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29 November 2023

All roads lead to Thaxted

England’s folk traditions live on in the small town in rural north Essex, inspired by the Christian socialism of one “red vicar”.

By Ken Worpole

Each June, over a thousand Morris dancers and spectators gather in the small town of Thaxted in rural north Essex. Though Morris dancing is only one element of the annual folk festival, it comes with particular associations for the town and its Anglican church. For more than 100 years, it has been associated with the radical Anglo-Catholic movement for social justice that established its spiritual home in Thaxted. In 1910 the charismatic socialist Anglican priest Conrad Noel became the town’s vicar, and went on to found a “Catholic Crusade” to “Transform the Kingdoms of the World into the Commonwealth of God”. Nicknamed the “red vicar”, Noel was a radical: an early preacher of what we now call liberation theology.

Noel turned the beautiful perpendicular church – “the cathedral of Essex” – into a rustic stronghold of the social gospel, though as the historian Arthur Burns noted, “Noel’s Christian socialism had its origins in the East End.” It was there that Stewart Headlam, the music-hall loving, Old Etonian socialist firebrand, set sparks flying in the 1870s. Noel’s most provocative act was to hang the Red Flag, the Irish Tricolour, and the St George’s Flag inside the church, declaring the spirit of revolutionary internationalism and Irish independence. In 1921 this led to the “battle of the flags”, when students arrived to tear the banners down and install the Union Jack: an event later fictionalised in The Flag, a novel by Shakespearean actor Robert Shaw (also the embittered shark-hunter in Jaws). These were not comic fights: shots were fired, windows smashed, and Noel and his family were rescued by “Lansbury’s Lambs”, a group of sympathetic ex-policemen dismissed for going on strike.

I first heard of the Thaxted story in 1962 when, as a young Labour Party member, I helped re-decorate a children’s home in Saffron Walden, belonging to Kitty and Stanley Wilson. Both were Labour councillors and members of the Thaxted congregation. Our small volunteer party drove up from Southend to paint the walls white. Stopping at Thaxted Church on the way home, with Stanley as our guide, we fell under its spell.

Noel was not alone in allying liturgical radicalism with left-wing politics at this time. The hybrid spirit of Christian socialism was becoming a force, but it was Thaxted Church that represented the ideological home of the movement, and early enthusiasms still animate the church calendar today, including its fierce attachment to Morris dancing. As Simon Machin, the indefatigable chronicler of English Anglo-Catholic radicalism with his podcast Red Heaven, puts it: “All roads lead to Thaxted.”

The religious radicals were inspired by the life and work of one man, FD Maurice, a Victorian Anglican theologian. Now largely forgotten, he was immortalised in a great didactic painting of the 19th century: Ford Madox Brown’s 1865 Pre-Raphaelite parable, Work. In Brown’s tableau, passers-by watch burly navvies excavate a trench in a London street. Among ragamuffin children, a chickweed seller and an electioneer, two quizzical men in suits look on: Thomas Carlyle and FD Maurice. Brown’s painting depicts the social anxieties of the time: the rural exodus to the city, child poverty, and the muscular self-confidence of labour, asking how these disparate conditions might be brought to a state of social harmony.

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[See also: Is Gen Z the most conservative generation in history?]

When young, Maurice fell out with the evangelicals in the Anglican Church, including his father, over salvationist maths. The evangelicals believed only a third of humankind would reach heaven. Maurice, however, believed in universal salvation: all should have prizes. His ethical universalism was initially of interest only to Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and a few other men of letters. Yet with the rise of secular, militant socialism at the end of the 19th century, Victorian England saw a powerful Anglican response. A growing cohort of “slum priests” in London’s East End joined forces with their radical confreres in the shires, who, amid widespread rural poverty, supported the agricultural trade unions. All had been inspired by Maurice’s salvationist call.

They also introduced a cultural element to these campaigns. The rural clergy admired English folk song and dance; those in city parishes became enthusiastic about the music hall, pub “free-and-easies” and urban street life. This was the nearest British radical politics ever arrived at a Gramscian moment: a synthesis of economic critique, a vision of a new moral economy, and a delight in the cultural life of the people.

Prominent too in this radical insurgency was Charles Marson in Somerset – in whose rectory garden Cecil Sharp first heard the folk song “The Seeds of Love”, and began a life’s work collecting English folk songs. In the slum district of Somers Town near Euston, Mary Neal established the Espérance Club in Cumberland Market, training young women in English folk dance. Neal created a national movement, and made serious inroads into the all-male culture of Morris dancing; her “teams” became a regular feature at Thaxted gatherings.

Theatricality was at the heart of the Anglo-Catholic crusade. Even Thaxted sceptics could not gainsay the beauty of the church, the colourful heraldic banners and wall hangings, the floral displays, and the quality of the choral singing (thanks to Noel’s close supporter and neighbour, Gustav Holst, and latterly Holst’s daughter, Imogen), the dance performances and the public processionals. Kingsley Martin, long-standing editor of the New Statesman, wrote admiringly of the “air and freedom and gaiety” – and his first-ever literary review was of Noel’s book The Battle of the Flags.

Anglo-Catholicism was now joined to the English folk tradition. Like Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams was transfixed by the voice of a farm labourer – on a cycling holiday in Essex he came across a man singing “The Bushes and Briars”. These chance meetings changed the course of 20th-century English music, bridging the gap between folk and classical. Holst made his identification with Noel’s project clear when he adapted his “Jupiter” movement of The Planets as a hymn called “Thaxted”, a melody since borrowed by dozens of musicians (most recently, the Swedish metal band Bathory).

The festival remains a pilgrimage site for admirers of “the Thaxted Quest”, who describe the atmosphere as unworldly or ethereal. In 2009 the famously sceptical writer AA Gill travelled to Thaxted expecting to find a faux-medieval charade. On arrival he described the Morris dancers as “fat, rheumatic game hens, chaffing and puffing and heavily skipping through routines that would bore an infant school”. But by the festival’s end Gill seemed to have left the everyday world and stepped into a more mysterious, magical place. “They dance in silence, slowly… casting patterns in the moonlight. A ghost dance, a silently keening sadness. The things we misplace always bear a heavier loss than the things we choose to grasp with white knuckles. And in the darkness, quite unexpectedly, I feel tears of mourning on my cheek.” Folk ritual could re-enchant the world.

Noel died in 1942, and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Jack Putterill, a talented former banker, as well as a musician, youth leader and Morris dancer. His pro-Soviet politics were if anything more doctrinaire than Noel’s. A parishioner recalled with bemusement and dismay that Putterill once gave a sermon on “Our Blessed Virgin Mary, prophet of anti-imperialism”. His radical views were tempered by his energy, enlivening the community with a tireless round of festivals, concerts and charitable work. What people remember about Noel and Putterill today – and between them they served the parish for 63 years – is they kept the church beautifully decorated, filled with flowers and music, and were “wonderful dancers”. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Ken Worpole’s updated “Modern Hospice Design: The Architecture of Palliative  and Social Care” is published by Routledge

[See also: The right don’t own tradition, but they can keep Morris dancing]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now