Rolfe, Eli & Will

Dancer

Collection date: Apr 1912

Area: Oxfordshire


Eli & Will Rolfe of Bucknell morris: Bucknell is 2 miles NW of Bicester. The Bucknell dances were published in Morris Book 5 (Novello 1913 pp77-95), much of the spade work being done by George Butterworth during a short visit to the area (13-24 April 1912). Sharp's notation of 4 tunes and accompanying steps and figures can be found FT2780-2784.

Butterworth based himself at the King’s Arms in Bicester and thoroughly explored the area looking for evidence of past morris sides. The diary that he kept (go to vwml.org Search GB/10) gives a fascinating glimpse of the hopes and frustrations of ‘morris dance hunting’ and is a reminder of the patience and persistence of Sharp in previous years. Butterworth called in on his university friend Reginald Lennard (1885-1967), whose father was Rector of nearby Lower Heyford, and Lennard later wrote: ‘I well remember meeting him at Bucknell…and found him already at work in a picturesque and ancient cottage with a stone floor and whitewashed walls and heel-backed chairs. An incredibly old man was dancing about the floor…George sat by the wall, smoking his pipe and busily noting the dancer’s steps in a book. Now and then he would put a question or suddenly demand the repetition of a particular figure.’ The ‘incredibly old man’ was no doubt Eli Rolfe – he was 72 when Butterworth met him.

Eli Rolfe was baptised at Bucknell on 17/10/1841, 4th child of Samuel Rolfe, agricultural labourer and his wife Elizabeth. Samuel (b1797) had 3 older brothers who were all morris dancers – William b1787, Thomas b1791 and Joseph b1794. They would have danced, no doubt, in the 1820s and 1830s. The Bucknell men usually attended the Kirtlington Lamb Ale, which took place in Whitsun week, when they often danced with the Kirtlington men, the dances of the two villages being more or less alike (see William Pearman profile).

Eli did have an older brother Charles (extravagantly baptised as Samuel Charles French Rolfe in April 1837), who did dance for a few years until the Kirtlington Lamb Ale ceased around 1860. Charles was living at nearby Chesterton but Butterworth reported that he had never danced again, so he focused on Eli and his younger brother William. The Bucknell side seems to have been revived again c1872 for about 12 more years. The side would have included Eli's 2 youngest brothers – Thomas (1846-1924) and Alfred (1849-1933) – but they did not give information to Butterworth. Eli and Will Rolfe were the leaders, who organised a few ad hoc performances over succeeding years (e.g. Jubilee celebrations).

Eli Rolfe was an agricultural labourer like his father and he married Jane Cox on 16/4/1865 at St Clement’s Oxford. He could not sign his name. The couple had 11 children – 5 sons and 6 daughters. Eldest son William joined the 2nd King’s Scottish Borderers, while second son Walter served in the Boer War. Eli’s wife Jane died in 1900, so Eli was a widower when Butterworth met him but he had the support of his daughter Jane and was surrounded by 4 grandchildren. Eli died in August 1928, aged 87.

Younger brother William Rolfe was baptised on 31/3/1844. He was also an agricultural labourer and he never married. He died on 15 February 1917, aged 73.

Although George Butterworth in his diary p29 wrote: ‘I’m afraid after all the Bucknell is no go’, he did in fact collect over a dozen dances in good detail. He obtained some tunes from musician Joseph Powell (see separate profile). Sharp then visited Bucknell himself, accompanied by EV Lucas, and he wrote up a summary in Folk Dance Notes 2/161-168. Sharp paid a final visit to Eli Rolfe in Sept 1922 and added a few notes (Folk Dance Notes 4/91).

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