Article MT189

Musicians in 19th Century Southern England

Keith Chandler's series of short essays

No 16: John Robbins of Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire (1868 - 1948)

The son of a boot maker of the same name, John Robbins was born at Bidford-on-Avon in 1868, the birth registered at Alcester during the first quarter of that year.  Although there had been a morris side at that location at an earlier date, it had lapsed by about 1860.  Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers, 1890s. John Robbins at left.During the autumn of 1885 one D'Arcy Ferris, who had previously arranged pageants and taught music in various locations throughout England, decided to organise a morris dance set as a commercial venture, touring extensively and combining a lecture on the history of the morris (given by himself, in appropriate period costume) with displays of dancing.  Once a widespread cultural feature of the locality, the morris had been abandoned in the majority of villages by this date.  Ferris sought to trade on its antiquarian value, making much of apparent cultural analogies from far-flung lands, in addition to the frequent references to such activity in the plays of William Shakespeare, a local son.  He set about 'reconstructing' the dances, although in essence they were, in fact, original creations, an amalgam of stylistic and choreographic features from disparate locations as far afield as Brackley (Northants) and Idbury (Oxon).1. For a thorough account of the whole phenomenon see Roy Judge, 'D'Arcy Ferris and the Bidford Morris', Folk Music Journal 4, number 5 (1984), 443-480.1  As reported by Ferris himself many years later, 'Tom [sic] Robbins, a youth of 17, was the piper - he had found an old shepherd's pipe, but it was useless from age and so he fiddled for most of the dances'.2. Cambridge, Clare College, Cecil James Sharp MSS., 'Folk Dance Notes' 1, f.256, letter from d'Arcy de Ferrars [name then taken by D'Arcy Ferris], London, 13 December 1910, quoted from version transcribed by Maud Karpeles and typed by Roy Leonard Dommett, London, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, 'Folk Dance Notes'. 2  Clearly Robbins was already proficient on the fiddle by 1885, almost certainly taught by his father, who, like his father before him, was also a musician.3. Evesham Journal, 22 August 1953, 11.3

The oldest known music-maker within these three generations is Joshua Robbins, baptised 29 August 1803 in Penalt (Monmouthshire).  He married Martha West in Llangarron (Herefordshire) on 2 October 1832, and at the date the censuses were taken between 1841 and 1871 the family was living at Weston-under-Penyard (Herefordshire).  His occupation was given successively as 'Boot and Shoe Maker', 'cord wainer', 'Cord Winder', and 'Bootmaker' (all terms bearing the same meaning).  An indication of his social status may be gleaned from the fact that he acted as census enumerator for a portion of the village at the first of these dates.  In 1851 his wife was given as 'School Mistress', and ten years later as 'Grocer &c', suggesting ownership of a shop.  According to family tradition, Joshua Robbins played violin in the church orchestra, consisting of four musicians providing accompaniment to the singers from the gallery at the rear of the church, prior to their being replaced by an organ.  An obituary notice for his son James in 1932 notes that he had, in his 'younger days', been 'a member of the Church Choir, of which his father was choir-master over one hundred years ago in the days of the barrel organ, his brothers playing various stringed instruments'.4. Weston-under-Penyard Church Monthly Magazine (February 1932), cited in an e-mail from Geraint Bevan, Ross-on-Wye (Herefordshire), 3 May 2003.4  There is, in addition, an oral family tradition concerning 'a group of four musicians who played in the back of the church in the balcony', prior to the arrival of the organ.5. Chandler MSS., e-mail from Geraint Bevan, Ross-on-Wye, 3 May 2003. The study of church musicians has attained a certain degree of popularity in recent decades and is generically known as 'West gallery music'. For a comprehensive study of the phenomenon in one Buckinghamshire village, see my 'Popular culture in microcosm : The manuscript diaries of Richard Heritage of Marsh Gibbon, Buckinghamshire', Folk Music Journal 9, number 1 (2006), 5-55; with supplementary images at <>. 5  Joshua had four other sons.  George (c.1836), who at the date of the 1851 census was living at the Rectory in Weston, as 'House Serv[ant] & Helper', and as such seems a perfect candidate for church musician.  But he leaves no obvious trace in the census returns after this date, and may have died young.  In addition there was Joshua (c.1842), Henry (c.1848), and James (c.1852).  Perhaps all of these were taught to play musical instruments, but which were active in the church band is unrecorded.  James' personal involvement may be reckoned as having perhaps occurred around 1860.  Joshua's role as choir-master (evidently here being confused with that of leader of the church band) would no doubt have begun at an earlier date, though on age grounds possibly not as early as the implied date of 1832.  Whether he and his sons provided music for other forms of dance, however, is not recorded.  Joshua Robbins was buried at that location on 27 November 1874.

His son John, baptised in Weston-under-Penyard on 4th August 1833, was still living in his parents' household in 1851, working as an apprentice shoe maker.  He married Ann Haidon at that place on 22 October 1857, his occupation given in the register as 'shoemaker', and their first child was baptised there on 17 October 1858, although her actual birthplace was given in 1881 as Fladbury (Worcs), which was also that of the mother.  Shoemaking was often a peripatetic trade, and John senior appears to have trodden this route.  In 1901 his son Alfred claimed to have been born in Solihull (Warks), and it appears that already by 1858 the father was on his travels.  At the date of the 1861 census he was lodging at Evesham (Worcs), his occupation given as 'Cordwinder'.  By 1868 he had relocated to Bidford, where his son John was born.  The 1871 census gives him as 'Cordwainer', while ten years later he was enumerated as 'Boot & Shoemaker employing 1 man', indicating a degree of elevated social status.  In 1891 he was given as 'Bootmaker', and in 1901 as 'Shoe Maker'.  As further confirmation of his musical activity, at a treat given to children attending the night school in Bidford on 2 April 1886, not only was there a performance by 'a juvenile company of Morris dancers', presumably dancing to Robbins junior's accompaniment, but in addition, 'Mr. J. Robbins and his two sons supplied some instrumental music which received well-merited applause.'6. Evesham Journal, 10 April 1886, 5.6  The second son referred to was certainly Alfred, baptised at Redditch (Worcs) on 21 August 1872.  The specific character of the music, in addition to the type of instruments played is unrecorded, but presumably featured two, if not three, violins.  Certainly John Robbins junior (and, no doubt, all family members) was able to read from the musical stave, but was recalled by his daughter-in-law as playing 'mainly from memory'.7. Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, J. Philip Taylor, 'Bidford on Avon and its Morris Tradition', typescript volume dated October 1982, f.41, citing information collected from Mrs. K. Robbins, 16 October 1973.7

Both John and Alfred were living at home in 1881, each enumerated as 'Scholar'.  Early in 1891 John married Selina Emily Gould, and by the date of the census taking a short time later they had moved into their own home and already had a two month old daughter.  In both this year and ten years later he was given as 'Bootmaker'.  By 1891 Alfred had also moved out of his parents' household, and moved away to live at Yardley (Worcs), where he was a 'Gardener', and by 1901 had married, started a family, and relocated to Knowle (Warks), his occupation given as 'Gardener Domestic'.

For the morris dance Ferris was well aware that the pipe and tabor had been the original (and more 'authentic') musical accompaniment, and in early 1886 he sent Robbins to Ilmington (Warks) for four days, to be tutored by the piper James John Arthur.  This man, baptised 21 July 1828, was the third generation of his family to accompany the Ilmington Morris set.8. For details of the Arthur family, including a family tree, see my 'Ribbons, bells and squeaking fiddles'. The social history of morris dancing in the English south Midlands, 1660-1900' (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik Press, for the Folklore Society, 1993), 140-141; republished, with minor textual emendations, on Morris Dancing in the English south Midlands 1660-1900. Aspects of Social and Cultural History (Stroud: Musical Traditions Records, 2002) MTCD250 [CD-ROM].. For Robbins' sojourn in Ilmington see Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, D'Arcy Ferris MSS., item 16, letter from Michael William Johnson, Ilmington, to Ferris, 15 March 1886.8  The Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers toured extensively throughout the neighbouring areas and as far away as Bristol and London during the spring and summer of 1886, and its progress was widely reported in numerous local and national newspapers, including The Times.9. The Times, 5 February 1886, 6. For an extensive, though incomplete, list of references see my Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900. A Chronological Gazetteer (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik Press, for the Folklore Society, 1993); republished, in completely revised form, on Morris Dancing in the English south Midlands 1660-1900. Aspects of Social and Cultural History (Stroud: Musical Traditions Records, 2002) MTCD250 [CD-ROM]. For the verbatim text of many of these references, see Roy Judge and Keith Chandler, Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers, 1886: A Source Book (Eynsham: Chandler Publications, 1985).9  Robbins was associated with the enterprise throughout.  After Ferris had lost interest and the tour was concluded, the same group of men continued to perform sporadically under their own impetus, still exploiting the appeal of antiquity by retaining the name given them by Ferris.  They were, for instance, active at a bazaar held in their home town during May 1887,10. Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, 13 May 1887, 8.10 and at 'The Grand Floral Parade and Fete' at Chipping Campden (Glos) on Whit Monday, 25 May 1896.11. 'Programme of the Grand Floral Parade and Fete', Chipping Campden, 25 May 1896. The front cover, which mentions 'The Bidford Shakesperian [sic] Morris Dancers', is reproduced in John Horne, Chipping Campden from the grass roots (n.p.p. [Chipping Campden]: privately printed, 1982), 46. See also Evesham Journal, 30 May 1896, 6. See links to images taken on this date at the foot of this article.11

In addition to playing for the morris dancers, he appears to have been musically-active at a number of events held in Bidford.  Among these was the 'patriotic concert...held at the White Lion Hotel' in late November 1901, 'for the purpose of raising funds for sending tobacco, pipes, etc., to our Bidford soldiers now fighting in South Africa...The following programme was much appreciated...violin and piano, Messers. J. Robbins and W. Gardener'.12. Stratford-on-Avon-News, 5 December 1901, 8.12  And during the following year, the entertainment provided at the anniversary services of the Wesleyan Sunday School included a 'duet on violins, Messers. J. Robbins and E. Howell'.13. Stratford-on-Avon-News, 12 June 1902, 8.13  Clearly the music at these venues was anything but vernacular dance tunes.  There is some ambiguity over identification, with John Robbins senior still living, and then aged about sixty-seven (he was buried 25 February 1918).  Assuming John Robbins junior to have been the man involved, his services at these two events were probably donated gratis, but there were presumably other performance contexts outside of the morris which earned him a fee, although supplying music for social dancing remains unconfirmed.

The Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers continued to perform into the twentieth century, replacing men as necessary (the first foreman of the side, George Salsbury, was buried on 3 July 1890, aged twenty three, for example), but with the core personnel remaining remarkably stable, including the continuing presence of John Robbins as musician.  The Shakespeare Club, for instance, hired them to perform at their annual celebration in Stratford-upon-Avon (Warks) on 23 April 1904,14. Evesham Journal, 30 April 1904, 7. See also Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare Birthday Trust Record Office, DR 289/2/1, Shakespeare Club Minute Book, 1874-1915, f.324.14 and again the following year.15. Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, 21 April 1905, 6, and 28 April 1905, 2, and Evesham Journal, 29 April 1904, 3.15  They continued to appear at events in their home town, such as the 'Bidford Flower Show and Sports', held on 8 August 1905, where, 'During the evening the Shakespearean Morris dancers performed in the meadow.'16. Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, 11 August 1905, 2, and Evesham Journal, 12 August 1905, 6.16  It was at 'The Pastoral Play and Revel' held at Foxlydiate House, Redditch, on 8 August 1906 that the side was seen by the collector Cecil James Sharp.  He noted the tunes and dances performed on that occasion and published them in the first volume of The Morris Book, in 1907.17. Cecil J. Sharp, The Morris Book (London: Novello, n.d. [1907]). This is available in its entirety - including Sharp's photograph D 21, showing Robbins playing (see the links section, below) - as an ebook, at <>.17  About the same date the dances were the focus of yet another published volume, this time by John Graham.18. John Graham, Shakespearean Bidford morris dances (London: J. Curwen & Sons, n.d. [circa 1907]).18

Writing in 1953, after Robbins' death, John E T Clark of New Maldon (Surrey), who clearly knew him very well, revealed that:

The fiddler, Jack Robbins, became a man of some note locally...He was a native of Bidford, and his father and grandfather before him were musicians.  In his younger days Jack Robbins trained and conducted a drum and fife band, and later - in 1903 - he formed a small orchestra -- strings, brass and woodwind -- which he conducted and which was very popular until the 1914 war depleted its membership.19. Evesham Journal, 22 August 1953, 11.19
It was around the same date, and for much the same reason, that the morris at Bidford was similarly abandoned, the final appearance being, perhaps, at Barnt Green, Bromsgrove (Worcs).20. J. Philip Taylor typescript (October 1982), f.27.20  Family tradition recalled that Robbins 'used to drink quite heavily and this caused domestic problems.  He eventually gave it up and at the same time left the Morris.'21. Ibid., f.41, citing information collected from Mrs. K. Robbins, 16 October 1973.21  The orchestra may, perhaps, have been synonymous with the 'band for the village Methodists' noted by Taylor.22. Ibid., f.41.22  A photograph reproduced in one of the local newspapers is captioned, 'Bidford P.S.A. Band in 1903', and depicts six violinists, two flautists, and players on double bass and cornet, in addition to John Robbins himself, on cornet rather than the usual fiddle, and his son William on euphonium.23. Cutting from unidentified local newspaper (probably the Evesham Journal), a copy received from Alan Robbins, via e-mail, 10 May 2003.23

His was clearly a life filled with music-making.  From the early days of playing in a family group, through almost three decades of sporadic performances with the morris side, the drum and fife band of perhaps the eighteen nineties, the orchestra, and on to the final known performance, during a visit by the American collector James Madison Carpenter in about 1933.24. Library of Congress, James Madison Carpenter collection, AFC 1972/001.111. For details of Carpenter's collecting activity in England see Julia C. Bishop, ' 'Dr Carpenter from the Harvard College in America': An Introduction to James Madison Carpenter and his Collection', Folk Music Journal 7, number 4 (1998), 402-420.24  John Robbins died in the town of his birth during 1948.25. Evesham Journal, 22 August 1953, 11.25

Keith Chandler - 8.10.06


I am deeply indebted to Geraint Bevan for communicating all the material on Joshua Robbins, plus a considerable amount on other musicians within the family, via a series of e-mails during April and May 2003.  Oral material was derived by him from Mrs Joan Robbins, Mrs Marjory Robbins (via her husband Edward Dennis, a great, great grandson of Joshua) and other family members.  I gratefully acknowledge also the invaluable assistance of J Philip Taylor and Alan Robbins.

Links to photographs:

Further photographs of John Robbins, as accompanist to The Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers can be found at:




Despite the anomalous dating on this site, all three of the above photographs were taken by Henry Taunt at the Chipping Campden 'Grand Floral Parade and Fete', 25 May 1896.

Two more (numbers D 21 and D 22) showing Robbins playing for the set at the 'The Pastoral Play and Revel' held at Foxlydiate House, Redditch, on 8 August 1906, are at:

< =&op_10=or&field_10=&op_6=or&field_6=&op_7=or&field_7=&op_8=or&field_8=&op_5=or&field_5=&fieldshow=single&op=or&query=bidford&field=all&output =Record&length=5&submit=Submit+query>

A Note on Primary Sources:

Historical research in general has been enhanced immeasurably in recent years by extensive access to information posted on the World Wide Web.  Every census entry for England, Wales and the Isle of Man during the period 1841 to 1901 is now available, by subscription, at

Each census is indexed thoroughly and searchable, and although there are inevitably some errors in transcription and guesses at words written in some of the more illegible enumerators' hands, a little lateral thinking regarding search parameters will often yield the required entry.  The great advantage of this site is the ability to access images of the actual pages of the original enumeration volumes.  The entire 1881 census, in transcribed form only, is freely available on the website of The Church of Latter Day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, at , and is again comprehensively indexed and searchable.  Many census returns for numerous communities in the Cotswold region (including those from Blockley for 1851 to 1891 inclusive) are freely available, in transcribed form only, at  The 1901 census is searchable at , where many personal details are freely given in transcription, but the image of the original page requires payment of a small fee.

Baptism and marriage registers for many, though not all, communities in England have been transcribed and indexed by The Church of Latter Day Saints.  These are also freely searchable at

There was a legal obligation from 1837 onwards to register all births, marriages and deaths with the civil authorities.  In practise, however, many such, especially among the travelling community, escaped this directive.  Full details are available, by subscription, at  An ongoing transcription, still incomplete, is freely searchable at

All websites given in this section were accessed 7.9.06.

Article MT189

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