Westerhope and North Walbottle

The Westerhope sword dance team were founded in 1906, taught by a rapper dancer from Bedlington called Billy Raine. The men in the team worked at nearby North Walbottle pit, opened in 1896, and so when Cecil Sharp visited them in 1912 and recorded their dance, he called it ‘North Walbottle’ rather than Westerhope. The leader of the team at that time, Billy Clark, moved to Newbiggin in around 1920 and founded the team there.

Photograph of Westerhope, 1921
Westerhope after winning the Cowen Trophy in 1921

The team participated enthusiastically in the North of England Musical Tournaments of the 1920s, winning in the inaugural event in 1919, and in the following two years. In 1921 they were the first side to win the Cowen Trophy, only to lose it the following year to Winlaton White Star, because the judge, Cecil Sharp, felt their dance had become too much of an acrobatic display. The junior of the two adult teams was entered each year under the name of Callerton or Whorlton, two villages close to Westerhope, and school teams were also entered from 1921 to 1926.

In many ways Westerhope were the Black Swan of their day, with forward-facing figures, multiple tumbles and a crowd-pleasing presentation style. Winning competitions was a major motivator for the dancers, who went professional for short periods from 1921 to 1925. They toured England, and even performed at the London Palladium, but turned down a hree-year professional contract to tour Britain and the USA (apparently because they were not offered enough money).

The team also performed to collect money for charity, notably for widows and orphans of miners killed in the Montagu pit disaster in Scotswood in 1925, and to fund the local soup kitchens during the General Strike in 1926. Pit accidents also took their toll on the team members, who had to stop dancing later in 1926. The junior, Callerton, team took over until they too stopped dancing in 1928, although the school team continued until 1932.

There was a revival of interest in the early 1970s, led by Les Williamson of Sallyport, and a school team was founded. However, this team later folded when the participants left school.

Further information

Les Williamson, Westerhope Traditional Prize Sword Dancers, Folk Music Journal, 1973, pp. 297-304.