My last article on the sword-dancing tradition in East Cleveland ended, for the purposes of narrative, in 1930. I’ll resume here with an interesting gallery of national figures – some of later renown, others as rogues – pitched in amongst local unemployed ironstone miners and their families.
At the height of the Wall Street Crash, unemployment in East Cleveland was truly massive. The workforce registered as unemployed in the area served by the Saltburn Labour Exchange reached 91% by 1934. If you took more middle-class Saltburn out of the equation, the true figure was probably nearer 95%. The villages in the immediate area were totally dependent on ironstone mining. As the majority of men from each village worked in the local ironstone mine, if that mine closed it put almost everybody in the village out of work. The social and personal consequences were graphically described in an article in the Manchester Guardian that year. The article is by “our special correspondent in the Ironstone Mining District” and describes “a typical village” – in reality, Boosbeck. “Our Special Correspondent” was, in fact, the Manchester Guardian‘s Deputy Editor, David Ayerst.
Ayerst visited East Cleveland in response to the work by a local worthy, Major James Pennyman of Ormesby Hall, who, egged on by his wife Ruth, a woman firmly of the left, rented three areas of uncultivated land from the Skelton Estates for use as smallholdings, specialising in market-garden produce. The biggest was “Heartbreak Hill”, 5½ acres to the north of Margrove Park and used by families from the large village of Boosbeck, A further plot of 6½ acres to the south of the Stanghow Mine at Margrove Park was used by those from the smaller hamlets of Charltons and Margrove Park. This – reflecting the healthy cynicism of local miners – was given the name “Dartmoor”, the name most likely being derived from the gruesome work put in place to break up large stones on heavy moorland that had never previously been cultivated. The scheme began with 60 unemployed miners, each committing himself to contribute at least three hours of labour per day. As well as growing vegetables, the miners also kept poultry, bees, pigs, goats and rabbits. There was a public appeal for funds to purchase stock and equipment.
And this is where the saints and rogues entered. Firstly, the sainted: Ayerst was a friend of up-and-coming musical composer Michael Tippett, whom he had met via his partner, Wilf Franks, a London born craftsman who had worked at the Bauhaus in Dessau under Gropius and who had to flee the brownshirts after 1933. Ayerst had invited Tippett and Franks up to Manchester in the hope of recruiting Tippett to be the music director at the next Boosbeck Work Camp. The East Cleveland project was a little different from other similar ventures in that there was an emphasis on music, dance and drama as well as the mundane efforts to reclaim land for the miners to grow crops. This artistic focus on the camp was up to then largely driven by the influence of Rolf Gardiner the folklorist – our main rogue. Gardiner was quite heavily involved in the initial plans for the first camp and was pushing his usual agenda of folk dancing, land restoration and the integration of youth groups from northern Europe. In his essay Homage to North Skelton, he describes his journey north from Whitby to the “Iron Lands”:
“One reaches North Skelton by the coastline railway, which runs beyond Whitby to the mouth of the Tees…it enters the industrial region below Saltburn, under up-cast slag-heaps, towering blast furnaces emitting tongues of green flame, factory chimneys spewing forth soot and past squalid mining villages of dark red brick.”
He meets the North Skelton sword dancers in their band room:
“About three o’clock the Miners came in, one by one, or in pairs, unobtrusively, quickly. They were all neatly dressed, with clean white scarves about the throat and cloth caps. Since six in the morning, they had been in the pits, the shift was over at two. They were distinctive types of men, with interesting individual faces and were very quiet, hushed, a curious expectant light in their eyes. One jaunty-looking fair-haired man, a blend of Cornish and Dane, carried a box containing his accordion, another held the swords, shining steel weapons, beautifully tempered, about forty inches long. Then they took up their swords, feeling them from end to end, partly as if to regain familiarity with their shape and weight, partly as if to test them. A stillness almost reverential came over them. The musician held his accordion on his knees. He gave a sly, sidelong glance at the dancers, then drew out the concertina with one long deep note like a mighty breath. The men were looking up towards the tip of their swords, concentrating. The tune came suddenly, quickly, passionately. The dancers were away in a flash, stepping round in a circle, clashing the swords above its centre, a glinting cone of metal in movement.”
He continued, not sparing the “blood and soil” imagery:
“The effect was electrifying. The quick emphatic, urgent music, an impassioned assault of sounds and the steady measured, absolutely controlled movement of the dancers – it was this contrast which was so hypnotic to the beholder, the storming passion of the music and the perfect restraint and controlled rhythm of the dancers. They kept it up in a lilt which was neither a trip nor a trot nor a run, but a loose-jointed fall of the foot from ball to heel, the knees slightly flexing, the feet as it were consciously feeling for the ground, as though they were magnets drawing up out of the earth’s dark centre some essential power. The upper half of the body is steady, the torso held as if rigid, but not stiff and always turned inwards towards the circle’s centre with the eyes fixed in an almost sightless concentration on the middle of the ring, the whole effect being of a smooth wheeling, while the feet move on, falling from beat to beat.”
Thanks to Rolf Gardiner’s involvement, the North Skelton team travelled all over the area, acting as hosts for dance troupes of visiting miners from the Ruhr and Silesia and going on exchange visits back to the home villages of the Germans. The team also performed at the Albert Hall in London and, in 1932, acted as guards of honour at Gardiner’s wedding at Southwark Cathedral.
However, it became obvious that Gardiner’s ideas were starting to show some alarming parallels with the National Socialist Movement in Germany, not helped by his links to the NSDAP Labour Front, and this caused some disquiet amongst other backers of the workcamp and from the Cleveland Miners Association. As it happened, Gardiner‘s influence in the project began to wane after the first camp in April 1932, partly due to his marriage in September of that year. The German influence did not totally diminish, however, as Gardiner had brought the Völkisch composer Georg Goetsch to the first camp to act as musical director. Ruth Pennyman was determined that the cultural element must continue and began to look for a new – non-German – musical director for the project. David Ayerst had been involved in planning the project from an early stage and it was David who suggested that his friend, Michael Tippett, be recruited to the role. Ruth agreed to the plan and enthusiastically assembled an orchestra to assist Tippett in his new role.
Tippett brought with him to Boosbeck not just Wilf Franks but also his great friend, Francesca (Fresca) Allinson, a musical scholar, expert trainer of left-wing choirs and daughter of the creator of Allinson’s wholemeal bread. David Ayerst wrote in his autobiography:
“She was racy in speech, never pompous, warm in affection, no beauty, but a lovely person. It was clear from the start that with Michael, Fresca, and Wilf in Boosbeck, the second Cleveland Work Camp would be more light-hearted than the first, less folksy, still serious but less deadly serious, more English; far less Germanic. Most of us were well to the left in politics and so of course were the miners. Here was a bond of union.”
It was a fascinating cultural mix involved with the work camps: well-meaning aristocrats, trade unions, desperate unemployed miners, European students and now a group of upper-middle-class, left-wing, London musicians thrown into the cultural melting pot.
It was Michael Tippett’s first visit to the north of England and at twenty-seven years of age the challenge of organising and training a diverse group of foreign students, unemployed miners and Ruth Pennyman’s makeshift orchestra was daunting, both musically and culturally. The camp ran only for a fixed period so there was very little time. Tippett decided to produce an abridged version of the famous 18th-century ballad-opera by John Gay, The Beggars Opera. Participants included The Boosbeck and District Miners Male Voice Choir, local church and school choirs, the orchestra that Ruth Pennyman had assembled, while the leading roles were performed by Madge Tansley (a miner’s daughter), John McCormack (local insurance agent), Fresca and Wilf. The social aspect was critical, for Tippett believed strongly that the integration of students and miners, southerners and northerners, intellectuals and workers, was an important objective. This was daunting for the diffident Tippett but he and his team had fully integrated into the mining community by starting projects with some of the younger unemployed miners and were now regulars at the Boosbeck Station Pub (the “Bottom House”).
David Ayerst wrote:
“In Cleveland in 1933 he (Tippett) might possibly have remained an attractive visitor from outer space but for the earthy flesh and blood reality of Wilfred Franks.” Tippett worked tirelessly to create and produce his version of The Beggar’s Opera and his efforts were rewarded. The production captured the imagination of the town and demand for tickets was so great that fights broke out as locals had to be turned away at the door.
The performance was a roaring success and Tippett himself said of the occasion: “It was a wonderful thing, taught me a hell of a lot, it was most extraordinary – electric.” Some of the first public performances of Sir Michael Tippett’s work, one of the great British composers of the twentieth century, had taken place in the most unlikely setting of Boosbeck Church Hall. In his honour, in 2013, on the 80th anniversary, local musicians and school choirs re-performed Robin Hood live in the same pub that Tippett, his team and the miners drank in. It was broadcast a week later on BBC Radio 3.
Notes. More general accessible archive links to this subject by the writer (from 2012 & 2013 can be found on: http://republic-of-teesside.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/boosbecks-bright-particular-stars.html and here http://republic-of-teesside.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/fake-music-spying-on-sword-dancers.html
Other links on Rolf Gardiner are here:
And specifically for more on his East Cleveland connection here: http://skeltonincleveland.com/wp-content/uploads/SkeltonE70.html
Danyel Gilgan’s full biography of his grandfather Wilf Franks and his life and times can be found here: https://wilfredfranksbiography.wordpress.com/
Danyel’s book is also in published form.
Other published works on the subject are:
David McKie. Bright Particular Stars a Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics. Atlantic Books. 2011. (A chapter on Boosbeck with the assistance of the author)
Michael Tippett. Those Twentieth Century Blues. Hutchinson. 1991.
David Ayerst. The Road to Now, The Early Life of David Ayrest. Self-published. Courtesy of Caroline Ayrest.
Malcolm Chase & Mark Whyman. Heartbreak Hill: a Response to Unemployment in East Cleveland in the 1930s. Langbaugh on Tees Borough Council & Cleveland County Council. 1991.
Mark Whyman The Lives of Jim and Ruth Pennyman of Ormesby Hall near Middlesbrough. Bargate Books. 2008.
Wilf Franks: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfred_Franks
Francesca Allinson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_Allinson
Ruth Pennyman: https://en.everybodywiki.com/Ruth_Pennyman