For ninety years, English folk music and dance have had an official home in a quiet corner of central London.
Located behind a (usually) very busy high street, hidden from view in a pretty walled garden is Cecil Sharp House. It was first declared officially open in June 1930 as the custom-built headquarters (in the Arts and Crafts style) of the Folk Dance Society (since 1932 the English Folk Dance and Song Society), one of the earliest such institutions anywhere in the world and one of the few still surviving.
Cecil Sharp House is named after one of the most celebrated collectors of folk music and dance of the late 19th, early 20th century. When Cecil James Sharp died in 1924, funds were raised to create the first dedicated folk arts centre in the UK in his honour, to provide a permanent home for his collections, and as a venue for everyone to enjoy vibrant English folk, in all its forms.
Over the decades, countless people from the local vicinity and far beyond it too have been welcomed, enabling them to develop their passion for – and to expand their knowledge of – everything folk related. The visitors have come from every kind of location and background, whether school children, Princess Margaret (who attended several dances during her time as President of the Society in the early 1960s) or many of the stars of the BBC Electric Proms in the 2000s.
It’s thought that many romances have blossomed on the dance-floor of Kennedy Hall, the impressive high-ceilinged venue which takes up most of the ground floor of the building. This room is home to an enormous and colourful mural commissioned in 1951 from influential artist Ivon Hitchens, unveiled in 1954 and much celebrated by critics. Thousands of quietly contented hours have been spent in dedicated research at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, the custodian of England’s national folk music collection which in normal times welcomes visitors free of charge – its huge online resources are still available. And how many gigs have been enjoyed, and choruses sung, and instruments raised to learn a new-but-old tune?
Cecil Sharp House hosted the world’s first International Folk Dance Festival in 1935 and a wide range of traditional dance classes have been held ever since. The House also regularly presents a varied series of folklore inspired exhibitions.
Visits to the Library became an essential activity for key figures of the folk revival of the 1960s – many of whom also performed at Cecil Sharp House. Seminal albums were recorded in the basement, including the Watersons’ hugely influential but still relatively little-known ‘Bright Phoebus’. In more recent years, most celebrated folk musicians have presented gigs there too. Until all public buildings were forced to close in March 2020, hundreds of adults attended year round evening and weekend classes in music and dance at Cecil Sharp House. Young people attend holiday courses and weekend sessions or perform as part of the National Youth Folk Ensemble and families of all ages enjoyed monthly barn dances. The organisation is currently presenting many of these classes online until the building can reopen. This is not the first time the building has survived a crisis though – it was partially rebuilt after suffering substantial bomb-damage during WW2.
In addition to its undisputed central place in English Folk, Cecil Sharp House is recognised for its place in the cultural life of this country and as a vibrant venue for the wider performing arts too. The venue hosts innumerable rehearsals for plays, musicals and concerts – Early rehearsals for ‘Evita’ were held there before the show opened in 1978, as well as first auditions for the ‘Harry Potter’ films. It is a regular filming location for television entertainment shows, as well as a popular venue for vintage fairs, weddings, parties and other special events.
Peggy Seeger wrote recently: ‘Cecil Sharp House has been in my life for 64 years. I arrived for the first time in Britain in 1956, met Ewan MacColl and within a week he was taking me to his favourite haunt in Camden Town. We turned up day after day, week after week, surfing recordings in the Cecil Sharp House archive and pouring over anthologies in the library. I know of no central institution in my native country that has instigated such as the English Folk Dance and Song Society and, most important, made it available to the general public. Thank you to all involved – in the past, present and future – who keep this wonderful place alive and functioning.’
Do you have recollections of Cecil Sharp House that you’d like to share with our members? Do you have photos taken here in years gone by – documentation of formal gatherings, or snaps taken in the bar, or anything in between? The English Folk Dance and Song Society would love to add them to its archives: you can contact them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.