The pit village of Murton is in County Durham, around 7 miles south of Sunderland and northeast of Durham. There were two known teams in Murton, one founded in the mid-nineteenth century, and a later team founded by Harry Lowerson in 1902.

Photo of Murton dancers
The Murton sword dancers in 1904

The older team was founded by a dancer from Winlaton who moved to Murton. The exact date was not known, but as the Murton colliery opened in 1838, and as there was no settlement at Murton before the colliery was opened, it would be reasonable to assume the team started at some time between 1838 and 1850 and that the Winlaton dancer was one of an influx of people brought to work at the new pit. The team ceased to exist at some time prior to 1902. Little is known about this earlier team, or the dance they performed.

The Lowersons

Harry Lowerson senior was born in Murton, but is widely believed to have learnt the rapper dance while working in the pit at South Hetton, a village 3 miles away. The mines in South Hetton and Murton were both owned by the South Hetton Coal Company, so such moves were not uncommon. South Hetton had a rapper team in the late nineteenth century, and Lowerson probably learnt rapper there. When he moved back to Murton Colliery, there was no longer a rapper team in the village, so he founded one in 1902. The dance he taught is believed to have been adapted from the dance performed at South Hetton, but Lowerson made a number of changes to make it into a distinctly different dance. One of these changes was a reversal of the numbering system used in the dance, and changes to the dance terminology; these changes make the Murton/Lowerson dance difficult for established rapper dancers to learn.

Harry Lowerson's son of the same name joined the team in 1905, at the age of 13, and took over the side from 1919 onwards. He, and his son, also called Harry, were the principal sources of information for later researchers, including Violet Orde and Kenworthy Schofield of EFDS, who visited in 1927, and Norman Peacock and Chris Cawte of the King's College team, who visited in 1955.

The Murton sides taught by the Lowersons performed until 1934, and included a children's side in the 1920s. The children's side was made up of both boys and girls, but were dressed in pierrot costumes so no-one would notice! The Lowersons were secretive about the dance, and tried to keep it as a family tradition. They preferred it to be known as the Lowerson dance, rather than Murton, and although they were happy to teach it to researchers, they did not want others to perform it in public.

The adult team at Murton performed wearing a kit of blue velvet breeches with two bells at each knee, white shirts, black ties, cricketer's belts and a red sash. The children's pierrot costume consisted of dark baggy overalls with yellow frills at the neck, wrists and knees, also with two bells at each knee. This use of bells in rapper is believed to be unique to the Murton/Lowerson tradition.

Following visits by Norman Peacock and Chris Cawte, a reconstruction of the Murton/Lowerson dance was attemped by the Newcastle side in 1955, and with contributions of Harry Lowerson III, a notation was made based on the reconstructed dance. This notation was published by Chris Cawte and Charles Soper in 1967. This was done with the agreement of Harry Lowerson III, but some other members of the family were against it.

Five Quarter Rapper

Sallyport, then only three years old and keen to expand their repertoire, attempted to learn the Murton/Lowerson dance in 1972, but found it too complicated and gave up. However, a hard-core of Sallyport members from the Sunderland area, including Phil Heaton and Bass Stanness, had developed an interest in the dance, and set up a revival group in Ryhope called Five Quarter Rapper, named after the Five Quarter coal seam (which runs under Murton) at the suggestion of John Stephenson, a concertina player who had worked at Wearmouth Colliery.

Five Quarter performed locally in the 1970s, and although it was successful and managed to recruit new members from the local area, it was not to last and folded in 1976.

The Murton/Lowerson dance today

Given that members of the King's College team were instrumental in the recording and preservation of the Murton/Lowerson dance it is ironic that the major team still performing the dance is their arch-rivals, Sallyport, who first learnt the dance in 1972, and have been performing the dance since 1997. Whip the Cat, a women's team from Nottingham, have also been learning the dance since 2002, and the dance is also part of Smutt Rapper's repertoire.

Further information