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The Pipe and Tabor in Gloucestershire Morris Dancing


There is evidence of morris dancing having been performed in Gloucestershire from the early 16th Century to the present day. Throughout much of this time, the pipe and tabor has accompanied the dance. However, the information about pipe and tabor playing in Gloucestershire for the Cotswold Morris is very fragmentary and difficult to thread together. Assumptions have to be made as to the identities of some of the musicians. What is certain is that the pipe and tabor has a long association with Cotswold Morris Dancing in the country from its earliest mentions to the present day and that many more villages that the ones mentioned below had morris sides. One can take it as read that:

  1. Many more villages that the ones mentioned below had morris sides
  2. the majority of sides active before about 1850 would have danced to the music of the pipe and tabor at one time or another
  3. Musicians, or dancers for that matter, did not confine themselves to one morris side. Although there was rivalry between sides, there was also a lot of sharing of musicians and pooling of resources.

Cotswold morris fell in popularity in the middle of the 19th Century for two main reasons: the first was the drop in the numbers of patrons who could support the morris and the second was the fact that many musicians were turning from the pipe and tabor to the fiddle, which many of the older dancers disapproved of.

Pipe and Tabor players in the villages

One of earliest references to pipe and tabor in Gloucestershire is this rather macabre story from 1733:

"Gloucester, May 19... two children were burnt in a terrible manner, at Hempstead, near this city, one of which is since dead, and the other lies dangerously ill: it is observable that the 'affectionate' Father was then attending upon a Company of Morrice-Dancers with his Tabor and Pipe, and when the News of this melancholy Accident was brought to him, he refus’d to return Home, saying 'He would not lose his Whitsuntide'."
(Gloucester Journal - May 1733)

Research reveals that this musician was one Thomas Hill, born about 1706 and died in 1739. Thus Thomas has the honour of being the first named pipe and tabor player in the county, albeit in unfortunate circumstances. One can speculate that music was and important part of his livelihood rather than merely a hobby.

Little is known about the Cheltenham Morris Men, who ceased to exist before their dances or tunes could be noted, but they appear to have been active from the late 18th Century to possibly 1860 and certainly danced at one time to a pipe and tabor. The Cheltenham Morris danced regularly at Huntley, to the music of a pipe and tabor.

Although the Bledington and Longborough Morris traditions are among the best documented and well-known of the county, there is no evidence of their having danced to a pipe and tabor. One presumes that they must have done, but in their later years always danced to a fiddle.

Records of morris dancers living in Chipping Campden Morris go back to the 1770s, and one James Warner (1737->1772) from the town played the pipe and tabor for a morris dance side. Moreover, in 1958 Miss Witts of the Manor at Upper Slaughter presented a morris pipe to the Gloucester Folk Museum which was apparently used in the 18th Century, and is possibly James' pipe. The pipe was originally a 6-hole pipe, but the top 4 holes have been blocked and a thumb hole has been added. A parchment label tied to the pipe indicates states that it belonged to a family in Chipping Campden, and was used by the morris dancers during the reign of George II (1727-1760). If this information is correct, it is probably the oldest surviving instrument known to have been used for morris dancing.

One of the leading Gloucestershire Morris sides in its day was that at Guiting Power. Alas, the side had long disbanded before the collectors were able to note any of the tunes or dances. However, it is documented that they danced to a pipe and tabor player.

Similarly, it is known that there was a side at Little Barrington until about the 1880s, but again the dances and tunes are unknown. However, we do know that in the early part of the 19th century they danced to the pipe and tabor playing of James Garlick, (1795-1847), a farm labourer. James also played for the Minster Lovell Morris, in Oxfordshire.

Little is known about these players, but a little more is known about the pipe and tabor player for the Naunton Morris, one David Denley (1796->1843), or at least about his pipe!. In 1909, Cecil Sharp visited David Denley’s great nephew, Thomas Denley (b 1837) at Andoversford. Sharp had already bought a pipe which had probably been David Denley's. The latter had sold it William Carter, the fool for the Guiting Power Morris, whose son then sold it to Sharp. The pipe was not new when Carter bought it; it was made of plum wood and bound at the bottom. Carter himself made the tabor [that Sharp bought]. He got the parchment from an old drum and had the rings cast by an iron man at Bourton-on-the-Water.

The Northleach Morris had several pipe and tabor players in their time. One such was Thomas Young (dates unknown) who in about 1850 was playing such tunes as Lumps of Plum Pudding, Jockie to the Fair, Constant Billy and a "pipe dance" (possibly Greensleeves). One of the more colourful characters to play for the Northleach Morris, and for other morris sides in the area, was a farm worker named James Simpson/MacDonald (1811-1856), familiarly known as "Jim the Laddie". Jim was Scottish, born in Edinburgh, and seems to have taken the name Simpson when he moved to Gloucestershire. However, in June 1856 when the Northleach Morris Men were doing a tour of the Whitsuntide club feasts, Jim died in colourful circumstances at Bourton-on-the-Water, namely that he became "so Drunk that He died from the Efects of it." The Northleach Morris ceased dancing soon after this, perhaps for the lack of a musician. Some time afterwards, his pipe came to the possession of Charles Benfield (1841-1929) of Bould, who was musician for the Bledington Morris. Benfield may have played the pipe, but his main morris instrument was the fiddle.

The Sherborne morris, however, had other pipe and tabor players. One may have been one James Hopkins (1820-?), a gardener by trade, while others mentioned are William Hooper (b 1836) and Thomas Pitts (1855-1940). Pitts was a multi-talented folk performer, and it is a great shame that more is not known of him and his music. He was born and brought up in Sherborne, but after his marriage he moved around various villages in the area, as the work took him. It is known that as well as pipe and tabor, he also played the melodeon, fiddle and tambourine. At least 6 photographs of Thomas Pitts survive, taken by the folksong researcher Harry Albino, with Thomas holding a tambourine in his left hand, like a tabor. He was also a singer and at least 2 songs of his repertoire survive in collections. Thomas Pitts was, in fact, the last surviving traditional pipe and tabor player.

There was an active side at Oddington, which at one time danced to a pipe and tabor, but further details are lacking.

There has also been a side at Withington, for whom the pipe and tabor player was Benjamin Denley (1804-1888), a stonemason by trade. Another pipe and tabor player for the Withington side was [possibly William] Curtis. It seems that Curtis was of limited ability on the pipe and was teased that he couldn’t get above the eighth note (i.e. about one octave).

A tantalising glimpse of another possible Gloucestershire pipe and tabor was revealed when in 1908, Cecil Sharp collected a morris tune from one William Henry Watts, a singer from Tewkesbury. Watts told Sharp that he had learnt the tune from an old pipe and tabor player, a bricklayer, who often used to whistle the tune, making the rhythm of the tabor with his trowel and a tin. The tune survives, but no other clue as to identity of the pipe and tabor player.

Although the body of this paper examines the evidence only up to 1900, morris dancing has continued from that date, with sides being formed, splitting up, reforming, and so on. Moreover, the pipe and tabor is still heard today to accompany the morris dancers of the late 20th Century. Jim Jones from the Forest of Dean made excellent pipes up to the 1970s and today pipe and tabor players up and down the country are proud to boast of having a Jim Jones original. The Forest of Dean Morris Men regularly danced to a pipe and tabor in the 1970s, as did the Gloucestershire Morris Men. Today the Gloucestershire Men can currently field no less than 3 pipe and tabor players amongst their ranks, and so the tradition looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Gwilym Davies
April 1999


This short article is based mainly on research carried out by Keith Chandler and published in his books "Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900" and "Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles".

Table 1: Gloucestershire Pipe and Tabor players before 1900

Name Born Died Played for
Thomas Hill 1706? 1739 ?
[James Warner] 1737 ? Chipping Campden
James Garlick 1795 1847 Little Barrington, Minster Lovell
[William Curtis] 1796 1884 Chedworth?
David Denley 1796 >1843 Naunton
Benjamin Denley 1804 1888 Chedworth
James Simpson/MacDonald
"Jim the Laddie"
1811 1856 Northleach, Sherborne
[James Hopkins] 1820 >1881 Sherborne
Thomas Young ? ? Northleach
William Hooper 1836 >1891 Sherborne
Thomas Pitts 1855 1940 Sherborne

Table 2: Gloucestershire Pipe and Tabor players of recent times

Name Side Dates
John Ralph Forest of Dean Morris Men 1970s
Paul Tabbusch
Forest of Dean Morris Men
Jim Jones
Forest of Dean Morris Men
Dave Wintle
Forest of Dean Morris Men 1980s
Stewart Watts Gloucestershire Morris Men 1970s-1980s
Gwilym Davies Gloucestershire Morris Men 1990s onwards
Steve Rowley Gloucestershire Morris Men 1990s onwards
Ron Eldridge Gloucestershire Morris Men 1980s-1990s