Armstrong, Thomas


Collection date: Sept 1910

Area: Tyne & Wear

Thomas Armstrong of Earsdon rapper dance: Earsdon is 10 miles NE of Newcastle: Sharp noted 2 ‘opening’ songs from Thomas Armstrong (FT2518,9) plus a version of ‘Weel may the keel row’ (FT2520) on 1 Sept 1910. Armstrong was the captain of the Earsdon side but was now too old to dance (he was 59). Sharp briefly described the man-woman ‘Bessie’ character and then in detail all the various dance figures including the locking of swords (the ‘Nutt’) in Folk Dance Notes 1/207-226.  The dance then featured in ‘Sword Dances of Northern England’ Book 1 (1911 pp82ff). The fiddler said that he used a variety of tunes - ‘any jig in 6/8 time’. The men, mostly miners, obtained their rapper swords from Birmingham.

Armstrong said that the Earsdon side had been going for over a hundred years and they certainly had a good reputation, being invited by the Duke of Northumberland to dance annually at Christmas at Alnwick Castle over decades. Ralph Hedley* painted a picture 'Christmas at the Vicarage' in 1880 and said that the dancers featured were the Earsdon men. After performing at Alnwick before Edward VII in 1906, the side began calling itself the ‘Royal Earsdon’ rapper team. George ‘Geordie’ Osborn (1886-1966) took over from Armstrong and led the side for 50 years, receiving an EFDSS Gold Badge in 1960. He was an accomplished clog dancer and introduced some new ‘shuffle’ steps to the Earsdon performance. He was born on 11/4/1886 at Backworth and died January qr 1966 (10b-261).

Thomas Armstrong was born July qr 1851 at Houghton-le-Spring (ref 24 234) and moved north to work as a miner at the Backworth colliery. He and his wife Hannah lived at 34 North Row, Holywell for over 30 years, raising 4 children. The 1901 census ref is RG13/4810 f127 p25. His date of death has yet to be determined.

For more history see

*Ralph Hedley (1848-1913) was a painter who recorded everyday life in Tyneside at this time - he lived in Newcastle for over 60 years. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in London regularly. His painting 'Christmas at the Vicarage' has been lost but an engraving of the same scene from 1887 survives. The vicarage concerned was at Tanfield, 22 miles from Earsdon on the other side of Newcastle and Gateshead, causing Dr EC Cawte to question whether the dancers were actually from Earsdon. See Eddie Cass article Ralph Hedley and his Sword-Dance Painting in Folk Music Journal vol8 no.3 2003 pp335-344.

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