Royal Earsdon

The Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers were based in the area in Earsdon, Northumberland (now in North Tyneside), around 3 miles west of Whitley Bay. The team lived and worked in the surrounding villages, such as Backworth and East Holywell, rather than in Earsdon itself.

Photo of Earsdon in 1906
The Earsdon sword dancers in 1906

The Earsdon side were one of the oldest rapper teams, with an oral history dating back to ca. 1800, and were visited by Cecil Sharp in 1910, who notated their dance and published it in the first volume of The Sword Dances of Northern England.

Since 1829 the team had traditionally performed at Christmas for the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle, including a performance for King Edward VII at Alnwick Castle in 1906, for which their newer costume was introduced. On that occasion the Duke took no chances, and arranged for the team to be met by coaches at Alnwick station, with no stops for refreshment allowed en route!

Painting of The Sword Dancers

They later performed before the future King George V at Alnwick in 1908, after which they claimed the ‘Royal’ epithet; one of the Earsdon figures “The Prince of Wales” was probably introduced for this performance. They also featured in Ralph Hedley's famous painting, The Sword Dancers, where they were depicted performing at Tanfield in their older costume; some have suggested the picture actually shows the Winlaton team, but Ralph Hedley believed the team he saw to have been Earsdon.

The Earsdon team's local fame at this time was such that another team set up in the area, also called themselves Earsdon and got bookings on the strength of the real Earsdon team's performances before the King! To the relief of the real team, the imposter team soon folded.

The team were active at the time Sharp visited, and but stopped performing during the First World War, when they lost some of their key members. They were reformed in 1921 once George Osborn was able to train new dancers, and were frequent and successful entrants at the North of England Musical Tournament.

Most of the Earsdon team of the 1920s and 1930s were employed at Maude Pit in the Backworth Colliery in a variety of jobs from deputy overman to hewer. Jimmy McKay, the Earsdon fiddler for many years, was also employed as a deputy at Maude Pit.

Photograph of Earsdon in 1910

Probably the most famous and influential of the Captains of the Earsdon dancers was GeorgeGeordieOsborn, an accomplished clog dancer who may have been responsible for the introduction of the stepping used in the modern rapper dance. He started to learn the rapper dance in 1896 from Tommy Armstrong, then Captain of Earsdon, joined the Earsdon team in 1900 and succeeded Armstrong as Captain shortly after Sharp's visit in 1910. In the 1930s he was employed as a waggon driver, delivering coals from Backworth Pit to local customers.

During his period as Captain, he preferred only to recruit established clog dancers to the Earsdon team, helping to maintain the high standards he required. He also preferred to recruit men of similar height to the rest of the team. Having been Captain for fifty years, he was awarded an EFDSS gold badge by Douglas Kennedy at the Morris Ring meeting in Whitley Bay in 1960. Royal Earsdon reciprocated by presenting an inscribed sword to EFDSS.

The Earsdon Captains tended to have long terms of office. George Osborn's predecessor, Tommy Armstrong, was Captain from 1860 to 1910, and he succeeded Jimmy Patterson who had been Captain since 1800!

Further information