When the thousands assemble for May Morning in Oxford on Wednesday, there will, as ever, be singing from the top of Magdalen Tower and morris dancing in the streets below, writes Tim Healey.

One team which will not be performing, however, is the Oxford City Police Morris Side. They existed right enough. But they never danced on May Day.

Morris dancing featured in Oxford’s May revels at least as early as 1599. In that year we are told ‘the inhabitants ‘with drum and shot and other weapons, and men attired in women’s apparel, brought into the town a woman bedecked with garlands and flowers named by them the Queen of the May. They also had morris dancers and other disordered and unseemly sports.’

Unseemly sports! Men in women’s apparel! Maytime revels always brought clashes with the authorities. How could the police involve themselves in such shenanigans?

The answer lies in the great morris revival which flourished in the early decades of the 20th century. The tradition had declined in Victorian times and Oxford University men were keen to encourage a renaissance. They made contact with surviving sides, learnt the dances and even gave displays themselves.

In 1923 enthusiasts from the colleges began dancing under Magdalen Tower on May Morning, and police were put on duty that year to see that there was no hindrance to traffic. But far from disapproving of the street display, officers were so smitten that they asked the dancers if someone could give them lessons. Inspector John Hewett, in particular, thought a morris team would make a useful addition to the Police Athletic Club.

Oxford Mail:

More conventional group of dancers - from Abingdon Traditional Morris

So, officers approached the legendary William Kimber from the Headington Quarry Morris Men. An outstanding dancer and concertina-player Kimber agreed, and a seven-man team of officers took up morris dancing with gusto.

Mike Heaney, a historian of the morris, has researched this curious byway of English folk tradition. It seems that for many years Oxford City Police danced every year at Oxford Town Hall, at local sports meetings as well as benefits for police widows and orphans. More than that, they sent a team to folk dance festivals at the Albert Hall.

READ MORE: May Morning 2019: What you need to know

Apparently, the police side never themselves danced on May Morning, though they always watched with critical interest. A member of the Oxford University Morris Men reported to Mike Heaney that on a wet and miserable 1926 Mayday ‘our worst effort was the Morris Reel. The police were pleased at this – it was on their repertoire’.

In 1979 Ernest Fennell, the last surviving member of the side, provided Mike Heaney with another vignette. It was early autumn and the officers were returning from a display at Redhill Orphanage in Surrey. They stopped at a hotel called The Hen & Chicken and were invited to give a display on the forecourt. The men danced to huge acclaim and ended up staying until closing time.

A thick fog came down. The coach driver missed the turn to the Oxford road and, after circling round and round in the miasma, the weary side found themselves back at the Hen & Chicken. It was now after midnight, and only the assistance of a Surrey police officer - crouching on the coach steps – finally got them onto the right road through the fog.

The side was probably unique as a troupe of dancing policemen, and they continued to perform until a 14-stone officer went through the platform at a display. This rather took the wind out of their sails, and in 1936 the team disbanded. In 1968 Oxford City Police itself disappeared, merging with four other forces to create the Thames Valley Constabulary, later renamed the Thames Valley Police.

Louis Thurman was with Thames Valley Police from 2014 to 2018, playing melodeon in Oxford for Summertown Morris, a women’s side, on May Morning 2016. He also played for the spectacular local side Armaleggan, famed for their weird face paint, tattered coats and clashing sticks

Louis didn’t know of any other police officers who were in the Morris at the time, though has met one since, ‘and I’d be surprised if there weren’t more police/folkies. I didn’t get too much flak for it. There were the occasional raised eyebrows, and some intrigued colleagues who thought it was a fun idea; I don’t remember any open mockery ever being an issue’.

Oxford Mail:

Louis stressed how concerned present-day police are about public opinion and highlighted the controversy over black-face in Morris. Is it racist in origin? Probably not. It is generally believed that ‘blacking up’ was adopted by countrymen centuries ago, simply to disguise their identities. They would rub soot into their faces when they were about any nefarious activity, even as mild as morris dancing, to earn pennies in times when begging was illegal.

Border Morris is typified by blacked-up faces and Armaleggan follow their tradition. To tell the truth, members look as if they owe more to Seventies rock icons, Kiss, than to any English folk lineage. They’ve got black, white and zebra-striped faces too. Still, the cultural climate is changing and Louis was properly sensitive to any possible misunderstandings. He told me that when playing for Armaleggan: “with the media taking almost any opportunity to slate police officers, I initially avoided face painting entirely. But as time went on I started to introduce small amounts of paint, and eventually I went with a basic black and white design.”

Could he imagine a police troupe today? “Trying to convince the higher-ups to approve a Police Morris side would be an unenviable task if not impossible,” he says. “There are very few things which I can see the police happily giving their name to these days for fear of public criticism – and Morris Dancing is not one of them.”

Writer Tim Healey runs a website devoted to Oxford’s May Day celebrations: maymorning.co.uk