Mummers Plays

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The Mummers Play is a folk play popular througout the whole of England in various forms and has a strong history and presence in Sussex today. The roots of the Mummers Play, though thankfully not as vague as the roots of Morris Dancing with which it is most often associated today, is still not entirely clear. The word Mummers refers to a person who is Mumming, and this didn't always involve a play. The word perhaps came from the Greek word "Mommo", meaning a mask, the wearing of which became popular at royal functions in the fourteenth century, the practice of such being termed as "Momerie". The fashion spread out of the court and into the streets where it caused many problems as revelry by night, the revelers all wearing masks, gave plenty of opportunity for crime, some towns banning Mummery for such a reason.

Mad Jacks performing a Mummers Play in Hastings  - 1999
Mad Jacks performing a Mummers Play in Hastings - 1999

Known History In Sussex

The Mummers Plays of today started later on, perhaps as a form of cadging where people dressed in masks and appropriate attire would tour the local area performing a play, sometimes in the houses of the more wealthy folk, often the local manor, to collect money or food. The play was performed many times over the Christmas period, with a performance on Christmas Eve usually being reserved for the village itself. The cadging element may give a clue to the West Sussex local name given to the practice of Mumming, Tipteering, with one who performs this being called a Tipteerer or Tipteer. One Professor Skeat suggested this was made of Tip (meaning excellent) and Teer (meaning to smear), his reasoning being that the players would smear their faces with burnt cork. Alternatively, a derivation from the word 'Tippet' has been suggested, which means 'to disguise'. Another explanation can be found when we read in the Sussex Dialect Dictionary that alternative forms of Tipteerers were Tipsteers or Tipsheers. The word Sheere is used to describe foreign parts. To a Sussex man, this meant anything other than Sussex or Kent, the word coming from Shire, meaning in this case the Shires around Oxford but spreading to mean anywhere in the world apart from Kent or Sussex. The term is usually derogatory which may explain the adding of the word Tip (excellent), to mean these foreigners were actually ok. The idea that these plays were all performed by foreigners seems ridiculous until you realise that some people in Sussex rarely left their village or farm and considered the next village up the road foreign parts, so this travelling play was performed by excellent foreigners. The Sussex Dialect Dictionary provides another word that may explain Mummers. The Word Mumper means a tramp or a traveller, a lower class than the true gypsies who were known as Didicais, a respectful name as opposed to Mumpers which was generally derisory. As we have seen, the Mummers are really just glorified travelling beggars, moving from place to place performing their play for money, and sometimes they really were performed by gypsies.

Apart from the play texts listed here, there are many towns and villages which once supported a local group of Mummers, but for which the playtext does not survive, or only survives in fragmentary form. Those known as such are Aldingbourne, Angmering, Bosham, Bramber, Brighton, Chidham, Crowhurst, East Dean, East Marden, Ferring, Graffham, Hove, Lancing, Lavant, Littlehampton, Lodsworth, Midhurst, Petworth, Portslade, Rogate, Shoram-By-Sea, Southwick, Tillington, Upperton, Washington, Westbourne, West Itchenor, West Marden, West Stoke and Worthing.

Ditchling Mummers perform in their own village!
Ditchling Mummers perform in their own village! (Jan 2000)

Recorded Accounts

Up to the Reformation in Sussex, plays in general were performed by groups of players affiliated to a particular town or noble patron who toured the county performing for money. The money paid to the players usually came from the town coffers or sometimes from the church or individual families. Accounts record some clues as to what went on here as they record monies paid to these groups, though unfortunately they do not indicate the nature of the play. For example :

"Item paied by the maieres cammaundement and his brethren to men of Lede that come to shew a contynaunce of their play in the market place."

Though sometimes the location and time the play is performed gives an indication of the nature of the play, for example, this Christmas play performed in a church in 1488 :

"Item paied in Cristmasse halidaies to the pleieres that pleid in the church."

Players would also come from afar to perform, this example from 1508 :

"Item paied to the players of Essex that pleyd with swordes at the stronde."

and more recently, early in the 20th century, players from Surrey :

"A party of Surrey "Mummers" made a call upon us and asked to be allowed to perform what they called the "Christmas Play of St. George". The "Performers" were obviously of a gypsy family."

The Form Of The Play Today

The play we see performed nowerdays seems to be the relic of a cadging play, performed for money at a time of the year when there was little work for the farm labourers to be doing. Nowerdays, the play is usually performed in Sussex on Boxing Day, with perhaps a new year performance as well. The performance itself begins with an introduction, usually by Father Christmas, who also clears space in the venue for the play to be performed. The play then moves onto a hero combat with two combatants who differ from play to play, such as St. (or King) George, A turk, a soldier and various ruffians. Much boasting of martial prowess by the combatants occurs before and after the fight and sometimes the combat involves more than just this pair, but the person who is killed is always brought back to life by a quack doctor who first boasts of his skill in medicine. The play ends with a plea for money from the audience, sometimes by small boy playing a poor character to gain more sympathy, and then usually a song or carol of some sort, usually a version of the Mummers Carol. The play is usually performed today by Morris Dancers who have taken the tradition on board along with Apple Wassailing though there are one or two dedicated groups whose function is to perform the play only. Even though the comfortatable middle class position of most of the players is different from the outright begging of poor farm workers of old, the spirit and the humour remain.

St. George and the Turkish Knight fight in a Merry England Mummers Play at Firle (Dec 1999)
St. George and the Turkish Knight fight in a Merrie England Mummers Play at Firle (Dec 1999)

Origins Of The Play

The various elements of the play may stem from several sources, though these are hard to pin down as the plays were usually handed down by word of mouth in a rural community where the population was fairly stable. Many of the people who the play had been handed down to had been killed in the two world wars, but a renewed interest in folk customs was happening and R.J. Sharp headed the revival in Sussex, forming the Boxgrove Tipteerers in 1927. Mr. Sharp first saw the play, revived by a Mr. Foard, when he was living in East Preston. Mr. Foard having learned the play as a boy, part of a group of boys organised by a Mr. Barnard who collected the money from the play they performed and rewarded them with sweets. Mr Sharp merged this play with another collected from a Mr. Frank Dawtrey of Iping to create the play performed at Boxgrove, first performed in 1913 with 1927 being the date the play was performed annually. The dress at the turn of the century seems to have been mainly tatty cloaks (garments covered with many coloured strips of cloth), with some foliage and the occasional blackened face, though this has now changed to costumes less uniform and more fitting to the characters being played.

Mr. R.J. Sharp and company at Halnaker

Mr. R.J. Sharp provides the music for a dance by the
Christmas Mummers at Halnaker, near Chichester, Sussex.

One part of some plays, included at the end can be traced. There is a section in the Chithurst Play, the Iping Play and originally the East Preston Plays, though it has not been recorded for this village. The origins of this section are a French shadow pantomime called "Ombres Chinoises" which became popular in London between 1775 and 1780.


In Sussex, Arthur Beckett found that the dress seemed to be relatively unimportant, perhaps because the play is usually performed by the poor, there has been no particular tradition regarding the dress of the actors. It should be noted that the play is performed by male actors only, women having no part in the play except a quick mention, e.g. "The King of Egypt's Daughter". A boy dressed as a women was a feature of one Hampshire play though this seems to be a local exception, as most of the characters in the play are male. Two Sussex exceptions are a character called "Moll" in the Firle Play who cries over her dead son and a "Weeping Widow" present in the Rottingdean Play, but absent in the Ovingdean Play with which it shares many ties. One account of the play at Rottingdean tells of the character of the "Widow" being played by one "Ernest Taylor". This pantomime style playing of the female characters by males is probably the rule for social reasons present when these plays were at their height and then embodied in tradition.

It is said that in Bosham, the old "Tipteers" "...were dressed in smocks, chummies and other fancy rigs.", Chummies being the name of a round, black, felt hat worn by old countrymen. The choice of costume seemed to be a matter of local taste, so details of costume have been included with some of the play texts.

Similarities And Differences Between Local Plays

The common denominators in Sussex are St. George, the Turkish Knight and the Doctor. Father Christmas is in most plays, though not all, though his absence may also be a local exception. St. George is quite often replaced by King George, though the character still retains the line about killing the Dragon, an act firmly related to St. George and some of the original Tipteerers who the plays were collected from could remember there being a time when a King George win their play was originally St. George.

Other muddles seems to have occured when a character takes on the part of another, parhaps due to a lack of people at some point. This can usually be seen by the character being refered to by a a different name in the text, both by themselves and by other actors. Characters may also be renamed to suit a current popular thought. Equally extra characters were probably added when someone else wanted to join in the play or for reasons of prolonging the play or the adding of some more rustic humour, perhaps with new lines for that character. The result is a significant difference between the number of characters in the plays of each village. Apart from the characters changing around, lines may also be changed or lost due to current popular thought or some of the lines being forgotton. It seems to have been traditional up until the beginning of the 20th century that the characters lines weren't written down and were handed down by word of mouth. Other characters included in the Sussex play apart from the core four are Beelzebub (or Belsey Bob), a Valiant Soldier (and named variants thereof), A Noble Captain, A Prince (Bold, Of Fairland, Pair in Hand, Ferdinand and Of Peace), Jack (Black, Little, Johny, Jolly, Saucy etc), Moll, Mince Pie, Green and Gay, Twing-Twang (and variations) and a Dragon!

Another common error in the current record of play texts is due to the collectors themselves. For example, the Chithurst and Iping plays both have a section at the end of the play involving a ritualised banter with striking of swords, a "Hip Mr. Carpenter" dialogue and the carol "The Moon Shone Bright", all nearly identical word for word. It seems that some of the collectors feeling that the play they had found was not complete enough, had bolted on pieces of other plays, which may be quite valid for a single performance, but not for the record.

Pagan Origins?

Pagan origins have been ascribed to the play, much to the dismay of some of the more cautious historians. The idea of various customs having pagan roots was popularised by Sir James Frazer in his famous work "The Golden Bough", which influenced other researchers such as Sir Edmund Chambers, a friend of another Civil servant, Thomas Fairman Ordish, who had done some research into the play but had died before his research was published. Chambers carried on the work and made suggestions, influenced by Frazer, that the play had pagan origins. His work was carried further by Cecil Sharp (No relation of R.J. Sharp) who went into the field and collected these plays, as Chambers never did. Sharp and an Oxford Don, Reginald Tiddy who was involved in performing a play and later collecting them, asserted more confidently that the play had a pagan origin, along with other popular authors on Sussex such as Arthur Beckett, who picked up the pagan banner quite quickly.

The theory was that the play, with it's death of a hero and subsequent resurrection by a doctor, was an echo of the ritual of death and rebirth of nature during winter so often given by Frazer, where a fertility god is symbolically killed in his old age to be reborn young in the spring. Frazer suggested rituals involving this symbolism were to ensure the arrival of spring in the new year. This theory moved over to American Academia where it became more popular as popularity declined in Britain. Unfortunately evidence of the play as it currently starts in the mid 18th century, with a rather dubious recording in the late 17th century, though there were certainly Mummers earlier, the death-resurrection motif seems to be recent. Lack of evidence is of course no disproof though similar parallels have been found with prose by Richard Johnson entitled "The Famous Historie of the Seven Champions of Christendom (1596)", though this didn't include the battle element, and it is thought that sword dances, popular at the time may have been added to the play along with parts of a play involving a quack doctor entitled "Play of the Sacrament" and possibly several other plays recorded in Tudor England. The theory of pagan origins is now generally dismissed due to lack of evidence though many people still favour the pagan theory as lack of evidence is no proof of no evidence.

Resources Resources
  Texts Of Plays On This Site

The author recently visited the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library with a view to researching more Sussex Mummers plays than was then on this site but found that the research had already been done and collated into a nice photocopiable document by Dennis Outred of Ditchling Mummers. As a result, the author of this page finds himself indebted to the author of this amazing document as well as Malcolm Taylor, the librarian at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. I would also like to thank Peter Millington of the Traditional Drama Research Group and Clive Bennett of the Merrie England Mummers.

Chithurst Mummers Play   - With Picture -
Cocking Mummers Play
Compton Tipteerers Mummers Play   - With Picture -
East Preston Mummers Play (I)
East Preston Mummers Play (II)
(West) Firle Mummers Play
Fittleworth Mummers Play
Hollington Mummers Play
Horsham Mummers Play
Iping Mummers Play
Lavant Mummers Play
Ovingdean (Rottingdean) Mummers Play
Selmeston Mummers Play
Sompting Mummers Play (Original)
Sompting Village Morris Mummers Play (Current)   - With Pictures -
Steyning Mummers Play
West Marden Mummers Play
West Wittering Mummers Play

The Sussex Mummers Carol   - With Scores -

Web Sites For Groups Performing Mummers Plays In Sussex

Ashdown Forest Mummers
Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men
Ditchling Mummers
Merrie England Mummers (Eastbourne)
RATCO (Hastings)
Sompting Village Morris

Bibliography Bibliography
  Anonymous : The Boxgrove Tipteerers... (p. 807-811), SCM Vol. 10, No.12 1936
Baldwin, L. & Ridsdale, A. : Annals of Old Rottingdean, SNQ Vol. 4 (168-170) 1933
Beckett, Arthur : The Wonderful Weald, Methuen & Co. Ltd 3rd Ed. 1924
Beckett, Arthur : The Sussex Mummers Play (p. 545-552), SCM vol. 1, No. 13 1927
Boger, J.I.C. : The Play acted... (p. 178-183), SAC Vol. 44 1901
Boniface, Eleanor : Reminiscences of a Countrywoman (p. 97-100), SCM Vol. 8, No. 2 1934
Candlin, Lillian : Memories of Old Sussex, Countryside Books 1987
Cawte, E.C., et al. : English Ritual Drama, A Geographical Index, Folklore Society 1967
Doel, G & F : Mumming, Howling & Hoodening..., Meresborough Books 1992
Frampton, G.E. : Keith Holland's MS, MS GRQ40/11367 at VWML
Hutton, Ronald : Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press 1996
Jones, Lewis (ed) : Miss Broadwoods Delight, Ferret Publications 1998
Jones, Lewis (ed) : Sweet Sussex, Ferret Publications 1995
Louis, Cameron : Early Drama in Sussex (p. 145-150), SAC Vol. 123 1985
Matthwes, Harry : The Mummers Play, SCM Vol III, No. 12 1929
Moens, S.M. : Rottingdean, The Story of a Village, John Beal & Son 1953
Outred, Dennis : Sussex Mummers Plays, MS GRQ25/12896 1990 at VWML
Parish, Rev W.D. & Hall, Helena : Sussex Dialect Dictionary, Gardners 1957
Scott, Hardiman : Secret Sussex, Batchworth Press 1949
Sharp, R.J. : Sussex Mummers or Tipteerers (p. 148), SCM Vol. 5, No. 2 1931
Sharp, R.J. : Sharp MSS, MS GRQ25/7944 at VWML
Wales, Tony : A Sussex Garland, Godfrey Cave 1979

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