Historical Guise Dancing and its Music

This paper was first delivered at the Cornish Music Symposium, Lowender Peran, Newquay, Cornwall, 4th November 2018.

Part 1: Historical Guise Dancing

We began this journey of rediscovering historical guise dancing because we wanted to get to the roots of the thing we enjoy doing every winter. We both take part in house-to-house guise dancing during the twelve days of Christmas and at the modern festival of Montol. Familiar with the fabulous descriptions from William Bottrell and Robert Hunt, expanded on by Morton Nance and Hamilton-Jenkin, we felt the reality of historic guise dancing was twixt somewhere between dreaming and history. In today’s talk we are going to focus on the history of guise dancing from around 1750 to 1950. What is it, where did it happen, who used to do it and what was its music?We aren’t the first people to ask these questions. In the letters section of the Royal Cornwall Gazette on 14 January 1804, the following letter from a certain “Amicus Cornubiensis” was printed:

“Sir, It is the wish of several of your subscribers, that you would favour them, in an appendix to the poetry in your Gazette of 24th December, with the best account you can collect of the origin and particulars of the ancient custom of Geese or Guize Dancing, with the ceremonial used on the occasion.”

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 14 January 1804

A fulsome description of medieval mumming was given with connections to the practice of Christmas plays. Even by 1804, guise dancing was referred to as “ancient.”A further look at the newspaper archives gave a glimour of the riches held within. These sources are not just valuable for the academic pursuit of understanding our folk customs, but also as inspiration for how we continue those traditions today. Supported by a small grant from the ‘Qʼ Fund we have unearthed over 100 descriptions of guise dancing in Penzance, Newlyn, Paul, Madron, St Just, St Ives, Gulval, Goldsithney, Helston and the Isles of Scilly.

General observations and definition

The first-hand accounts which we have uncovered suggest that guise dancing meant many different things in our period. But the general convention was go out after dark during the twelve days of Christmas in some kind of disguise — either comical, fantastical or cross-dressed costume — and call on your neighbours, visit local pubs, and process in the streets to play music, dance, do a short play, drink, say things that you wouldn’t otherwise say to someone’s face, and make mischief. We have evidence of role-play games, mock funerals, processions, and identity-guessing games. The activities were intended to be loud, vibrant, boisterous, sometimes frightening and above all, fun—entertainment at the darkest time of the year.

First mentions

We find out first mention of the term guise dancing in 1750, by Robert Heath in his book A Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly (pp125-126). We learn that on the Isles of Scilly the guise dancers began their festivities on Christmas Day.

At Christmas Time, the young People exercise a Sort of Gallantry among them called Goose-dancing; when the Maidens are dressed up for young Men, and the young Men for Maidens. They visit their Neighbours in Companies, where they dance, and make their Jokes upon what has happened in the Islands, when every Person is humorously told of their own without Offence being taken. By this sort of Sport according to yearly Custom and Toleration, there is a Spirit of Wit and Drollery kept up among the People. The Maidens, who are sometimes dressed up as Sea-Captains and other Officers, display their alluring Graces to the Ladies, who are young Men equipped for that Purpose; and the Ladies exert their Talents to them in courtly and amorous Addresses: Their Hangers are sometimes drawn, &c. after which, and other pieces of Drollery, the Scene shifts to Music and Dancing; which being over they are treated with Liquor, and then go to the next House of Entertainment.

Heath, Robert. 1750. A Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly (pp. 125-126)

That sounds like a fun evening out.

William Borlase describes guise dancing – but without using the name – in his 1758 book The Natural History of Cornwall (p299). He refers to some parts of it as “peurile.”

Some faint remains of the same custom I have often seen in the west of Cornwall during the Christmas season, when at the family-feasts of gentlemen, the Christmas Plays were admitted, and some of the most learned among the vulgar (after leave obtained) entered in disguise, and before the gentry, who were properly seated, personated characters, and carryed on miserable dialogues on Scripture subjects ; when their memory could go no farther, they filled up the rest of the entertainment with more puerile representations, the combats of puppets, the final victory of the hero of the dramas, and the death of his antagonist.

Borlase, William. 1758. The Natural History of Cornwall (p. 299)

We have been lucky to discover a published transcription of the Journal of Rear-Admiral Bartholomew James. The entry for January 1771 records guise dancing on board a ship anchored off the Cornish coast, with each crew member trying to out-do the other in the ridiculousness of their costume. The entry ends with this recollection by the Rear-Admiral:

I remember often to have seen the performers of a geese dance obliged to make a precipitate retreat from some houses where the family have not relished the custom, and upset each other as they are flying perhaps from some violent housekeeper with a hot poker. 

John Knox Laughton (ed). 1896. Journal of Rear-Admiral Bartholomew James, 1752-1828. London: Navy Records Society. (pp. 7-9).

The term “guise dancing”

At this stage it is worth making comment about the use of the term guise dancing. Our newspaper accounts most commonly use the term guise or goose dancing. We have only found two short-hand uses of the term “guisers” —this term is more usually used to describe a similar tradition in the north of England and Scottish borders—the guizards. In both of the Cornish cases, the term was used by the journalist in addition to guise dancers.


The geographic scope of the term guise dancing goes no further east than Helford and Helston, and west to cover the whole of West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly. St Ives is the town with the strongest association, followed by Penzance. We are not convinced of Thomas Couch’s description of guise dancing in Polperro, but that is for another talk another time—or questions at the end.While other mumming activities and particularly the performance of plays is described in other places such as Truro and Padstow, the newspapers themselves make no mention of the term guise dancing in mid, north or east Cornwall. This also goes for those descriptions of Cornish guise dancing in non-Cornish newspapers such as the Pall Mall Gazette and Oxford Times. So even if there were similar activities at the same time of year in other parts of Cornwall, nobody outside of west Cornwall called themselves guise dancers and the customs there were not referred to as guise dancing.

Christmas Plays

Guise dancers often, as part of their ‘gambols’ during the Twelve Days of Christmas, performed short plays. The most popular was the St George play. By the 1790s the play had become such a popular part of guise dancing that it almost came to define it.

Robert Hunt, writing in his 1865 Popular Romances of the West of England, says that the term geese dancing was“applied to the Christmas plays, and indeed to any kind of sport, in which characters were assumed by the performers or disguises worn.” (p.308). William Bottrell, writing in 1873, said of the play Duffy and the Devil, “this droll formed the subject of an old Guise-dance (Christmas Play)” (Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall Vol 2, p.1).

To some writers, it is easy to see the performance of a Christmas play as evidence of guise dancing. We see the Christmas play as an optional element of guise dancing and not a defining characteristic of it. 


We have found that some of the descriptions of guise dancing believed to have been factual, such as the comparison between guise dancing in Penzance and the Carnival in Venice, are fictional stories. Even so, those descriptions didn’t come out of nowhere.One example (that is often cited) is from A. K. Hamilton Jenkin’s book Cornwall and its People where he states that a“writer describing guise dancing at Penzance in 1831 likened it to an Italian carnival”, going to to quote at length a rich description of the sights of the town at this time. Frustratingly, he doesn’t provide a reference for this quote, despite referencing Heath and Bottrell on the same page. 

However we did manage to track down where this “1831” quote came from – an annual publication of amusing tales called The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment. The Italian carnival reference comes from a story by “J. H.” called Reuben Remplace — a swashbuckling tale of a reformed smuggler living in Newlyn. Whilst the story of Reuben Remplace is intended as a work of fiction, it must have been written by someone with a good knowledge of guise dancing and the Penzance area, so there may still be a kernel of truth in there somewhere. And did the editor of The Olio, Edward Augustus Kendall FSA, know William Sandys FSA, both based in London in the 1830s, and both Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries? This requires further investigation.

Not always welcome

Some of the reports of guise dancing in the papers also showed that it was considered to be anti-social behaviour by some in the community and in St Ives and Penzance there were efforts to ban it altogether—St Ives and Penzance seemed to be the battle grounds for tensions between guise dancers and the authorities. In the Cornish Telegraph in the 1860s the St Ives correspondent reported (reprinted in Hunt’s Popular Romances, p395) that it was “dangerous for children, and aged or infirm persons, to venture out after dark, as the roughs generally are armed with a sweeping-rush or shillalagh. The uproar at times is so tremendous as to be only equalled in a ‘rale Irish row’.”

Then there are the “guise-dancers” or “geese-dancers,” as they are sometimes called: unruly and turbulent merry-makers these, whose performances have been put down by law in large towns but who caper and dance and hold carnival from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night in villages and country places. With them it is the fashion for men and maidens to wear each other’s garments, or to disguise themselves by putting on hideous masks and strange attire. Taking advantage of this disguise, they are apt to behave in a way disconcerting to more sober people; and no one cares to be out alone after nightfall in places where the guise-dancers may be expected to appear. 

Royal Cornwall Gazette, Thursday 31 December 1891

A spirited letter from an angry resident of High Street in St Ives in 1898 describes guise dancing in full flow: 

“I heard of a case a few evenings ago where a little girl, who was being taken home by her brother (not much older than herself) was persistently followed by a boy with a blackened face, and the child was so frightened that she took refuge in a shop, and there she stayed for awhile crying and sobbing as if her heart would break.” 

The Cornish Telegraph, Thursday 06 January 1898, p. 8

Happily the letter writer also describes the musical instruments used by the guise dancers, which we will mention later.

During our research we spoke with an elderly lady in Newlyn (Mrs Hawken, aged 97 in 2017) who describes as a young girl being scared by the guise dancers visiting their house during the 1920s.

And it wasn’t just the guise dancers giving others a hard time. Guise dancers seemed to be fair game in the sport of others. In Lelant in 1903 it was reported: 

The “Guise dancers and hunters” have been numerous in our midst during the week. The hoary old custom seems to have revived a little during the last few years. But, alas! its followers have fallen on bad times, at least some of them. I hear that some of our “Guisers” during the week, got roughly handled for being a bit too intrusive, and several rushed to their homes “guiseless,” feeling a little sorer and warmer than when they sallied forth, believing after all that the days of guise-dancers are past.”

The Cornish Telegraph, Wednesday 07 January 1903

Costumes and props

On Scilly in the 18th century there is a definite naval flavour to some of the costumes, along with enthusiastic cross-dressing. Let’s return again to Heath’s fabulous testimony from 1750 in relation to costume:

The Custom of Goose-dancing was formerly encouraged by the Military Officers living in these Islands, who distinguished themselves by it among the Ladies. They used to go in party-coloured Dresses, half of one Colour to the Right and Left, or above and below; exercising drawn Swords in their Dancing at the Houses, where they entered and retired by Procession of two and two. 

Heath, Robert. 1750. A Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly (pp. 125-126)

On board his naval vessel in 1771 Bartholomew James describes naval officers trying to outdo each other with the ridiculous nature of their outfits, particularly mocking authority.  Polwhele’s 1797 poem The Old English Gentleman describes blacked-up faces – “a visage blacken’d o’er with cork” (p.120), along with the flamboyant players of the Christmas play wearing tinsel, ribbons, and cock-plumes.

Some dressed to frighten audiences. Descriptions talk of costumes that were “grotesque” (Cornishman – Thursday 24 November 1904) and “hideous sights of the older times” (The Cornish Telegraph – Wednesday 09 January 1901, page 5, column 1). “The costumes ranged from the highly artistic to the ludicrous, some of the productions being fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Cornubian and Redruth Times, Thursday 23 January 1908).

In W H Hudson’s description in his book The Lands End published 1908, he says:

“But how strong the simple primitive love of fun is in the Cornish people may be seen at Christmas time in St Ives in their “Guize-dancing,” when night after night a considerable portion of the inhabitants turned out in masks and any fantastic costume they can manufacture out of old garments and bright-coloured rags to parade the streets in groups and processions and to dance on the beach to some simple music till eleven o’clock or later. This goes on for a fortnight. Just think of it, men, women, and children in their masks and gaudy get-up, parading the little narrow, crooked, muddy streets, for long hours in all weathers! And they are Methodists, good, sober people who crowd into their numerous chapels on Sundays to sing hymns and listen to their preachers!”  

Hudson, W. H. 1908. The Lands End by W H Hudson (p. 176). Also printed in The Cornishman, Thursday 02 July 1908

In St Ives also in 1908, “Men dressed like girls, and girls in Rimsy tarlatan and artificial flowers whirled arm-in-arm through the crowd, stopping now and then to accost some unhappy stranger with a jest, at which all would roar with laughter.” (Oxford Times – Saturday 08 February 1908, page 10, column 2). 

Richard Edmonds’s description of Penzance guise dancing in 1846 (published in 1851) said that the guise dancers  “occasionally masked themselves with the head, horns, and skins of bullocks, a practice not yet entirely discontinued”(p82). 

‘Osses are popular today, particularly the type with the skull on a pole, but we can only find one example of a representation of a horse associated with guise dancing. This comes from William Sandys in his description of a game in Penzance called The Corn-market, which in context is associated with guise dancing. The man is called Old Penglaze and is accompanied by a person “girded round with a horse’s hide, or what is supposed to be such, to serve as his horse” (Christmas Carols, 1833p. 114 of preface, or cxiiii). 

It is the man, not the horse, that is called Penglaze. This is corroborated by Richard Edmonds saying that the horse was “represented by a man carrying a piece of wood in the form of a horse’s head and neck, with some contrivance for opening and shutting the mouth with a loud snapping noise, the performer being so covered with a horse cloth or hide of a horse, as to resemble the animal, whose curvet- tings, biting, and other motions, he imitated.” (Edmonds, Richard. 1851. On some Ancient Customs in the western extremity of Cornwall in Proceedings of the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, Vol 1. pp. 69-82).

Part 2: The Music of Guise Dancing

Several of our newspaper accounts talk generically about music being played and songs massacred during guise dancing. Getting a more accurate picture of exactly what was sung, played and danced to is slightly trickier to establish.

Heath, 1750, also references song and music used in guise dance role playing:

There was a Serjeant Kite who acted his Part in Company, which was repeating Verses in Praise of a military Life, and laughing People out of their Money. At this Time Serenades in the Night were in Practice under the Windows of the fair Islanders, which at this Day are not quite forgot.

Heath, Robert. 1750. A Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly (pp. 125-126)

The respondent to “Amicus Cornubiensis” first newspaper enquiry requesting information on the history of guise dancing (Royal Cornwall Gazette on 14 January 1804) quotes from Heath, “When the music and dancing is done, they are treated with liquor, and then they go to the next house of entertainment.” 

We have about 30 brief references to guise dancing centred on music in the newspaper accounts. The sources talk about the instruments in use, the dancing, the singing (good and bad), and even music on the beach late at night (which we heard earlier).

Instruments, processions and bands

In January 1887, The Cornish Telegraph reported “Bands of young people, in fantastic costumes, have paraded for hours, the processions sometimes being headed by a musical instrument, and followed by crowds of boys and girls yelling and hooting in a disgraceful manner.” 

In St Ives, 1898 we get specific mention of actual instruments “being concertinas, tin pans, flutina and bones, “Mayhorns” (more below, The Cornish Telegraph – Thursday 06 January 1898, page 8, column 2).

The writer made a point of putting “musical” in inverted commas…

St Just 1891 
On Monday evening the town was paraded by several parties of ‘guise-dancers’ and the bands could be heard discoursing sweet music.

The Cornishman, Thursday 01 January 1891.

St Ives 1908 
Quite a new feature this year (or shall we say an old feature revived) was a band of over twenty performers. The “music” was not of the highest order, but it was certainly very popular and attracted a large crowd of interested spectators

The Cornish Telegraph, Thursday 16 January 1908.

It seemed some guise dancers were notable for their questionable musical talent – to the reporter’s ears at least.

The Cornish Telegraph’s St Ives correspondent from the early 1860s, which is reprinted in Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances, says that:

In many families, a crock of ‘fish and tatees’ is discussed in West-Cornwall style before the‘singers’ commence their time-honoured carol, ‘While Shepherds,’ which is invariably sung to the ‘same old tune,’ struck by some novice in u flat.

Hunt, Robert. 1865. Popular Romances of the west of England. Vol 1 (p. 37 & pp. 307-308).

That’s quite a withering description, which continues to use the term ‘singers’ in inverted commas.  The “town being literally given up to a lawless mob, who go about yelling and hooting in an unearthly manner, in a tone between a screech and a howl, so as to render their voices as undistinguishable as their buffoon-looking dresses.”

Sources for music 

Let’s take a look at some sources for music. What musical opportunities were available, and what was being collected at the time that the guise dancers may have drawn on? 


The period of guise dancing traditionally started on Christmas Day itself. Carols seem to dominate. 

Heath, 1750, says:

They [the guise dancers] have a Custom of singing Carols at Church on a Christmas Day, to which the Congregation make Contribution, by dropping Money into a Hat carried about the Church when the Performance is over; which is amusing enough. 

Heath, Robert. 1750. A Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly (pp. 125-126).

John Troutbeck’s 1796 book A Survey of the Ancient and Present State of the Scilly Islands (which reproduces huge chunks of Heath) clarifies this: 

They have a custom of singing carols at church on Christmas-day after evening service, which begins their Christmas gambols, and on the Twelfth-day they end.”

Troutbeck, John. 1796. A Survey of the Ancient and Present State of the Scilly Islands. Sherborne: Goadby & Lerpiniere (p. 172).

Some indication of the style of singing is given in the description of young guise dancers in Goldsithney, “Singing in opposition was kept up until a late hour, when two policemen quieted the revellers” (The Cornishman, 12 January 1882).

Davies Gilbert in 1822/23 and William Sandys in 1833 provided us with the gift of those incredible collections of carols and secular tunes that many know so well. In theory any of these carols were available to draw on for the guise dancers of the 19th century. Indeed some may have been collected from those active enough to keep these old songs going—the guise dancers themselves? These collections are, however, also useful for highlighting other genres of music enjoyed during the guise dancing period, such as ballads and dance music. 

Let’s take a closer look at these.

Davies Gilbert

The 2nd edition of 1823 (Gilbert, Davies. 1823. Some ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the west of England. J. Nichols and Son: London) includes an appendix of ‘secular’ songs and tunes. 

Davies Gilbert makes a distinction between religious and secular observances at Christmas time. The time for traditional hymns and carols being Christmas Eve and Day, the time for “more secular festivities” came after (p. vii).

“After the time for religious Carolling had passed away, and more secular festivities came to assume their turn, Ballads constituted a main article in the catalogue of amusements resorted to by our ancestors: of these the Editor has partially recollected two, bearing strong marks of antiquity [The Three SistersThe Three Knights]. They have ceased, for many years, either to be recited  or sung, yet the notes are fortunately preserved; and, if one of them is known in the Northern part of the island, it may have suggested a much more finished composition for the Lay of the Last Minstrel [A Walter Scott poem from around 1805].

Gilbert, Davies. 1823. Some ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the west of England. J. Nichols and Son: London. p. vii.

A Dance is added, which used to be performed, not only at Christmas but on all other festive occasions; and it is said to have continued in fashion, however strange such a fashion may appear, to about the time of the Revolution [Joan Sanderson—The Cushion Dance].

Also a Dialogue between the Husband-man and the Serving-man, a great favourite at country merry-makings, on account of the preference given to rural employments.

And, finally, the Airs of two Songs: one, The King shall enjoy his own again, the delight of all those, who, for the greater part of a century, were attached to what was then termed “The good old Cause.” The other esteemed by several competent judges to be a specimen of Celtic music [“Helston Forey” – today called Helston Furry].

Gilbert, Davies. 1823. Some ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the west of England. J. Nichols and Son: London. p. viii.

Let’s take a closer look at the two ancient ballads:
The Three Sisters is a jig in F major. There are 9 cited verses with some said to be missing, one chorus:

Jennifer gentle and Rosemaree,
And now, fair Maid, I will marry with thee, 
As the dew flies over the Mulberry tree.

Gilbert, Davies. 1823. Some ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the west of England. J. Nichols and Son: London. pp. 64-67.

The Three Knights (Gilbert 1823, p. 68-71) in Dm. Scored as 3/4. 19 verses. Highlighted are the refrains in each verse.

What would you give to your brother John’s wife,
With the high and the lily oh!
A widow’s weeds, and a quiet life,
As the rose was so sweetly blown.

Gilbert, Davies. 1823. Some ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the west of England. J. Nichols and Son: London. pp. 68-71.

Given the interest in informal and impromptu drama enjoyed by guise dancers, The Husband-Man and the Serving-Man (Gilbert, 1828. pp. 72-75) described by Gilbert as an ancient dialogue could have really appealed. It has 16 verses and a chorus with a simple tune in G major, scored as a 2/4. The Serving Man in the treble clef, the Husband Man in the bass clef. You could imagine this performed instrumentally too.

The King Shall Enjoy His Own Again originating in the aftermath of the Civil Wars (Gilbert, 1828. pp. 78-79). It is reproduced with treble and bass lines, in 2/4, in G major. 
The subject of this irreverent song may have resonated with guise dancers, who we know, in the 19th century to have worn antique clothes as part of their disguises. The mocking of history and the interest in patriotic or militaristic subjects might also have made this tune attractive.

The Helstone Foray is reproduced in Eb Major with treble and bass lines in 4/4. Rhythmically different but melody is recognisable from the version that has become popular today.

Except for its inclusion in the appendix of his second edition of carols, Gilbert makes no allusion to this as a Christmas time tune but he does observe that by his day it had become “almost peculiar to Helston.” We feel Helston Furry would probably have been fair game to Helston guise dancers. 

Guise dancing in Helston
The monotony of Helston life was relieved a few nights past with strains of music from the Sevorgan prize band, troupes of n****r minstrels, waits, and guise dancers.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, Friday 04 January 1878. We have decided not to print the derogatory term originally used in the newspaper here.

Finally let’s briefly look at the ‘strange dance’–The Cushion Dance to a tune called Joan Sanderson. Not so much a dance but a flirtatious kissing game that involved calls and answers between dancers and musicians.

Published originally in the 7th edition of John Playford’s English Country Dances 1686 it was already old when Davies Gilbert republished it with the description of the Cushion Dance. He remarks (pp. 76) in a description of the Cushion Dance held at the English court (originally in Selden’s Table Talk, 1689) that “all the company dance; lord and groom, lady and kitchen-maid, no distinction.”

Given the interest among those taking part in guise dancing to invoke ideas and skits from yesteryear, the Cushion Dance could have fitted in well at guise dancing parties.
In our version, the tune is in Am in three parts, the first scored as a 3/4 and the second and third as 6/8. The note suggests the first part is played twice, the second once, and the third “as often as is required.” 

To compare, Playford’s version was published in Gm and in all respects it is the same except the time signature for parts B and C were noted as 6/4 suggesting these parts were played much faster than part A—a feature shared by other Playfords such as Jenny Pluck Pears.

William Sandys

Taking a look at Sandys’ tunes published in 1833 (Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern), he believed that many of the tunes he collected were of some antiquity,  particularly reflected in unusual keys, for example in his carol No. 3 he refers to it being a specimen of the old minor key, The Lord At First Had Adam Made, 4/4 Am. He said “it appears harsh to modern ears, which expect the g sharp.” 

Given the tuneless-ness reported of guise dancing music we doubt the harshness would have mattered!

Sandys includes a number of simple tunes including his No. 6 which he refers to as a chant. It is called This New Christmas Carol, 4/4, Am, now more known as Sandys Chant but very different in rhythm in the original.

There are two French Carol tunes, both called Noel, both in a kind of Dm key and 4/4. You could sing them but they might also work well to accompany a processing march.
Sandys also includes one ballad: the old ballad of “Lord Thomas and fair Elinor.” Scored as a jig in 6/8, Bb major (p.187).

Hutchens MSS, 1826

Another source of music from our period comes from the so-called Hutchens manuscript of 1826. This manuscript is reputed to have belonged to a descendant of Davies Gilbert, Miss Minnie Davies Gilbert. It apparently arrived too late for Davies Gilbert to include the tunes in his book. Inglis Gundry publishing Canow Kernow in 1966 included a tune which may be noteworthy for guise dancing music. It is called Carol For Twelfth Day and sometimes also referred to as the Cornish Wassail Song. 

Music book of William Allen, Clerk of St Ives, 1815-1850s

We must add another potential source for discovering the music of guise dancing. The MS music book identified by Mike O’ Connor as having belonged to St Ives clerk, William Allen (1791-c1859) is housed at the Royal Institution of Cornwall. What is interesting about the tunes that were notated is that they were in contrast to John Old’s “establishment names” (O’Connor, 2005, Dons an Garrow, 2005. p. 4). There are several dance tunes, including marches, many popular beyond the locality. O’Connor speculates that Allen was a fiddler himself. The tunes are fairly simple and none are presented in sets (p. 5). There are 9 marches, 8 French waltzes, 7 jigs, one hornpipe. No reels or polkas. O’Connor postulates a middle class audience. Some military-regimental themed tunes may have particularly appealed to guise dancers wanting to lead or accompany a procession, e.g. Quick Step of the 12th Regiment (p. 18) or Bonaparte’s March to Waterloo (p. 22).

Songs of the West, Sabine Baring Gould

From the other great collection of 19th century tunes, Songs of the West by Sabine Baring Gould (1905, new edition, originally published in 1890-92), we could speculate that the simple and catchy The Dilly Song (pp. 160-1) may have attracted a guise dancing band or choir.

Cornish Song Book, Dr Ralph Dunstan, 1929

This tune is also present in Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book of 1929. He says that his version of The Dilly Carol was  “exactly as I have many times heard it—generally sung by three singers at or about the time of Twelfth Night—in West Cornwall. The chorus may be accompanied; the other portions, for solo voices, must be un-accompanied” (p. 128-29).

Our other guise dancing music candidate from the Cornish Song Book could be The Christmas Chanters (pp. 114-15). Dunstan said he didn’t know the origins of the piece, only that it was “was very popular in West Cornwall sixty or seventy years ago” — plum in our guise dancing area and period.

One of our latest newspaper descriptions from 1950 in the Western Morning News talks of over 100 guise dancers lining the streets of St Ives dancing “ through the streets of the town to the strains of the Furry Dance, played by the St. Ives Town Band, under the direction of Mr S. G. Coombe.” (Friday 20 January 1950, p. 3). 

‘Foreign’ music

Not all the tunes were related to Christmas, and guise dancers adopted whatever music they liked. This wasn’t always as local as you might expect.

Angeline the Baker, a well-known 19th century American tune was reported to have been heard played on the streets of St Ives by the Pall Mall Gazette in 1874 (May 26 1874, p. 12). The reporter, visiting the town, was not best pleased that the magic of guise dancing was hijacked by an imitation of American Minstrel bands who were touring Britain at exactly this time. The song was written by Stephen Foster for the Christy Minstrels in New York and published in 1850. On 10th January 1870, the Christy Minstrels played a concert as part of their tour at the ‘new hall’ in Hayle (The Cornish Telegraph, Wednesday 12 January 1870, p.3). The concert was packed out, with people turned away at the doors. Maybe this was where the tune was first heard?

It is a poor exchange to have got, instead of a play like this, with St George and Father Christmas, and the hobby horse and Mak the jester, and all the crew whom, in the northern midlands, they call “mummers,” a bad copy of negro entertainment; yet this is what the West Cornish guise-dancers have come to. “Get away, black man,” and “Ladies, won’t you marry?” and “Angelina Baker,” have superseded the Christmas “guise,” just as the preachings and revivals have taken the place of the mystery-plays like the strange story of St Merisek, lately translated by Mr. Whitely Stokes.

Pall Mall Gazette – May 26 1874, p. 12. We acknowledge the language used here is not appropriate for modern times.


To conclude, guise dancing is all about disguise, but a large part of the entertainment provided has always been music.

Guise dancing has never left living memory. Perhaps it has been continually practiced in west Cornwall since the middle ages. The authors have encountered recollections from people in Newlyn, Penzance, St Ives and St Just who either remember it or took part as children—there are equally as many who grew up in west Cornwall who have never done it, seen it or heard of it.

Guise dancing has undoubtedly helped to keep traditional music alive, and introduce new music to Cornwall, from old time American classics in the mid 19th century, to English tunes in the St Ives revivals of the 1970s, such as Rogue’s March. And how could we not mention the guise dancer’s favourite, Turkey Rhubarb? So ingrained has this tune become in the Cornish canon of traditional music—and so associated with guise dancing—that we sometimes forget the tune and its variants is known by many different names (in Ireland as Father Murphy’s Top Coat or Shoo the Donkey amongst other) and appears in many different places and traditions, but we have made it our own and that’s what matters.

Guise Dancing on the BBC 

In the autumn of 1934, BBC radio visited Landithy Hall in Madron to record a group called the Madron Guise Dancers for a programme called “Cornish Conversation”, broadcast in January 1935 and re-broadcast in 1937. Sadly the recordings are now thought to be lost, but the Western Morning News covered both events, and photographed the guise dancers. We also have this radio interview with one of the original Madron guise dancers by Ted Gundry from the early 1980s. Possibly this is the Mrs Watts that Merv Davey met in 1980, but unfortunately Ted did not keep any records. The guise dancing interview is available on cornishmemory.com.

To us, this interview sums up what guise dancing ancient and modern is all about. Many elderly people treasure their memories of it, and thanks to the most recent revival, it is still happening today by a new generation of guise dancers.