Headington history: People

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William Kimber (1872–1961)

William (“Merry”) Kimber 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’s parents
  • William Kimber senior (1849–1933) 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 (1872–c.1890)

Huggins Cottage


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 Headington Quarry National 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): 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.

William was apprenticed to the building trade when he was about fourteen, and at the same time joined the Headington Quarry morris dancers. He first performed at the jubilee fête in Oxford in 1887; but soon after the side became inactive, and only got together for a “shake-up amongst themselves”.

2. Woodbine Cottages, Headington Hill (c.1890–1894)

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. Highfield/New Headington (1894–1908)

On 27 October 1894 at St Andrew's Church, William Kimber (22), described as a bricklayer of Headington Hill, married Florence Cripps (24) of St Ebbe's. She was born in Cold Harbour at the south end of the Abingdon Road, which was then in Berkshire, and was the daughter of Thomas Henry Cripps, a railway labourer and later a carman. She was living at 31 New Street, St Ebbe’s at the time of her wedding.

William & Florence began their married life in New High Street, but had moved to Lime Walk by 1896. They had eight children (of whom the first six were born in Highfield):

  • Florence Annie Kimber (born at New High Street, Headington on 18 February 1895 and baptised at St Andrew's Church on 21 April)
  • Lilian Rose Kimber (born in Highfield, New Headington on 8 June 1896 and baptised at Cowley St John Church on 4 November)
  • William Thomas Kimber (born at Highfield, New Headington in 1899 and baptised at St Andrew's Church on 6 August)
  • Dorothy Helen Kimber (born at Highfield, New Headington on 27 January 1902 and baptised at St Andrew's Church on 4 May)
  • Ada Kimber (born at Highfield, New Headington on 27 October 1903 and baptised at Cowley St John Church on 15 January 1904)
  • Frederick Merry Kimber (born at Highfield, New Headington on 7 March 1906 and baptised at St Andrew's Church on 3 June)
  • Winifred Sophia Kimber, known as Sophie (born at St Anne's Road, Headington on 19 May 1909 and baptised at St Andrew's Church on 4 July)
  • Evelyn Mary Kimber (born at St Anne's Road, Headington on 25  March 1912 and baptised at St Andrew's Church on 5 May).

Re-formation of the Headington Quarry morris men in 1899

Morris dancers in 1899

In early 1899 the Headington morris dancers were persuaded to re-form by Percy Manning and perform at the Corn Exchange in Oxford, and William Kimber was one of the dancers persuaded to rejoin them.

Right: Illustration accompanying the reported in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 18 March 1899

The photograph below by Henry Taunt shows the dancers outside the Chequers that year
(Historic England CC73/00641):

On Boxing Day 1899 there was a significant meeting between William Kimber and Cecil Sharp which led to the revival of morris-dancing in England. Cecil and Constance Sharp and their three young children were spending Christmas with Constance’s widowed mother, Mrs Dora , 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 “Laudnum Bunches” with Kimber playing the concertina, and asked Kimber to come back the next day to play the tunes while he wrote them down.

Plaque in Horwood Close
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

Below: another photograph of the Headington Quarry morris men in 1899

Cecil 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 (c.1908–1961)

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.

He remained here for the rest of his life,

1911 onwards

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.

On 5 June 1920 at St Nicholas's Church, Old Marston, William Kimber married his second wife, the widow Bessie Clark and acquired a stepdaughter. Kimber's occupation was recorded as bricklayer, and Bessie, who was born on 7 December 1877, was the daughter of William Joseph Kethro, a stonemason of Oxford. Also in 1920 Kimber revived the Headington Quarry side that he had formed in 1910, although some of the members 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 a 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.

The 1939 Register shows William Kimber, described as a bricklayer, living with Bessie at 42 St Anne's Road.

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 was buried at Holy Trinity Church, and at his funeral his coffin was carried by six Headington Quarry morris men in their morris regalia.

His effects came to £2,328 14s., and his executor was his son Frederick Merry Kimber, who was a printer.

Charlie Kimber at William Kimber's grave

Grave of William Kimber

Right: William Kimber’s grave in Holy Trinity churchyard, showing a concertina on top of a pair of bell 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 open scroll which acts as a headstone reads:
Father of English Morris

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.

William Kimber’s obituary in the Oxford Times:


Mr. William Kimber, the well-known morris dancer, died at Headington, Oxford, on Boxing Day in a house he had built for himself many years ago. He was in his ninetieth year.

He was a bricklayer; on Boxing Day, 1899, when he was out of work because of the hard winter (“three weeks without a pay packet”) the Headington Quarry morris side went out to earn a little money, although it was not the usual time of the year for the morris. At Sandfield Cottage, Mrs. Burch’s [sic] house, they danced Laudnum [sic] Bunches and Rigs o’ Marlow; the side was turning to go when her son-in-law called to them from the window; this was Cecil Sharp, who had heard morris tunes for the first time; and he asked Will Kimber to come the following day and play over some of the Quarry morris tunes.

Next day Will played Beansetting and Constant Billy. Cecil Sharp wrote them down, then went across to the piano and played them. Sixty years later Will would talk of this with admiration: “I’d never seen anything like that before.”

From that meeting flowed Sharp’s great work of recovering so many of the morris dances of England and teaching them to the early dancers of the morris revival. In this work he used Kimber as his right hand man, since much of the material collected needed the help of an experienced morris man; “Often enough, me and five chairs”, said Kimber.

He would spend days at a time in London; and while Sharp lectured, Kimber would demonstrate steps and dance jigs; he found it better than bricklaying.

The value Cecil Sharp himself put upon Kimber’s work is shown in a letter written to Will shortly before Sharp’s death. “Had it not been for our lucky meeting on December 26, 1899, at Headington, and the prominent part which, in the early days of the movement, you took not only in giving practical instruction but by capital demonstrations in public, the movement would never have been launched.”

The old man lived to unveil a memorial plaque on Sandfield Cottage, 60 years to the very day when Sharp had called out to him; to refer with considerable satisfaction to “his morris sons” now dancing in the many clubs in every part of England: and to feel a natural pride in the part he had played in the great morris revival.

Will Kimber did not look for retirement in the morris; to the end he was training boys at the local secondary modern school. His memorial is the present day Headington Quarry morris side, worthy successors to many generations of Headington morris men; and the affection of hundreds of morris men who had known him, and knew what they owed to him.

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 L followed immediately by your library ticket number in the “Library Card Login” box.

Blue plaque to William Kimber

Cecil Sharp's People: William Kimber


Wikipedia: William Kimber

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 in Old Headington at the Queen’s Golden JubileeMorris dancers at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee street party in St Andrew’s Road in 2002.

Headington Quarry morris dancers' website

© Stephanie Jenkins

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