The Russell Wortley Collection of Traditional Dance, Music and Custom

Ref: ACT/97-022

Title: The Russell Wortley Collection of Traditional Dance, Music and Custom

Scope: The collection comprises printed, manuscript and photographic items, including correspondence, notebooks, published and unpublished articles, pamphlets and musical notations, newspaper cuttings, and sound recordings relating to traditional dance, music and custom.

Dates: 1870-1979
Level: Fonds
Extent: 15 boxes and audio-cassettes
Name of creator: Russell Wortley

Administrative / biographical history:

The collection comprises printed, manuscript and photographic items, including correspondence, notebooks, published and unpublished articles, pamphlets and musical notations, newspaper cuttings, and sound recordings relating to traditional dance, music and custom.

As a scholar, collector, dancer and musician, Russell Wortley (1912-1980) had a keen interest in traditional English customs, folk song, music, dance and drama. After going to Haileybury School in Hertfordshire, he went in 1930 to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos. During this time he became an enthusiastic dancer with both the Cambridge Morris Men and the Cambridge branch of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. After taking his degree he stayed on in Cambridge to undertake research in plant physiology at the School of Agriculture. He obtained his doctorate in 1938 and then took up a post with the Potato Virus Research Institute where he remained for the rest of his working life.

His continued residence in Cambridge was especially valuable to the Cambridge Morris Men in helping give a stability and continuity to a club whose membership, like that of any university-based club, changes frequently and may often lack dancers of long experience. He was a faithful attendee at the club practices, giving their first morris instruction to many beginners, playing the pipe and tabor, and often bringing new light and fresh interpretation to familiar dances.

Russell Wortley was Squire of the Cambridge Morris Men in 1934, and again in 1936 and 1966, and was Bagman from 1945 to 1952 when he played a major part in re-establishing the tours of the Travelling Morrice after the interval of the war. It was in those early post-war years that he developed a strong interest in the dances of the Welsh Borders and the Forest of Dean, beginning the work of collecting dances and tunes. This was to become one of his life-long interests. He collected dance material from Peter Ward of Ruardean, Gloucestershire, and tunes from Stephen Baldwin of Upton Bishop, Herefordshire, who also taught the Bromsberrow Heath dance to the 1947 tour of the Travelling Morrice which Russell Wortley was leading. Later, in 1955, he tape-recorded over thirty tunes from Stephen Baldwin.

His interest in folk customs led him to investigations in East Anglia, and he was instrumental in reviving the New Year Plough Monday custom at Balsham, Cambridgeshire, where the traditional plough was stored, although unused for many years. In 1952 he inspired the Balsham ploughmen to go out again, supported by the Cambridge Morris Men. Although there have been some breaks since then, the custom is now well established and has been an annual event since 1972. Russell Wortley found that in many Cambridgeshire villages the Plough Monday festivities had been accompanied by molly dancers, and he worked out a revival of this form of dance with the Cambridge Morris Men, who, since 1978, have performed it in its traditional settings on Plough Monday.

Russell Wortley had a deep love of music. He played the cello and was a skilled morris musician on the pipe and tabor. He was taught to play the hammered dulcimer by Billy Cooper of Hingham, Norfolk; and assisted in making the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s film of Billy Bennington playing this instrument.

From 1950 to 1959 Russell Wortley was the third Bagman of the Morris Ring.This was a period when the Ring was expanding rapidly, with large increases throughout the country in the numbers of morris and sword dance clubs, and the task of Bagman was an onerous one to which he gave unstinted time and effort. He served as the editor of the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Folk Music Journal from 1961 to 1971, and after relinquishing the editorship he continued as a member of the Editorial Board. He was also a member of the Society’s Library Committee for many years, and of the Collection and Research Committee from the time of its inception. A further editorial task was that of the morris workshop in the Society’s magazine English Dance and Song . In addition to this work Russell Wortley wrote a number of articles about ceremonial dance, folk song and music. His article entitled ‘The XYZ of Morris’, not only gives an account of the morris dance tradition, its origins and diversities, but was also an expression of his own feelings for the dance. He had started a book on the ritual dances of England but died prematurely on January 7th 1980.

  • Source: The collection was given to the Archives of Cultural Tradition by Russell Wortley’s wife, Diana, and was delivered in four consignments between July 1981 and the summer of 1982. In 2009, it was transferred to the University of Sheffield Library’s Special Collections Department.
  • System of arrangement: By category
  • Subjects: Morris dance; Mumming
  • Names: Wortley, Russell
  • Conditions of access: Available to all researchers, by appointment
  • Restrictions: None
  • Copyright: According to document
  • Finding aids: Listed