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THE STOURVALE MUMMERS

Bournemouth, Dorset: Traditional Folk Plays at Christmas & Easter

  The Morris Ring

The History of Stourvale Mummers

Away back in the last decades of the nineteenth century it was customary, in the North Dorset village of Sixpenny Handley, for the Mummers to go round each Christmas to the principal houses, farms and inns to perform the medieval play of St George. The play is said to date from the 12th century and was not written but handed down verbally from generation to generation.

While Stourvale Mummers perform the particular play from Sixpenny Handley it is typical of the midwinter, death and resurrection types of play common in English villages up to about a hundred years ago. The erudite would have us believe that these plays are a survival of the old pagan notions of "sympathetic magic": the sun is supposed to observe our dead heroes come back to life and be inspired to follow suit and bring on the spring.

Like many of the traditional players, we wear suits of tatters and black our faces. These outfits were simply a crude disguise used to conceal the identities of the players while they begged for food, drink or money. (In Thomas Hardy's novel, "The Return of the Native", the heroine, Eustacia Vye, was able to take the part of the Turkish Knight without being detected by virtue of this disguise.) We still beg, but now all we want is your money, for charity -- 'tho the occasional mince pie does not go amiss.

Each season we give the money away, often to small organisations, sometimes to specific individuals, always with the emphasis on "local" and children. We like to feel that our donations make a real difference, and we believe that those people we've entertained with our play and who've chucked their handfulls of change into our grubby hats would find their money well spent.

We give away ALL of the money we collect during our winter season.

We detail some of our more recent donations here.

Mummers & Mumming History

Late in the last century, it was the custom in the village of Sixpenny Handley in North Dorset, for the very poor amongst the inhabitants to form a Mummers team.

Most of the villagers worked for the local Lord of the Manor and at Christmas, whilst trying to improve their lot, they would dress up, disguise themselves and undertake their annual pilgrimage to the Manor house to perform the mummers play, in the hope that they would be given money and food.

It is the play from Sixpenny Handley, as described by Sydney J. White in "The Dorset Year Book 1955/56 pages 99-102",  that we have adopted and perform during the Christmas period.

White's introduction to the text of the play - of course, the 'eighties' is the 1880's not the 1980's:

"Away back in the 'eighties' it was customary, in the North Dorset village of Sixpenny Handley, for the Mummers to go round each Christmas to the principal houses, farms and inns to perform the mediaeval play of St. George.

The play is said to date from the 12th century and was not written but handed down verbally from generation to generation. Consequently versions varied in different parts of the country.

The Mummers wore a characteristic dress, made of coloured strips of cloth about one foot in length and half an inch wide, sewn on an old suit, each row of such strips overlapping the row below, and extending to the feet. Similar ribbons on the hat obscured the features of the wearer. Thus in Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native, the heroine, Eustacia Vye, was able to take the part of the Turkish Knight without being detected.

The Mummers fought with long wooden swords and traditional gestures, marching slowly round and round in a circle. Those who were slain fell flat on the floor, and were later brought back to life by the Doctor, with his magic bottle.

The performance meant hours of preliminary rehearsal, and, at Christmas, many miles were covered in going from place to place to present the play. At Handley even the schoolboys used to fight in mock combat, repeating some of the rhymed sayings they had overheard.

IIt is difficult now-a-days to get the wording of the play, but the version here given may be taken as a fair sample of that performed in Dorset about the middle of the 19th century."

There are many versions of the Mummers play in England and all seem to symbolise good against evil and the changing of the seasons.

 The characters involved in the play were usually based upon the hero's or nasty's of the day, but normally contained significant if not patriotic individuals such as St George, Lord Nelson for example.

The Mummers generally were dressed in what we now tend to call "Tatters" which are made of strips of coloured cloth around a foot long which covered the performers from head to toe. Another oddity often concerned the headwear worn, as we all know, not everyone is the same height, so the hats worn varied to make all the players the same stature.

However the style of dress used did not stop at tatters. One team based at Marshfield near Chippenham dress in strips of newspaper. They perform only on Boxing Day, which is probably just as well particularly if it happens to be raining.

All the plays that we are aware of, contain swordfights between the major characters, so it is difficult to imagine how they managed to see with all the strips of cloth covering their faces, without causing injury to themselves or the spectators.

If you are interested in further reading on the subjct of mumming plays (and traditional drama in general) then a good place to start is at the Traditional Drama Research Group (TDRG) Folk Play Research page.


Page last updated: 12th November 2014

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