North of England Musical Tournament

Miners in the Great Northern Coalfield, paid by piecework rates, have always been very competitive, and it should therefore come as no surprise that rapper has always had a competitive tradition, with informal contests occurring spontaneously when two sides met each other on tours. The first formal competitions were organised by the Northumbrian Pipers Society from 1893 until the end of the century, after which sides sometimes entered “go as you please” talent competitions. However, the most influential rapper competions were held as part of the North of England Musical Tournament after the First World War.

The North of England Musical Tournament aimed to promote the traditional music of northern England, but included a traditional dance class organised by the English Folk Dance Society. There were over 70 competition classes, including those for brass bands, singing, sword dances, Country Dancing, and even Cotswold Morris! In the dance classes, there were seperate classes for adults and junior teams, and the premier class in the dance competition was the Traditional Sword Dance Class for “teams consisting of the recognised exponents of the traditional dance of their village.”

The first year of competition was 1919, and took place over a week, culminating on Saturday 28th June with the brass band finals in Leazes Park and the traditional dance competitions in the Palace Theatre. Westerhope were the winners of the Traditional Sword Dance class; the only other entrant to the class in that year was Whorlton, which was essentially a Westerhope B side! Westerhope went on to win the competition again in 1920 and 1921.

Photo of Westerhope

In 1921 Jane Cowen presented the Cowen Trophy to be awarded to the winners of the adult traditional sword dance class, as well as silver medals for each member of the winning side, and bronze medals for the runners-up. Perhaps due to this additional incentive, or due to increasing coverage in the local press, the competition took off, with more and more teams entering each year.

Photo of Winlaton

The legendary Winlaton White Star won the competions in 1922, 1923 and 1925, but an upset occurred in 1926, when the longsword team from North Skelton won the traditional sword dance class; from 1927 this was remedied by the provision of separate classes for rapper and longsword.

One of the flaws in the competitions, which allowed a longsword team to win, was that it was judged by prominent members of EFDS, who were outsiders in relation to the rapper dancing communities. Some of these judges will have had little experience of rapper in the real world of its homeland and may have allowed their overall views of English traditions, some of which are now discredited, to influence their judgement. Cecil Sharp himself described rapper as decadent, and wrote that longsword “should be placed higher in artistic and traditional truth.” Such sentiments were probably also felt by EFDS judges when they awarded victory to simpler dances such as Winlaton's, while modern rapper judges may have awarded the competition to another side.

The competitions continued until the outbreak of the Second World War, with the old men of Winlaton still entering every year, including in 1930 when they entered having buried their former musician on the morning of the same day! Competitions were resumed after the War up until the death of their benefactor Jane Cowen in 1954, but interest in the tradition had flagged locally and there were few entrants.

Rapper competitions continued after the demise of the Newcastle Competitions, with rapper classes at the Darlington Music Festival and at Whitby, but the nearest thing to a revival of the old tournament is the Dancing England Rapper Tournament started by Phil Heaton in 1983 and still held annually.

Results table

YearJudgeWinnerOther entrants
1919Cecil SharpWesterhopeWhorlton
1920Cecil SharpWesterhopeWhorlton
1921Cecil SharpWesterhopeEarsdon, Earsdon-Royal, Prudhoe
1922Cecil SharpWinlaton White StarWesterhope, Whorlton, Backworth
1923Douglas KennedyWinlaton White StarWesterhope, Earsdon-Royal, Callerton, Newbiggin
1925 Winlaton White StarWesterhope, Blaydon, Newbiggin, North Skelton
1926 North SkeltonWinlaton White Star, Westerhope, Earsdon-Royal, Blaydon, Callerton, Seghill
1929Helen Kennedy Lemington
1930Kenworthy SchofieldEarsdonWinlaton White Star, Lemington
1933 EarsdonWinlaton White Star
1953 King's College 

The above table is by no means complete, and contains only the information available to me. I hope to expand it as more information becomes available

Further information