The Sword Dancers at Grenoside

By Robert Douglas Smith, Chairman of the Historical Metallurgy Society
Reprinted from 'Steel Times International', November, 2004, p. 54

The northern outskirts of Sheffield are today renowned for their countryside, long vistas of rolling hills evoking a rural idyll. On most weekends of the year walkers, lone individual or groups of a dozen or more, gather to march in purposeful step. But it has not always been like this. Glimpses of this area's industrial past can be found not only in names such as Forge Top but also in concrete remains such as the forge at Wortley Top to the north of Sheffield – a site well worth a visit (see Steel Times, July 1998, p. 268) – or Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet on the southern outskirts of Sheffield (Steel Times, July 1993, p. 326). But this area's past is also evoked by at least one living tradition – the sword dance – still performed at Grenoside, about ten miles north-east of the centre of Sheffield, each Boxing Day (26 December) at 11 o'clock in the morning.

Contrary to most events in these modern times, which are so rigorously policed and controlled, the sword dance at Grenoside evokes a past which seems refreshingly carefree. If you arrive at around 10.45 the place seems empty – the odd car or pedestrian returning from the newsagent with the local paper is all that can be seen. Within ten minutes however several hundred people appear as if from nowhere to stand on the pavements around the Old Harrow pub on the former turnpike road. At a few minutes to eleven cars are still going by and you wonder where a group of sword dancers are going to perform.

Suddenly the clacking of steel heels can be heard and a group of maybe a dozen men appear in the distance ,arching in step towards you. As if by some form of bush telegraph the spectators furthest away from the oncoming dancers stream across the road and block it to further traffic. As the dancers come to a halt in front of the pub the audience close behind them and an area of road about fifty yards long becomes a makeshift arena.

Six dancers, dressed in bright multi-coloured paisley jackets, white military-style trousers with red stripes, and black caps, and holding their swords – actually steel blanks – form up around their leader who sports a rabbit fur hat and a real sword. Holding in one hand the handle of their sword and in the other the end of the next dancer's sword, they perform an intricately patterned dance, twirling around one another without ever relinquishing their grip. The endless swirl of bodies, the clacking of steel heels and the accompaniment of the fiddle provides a feast for eye and ear. At one point they enclose the leader's head in a ring of steel, in another, they triumphantly wave the star made by the interlocking of the swords. After more dancing by local troupes the sword dancers give a reprise and this vivid picture of a long-gone past dissolves into the morning and Grenoside reverts to the 21st century.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this part of Yorkshire was a major centre of industry. The hamlets surrounding Sheffield were part of a huge industrial complex, each village specialising in some aspect of the iron and steel work. Grenoside, then in the parish of Ecclesfield, had two areas of expertise, the foremost men who worked as cutlers, while the nailers were more poorly regarded. In earlier times both worked smithies in their local homesteads, buying their iron from nearby Wortley Top or Rotherham. Here the famous Walkers of Masborough first learned the secret of ironworking, before moving to produce iron and steel in Rotherham. However during the eighteenth century the small, local masters began to lose their independence as the rise of the middlemen began and increasingly they began to work for single chapmen rather than for themselves. In the course of the nineteenth century the growth of the great factories and mills in Sheffield meant that the little iron-making concerns in the outlying townships were no longer viable and today all that reminds of this past are the steel swords in the hands of the dancers.

No-one knows where the sword dance originated. The earliest published description dates from only 1895 but a photograph from ten years earlier survives. There is also an undated manuscript which appears to belong to the mid-eighteenth century. It has been suggested that the dance is all that remains from a local mummers' tradition, but the sword dance, so dependent on local products, suggests a pride in work that must date from a time when iron was the chief industry in these parts. The present swords were made in 1933 of Sheffield steel, but their ancestry is apparent in the blanks the local smiths produced to make cutlery, knives, and scythes.

So, if this Christmas you are in the Sheffield area and feel the need to get out of the house on Boxing day, drive or, even better, walk to Grenoside for 11 o'clock and you can take part in an ancient tradition and then treat yourself to a pint with the dancers in the local. It's all part of the rich tradition of steelmaking in England!