The Winlaton sword dancers are probable contenders for the title of first sword dance team on Tyneside, known to have been founded before . Of all known Tyneside teams, only Earsdon are also known to have been in existence by . Sword dancers are mentioned in John Leonard's song, Winlaton Hopping, composed ca. , and Winlaton was the site of Ambrose Crowley's steelworks, opened in and an important part of the development of the local steel industry.
Winlaton was also important in the early Tyneside coal industry, with coal already being dug in , on land leased from the Bishop of Durham; however, by Sharp's day there were no pits in Winlaton itself, and the men of the Blue Star were probably employed at the Blaydon Main, Blaydon Burn, Garesfield, Axwell (Bagnall) or Swalwell Garesfield collieries.
The team were visited by Cecil Sharp in , and a notation of their dance at that time was published in the third volume of The Sword Dances of Northern England .
Winlaton White Star
To say that White Star were the senior team in Winlaton is something of an understatement. When they won the Cowen Trophy in , the average age of the team was 57; when the team stopped dancing in 1945, their ages ranged from 75 to 87! Their commitment was demonstrated in , when they buried their 63 year-old whistle player in the morning, quickly found a replacement musician, and competed in the North of England Musical Tournament the same afternoon!
The judge in the competition, Douglas Kennedy, was as impressed by their performance as Cecil Sharp the year before, and awarded them the trophy. He said of them:
“Winlaton's representatives were, each one of them, old enough to have fathered any one team that had danced before, and bore unmistakable signs of having lived, not unwisely, but fully. There was a ‘Betty’, who surveyed me with a roguish eye and an Oxford Professor of Egyptology, or so he appeared to me, who carried a tin whistle, as the professor carries his umbrella...
“... They seemed to fall in love with their feet, as they flickered them. I believe now that the secret was in the keeping of the Professor of Egyptology, and he had bewitched them. Anyone within a hundred yards of his pipe would dance with same abandon....
“... My task had been made easy for me and, when later I was explaining to the audience the points on which my judgment was based, I felt that they were as definite as I was, that the winning team was to be the Winlaton ‘White Star’. Theirs was the simplest of the dances and yet, I should think, the hardest to emulate.”
Apart from competing, the White Star regularly performed tours in the district around Winlaton, performing for beer in pubs and the houses of the wealthy. Their legendary tours would often last an entire day and evening, covering distances of twenty miles or more. At Christmas their tours clashed with those from their rivals in the neighbouring village of Swalwell, as both teams tried to beat the other to the pubs before the beer was gone.
The old men of the White Star were notoriously secretive about their figures, practising away from prying eyes and not teaching their figures even to the younger men of the village. The younger men of the Blue Star did use the tactic of buying the gadgies enough beer to make them indiscreet enough to teach them their figures; or maybe the old men's secrecy was just a ruse for getting free beer.
Winlaton Blue Star
The younger men of Winlaton in the inter-war period had their own team, the Blue Star, which also competed in the Newcastle Competions, albeit less successfully than their older counterparts. Less has been written about this team, but they were the team who helped to continue the tradition locally after the War. Jack Atkin, who ran the post-war Winlaton team, was one of the founder members of the Blue Star team in , when he was 17 years old.
Winlaton after the war
The dance continued to be taught in the 1950s by Jack Atkin, including six girls' teams. By this time, the dance was noted to have evolved so far as to be very different to that notated by Cecil Sharp, with Mary-Anne and Needles the only unchanged figures. In , they were still generally using the whole calling-on song, although for their Christmas Day tour in that year they sometimes used “O Come, All Ye Faithful” instead to summon their audiences.
However, interest in rapper lapsed generally in Tyneside after the war, and the post-war Winlaton sides never lived up to past glories. The team finally folded after the death of Jack Atkin in the late 1970s.