William Kimber (1872–1961)
William (“Merry”) Kimber (1872–1961) was a famous Headington Quarry morris dancer and musician, and a key figure in the English Morris Dance and Folk Music Revival of the early twentieth century.
He was born in Old Road at the foot of Shotover on 8 September 1872 and baptised at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry on 25 January 1873.
- William Kimber senior (1849–1925) was born in Headington Quarry, the son of the labourer Joseph (Job) Kimber and his wife Frances (Fanny). His baptism is recorded in the parish registers of both St Andrew’s and Holy Trinity churches, as it took place just as the latter opened. He became a brick maker, and was also a morris dancer.
- Sophia Ann Kimber (1850–1931), who was probably related to her husband, was born in Horspath, the daughter of the labourer Thomas Kimber. She became a smock-maker.
William Kimber senior and Sophia were married at Horspath Church on 19 May 1872: William signed the register with a cross, but it appears that Sophia could write. William, who was their eldest child, was born just a few months after the wedding,
William Kimber lived at four addresses in Headington:
1. Huggins Cottage, Old Road
When young William was born, William and Sophia Kimber were living at what later became known as Huggins Cottage at the south-east end of Old Road (left)
This part of Old Road was then deemed to be part of Shotover Hill Place, so is listed under Shotover rather than Headington in censuses.
The 1881 census shows the family still living in Old Road. William Kimber junior (8) was still at school, but was to leave the next year to start work as a bird-scarer, He had three younger brothers (two of whom curiously had the same forename at the same time, a fact confirmed by the parish register). These had been born at Quarry as follows: Thomas Percy (baptised at Horspath as simply Percy in 1875), Arthur Thomas Montague (baptised at Quarry in 1877), and Arthur (baptised at Quarry in 1880). Another brother, Richard Thomas, had died aged six weeks in March 1876, and William’s sister, Ada Martha, had died aged 20 months in November 1880. William Kimber’s next and last sibling was another Ada Martha, born in 1886.
In 1887 the Headington Quarry morris men stopped dancing, and the following year, when William (15) was already a dancer, the side only got together for a “shake-up amongst themselves”. So the tradition was already beginning to die.
2. Woodbine Cottages, Headington Hill
By 1891 the Kimber family had moved to 2 Stone Cottages (now renamed 2 Woodbine Cottages) at the top of Headington Hill. William (18) and his two younger brothers Percy (16) and Thomas (13) were all now bricklayer’s labourers. (Meanwhile a family called Huggins was now living at Shotover Hill Place, which explains the current name of the Kimbers’ former cottage.)
3. Lime Walk, Highfield
In 1894 Kimber married Florence Cripps (born in Cold Harbour at the south end of the Abingdon Road, which was then in Berkshire). She was the daughter of Thomas Henry Cripps, a railway labourer, and was living at 31 New Street, St Ebbe’s at the time of her wedding. William & Florence settled in Headington after their marriage, and all eight of their children were born there: Florence Annie (1895), Lilian Rose (1896), William Thomas (1899), Dorothy Helen (1902), Ada (1903), Frederick Merry (1906), Winifred Sophia (known as Sophie, 1909), and Evelyn M. Kimber (1912).
At Christmas 1899 there was a significant meeting between William Kimber and Cecil Sharp which led to the revival of the Headington Quarry morris dancers. Cecil and Constance Sharp and their three young children were spending Christmas with Constance’s mother, Mrs Dora Priestley Birch, who lived at Sandfield Cottage (where Horwood Close is now). In the spring of that year the building firm of Knowles & Son had done some work on her house, and William Kimber had been the foreman of the gang. On Boxing Day 1899 the Headington morris dancers, with Kimber on the concertina, came to this grand house (which was anything but a cottage) to try to earn some money, as the bad weather had led to a shortage of building work. Sharp saw the dancers performing “Laudanum Bunches” with Kimber playing the concertina, and asked Kimber to come back the next day to play the tunes while he wrote them down.
Above: Plaque unveiled by William Kimber on the wall of Sandfield Cottage in 1959, sixty years
to the day after the meeting with Cecil Sharp. When the house was demolished just six years later,
the plaque was moved to the side of the house nearest the entrance to Horwood Close
Sharp became interested in collecting morris dances in the Midlands, and he would lecture on them while Kimber demonstrated the dances and played the concertina (often losing bricklaying jobs as a result). His fame grew, and he danced at the Royal Albert Hall, the Mansion House, and in front of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at the Chelsea Hospital.
The 1901 census shows William and Florence Kimber living in Lime Walk, Highfield (in one of the two houses that were demolished to make way for Lime Court) with their first three children.
4. Merryville, 42 St Anne’s Road
In about 1908 “Merry” Kimber built a house for himself which he named Merryville (right). It was the very first house to be built in St Anne’s Road, Headington, at the west end of Quarry parish.
In 1921 the house was given the number 34, but the street had to be renumbered in the 1930s when it became more built up, and it is now 42 St Anne’s Road.
Kimber also built a number of local houses, including Nos. 2, 4, 6, and 8 Gathorne Road (then called Alexandra Road) in about 1912.
The Musical Times of March 1911 described Kimber as being “like a Greek statue … his grace and movements are absolutely classic”. The 1911 census taken at the beginning of the following month shows William Kimber (39) described as a bricklayer and living at Merryville with his wife Florence (41) and six of his children: Florence (16), William Thomas (11), Dorothy Ellen (9), Ada (7), Frederick Merry (6), and Winifred Sophia (2). The missing daughter, Lilian (14), was a live-in servant at 199 Divinity Road; and Evelyn was not born until the following year.
Meanwhile William Kimber’s parents were living at 88 Divinity Road: William Kimber senior (61) was now a corporation drainage foreman; his son Arthur (30) was a corporation clerk; and his daughter Ada (24) was a dressmaker.
Kimber’s first wife Florence died at Merryville in September 1917, and his daughter Lilian Rose (22) died there in October 1918.
In 1920 Kimber married his second wife, Mrs Bessie Clark ( the widowed daughter of William Joseph Kethro, a stonemason of Oxford), thereby acquiring a stepdaughter. The same year he revived the Headington Quarry side that he had formed in 1910, although some of them had been killed or wounded in World War I.
In 1922 Kimber was presented with the gold medal of the English Folk Dance Society at the music festival held in the gardens of New College, Oxford, with the professor of music, Sir Hugh Allen, presiding in a smock and a garlanded top hat.
William Kimber’s parents both died at 88 Divinity Road in 1931: Sophia (80) in April, and William senior (82) in August.
From 1946 Kimber taught morris dancing to boys at Headington Secondary School. In October 1958 he cut the tape to open a new street in Quarry named after him: William Kimber Crescent (OX3 8LW). On Boxing Day 1959 he unveiled the plaque shown above commemorating the momentous meeting at Sandfield Cottage sixty years before.
Merry Kimber’s last appearance with his morris dancers was on Whit Monday 1961, and on 26 December that year he died at “Merryville” at the age of 89. He is buried at Holy Trinity Church, and at his funeral his coffin was carried by the Headington Quarry morris men in their morris regalia.
Left: William Kimber’s grave, showing a concertina on top of a pair of bells pads (worn by morris-dancers around the shins) © Trevor Coppock, 1994
The man in the picture is Charlie Kimber (1912–1999), who in 1994 was Churchwarden of Holy Trinity Church. He was the son of William Kimber’s first cousin Richard.
The south kerb reads:
In loving memory of Florence wife of William Kimber died Septr 12 1917 aged 47 years
The north kerb reads:
Also of Lilian Rose their daughter died Oct 26th 1918 aged 22 years.
The open scroll which acts as a headstone reads:
WILLIAM (MERRY) KIMBER
Father of English Morris
William Kimber’s obituary in the Oxford Times:
There is a fuller entry on William Kimber in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The ODNB online is available free to many public library users, including those in Oxfordshire: enter your library ticket number in the “Library Card Login” box
See also Chaundy, T. W., “William Kimber (1872–1961)”, Journal of the English Folk Song and Dance Society, Vol. IX, No. 3, December 1972
Left: A Blue Plaque to William Kimber was unveiled
at his home in St Anne’s Road on 31 May 2011.
Morris dancers at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee street party in St Andrew’s Road in 2002.