It is Plough Monday today, the traditional time when ploughboys and other agricultural types were expected to go back to work after Christmas. Naturally this couldn’t happen without a ritual attached (a ritual that took all day and therefore meant one more day of not working 😉 )
Here in the Fens the tradition was that the ploughboys would go round the houses of the village, molly dancing and cadging money from the richer inhabitants. If anyone failed to pay up, they might find their front lawns mysteriously ploughed up. Because the dancers meant business, they blacked their faces with soot so that they could not be recognized later if the householder – in a fit of Scrooge-like meanness – reacted by calling the police.
Like lots of traditions that could be construed as begging, this died out under the Victorians. According to Mollydancing.com Much of the molly dance performed today was adapted from the teachings of Cyril Papworth who ran a workshop in 1980 to teach local East Anglian dance groups the molly dances that his grandmother had taught him.
However, the oldest of the modern molly sides is Mepal Molly, and one of their members told me this morning that he danced with the original Mepal Molly side – then very old gentlemen of 90 years or so – when they were still around. The modern side modeled its clothes and dances on the original side, so they can claim an unbroken lineage.
Mepal Molly dance only twice a year, on Plough Monday and at the Wittlesea Straw Bear Festival (which is itself a Plough-Monday thing.) Because they only dance two days in a year they are awesomely terrible. They are so bad, in fact, that I can’t believe they didn’t have to practice hard to get that bad.
They’re also an invitation only side. You don’t get to just join, you have to be asked. Last year I loaned my 18th Century peasant outfit to their Molly (the bloke who dresses as a woman). And this year, although a different man is playing the part and has decided to go more 1950s-ish with it, he’s got my brown wig. Bigger news than that, though, is that this year my husband was asked to dance with them.
I think this is a brilliant thing and quite an honour. So we spent all day on Saturday raiding the local charity shops for an outfit that might have been worn by a turn-of-the-century ploughman, then sewing tatters on the jacket. This morning he was picked up at the outrageous time of 8.15 to dance in various local schools. This afternoon’s schedule looks like this:
12.00 noon Aldreth “world’s end” crossroads
12.30pm Sutton High Street dance by SPAR shop.
1.00pm The Red Lion at Stretham
2.10pm Wilburton Church
2.15pm The Three Kings at Haddenham
2.45pm Witcham – by the bus shelter
3.00pm Wardy Hill Green
3.15pm Coveney – by the old school
3.30pm Way Head
3.45pm Little Downham by the School
4.15pm Ely market place
The times are somewhat approximate.
7.15pm The Prince Albert, Silver Street , Ely.
8.30pm The Honest John, Chatteris
Finale 9.45pm The Three Pickerels, Mepal.
So I think if they do get paid for any of that, they will have certainly deserved it! I’m going to try and catch them at at least one spot and take a video, which I will add to this post when I can. They really are so bad that they have to be seen in action to be believed.
One of the things I find quite interesting about all of this is that the Molly was very anxious and ashamed about dressing in women’s clothes before he started, but when I met him today he said “I see what you mean about it not being anything special. They’re only clothes.” I can’t help but feel that a small blow has been dealt there against gender absolutism 🙂
Video as promised.