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Reviving the Whaddon Whitsun Song

Nigel Strudwick

[This article was originally published in The Morris Circular 51 (March 2006), 1-5, and is reproduced with the Editor's permission. One postscript was added in November 2010, and a further one in May 2015. Updates on individual years' events will be found on the Whitsun web page on the Whaddon web site.]

The village of Whaddon is located at the south-western edge of Cambridgeshire. It consists of a couple of hundred houses with between 300 and 400 inhabitants. My wife Helen and I moved there in 2002, and not long after our arrival we learned of the existence of the Whaddon Whitsun Song from one of our neighbours. Gradually we came to wonder whether we could revive the song through a morris event, and so we began a search for more information.

A number of sources have been consulted to try an piece together as much information as possible. These include accounts of the collection of the song by Russell Wortley and Arthur Peck, with its original publication in English Dance and Song, Wortley's subsequent researches on folk customs, local accounts of the song, and local newspaper articles. The following is an account of what has been discovered and how the song was revived in May 2005.


Outside St Mary's Church:
White Rose, Devil's Dyke, Manor Mill

© Tony Gardner

The rediscovery of the song

Russell Wortley and Arthur Peck (note 1) originally collected the song in 1939 and 1942 from Whaddon resident Alfred Smith, and the music, words and an account of it were published in English Dance and Song 36:1 Spring 1974, page 20. The song perhaps came to Wortley's attention during his visits around Cambridgeshire looking for old customs, and/or he might have heard about the special Coronation performance of it in 1937, from which much information is derived. A source of almost equal importance is a recording made in 1956. In that year, Peter Kennedy, who was recording folk traditions on tape, visited Tom Coningsby in Whaddon. Mr Coningsby, then aged 82, described the routine for Whitsun ('Whissun' in the local dialect) to Kennedy and also sang as much of the song as he could remember. This recording is sometimes mistakenly referred to as one made for the BBC.

In 1937 it was decided to perform the song as part of the celebration of the coronation of king George VI in May of that year. (note 2) The singers were Alfred and Jack Smith. A photograph of the coronation celebrations shows these two elderly gentlemen dressed in top hats decorated with rosettes on the sides and long ribbons. When Wortley came to learn about the tradition, Alfred Smith told him that the procedure was as follows. The Saturday before Whit Monday the singers would go round the village and leave oak branches in the doorways (or roofs or thatches, depending on the source) of the houses as a reminder of the event which was to come. On Whit Monday the singers would walk round the village singing the song and carrying an oak branch which they waved during the last verse. They collected money which was spent that same evening on drinks for all comers at the Queen Adelaide (now Adelaide House) in Meldreth Road. From other sources we learn that the party there would include dancing, particularly a dance known as 'Up the middle and down the sides'. Of that more later. We do not specifically know that the dance was done in 1937.

In the Kennedy recording, Tom Coningsby mentions that the singers would decorate themselves with up to 28 yards of different coloured ribbons. Others have suggested that they wore knee breeches and stockings, although the 1937 photographs show them wearing regular trousers. The wearing of bells has also been mentioned, and it seems most likely that the dress used before the custom ceased on a regular basis was a little different from the coronation appearance (see below on the different versions of the song).

The song

The tune as published in ED&S 36 is noteworthy for its varied tempo: at the beginning are given two time signatures 5/5 and 4/4, which half way through give way to 6/4 and 4/4. These mixed time signatures indicate the irregular meter of a song which was normally sung unaccompanied and which had to be flexible to fit an irregular word rhythm. Wortley records the song as being unique (as far as he knew) in being restricted to a single village.

The published words are:

Now Whitsuntide is come you very well do know;
Come, serve the Lord we must before we do go;
Come, serve him truly with all your mind and heart,
And then from heaven your soul shall never depart.

How do you know how long we have to live?
For when we die, O then what would we give
For to being sure of having our resting place,
Since we have run our sinful wretched race?

Down in those gardens where flowers grow in ranks,
Down on your knees and unto the Lord give thanks;
Down on your knees and pray both night and day,
Pray unto the Lord that he will lead you the right way.
Pray unto the Lord that angels he may bring,
And then in Heaven your soul shall set and sing.

Both young and old, both rich and poor, give ear:
Don't allow your childeren to lie, both curse, nor swear;
Pray do not allow them to keep ill company,
For that will surely bring them to shame and misery.

Now we may bring you the royal branch of oak;
God bless our king and queen and all the royal folk;
God bless our king and queen and all this world beside,
Then the Lord he will send us all a merry Whitsuntide.


Standon MM: The Weeping Willow Tree,
dance from Headington Quarry

© Tony Gardner

These are the words as written down in 1939. (note 3) Tom Coningsby's version in the 1956 recording has 'Victoria' in place of 'our king and queen' in the last verse, which suggests that he recalled it from his younger days, rather than the version which was sung in 1937 at the coronation of King George VI and Queen Mary. Some of the words he remembered are quite different from the Smiths'; village resident Grace Pierce also remembered learning somewhat different words from Grace North, another inhabitant of Whaddon. Mrs Bland, daughter of another former singer of the song, Mr Reed, also remembered at the end of the 1950s that her father sang 'Victoria'. (note 4) Presumably the Smiths updated the song appropriately for the coronation.

Coningsby and Reed's version perhaps sheds an interesting light on the history of the song. Sources who spoke to Russell Wortley in the 1960s and 1970s believed that the song had died out of regular singing between 1900 and 1910, and surely Coningsby's singing the name of Victoria indirectly confirms this by being uppermost in his mind (Victoria of course died in 1901). I wonder whether the demise of the Whitsun celebration coincided with the death of the village fiddler, whose name was Stephen Jackling, better known as 'Stibbin', and who lived at 32 Church Street. He was said in the village to be an excellent musician who played for all sorts of events. Of course it must be remembered that the song was sung unaccompanied as far as we know, but perhaps Jackling's passing made the associated merriment more difficult?


'Up the middle and down the sides'

© Tony Gardner

This evidence for the song's demise, as well as the timing of the disappearance, has some echoes of the decline of the Morris. Various explanations are put forward for the latter, among them the possibility that these old customs were becoming unfashionable, (note 5) which might also apply to such as Whaddon Whitsun customs; however, Keith Chandler also shows how difficult it was sometimes for the Morris to continue when musicians were hard to come by. (note 6)

Nothing is known about the origin of the song. The nearest thing to a clue is the oak leaves and branches. The mention of oak evokes the future Charles II hiding in such a tree at Boscobel House in 1651 after the battle of Worcester, and Oak Apple day, commemorating his re-accession on 29th May 1660. Could it be that the Whaddon Whitsun song developed as the local response to the Restoration, 'Merrie Englande' and so on, and the oak was adopted as a token of respect to Charles II? It has even been speculated that the original singing of the song may have taken place on 29th May, only subsequently moving to Whitsun. (note 7) Given that Cambridgeshire was such a Parliamentarian area in the 17th century, and that Oliver Cromwell himself came from Ely, the adoption of the oak branch may also have indicated a particular defiance of that regime, of which nothing more is known.

The 2005 revival

Only one performance of the song has, to our knowledge, taken place in the village since 1937. Russell Wortley had paid several visits to Whaddon in the late 1960s and early 1970s to learn more about the custom he uncovered 30 years before. On 29th November 1975 Wortley gathered a number of villagers in the Village Hall to sing the song and to dance 'Up the middle and down the sides', the dance which used to be performed as part of the evening celebrations. Wortley himself accompanied the performance on the dulcimer. The event was reported on in the Royston Crow on 12th December 1975. I find it intriguing that no-one in the village has yet indicated that they were at this performance.

Rather than just sing the song around the village, Helen Strudwick and I thought we would make a Morris event of the day. While the song is not at all connected with a dancing tradition, I do not need to remind readers of the importance of Whitsun time to the Morris. It was decided that the way to give the highest profile to the event was for there to be a procession of Morris sides round the village, singing the song as they walked and pausing at intervals for dancing. Whaddon even in these modern times lends itself to such a procession, since the village is highly linear, and one can pass every house in the core parish by following the main road (Meldreth Road/Church Street) and then turning into Bridge Street.

The following sides agreed to join the Devil's Dyke Morris Men for the day: Hageneth Morris Men (Bury St Edmunds), Haughley Hoofers (Bury St Edmunds), Manor Mill Morris (Cambridge), Standon Morris Men (Standon), White Rose Morris Men (Huddersfield).

There being no longer a Bank Holiday on Whit Monday, the day the song used to be sung, we decided that the event ought to take place on Whit Sunday, 15 May 2005. We also felt it important to involve St Mary's church in the proceedings. There is no evidence that there was any specific spiritual involvement in the original singing of the song, but in those days the church played a more important role in most people's lives than it tends to now. Let us also not forget that there was early on a strong connection between the church and the Morris. (note 8) The recently appointed incumbent of St Mary's, Donald McFadyen, was extremely keen for us to do this. He particularly wishes to emphasise the role of the church in the wider community, something which has been rather lost in the last 50 years. St Mary's is very centrally located in the village, and it was arranged for a short Whitsun service to take place there roughly half way through the proceedings.

I mentioned that the original performance of the song was followed by a social evening, at which the collected monies were spent. We wanted to include such an event for the village, but the realities of work on Monday meant that it was more sensible to hold it the night before. We decided to call it a 'Folk Evening', done rather on the style of a traditional Morris Ale: music, dancing and singing each took their turns, and about half-way through the evening hot food was served. Excellent beer (Shannon Bitter, Village Bike) was obtained from the Potton Brewery. Music was supplied by a combination of Devil's Dyke and White Rose Morris Men musicians plus Anahata and Mary Humphreys of English Rebellion; all comers were invited to bring an instrument and join in if they wanted. About 60 people attended. We knew the evening would be good when Gordon Wood of White Rose got up to call the first dance of the evening and the whole hall stood up to join in. Clearly we had hit on a need for this sort of social event in the village. After dinner, White Rose gave a show of the Morris. Later Helen Strudwick and David Dolby of Devil's Dyke sang the Whitsun Song, after which we played the Peter Kennedy recording of Tom Coningsby made in 1956. For most of the assembled company, this was the first time they had heard such an important piece of oral/aural village history. It was listened to in fascinated silence.

The records all agree that one particular dance, 'Up the middle and down the sides', was done by all present at the socials in the old Whaddon days. We know from Miss Grace Pierce, who was interviewed by Russell Wortley and also from a letter she wrote to the Royston Crow in 1975, that schoolchildren in the village did this dance in the 1920s, and Wortley's notes indicate that it was performed along with the song in the 1975 revival. But exactly what did they dance? There was enough information in Wortley's notebooks to tell us that the dance was done to the tune of 'We won't go home 'till morning' with a clapping chorus to the words 'three quarts more, three quarts more', with the dancers standing facing each other in two long lines. Hence, Helen Strudwick was reasonably confident that a progression dance to this tune would fit the bill.(note 9) The dance thus put together was performed with great enthusiasm by all concerned.


Devil's Dyke lead the singing of
the Whaddon Whitsun Song

© Tony Gardner

Now to the Sunday. The weather was superb. With some still suffering a bit from the night before, all the sides gathered at the Meldreth end of the village from 10:00, moving off at 10:30. We had Anglia TV in attendance, and we gather that some of it was broadcast that evening; Radio Cambridge was there on the other end of the mobile phone. The Whitsun Song was sung as we processed from one dance spot to the next, and every dancer was encouraged to join in the first and last verse. As indicated in the sources, oak branches were waved in the air during the last verse. A considerable number of villagers followed along, and we had a good crowd at each dance spot. We stopped for dancing at the former Queen Adelaide, the Green, the church, the Golf Centre, Ridgeway Close, 29 Bridge Street and the bottom of Bridge Street. Each side did one dance at each spot, and the first side to dance immediately went on to the next spot where they did a complete showthis enabled every side to get plenty of dancing in. During the church service DDMM did a couple of dances, and processed out into the churchyard. For the final spot, instead of finishing with the traditional 'Bonny Green Garters', dancers and spectators got into one more rendition of 'Up the middle and down the sides'. A late lunch was then taken to end the day at Ermine Farm; during this John Jenner of Cambridge Morris Men told the assembled company something about Russell Wortley and his interest in folk customs.

It was a great weekend, and we are grateful to everyone for making it such a success.(note 10) The reaction to it in the village was excellent, so enthusiastic. Collections made during the dancing were put towards the cost of the weekend and the surplus of about £220 was donated to St Mary's church.

We have been asked if we will do it again. Will it be quite so special if we do it every year? I just don't know, although it would be good if at least the singing of the Whitsun Song around the village could be maintained. Ideas on a postcard please.


Helen Strudwick and I would like to thank all those who danced and all those who watched. Most of the organisation of the weekend was done by Helen, and I would like to thank her for this, and for reading over this text. The event could not have been staged without great support in the village: we wish to thank Donald McFadyen and Whaddon PCC, and Ken Green and the Whaddon Golf Centre. In particular we wish to thank Clare Byatt for first making us aware of the song. Tony Gardner kindly has let us use his photographs of the day for this article. Finally, our thanks go to David Dolby for managing to teach Devil's Dyke Morris Men the song.

Published sources:

English Dance and Song 36:1 Spring 1974, p. 20.
Peter Kennedy's recording of Tom Coningsby. Folktrax International, FTX-423 The chain of gold. Songs & customs of Cambridgeshire & the Fens. See http://www.folktrax.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/
"Reviving the song that is Whaddon's own", Royston Crow, December 12 1975, p. 4.
"About that Whitsun dance at Whaddon", letter from Miss Grace Pierce, Royston Crow, December 12 1975, p. 4.
Various entries on the song in Whaddon village newsletters and information sheets by J. Ralls.


The notebooks of Russell Wortley, copies of a typed transcript of which were made available to us by John Jenner. The transcript was made by Mrs Diana Wortley (now Hillman). The original notebooks are now in the archive of the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition in Sheffield.
A W.I. history of the village for a Cambridgeshire competition in 1958 (loaned to us by Karen Coningsby).

I would like to thank all those who helped with the unpublished sources, and also the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library for checking the reference to English Dance and Song.

Postscript--November 2010

I should like to thank Edward Aldred for bringing to my attention the fact that a version of the Whaddon Whitsun Song was recorded by the folk group the Young Tradition on their album So Cheerfully Round in 1967. It was called "The Whitsuntide Carol" and is somewhat different to the version noted by Wortley, although clearly arranged from the same song by the members of the group. I contacted the one surviving member of the Young Tradition, Heather Wood, and she very kindly sent me these album notes:

Thomas Coningsby of Whaddon in Cambridgeshire, from whom this carol was collected, tells how the men of the village used to go into the woods on Whit Sunday morning, cut oak branches, and lay them on the doorsteps of all the houses. Then they would go round in a group singing this carol. And so here, as has happened in other old songs, the high moral tone of the early verses is linked with what is obviously a pagan custom.

From this and email correspondence with Heather, their sources were a mixture of the Coningsby recordings and archive work at Cecil Sharp House, as the Wortley article had not been published at that time. This is very important as it is the first occasion on which this song has been used outside the village. This song may be heard on Youtube.

I have subsequently discovered that the Young Tradition song has been covered by Keith Kendrick on his album Well Seasoned (2003) and Lynne Heraud and Pat Turner on their release entitled September Days (2007).

It is good to know that Whaddon's song has provided inspiration for folk artists of the past fifty years.

Postscript--May 2015

The tradition has now been running for eleven years with great success, and it has become part of the village calendar. The Folk Evening continues to be well supported, and now takes place in the luxury of the newly refurbished village hall. As the usual number of sides to attend has settled down at two or three the original procession described above has been modified for one group of sides to start at one end of the village, usually at Dyers Green, and another group to begin at the site of the former Adelaide House, and they all meet up in the centre of the village. This gives full coverage of Whaddon and fits better with the schedule. The church service continues to be the focus of the day, now run by our new vicar, Rev Dr Caroline Yandell, and the continuation of dancing at the Golf Centre is also well-attended and fun.



1. Wortley and Peck were of course members of Cambridge Morris Men from before the Second World War. Wortley was a great collector of folk customs, extending way beyond just the morris.

2. The coronation was on Wednesday 12 May 1937. It is not known if the celebration in Whaddon was on the same day.

3. As befits an oral tradition, there are at least three different versions of the song written down. In addition to the published version, there is Wortley's manuscript version, pointed for singing, in which a couple of lines of verse 3 do not appear, and where a word or two differs (never part at the end of verse 1, children in verse 4). The version in the W.I. manuscript has the verses in a different order.

4. Other singers known by name are Charlie Oliver, and Mr Disbrey, the latter not a regular performer.

5. K. Chandler, Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles. The social history of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands 1660-1900 (Hisarlik Press, 1993), Chapter 11.

6. Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles, Chapter 10.

7. Enid Porter, Folklore of East Anglia (Batsford, 1974), quoted by J. Ralls in a Whaddon Newsletter historical note.

8. John Forrest, The history of Morris Dancing 1458-1750 (James Clarke & Co, 1999), Chapter 6.

9. The one used was adapted from one found on the web site The Round: http://www.cam.ac.uk/societies/round/index.htm

10. A selection of photographs will be found on the Whaddon web site. I have been assembling video footage from several sources into a short film record of the event.

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