Custom revived: The Ripley Guisers

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The east midlands are a very interesting area for folk plays as I have discussed before. What is particularly interesting is the pre-Christmas and post-Christmas divide. In Nottingham-Lincolnshire pre-Christmas mummer’s plays do not appear to exist, such activity being restricted to Plough Monday, but just over the Derbyshire border they do. Is this to do with the east west Dane law divide? One team which bridges that divide between Nottinghamshire (Selston) and Derbyshire (Ripley) is the Hammersmith Play performed by the Ripley Morris or Ripley Guisers, a Hero-Combat style of play.

Once a dying custom

In a strange parallel to the plot of the play, Mummer’s play are a success story custom wise. This is a reverse compared to when George Long, writing in 1930 who states that the joint attractions of the wireless and theatre were too distracting for the younger folk. The author references some locations where mummer’s plays were or at time of writing were once found, but he does not reference Derbyshire. Indeed pick up any nationwide published survey and the only mention of Mummer’s plays is generally the well known Marshfield team and little else. It is true that this team is one of the oldest, other counties have long traditions and revivals. In Derbyshire there appears to be three permanent teams: Glossop, Winster and Ripley.  In the area the name Guizers or often Bull Guisers is used. The term Guiser deriving from disguise and the term is also in currency to describe both the characters of nearby Yorkshire Cakin Neet (descendent of Hallowe’en’s trick or treat) or those characters which appear in Up-Helly–Ah and New Year’s eve in Allendale.  The term bull again is interesting considering my opening statement and suggests a hybrid from the term Plough Bullocks a term used in Notts and Lincs for Plough Monday teams.

Not keeping mum

On Friday night, the team go out for three consecutive Fridays in the last three weeks of December, they were in their home patch of Ripley. The weather was wild, windy and wet, perfect perhaps to cast one’s mind back to times gone. Turning up, I just nipped to the loo, when I heard the sound of a ringing handbell and rushing out, fortunately I was washing my hands at the time, I was confronted by the image of a man covered in a suit of colourful ribbons. He was the introducer, and introduced the characters: King George, Turkish Knight, Beelzebub. The crowd in this bijou pub clearly enjoyed the experience with its various in jokes and comic asides, clearly indicating the team enjoyed ths annual jaunt, the play continues to the customary ressurection. As soon as they appeared, they disappeared and not a drop was drunk going against the view of many the play was just an excuse for drinking!

A local revival

Poor jokes aside..and there was another topical joke about ash trees having a bigger bark that bite..what is pleasing to hear is that unlike some other revivals the play used is very local coming from a village to the north called Hammersmith. Before its revival, it was last performed in 1904, fortunately in 1983, the Ripley Morris Men met Percy Cook, a 91 year, who had performed the play when a young boy. He told them the script with consisted of 5 or 6 characters and two songs. The characters, King George, Beelzebub, The Doctor (or t’Doctor), the Turkish knight and the introducer were familiar characters, but in this play was …a Policeman, who stops the fight at the end! Interestingly, there familiar man in drag is absent and Beelzebub is the blood relation to the Turkish Knight.

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There is record that the play was still being performed in the early 70s but whether this was to do with the Ripley Morris men or not is unclear. Interestingly, there are also records of play being played in Riddings and Somercotes, areas where the modern play is toured. That in Somercotes was performed in the early 1940s, Ridding by children into the 1970s. The Morris team was established in 1924, but fell into abeyance in the 1950s to be revived in 1981, so it seems unlikely to have been in this team. The present team, which has had obvious changes in the 30 years had provided 1,100 performances and raised £28,000 for the local hospital which is a considerable feat. The end song was particularly interesting, I have been told that part of it comes from a local playground chant from Hammersmith and part from a music box, and both came from Percy Cook  rather than a fusion of two sections one from the Hammersmith play and the other from Selston where the Guisers also circuit, which I had read elsewhere. It goes

“one stormy night in winter, the snow was falling pretty hard, I went to get some flea powder for the dogs in my backyard. I met a married maiden whose dark eyes were green, and when I noticed her wash her dirty face her hands smelled of ice cream…. You should have seen her eat brown bread, you should have seen her stand on her head. You should have seen her drop down dead in our backyard last night…”

What on earth, the song was about I cannot be sure, but I was told that it was amalgation of the Hammersmith and Selston script and that they team played around until they cound music that matched. It sounded unique, I haven’t heard anything similar and it sounded almost musical hall like. I continued my tour with the team and later arrived at the Marquis of Ormonde. I was not a 100% sure they would be there, so I thought I’d check. No idea was the reply! Looking around I was bemused that this pub thick with parties dinning on their work’s Christmas dinners would soon be subjected to a very strange scene indeed. Sure enough, in came the bell man pushing through the queue for their Christmas carvery was greeted with an odd mixture of humour, a reference to Avatar, confused faces and in some cases indifference, as if that happens every day, there’s no impressing some folks. The team is a very professional and hard working, and were word perfect if one of their characters did miss a cue and arrived early. In places I observed them at, they were very well received, although apparently the week before they were thrown out of one pub on their circuit. All in all it’s great to see this tradition continuing into its 30th year long may they continue but as Long (1930) states:

“if this book, by increasing interest in the subject, encourages more young fellows to give their scanty leisure to learn their parts.”

I too would be glad if the blog did!

thanks to Graham Clarke for the corrections

copyright Pixyled publications

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