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When the spoilsports turned on morris dancing
It is tempting to peer back at life in pre-industrial Oxfordshire and think of it as a sort of golden age.
But take a quick look at the ways in which our forebears used to enjoy themselves on their days off and it becomes immediately apparent just how very different we have become from them — and in a remarkably short period of time, too.
Basic attitudes to life on earth have changed so much — and probably for the better, but that is a different question — that I sometimes find it hard to identify with former inhabitants of the county at all. As little as a couple of centuries ago, for instance, bull, bear and badger baiting were commonplace.
There was a thriving bull-baiting club at Oxford University until 1826 and even parsons were not averse to watching the sport of baiting bears — if the diaries of the Rev Francis Witts, born in the Cotswold village of Swerford in 1783, are anything to judge by.
A completely unsanitised attitude to the grim realities of life and death pertained. Dog-fighting and and cock-fighting remained popular pastimes, only frowned upon by the authorities because they tended to encourage gambling. Then, of course, there was the occasional public execution, with spectators getting up early and walking long distances to watch. The last public execution at Oxford Prison, now a hotel, was in 1863.
But how did this huge change in mindset between then and now come about? Until recently, of course, people were compelled — to a far greater degree than now — to make their own entertainment in a world that was not media-dominated. But the great change in the way ordinary people behaved in their leisure time came about in the mid-19th century, when lots of traditional customs began to be frowned upon by an increasingly straightlaced Victorian clergy, aided and abetted by a powerful temperance movement.
Morris dancing met with stony disapproval throughout the late 19th century and might well have disappeared had that great champion of folklore, Cecil Sharp, not rescued it. In 1900, he began recording the tunes and steps of the Headington Quarry dancers, thereby saving tunes for posterity that might otherwise have been lost forever.
Time and again, Oxfordshire vicars, and indeed others of high social standing, suppressed the old ways on the grounds that they encouraged lewdness, drunkenness, fighting, and general subversion — sometimes even because there was a suspicion of paganism — though locals sometimes found ways of continuing their customs all the same.
In Charlton-on-Otmoor, for instance, the Rev George Riggs removed the extraordinary evergreen statue-cum-crucifix known as ‘Our Lady’ from the rood screen in 1854, but villagers reinstated her as soon as he had left the village.
In Oxfordshire, too, which until the 19th century contained a particularly large area of Royal Forest, enclosure of common land, together with cutting down the old forests, had a more than usually severe impact on old customs. Indeed, one reason given for destroying the forest of Wychwood was that it encouraged lawlessness among those who roamed about in it. Certainly the Forest Fair held there was famous for its rowdiness.
Nowadays, though, with the possible exception of May Day in Oxford, fairs and customs are comparatively sober events. Even fairs, such as St Giles in Oxford and Witney Feast, are tame compared to years gone by. It all goes to show that customs and traditions themselves change or disappear in accordance with changing ideas about what is or is not acceptable. In this context, the cruelty debate still rages in rural Oxfordshire over fox-hunting, with many still claiming that present laws are unsatisfactory.