unsung histories

everyman and everywoman

Welcome to Unsung Histories

Welcome to this series of true stories never told before  – about people you may never even have heard of – but whose life stories reverberate across the decades and centuries.

Many of these stories start with the life of someone who played a musical instrument or sang an old folk song, and many of them lived in my home area of East Anglia, but there are other stories here as well, which I’m looking forward to sharing with you.

There’s already plenty to read here, but do come back soon to read about singing marshmen and photographers on the Norfolk Broads, a 19th century dance band in Suffolk, Italian street musicians in Norwich, a dulcimer in a travelling circus and much more. I am also a working musician myself, and some of my other musical researches are published on my other website: katiehowson.co.uk

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. All articles on this website are copyright to Katie Howson – please see the Terms and Conditions page for further information.


The Procession of the Clockdressers and Cheesecake Gatherers!

Whilst researching the Thirsty Work folksong radio series from 1940, I became particularly interested in the traditional culture in the village of Redmire, in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire.

Redmire, a pretty village laid out around several greens, stands in the shadow of the dramatic ruins of Bolton Castle. There were two pubs in the village, of which the King’s Arms seems to have been central to traditional life, and was indeed the location of the radio broadcast in 1940.

In the early twentieth century, the two villages proved attractive to a small group of artists and writers, including Fred Lawson, who chronicled many of the traditional cultural activities around the area. Lawson lived in Castle Bolton from the 1920s until his death in 1968, and it was a mention of “Cheesecake Gathering” in one of his regular articles for The Dalesman magazine, in September 1948 that set me off to find out more:

“At Feast time every house was filled with visitors and the population was at least doubled. The butcher who came round weekly with his trap always brought two traps at Feast weekend.  A gay gathering of caravans, roundabouts, and stalls would crowd the Redmire Green, and there would be enthusiastic contests at quoits, ‘wallops’, and foot-races, with several trotting matches during the three days. There was, of course, a dance every evening.

“The cheese-cake gathering was the highlight of the Feast. I think this came to an end about 1910, and I think I saw, and heard, the last.  I was in the pastures about half a mile above Redmire when I heard so much noise that I thought the place had gone mad. I was told it was the cheese-cake gatherers setting out.”

[Editor’s note: Yorkshire cheesecakes are a kind of curd tart with dried fruit in a pastry case. This was from J.W. Cockett in Hawes, near Redmire. Yummy!]

“Anyone and everyone joined in, so long as they were dressed in an absurd rig-out and – for preference – had blackened their faces. The whole body went in procession through the village. One or two would call at each house, often on the pretence of oiling the clock, and they would only come away when they had been given something to put in their baskets they carried with them. When the whole village had been visited the procession moved back to the local inn where the cheese-cakes were eaten.”

The photo above dates from 1900 and is taken outside the Old Town Hall, directly adjacent to the King’s Arms. The image below is from 1907, almost directly contemporaneous with Fred Lawson’s recollections, and you can see people with blacked-up faces, costumes and baskets for the cheesecakes. Some sort of horn is being blown by the man in the centre, but other musical instruments are not in evidence.

Lawson briefly mentioned the custom of calling into houses “on the pretence of oiling the clock”.

This had its roots in the trade of itinerant clockdressing, about which the Notes and Queries column of the Leeds Mercury carried the following description in 1902:

“To the present day old clock-dressers go the rounds of these old homesteads in the Halifax mountain townships in the summer months, as they did in the old days—a round which is a most pleasant variation from the long winter – sitting at their working benches in the town. If one of these old clocks does get “out o’ gear,” it has to remain so until the old clock-dresser comes his usual round. Too cumbrous to carry, the clock cannot go to the dresser; the dresser must come to the clock.”

This of course was when a cottage or farmhouse clock was most likely to be a piece of furniture (perhaps even a Grandfather clock) rather than a small portable one.

In 1903, several Yorkshire papers printed a brief article originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette about a slight variation in this practice:

“The correct way of dressing the clock [at Grassington] is to look towards it with a pot of ale in hand and drink the ale. There is no form of words for the ceremony. The occasion is a Yorkshire village feast, and some freakish turn of humour has found in clockdressing a pretext for open-house hospitality.”

In September 1923, the Yorkshire Evening Post featured a long article specifically about the “clockdressing” custom in Redmire itself. The original article may be seen here, but below is a transcription of the most salient information.

 “The shadow of Redmire Feast”

“Old customs fading”

“Procession of the clock dressers abandoned”

“The feature of the old Redmire Feast was the procession of the “Clock Dressers and the Cheesecake Harvesters”. There was no procession this year, and all that remains of the old custom is the picture that hangs in the kitchen of the King’s Arms, and the stories.

The picture shows a merry party, gaily dressed in strange and wonderful costumes, and a weird band of musicians. Their duty it was to visit every house in the village to “dress t’clock”. They carried carefully a bottle with a feather in it and several baskets, and at each house they inquired after the clock.

“The reply was always the same: “Nay, t’clock’s reight eno’!” the householder would say, and then he would produce his contribution to the cheesecake harvest. It mattered not whether it was money, food or drink, the clock dressers accepted all.

“The drink went into the “Oil bottle” with the feather in it, the cheesecakes or buns into the baskets, and the money into the treasurer’s pocket. Then, when the round had been completed, the harvesters made their way to the King’s Arms, to store away their gleanings until the following Saturday.

“The money paid for a “Round Robin” and the cheesecakes were good to eat, except those that had been unfairly made.

“There were them” an old Dalesman told me “as played with their cakes and put pepper and suchlike into harmless looking buns. But it was fun. There was always something to take the bite o’t’pepper away, and the band played well eno’ and we had a reight band i’Redmire once.”

The harvesters [ … ] were there to see that everyone joined in the fun, and those that were reluctant, whether strangers or not, were persuaded gently. Sometimes the persuasion took the form of blacking the stranger’s face – and sometimes the harvester, prepared for all emergencies, carried with him a bag of blue colouring.”

The custom of Cheesecake Gathering seems to have lasted a little longer in the nearby village of West Witton, where it was said to have carried on up to the Second World War.

To read about the Thirsty Work radio programme recorded in the King’s Arms in Redmire in 1940, see Thirsty Work Part 2 on this website. 

For more about Fred Lawson see the Yorkshire Dales website. 

With thanks to Ian Spensley of Redmire for his help.


Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2023.

Should you wish to use any of the information or images here, please do contact me first.

‘Thirsty Work’ part 5: the director’s cut

Sometimes a piece of research just keeps on turning up more nuggets, even when you think you’ve finished it!

I wrote at length about the Thirsty Work radio series earlier in 2022 and have just been crossing all the ‘t’s and dotting all the ‘i’s for another publication (see the end of this page for details), during which a random Google search unexpectedly and miraculously revealed some more of the actual recordings made for these programmes!

What’s more they are publicly accessible, and even downloadable – the links are at the end of the article. (NB in 2023 some of these links were no longer active).

These recordings come from the Ivy Inn in North Littleton in Worcestershire (below, left) and the Ebrington Arms, Ebrington, Gloucestershire (below, right). The full stories of these two programmes and the singers featured is told in: ‘Thirsty Work’ part 4: the Cotswolds – singing from North Littleton and Ebrington

The source of these recordings is unacknowledged, they are merely listed by the song title and ‘1940 recording’, but the clues were (1) the repertoire (2) the pub atmosphere and (3) the clincher – the words ‘One night we come to the Ebrington Arms …’ in the song The Man Who Invented Beer, confirming my intuition that I had discovered recordings from the Thirsty Work programmes. The fact that they include a song which was not broadcast, and that the singer of Jolly Jarge falters in the middle suggests that these were original unedited recordings, not the final broadcast version and not the library copy known to have been requested by BBC producer Maurice Brown.

The locations and singers are not identified, but by cross-referencing with information from the BBC Written Archives, I have been able to work out the following:


  • The Man Who Invented Beer(unknown, but not Charles Gardiner whom I thought it might have been)
  • I Had in My Pocket Just One Penny (The Penny Wager / The Little Black Horse) (George ‘Shup’ Hawkins)

North Littleton: 

  • I’m A Broken Down Man(George Norledge)
  • Two Little Girls in Blue(Frank Norledge)
  • Buttercup Joe(Charles Gardiner)
  • Never Let Your Braces Dangle (Harry Gisbourne)
  • Jolly George(unknown, song listed as Johnny George in the BBC archive, aka Jolly Jarge)
  • Also, probably: She’d Never Been There Before(Bill Norledge, song not listed in any official documentation, suggesting it was not actually broadcast)

The evening in North Littleton, in particular, sounds like quite a raucous affair, with the landlord having trouble getting order for the singers. Comments from the audience can be heard, allowing me to identify the singers.

The songs are a mixture of traditional, music hall and popular songs, in keeping with the broad criteria for these programmes, which did not specifically focus on folk songs. Many of the songs had been recorded on 78 rpm discs in the 1920s and 1930s.

One song which has particularly captured my attention is The Man Who Invented Beer which I assumed to be of music hall origin. However, there is no trace of the song amongst any of the usual sources, and learned colleagues have not been able to shed any light on it either. Most mentions seem to be from the mid 20th century, and the earliest reference I can find is really quite curious: folksong collector Francis Collinson noted the melody down whilst listening to a radio programme called A Country Serenade on 1st May 1943, where it had been included in a programme about Buckinghamshire.

The singing of this song on the Thirsty Work programme from Ebrington, first broadcast on 28th November 1940 is therefore the earliest reference to it at the moment. It may have been composed locally, possibly by Charles Gardiner, although it was not he who actually sang it – that remains a mystery, but he was introduced by Gardiner, who also had a far deeper singing voice than the singer of this song.

All the singers were local men employed in rural occupations with the exception of Charles Gardiner, who was clerk to Evesham Rural District Council and a part-time writer of dialect sketches for the radio. Details about the all singers can be found in ‘Thirsty Work’ part 4: the Cotswolds – singing from North Littleton and Ebrington

Whilst we might enjoy these recordings made ‘in the raw’, another recent find reminds us that not everyone was pleased with the results. The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail carried this story about the Thirsty Work programme recorded in the King’s Arms, Redmire, in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, on 6 May 1940:

 ‘More than 20 Wensleydale lads who recorded the Redmire programme at the village inn for the programme given on Saturday night on the Forces wavelength, met at the Kings Arms on Saturday and listened in to their own show. Kit Jones, 71 years of age, said: “The BBC have improved my voice so much that I hardly knew it.” That there was too much chatter brought in by the BBC when Kit Jones was telling his humorous story was a general version. “Folk would not chatter in that fashion when I was telling my stories,” said Kit. The title “Thirsty Work” was not popular—for although the party has met every Saturday night for the last three years at the King’s Arms, they are by no means a thirsty party. Singing is the attraction, so much so that they often sing until midnight, always finishing off with hymns …’

Quite what the BBC did to improve Kit Jones’ voice is not known, but the recording of him singing I Like to Hear the Old Cock Crow on this occasion is in both the British Library Sound Archive and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, although unfortunately it is not accessible publicly.

Further details about Kit Jones and the Redmire recording can be found in ‘Thirsty Work’ part 2: the North – singing from Ambleside, Redmire and Harome

Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2022.

Should you wish to use any of the information or images here, please do contact me first.

In late 2022, this research was published by The Ballad Partners, in a collection entitled: “Thirsty Work and Other Legacies of Folk Song”, which contains many other interesting essays and is very reasonably priced at only £13. It may be bought from the Ballad Partners website.

The recordings from North Littleton and Ebrington can be found on YouTube by typing ‘Traditional British and Irish Songs Vol.1’ into the search box.

The same search on Amazon brings up a downloadable album which includes the North Littleton and Ebrington songs and also includes some other recordings of traditional music from the 1940s and 1950s: here’s a direct link.  

Francis Collinson’s 1943 manuscript including his transcription of The Man Who Invented Beer may be seen in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library digital archive under the title The Lord Bless Charlie Mott where it is erroneously dated 1945. 

(NB in 2023 some of these links were no longer active).

Starry Night for a Ramble

The tune Starry Night for a Ramble has been an old stalwart of the southern English repertoire since the revival spearheaded by Rod Stradling and the Old Swan Band in the late 1970s, although at least two distinct versions have now developed even in that short space of time and context.

It has been collected from two traditional musicians in England – both from Norfolk: it was noted down from Mr Newstead in Wickmere in 1932, and subsequently published in ‘The Fiddler’s Tunebook Vol 2’ and was also recorded from Herbert Smith from Blakeney, titled Starry Night for a Randy. This version was included in my 2007 book ‘Before the Night Was Out’ published by the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust.

Another Norfolk connection is given in the book ‘I Walked by Night’ – the autobiography of Frederick Rolfe, an inveterate poacher, even during his occasional spells of employment as a gamekeeper. Rolfe lived most of his life in the King’s Lynn area of west Norfolk. Rolfe’s book (published in 1935) gives the following words under the title The Ploughboy’s Song:


A starry night for a ramble, in the flowery dell,
Through the bush and bramble, kiss and never tell.

I like to take my sweetheart out (‘Of course you do’, says she)
And softly whisper in her ear, ‘How dearly I love thee’.

When you picture to yourself a scene of such delight,
Who would not take a ramble on a starry night.

The tune and lyrics were printed many times in the 1870s and it was a rapid success with many piano arrangements being published for amateur use. It’s hard to fathom who actually wrote it, possibly Samuel Bagnal in 1873, although a broadside print in the National Library of Scotland (above left) suggests an earlier imprint. The last verse of that version uses the word ‘velocipede’ which was fashionable in the 1860s and being replaced by the term ‘bicycle’ in the 1870s.
In 1907 the Edison Military Band recorded it in an instrumental selection on a phonograph and later on the song was recorded by Canadian tenor Harry McDonough, although this version is quite different to the Norfolk version.
Interestingly, the tune Starry Night for a Ramble has been far more popular than the song, and it has been interpreted in different rhythms: the original publication was in 6/8 timing, which is how it is still known in the East Anglian and broader English traditions. There’s also a tune by the same title, again a jig, which is used in the US as a contradance tune. The same melody was popularised in 3/4 timing by Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, as Starry Night in Shetland and, under its original title, Australian collector John Meredith found that ‘nearly every bush musician plays this beautiful waltz’ although he only collected lyrics to it on one occasion (‘Folk Songs of Australia’). There’s also a lovely recording of Tasmanian fiddler Eileen McCoy playing it on the CD ‘Apple Isle Fiddler’.

A pretty tune which it would be nice to heard played more often in its Norfolk version!

Starry Night for a Ramble from the playing of Herbert Smith, Norfolk fiddle player:


This work was first published in the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust newsletter in February 2012 and subsequently on their website. I founded and ran EATMT from 2000-2017. The original article was  revised in 2019 in the light of further information.

For more about Frederick Rolfe, read Charlotte Paton’s book The King of the Norfolk Poachers or this shorter article here: ‘The King of the Norfolk Poachers’ .

©Katie Howson 2021


Thirsty Work Part 1: traditional singing on the radio 1940-41

This article was first posted in November 2021, but was significantly updated in the light of important new information in January 2022. 

In late 2022, this research was published by The Ballad Partners, in a collection entitled: “Thirsty Work and Other Legacies of Folk Song”, which contains many other interesting essays and is very reasonably priced at only £13. It may be bought from the Ballad Partners website.

A chance finding in the BBC Radio Times Archive led to this investigation into a series of seven programmes featuring traditional singing from across England, called Thirsty Work, broadcast between April 1940 and March 1941. The details of all the pubs visited are at the foot of this page.

Illustration from the Radio Times, 4th May 1940: Redmire (see part 2 for details)

The Radio Times descriptions didn’t actually mention the words “folksong” or “traditional singers”, so in the early days, I wasn’t even sure if that was the kind of song which was featured in the series (it was!).

To help you navigate through this long (but totally fascinating!) article, here are some shortcuts, but I do recommend that for your first reading, you ignore these, sit down in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and read the whole lot from beginning to end!


Most people in Britain will be aware of the Radio Times, a weekly publication which gives the schedule for all the BBC broadcasts for the week ahead, together with articles on some of the programmes. Starting in 1923, with radio only, it expanded to cover television, and over the years, has been an extremely popular magazine with a huge circulation.

All the old issues of this magazine are now online in the BBC Radio Times Genome Archive.

Investigating the Thirsty Work programmes in detail has unearthed a huge amount of fascinating material and so I have divided it into four articles here.

This first one provides an introduction and background to the series, followed by:

Thirsty Work part 2: the North -singing from Ambleside, Redmire and Harome

Thirsty Work part 3: East Anglia and the East Midlands – singing from the Eel’s Foot Inn, Suffolk and Wakerley, Northants

Thirsty Work part 4: the Cotswolds – two programmes with an unexpected link with “The Archers”: singing from North Littleton and Ebrington

So, first of all, a little bit of background to these programmes broadcast between 9th April 1940 and 7th March 1941 – a time when much of the world was involved in the horrendous world-wide conflict of World War Two, and Britain was experiencing an intense period of bombing – with the London, Coventry and Swansea blitzes all happening in this period, plus many troops deployed in northern France and increasingly across Europe and northern Africa.

Radio broadcasting in wartime

The Thirsty Work series was broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme – a channel specifically designed for those British Armed Forces in France – which started transmissions on 18th Feb 1940. The Forces Programme was meant as an alternative to the Home Service, the sole British broadcasting channel at the time. The Home Service had previously been the National Programme, which had been complemented by a Regional Programme, but that was closed down at the start of the War, as was the nascent television service. However, this structure of regional and national sections within the BBC was still in place throughout the period of the Thirsty Work programmes and was at times a thorn in the side of the series producer, Maurice Brown.

In fact, there were more troops stationed in training camps in Britain than there were in France at this point. Forces Radio became very popular with civilians, with its lightweight content, aiming to boost morale with music and entertainment rather than to provide factual news content.

Radio Times 9th April 1940

This page from the Radio Times, showing the first in the Thirsty Work series, gives an idea of the scheduling typical of the Forces Programme in this period. Most programmes lasted about 30 minutes and the majority consisted of light music, including dance music, jazz and popular songs. There were also variety programmes and musical plays recorded in London theatres and a twenty-minute programme aimed at the British troops stationed in northern France: Parlez-vous Francais?

These programmes were recorded in a “BBC Mobile Recording Unit” – this consisted of one or two engineers working in the back of a converted laundry or furniture van, using direct disc-cutting machines. Each double-sided disc had just 4-5 minutes recording time per side, requiring careful management of the proceedings.

In wartime, as may well be imagined, there was a shortage of both recording equipment and materials, as well as experienced engineers. When you also factor in petrol rationing, it’s amazing that these sorts of programmes got made at all.

See A note concerning recordings below for details about the archiving of the original discs. Part 2 and Part 3 both refer in more detail to the recordings of individual programmes.

How this series came to be made: the producer, Maurice Brown

The producer, Maurice Brown, was evidently key to the series.

Maurice Penton Brown (1909-1981) the son of a bank manager, came from London and was educated at Stowe and Oxford, before starting at the BBC in the then new gramophone department, whilst in his early twenties. The first mentions of him in the media show him working in what we would now call documentaries, but were then usually referred to as “features”.

He married Dorothea (known as Thea) Vigne in 1934 and they had one daughter, Caroline in 1936. It is thanks to Caroline’s page on the genealogy website Ancestry that I was able to find the photo of her father. I have tried to contact her, but to no avail, so I hope if she or any other family members come across this article, they will be pleased to see it, and perhaps contact me via this site.

By 1940 he was reported as holding the post of Music Director in the Theatre and Drama Department.  In 1943 he enlisted in the Naval Reserve and recorded features whilst on board various Naval vessels. In 1949, he produced Five Years After, first broadcast on Sunday 5th June 1949: “The memories and reflections of seven men – Richard Dimbleby, Chester Wilmot, Maurice Brown, Robert Dunnett, Colin Wills, Joel O’Brien, and Stanley Maxted – who were present at the invasion of France on June 6, 1944, and who have since revisited the beaches and battlefields of Normandy. Programme edited and produced by Maurice Brown.”

I believe that Saturday Night at the Eel’s Foot – recorded and broadcast in 1939 (see Part 3) was his first foray into broadcasting traditional singing in its natural habitat, shortly followed by the Thirsty Work series. . At the time, it was rare for folksong to be heard in an informal social setting on the radio, although during the 1930s when the BBC Regional Programme was probably at its zenith, there were various programmes which occasionally featured traditional singers and musicians, dialect speakers and calendar customs such as Mumming Plays. Folksong was more likely to be heard on the airwaves in the more genteel form of the voice of a trained singer accompanied by a piano.

So Brown was really quite a pioneer in broadcasting the “real thing” in its normal setting. He was well informed about the folksong genre, as shown in a letter to The Listener, published on 14th August 1941. The letter is in response to a feature about Cecil Sharp in a programmed entitled Everybody’s Scrapbook – whilst acknowledging Sharp’s “magnificent work” he argues against Sharp’s daughter, who, in the programme, had talked about folk-song singing as something that was dead and gone and claimed “If my father had started any later, there would have been little to collect.” Brown refers to the Thirsty Work series and says, “The singing itself is very varied, but there are still singers of great style, with all the swagger, decoration and rhythmic changed of real folk song delivery.”

In October 1947, Brown collaborated with E.J. Moeran to produce East Anglia Sings with recordings made again in the Eel’s Foot and also in the Windmill Inn in Sutton, Norfolk. Two songs from this programme appear on Volume 3 (England) of an ambitious series of records made by Alan Lomax in the early 1950s, the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. These were issued on Columbia Records, who were pioneers in the development of Long-Playing records, in 1955. Many of the recordings were made by Lomax himself, but others were gleaned from existing archives of folk music including the BBC, which seems to have been enough for Brown to receive a credit on the sleeve notes. He is also credited on Volume 1 (Ireland) with a recording made in Killarney, Co. Kerry in 1947. In August that year a major field-recording trip, guided by Seamus Ennis, was made to Ireland by the BBC at the instigation of Brian George (Head of the BBC’s Central Programme Operations and later founder of the Folk Music & Dialect Recording Scheme), and Brown may well have been part of that, but at the moment I have only this slight circumstantial evidence to suggest that.

In later years his work encompassed a wide range of subjects, from regular airings of Kipling’s Just So Stories on Children’s Hour through a variety of programmes about sailing craft to a good number which involved music from different countries, such as A Serbian Christmas – “A sound picture of traditional celebrations, both religious and secular, recorded at the Yugoslav Volunteer Workers Hostel at Debach, Suffolk, in January 1950” which was made in collaboration with writer, broadcaster and singer John Seymour. Most of Brown’s programmes were broadcast on the Home Service and the Third Programme, with the occasional one on the Light Programme, such as Saturday Night Ashore, which in September 1951 was described thus: “Join the Navy to See the World – Six lighthearted episodes from a dramatised log of the Mediterranean Fleet’s first summer cruise, during June and July, to Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Written and produced by Maurice Brown.”

Maurice Brown retired to Suffolk where he died, in Long Melford, in 1981.

How this series came to be made: contacts, locations and criteria

This series was no mean undertaking; even in peacetime conditions it would be a challenge to produce, at short notice, seven programmes from across England, each one involving a number of amateur performers. Just finding the singers and the pubs in the first place required a lot of what we now call networking. At first I thought I might find folksong collectors and dialect enthusiasts amongst Brown’s contacts, but in the main the initial suggestions seemed to come from colleagues within the BBC.

In February 1940, just as the new Programme for the Forces was being rolled out, Maurice Brown wrote to Laurence Gilliam, the head of BBC Features and Drama, explaining his vision for the series:

“I know that the idea of recorded programmes of pub singing is an old hobby horse of mine, but I feel six or more 15 minute broadcasts could be made of this material for the B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Forces] programme. This would not be in any way confined to folk songs but would consist of songs they sing in given large areas – for instance, in the Lakeland pubs there are fell songs and hunting songs, in Yorkshire their own dialect songs, in Kent hopping songs, et cetera etc., and everywhere you find songs the troops know. It is merely a matter of editing to produce a short programme which although in part localised should still be popular both to the man who comes from that part of the country and the mass who enjoy singing songs.”

In March 1940, shortly after the series was approved, Maurice Brown was investigating a Kentish hopping pub, the New Inn in Mousehole, Cornwall and somewhere in the Cotswolds, where his contact seemed to be Freddie Grisewood a BBC colleague from Daylesford, near Stow-on-the-Wold.

In May 1940 with the first two programmes under his belt, the search for further locations gained further traction. Brown wrote to another BBC colleague, Robin Whitworth: “As I told you on the telephone I am producing a series of twelve programmes on pub singing for the Forces. I want to record at least three in the Midlands.  [ … ] Do you know, or could you find any such places?”

Whitworth (whose father had an intense interest in dialect and had founded the British Drama League which created a sound archive of dialect recordings as a resource for actors) was an experienced broadcaster in the Midlands region, a collaborator with Charles Gardiner (Programmes 5 and 6) and producer of many “vox-pop” programmes, and his correspondence on this matter with Maurice Brown makes for interesting reading.

Whitworth wrote back, mentioning the following Black Country pubs: The Stork, Great Bridge, nr W. Bromwich, kept by Jim Partridge; The Tumbledown Bridge,  Willenhall (pictured here); The Bear, Great (actually West) Brampton, Newcastle under Lyme; The Cleveland, nr Stow Heath, Wolverhampton, and separately, the Portcullis Inn at Hillesley near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Later in the year he was putting out to feelers to a contact in Lancashire for the Thirsty Work series. None of these ideas came to fruition, but it’s interesting to see that they were considering pubs in more urban settings.

Even after identifying suitable pubs, Brown needed good reliable people in the locality to contact the singers and ease the way for the recordings to be made. The landlords of the pubs played a significant part in these arrangements, and other vital people were Ernest Skelton, a music teacher and church organist in Ambleside (Programme 1), Charles Gardiner, a local government official, writer and folksong collector in the Cotswolds (Programmes 5 and 6), and Sidney Jameson, a journalist and amateur folklorist in Harome (Programme 7) – see Part 2 and Part 4 for details of these people.

Brown’s pitch for the series to Gilliam (above) goes a long way to explaining why the word “folk” wasn’t used in any of the Radio Times descriptions and provides us with an insight into the guiding principles behind the series.

Brown also stated his criteria to any potential landlord or host for these programmes. In April 1940, for example, a Mr. J.B. Landan wrote from the Golden Lion in Islington, suggesting that his pub might be suitable. He regularly held singing competitions there, to audiences of 150 or so people, and wrote that he had read about the forthcoming programmes in the Evening News. Brown responded:  

“In the pub broadcasts which I am producing I do not use many singers. What I want is from ten to twenty people singing because they like it. They also must sing songs representing their own district or county. If you could find some completely non-professional singers who will Cockney and London solos and choruses I shall be very pleased to come and hear them when I am next in London. Would you be good enough to let me know if this is possible?”

In his introductory letter to George Miller, the landlord at the Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley (Programme 4) he explained: “These programmes are being broadcast to the Forces, and individual pubs should appeal to regiments enlisted from that district.”

What happened next, and the legacy of the Thirsty Work series

At the end of 1940, plans were being laid for another series of Thirsty Work, to consist of twelve half-hour programmes. However, given the problems with pubs during wartime (See Parts 2 and 4 for more on this), a slightly different perspective was suggested by Brown’s boss in the Features and Drama department, Laurence Gilliam, to whom Brown wrote on 22nd October 1940:

“TROOPS ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS: I have been making enquiries about your suggested series of programmes on “Thirsty Work” lines. It seems likely that we could broadcast these certainly fortnightly, and perhaps weekly. I contemplate including broadcasts from Polish, Czech, Belgian, French and Dutch camps, the American eagle squadron, in addition to Army messes, aerodromes and between decks on board naval ships. Would you like me to go ahead with this as soon as may be, because at the moment I have no actual contacts.”

And on 7th November Gilliam responded:

THIRSTY WORK FOR THE TROOPS: I have discussed the new series for THIRSTY WORK with Mr Langham and he welcomed the idea for 30 minute programmes on the new plan starting in the New Year. Would you please let him know as soon as possible the titles and times.”

It seems that events overtook this proposal and the Radio Times archive shows only occasional programmes produced by Brown from 1941 until the end of the war. As noted above, he was a Sub-Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve and several of the programmes he produced were recorded on board Naval ships.

From 1949 to 1958, the BBC actually employed people as folk song collectors and recordists. The most prominent of these was Peter Kennedy, who visited at least two of the Thirsty Work locations, Redmire and Ebrington, on the trail of Brown’s singers. This appears to be very much the way the collecting scheme worked: “Far from comprising a repository of oral recordings gained through fresh encounters, the Recorded Scheme reconfigured numerous extant archives, each with their own criteria of authenticity, systems of classification, and territorial attachments” (Daniel Gomes, in Archival Airwaves: Recording Ireland for the BBC). Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if Kennedy got to Wakerley or Harome, the least known of the Thirsty Work locations, but if the recordings had already been lost at this stage, that may account for why.

A note concerning recordings

When the BBC was established, there was no remit to keep an archive of recordings, although written documentation was a requirement. Many programmes were broadcast live or used existing recordings of music.

It is largely thanks to Marie Slocombe (1912-1995) that any original recordings remain in existence. At the time of the Thirsty Work series, she was working in the Recorded Programmes Department, and there is correspondence between her and Maurice Brown about the “processing” (i.e preservation) of some of the original recordings for this series. There is a well-told tale that Slocombe, together with colleague Tim Eckersley, both in relatively junior positions, were asked, in 1937, by their boss to dispose of a pile of old records. The two realised that amongst these discs were historically significant recordings of people such as George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and they boldly requested that these be archived. Permission was granted to keep a small selection, and so started what was eventually to become the BBC Sound Archive.

It wasn’t until a few months after the Thirsty Work series, in August 1941, that Slocombe officially became the Librarian for the Recorded Programmes Permanent Library (i.e. sound archivist). Those of us interested in folk music are eternally grateful to her; she was keenly interested in folk and traditional music, song and dance and a committee member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. She and her head of department, Brian George were influential in the creation and management of the Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme mentioned above, which saw folk music collectors such as Séamus Ennis (pictured below in Ireland in 1947, still using a direct-cut disc recorder, photo © UCD) and Peter Kennedy actively collecting folksong under the auspices of the BBC from a pilot in 1949 through to 1957. This was made possible due to technological developments in portable recording equipment and the BBC was uniquely placed to run such a scheme. Slocombe and George also created the legendary radio series As I Roved Out which ran from 1953 to 1958 and included many recordings made under the scheme.

The British Library Sound Archive is now the repository for the BBC Sound Archive and in their catalogue may be found:

BBC 2519             Ambleside (Thirsty Work Programme 1): Joe Bowman (probably Brait Black)

BBC 2520             Ambleside (Thirsty Work Programme 1): John Peel, Sally Gray (Alfred  Creighton)

BBC 2521             Redmire (Thirsty Work Programme 2): Ilkley Moor Baht’at, The White Cockade, (probably Joe Alderson)

BBC 2522             Ambleside (Thirsty Work Programme 1): Talk about Joe Bowman’s funeral, Brait Black, All Jolly Fellows (John Bell)

BBC 2523             Redmire (Thirsty Work Programme 2): I Like to Hear the Old Cock Crow, Kit Jones; Our Old Nan’s a Mazer, Jim Lambert

They are not identified with the Thirsty Work series in the catalogue, but they definitely are. These are not the original discs recorded in situ at the pubs, but library copies taken from the originals. We know this because (a) there is evidence in the BBC written archives about the selection and procedures and (b) these discs do not contain the entire repertoire of songs which were actually broadcast. It is clear from the BBC memos that it was Maurice Brown who was responsible for selecting the most significant items from each broadcast for archiving, and from the items in the British Library Sound Archive (programmes 1 and 2 only) we can see that less than half the songs that were broadcast were selected for preservation: a memo from Brown on 4 June 1940 regarding selecting songs from Programmes 1 and 2 correlates precisely with the tracks on the BLSA discs.

The BBC Permanent Library (fore-runner of the Sound Archive) made metal masters (“matrices”) from which future copies could be pressed, and – at least for the Recording Scheme – also kept two unplayed pressings in separate locations. In correspondence about the Eel’s Foot programme (Programme 3) Brown mentioned the original 1939 recordings as being “on film” which sounds tantalisingly as if there might have been visual evidence, but in fact his comment refers to the use of a Philips-Miller film recorder, developed in the 1920s for purely audio purposes.

On 11 March 1941, Brown sent the records from the final three episodes off for processing, writing: “I am sending you three records to be processed. They are: the Ebrington Arms, Ebrington, the Ivy, North Littleton and the Star, Harome. Each set of records is separate, and have with them the titles that I wish to be processed. I have in some cases starred the essentials, but would greatly prefer for the lot to be done.”

At the time of writing I cannot trace the existence of any discs for these programmes (4, 5 and 6) or Wakerley (Programme 7) although there is documentary proof of each of these being sent off to the Recorded Programmes department for processing.

Each of the singing communities recorded for the Thirsty Work programmes is quite different, and has its own story to tell. I hope you enjoy reading them and thank you for reading this far!

I would just remind you here that any re-use of this original research should be credited to me, Katie Howson, with this website as the source. It is due to be published in print form in the near future, and details will be posted here when known. Should you wish to use any of the information or images here, please do contact me first.

Thirsty Work: pubs and dates

  1. From the Royal Oak, Ambleside, Westmorland, recorded on 15th & 16th March 1940, and broadcast on 9th April 1940.
  2. From the King’s Arms, Redmire, Wensleydale, Yorkshire, recorded on 13th & 14th April 1940 and broadcast on 4th May 1940.
  3. From the Eel’s Foot Inn, Eastbridge, Suffolk, recorded on 13th May 1939 and broadcast on 13th May 1940.
  4. From the Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley, Northamptonshire, recorded on 8th & 9th May 1940 and broadcast on 14th June 1940.
  5. From the Ivy Inn, North Littleton, Worcestershire, recorded on 6th & 7th June and broadcast on 22nd July 1940 (repeated 17th Sept 1940).
  6. From the Ebrington Arms, Ebrington, Gloucestershire, recorded on 27th & 28th September 1940 and broadcast on 28th Nov 1940 (repeated 3rd January 1941).
  7. From the Star Inn, Harome, North Yorkshire, recorded on 3rd & 4th February 1941 and broadcast on 7th March 1941.

For these web articles I have grouped the programmes geographically:

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 2: the North -singing from Ambleside, Redmire and Harome

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 3: East Anglia and the East Midlands – singing from the Eel’s Foot Inn, Suffolk and Wakerley, Northamptonshire

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 4: the Cotswolds – two programmes with an unexpected link with “The Archers”: singing from North Littleton and Ebrington

‘Thirsty Work’ part 5: Director’s Cut – recordings from Programmes 5 & 6 and other updates.

References and links

My researches started in the time-honoured way, building biographical sketches of the singers through the usual genealogical sources. As more information was revealed, I was able to consult the more usual folk song resources such as the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, British Library Sound Archive etc and there are links to some sound recordings within the following articles. I’m indebted to John Baxter for alerting me to Maurice Brown’s letter in The Listener and to Derek Schofield for his help on investigating the Alan Lomax recordings.

I originally found out about the Thirsty Work programmes on the Radio Times Programme Index (previously known as the Genome project), which is very easy to browse and search. Further information on the making of these programmes has been added from the BBC Written Archives Centre, which is by appointment only, in person.

You can hear Marie Slocombe herself telling the story of the foundation of the BBC Sound Archive in a short clip here and her 1964 article The BBC Folk Music Collection, published in Folklore and Folk Music Archivist by Indiana University is available online here.   

Archival Airwaves: Recording Ireland for the BBC by Daniel Gomes is good on the history of the BBC Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme, and in particular the uses to which the archive recordings of folk song and music were put in the 1950s and 60s. It was published in 2019 in Modernism/modernity, the journal of the Modernist Studies Association and is also available online here. 

The BBC website has several good articles on its radio history

Asa Briggs’ five part history of the BBC is extremely comprehensive; the first three volumes are the most relevant:  The Birth of Broadcasting: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. 1, Asa Briggs (1961); The Golden Age of Wireless: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol 2, Asa Briggs (1965) and The War of Words: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol 3, Asa Briggs (1970). Or for a potted version, see: The Origins of BBC Policy, Paddy Scannell, in The Regions, the Nations and the BBC, ed. Harvey & Robins, BFI (1993).

Also relevant to this article were: A Formative Force: the BBC’s role in the development of music and its audiences in Northern Ireland 1924-1939, Ruth Stanley; and Tom Western’s knowledgeable and perspicacious writings on radio and ethnomusicology (all available on Academia.edu).

The photo of Séamus Ennis recording in a car may be found here on the University College Dublin website who hold the copyright. Dúchas © National Folklore Collection UCD.

Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.

Should you wish to use any of the information or images here, please do contact me first.

My research on the 1940s radio programmes “Thirsty Work”  is now published by The Ballad Partners, in a collection entitled: “Thirsty Work and Other Legacies of Folk Song”. The book contains many other interesting essays and is very reasonably priced at only £13! It may be bought from the Ballad Partners website.

I have far more biographical and anecdotal evidence than can be published here – if you are a relative or a researcher, please do get in touch, I would be very happy to share the information I have.

Thirsty Work: part 2: the North – singing from Ambleside, Redmire and Harome

This article was first posted in November 2021, but has been significantly updated in the light of important new information in January 2022.

This article covers programmes 1, 2 and 7 in the Thirsty Work series broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme between 9th April 1940 and 7th March 1941.

It makes most sense if you read the introduction to the series (‘Thirsty Work’ Part 1) before this one.

  • Programme 1 was broadcast on 9th April 1940 from recordings made at the Royal Oak, Ambleside, Westmorland on 15th & 16th March 1940
  • Programme 2 was broadcast on 4th May 1940 from recordings made at King’s Arms, Redmire, Wensleydale, Yorkshire on 12th & 13th April 1940
  • Programme 7 was broadcast on 7th March 1941 from recordings made at the Star Inn, Harome, North Yorkshire on 3rd & 4th February 1941

You can use the links just here to skip straight on to a section that particularly interest you:

Programme 1: The Royal Oak, Ambleside, Westmorland

Broadcast on 9th April 1940


“Maurice Brown has made a great study of the songs they sing in the village inn, many will remember his rousing programme ‘ At the Eel’s Foot’. He has set out in this new series to reproduce the voice of the tap-room in song, and he is making a start with northern England. Typical songs of the Lake District and the Yorkshire dales will be heard in this opening programme.”

In fact all these singers were from Ambleside, and the Yorkshire singers were featured in the second programme, a month later.

Material in the BBC archives has revealed quite a bit of background to this programme. The initial contact was with Ernest Skelton (1876-1954), organist at the Parish Church and music teacher in the town. He was from a very musical family who had previously run the local newspaper, the Lakes Herald; his brother William continued to write for the Westmorland Gazette including a series of biographical sketches, one of these resulted in a book Reminiscences of Joe Bowman and the Ullswater Hounds published in 1921,. This included a song called The Ullswater Pack with music written by Ernest Skelton. Ernest Skelton was the man responsible for “collecting together the singers, arranging for rehearsal and other important matters” according to Maurice Brown and Skelton himself said he thought piano accompaniment would be unnecessary. Brown went ahead and organised a trip starting on 13th March 1940, with two days of preparatory visits (including an outing to Keswick) and two recording evenings in the Royal Oak in Ambleside, on 15th and 16th March. As with all these programmes, the singers were paid 10/6d each, the chairmen and faciitators a guinea or more, and drinks for the whole company of singers were paid for by the BBC.

From this first programme, four songs and some speech are preserved in the British Library Sound Archive on acetate discs. They are not identified as being from this programme, and have the wrong recording date of 28th March 1940. Brait (wrongly transcribed as Bert) Black is named, whilst audience members can be heard exclaiming “Well done, Alf” – Alfred Creighton.

Singers and songs

From the British Library Sound Archive catalogue we know that the four of the songs sung on this occasion were:

  • John Peel (unidentified singer)
  • Ploughing Song, aka All Jolly Fellows (unidentified singer – but we now know this to be John Bell)
  • Sally Gray (unidentified singer – but it is definitely Alfred Creighton)
  • Joe Bowman (unidentified singer – likely to be Brait Black)

In the BBC Written Archives Centre, the “Programme as Broadcast” documentation has survived and reveals a further five songs that were included in the programme:

  • We’ll All Go a-Hunting
  • The Old Rustic Bridge
  •  New Year’s Hunt at Kirkstile
  • The Farmer’s Boy
  • Now the Horn of the Hunter is Silent

It seems likely that a couple of these songs were included in another radio programme called Everybody’s Scrapbook in late 1940, and in a letter to the producer of that programme, Leslie Bailey, Maurice Brown wrote about “Joe Bowman’s song” and seems to imply the recording is of Joe Bowman himself singing. However, Brown’s first known recording visit to the Lakes was on 13th March 1940, and Bowman, a legendary huntsman with the Ullswater Hunt for over 40 years had died only a few days before, on 5th March, just fifteen miles north of Ambleside.

I have not yet found any information about Brown making an earlier visit, although it is possible.

Brait Black – full name Braithwaite Black – would appear to have been at the centre of this occasion, as he was also recorded talking about legendary Lakeland hunter Joe Bowman, and he was clearly a larger-than-life character himself.

Black (1883-1944) was the oldest of the singers, in his mid-fifties, and was a quarry worker living with his brother on the northern outskirts of the town. On his death, the Westmorland Gazette published a long obituary (22nd July 1944), describing him as a respected mountain guide, terrier-breeder, hound trailer, athlete and rugby player and member of a male voice choir. I’ve also unearthed a story about him being involved in a mountain rescue in 1934, and a poem – The Ballad of Braithwaite Black – written about that event.

Charlie Rogers (1890-1971) was a postman living on Compston Road in 1939. He was originally from Uckfield in Sussex and moved to Ambleside sometime after 1920.

Johnny Bell (1899-1955) was a farmer born and brought up in Ambleside, also living on Compston Road in 1939 when he was also working for the Lakes Urban District Council, doing haulage work. From information in the BBC archives, we now know that he was the chairman for this singing session.        

Percy Salkeld (1896-1955) was another local man who ran a dairy farm and served in the Royal Navy in World War One. In 1939 he was living on Rydal Rd, Ambleside.

John Kirby was described in the Radio Times as a farmer, and information in the BBC archives identifies his home in 1940 as Skelwith Farm, but I have not been able to find out anything further about him.

Alfred Creighton is the other singer who can be identified in the recordings, as the audience can be heard congratulating him by name (“Alf”). Although described as a shepherd in the Radio Times listing, Creighton (1900-1989) always appears in official documents as a gardener, which had been a family trade for decades. He was brought up at Sunnyside Cottages, just outside Ambleside, in an extended family setting, but by 1939 Alf and his wife Florence had moved into the centre of Ambleside on Compston Road where Florence was running a boarding house.

It was Alf Creighton who sang Sally Gray, a song written by “The Cumberland Bard” Robert Anderson in 1802. The image above is taken from John Graham’s 1910 book Dialect Songs of the North.

The majority of these songs are clearly identified with this particular region, whilst others such as All Jolly Fellows, have more widespread appeal, conjuring up a bucolic agricultural vignette which could be from any part of rural England. On he recordings, an unidentified man introduces this song by saying: “There’s been ploughing today, let’s have a ploughing song …” and it turns out that both the chairman and the singer of this song were one and the same person, Johnny Bell. In the following programme, it is the landlord who acts as “chairman” or MC, but in the Royal Oak, the licensee was Mrs Nora Abbott, a widow, who would not have taken this role at that period. Readers will note the complete lack of women in all these listings of performers. Yes, these recordings all took place in the taprooms of pubs, which were largely the dominion of men at the time, but this is not a completely accurate reflection – see Part 3: East Anglia for more comments on this.

Programme 2: The King’s Arms, Redmire, Yorkshire

Broadcast on 4th May 1940


“Here are farmers, farm labourers, shepherds, the village blacksmith, and the one-armed keeper from Bolton Castle, which stands on the hillside above the pub. Under the vigorous conductorship of Joe Alderson, the landlord, this congenial company loves to spend an evening in uproarious song. Few of them have ever been trained in singing, but you will probably all agree that their rendering of typical North Country songs rivals any professional choir in enthusiasm.”

Redmire stands in the shadow of Bolton Castle and many in the village used to be employed on the castle estate. The pub was one of two in the village, and was well-known to leisure fishermen, who could buy their licences to fish on the River Ure on the Bolton Castle estate from the pub’s landlord. The other pub in the village – the Bolton Arms – was later used as a filming location for All Things Great and Small about a Yorkshire vet.

A couple of articles in the Yorkshire Post have provided much useful information about the songs.

“A REDMIRE BROADCAST – Dialect songs from the bar the Kings Arms Inn, Redmire, will be broadcast on the Forces programme on May 4. About 14 Dalesmen will sing old-time songs, unaccompanied. The songs will probably include “Wensleydale” and “White Cockade.” Mr. Kit Jones, aged 77, will sing “The Old Cock crows” and “Selena” with his own concertina accompaniment.” 

The mention of “dialect” songs here is interesting: in 1938 and 1939, Redmire had hosted a Dialect Drama festival which was deemed successful and they had looked forward to greater events in the future. The Yorkshire Post (15.4.1940) in its report about the Thirsty Work singing session, claimed that “The fame of these Wensleydale Saturday nights reached the B.B.C. after one of their officials had found a pile of hymns one day on top of a pub piano.” Perhaps that “official” had just come out of one of the Dialect Festival events held in the Town Hall, which adjoins the King’s Arms. It was a BBC official, “Mr Reid” who had put Maurice Brown in contact with the landlord, according to information in the BBC archives, and Brown wrote that “I gather that Mr Reid may be coming professionally” to the recording weekend, which took place on Friday 12th and Saturday 13th April 1940, after a preliminary visit – referred to by Brown as a ‘see and hear’ visit on 30th and 31st March.

Information in the BBC archives shows that Brown hired a car (for which he had to request petrol coupons from the BBC) to reach this “remote spot” and that sound recordists Neil Hutchinson and AN Other, Mr Reid, and Brown’s secretary, Miss Plummer all stayed at the King’s Arms itself. The correspondence between Brown and the landlord, Joe Alderson, is very warm and friendly and the pub-goers evidently enjoyed a good time during the recordings.


Two BBC acetate recordings are held in the BLSA, and again just four songs are listed, with two of the performers mentioned in the Radio Times identified: Kit Jones and Jim Lambert.

  • I Like to Hear the Old Cock Crow (Kit Jones)
  • Our Old Nan’s a Mazer (Jim Lambert)
  • The White Cockade (possibly Joe Alderson)
  • On Ilkley Moor Baht’at (unidentified singer, but largely choral singing)

BBC archive documentation about the programme reveals that these were selected for “processing” by Maurice Brown on 4th June 1940, out of eight songs which were actually broadcast. In addition the above, these were:

  • Wensleydale (sung by “Bill and chorus”)
  • What are You going to do about Selina (Kit Jones)
  •  Maggie (Ernest Heseltine)
  •  I Shall Know Him

The latter song was one of the Sankey and Moodey hymns for which the pub singers were known. Following his initial visit to the pub on 2nd April, Brown wrote to Joe Alderson requesting some songs heard that night for the actual recording, and mentioning two further songs which do not seem to have been broadcast:

  • Rose of Allendale (trio and chorus)
  • Rocking the Baby (Mr Heseltine)

This list of songs comprises folk songs, songs associated with the locality and more modern ones, such as What are You Going to do About Selina, a song made famous in the 1920s and 30s by Music Hall star Lily Morris. A report in the Yorkshire Post mentioned many of these songs and also commented that the men carried on singing after the BBC had finished recording for the night. See References & Links below for the full text of the article.


Amazingly, a photograph has recently come to light of the actual radio recording taking place, courtesy of Dales historians Bob Ellis and Ian Spensley. The central figure with the concertina is Kit Jones, and the man whose faces just show above the concertina has been identified as landlord Joe Alderson, thanks to Ian Spensley’s enquiries on my behalf and 96 year old Albert Calvert, who remembers the recording taking place. 

Kit (Christopher) Jones (1869-1957) was described in the Radio Times as a “bookmaker” – this was most probably a sideline (and an illegal one at that) as his main occupation had been as a licensee and hotel proprietor. His wife Ann had been brought up in the pub trade and together they took on the Crown Hotel in the centre of Hawes (they were there at least 1911-1917) and may also have kept the Wensleydale Heifer Inn in another local village, West Witton at some point. By 1939 Kit had retired from the pub trade (although his daughter Mabel continued as landlady of the Bolton Arms in nearby Leyburn) and was living at “The Bungalow” in nearby Preston-under-Scar. Village resident Albert Calvert recalls this as a one-roomed cabin with no facilities and Kit had to use the earth closet in his sister’s garden next door – so not a comfortable retirement! Albert also recalled him playing the concertina out on the hills and entertaining the children with a ventriloquism act. Kit Jones was easily the oldest participant in this Thirsty Work programme, aged 71 at the time.

Jones also had some knowledge of a mumming play and wrote a song called This is the Christmas Time which folksong collector Peter Kennedy recorded from Tom Horner in nearby Swithinwaite in 1959. Kennedy had visited Jones in 1954 (by which time he had moved to Darlington) but found him “not suitable” to record.

Jim Lambert (1890-1971) who sang Our Old Nan’s a Mazer, worked in Redmire Quarry and lived with his wife and family near the Post Office in the centre of the village. The song is a dialect piece, associated with North East Yorkshire and Tyneside.

Joe Alderson (1889-1961) had been licensee of the King’s Arms since around 1930 and remained there for the rest of his life. The pub then changed hands and eventually closed in 2004. In 1960, folksong collectors Nigel and Mary Hudleston recorded Alderson singing The Summer’s Morning, which is a local name for The White Cockade. They noted that it was sung as part of a custom known as the Burning of the Bartle, held every August in nearby West Witton. So it was quite possibly Alderson who sang it for the radio recording in 1940 too.

Bill (1910-1995) and Dick Balderston (1912-1989) were brothers, the youngest men in the gathering, both single men in their twenties, living with their mother on a farm in nearby Aysgarth. Also from Aysgarth was Bob Bushby (1892-1969), a roadman. These three men were known to sing together regularly.

The other farmer amongst the singers, Ernest Heseltine (1896-1982) kept a dairy herd at Hogwra Farm, Redmire, where he lived with his wife and family. Ernest is remembered as a regular in the King’s Arms in the 1970s when Ian Spensley’s family kept the pub.

The Radio Times also mentions “the one-armed keeper of Bolton Castle”. This would be John Batty (1886-1960) who is listed in 1939 as the caretaker there – a single man in his early fifties, living with his two unmarried sisters, whose father and brothers also worked on the same estate. The Yorkshire Post article refers to a couple of other people who took part in the chorus singing: “the cobbler” – this would be Tom Hunter, listed in 1939 as bootmaker and auxiliary postman; and “the blacksmith” who was James Robinson, aged 58. Local opinion is that it is James (“Tag”) Robinson on the left behind the presenter in the photograph of the BBC recording.

A list of permissions for broadcast found in the BBC archives has confirmed James Robinson (1881-1972) and Tom Hunter (1879-1971) as taking part, as well as four other men:

Jim Ru(e)croft (1889-1975) was a driver, born and brought up in Redmire, but living in Leyburn by 1939.

James Waller (1876-n.d.) was living on Station Road, Redmire. He seems to have had various jobs and was probably related to the licensees of a pub just outside Redmire, the Swan Inn.

Godfrey Rutter (1876-1972), was originally from Gunnerside, and by 1939 was working in the local quarry and living in the nearby village of Castle Bolton.

Bob Lambert (1895-1978) was a railway clerk living in the nearby town of Leyburn.

A series of letters reveals another man who was also involved, but got missed off the list and subsequently did not receive any payment – which he complained about to the BBC. This was Ralph Bell Fawcett (1892-1969), whose headed notepaper indicates he was a journalist at the Wensleydale Newsagency, Middleham. He claimed he was invited to sing and had been treated unfairly; BBC producer Maurice Brown wrote to the landlord of the King’s Arms, Joe Alderson, with whom he was clearly on friendly terms:

“I am a little worried by two letters from Fawcett, who writes that not only does he think that he has been treated shabbily, but others agree with him in thinking that they were not treated fairly. Could you tell me about this as I should hate to think so happy an occasion should end in discontent. Neither I nor the B.B.C. have any desire to be mean.”

Several references have indicated that the participants here sang as a group, and the same Yorkshire Post article clarifies that they were arranged into tenors and basses. Maurice Brown commented; “I think it is the best natural singing I have ever heard, except the Welsh. It is in no way typical pub singing. They take great trouble with what they call blending.”

One of the singers, a farmer said: “Jazz is no ewse tiv us [ …] we’re partial tiv a bit o’Sankey” – referring to the hymns popularised by American evangelist singer Ira Sankey, known as “The Sweet Singer of Methodism”. They were popular with a number of “traditional” singers including Norfolk’s Sam Larner and Harry Cox.

Traditional Culture in Redmire

The area was also known to American collector J. M. Carpenter who collected a pace-egging (“Pay Segging” on the manuscript) song from Jane Elizabeth Ryder and descriptions of other calendar customs from a Mrs George Robinson in nearby Preston-under-Scar, about a decade earlier. See References & Links section for further details.

Living in a tiny cottage in the village of Castle Bolton, just a few yards from the entrance to the actual castle, was the artist Fred Lawson. Lawson painted many local scenes and wrote in The Dalesman about local events, including traditional events such as Redmire Feast with its “Cheesecake Gatherers”. 

You can now read my new article about the Cheesecake Gatherers and Clockdressers on this website.

Programme 7: The Star Inn, Harome, Yorkshire

Broadcast on 7th March 1941

“An evening of popular and country singing, recorded by the BBC Mobile Recording Unit in a North Riding inn. Master of ceremonies, Tom Oldfield; Melodeon, Robert Ford; Singers: John Flintoft, John Collinson, Jack Cobley, George Dodds, Charles Young, and other regulars of the Star Inn, Harome. Produced by Maurice Brown.”

Initially, this programme presented more questions and mysteries than answers, but my visit to the BBC Written Archives Centre revealed a real treasure trove of information about the songs sung, the people who sang them and much more. This section has been totally revised since I first posted about it in November 2021.

I have found no sign of any discs in the British Library from this programme, but a memo from producer Maurice Brown in March 1941 indicates that the original recordings were “processed” – meaning a selection was made for archiving.

The Star is an attractive medieval thatched building, which until very recently was a famous “gastropub”, but on 26th November 2021 the thatch caught fire and much of the building suffered devastating damage. At the time of the Thirsty Work programmes, the landlord was Tom Oldfield and the pub had been run from at least 1800 by members of his wife’s family. They bought the pub in 1933 and kept it until 1946, being the last members of the family to do so.

It was a man called Sidney Jameson, who suggested the Star Inn to producer Maurice Brown. Jameson (1898-1982), from Butterwick, Barton-le-Street, near Malton, gave his occupation in the 1939 register as news correspondent/journalist. He wrote copious notes to Brown, including biographies of singers. He also made the preliminary visits to the pub (and other possible locations), offered accommodation to the BBC crew and afterwards sent Brown press cuttings from the local newspaper showing some reactions to the programme.

There is no record of Brown making a “see and hear” visit for this broadcast and it seems very probable that he relied on Jameson’s judgement. Jameson had previously explored other pubs in the vicinity in the quest for a suitable location for the radio programme, writing to Brown:

“I also looked in at the Plough Inn at Wombleton, another thatched roof picturesque old place. The people at the inn were very interesting folk. There used to be plenty of singers at the inn formerly, but now they have only an occasional sing song there when the son of the house comes home on leave from the army and brings his accordion. The Helmsley inns too are rather short of local singers. There are a good number of soldiers in the town and district who sing at the inns now. “Mine hostess” and her sister, typical old villagers of the village inn at Nawton near Helmsley said to me on Sunday “They’ve (the military) taken all our men folk away now, but there used to be plenty of singing here formerly.”

Jameson also considered the Buck Inn at Wrelton near Pickering (see below), but when he found the Star Inn, he knew he’d struck gold, and wrote at length to Brown about some of the singers and participants: “George Thomas Oldfield, innkeeper [ … ] is an exceptionally good type. He sings, talks fluently. A jovial personality. [The inn’s] patrons have sung there for generations. There has not been so much singing since the outbreak of war, but there are still plenty of villagers who have sung there and who can give a good musical evening in the old style. “Most of our lads sing at the chapel as well,” says the innkeeper. “And they’re big men at dominoes and darts.”

Jameson’s pivotal role in this programme is shown by Maurice Brown’s memo to his managers on 7th Feb 1941: “Mr Sidney Jameson of Butterwick, Barton-le-Street, near Malton, has gone to immense pains to collect material for me and it is largely through him that this rush programme was successfully recorded. I would be very grateful if he could receive a cheque of not less than 3 guineas, the actual sum I suggest being 5 guineas.”

Brown and his BBC colleague, Mr Chignall, recorded at the Star Inn on 3rd and 4th February 1941. Afterwards, Brown was incapacitated for a while and it was Chignall who compiled the actual programme. Brown wrote to Jameson: “Despite a few points I would have liked changed, I thought the programme went very well, although another five minutes would have made all the difference.”


Unlike the first two programmes, there was no trace of any recordings in the British Library Sound Archive and the Radio Times gave no occupations, making life even more difficult. There were two Robert Fords and two John Flintofts living in Harome and I couldn’t initially identify any of the other singers in the locality either. However, additional information from the BBC archives and a bit of lateral thinking have eventually resulted in a much better idea of who these singers were.

The Radio Times listed: MC: Tom Oldfield (the landlord) as the MC, Robert Ford on melodeon and singers John Flintoft, John Collinson, Jack Cobley, George Dodds and Charles Young. Additionally, from the BBC archive we now know the following people also took part: Frank Flintoft, Albert Ventress, Archie Greenley, Albert Watson, Reg Marsden and Tom Smith. Apart from the last man, I have now identified all these people.

Tom Oldfield (1884-1975) started out in life as a bricklayer in Norton, near Malton. His first wife died and his second wife came from the Bradley family who had been running the Star Inn since at least 1800. They bought the Star Inn for the sum of £395 in December 1933 and put it up for sale again in 1946.

Robert Ford (1864-1951) was a retired woodsman and general labourer, living on the main street in Harome. From Sidney Jameson’s letters to Maurice Brown, we know that he was highly regarded in the community and led local processions at coronations, jubilees and so on, playing the melodeon. He had bought his first melodeon aged 18 and taught himself to play and had a repertoire of dance tunes, playing a polka for the Thirsty Work programme. Jameson also informs us that Ford had played for the old “granary dances” in the locality, and wrote to Maurice Brown: “Mr Ford is not a “regular” or a frequenter of the inn, but has called in occasionally for a glass of beer. I think he would respond to an invitation to play for you.”

John (1875-1950) and his son Frank Flintoft (1917-2011) were sheep farmers at Church Farm in Harome, although John lived much of his life in Ampleforth, about ten miles to the west.

John Collinson (1883-n.d.) was born in West Hartlepool but from an early age had lived in the village of Nunnington, near Harome. He worked as a road man for the North Riding council.

Jack Cobley (1873-1952) lived all his life in the village of Kirbymoorside, but his wife’s family lived very close to the Star Inn, and so he would have known Harome well. In 1939 his occupation was given as a general labourer, but in earlier life he had worked as a groom, hence his penchant for “horsey” songs!

George Dodds (1900-1986) worked on an estate in 1939, by which date he was living in Harome, having been born and brought up in Wombleton.

Charles Young (1894-1965) was born in North Shields where he started working as a hairdresser. His marriage in 1919 took place in Hawnby, northwest of Harome, suggesting he had moved to this area. By 1939 he was living in the nearby of Helmsley and working as a driver for the Post Office.

Albert Ventress (1912-1990) was described as a woodman in the BBC archives, but in the 1939 register he appears as a steam engine driver (threshing), so it sounds as if he was reliant on seasonal jobs. He lived in Harome for the rest of his life.

Archie Greenlay (1918-1986) was also described as a woodman in the BBC archives. In 1939 he was living a couple of doors away from Albert Ventress, in the Council Houses in Harome and was working as a general labourer. He too remained in Harome for the rest of his life.

Albert Watson (1898-1971) lived his whole life in Harome and in 1939 he was living on The Square and listed as a “permanent way labourer” meaning that he worked on the railway lines rather than on the trains.

Reg Marsden (1898-1972) also worked as a permanent way labourer on the railways. In 1939 his address was 1, Railway Cottages and his wife was listed as the railway crossing keeper. It seems likely that he came from the Stockton-on-Tees/Middlesborough area, and he and his wife married in Otley, West Yorkshire, so it looks as if he moved around a bit.


  • The Doctor’s Shop (John Collinson)
  • The Place Where the Old Horse Died (Jack Cobley)
  • The Little Shirt
  • Leeds Fair (Tom Oldfield)
  • The Rover
  • Blaydon Races (Charles Young)
  • Hull Fishermen (John Flintoft)
  • Polka on melodeon (Robert Ford)

In a BBC memo, Maurice Brown wrote to Peter Bax, who wanted to trail the Thirsty Work programme in Programme Parade:

“Songs are for the most part of music-hall foundation with “anon” country twists and variations. Highlights – “The Doctor’s Shop,” a nonsense song sung by John Collinson, a roadman; “The place where the old horse died,” a moving and pathetic ballad sung by a horsey gentleman named Jack Cobley; a polka played by an old man called Robert Ford on a melodeon, which he told me used to be played at dances at dale granaries. He is, I am told, a melodeon “champ”. The local postman, Charles Young, who although he has been at Harome twenty years and won’t go away, still insists on talking in a Shields accent. He will sing “Blaydon Races”. “Hull Fishermen”, which I suspect is broadsheet, sung by a farmer called Flintoft; and “Leeds Fair”, a Yorkshire patter song sung by the landlord, Tom Oldfield.”

This not only gives us information about who sang what, but also demonstrates Brown’s understanding of the repertoire.

After one of his visits to the Star, Sidney Jameson wrote the following to Brown in January 1941, with this affecting vignette of the company:

“There were a few singers including Mr Collinson at the inn. Mr Collinson sang several grand old songs. He is a “star” in his class. John Flintoft famer (father of Frank) sang songs he’d sung at the inn nearly 50 years ago, in Mrs Oldfield’s grandmother’s day. Reg Marsden sang Some people think it’s jolly to lead a single life. Farmer Flintoft and Mr Collinson used to buy penny song books, or sheets, many years ago from “Oad Song Herry” (Old Song Harry) who used to attend the Martinmas hirings and go round the farms buying horse hair, selling laces and songs. Farmer Flintoft said “They’re public house songs ours. We used to buy song sheets off Herry and learn ‘em in t’stables and make up our own tunes to ‘em if we didn’t know t’right ones.”

Sidney Jameson also mentioned that he had heard the following songs sung in the pub:

  • Some people think it’s jolly to lead a single life (aka Buy a Little Table) (Reg Marsden)
  • My Memory has painted a picture for me (Frank Flintoft)
  • It was on a Sunday Morning (Frank Flintoft)
  • Roll Along Covered Wagon, Roll Along (Frank Flintoft)
  • The Agricultural Show (John Flintoft)
  • I’m not the sort of bloke you know that would give a pal away (John Flintoft)
  • Once I Loved with Fond Affection (John Flintoft)
  • Down the street there’s such a bloomin’ riot (John Flintoft)
  • You may ask what makes this darkie weep (Albert Watson)
  • Dear Home Across the Sea (Albert Watson)
  • The little old log cabin (Albert Watson)
  • I Must Go Home Tonight (George Dodds)
  • Danny Boy (Tom Smith)
  • It was only a beautiful picture (Albert Ventress)
  • Two Eyes of Blue (Archie Greenlay)

And, sung by the entire company:

  • Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl
  • Cockles and Mussels
  • My Girl’s a Yorkshire girl
  • My bonny
  • It’s a long way to Tipperary etc

A Near Miss

Judging from Sidney Jameson’s correspondence with Maurice Brown, another strong contender for a Thirsty Work programme was the Buck Inn at Wrelton near Pickering, where Lilian Knowles was the innkeeper, and about which Jameson wrote:

“I called at the inn on Monday evening and had an interesting chat with the innkeeper and several personalities who live some distance away, from getting down in the evenings. A good company gets together sometimes and has a good sing song, especially about Christmastide. Dan Turnbull, I gathered, gets a bit annoyed when there are three rooms going at the Christmas season and he can’t be choir master in all of including Dan Turnbull, local character. Singing has long been a popular pastime at the Buck Inn though there is not so much done now owing to the black-out which prevents some of the old hands, them. Among the local singers are, Emanuel Ward (village cobbler and violinist), Len Ringrose (farm hand), John Braithwaite, Jimmy Dale and Herbert Dobson (smallholder). Ernest Farmery of Pickering, brother of the innkeeper, visits the inn from time to time. He is a well-known ‘leg puller’ and joker and would certainly be a useful chap in getting together a company of singers at the Buck Inn.”

If anyone would like to follow up this information, do get in touch.

In November 2021 I gave a presentation to the Traditional Song Forum on the Thirsty Work programmes, and was able to include some sound clips from some of the singers in Programmes 1 and 2. This is now on Youtube if you’d like to give it a listen – it lasts about 30 minutes and is the second presentation. The first one is also really interesting, and is about singing in the Lake District, which neatly leads into the first Thirsty Work pub! Here’s the link to my Thirsty Work presentation.

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 1: traditional singing on the radio 1940-41

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 3: East Anglia and the East Midlands – singing from the Eel’s Foot Inn, Suffolk and Wakerley, Northamptonshire

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 4: Cotswolds – two programmes with an unexpected link with “The Archers”: singing from North Littleton and Ebrington

‘Thirsty Work’ part 5: Director’s Cut recordings from Programmes 5 & 6 and other updates

The Procession of the Clockdressers and Cheesecake Gatherers (Redmire)

References and Links

I originally found out about the Thirsty Work programmes on the Radio Times Programme Index (previously known as the Genome project), which is very easy to browse and search. Further information on the making of these programmes has been added from the BBC Written Archives Centre, which is by appointment only, in person.

For information and discussions about Ambleside, I am grateful to Sue Allan, and for Redmire, to Bob Ellis, Ian Spensley, Albert Calvert and Steve Gardham. Many thanks to them all for their generous help and interest.

For Ambleside see also:

The website Minor Victorian Writers contains an image of the song Sally Gray as published in Johns Graham’s 1910 book Dialect Songs of the North.

Lakeland Hunting Memories has a lot on Braithwaite Black and a big section on songs.

For Redmire:

The Yorkshire Dales is well supplied by interesting websites including Yorkshire Dales History which has more about Redmire Quarry and Fred Lawson’s painting. For more about Fred Lawson see the Yorkshire Dales website. 

The photo of the Redmire recording session was first seen in Bob Ellis’ tremendous book about the instrumental music of the Dales: There was None of this Lazy Dancing! (2020) and comes from the Dales Countryside Museum collection. You can buy his book from the website too.

Also relevant are Dales Genealogy and the Redmire village website.

For references to the audio recordings, see: British Library Sound & Moving Image catalogue

For Peter Kennedy’s recordings in the Redmire area in the 1950s, see the archived website for his recording label, Folktrax. Although the recordings are not currently available, the documentation is still accessible, if sometimes difficult to locate – here’s a direct link to: The Lass of Richmond Hill: Songs and Customs of the Yorkshire Dales

Joe Alderson’s version of The Summer’s Morning has been published in two books: Songs of the Ridings by Nigel Hudleston (1970), and The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs by Steve Roud & Julia Bishop (2012).

For Yorkshire songs in general, see The Yorkshire Garland website.

If you’d like to read the full report of the recording session, here it is: Yorkshire Post 15 April 1940

Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.  © Katie Howson, 2021.

It is due to be published in print form in the near future, and details will be posted here when known. Should you wish to use any of the information or images here, please do contact me first.

I have far more biographical and anecdotal evidence about the singers than can be published here – if you are a relative or a researcher, please do get in touch, I would be very happy to share the information I have.

Thirsty Work Part 3: East Anglia and the East Midlands – singing from the Eel’s Foot Inn, Suffolk and Wakerley, Northants

This article was first posted in November 2021, but has been significantly updated in the light of important new information in January 2022.

This article covers Programmes 3 and 4 in the Thirsty Work series broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme between 9th April 1940 and 7th March 1941.

It makes most sense if you read the introduction to the series (‘Thirsty Work’ Part 1) before this one.

  • Programme 3 was broadcast on 13th May 1940 from recordings made at the Eel’s Foot Inn, Eastbridge, near Leiston in Suffolk on 13th May 1939
  • Programme 4 was broadcast on 14th June 1940 from recordings made at the Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley, Northamptonshire on 8th & 9th May 1940

You can use these shortcuts to the different sections if you wish:

Programme 3: The Eel’s Foot, Suffolk

Broadcast on 13th May 1940


“An evening of local and popular songs recorded in a Suffolk inn by the BBC Mobile Recording Unit
Those taking part are Philip Lumkin, chairman; Walter Button, concertina; ‘Velvet’ Bright-well, singer; Douglas Morling, singer; Tom Goddard, singer; Fred Ginger, singer; Harry Cook, singer; and other regulars of the Eel’s Foot, Eastbridge.”

The singing nights at the Eel’s Foot Inn had already been the subject of a stand-alone radio programme broadcast on the Home Service on 29th July 1939 – Saturday Night at the Eel’s Foot, produced by Maurice Brown, as indicated in the Radio Times “blurb” for the first Thirsty Work programme. This had come about as a result of A.L. Lloyd paying a visit to his friend Leslie Morton, the Marxist historian who, in the early 1930s, had settled a couple of miles away,  near the town of Leiston where he taught at the progressive Summerhill School and founded a local branch of the Communist Party. Morton also had an interest in “the people’s” songs and had become an accepted part of the company of singers in the Eel’s Foot on a Saturday night.

The 1939 programme  (illustrated) – and a later one, East Anglia Sings, broadcast in November 1947 – are well known, and the original recordings can be heard on a CD called Good Order, on the Veteran label (see Links section). I could find no reference to any recordings being made in 1940 – local memories are of two visits, and there was nothing in the British Library Sound Archive for this year, although the 1939 and 1947 discs are in their archive. I began to suspect that this edition of Thirsty Work had been edited together from the 1939 recordings, and then I unearthed confirmation of this in some memos in the BBC written archives. In making arrangements for this programme, Maurice Brown wrote to his boss: “This can be followed by “Saturday Night at the Eel’s Foot”, a Suffolk pub, which was broadcast last year and is on film. I should like you to hear this if you could and let me know what you think of it, as it’s rather more folk than popular and contains one song “McCassery” [sic] which might be considered mutinous. Can I have your opinion.” Clearly the song McCaffery was not given clearance for broadcast to the troops! The comment about the Eel’s Foot being “on film” is very tantalising, but in fact refers to an early format for audio recording (See Part 1 for more on this).

We now know that this programme in the Thirsty Work series used six songs from the Saturday Night at the Eel’s Foot, which had been a longer programme:

  • Poor Man’s Heaven (Tom Goddard)
  • The Foggy Dew (Douglas Morling)
  • Pleasant and Delightful (Velvet Brightwell)
  • Duck Foot Sue (Harry ‘Crutter’ Cook)
  • The Old Sow (Fred Ginger)

The songs were mostly traditional songs – apart from Poor Man’s Heaven sung by Tom Goddard, which was written in New York in 1930 – the disc on the right below is by Carson Robison. The Old Sow – sung in the Eel’s Foot by Fred Ginger – is often thought of as a 20th century song, as it became well known from commercial recordings by Albert Richardson (1928) and Leslie Sarony (1934), but it was actually composed over a hundred years earlier.


The Eel’s Foot singers were all very local, and were regulars in the pub, which held frequent sing-songs, often after a darts or quoits match. They all lived in easy walking or cycling distance, and worked in a variety of occupations including the railway, gas works and the engineering firm of Garrards in Leiston, an unexpectedly industrial little town in this coastal area of marshes and heaths.

Here again there was a chairman, on this occasion Philip Lumpkin, who famously used a cribbage board to bang on the table and keep order when things got a bit rowdy, which they apparently did on these recordings, as the BBC was footing the drinks bill! Lumpkin was not the first to take the role of Chairman at the Eel’s Foot – although the names seem a little muddled in the various reports, it seems that an older man, possibly Jack Button or a relative in his eighties, had previously acted as chairman.

We have evidence from both the 1939 and 1947 broadcasts from the Eel’s Foot of fees paid by the BBC to performers. A newspaper report from 1939 states the fee to be one guinea, and letters from the BBC Talks Booking Manager to Douglas Morling and Fred Ginger in 1947 offer them each a fee of two guineas, with the letters all being sent care of the Eel’s Foot pub. . I doubt any extra fees were involved in this reworking of the original material, although all the other programmes in the series reveal payment of 10/6d (half a guinea) to most of the singers.

The ongoing relationship between the Eel’s Foot and the left-wing intelligentsia continued through 1940, with a double-page spread of atmospheric images appearing in the photo-journal Picture Post on 14th December.

The caption to the large photograph reads: “Folk singing as our forefathers knew it. Every singer in the room has had a turn. Now it’s “Time, please!” Round the table hands are joined. “Auld Lang Syne” ends the evening.”

It is interesting to note there are nearly as many women as men, and that a young woman, Ethel Morling is pictured singing. Ethel was married to Douglas Morling – son of the landlady, Lily Morling, who was married to Philip Lumpkin, the chairman. So this is really an extended family group with a few friends and neighbours including Velvet Brightwell, Percy Denny, Syd Cook and Albert “Diddy” Cook amongst those identified.

Listeners to the Thirsty Work series might have thought women took no part at all in this pub-based singing and music-making, and of course, the tap-rooms of rural pubs were mainly the dominion of men, but apart from Ethel Morling pictured here, The Royal Oak in Ambleside (programme 1) was run by a woman, as was the “other” pub in North Littleton (programme 5), where the landlady was herself a singer. Other pubs were often run by women, even when it was the husband’s name on the licence and there is growing evidence that women – particularly those involved in the pub-keeping trade – were accepted as singers and musicians.

Singers, songs and participants

Tom Goddard (1903-1977) was a farm worker and warrener. At the time of this programme he was living on the Common, next door to the retired Eel’s Foot landlord, Fred Rouse. Apart from Poor Man’s Heaven, he was also known to sing the classic folk song Australia and light-hearted songs such as Buttercup Joe and Lavender Trousers. In an interview with folklorist Keith Summers in the 1970s, he said he learned a lot of his songs off records.

Douglas Morling (1910-1993) was not remembered as a regular singer in the pub. His mother, Lily, ran the Eel’s Foot from 1929, and after her first husband died in 1934, she married Philip Lumpkin, although she continued to use her previous surname. A year earlier, Douglas had married Ethel née Lumpkin, who was presumably a relative of his stepfather. They lived very close to the pub and his trade was plastering.

Philip Lumpkin (1888-1960) had a job in the gas works, but helped out in the pub, continuing to do so after his wife Lily Morling died and her son Stanley and daughter-in-law Eileen took it on, in 1945. He is famous as the chairman of the sing-songs, keeping everyone in order by banging a cribbage-board on the table and calling “Good Order, ladies and gentlemen please!” but he did also sing occasionally, one of his favourites being My Father Kept Two Rabbits.

Fred Ginger (1910-1984) was born into the family that had kept the Eel’s Foot since at least 1841. His grandfather Fred Rouse kept the Eel’s Foot when he was born, then his mother and father (Ethel née Rouse and James Ginger) took it on from 1922 until the Morlings came in 1929. He married Dora Brightwell, daughter of Velvet (and sister of Jumbo). Local people recalled that Fred worked for the river board, but this may be his father, who in 1939 was living in the cottages near the sluice, whilst Fred and Dora were living in Leiston, where he was working as a plate-layer. It’s not known what else he sang apart from his “star turn” The Old Sow.

William “Velvet” Brightwell (1865-1960) After trying life at sea for a year or two, Velvet took a job locally, working as a plate-layer on the railway at Garrett’s Engineering works in Leiston. He became a foreman and joined the Royal Order of the Buffaloes, where he enjoyed singing at the meetings – it’s not on record what this would have been. His nickname came from his favoured velvet waistcoat. He had two songs on the 1939 radio programme: The Indian Lass and Pleasant and Delightful. Folksong collector Peter Kennedy recorded him when he was 91, when he sang Scarboro’, the Faithful Plough, The Foggy Dew and The Loss of the Ramillies (learned from his father Robert).

His son Jumbo (also William, 1900-1980) had a large repertoire of folksongs, some of which he learned from Velvet, and at least one from his mother. He was recorded by several collectors from the 1950s through to the 1970s, resulting in tracks on a number of compilations as well as a solo LP Songs from the Eel’s Foot issued on the Topic label in 1975.

Harry “Crutter” Cook (1868-1954) Harry worked as a sluiceman on the marshes. He had been born and brought up in Eastbridge, then moved out to live near the hand-operated sluices, from where he would walk up the pub every Saturday night. By 1939 he had moved to the nearby village of Westleton with his wife Emily Maud. Apart from the comic (very un-PC) song Duck-Foot Sue, he is also remembered as singing Blow the Candle Out, Ramble Away and Newlyn Town.

Walter Button (“concertina” in the Radio Times) – this could be an error, as local knowledge has this person as Jack Button (William John Button 1873-1955) who played the melodeon, not the concertina, as can be seen in the Picture Post photospread. He was brought up next door the Eel’s Foot and later moved to Leiston where he ran a shop with his widowed mother. He married in 1904 and his early married life included a spell back in Eastbridge, but by 1939 he was again in Leiston, working as a gardener. His daughter Aline married Alfred Stollery, and both she and her son Eric were singers recorded by Keith Summers in the 1970s.

E.J. Moeran, the composer and folklorist, who instigated the 1947 recordings (East Anglia Sings) wrote about that occasion in the 1948 Journal of the  EFDSS: “Two weeks after my preliminary trip I went again with a recording van. The singers seemed quite excited about it and were out to do their very best. The engineers, for the most part, arranged things in such a way that all the men had to do was sit and sing and carry on as usual.” At no point did there seem to be any acknowledgement that this was not the first time this had happened, but other comments here, about the singers being “uncontaminated by outside influences” reveal a somewhat naïve view of the social context, and ironically, in a 1946 article written for The Countrygoer in Autumn”, Moeran wrote: “Until the advent of the radio, [spontaneous singing of the old songs] held on in certain isolated districts …” so he must have been uncomfortably aware that the very medium that he was working with was (in his view) contributing to the decline of the phenomenon they were recording.

Programme 4: The Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley, Northamptonshire

Broadcast on 14th June 1940

In some ways this fourth programme in the series is potentially the most interesting, as it is from a geographical area little covered by collectors. Wakerley is technically in Northamptonshire, but is right on the border of Rutland, about 10 miles from Stamford and 20 miles west of Peterborough.

“An evening of country singing recorded by the BBC Mobile Recording Unit. Produced by Maurice Brown; Chairman, George White; Pianist, Jim Hopkins; Singers: Bill Pridmore, Peter Wilson, Thomas Hendrie, Luke Webster, Bill Prodger, Frank Smart and other regulars of The Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley, Northamptonshire.”

Working from the original information in the Radio Times, I was only able to identify four out of the eight singers named, who were all from the small inter-linked villages of Wakerley and Barrowden. Wakerley itself is so small that in the 1939 Register, the houses are simply numbered, with no road names, e.g. “No.3, Wakerley”.

None of the singers mentioned have been “collected”, and no recordings are indicated anywhere in the archives, and to compound the problem, there was even some question over the identity of the pub, as there had been a pub called the Exeter’s Arms in Wakerley, which closed at an unspecified date, and another pub in the contiguous village of Barrowden took on the name Exeter Arms, again at an unspecified date!

To our great good fortune, the documentation held at the BBC Written Archives Centre has provided a lot of information about this hitherto mysterious issue of the series, and I have now been able to find out the songs sung there, and to correctly identify virtually all the singers.

The BBC archive material has also shed some light on how this pub came to be selected as a venue for the Thirsty Work series. I had initially supposed that the chairman George White had been the point of contact (see below) and this could still be the case, but the existing documentation suggests that the first discussions were between a Mr Ladbrook from the BBC (Charles “Laddie” Ladbrook, a sound engineer and studio producer) and the pub’s landlord, George Miller, as shown in this letter from Maurice Brown dated 9th April 1940:

“Dear Mr Miller, I believe Mr Ladbrook of the BBC told you that I am producing a series of programmes recorded in pubs of local singers singing local songs. He has told me that there is a great deal of singing at the Exeter’s Arms. Would it be possible, given enough notice, for you to assemble these singers one Saturday night for me to hear? If they sing a varied enough selection and their songs are sufficiently local, could I then come down with a recording van and make records? These programmes are being broadcast to the Forces, and individual pubs should appeal to regiments enlisted from that district.”

White (described as the proprietor of the Market Hotel, Shirebrook) was mentioned to Brown by BBC Midlands producer Robin Whitworth who was one of Maurice Brown’s great allies (see Part 1) in finding suitable pubs, though he commented that the Market Hotel itself was too big to be a suitable venue for a Thirsty Work programme.






Percy George White (1887-1967) who acted as the chairman seems to have charted an interesting course through life. He appears in public documents variously as Percy White and George White, and in the 1939 register he was living in Wakerley, and his job given as a commercial traveller (travelling salesman I think), but  it seems he had a performing career outside of chairing an evening sing-song in the local pub …

Two advertisements placed in the “Small Ads” in the Boston Guardian in 1945 and 1949 respectively stated:

“GEORGE WHITE. The Always Successful Comedian. Open for Engagements. Address. Wakerley. Oakham.” (24 January 1945)

 GEORGE WHITE. Comedian.— expert compere, for concerts, etc. Also M.C. socials and dances. —Wakerley. Oakham.” (2 March 1949)

As a young man he left home and in 1911 was lodging in Woking, Surrey. Then it seems that his life took a rather more adventurous turn – although I can’t be 100% certain this is the same man, it seems very likely – in the receiving book for Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, on 12th February 1924, a man with the same full name was committed to gaol for tax evasion, having been tried in Co. Longford. He was at that time a theatre manager of no fixed abode, born in 1887 in Wakerley, and had a wife, Dorothy, who was travelling with the theatre. This appears to be Dorothy Grafton and they were married in Naas, Co. Kildare in 1915. I don’t know whether she was English or Irish, as I can find no further trace of her. In the 1939 Register, back in Wakerley, after his mother’s death, George White is listed as married, but is living on his own. His only other criminal conviction was for not paying for a dog licence in Wakerley in 1941 – so this remains a tantalising mystery at the moment!

Thomas Hendrie (1912-1980) was born in Yorkshire of a Scottish family. The BBC archive documentation gave his address as “Farm Shade” – this is actually the hamlet of Fineshade/ Fineshade Woods, just south of Wakerley. The information from the 1939 register shows him living in Apethorpe, which may be the same location, and he was working in forestry. It looks as if he emigrated to New South Wales in Australia sometime before 1977.

Joseph Pridmore’s address was given in the BBC documentation as “Vine Shade” – so clearly Fineshade again, but I have not found anyone in the 1939 register or other sources to match this person.

The BBC archives (giving his initials, and address in nearby Nassington) did how however enable a correct identification for Bill Prodger – as Gwilym Lloyd Prodger – (1913-1964). He worked in the iron ore industry and was the son of William Prodger, whom I had previously thought to be the Thirsty Work singer. The family were Welsh, via Yorkshire.

The documentation in the BBC archives also enabled a correct identification of Bill Pridmore (1874-1955) as a general labourer and woodman, living in the neighbouring village of Barrowden, who was pianist Jim Hopkins’ uncle.

Jim Hopkins (1911-n.d.) worked in the iron ore industry as a loco driver and lived in the neighbouring village of Barrowden.

“Luke” Webster from the Radio Times turns out to be Ernest Pickard Webster (1905-1974) who was a farm worker born and bred in Wakerley.

It’s not surprising that Frank Smart (1880-1957) was difficult to find – it was only his address given in the BBC archives that identified him as living over 50 miles from Wakerley, in Helmdon, near Brackley. I have not been able to find any family or occupational link with Wakerley, so it’s a mystery how he came to be there that night! He had grown up in Stratford-on-Avon, where his father worked on the railways, and that is the occupation Frank followed too, being the station-master at Helmdon in the 1939 register.

Peter / E. Wilson and Sam White remain unidentified, despite my best attempts.


In the BBC Written Archives Centre, the “Programme as Broadcast” documentation has survived and reveals ten songs that were broadcast in this programme:

  • Aby my Boy – Chorus
  • Farmer Giles – Frank Smart
  • I don’t work for a living – Peter Wilson
  • Farmer’s Boy – Thomas Hendrie
  • One man went a-mowing – Chorus
  • Bank of the Clyde – Bill Pridmore
  • Apple Dumplings – George White
  • Rose of Tralee – Bill Prodger
  • The Ships that Never Returned – Luke Webster
  • Brother Sylveste – Chorus

Maurice Brown wrote to landlord George Miller on 3rd May 1940, asking for the following three songs, which he had evidently heard during his initial “see and hear” visit the night before, but these were not included in the broadcast.

  • Wire in, my Lads – George (Percy) White
  • The Lincolnshire Poacher – Sam White
  • When first I went a Waggoning – Joe Pridmore

In July 1940, Maurice Brown sent off the recordings made at the Exeter’s Arms for “processing”: “Here are the records made at the Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley. One can be resprayed, eight kept and re-vaselined and the remainder, detailed below, processed if possible, with introductions and applause.”

The songs he selected were: The Ship that Never Returned, The Farmer’s Boy (local version): 2nd attempt, I Don’t Work for a Living: 2nd attempt, My Brother Sylveste, Farmer Giles and Apple Dumplings plus some general sound effects. At the moment, it is not known if these recordings are still in existence anywhere.

In the BBC “programme as broadcast” document, all songs are marked “Trad” which is clearly not the case! Maurice Brown’s idea for these programmes was not strictly limited to folk songs (See Part 1 for more discussion of this) and he “knew his onions” about the various genres of song, so this comment seems a bit disingenuous and maybe hurried; but I doubt it would have thrown the BBC copyright hounds off the scent!

So now, thanks to the information discovered in the BBC written archives, we have a bit more idea of what people were singing in this area little covered by folksong collectors.

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 1: traditional singing on the radio 1940-41

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 2: the North – singing from Ambleside, Redmire and Harome

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 4: Cotswolds – two programmes with an unexpected link with “The Archers”: singing from North Littleton and Ebrington

‘Thirsty Work’ part 5: Director’s Cut – recordings from Programmes 5 & 6 and other updates.

References and Links

I originally found out about the Thirsty Work programmes on the Radio Times Programme Index (previously known as the Genome project), which is very easy to browse and search. Further information on the making of these programmes has been added from the BBC Written Archives Centre, which is by appointment only, in person.

The Good Order CD on the Veteran label was produced as a community project, with every household in the villages of Eastbridge and Theberton being given a free copy of the CD. Much of the research in this article was carried out for that project in 1999/2000 including interviews with people such as Eileen Morling, who had been landlady when the BBC visited in 1947, and family members of many of the singers featured. Further details on the Veteran CDs website. 

In the 1970s Keith Summers interviewed, recorded and photographed many singers and musicians in Suffolk. The resulting written work, Sing Say or Pay! is now published online, and there’s a Chapter on the Eel’s Foot.

E.J. Moeran wrote about his experiences at the Eel’s Foot in 1947 in Some Folk Singing of Today (Journal of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, 1948) and also Folk-songs and some Traditional Singers in East Anglia (in The Countrygoer in Autumn, 1946).

Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.

It is due to be published in print form in the near future, and details will be posted here when known. Should you wish to use any of the information or images here, please do contact me first.

I have far more biographical and anecdotal evidence about the singers than can be published here – if you are a relative or a researcher, please do get in touch, I would be very happy to share the information I have.

Thirsty Work Part 4: the Cotswolds – singing from North Littleton and Ebrington

This article was first posted in November 2021, but was significantly updated in the light of important new information in January 2022, with an additional biographical note added in July 2023.

This article covers programmes 5 and 6 in the Thirsty Work series broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme between 9th April 1940 and 7th March 1941.

It makes most sense if you read the introduction to the series (‘Thirsty Work’ Part 1) before this one.

  • Programme 5 was first broadcast on 22nd July 1940 from recordings made at the Ivy Inn, North Littleton, near Evesham, Worcestershire on 6th & 7th June 1940. The first six minutes of this programme were not broadcast due to a technical hitch, and so it was repeated on 17th Sept 1940. 
  • Programme 6 was broadcast on 28th November 1940 from recordings made at the Ebrington Inn, Ebrington, near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, on 27th and 28th September 1940, and was repeated on 3rd January 1941.

As with Programme 4, there seemed to be no recordings in existence, so originally we had no information about the songs sung on these programmes (update: see ‘Thirsty Work’ Part 5 –  Director’s Cut,  for new details of recordings). A visit to the BBC Written Archives Centre has now revealed the details of the songs sung as well as the way these two locations only ten miles apart came to be chosen.

In a memo to Thirsty Work producer Maurice Brown written on 8th May 1940, BBC Midlands producer Robin Whitworth advised him: “There are some enthusiastic pub singers at North Littleton, about 5 miles from Evesham. There are two Pubs there, but the “Ivy” is the best.” Brown followed this up quickly, visiting the Ivy in company with Charles Gardiner on 21st and 22nd May and arrangements were made to record over the first weekend in June.

It seemed strange that the next programme was also from the Cotswolds, but again, information in the BBC archives has revealed something of the situation at the time: in a letter dated 1st July 1940, Brown wrote to Gardiner: “Could we visit a Cotswold pub as soon after July 22 as possible to fix a recording for August? Unfortunately all my East, South-east, South and South-west coastal pubs are unapproachable because of the military. What shall I do?!”

Gardiner’s response at the end of that month was: “There doesn’t seem to be a pub in Chipping Campden that is not occupied or “ear-marked” by the military and I have made provisional arrangements for a sing-song at the Ebrington Arms a mile and a half beyond Campden where you can be assured of a quiet truly rural atmosphere. We can easily get one or two good singers from Campden over there and they will be well known to the local company.” Brown agreed to this arrangement and recordings were made in the Ebrington Arms on 27th and 28th September.

Programme 5: The Ivy, North Littleton, Worcestershire

Broadcast on 22nd July 1940 (repeated 17th September)


“An evening of country and popular songs recorded in a Worcestershire inn by the BBC Mobile Recording Unit. Produced by Maurice Brown. The singers are: Charles Gardiner, George Norledge, Harry Gisboume, Bill Norledge, Wilson Ballard, Frank Norledge, Dick Emms, Sidney Gisboume, Jack Brookes and other regulars of The Ivy, North Littleton.”

In the Radio Times it actually says North Dittleton, but it’s a misprint. It was North Littleton, and there’s also a South Littleton and Middle Littleton, all villages a few miles north of Evesham.


Bill and George Norledge were brothers, the oldest in the company of singers when this programme was made. They were brought up in the nearby villages of Todenham and Offenham (home to one of the tallest permanent maypoles in England). Bill (1867-1946) lived his married life in South Littleton where he worked as a farm carter and coal haulier. George (1870-1960) also lived in South Littleton all his adult life and had various jobs including stone quarrying as a young man and jobbing gardener in later life.

Frank Norledge (1900-1986) was George’s son and Bill’s nephew. He grew up in South Littleton but by 1939 was living in North Littleton and working as a sanitary labourer.

Harry and Sidney Gisbourne were also brothers, who grew up in North Littleton. Harry (1891-1966) served in the First World War, becoming a sergeant in the Worcestershire Regiment. By 1939 he was working as a market gardener and assistant postman and living near the Ivy Inn. His younger brother Sidney (1900-?) also lived nearby and worked as a market gardener.

Wilson Ballard (1882-1945) seems to have moved about a bit, but by 1939 was settled in North Littleton, working as a market gardener with three sons working alongside him.

Jack Brookes (1882-?) also lived in the village, and worked as market gardener in his younger life, though by 1939 he was working as a carter on a farm.

I wasn’t able to identify Dick Emms (also referred to as Harry) confidently until I got a tip off from Paul Burgess, who pointed me in the direction of Richard Henry Emms (1886-1967) – i.e. Dick Harry! This man was living in Monmouthshire at the time of the radio broadcasts, so he hadn’t been an obvious candidate, but he had enough local connections to convince both of us he was the man on the radio programme.

Charles Gardiner (1902-1966) was born and brought up in Cirencester. Sometime after his marriage in 1925, he moved to the Evesham area where he became Clerk to Evesham Rural District Council and several other local authorities. By 1939 he was living in the village of Aldington, where he remained for the rest of this life. It is apparent from the Register taken that year that he was very active in the War effort locally, with his extra jobs including ARP Officer, Food Executive Officer and National Registration Officer. But Gardiner also had a creative streak – we shall come to that a little later in the section titled Cotswold Dramas. Through this connection we know that he sang The Village Pump and Good Ale, although we don’t know if either of these featured in the Thirsty Work programme. We also know that he collected songs in his local area, although to what extent isn’t known.

Songs from the Littleton villages

The “Programme as broadcast” documentation held in the BBC archives reveals the songs broadcast in the two Littleton programmes – the incomplete first broadcast (just 4 songs, indicated with an asterisk here) and the repeat with the whole of the intended programme. It is not known who sang which songs, although only Harry Gisbourne, Frank Norledge and Jack Brookes were listed in the first programme, so they must have sung the starred items between them.

  • Is Everybody Happy Here?
  • Johnny George
  • I’m a broken-down man
  • Barley Mow *
  • Two Little Girls in Blue *
  • Buttercup Joe
  • Swim, Sam, Swim
  • Never let your braces dangle *
  • Memories
  • Just like the Ivy *

These songs are a mixture of traditional, Music Hall and popular songs, in keeping with Brown’s broad criteria (see Part 1.)

There is also evidence of folk songs that were sung by some other people in the village.

James Madison Carpenter and Francis Collinson had both collected songs from singers in Littleton: Carpenter’s singer was Charles Rose, who was actually still alive when the Thirsty Work programmes were recorded – in his eighties, living in North Littleton. Carpenter made a wax cylinder recording of Rose singing Gaffy Gay, and noted down I am a Rover, King Arthur’s Three Sons and One-O. (Image above from VWML – see References & Links section.)

Collinson’s singer was Miss M. Osbourne, who sang Lord Nelson: this could have been either of two sisters from a pub-keeping family in the village. Millie May Osbourne was still alive in 1941, and living in North Littleton, where in 1939 she was licensee of the Blacksmith’s Arms: a pub evidently to known to BBC producer Robin Whitworth when he wrote the memo to Maurice Brown quoted previously, but which lost out to the Ivy for the Thirsty Work broadcast.

Whitworth may also have provided an introduction for Maurice Brown to local man Charles Gardiner, but it’s very likely that the two had already met, as Brown had actually lived in Evesham for a short while. In August 1939, the BBC Radio Features and Drama department evacuated to Wood Norton Hall in Evesham, and on the 1939 Register taken a few weeks later, Maurice Brown and his wife Dorothea were listed as living in the Market Place. The department moved on to Manchester in November, but Wood Norton Hall continued to be used by the Monitoring Service for the duration of the war. So Brown probably wasn’t in Evesham for more than a few months, but probably long enough to have come into contact with Charles Gardiner, who apart from his day job in local government, was also an amateur writer of “sketches” for the BBC Midlands Region. Correspondence in the BBC archives reveals much antagonism from the Midlands Regional Executive towards Brown, who worked for the National section of the BBC, accusing him of poaching on their patch and, in a particularly frosty and exasperated memo from October 1940: “I have given up asking Mr Brown to inform us beforehand of their visits,” and “I am responsible for any contracts between Mr Charles Gardiner, a very well known Midland broadcaster, and the corporation.”

Some of those rural vignettes written by Charles Gardiner featured other local singers that we are about to meet in the next pub …

Programme 6: The Ebrington Arms, Ebrington, Gloucestershire

Broadcast on 28th November 1940 (repeated 3rd January 1941)

“An evening of popular and country singing recorded by the BBC Mobile Recording Unit in a Cotswold inn. Chairman, Charles Gardiner. Singers: George Hawkins, Lionel Ellis, Ben Benfield, Garnet Keyte, Dick Taylor, Sydney Nicholls, and other regulars of the Ebrington Arms, Ebrington
Produced by Maurice Brown.


 “Maurice Brown took the recording car to Ebrington Arms, Ebrington, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, a few weeks ago, and made the recordings there for this programme. The name Ebrington is pronounced ‘ Yommerton ‘ in these parts, and is known locally as ‘ the place where the fools come from’. The villagers, however, say that ‘ only fools go there’. The singers will include a coal seller, a bricklayer, a policeman, and a man who says he is a Jack-of-all-trades. Many of the songs have never been recorded before, and most of them are drinking songs.”

As noted in the introduction here, it had originally been the hope to broadcast Programme 6 from a pub in Chipping Campden, but these were all too busy with soldiers, so this country pub a couple of miles away was suggested by Charles Gardiner. Several of the singers that Gardiner knew in Campden were taken down to the Ebrington arms, but interestingly Tom Hooke was not among the Campden contingent, despite being a very well-known community singer there; he had been born in London and had worked professionally on the music halls, so would probably not have fitted into Brown’s vision of the amateur country singer singing for singing’s sake.


The “Programme as broadcast” documentation reveals the songs recorded in the Ebrington Arms on 27th and 28th September 1940: there were a couple of drinking songs, and quite a few had been commercially recorded, so the Radio Time claim wasn’t particularly accurate, and unlike the introductory paragraph, was probably not written by Brown himself.

  • Down by the old Abbey Gardens
  • Foolish Boy
  • Jones’ Ale
  • The Fly be on the Turmut
  • The Black Horse
  • Granny’s Old Armchair
  • Robin-a-Thumb
  • The man who invented beer

See ‘Thirsty Work’ Part 5 –  Director’s Cut, for new details of recordings from Programme 6.

Early folksong collecting in Ebrington and Chipping Campden

Ebrington  turns out to be a well-trodden location for folk collectors. When Cecil Sharp visited the area in 1909 (during which time he was also collecting morris dances in the Cotswolds) he noted songs from several singers in Ebrington, including Charles Woodward, Albert Parnell and Thomas Coldicott. The latter singer had first come to the Folk Song Society’s attention in 1892 when his song We Shepherds are the Best of Men was published in English County Songs. Lucy Broadwood and Fuller Maitland had been introduced to Thomas Coldicott by Frederick Scarlett Potter, a sculptor and writer. Scarlett Potter also noted down The Barrel of Pork and Job Jenkins from Higford Keyte, who was related to Thirsty Work singer Garnet Keyte in some way.

Later on, Francis Collinson also collected at least one song in Chipping Campden – The Foolish Boy – from Garnet Keyte (no date, but quite likely to be 1940s).






The Thirsty Work singers

Garnet Keyte (1883-1971) was born and brought up in the nearby town of Chipping Campden where his father ran a coal business. On his first marriage he was described as a farmer, but a few years later when his father died he went into the coal business himself and was successful enough to buy two houses in 1919. That same year saw the death of his first wife, but he soon met and married his second wife, who was herself a widow with three young children after her first husband had been killed in World War One. By 1939 they had moved out of the centre of the town and were living in a new council house on Station Road, from where Keyte continued to run the coal business and he was a familiar face around the town carrying hundredweights of coal from the lorry to houses and cellars.

Lionel Ellis (1904-1986) was living in Chipping Campden High Street in 1939, where his widowed mother was running a fishmongers and greengrocery, whilst he was working as a market gardener. He married in December that year, and in 1945 he and his wife Dorrie had a house built at their market garden on Aston Road. He lived his whole life in the town, working in younger life in his father’s basket making business making skeps for the produce grown locally, and later running a successful market gardening and floristry business. In May 1920 Lionel Ellis, then aged 15, and two of his older brothers Michael (1904-1982) and Don (Percy McDonald, 1906-1993) first danced with the Chipping Campden Morris. Morris historian Keith Chandler interviewed both Lionel and his brother Don, and in 1997 he described Don as “the custodian of the tradition and its history across more than eighty years.” Lionel Ellis stopped dancing sometime in the 1950s. He and Garnet Keyte clearly knew each other well, as can be seen by their many radio projects detailed in the next section. In the interview with Keith Chandler, he sings a snatch of The Village Pump, but says “I never considered myself a singer … in fact I was damned nervous.” 

Ben Benfield (1906-1979) also lived in Chipping Campden for his whole life and in 1939 was living on Aston Road and working in the building trade, although later he worked as a groundsman at the Grammar School. He was another morris dancer, joining the team in 1931 and remaining a member of the side until the mid 1950s.

Sydney Nicholls (1903-1975) was from Ebrington itself. He worked as a farm labourer and seemed never to have married.

Dick Taylor (1914-1986) lived in Ebrington and in 1939 was married and working as a builder’s labourer.

George Hawkins (1869-1961) was often known as “Shep” or “Shup”. In his youth he moved around a fair bit in villages around the Evesham and Stratford area, but when he was about 40 he settled in Ebrington where he remained for the rest of his 92 years. He is generally described as a shepherd, but in 1958 when he won a long service award from the Royal Agricultural Assocation, his employer Mr Harry Stanley told the Tewkesbury Register “It was impossible to put Shep in the wrong job. He was shepherd, shearer, thatcher, mole catcher, drainer, mower, ditcher and hedge cutter, and in the days when wheat crops were weeded by hoeing, Shep always set the pace for the rest of the team, even when he was 70.” Another report reveals that “Shep” Hawkins was also a noted athlete – winning sprint races at the age of 80. At the age of 78 he appeared on Wilfred Pickles’ popular Have a Go radio show and boasted that he had two children aged eight and nine with his second wife! Thirsty Work was not Hawkins’ first radio appearance, as he had been a guest on a 1939 radio programme scripted and hosted by Charles Gardiner (See next section), called Down on the Farm. This had been recorded in Evesham Town Hall, where Hawkins turned up in his full shepherd’s regalia.

Peter Kennedy visited Shep Hawkins in 1957. Hawkins had memories of the morris dancing tradition in Ilmington as well as songs he had learned from older generations, such as The Little Black Horse, or The Penny Wager, which Peter Kennedy recorded from him in 1957. See the Links section below to listen to that recording.

Cotswold Dramas

Finally we get to consider the circumstances in which this group of men came to be gathered for the Thirsty Work recording, and to find out more about the man who arranged it, who acted as chairman for this session and who also sang in the Ivy Inn in North Littleton: Charles Gardiner.

And in fact, according to notes made in 1952 by Peter Kennedy, it was Gardiner who had originally collected the song mentioned above, The Little Black Horse.

Searching the Radio Times genome archive for Gardiner turned up a number of programmes written by him: mostly dialect “sketches” set in the fictional village of Upper Slocombe, which ran until the mid 1950s. Garnet Keyte and Lionel Ellis were regularly performers in these regional dramas, but their first radio appearance actually predated Gardiner’s work, when they were in The Campden Wonder, written by John Masefield, on 9th January 1935. Ellis had been on the radio even earlier, on a documentary in 1934 called The Microphone at Large, the first edition of which came from Chipping Campden.

Gardiner’s first programme was broadcast on 18th March, 1936: Motor Cars or Hosses – “Being a Truthful Account of one of the more Deplorable Episodes in the History of the Parish Council of the Cotswold Village of Upper Slocombe.” The Gloucestershire Echo (20th March) commented after the programmes that: “Very few people could have recognised the voice of the author in the preliminary anecdotes, nor will many realise that the solo which was rendered in the inn scene was actually sung by Mr. Gardiner.”

The second in the series was Pump and Circumstance broadcast in May 1937 and again (with a different producer) in 1938 – “A faithful account of another deplorable episode in the History of the Parish Council of the Worcestershire village of Upper Slocombe. Reconstructed from the unofficial records by C. H. Gardiner. Re- enacted by a group of Local Inhabitants. The first ‘ deplorable episode’ reconstructed by C. H. Gardiner, who is Clerk to Evesham District Council, concerned a conflict between advocates of ‘hosses’ and ‘motor’ for a new fire engine. The present play deals with a dispute about whether the parish pump, the water of which is contaminated, shall be replaced by a piped water supply. Pump and Circumstance will be acted by Worcestershire players in the local dialect.”

A full listing of Charles Gardiner’s output (so far as I have been able to ascertain) is appended here as a PDF: Charles Gardiner’s radio programmes Just a reminder here, that if you would like to use or refer to any of this original research, please credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

In the 1982 interview with Keith Chandler the Morris historian, Lionel Ellis describes how, as a result of him and several others refusing to join the Actors’ Union, Equity, their involvement in this dramatic work came to an end. The story within the family was that Ellis and a couple of others asked to be paid for rehearsals. This was refused and Ellis “stormed off”! His last drama was The Silver Bowl (1955), a retelling of The Campden Wonder, written this time by Georgie Herschel, who had produced a costumed version for the Chipping Campden celebrations of the Festival of Britain in 1951. He continued with occasional involvement in features and documentaries, such as the 1957 programme People Today where he was the subject of an interview by film-maker Philip Donellan, who also included both Lionel and his wife in his 1966 film The Abbey of the English about Westminster Abbey.


You may recognise the name Bob Arnold in this group of men. He went on to play the part of Tom Forrest in the long-running radio series The Archers – set in the fictional village of Ambridge, which is said to be based on the village of Inkberrow, a few miles northwest of North Littleton.

Other men in this photo who were regulars in Gardiner’s dramatic productions and who subsequently went on to be long-running cast members of The Archers were Bill Payne from Ebrington who played Ned Larkin, and George Hart from Campden who played Jethro Larkin, until 1987.

Bob Arnold worked with Charles Gardiner regularly, and in the library of the English Folk Dance and Song Society is a proposal by Gardiner for a radio programme Songs of the Upper Thames, about the folksong collector Alfred Williams, detailing the songs the two of them would sing (see Links). This was broadcast on the Western regional programme on 1st July 1949.

Arnold (born George Richard Arnold, 1910-1998) came from Asthall near Burford, in the south Cotswolds, and had a successful radio career melding together singing (especially before the War), reading (Morning Story, Children’s Hour), acting (The Mayor of Casterbridge) and compering, with a busy sideline in being a guest celebrity asked to open fetes etc. He credited his early radio involvement to influential acquaintances such as William and Peggy Kettlewell who lived in Burwell; the latter was the first secretary at the English Folk Dance Society in 1911, and the two were acquaintances of Cecil Sharp; these links with the EFDSS provided Arnold with further radio work such as English Dance Party in the 1950s. A BBC radio producer who was involved in the earliest actuality recordings from the Cotswolds in 1934 – Owen Reed – also produced The Mayor of Casterbridge and other programmes where Bob Arnold was involved in an acting role some twenty years later.

Bob Arnold first heard folksongs in the pub run by his grandfather, The Three Horseshoes (now the Maytime Inn) in Asthall and learned Good Ale from Charles Gardiner. He made an LP Mornin’ All in 1972 with the Yetties consisting of a selection of standard rural folk songs. His last appearance on The Archers was at Christmas 1997, when – very appropriately – he was singing folksongs in the Ambridge pub, The Bull.

So there you have it, the roots of The Archers in the “Upper Slocombe” series of sketches, written by Charles Gardiner and featuring several of the singers from Programme 6 in the Thirsty Work series. I have often wondered if the name of Gardiner’s fictitious village was inspired by Marie Slocombe, who worked for the BBC: she was based at Evesham in the War and went on to become an integral part of the team fronted by Peter Kennedy that recorded folk song in many more locations than the seven featured in this radio series (see Part 1).

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 1: traditional singing on the radio 1940-41

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 2: the North – singing from Ambleside, Redmire and Harome

‘Thirsty Work’ Part 3: East Anglia and the East Midlands – singing from the Eel’s Foot Inn, Suffolk and Wakerley, Northamptonshire

‘Thirsty Work’ part 5: Director’s Cut – recordings from Programmes 5 & 6 and other updates.

References and Links

I originally found out about the Thirsty Work programmes on the Radio Times Programme Index (previously known as the Genome project), which is very easy to browse and search. Further information on the making of these programmes has been added from the BBC Written Archives Centre, which is by appointment only, in person.

Thanks to Gwilym Davies, Judith Ellis, Keith Chandler and Paul Burgess.

Gwilym and Carol Davies and team have put together a splendid local resource on their Glostrad website.

Peter Kennedy’s 1957 recording of Shep Hawkins singing The Little Black Horse may be heard on the British Library Sound Archive website. 

Peter Kennedy’s typewritten reports for the BBC make fascinating reading: here’s a link to one of his 1952 trips which included Charles Gardiner, Lionel Ellis and Bob Arnold as well as referring to the dialect liaison link: Peter Kennedy Archive (see pp 1, 8, 9, 10).

Francis Collinson’s transcription of Garnet Keyte singing The Foolish Boy is in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and can be seen in their digital archive. 

Charles Gardiner’s outline of his 1949 radio feature Songs of the Upper Thames  on the work of Alfred Williams may also be read in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library digital archive. Gardiner had a lifelong interest in dialect, publishing a number of articles in the Evesham Post in 1959-1960, which were gathered together in a booklet entitled The Old Cotswold Dialect published by the Evesham Historical Society in 2008. 

James Madison Carpenter’s collection of songs, mumming plays etc has an online catalogue.

Chipping Campden Morris can trace their history back to the 18th century. They have a unique tradition which has been passed on down the generations and is not danced by any other morris sides. For more history on the team, see Chipping Campden Morris Dancers – an outline history by Keith Chandler, The Morris Dancer, 1997.

The Chipping Campden Historical Society has a brilliant website with several related stories on it, from where I sourced the good quality photo of the Cotswolds drama team in 1949. Here’s a link to the Have-A-Go story from the Evesham Journal on their site. They also published a booklet called Campden Characters in 2011 which includes Garnet Keyte and the Ellis family, and mentions morris dancing, singing and mumming.

The Ivy Inn in North Littleton has its own folktale The Mystery of the Ivy Inn, told on its website.

Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.

It is due to be published in print form in the near future, and details will be posted here when known. Should you wish to use any of the information or images here, please do contact me first.

I have far more biographical and anecdotal evidence about the singers than can be published here – if you are a relative or a researcher, please do get in touch, I would be very happy to share the information I have.

Esther Gayton part 2: ‘Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe’

This is the second part of a long piece of writing about Esther Gayton, a young  ballet dancer from the early years of the nineteenth century whose name has been preserved through the folk music and dance world.

This section concerns the tunes, social dance and stepdance routine known to us today, whilst Esther Gayton part 1: the Ballerina and the Baronet looks at her personal life and stage performances from 1803-1809. I really recommend that you read that first, as it will fill out some of the references to ballet and theatre in this article  – as well as the link with the barrel organ that went to the Arctic – and help put the longevity of these tunes and dances into context.

Social dance

It was common practice in the early 1800s for social dances to be named after celebrities and stage characters, and some seemed to stem directly from stage productions. A dance was named after Esther from her appearance in Tekeli; or the Siege of Montgatz. The show premiered at Drury Lane on 24th November 1806, and in August 1807, J. Pearce of Soho, was advertising “a new sheet of dances, No.3, including the Miss Gayton dance in Tekeli …”.

This would consist of the music and very brief dance instructions for a set of figures in the fashionable longways configuration of the time, and it seems very possible that it was published later in 1807 for the 1808 season in Vol.1 of Elegant and Fashionable Country Dances, Reels, Waltzes &c by Voight & Wheatstone (although the original booklet is not dated, expert opinion dates it to this season). We do however have all the details for a publication in late 1808, published by Button & Whitaker in their Twenty-Four Country Dances for the Year 1809 (as advertised in the Bury & Norwich Post on 24th November 1808). Whether the dance published by Pearce was the same or not, we won’t know unless a copy of that publication turns up sometime. Interestingly, the dance printed next to Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe in Button & Whitaker, Major O’Flarty, is not named after a real person, but a stage character (see Will the real Paddy O’Rafferty please stand up).

There was also another dance and tune called Miss Gayton’s Fancy published around the same time in another of Button & Whitaker’s publications, their No. 9 Selection of Dances, Reels and Waltzes. There is further information regarding the dances at the end of this article.

It’s difficult to be definitive about the composers of either of these two tunes. The hornpipe might have been written either by James Hook for Tekeli (November 1806) or by Henry Bishop for Love in a Tub (November 1808). Miss Gayton’s Fancy only appears once under that name, in the publication above, where it follows a tune called simply Caractacus, so it could have been composed for that ballet by Henry Bishop (March 1808); however, the melody for Esther Gayton’s Pas Seul in  Bishop’s original score is not the same tune, and it’s not the Hornpipe either. I have not been able to inspect the scores for Tekeli or Love in a Tub.

The tune and country dance Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe were published many times (in collections of country dances, mostly printed in London) from the initial printing during Esther’s dancing heyday until 1817, with Button and Whitaker claiming the copyright under new laws in 1814. After 1817 I have found no instances of it in print for a number of years, but there are many instances of the tune being copied out into fiddler’s private manuscripts. In 1850 it was deemed well known enough to be suggested as an air for a song on a broadside printed in Manchester. This suggests it was in widespread use by musicians 1817-1850, possibly more amongst amateurs than professionals in this period. The tune came back into vogue in the 1880s, and was then published a good number of times for the next hundred years, but almost exclusively in Scotland, perhaps reflecting dance tastes in that long period.

A publication dating from just shy of a century after the first appearance of Miss Gayton’s HornpipeAunt Kate’s Dance Music Book includes what is recognisably the same tune, albeit transposed into G, given a 2:4 time signature instead of (cut common time), and with a slightly simplified ending. This booklet was published in December 1904 (announced in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 10th December) and was part of a series of publications by J. Leng, of Dundee and London, including Aunt Kate’s Conjuring and Parlour Magic and Aunt Kate’s Knitting and Crochet Book, which was evidently aimed at women. The preface to our dance book states: “The publishers anticipate that the present collection will appeal to a large circle of those who are interested in parties and kindred gatherings … [the] aim has been to provide a book suited to average requirements, one that would be equally serviceable in the ball-room and in the home. With this object in view, no popular dance has been omitted.” There are no dance instructions, the only other tunes which gets the direction “same dance” are Pop goes the Weasel, John Peel and Garry Owen, which today are all much better known tunes that Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe, but all the associated dances have faded equally into obscurity.

From 1990 to date the tune has again been published a good many times: in those thirty years mostly in England and the USA.

If you are interested in the many and various publications and manifestations of the dance, there is a link at the end of this article to a PDF summarising the dates and sources. If you come across any other instances, please do get in touch!

The Traditional Tune Archive also has a good page online covering most of the publications for which there is actually a score available – see Further Information at the end of this article.

Stepdance routine

However it was not this social dance to which my attention had originally been drawn by Simon Harmer.

Simon is a wonderful stepdancer and knew of a stepdance routine called Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe, collected in south west Scotland by Tom & Joan Flett in 1959. The lady who demonstrated this dance to the Fletts was Elizabeth Porter Wallace, whom the Fletts noted as being 65 at the time. She was a dancing teacher whose father, grandfather (Joseph Rae Wallace) and grand-uncle (Alexander, known as Sandy Porter – his mother’s maiden name) had all taught dancing in the Kilmarnock area. The Fletts had her name as “Miss Elizabeth Wallace” but although she used this name professionally, she had in fact married in 1925, to Thomas Parker. Elizabeth (1893-1983) seems to have taken a break from teaching from 1924 until 1937, coinciding with the birth of a son, who tragically died at a very young age. There was apparently no next generation to take on the dance teaching mantle, and I can find no trace of Elizabeth in the newspapers after 1938.

However, one newspaper from 1908 reveals her father, Joseph Wallace (1856-1932) teaching the very dance under discussion!

Joseph reputedly had a large repertoire of social dances and a collection of early ballroom guides as well as “a large repertoire of solo dances, some of which he undoubtedly learned from his own father and uncle” according to Tom and Joan Flett in Traditional Stepdancing in Scotland (p.151). They also state that “Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe was taught by Wallace to his young girl pupils, usually aged about eight to twelve years old. They held their dresses slightly out to the side with their thumbs at the back. Three morris dance type bells sewn to a band of elastic at each wrist.” They were unaware of exactly who Miss Gayton was, and surmised that the dance was probably made up by a dancing teacher for a favoured pupil – a not unreasonable supposition, and not too far off the mark. We do not have conclusive proof that this dance was actually danced by Esther Gayton, but we do know that as early as 1829 a Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe stepdance routine was being taught by dancing masters, so the odds on it referring to a different Miss Gayton are slight.

The 1829 reference comes from a programme for “Mr. Lowe’s third annual ball” in the assembly room in Elgin. The original programme is in the National Library of Scotland but my source is a typewritten transcription reprinted in The Thistle, the newsletter for a Scottish dance society in Vancouver, in 1972/3. The programme reveals, at number 18 out of 29 items in the first half alone, Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe, danced by four girls. So this was an end-of-term show for the pupils of Mr. Lowe, a dancing teacher, rather than a society ball for adults.

Writing in 1972, the author of the article in The Thistle reflected on the repertoire of dances from the ball: “Apart from the fling and reel steps, most of this material has been lost. The only dance from this programme which has been preserved is Miss Gayton’s hornpipe (collected and taught by Joan and Tom Flett).”

The Fletts did not know of the Lowe connection with this specific dance, but they did know that Joseph Wallace had in his collection a copy of The Ball Conductor. This book was first published in 1822 in Edinburgh, by the four Lowe brothers: Joseph, James, Robert and John, and was republished again in 1830 and 1860. The Mr Lowe referred to in the 1829 ball programme would be John Lowe, who was probably the first of the brothers to open a dancing school. His brother Joseph had been teaching in Elgin, but by early 1827 John had taken over from him, continuing to teach in Perth as well until his death in January 1839. I am indebted to Paul Cooper for much of the information about the Lowes.

A colleague in Australia, Heather Clarke has kindly sent me newspaper references to the dance being taught in a similar context of juvenile balls from at least 1894 to 1911, in and around Bathurst, New South Wales. The progenitors there were various members of another dynasty of dancing teachers, the Allison family.

A modern interpretation of the stepdance

Although we cannot know if the steps now known as Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe are the same as Esther Gayton danced in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the expert opinion is that they are likely to be very similar. In private correspondence with Simon Harmer, Anne Daye (Director of Education and Research for the Historical Dance Society) commented “There is nothing in the step sequence that would be unknown in her day; the opening sequence uses ballonnés or cuts common in social dancing; heel and toe combinations are timeless; shuffles ditto; backskips as in the break are footing steps (feature of my presentation), so the dance is the closest we can get today to Miss Gayton’s performance. She may not have done the same step sequence at each performance, and she would have done the dance in a showier manner, perhaps using her skirts a bit more, making a flourish of the fancier steps, maybe a circling of the stage on the intro.”

Simon learned the dance after being inspired by the story of the barrel organ being taken on board William Edward Parry’s ships on his searches for a North West passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1819-1825. The barrel organ contained five barrels, each having eight tunes, the majority of which were contemporary dance tunes, including Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe. More detail about this is in Part One: the Ballerina and the Baronet and also A Barrel Organ in the Arctic.

Having seen the illustration above of three midshipmen stepping – dating from Parry’s third Arctic voyage in 1825 – Simon went back to the Fletts’ notation, and to Chris Metherell, who had been taught the Wallaces’ version of Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe by Joan Flett, and to Lesley Gowers, who had learned it from Jennifer Millest, again taught by Joan Flett. Simon reinterpreted it in a more robust style, as might have befitted a midshipman of the nineteenth century. For his version of Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe Simon added arm positions from the Staub illustration and other contemporaneous images of sailors dancing.

Simon comments on this illustration that Edward Bird (on the left) could be dancing Step 5 of the sequence, and Francis Crozier (on the right) Step 3 or 6. In this illustration by the otherwise unknown C. Staub, they have a live musician, Charles Richards, rather than the barrel organ to dance to. The midshipmen look so carefree in this illustration – however, although Bird went on to have a distinguished Naval career, Crozier was to perish on the ill-fated Franklin expedition to find the North West Passage.

Here is a video of Simon Harmer dancing Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe to the playing of Will Allen.  

In the autumn of 2020 Simon took this one step further, when the research into Esther Gayton and the hornpipe named after her was the heritage focus for the Step Your Way dance project in Portsmouth. The young dancers were introduced to the idea that dance styles evolve from many different influences. Information based on our researches was provided to back up what the dancers were experiencing physically: a journey from the hornpipe, through creolisation with black dance, to current urban styles. You can see the Step Your Way output video here.

For a full list of all the instances I have found of Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe – tune and dance, publication, collection and mentions, you can read this PDF file: Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe (history) Please remember, if you’d like to use this information, acknowledge this as your source!

Part One of this article is Esther Gayton: the Ballerina and the Baronet

See also A Barrel Organ in the Arctic and Will the real Paddy O’Rafferty please stand up!

A huge number of people have helped discuss various aspects of this research, my thanks to them all, especially, for this second article: Heather Clarke and Paul Cooper for information and discussions about the historical aspects of the dance and tune; Adrian Turner for giving me Aunt Kate’s Dance Music book (with no idea it would come in useful in this way); Chris Partington, Nick Barber, Paul Burgess, Rob Say, Derek Schofield, Will Allen, Anne Daye and last but absolutely not least, another huge thank you to dancer and researcher SIMON HARMER for the inspiration on these stories and specifically for his contributions to the section on the stepdance routine.

Further Information

Many of the tunes from Parry’s barrel organ were recorded following restoration in 1972, and that album – Parry’s Barrel Organ – is still available on the Saydisc label.

Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe is the second of two tunes on track 5 on the album: neither of which were identified at the time the recording. The first tune is the 48 bar jig Paddy Carey and both were originally on barrel no. 5.

At the time of writing it is also available to listen to on YouTube here.

A brief history of the tune may be found on the Traditional Tune Archive website.

The social dance Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe is shown in a moving diagrammatic form on Paul Cooper’s Regency Dances website here and also Miss Gayton’s Fancy here.

Digital images of these tunes and their associated social dances in their original settings may be found here: Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe  and Miss Gayton’s Fancy

Thomas Lowe’s 1829 ball programme is transcribed in The Thistle (December 1972) and more about Thomas Lowe and his brothers can be found in research paper No. 24 The Lowe Brothers – Teachers of Dancing in Scotland on the Regency Dances website, by Paul Cooper. 

Heather Clarke, who supplied the information about Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe being taught in Australia, has a superb website about dancing in early colonial Australia.

The Fletts’ handwritten notes may be found on the Instep Research Team‘s website, which holds a treasure trove of such original material. Here is a direct link to the relevant Flett notes. Tom Flett’s notes and notation from Elizabeth Wallace are on pp 13-35, with the steps for Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe on pp 16-20. The dance notation may also be found in the Fletts’ 1996 book Traditional Stepdancing in Scotland, pp 151-156.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.

I have unearthed far more material on Esther Gayton’s performances and personal life, the tune, and the dance, than can be written up here. Please do get in contact if this is a special area of interest or study to you, I would be happy to tell you more.


Esther Gayton part 1: the Ballerina and the Baronet


Esther Gayton is my original inspiration for the Unsung Histories website.

I still find it hard to believe that this woman’s story is not already “out there” somewhere, as in her time, she was actually quite well-known, albeit for a brief period. Even on family history websites, Esther Gayton’s descendants seem not to know of her years as a teenage dancing star. I am not aware of anyone else researching her life and performances so here we go with her story in full.

It was a tune, Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe which first set me off on her trail. A random post on Facebook had got me looking again at a set of tunes on an album first issued in the 1970s. However, these were not live recordings of an actual musician, but recordings from a barrel-organ which had been made in the very early nineteenth century and restored to playing condition in 1972, resulting in an LP on the Saydisc label. What was quite extraordinary was that this barrel organ had been on board a ship which sailed to the Arctic under the leadership of William Edward Parry, searching for a north west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (See A Barrel Organ in the Arctic for the full story.) The music on the barrels comprised mainly social dance tunes popular in the period, but the album compilers had not been able to identify them all at the time, and so I asked on FB for help from musical friends who might recognise these tunes, many of which are still played in the folk music repertoire. One of the previously unnamed tunes turned out to be Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe, and as I was also aware of a stepdance routine by the same name, I did wonder who Miss Gayton was, and whether the crew on Parry’s ships had danced this same dance, or whether it was a social dance, as most of the other tunes on the barrel-organ were of this type.

As in so many of these explorations, there remain unanswered questions, but I was able to find out a huge amount about Miss Esther Gayton herself, who turned out to be not only – as I had suspected – a society lady – but actually a famous dancer on the stage for a brief period. She may have been much better known today if she hadn’t left the stage to marry a besotted clergyman twenty years her senior when she was only seventeen!

This page is Part One, which explores who she was, her personal life and stage performances from 1803-1809.

Esther Gayton part 2: ‘Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe’ looks at the tune and social dance together, and explores the links with the stepdance routine.

I normally put the thanks at the end of the article, but there is one person who has been absolutely central to this research, and that is dancer Simon Harmer, who has been equally as intrigued by this story as I, and who explored and reinterpreted the stepdance routine as a special project in 2020 (see part 2)

Esther Gayton: her life

Esther was the eldest daughter of George and Martha Gayton. She was baptised in St Andrew’s, Holborn, London on 30th May 1791, and if we are to presume that her parents arranged the ceremony within a few weeks of her birth, as they did with their other children, we can surmise that she was born in early spring that year. By 1795 the family was in Islington, where all of Esther’s younger siblings were baptised, in St James. Islington at that time was quite a rural settlement on the fringes of London. We know from a newspaper report on Esther’s marriage in March 1809 that George was a hairdresser, a job which involved maintaining wigs and the high bouffant hairstyles of the period. Ordinary people did not use a hairdresser as a matter of course.

She seems to be the only member of her family to have taken to the stage, and appeared at Sadler’s Wells for the first time aged twelve or thirteen. In that period, children of much younger ages were often featured doing specialist dances, which may be why the newspaper announcement of her first appearance put her age as nine (see next section on her stage appearances).

Nothing is known about what her life was like as a young girl performing several times a week in the most prestigious London theatres, but dancing and acting were careers fraught with the potential for stepping outside the moral boundaries of the time. Esther’s behaviour seems to have been impeccable, and her one known suitor, William Murray, who became her husband, was clearly besotted with her, as comments in the press make clear. This man was over twenty years her senior, a clergyman with a living in Yorkshire, but who spent most of his time in London. William was the third son of a Scottish Baronet, and at the time of their marriage, was reputed to have an income of £2000 per year, so he clearly represented a stable future for Esther, who was in a notoriously fickle career herself. She was a minor at the time of her wedding in March 1809, but her father was a witness at the ceremony, so she had the support of her family, which is more than can be said for her groom. The marriage was described as “a mighty foolish business” by William’s brother, Sir James Pulteney Murray writing to Sir Charles Hastings on 30th May 1809, “but being, as you say, done, it is useless to think more about it.”

In 1812, William set up Esther’s father George (the hairdresser) in a completely different business: managing and driving a stagecoach. This was an area in which George clearly lacked practical expertise, although experienced at trying to give customer satisfaction.  After leaving the carriage unattended in order to assist a lady passenger, the horses bolted, causing an injury to one of the passengers and he was charged with negligence. The Kentish Weekly Journal commented: “This was an action brought by a Bricklayer, against the father of Miss Gayton, late of the Opera Ballet, and now the wife of the Rev. Mr. Murray, who when he took the daughter off the stage placed the father upon it, establishing him in business as the proprietor driver of an Edmonton stage coach, running four horses …”

In 1813, William and Esther’s first child was born, James Pulteney Murray, baptised in Daventry in Northamptonshire. There followed five more sons and three daughters, all baptised in London. Tracing where the family lived has been very difficult, but one tragic incident which took place on New Year’s Eve 1821 reveals that they were living at quite a superior address: 22 Charles Street, off Berkeley Square, a house later lived in by the Duke of Clarence. The horrific incident must have scarred the survivors for life, as their son James, aged eight, managed to accidentally shoot dead Esther’s 16 year-old sister Mary with a pistol belonging to William. It is not hard to imagine the recriminations that probably took place between husband and wife over this tragedy.

Their youngest child, Esther Jane, was born in 1825, when Esther herself was 35. In those days it was normal for women of all classes to carry on bearing children until the menopause, unless a medical condition or marital problem intervened. The possibility of a breakdown in Esther’s marriage is supported by other (albeit sparse) evidence. I would expect to be able to trace Esther through the censuses from 1841 onwards, but she has proved extraordinarily elusive and in 1841, William and most of the children are found in Cadogan Place in Kensington, but there is no trace anywhere of Esther. William died in 1842 and his will, drawn up on 23rd July 1827, contains not a single mention of Esther. Coincidentally (or not) on the same day, Esther’s name appeared in a paragraph in the Stamford Mercury exonerating the behaviour of another actress and including her amongst those actresses living a respectable life.

After the death of his older brother John in 1827, William became the 9th Baronet of Clermont/Dunerne (the title seems to vary in different sources).

In 1851 I believe we may have now identified an Esther Murray – aged 60, visitor in a boarding house in Marylebone, but described as born in Scotland – as “our” Esther. The woman on the line above her is also the widow of a clergyman and the whole establishment is clearly very well-to-do. I have drawn a complete blank on the 1861 census, but have definitely found her in 1871, living on Elgin Crescent in Notting Hill, at the same address where she died on 6th February 1875. The circumstances are again a bit strange, in 1871 she was a “visitor” with Jane Nicoll, the daughter of a clergyman, who from at least 1861 took in boarders. Jane passed away a year before Esther, but the doctor who signed Esther’s death certificate was her brother. It looks as if she was relying on the charity of other clergy families rather than her own children. Quite what income she had if William had cut her out of his will is not known; presumably her children, who inherited William’s title, money and estates, must have provided for her financially.

So a life that started in relative obscurity – albeit fairly comfortable and respectable – seems to have finished in the same way, but what happened inbetween was certainly not obscure, featuring in a number of newspapers and periodicals.

Esther Gayton: her dancing career

During Esther’s brief career on the stage, the London theatres were still severely restricted by the Licensing Act of 1737, so that only the two Theatre Royals (in Drury Lane and Covent Garden) could produce actual plays with spoken dialogue, and the other non-patented theatres had to work round these constraints by putting on a mixture of dance, mime, song and novelty acts to attract their audiences. Programmes would change every few days, and new items were often changed and reworked to tight schedules. Esther’s first public performance was in 1803, at Sadler’s Wells, in Islington, where she lived.

The Sadler’s Wells website says: “By 1801 [ … ] Sadler’s Wells had become more famous for incidents, both devised (spectacular sea battles) and accidental (a terrible stampede in which 18 people died) than for work of merit.” The 1810 picture on the left shows a real waterfall on stage.

It was taken over by Charles Dibdin junior late in 1802, and early in his tenure, Esther was a named performer (“her first performance in public”), performing a “Hornpipe, with a Skipping Rope” in an advertisement from 9th April 1803. She was described as a “pupil of Mr Jackson, late of Covent Garden Theatre, only 9 years of age”, although in fact she was twelve. The advertisement is for the opening of the new season, under new proprietorship and totally refurbished, and as such, spares no detail in trying to attract the London gentry to make the journey to Sadler’s Wells: “the private boxes in the lower part of the theatre have been totally altered from last season, and are now perfectly calculated to accommodate the nobility, gentry, and families in the most eligible manner; and for the convenience of the public, the proprietors have put on additional patrols in the field leading from the Wells to town, also a quantity of additional lamps in the said field, and in the avenues to the theatre.”

In June 1803 Esther had further roles at Sadler’s Wells, in dance pieces including Hey for the Highlands; or Jemmy’s Return and Ko and Zoa, the latter a composition by Charles Dibdin junior.

In October 1804 she performed in a benefit night at the Opera House, which included “the favourite Skipping Rope Hornpipe”, and the newspaper announcement for this event stated that she was now a pupil to Mr Gouriet. Dennis Francois Victor Gouriet was another high profile ballet master, born in Paris, who composed dances for Sadler’s Wells and also danced at the King’s Theatre under James Harvey D’Egville, who was Esther’s next mentor, from at least 1806.

D’Egville was the ballet master at Drury Lane and had started his choreography career at the King’s Theatre in 1793. Esther was evidently one of his star pupils, being picked out for special mention on several occasions, such as a benefit night for D’Egville at Drury Lane on 14th May 1806:

“The Public are most respectfully informed, the Ballets performed on this Evening are by Permission of the Proprietors of the King’s Theatre, and positively for this night only. For the BENEFIT of MR D’EGVILLE. This Evening their Majesties Servants will act the WEST INDIAN. At the end of Act 1 (by particular desire of several Persons of Distinction, the much admired ballet of PAUL and VIRGINIA. Arranged by Mr D’Egville for his pupils, and performed with universal applause at the King’s Theatre by Miss Gayton and the rest of Mr D’Egville’s Young Pupils. At the end of the play, the favourite Grand Ballet of CRAZY JANE. The part of Crazy Jane by Mad[ame]. Laborie. In the course of the ballet, the Minuet de la Cours and the Gavotte, by Mr D’Egville and Miss Gayton; and several new Dances by his Pupils. To which will be added. YOUTH, LOVE and FOLLY.”

D’Egville (1770-1836) is sometimes credited with being the most influential ballet master after John Weaver (1673-1760). During the Napoleonic wars the need was felt to train more English dancers, and he founded an academy of dance to do just that, although interest in developing English talent waned after 1815. The critic Henry Robertson was evidently not persuaded of this approach and wrote the following about D’Egville’s 1808 production of Le Mariage Secret; ou, les Habitants du Chene:

“In this ballet as well as every other production of Mr. D’Egville, the audience are annoyed with the perpetual introduction of his pupils, who are continually flitting before the eyes, and labouring by roughed faces, ghastly grins, and languishing attitudes, to compel admiration, while they only excite disgust or pity.”

Whatever the critics thought, the newspapers were unmitigated in their praise for Esther Gayton and D’Egville’s other pupils over the next couple of years. Esther was indeed fortunate –and clearly talented enough – to be taken on by such an influential teacher, and her first leading part came in February 1807, as the eponymous Emily; or Juvenile Indiscretion, in a dance composed by D’Egville. Newspaper reports from the time give a good flavour of how dance pieces fitted into the overall programme, and how they could be changed at short notice if they didn’t meet with the audience’s approval.

In 1808, Esther hit the big time. James D’Egville was appointed acting manager of the entire company as well as principal dancer and ballet master, and newspapers across the country announced his engagement at the Opera (i.e. Theatre Royal). Details of the main performers’ salaries are given: Esther’s is quoted as £150 per year, which is amongst the lower amounts, and certainly nothing like the thousands of pounds demanded by the star singers such as Angelica Catalani or even the £800 paid to D’Egville. Her appointment came with the retirement of Rose Parisot (pictured below, right) and although Esther wasn’t initially seen as the star of the new cohort, she actually attracted much of the attention, and performed Parisot’s famous shawl routine to critical acclaim: “Miss Gayton, pupil to the new Manager, succeeded Madame Parisot, and in the ShawI Dance in particular displayed so much elegance and grace, as to render her every way worthy of the situation she has been thus brought to fill. She is a native of England, and affords a gratifying proof that the talents we have hitherto sought in France, may be supplied at home. It indeed evidently requires only a discerning Master, capable (as Mr. D’Egville has proved himself) of making a judicious choice of the objects of his instructions, to render the Ballet Department wholly independent of foreign aid.”

The journalist for the Morning Post, where the above comment appeared on 4th January 1808, was clearly a big fan of Esther, as just a couple of weeks later he also wrote: “The ballet of La Belle Laitière succeeded, and we saw with increased pleasure the elegant performance of D’EGVILLE’s little pupil, Miss GAYTON, whose dancing is perhaps more graceful than that of any English actress that has appeared on the Italian stage.”

The Morning Chronicle in March noted once again the skills of her hornpipe dancing: “King’s Theatre – a new Pastoral Ballet was brought out on Saturday night, by Mr D’EGVILLE which has some pretty music, and in which the light and elegant Miss GAYTON danced a hornpipe with great éclat.”

By the summer, she was quite a fixture on the stage, and on 28th September had the honour of performing for many members of the royal family (including Queen Charlotte) at the Countess of Cardigan’s house, in fashionable and aristocratic Richmond Hill, overlooking the Thames: “MISS GAYTON from the Opera, exhibited her elegance and naiveté with the happiest effect. After her sprightly hornpipe, she was particularly called on for her shawl dance, which she performed to general admiration…”.

Later in the year she performed in two pieces for which she became widely known: Caractacus, in which she had the role of Isla and “the grand Romance Bluebeard; or Female Curiosity” which was revived at Drury Lane with a new dance composed by D’Egville.

It is the latter performance which is said to have inspired this couplet by Lord Byron, in a long poem called English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, written in 1808:

“While Gayton bounds before th’ enraptured looks
Of hoary marquises and stripling dukes;”

Below is Henry Bishop’s original score for Miss Gayton’s Pas Seul in Caractacus, and an arrangement retailed for amateur pianists.

1809 began on a very positive note, as the Sun noted on 7th January that “DESHAYES, MOREAU and MISS GAYTON retain their situations, so the Corps de Ballet will be very effective this season.” and Esther took on a leading role in Les Amours de Clauque. However, on 24th February Drury Lane burned down and the theatre world was thrown into disarray, as a dispute between the owners and performers ensued.

A shock of another sort was to come in March of course, and as a minor stage celebrity, Esther’s forthcoming nuptials attracted some press comment:

“Young Miss Gayton quits the stage next week, and is to be married to a well-beneficed clergyman who has been her constant admirer at the opera.” (Morning Chronicle, 9.3.1809)

 “The fascinating GAYTON danced for the last time. She is to be led to the hymenial altar by the REV MR. MURRAY.” (Morning Chronicle, 13.3.1809)

The Monthly Mirror carried a portrait of Miss Gayton and some “memoirs” of her and James D’Egville in its March edition:

“She is now about sixteen years of age [she was 18] and on the eve of being married to the REV Mr. MURRAY, aged forty-four [he was 40], when she will cease to “caper nimbly,” much to the sorrow of Mr D’Egville, whose pupil she is, and who will feel on the occasion just as Dr. Pangloss feels when he finds that the honourable Mr. Dowlass is about to celebrate his nuptials, and to discard his expensive ‘bear leader’ for ever.”

The writer refers here to two characters in George Colman’s 1800 drama The Heir-at-Law; the phrase “bear leader” initially meant exactly that – a man leading a performing bear – but was also used colloquially for a man who accompanied wealthy young men on their travels.

The gossip writers clearly picked up some issue over the wedding, which was delayed for a week, as even eighteen months later, in December 1810, the Morning Post felt the need to declare that the marriage had actually taken place.

So Esther’s stage career ended just as her star was in the ascendant. Some women dancers did continue their careers after marriage, but the expected pattern of frequent childbearing in those days did not, of course, work in their favour, so many did retire on marrying.

She was clearly seen as a dancer of great promise, and was particularly favoured as being an English dancer at a time when many of the stars were from mainland Europe.

For a fuller biography of Esther Gayton’s life, you can read this PDF: Miss Gayton’s Biography  or to read more about her stage performances: Miss Gayton’s stage performances. If you’d like to use this information in any way, please remember to acknowledge this website as your source.

The second part of this article is Esther Gayton part 2: ‘Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe’ .

See also A Barrel Organ in the Arctic and Will the Real Paddy O’Rafferty please stand up!

A huge number of people have helped discuss various aspects of this research, my thanks to them all, especially for this first article: Dick “Dr Watson” Mathews for his genealogical insights and investigations and Keith Cavers for reading the section on the stage and ballet history.

Further Information

For information about the theatre and ballet in late Georgian times, and the London stage, there are some good sources online as well as the more specialist books I have consulted.

The British Library has good introductory pages on the London stage in the 18th century and the 19th century and the Sadler’s Wells website is also excellent, and the source of the 1810 image.

Sources referred to in the article:

The quote from James Murray about his brother William’s marriage to Esther Gayton is from Letters from America, 1773 to 1780 : being the letters of a Scots officer, Sir James Murray, to his home during the War of American Independence, edited by Eric Robson, 1950.

The quote about D’Egville’s pupils is from Ballet in Early Nineteenth-Century London as Seen by Leigh Hunt and Henry Robertson, by Theodore Fenner (Dance Chronicle Vol. 1, No. 2, 1977 – 1978)

The review of Tekeli or The Siege of Montgatz is from La Belle Assemblée 1806-1807, which can be found on Google Books.

Henry Bishop’s original score for Caractacus – including whole pages crossed through as the piece was deemed too long after its initial showing finished at 1am! – may be perused online in the Library of Congress’s digital archive.  The piano arrangement for Miss Gayton’s Pas Seul is also on Google Books

Newspaper reports:

  • Miss Gayton’s first appearance in public at Sadler’s Wells – The Sun, 9th April 1803
  • Mr D’Egville’s benefit night at Drury Lane – Morning Post, 14th May 1806
  • Advertisement for Miss Gayton’s Dance in Tekeli – Morning Chronicle, 11th August 1807
  • Esther dancing the Parisot shawl routine – Morning Chronicle, 4th January 1808
  • Esther dancing for the Royal family – Morning Post, 30th September 1808
  • Esther Gayton’s father’s episode as a stagecoach driver – Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 7th July 1812.

I was particularly interested in the reference to Esther dancing for the Royal family at the Countess of Cardigan’s house in Richmond. I grew up near there and a regular Sunday afternoon outing was with my grandparents to the Terrace Gardens, along the banks of the Thames. Little did I know that the thatched summerhouse and spooky, cold, ice-house that I loved to clamber around as a five year-old had stood in the grounds of that house where Esther enchanted the Royal Family with her trademark hornpipe dance! Information on Cardigan House and the Terrace Gardens gleaned from the Historic England listing.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

I have unearthed far more material on Esther Gayton’s performances and personal life, the tune, and the dance, than can be written up here. Please do get in contact if this is a special area of interest or study to you, I would be happy to tell you more.

Will the real Paddy O’Rafferty please stand up!

This is one story of several inspired by the music on a barrel-organ which Admiral Sir William Edward Parry took to the Arctic journeys between 1819 and 1825. I have been looking at this material for a couple of years now, and this article is the first one out of the treasure chest! Please see the foot of this page for credits for this original research.

About two thirds of the 40 items on Parry’s barrel-organ are dance tunes, with some hymns and patriotic songs. Dancing was an incredibly popular pastime in that period for people of all classes, mostly done with a partner in a longways formation, and tunes for the dances proliferated with the expansion of printing, being the equivalent of buying recorded music in the twentieth century.

The tunes on the barrel-organ are absolutely typical of the period, including English and Scottish reels, with just two jigs, both with distinctly Irish sounding names:  Paddy Carey, which is a staple of the English session repertoire these days, and Paddy O’Rafferty, a well-known tune in the Irish repertoire, which I decided to investigate in some depth. Rather than go in strictly chronological sequence, I’m going to look at some of the various incarnations of the entity that is Paddy O’Rafferty, starting with the dance tune (and a passing mention of the dance itself). If you’re interested in the chronology of its early history, there’s one at the end of this article.

So here begins the interesting and complex back story for the multi-faceted Paddy O’Rafferty.

Dance tune (and dance)

In 1795 a tune by this name was collected from the playing of a Mr. J.McCalley of Balleymoney, Co. Antrim by Edward Bunting. A year later, a jig Paddeen O Rafardie was published in Glasgow by James Aird: that’s the one at the top here. In the middle you can also see very brief dance instructions – the dances were all in the same longways configuration and the figures were very formulaic.

From 1801 the tune was enormously popular as a dance tune at balls for the “nobility and gentry” when it often featured as the first or second dance of the evening.

The lack of copyright legislation (more of that later) allowed for frequent republishing of the tune and it turns up in dance and tune publications very regularly – as can be seen here – in many different settings; from two parts up to five parts, usually with something in common with other versions!

This image comes from the brilliant Regency Dances website – see below for the link.

The folk song

So far, so relatively simple, despite the large number of variations on the tune.

There is also a song by this name, so next I began to investigate the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and the Irish Traditional Music Archive, the Bodleian Library and other places where we are used to searching for “folk” songs.

These archives revealed a number of publications – broadsides dating from at least 1820 and songsters from later in that decade – printed in both England and Ireland. There were also some unrelated songs – “to the air of Paddy O’Rafferty” – showing how ubiquitous the tune became. The English and Irish broadside texts fall into two broad groups.

The first concerns Paddy O’Rafferty’s courtship and marriage – as seen in the example on the left, printed in Liverpool

The second group of songs is about how the marriage disintegrates – and ends with Paddy knocking his wife into a bog, burying her and dancing on her grave – as seen on the examples centre and right – the one on the right winning the prize for the most inappropriate woodcut illustration! She certainly could have done with a knight on a white charger, and it certainly wasn’t Paddy O’Rafferty!

Given the lyrics, I’m personally quite glad that these songs don’t seem to have survived much beyond the end of the nineteenth century – singer Elizabeth Cronin from Co. Cork is said to have known a song by the title of Paddy O’Rafferty, but in the book “The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin” Dáibhi Ó Cróinín took a set of words from an un-named ballad sheet (possibly from the Joyce collection), which is the Death of Mrs O’Rafferty song, which gives her name (as do the others here) as Biddy O’Dougherty  – conveniently rhyming with “property” …!

The stage song

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, we find Paddy O’Rafferty marrying another woman! – Kitty O’Donovan – and a completely different set of words, in a cantefable setting. This song – Tid Re I – was printed both as a broadside, and as sheet music with a tune, and it’s not clear which came first.

Certainly this song and skit was a big success for the English singer and actor William Twaits, who was engaged for the 1803 winter theatre season in Philadelphia, where this sheet music (above) was published soon afterwards.

So where did these words come from? And is this tune the same as the dance tune? No, of course it’s not, that would be far too straightforward!

Well, once you take off your “folk” binoculars (hopefully not blinkers!) this is when it starts to get even more complex, as the wider context for this song begins to be revealed.

Lack of copyright laws and legislation on what could be staged in different types of performance venues meant that songs, dramatic pieces and stage characters were used and re-used, revived and repurposed. That certainly turns out to be the case with this song Tid Re I, as the verses for this song – without the “patter” were actually written several years before, by the English composer and performer Charles Dibdin. He sang his own composition The Irish Wedding in London at the end of 1796, in a musical revue entitled “The General Election”, in which he interpolated the song with some rather more high falutin’ versification and in his original version, the groom was named only Paddy or Pat and the bride was anonymous.

The stage character and Paddy’s Rambles across the western world

So it’s becoming clear that this character Paddy O’Rafferty had a life on the stage and there is plenty of detail in the newspapers and journals of the early nineteenth century, revealing Paddy O’Rafferty’s rambles around the theatres of England, Ireland and America.

In the period before music hall developed, a night at the theatre consisted of at least three or four separate items which could include a couple of dramatic pieces, maybe a farce or a pantomime, and in the middle, an entr’acte entertainment which might be a stand-alone song or dance item. There was often a prologue or afterpiece as well, so it could be a long night! And almost all plays in the Georgian period included songs, which could be chosen at short notice during a season to suit the character.

It’s in this context that the songs about Paddy O’Rafferty and the stage “character” of Paddy O’Rafferty become increasingly intertwined.

The cast list on the right above, from 1798, shows John Henry Johnstone, an Irish actor, playing the part of Paddy O’Rafferty in a new farce called “False and True” which premiered at Covent Garden, then toured the English provinces – and was staged for the first time in Ireland at the Dublin Theatre Royal in April 1799. Although Johnstone sang songs in this production, none are related to “our song”, but the character has now been established.

From then onwards, Paddy O’Rafferty pops up regularly in the English and Irish theatre, sometimes in a comedy, sometimes in an entr’acte entertainment. The character also toured America. Perhaps the person who really made the part of Paddy O’Rafferty his own, was another Irishman who specialised in playing “Stage Irish” parts in both England and Ireland, the enigmatic Mr. Webb, in the centre below – about whom nothing at all is known, despite a recent trawl of a variety of primary sources – although the details of his 1822 season in Dublin are charmingly revealed in “The Daily Visiter or Companion for the Breakfast Table” published in Dublin.

There were a number of plays featuring various stock Irish characters, including Sir Callaghan O’Brallaghan in “Love a La Mode” and Major O’Flaherty in “The West Indian” portrayed here respectively by Johnstone on the left above and Webb in the centre …… hmm!!!

On the right above is another favourite Irish “delineator” Tyrone Power (ancestor of a whole dynasty of American actors with the same name!) who again played all the stock “Stage Irish” parts and took the part of Paddy O’Rafferty many times, notably in his own reworking of the 1798 farce “False and True” into a “new” piece “Born to Good Luck” in 1832.

Many other lesser known actors also played the character of Paddy O’Rafferty during the course of the nineteenth century, in provincial theatres up and down the land.


So our whistle-stop journey through Paddy O’Rafferty’s kaleidoscopic existence concludes – and here is a brief chronology to round it off.

  • The name of a dance tune – in various permutations – first noted aurally in Co. Antrim, printed in England, Scotland, Ireland and the US, and also reproduced on barrel-organs (1795 onwards)
  • A proto-Paddy O’Rafferty appeared (as “Paddy” or ”Pat”) as the bridegroom in the song The Irish Wedding written by English composer and performer, Charles Dibdin (1796).
  • A “stage Irish” character making appearances in various productions at English, Irish and American theatres (1798 onwards)
  • The name of a country dance, used as an opening dance at society balls in England (1801 onwards)
  • A character in a cante fable piece Tid Re I (Dibdin’s The Irish Wedding) and a related piece, The New Tid Re I or The Birth of Paddy O’Rafferty junior, both published in the US (1804 onwards).
  • A comic dance performed on the stage (1810)
  • A character in yet another song; words by Alexander Boswell, set to music, using the traditional air by Beethoven (1814)
  • A character in two other songs (Paudeen O’Rafferty and The Death of Mrs O’Rafferty) published on broadsides, in chapbooks and songsters in England and Ireland (circa 1815 onwards)


    The recycling of musical themes and titles was incredibly common and means we must have open minds about the relationship between different aspects of popular culture; songs, dances, instrumental tunes, theatrical pieces etc. The link with the stage (and particularly the relationship between London and the Dublin) provides a fertile area for song and tune research.

    This talk was originally part of a presentation for the Traditional Song Forum Zoom on 14th June 2020. Although later talks were recorded on YouTube, this was one of the early online meetings before such sophistication!

    For further information about Parry’s journeys, the barrel-organ and it’s other tunes, see A Barrel-Organ in the Arctic. See also Esther Gayton part 2: ‘Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe’ . Further explorations of the music on Parry’s barrel-organ are in preparation.

    Many of the tunes from Parry’s barrel-organ were recorded following restoration in 1972, and that album is still available on the Saydisc label – “Parry’s Barrel Organ”. It is included on track 2 on the album and was originally on barrel no. 4.

    At the time of writing the album is also available to listen to on YouTube via this link. If you want to go direct to the Paddy O’Rafferty tune, it is the third tune out of four on this composite track.

    Paul Cooper has done some superb research into Georgian dancing culture and been very helpful in my work on Parry’s barrel-organ. The “research papers” section of his website Regencydances.org  is particularly informative.

    The English broadside images are from the Bodleian Library’s wonderful Ballads Online resource.

    The Tid Re-I song texts are from The American Antiquarian Society’s digital archive.

    The portraits of the actors Henry Johnstone and Mr Webb are in the Harvard Theatre Collection and the National Portrait Gallery respectively. These two portraits, supposedly of different people, are nearly identical – although it was very common for engravings to be copied and re-used. John Henry (“Jack”) Johnstone’s stage parts were extremely similar to Webb’s. His portrait is extremely similar to Webb’s in. No personal details are known about Webb at all, except some addresses given for his benefit nights, although he appears in theatrical cast lists regularly from 1801 to 1822. You might expect to read some remarks about Webb following in Johnstone’s footsteps, but I haven’t seen anything. So you might even wonder if they were actually the same person, except a Mr. Webb (though possibly not the same one) and Johnstone appeared on the same stage at Drury Lane in 1805. Further information about Mr Webb in Dublin may be found in “The Daily Visiter or Companion for the Breakfast Table” (1823), digitised on Google Books.

    The portrait of Tyrone Power came from the wonderful 1838 publication “Actors by Gaslight”, which together with its sibling “Actors by Daylight” is also digitised on Google Books. (Actors by Gaslight follows Actors by Daylight: Tyrone Power is featured in Volume 1, April 21st 1838, which follows Actors by Daylight December 22nd p. 348.)

    The newspaper advert for the “New Comic Ballet” of Paddy O’Rafferty is from Saunders’s News-Letter, 16 March 1810 and advertises a performance at the Theatre Royal in Dublin.

    The cast list for the premiere of “False and True” at Covent Garden on 11th August 1798 is taken from the original script by George Moultrie, which is again digitised on Google Books: “False and True”.

    Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.

    I have dug out far, far more material on the song, the tune and the stage performances and performers than can be written up here. Please do get in contact if this is a special area of interest or study to you, I would be happy to tell you more.

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