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Interesting Roytonians

James (Jimmy) Coleman 1885-1970


James Coleman was the leader of the Royton Morris Dancers for over sixty years. Born into an Irish immigrant family in Hollinwood, he attended school in the Lees/Mossley area before settling in Royton in the early 1890s. Morris dancing has an exotic history and originally consisted of male dancers accompanying the rushcarts to the church at wakes time. By the 1890s it had become a struggling street dance tradition carried out by a few teams of men in selected mill towns.


In about 1891 Jimmy and his elder brother Michael (Mick) Coleman, a noted clog dancer, raised a team in Royton, practising at the Hope and Anchor Inn. Mick left and went to live in Failsworth where he later trained up a team of boys and featured in a folk dance book. James Cheetham carried on in Royton as ‘conductor’, with the help of concertina player Lees Kershaw, their headquarters being at the Unicorn and Duke of Wellington pubs, until he also moved on and went to live in Oldham where he trained a rival team. This left the young Jimmy Coleman to become ‘conductor’ of the Royton team sometime after 1906. This team composed of other Irish catholic families, the largest of which was the MacDermotts. However, tensions arose between the two families over ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’ and the MacDermotts briefly formed their own team at the Commercial Inn on Middleton Road, while Coleman’s team met at the Church Inn, on the opposite side of the road. Jimmy Coleman considered the MacDermott’s team (named the ‘reds’ after the colour of their knee breeches) to be no more than buskers, whilst his team (the ‘blues’) carried on the traditional style of morris dancing. Eventually they re-united under Coleman just before the First World War.


Morris Dancers in those days danced at the Wakes holidays (the second week in August in Royton) and at neighbouring town’s Wakes holidays and other Saturday venues during the summer. Often the dancers would dance all the way to Manchester dressed in breeches, ribbons and clogs, all the while twirling cotton rope ‘slings’ to the beat of drums and the strains of a concertina band. They would return via tram to count up and distribute money collected during the day. At Wakes time they would dance all the way to Blackpool, sleeping in haystacks and, after collecting a fortune on the Pier, would enjoy a train journey back. It was either that or more haystacks and sore feet before they arrived home!


The Great War, along with the growth of motor traffic on the roads, almost destroyed morris dancing with many of the dancers being killed or gassed in the trenches. Coleman briefly trained a boys’ team at the Dog and Partridge pub but this disbanded in the early 1920s. It was not until the late twenties when local road sweeper Fred Day contacted Maude Karpeles, an English Folk Dance Society pianist, that the team was revived with the help of E.F.D.S. money. However this money was soon drunk away, much to the frustration of the English Folk Dance Society, who then had to raise fresh cash. Karpeles made Coleman a household name in Folk circles and mentioned him and his dance in her ‘Lancashire Morris Dance’ book, but he continued to exasperate the Society. In 1935 the Royton Morris Dancers won an ‘All England Folk Dancing Championship’ at the Royal Albert Hall with new concertina player Ellis Marshall and what Jimmy Coleman called “the dance routine” became one of the celebrated Morris Dances of England. Coleman’s dancers however, were criticised for being too fond of beer, low speech, slovenly dress and habits.

Coleman revived the team again after the Second World War with the reluctant help of Royton UDC (which warned of the potential financial consequences), and Jimmy’s son Norman raised a boys’ team in the 1950s and 60s. After Jimmy’s death Norman helped to raise another team which lasted until 1983.


James Coleman was remembered as an irascible man who once broke a collecting box over the nose of a critical spectator. He fell out with the folk dance crowd and famously locked ‘folkies’ out of his practices at Byron Street School. However Coleman, for a long-time a cop packer at the Roy Mill, in his own inimitable way helped to put Royton on the folk dancing map.


Main Sources: Coleman, MacDermott, Cheetham family memories, former dancers, Ellis Marshall, Census records, newspaper obituaries, Royton UDC school records.


Michael Higgins