Today is Plough Monday. No – I didn’t know, either. It’s traditionally a way of blowing off steam for bored ploughboys, stuck in the depths of ennui (I doubt they actually called it that) in the dull period between the jollities of Christmas and the time when they could start ploughing.
It was effectively an unholy blend of Morris Dancing and Trick-or-Treat, where burly lads would go around the town offering to dance for money. Anyone who refused had nasty tricks played on them – including having interesting furrows ploughed across their lawns. Of course, the young rascals were demanding money with menaces from the very people they were reliant on giving them employment as soon as the ground defrosted, so they didn’t want to be recognised. They disguised themselves with soot and wore coloured scarves and jolly hats.
Like Morris Dance, they were originally all men, though instead of an Obby Oss or that bloke with the ribbons and hat, they had a Molly – a guy dressed up as a woman (and thus taking us straight back to panto – as usual everything’s connected). Although clearly they have nothing directly to do with the Molly Houses (gay brothels) of 18th century London, I’m sure the cross-dressing element in the name can’t be a coincidence.
The last ‘classic-period’ Molly Dance, was, according to Wikipedia, which knows everything, in Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, in 1933, and, in all truth, it’s mainly an East Anglian/Essex tradition.
So what’s it doing in Greenwich tonight? Well, Fowlers Molly Dancers can’t think 0f a good reason for Greenwich NOT to have a nice dose of Mollying on a miserable, snowy, Monday in January. I mean – let’s face it – no one’s going to be able to plough anything round here at the moment…
The Fowler Mollys are both male and female, but there’s still a healthy amount of cross-dressing involved, according to Sarah, who’s part of the team. Apparently they have a beautiful bearded lady called Margaret. She admits “we’re fairly guerilla-style” so they don’t have a website (though I did find this fascinating site about the Jack in the Green, which mentions them) “we just pop up in December and January and then go to ground again.”
The video at the top of the post is the Fowlers Mollys (named after an early 20th Century troop) dancing outside the John Evelyn in Deptford a couple of years ago, but if you fancy seeing a little piece of English tradition reinterpreted, they will be doing the classic Plough Monday tour of local hostelries tonight between several West Greenwich pubs.
They start from the Ashburnham Arms, where they’ll dance at 8pm and finish at the Richard I (the Tolly), in Royal Hill at 9.30pm. There will be a pub in the middle in the 8.45pm slot. Traditionally, this is usually the Prince Albert just up the road from the Tolly, but the pub is in the process of changing hands and Sarah wasn’t sure of the exact arrangments when we were talking last week.