play from a local man, Mr Arthur Baker and I was therefore given the task of tracking this play down.
After working my way through numerous books on mummer’s plays without a great deal of success, a lady from Exeter Museum contacted me to tell me she had located the complete script of the Sidmouth play, and would send me a copy.
It appears that in 1954, schoolteacher and amateur folklorist Win Humphries from Sidbury School had obtained information from a local man, Arthur Baker, who remembered performing a mummer’s play in 1905 for a celebration of the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, and for a few years afterwards. Arthur also remembered seeing a mummer’s play performed at his school in the 1890s and his father told him that he used to see the mummers when he was a young man, not in Sidmouth but in Ottery St Mary. Sensing that he had rediscovered memories of what was apparently a long-established tradition in the area, Mr Humphries contacted Peter Kennedy, the well-known folklorist and musician and together they interviewed Arthur both at his home in Sidbury and later on at Cecil Sharp House in London.
Despite his advancing years, Arthur was able to recall the whole play, including a couple of songs which were sung during the performance and a lot of the ‘business’ that went on during the play. Later on he recorded the entire text for Peter Kennedy and although this was not published for several years the play had now been saved for later generations. Click here to hear a copy of the recording.
The full script was eventually published by the Dartington Institute in 1971, under the editorship of Peter Kennedy, but prior to this the play had been given its first revival since 1905 by the children of Sidbury school at Christmas 1969, in a version specially edited for them by Win Humphries wife Doris. This performance included Arthur's Granddaughter Trina reprising his role of Lord Nelson. The next recorded appearance was in May 1955 when Humphries and a group of friends gave a performance in Sidbury village Hall as part of a village entertainment, these men then went on to perform a one off version of the play on the final night of the Folk festival that year.
After that, apart from a few unseasonal performances by Members of Exeter Morris Men, and a couple of abortive attempts by the Folk Festival organisers to raise a side, the play was largely forgotten until 1979, when the Sidmouth Traditional Mummers where formed as an attempt to re-establish the tradition within the town.
By late 1979 we had recruited sufficient friends locally to be able to put on the play at Christmas around the pubs of Sidmouth. The performances were well received and thoroughly enjoyed by players and audience alike.
Doctor Ben revives Tippo, 1979
The following year (1980) we performed the play on the opening (Thursday) night of the Sidmouth Festival in the Market Square and again at Christmas. I was unable to be present for the Christmas performance but there was such enthusiasm that the rest of the group were able to undertake a mammoth tour, not only of Sidmouth but also to Ottery St Mary and other surrounding villages spread over three nights.
This photo shows the team about to set off on one of the outings at Christmas 1980. That year the team went out on two successive evenings performing at Ottery St Mary and the Hare & Hounds, Gittisham Common as well as Sidmouth. On one of the tours two members of the cast (those playing Nelson and King James) were unavailable and their places were taken by younger relatives of team members, thus introducing a new generation into the revival.
Old Father Christmas 1979
Lord Nelson 1979
'Barry the Bag', alias Fergus 1979
The new-look ‘green’ Old Father Christmas 2005
Is Lord Nelson wearing specs? 2005
Doctor Ben and Nelson watch the fight 2005
Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s the play was performed fairly regularly all around the pubs of Sidmouth at Christmastime, including a special performance for Sir Charles and Lady Cave at Sidbury Manor in the early eighties as well as occasional visits to neighbouring villages and several performances at the Sidmouth Folk Festival during those years. Unfortunately it was not possible to perform the play every year. Due to commitments of family, work and the like it has not always been possible to get everyone together for the necessary rehearsals and performances, but we did perform as often as possible.
To read an article in the Quarterly magazine of the Sid Vale Association written by Crosby Chacksfield, former Head of Sixth-form at the King’s School, Ottery St Mary and a long-term fan and supporter of Sidmouth Mummers, click here.
Press cuttings from Sidmouth Herald, Friday December 24th 1982
In 1984 the Mummers entered a float in the Sidmouth Carnival (and won a prize!) If you look carefully at the photograph below, taken from the Express & Echo of Monday October 1st 1984 you will see the Turkish Knight, Doctor Ben, Prince of Orange and several Nelsons, (all heavily disguised) together with their various wives and children.
In 2005 we decided that as that year represented the 26th anniversary of our revival and also the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar we would make a special effort to put on the play in that year and more regularly in the future. There was enormous enthusiasm amongst the group members, both old and new and we did a very successful tour of Sidmouth at Christmas and also a special performance at the Trafalgar Day celebrations held at Sidbury in October.
From the Sidmouth Herald, December 30th 2005, following our Christmas tour a week earlier.
From the Sidmouth Herald, 22nd December 2006, announcing that years’ tour.
From the Sidmouth Herald, 21st December 2007
From the Sidmouth Herald, January 18th 2008 (What on earth does that headline mean?)
During March 2008 a film crew from ITV South West filmed a special performance at the Swan in Sidmouth to be used as part of a forthcoming TV series about the performing arts in the South West region, hosted by the actor John Nettles. The Sidmouth Herald, in the person of intrepid chief reporter Di Bowerman was there to cover the event! Below is the result, published in the following Friday’s paper.
The future for the Sidmouth Mummers looks bright indeed. We now have quite a few new players and in fact we have a waiting list of men eager to join us. All of them are local and all keen to preserve this Sidmouth tradition which we all feel proud to have revived and be maintaining. Over the years players have come and gone. Something over thirty people have participated but after twenty seven years we still have our original St George and Doctor from the earliest days, and our original Turkish Knight only hung up his beard and scimitar at the end of 2006.
The Sidmouth Mummer’s Play is unusual that in addition to the standard characters found in many mummer’s plays it also includes characters which we had thought were probably introduced in 1905. these include the Duke of Wellington, Tippoo (the Sultan of Mysore), Lord Nelson of course and his Vice Admiral, Collingwood, a French General named Merman and several intriguing minor characters such as Will Watts and Billy Buttons. We now know that even by 1820 many of these characters were already featuring in the play at that early date. There are in fact seventeen characters in all. We do not usually perform all of them as this tends to make the play over-long and repetitive, particularly for performances in crowded, noisy pubs. We have also found that ‘doubling up’ on parts, as the old performers used to, causes confusion among the audience, with characters appearing to change names throughout the course of the play. Also the skirmishes between the various heroes and villains are essentially similar in format so we can leave out a few characters without spoiling the ‘action’. On the plus side this does mean we can vary the characters involved form year to year and keep the play fresh.
We regard the mummer’s play as a ‘living tradition’ and not a museum piece and therefore feel quite comfortable making these variations and even minor changes to the script where necessary although we always try to keep within the style and spirit of the play as traditionally performed.
We consider ourselves fortunate that over the years we have kept in contact with Arthur Baker’s son, Alec and his family who have given us much encouragement and help with the research that we are undertaking into the history of Sidmouth Mummers, both before 1905 and since then, including names for the performers shown in the 1905 photograph featured on our Home page. We have contacted descendents of some of these men and have obtained some information about these early performances and are continuing to augment the information we have so far obtained.
We have recently discovered a description of a mumming play performed in Sidmouth on December 25th 1820 contained in the journal of F.W.P. Greenwood, an American who visited Devon at that time and recorded the day-to-day lives and activities of the people he met on his travels. This description includes snatches of dialogue and descriptions of costumes and characters who are strikingly similar to those contained in the later version collected from Arthur Baker. These characters are still part of the play today and it is certain that he is describing basically the same play, albeit in an earlier form.
On New Year’s Day 1858, local Sidmouth author Peter Orlando Hutchinson wrote in his journal ‘This evening our old Christmas friends the Mummers came around again.’
We also are aware of another diary entry from 1860 giving a description of a mumming play performed by local boys and men in Sidmouth. Interestingly the description is of another play entirely, with different characters, different dialogue and costumes of rags and scraps of paper fixed to old clothing. We are currently trying to find out more about this lost play. Who knows, maybe one day Sidmouth will have two traditional plays!
We also have anecdotal evidence of a mumming play including the Baker brothers and several of the cast from 1905 being seen during the 1920s. We know that in 1954, Arthur Baker gathered together a group of friends and took them to London to perform the play at Cecil Sharp House for Peter Kennedy and an invited audience of folklore ‘experts’! It is possible that some of these men were already involved in mumming, as we have been told by local people that the mummers were still about in the ’forties and ’fifties.
With a provenance going back to 1820 the Sidmouth mumming play must be one the most long-standing traditions of its type in the country, and we are hoping that future research will show that there has been a more or less continuous history from 1820 – or even earlier – to the present day.
Henry Piper, Ottery St Mary, 2009.
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