The Kitwitches perform traditional english molly dancing, the dance of the East Anglian farm workers.
Some Kitwitch Definitions
Molly dancing was the dance of East Anglian ploughboys who danced over the winter when work was in short supply. They went from house to house, danced and begged for money on Plough Monday.
Plough Monday is the first Monday after Epiphany, or twelfth night. Ploughboys were meant to return to work on this day but went out performing and begging for money instead.
There is some debate about the origins of the Kitwitches but here are the references we have found:
“In Christmas time, and especially on plough Monday, several Men dresse themselves in Womens Close and goes from House to House a Dancing along with fiddles where they beg for Money. These are called Kitwitches.”
(NRO Arderon Papers Ms. 555 fol. 242v, dating from the mid 18th century).
Later, in the same document under the heading “Local Words or Words and Idiomatical proverbs in or about Norwich” a Kitwitch was described as a Buffoon (fol. 238).
The name Kitwitch was also found in Great Yarmouth, where there was a Kittywitches pub and Kittywitches Row (no 95) which ran from Middlegate to King Street. Enid Porter in ‘The Folk Lore of East Anglia’ reports that at this row
‘women dressed in men’s clothes and with their faces smeared with blood, rushed from house to house demanding money which they spent on drink.’
It has been suggested that the word Kitty Witch derives from the Dutch kitwijk, a house of bad repute, and that Dutch visitors to the old Yarmouth Free Fair of herring may have given this name to a local public house.
Amusingly the Kitwitches were known as “Shitwitches” for the first ten years of their life as the “K” from the original mid 18th Century text looked just like an “Sh”.
Kitwitches under the micropscope
For a more complete history of the Kitwitches, when, where and why they formed please read the below article by Jon Hooton.
The Norwich Kitwitches
A History by Jon Hooton
(NB. This was written before we knew we were Kitwitches, not Shitwitches!)
The Norwich Shitwitches was originally conceived as a winter activity for the Cotswold side, Golden Star. However, although the majority of the members also dance Cotswold Morris with Golden Star, not all the Cotswold dancers wanted to dance Molly and so the Shitwitches became a separate entity, with some members from Kemp’s Men of Norwich, and some members who only dance the Molly.
The spur to start dancing the Molly and create a new tradition came when one of the Golden Star dancers, came across the following eighteenth century reference in the Norfolk Record Office:-
"In Christmas time, and especially on plough Monday, several Men dresse themselves in Women's Close and goe, from House to House a Dancing along with [music] where they beg for Money. These are called Shitwitches." (Norwich Record Office Manuscript 555242v.) Brief though the reference may be, here was evidence of 'Molly' style dancing in Norwich and it provided the impetus to re-create the Norwich Shitwitches. It was important for us to have discovered the reference as it gave us a sense of belonging to our area and gave an authenticity in reviving an old Norwich custom that would be lacking from a totally invented tradition (which, of course, is exactly what it was), but it made a difference to our perception of it.
It was decided that the side would only dance around Christmas and the New Year, and especially on Plough Monday, largely in the local area. There were several reasons for this. The ‘old’ Molly was only danced in the winter and the historical reference made this clear. Many of the dancers were members of other Morris sides and did not want to stop dancing with them. Although everyone was enthusiastic, no one wanted to be over committed to too many performances, or practices. No one wanted the side to become too serious or beaurocratic. The low commitment and spontaneous nature of the side was felt to be more fun and probably more in keeping with the nature of original Molly sides.
We wanted the dances to have a 'Molly' feel, and therefore we wanted to keep them relatively simple, especially as they would only be danced for a short part of the year and complex dances would get forgotten. Yet we wanted them to be original and not so simple as to be boring to watch and, more importantly, to dance. Also we did not want to perform the Needham/Wortley/Papworth dances, since, whatever the Shitwitches did, it was unlikely to have been those dances. Nor did we wish to be a Seven Champions clone.
Most of the researchers who have written about Molly dancing presume it to be a degenerate form of a previous ceremonial dance, now lost, and refer to features or accessories that have some connection with Cotswold Morris or sword dances. Needham and Peck point out that some of the dances "seem to have some affinity with the Morris of the Derbyshire type, with its country-dance figures and lady’s side" but conclude that "In the living tradition here described, the dancing has degenerated so much that all clues to its original form are lost." (J. Needham & A. Peck, "Molly Dancing in East Anglia", JFDSS, 1, 2 (1933) p84-5.) In an article in Essex Folk News the author states that ".if Molly dancing represents a 19th century substitution of social dance forms then current for an earlier style of ceremonial dancing, what did it replace? Presumably a style of ceremonial dancing which had itself originally been based on earlier social dancing - that style having much in common ultimately with 'Cotswold' Morris dancing." ("Molly and Morris Dancing in Essex", Essex Folk News, Issue No. 40, Autumn (1983).)
Richard Humphries felt that "dance collectors inspired by the success of Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries tended to judge any dance collecting against the general pattern set by the familiar Cotswold form of the Morris. Those who saw Molly dancing, or were given second hand accounts by former dancers assumed that the dance was a degenerate form of the Morris. It lacked the spectacular capers and other outstanding features of Cotswold Morris and as a result was considered relatively unworthy of study, let along collecting." (R. Humphries "'...for a little bit of sport': Molly dancing and Plough Monday in East Anglia" Linton: R. & K. Humphries (1986) p1.)
There is certainly plenty of evidence of some type of ceremonial dance being performed in Plough Monday traditions in East Yorkshire presented by Paul Davenport in his booklet "The Forgotten Morris". He classifies the references into three groups, Morris Dance (Molly Type), Longsword Type and Transitional (Morris/Sword) and there are many aspects of these descriptions which bear a striking similarity to the 'degenerate' East Anglian Molly.'(P. Davenport "The Forgotten Morris : An investigation into Traditional Dance in Yorkshire." (1993).)
Could it be that the Shitwitches represent this ceremony before it degenerated? Perhaps the one dancer dressed as a Betsy or Molly was a survival of a whole side of dancers dressed as women. That more than one person dressed as a woman in Plough Monday traditions is illustrated by Mr. and Mrs. Wright of Great Sampford, Essex, who told Russel Wortley that "some of the men were dressed as women with bonnets etc." and at Castle Camps he was told of "men with blacked faces, some wearing skirts." ("Molly and Morris Dancing in Essex", Essex Folk News, Issue No. 40, Autumn (1983).)
However this is not enough evidence to justify an intricate East Anglian ceremonial dance akin to the Cotswold Morris and this idea may well be wishful thinking from current Morris dancers eagerly seeking a complex tradition in their own area. Perhaps Molly dancing has always been a simple affair in which popular country dances had been used. Richard Humphries also seems to subscribe to this view when he states "That they are simple in form should not pose a problem. Dances collected in Lancashire and Cheshire before the clog Morris 'revival' earlier this century indicate a relatively simple, yet effective form of Morris dance, Molly dancing simply never had the opportunity to develop in the way its relatives in the north and Midlands did." (R. Humphries "'...for a little bit of sport': Molly dancing and Plough Monday in East Anglia" Linton : R. & K. Humphries (1986) p.27)
Simple country dance figures would also overcome the need for a lot of practice and, unlike the Cotswold tradition, there is no evidence that any Molly dancers would get together earlier in the year to prepare for Plough Monday, which would be needed if an elaborate dance were to be performed. The Molly may well have been a more spontaneous form of expression, more akin to the Norfolk and Suffolk step dancers who would improvise steps rather than follow a set pattern. However, the fact that the Cambridgeshire Molly gangs would converge about mid-day on Cambridge Market Place and "dance against each other" as Needham and Peck were told, would indicate that there was a certain pride and competitiveness in their performances. (J. Needham & A. Peck, "Molly Dancing in East Anglia", JFDSS, 1, 2 (1933) p80-81.)MUSIC
If there was little indication of how the dances were performed, there was nothing to indicate what the music was like, or what it was played on. For this recreated tradition we decided to use original tunes, slow polkas, written by our musicians, although as the years developed the ‘Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band’s ‘Jolity Farm’ seemed to slip in.
There was a little more to go on as regarded appearance – men dressed “in Women’s Close”. We decided we would wear women's clothing over a white shirt and black trousers - each person to interpret this as they wish, to avoid uniformity and create a shambolic appearance, which seemed to constitute the Molly. This would also avoid the need for unnecessary effort on behalf of a kit officer. As we are a mixed side, this would involve women dressed as men dressed as women! We also decided not to have black faces, but to make up the faces along the 'pantomime dame' model (e.g. outrageous lipstick, exaggerated beauty spots etc.) – with each person to interpret this as they wish. It was then felt essential to wear heavy boots. Later we decided to add steel toecaps to accentuate the stepping.
Before constructing our tradition, we decided to distil certain aspects that (rightly or wrongly) defined a Molly dance. It was felt that our dances should be for four, six or eight dancers. Many of the country dance movements involved four dancers, therefore four or eight (four couples) seemed appropriate. Only four dancers had been observed at Little Downham in 1933, (W. Palmer, "Plough Monday 1933 at Little Downham" ED&S XXXVI, 1 (1974) 24-25.) although six dancers were frequently reported. Two of the dances were designed for eight, but able to be danced with four if necessary. Indeed this basic unit also meant the dance could be for twelve, or any multiple of four as well.
We felt that Molly involved Simple, repetitive stepping. In order to give some individuality to our tradition we chose double step followed by a single step throughout (l,r,l hop 1; hop r, hop 1; r,l,r, hop r; hop 1, hop r; etc.). As a general rule, most of the movement was to take place on the double step, with the following single steps usually being stationary.
Next, we were going to stick to simple country dance figures, although it could justifiably argued that many Cotswold Morris figures had been taken from country dances and therefore simple Cotswold movements could be considered. In the workshops that followed, where we tried out various ideas, many of the figures that we came up with were far from simple, but that is always a problem when asking experienced dancers to create figures. Although some have survived, most have, through necessity, had to be simplified, and as a result, the dance has usually improved.
Other aspects considered to be essentially Molly included, an absence of bells, blackened faces, although as already stated we altered this, a repetitive, almost hypnotic feel (which we hope we achieve) and couple dancing. For the couple dancing we chose to adopt the following hold - right arms straight and placed on the partner's right shoulder, left arms holding hands and kept low. When not dancing as couples, arms would be swung loosely at the side.
Finally, it was decided important to include the use of a broom in some dances, and with the name Shitwitches, this had to be a besom. There was a historical precedent for this, since Robert Grimditch, interviewed by Cecil Sharp in an Ely workhouse, told him that he remembered a 'sweeper' on Plough Monday, who carried a besom.. (J. Needham & A. Peck, "Molly Dancing in East Anglia", JFDSS, 1, 2 (1933) p.83.) This has led to a six person broom dance, ‘The Broom’, and a three person dance, ‘The Shitwitch Jig’.
DERIVATION OF THE NAME
As for the name, Shitwitches, we have little idea as to its origin. The term 'witching' has been used elsewhere in connection with Plough Monday. In the Cambridgeshire village of Doddington, the Plough Monday celebration, observed locally until the early 1900's was known as Plough Witching, although it is not known whether a dance was ever part of the ceremony The term 'witch' may just be descriptive, referring to the crone-like appearance of ploughboys in 'Women's Close'. Shit is an ancient word and there is no reason to doubt that it had any other meaning in the 18th century, when associated with the Norwich witches, than it has today. Richard Humphries mentions that at Brandon Creek, Norfolk, in the early 1900's it was customary for newcomers to the plough team to be initiated as ploughmen on Plough Monday. Part of the plough ceremonies involved the youth who was to be initiated being seized by the older men and "a horse's tail having been lifted, his nose would be rubbed against the vent." (R. Humphries "'...for a little bit of Sport': Molly dancing and Plough Monday in East Anglia" Linton : R. & K. Humphries (1986) p.6-7.) A fanciful notion of the origin of the term Shitwitches may be connected with some similar crude initiation ceremony added to the descriptive term witches. There was a pub in Great Yarmouth that used to known as Kittywitches (140, King Street) and this was near to Kittywitches Row, which is likely to have got its name from one Christopher Wyche who lived here in the early 18th century. However, Ken Chapman in his research into the name quotes Hazlitt’s Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore (published in 1895) which says “In Norfolk, and perhaps elsewhere, a female attired in some grotesque and frightful manner is called a Kitch-witch, of which the etymology is not clear. Formerly the streets of Yarmouth were occasionally infested by troops of theses creatures, who made a sort of house to house visitation and wore men’s shirts over their own dresses and had their faces smeared with blood. It is supposed, probably enough, that Kittywitches Row owes its appellation to this obsolete usage.” At present the name remains an (unforgettable) mystery; we use it because it is traditional and trust that it does not cause offence.Jonathan Hooton.