Obituary for William Kimber
William Kimber, the well-known morris dancer, died at Headington,
Oxford, on Boxing Day in a house he had built for himself many
years ago. He was in his ninetieth year.
He was a bricklayer; on Boxing Day, 1899, when he was out of work
because of the hard winter ("three weeks without a pay packet")
the Headington Quarry morris side went out to earn a little money,
although it was not the usual time of the year for the morris.
At Sandfield Cottage, Mrs. Burch's house, they danced Laudnum
Bunches and Rigs o' Marlow; the side was turning to go when her
son-in-law called to them from the window; this was Cecil Sharp,
who had heard morris tunes for the first time; and he asked Will
Kimber to come the following day and play over some of the Quarry
Next day Will played Beansetting and Constant Billy. Cecil Sharp
wrote them down, then went across to the piano and played them.
Sixty years later Will would talk of this with admiration: "I'd
never seen anything like that before."
From that meeting flowed Sharp's great work of recovering so many
of the morris dances of England and teaching them to the early
dancers of the morris revival. In this work he used Kimber as
his right hand man, since much of the material collected needed
the help of an experienced morris man; "Often enough, me
and five chairs", said Kimber.
He would spend days at a time in London; and while Sharp lectured,
Kimber would demonstrate steps and dance jigs; he found it better
The value Cecil Sharp himself put upon Kimber's work is shown
in a letter written to Will shortly before Sharp's death. "Had
it not been for our lucky meeting on December 26, 1899, at Headington,
and the prominent part which, in the early days of the movement,
you took not only in giving practical instruction but by capital
demonstrations in public, the movement would never have been launched."
The old man lived to unveil a memorial plaque on Sandfield Cottage,
60 years to the very day when Sharp had called out to him; to
refer with considerable satisfaction to "his morris sons"
now dancing in the many clubs in every part of England: and to
feel a natural pride in the part he had played in the great morris
Will Kimber did not look for retirement in the morris; to the
end he was training boys at the local secondary modern school.
His memorial is the present day Headington Quarry morris side,
worthy successors to many generations of Headington morris men;
and the affection of hundreds of morris men who had known him,
and knew what they owed to him.
William Kimber in The Morris Book
"THE HEADINGTON MORRIS. MR. WILLIAM KIMBER, JUNIOR, DANCER AND PLAYER"
opposite page 29 of "The Morris Book" by Cecil J Sharp and Herbert C Macilwaine
(Part 1), second edition, published by Novello and Company Limited, London
in 1912 (original price 2/-)
about William Kimber from The Morris Book, page 35
Headington Morris tunes given in the music-book were noted from
Mr. William Kimber, jun., a first-rate
performer on the concertina. The Headington men seem always to have
danced to a fiddle until thirty years ago, when their fiddler, old
Frank Cummings, died. Another fiddler, George Young, took his place,
but only for a year or two - i.e., until 1887, when the old Morris
side was disbanded. At the revival in 1889, yet another fiddler,
Mr. Cox, was pressed into service, one of the older dancers teaching
him the tunes by humming them to him. But he never played the jig
airs, and he very soon retired. His place was, in turn, taken by
Mr. William Kimber, jun., who was playing
for the side when we first saw the Headington men dance in 1899.
Mr. Kimber learned the tunes from his
father, who was foreman of the original side - i.e., up to 1887.
Mr. William Kimber, sen., was not only a dancer, but an excellent
musician as well, and no mean performer on both fiddle and concertina.
During the last few years of the life of the original team he often
left the ranks of the dancers to act as substitute for the regular
fiddler, who was then getting very old. The Headington tunes, as
we noted them, can therefore be traced through Mr. Kimber and his
son directly to the original fiddler, Frank Cummings, and are therefore
as authoritative as, in the nature of things, traditional tunes
can ever be.
Kimber and the Headington tradition, from The Morris Book, page
trace the history of a village tradition through all its vicissitudes
is always a matter of some difficulty. But, so far as we have been
able to ascertain, the Headington Morris men appear to have danced
annually, without break, down to the year 1887, when for some reason,
probably the lack of a suitable fiddler, the dancing was discontinued.
Ten or twelve years later, Mr. Percy Manning interested himself
in their affairs, and succeeded in prevailing upon the Headington
dancers to make a fresh start. A public exhibition of the Headington
Morris was accordingly given in March, 1899, at the Corn Exchange,
Oxford, and attracted some attention. In a contemporary account,
which appeared in one of the newspapers, it was stated that "four
of the men danced the figures twenty years ago from traditions handed
down by their fathers and grandfathers" (Oxford Review,
March 16th, 1899). The break in the continuity of the dance cannot,
therefore, have seriously affected the purity of the tradition.
Unhappily, the renewed interest created by Mr. Manning soon waned,
and it was not many years before the side was again disbanded.
knowledge of the dance has been gathered from Mr.
William Kimber, who danced in the side for a short while
after the revival, and afterwards played for it. He learned the
dances from his father, one of the old dancers, who joined the team
as a lad of eighteen in the year 1868, and danced as Foreman of
the side for fifteen years - that is, until it was disbanded in
the first Jubilee year. Mr. Kimber, senior, who has himself on more
than one occasion given us great assistance, is a musician as well
as a dancer. He told us that he remembers playing the Morris airs
to his son when he was in the cradle, to lull him to sleep, and
that he taught him to dance when he was a schoolboy. It was this
son, Mr. William Kimber, junior, who,
with his cousin, came up to London in 1906, and, by passing on to
others the tradition that he had inherited, laid the foundations
of the present revival. In his portrait he is dressed in the traditional
costume worn by the Headington men.
the Preface of The Morris Book
the authors desire to thank friends too numerous for individual
mention, who have given able and willing help in the preparation
of this book, they feel that peculiar gratitude is due first and
foremost to the following Morris-men: Mr. William Kimber, Senior,
and his son, Mr. William Kimber, Junior,
for information concerning the Headington dances; Mr. Michael Johnson
and Mr. Michael Handy for similar information about those of the
Mr. William Kimber, Junior, they would
add that besides the invaluable help he afforded them in recording
the dances, his own vigorous and graceful dancing at various public
displays has, by showing what traditional dancing can be and setting
before the dancer of the revival a high standard of technical accomplishment,
forwarded the movement in a practical and altogether admirable manner.
biography of William Kimber, with photographs of his house, his
birthplace and his gravestone, can be found on the Headington
- William Kimber
of the CD Absolutely Classic - The Music of William Kimber
with photographs of Mr Kimber
story of Cecil Sharp and his chance encounter with William
Kimber, reproduced from Cecil Sharp by A.H.Fox Strangeways,
In collaboration with Maud Karpeles, Oxford University Press,