The ancient Dorset tradition of a folk performance called a mummers play was revived at Purbeck Cider Company’s wassail weekend near Corfe Castle, but now a new generation of players is badly needed to keep the custom continuing.
Mummers plays – so called as the identity of the performers is concealed or kept ‘mum’ and only passed on by word of mouth – were almost consigned to the scrapheap of history after two world wars and a sea change in society.
King George led the Mummers’ band at Purbeck Cider Farm to tell a tale nearly as old as time
Time for fresh blood to come forward
Morris dancer Chris Hall revived the tradition in Purbeck more than a decade ago, but he is now hoping to step back from the role of leader – otherwise known as the Mummers’ Mother – and wants fresh blood with new ideas to come forward.
The Purbeck Mummers were in action on Saturday 20th January 2024 at Purbeck Cider’s annual wassail – another ancient custom recently revived – where they were supported by the Hobo Border Morris dancers.
An audience of around 200 people from across Dorset were delighted by the evening of tradition at Lower Bushey Farm near Corfe Castle, and the mummers are now hoping that some of those who watched the play will be intrigued enough to want to join in themselves.
The Purbeck Mummers, in costume which has its roots centuries in the past
Joe and Kate Hartle, of Purbeck Cider, were joined by the mummers in blessing their orchard
“Important to revive the tradition”
Chris Hall, a retired precision engineer who also champions local Morris sides and leads the Wareham Whalers sea shanty singers, said:
“Like mummers, wassailing goes back centuries and we are delighted to be invited to perform here by Purbeck Cider, to help keep tradition alive and also to raise money for local charities.
“I used to be a Morris dancer, and started the Purbeck Mummers with another chap to help keep yet another custom alive, but he had to give up through ill health and I intend to stand back next year and let some new people with fresh ideas come forward.
“None of us are getting any younger, we are mostly in our 60s. While we do sometimes get younger people interested, mostly those who have seen us put on the plays, when they have families or move jobs we lose them again.
“I felt it was important to revive the tradition and hopefully it will stay revived, but recruitment is the hardest part about it.
“There’s a lot of interest in our plays, we get a huge turnout for our Boxing Day appearance at Corfe Castle, but it can be difficult finding people who have the time to commit to regular meetings.”
Wareham Town Crier Jacquie Hall pronounced the wassail open
Singer and guitarist Chris Edward provided live entertainment at the event
Hoping to raise £1,000 for the Lexi May Trust
One of the few other Dorset Mummer groups, at Wimborne, is having to close and new players may be joining the Purbeck group from there, but Chris Hall is keen to hear from anyone in Swanage, Corfe Castle or Wareham who may be interested in swelling their numbers further.
A minimum of eight people are needed to put on the play, but to keep the group healthy at least twice that number would be ideal.
As the group also puts a lot of effort into fund raising for charity, this year hoping to reach a £1,000 target for the Lexi May Trust which supports local children with a terminal illness or life limiting conditions, more members will also mean doing more good for Purbeck.
Mummers used to travel around the countryside to entertain, and while the plays were loosely based on the legend of Saint George and the dragon they had regional characteristics and over the years they became almost unintelligible.
The Hobo Border Morris Dancers also performed at the wassail
Music was provided by the traditional sounds of the Hobo Morris band
“It is a very social hobby”
Chris Hall added:
“Ours is a southern English combat play in which King George, the hero, fights with two fools, Beau Slasher and Beau Roamer and a Quack Doctor claims to be able to revive the dead.
“We also have an appearance from the villain, a Turkish knight, Old Father Abraham who symbolises the old year and the common man who goes by the name of Trim Tram.
“You could say that the play is about death and resurrection, the green shoots of the new year rising from the demise of the old – or you could say that the play is about some old men drinking a lot of cider and making fools of themselves!
“It is a very social hobby, and like Morris dancers we love our ale, but we also raise money for charity and this year we are helping out the Lexi May appeal, which is a very nice part of the tradition.
“Mummers plays are seasonal and we get very busy over Christmas and for Saint George’s Day, but although we will always do something locally if requested, we do try to take the summer off – this is a cold weather sport!”
Crowds lit torches before heading off to the orchards to wassail the apple trees
Fire pits lit the way and also helped the wassailers to stay warm through the evening
Annual wassail blessed by the weather
Purbeck Cider’s third annual wassail was blessed with near perfect weather as temperatures warmed up from earlier subzero nights.
In a torchlit ceremony at Lower Bushey Farm orchards, pieces of toast soaked in cider were placed in the branches of an apple tree to bring good luck, with a flagon of last year’s cider poured over its roots and a shotgun fired in the air to scare off evil spirits.
As a crowd of revellers circled part of the orchard with burning torches, the trees were blessed and wassail songs sung before the health of the orchard was toasted in mulled cider.
Local singer and guitarist Chris Edward provided live entertainment after the ceremony and Wareham town crier Jacquie Hall was also in attendance.