About the White Rose Festival

The early years of the White Rose Festival – by Brenda Burnell

Back in the early 1950s Mr Charles Camm had the idea of starting a Festival of Scottish Country Dancing in Leeds.  Mr Camm was the headmaster of a small church school in Kirkstall and had started dancing at the Memorial Hall in Adel where the Leeds Scottish Country Dance Club held their dances.  In 1953 the very first Festival was organised at the City of Leeds Training College at Beckett Park.  Sadly no one is still in the area who attended that year.  It was deemed a success and a second Festival was organised for the following year.  It was a modest affair with adult teams attending to dance on the top half of ‘The Acre’ surrounded by the residential buildings of the Leeds Training College.  The staff at the College set out a row of chairs round the dancing area.  The assembly area was arranged near the main building and the teams, walking in lines of four, were led by the City of Leeds Pipe Band round the dancing area and into their allotted places with the pipe band in the centre.  Traditionally the band played for a shortened version of the Eightsome Reel. 

The afternoon continued pretty much as it does today.  The numbers gradually increased as teams came from all parts of the country.  When the adult teams reached 40 a waiting list was introduced.  There was plenty of room for more dancers outside but the room inside was limited. A few years later children’s teams were introduced as many of the schools then had teams they prepared for Children’s Day in Roundhay Park. The maximum number of children’s teams was 27.  On the very rare occasion the Festival was held inside, it was very different and noisy.  The Hall in the main building could only accommodate 6 teams plus all the spectators.  So dancers had to be patient and wait their turn and it was the luck of the draw as to which dances your team could do.  The adults accepted that but it was very disappointing for the children who could only do 2 or 4 dances, if they were lucky, after all their practising.

All was very well managed in the hall but the noise in the low ceilinged corridors beside it was deafening with so many dancers waiting for their turn to dance.  Fortunately there were only 2 and a half wet Festivals in the first 37 years.  The half was pure chaos!  Plan B had been carefully worked out and all teams had their instructions for what they had to do in case of rain.  Everyone was allocated a door to enter the main building.  We had light rain for the Eightsome Reel and two more dances were being danced when the Heavens opened.  At this point everyone raced to the main building and entered by the nearest door.  It took a while to sort things out to continue with Plan B inside.  Of course by the time the change-over was complete the sun had come out and there was no more rain but the grass was wet and slippery.  We remained inside adding heat to the conditions inside.  It was a valuable lesson for the organisers that afternoon!

During the early Festivals it became traditional to invite a highland dancer to dance during the afternoon and in the evening.  Our visitors were Bobby Watson and Jackie Johnstone.  Both were excellent dancers but very different in their styles.  Bobby always had a twinkle in his eye and really looked as if he was enjoying showing us his immaculate style – he was a bit of a showman with very tiny feet.  Jackie in contrast was more balletic and could dance at alarmingly slow speeds.  He seemed to almost hang in the air.  It was beautiful to watch and much admired.

As time moved on Bobby brought some of his girls from his dancing school and they gave dazzling displays with him.  I remember them dancing The Cakewalk at one evening dance but never saw it anywhere else.  Maybe it was one of Bobby’s own devising.  Jackie, when he needed ladies, asked our Branch members to dance with him.

Gradually as our Exchange Visits developed the highland dancing was replaced by visiting teams giving displays of their own dancing.  We had groups from Germany, Sweden, Holland and Ireland, all giving us very colourful displays.          

From the very beginning an evening dance was held.  Firstly the Great Hall in the main building of the College was big enough (it was roughly the size of the West Park School hall) but when numbers grew the dance was moved to the ‘New’ Refectory hall at the university.  This was a new building and could accommodate many more dancers.  The hall could be made longer by taking back the folding doors and including the staff dining area and 500 dancers could take the floor together.  The locals quickly realised that the staff dining area had a solid floor and opted to dance nearer the band! 

When the numbers increased again two dances were held – one at the University for 500 dancers and the other at the College for 200 dancers both with live music.  This proved not to be popular and subsequently only the big dance, with a waiting list for tickets, was held.  Most of the big bands came to play and in 1957 Jimmy Shand recorded O’er the Border.  This has now been transferred on to a CD and still sends shivers down my back as I remember a really big dance when we were all much younger and could cope with a long programme and many hectic dances.

One special memory of the early Festivals was seeing a team all wearing the MacPherson tartan.  I had noticed the name of a team that I did not recognise on the programme.  I suddenly realised that it was a family team, the Clarks.  Mrs Edith Clark had gathered her family to make up a team.  Dancing with Mrs Clark were her three sons Peter, Ian and Richard, two daughters-in-law, Pat and Pauline and two grandchildren Sheila and Kenneth.  What a presentation!  Mrs Clark must have been so proud.  As far as I know such a family team has never appeared at the Festival again.

The Festival continued at Beckett Park until 1962 when alterations were being made to the college and we moved to Abbey Grange School for the afternoon.  That worked well mainly because it was fine and we could remain outside.  A year or two later we had to move out again and this time to West Park School for a wet Festival.  With two young children I did not attend that year but have attended ever since.

Coming soon… the more recent history of the White Rose Festival.