High Spen is a village in the hills between the Tyne and Derwent valleys in the part of County Durham that is now in the borough of Gateshead. It is located around 3 miles south of Winlaton and 6 miles west of Gateshead town. Rapper sword dances have been performed in this area for over a century, but the teams about which most is known are the Vernon Troupe, the Blue Diamonds and the Amber Stars. Cecil Sharp is believed to have visited the village and recorded the dance, but his notation was never published and is now lost.
The Vernon Troupe
The earliest memories of rapper dancing in High Spen date back to around 1880, when the dancers were lead by George Stobbs. Little is known about the details of the dance performed, but the names of some dancers are known, including George Gibbon, who was taught by George Stobbs and who founded a rapper team called the Vernon Troupe after the First World War. Other known members of George Stobbs' early side included Robert D'eath and Jack Keith.
The Vernon Troupe were named after the Fred Vernon, the landlord of the Miners Arms, where the side practised. The dancers included George Gibbon, Tommy D'eath, Eddie Blyth, Eddie Gibbon, Jack Keith, John Coulson and Arthur Watson, and their musician was Victor Robson.
The Blue Diamonds
The High Spen Blue Diamonds were founded as a children's team by Fred Forster in 1926, after he met some boys from the village carrying sticks and showed them how to tie a rapper lock with them. He was assisted in teaching the boys by his brother-in-law George Gibbon, of the Vernon Troupe.
The team used to practise in the Forster's kitchen, wearing away the linoleum until Fred Forster acquired a 5' 6" (150cm) square wooden board from the Victoria Garesfield Colliery for the boys to practise on. It has been said that this board gave rise to a team tradition that a High Spen dance should be able to be performed within such a small space.
The team practiced and performed with greenwood sticks, performing at miners' clubs until they could raise enough money to buy a set of rappers. They entered the North of England Musical Tournament in 1927, and won the junior sword dance class.
The Blue Diamonds stopped performing before the Second World War, but were subsequently revived as an adult team by the same dancers and former members of the Amber Stars in 1954. This revival was partly due to the interest in the High Spen dance traditions of Bill Cassie and the King's College team, especially Ross Hesketh, the King's College team bagman, who collected the notation of the High Spen dance from Fred Forster in the winter of 1952-53.
Fred Forster died in 1964, and was succeeded by his son Freddie. Ricky Forster, Freddie's son, took over in 1986, and continues to lead the team to this day. The team remains a family side, with Ricky, his two brothers, two sons and nephew all active members, although the team is also supported by other dancers and musicians from the local area.
The Amber Stars
The Amber Stars were an adult team founded in the village in the late 1920s, and successors to the Vernon Troupe. Their founding members were Eddie Gibbon, Fred Forster, John Coulson, Tommy D'eath, and Isaac Wood. The team were often placed second in the Newcastle competions, but unfortunately never won.
In 1933, the Amber Stars went on a national tour, visiting the regional EFDSS branches and performing the tradition. They were supported in this venture by Mr Priestman, the Manager of the Victoria Garesfield Colliery where most of the men worked, who gave them indefinite leave of absence and kept their jobs open for them on their return later that year. They travelled as far south as Kettering before turning back, having been discouraged by EFDSS from continuing to London as all of the society officials would be on holiday at the time of their planned arrival!
The side were filmed at the North of England Musical Tournament in 1934, but soon afterwards stopped performing.