In 1905, the composer and folk song collector Ralph Vaughan Williams made a now legendary visit to the town of King’s Lynn, where he stayed for nearly a week, noting down old songs from the fishing community of the North End, and elderly residents in the workhouse. I and many other people have written about that at length, and there is a link at the bottom of this page.However, Vaughan Williams was only there a few days and in my pootling around all-things-King’s-Lynn I have turned up references to several other singers and folk musicians whom he did not get to meet, for whatever reason.
Here are potted biographies of the main ones.
Tom Senter, 1843-1935
According to oral history, Tom Senter was a “natural” musician who played a number of instruments. Singer “Young Bussle” Smith remembered Senter as a singer.
“A NEW PHOTOGRAPH OF TOM SENTER. MR. THOMAS SENTER, of Framingham’s Almshouses, Lynn, who will be 91 next month, claims to be the oldest fisherman in Lynn. He began work at the age of six. He was born and bred in Lynn, as was his father before him. This arresting photograph, taken by Mr. P. M. Goodchild, of Lynn, has been accepted for exhibition in London by the Professional Photographers’ Association.”
Unfortunately no-one seems to have talked to Tom Senter about his music or noted it down at all, so his repertoire and style is all in our imagination!
In fact, Tom Senter was closely related to one of Vaughan Williams’ main singers, William Harper – they were half-brothers and brought up together, although Harper was 13 years older. (See the foot of the page for links to information about William Harper.) Tom Senter was the son of his mother’s second marriage – her first being to William Harper’s father – and he was born in 1843 in one of the yards off North Street, an area he lived in until he was in his forties, then moving into one of the Victorian terraced streets a little bit to the north of the old North End itself. In 1911 he and his wife Elizabeth (née Bone) moved into Framingham’s Almshouses on the London Road, quite a way from his home area.
In 1934 he featured in the local newspaper several times – they were very fond of reporting the advanced ages of some of the town’s residents – and he was said to be the oldest guest at a Christmas entertainment in the almshouses that year – whether he himself provided any of the entertainment by playing a tune or not, the article didn’t state! (Lynn Advertiser, 2nd January 1935). He died in April 1935.
Edward “Wacker” Bunn, 1869-1933
Frank Castleton in his book Fisher’s End, tells this story:
“One evening when my mother was in bed having her fourth child, the midwife in attendance, my father (who had good tenor voice and used to sing to a piano accompaniment in pubs and clubs) decided to take me with him – probably to get me out of the way. He took me to a singing contest in the Fishermen’s (sic) Arms. The contest was to see who could sing the longest song. The first man to stand up before the piano was Wacker Bunn … Lord Bacon … This went on for 96 verses …”
“Lord Bacon was, he was, he was a noble lord of high degree,
He shipped his-self on board a vessel for some foreign parts he would go see.
He sail-ed east, he sail-ed west, ‘til he came to proud Turkey
There he was captured and made a prisoner ‘til his poor life was most weary.”
This occasion seems likely to have been in August 1905 – contemporaneous with Vaughan Williams’ visits, but Vaughan Williams is not known to have visited any pubs in King’s Lynn, and would probably not have been happy with the piano accompaniment if he had set foot in the Fisherman’s Arms (pictured below, shortly before demolition) on a Saturday night.
The song is not, of course, called Lord Bacon, but Lord Bateman, and whilst it might not actually have 96 verses, it is certainly a lengthy ballad, which tells the story of a nobleman who travels to Turkey and falls in love with a beautiful princess. Their relationships takes different trajectories in different variants of the song: much information can be found on the Mainly Norfolk website – see the bottom of this page.
I’ve worked out that “Wacker” was Edward Bouch Bunn, a fisherman born and brought up in North End Yard. After his marriage to Annie Eliza Freeman the family continued to live in the same Yard until sometime after the 1911 census, when they moved out to Lansdowne Street, one of the Victorian terraced streets, where Wacker died in 1933. Frank Castleton recalled that Wacker owned the Lilly May, a 30 ft Shrimper built by the Worfolks in 1910, and would never install an engine although at the time most other boats had small engines installed and were getting bigger catches.
Charlie Fysh, 1866-1961
Another fisherman living in the North End in 1905 who escaped Vaughan William’s notice was Charlie Fysh. He did however capture the attention of a later visitor to the town – author and broadcaster John Seymour, who got to know Charlie quite well in the mid 1950s and included his singing in a radio programme called The Voyages of Jenny III. Full details of that occasion may be found on The self sufficient singers of the Tilden Smith on this blog.
The recording was reported in the King’s Lynn News and Advertiser of 8th July 1955, and Charlie comes across as quite a character:
“The first song came from 89-year old Charlie Fysh, the oldest fisherman in Lynn. Now everyone knows Charlie and everyone knew this was going to be good. It was. It had been carefully explained to Charlie beforehand that he would have to leave out of the song certain words that might be considered offensive to the more aesthetically-minded listeners of the BBC.
Even so, some of the banned words crept in and were received with gleeful appreciation by the less aesthetically-minded patrons of the Tilden Smith. What the BBC is going to do about it is their affair.
Charlie stood there stiffly to attention, his cap perched at a jaunty angle and his good eye making up in brightness for the one that was obscured by the familiar patch.
The microphone was thrust before him and he started away on the first line of ‘Ole Johnnie Bowker.’ Then there was a flash as someone took a picture of him. Charlie stopped abruptly. “What the ——— was that?” he snapped. “Never mind about that, keep on singing,” said Francis Dillon. “Never mind about it? Oi nearly broke me braces when it happened,” complained Charlie.
So Charlie started again and this time sang all the verses, everyone else who had not been rendered incapable by laughter coming in with the chorus. When he came to the last verse, Charlie faltered a moment and said “———— me! I can’t remember what comes next!” The microphone was hastily switched off.”
The newspaper reporter described Charlie’s song Old Johnnie Bowker as “a delightful story – it concerns a man who had a wife who broke her leg. He called in the doctor who examined her and prescribed that the injured limb should be rubbed with gin. One of the choicest verses goes:”
So Ole Johnnie Bowker he thought it were a sin,
To rub his wife’s leg with the gin,
So he poured the gin down his old throttle
And rubbed his wife’s leg with the empty bottle.
In Sailing through England (1956), John Seymour wrote about Charlie:
“Charlie Fysh will be ninety by the time this book is published. He is the Grand Old Man of the Lynn Fisher Fleet. (The Fisher Fleet is the creek up which the Lynn fishermen keep their smacks: the creek a part of which became a railway siding, and which was allegedly stolen from the fishermen.) Charlie gave up fishing a year or two ago, but still spends a lot of his time down at the Fleet, watching the smacks dome in, and he seldom missed an evening at the Tilden Smyth. If I can sing like he can when I am ninety I shall be a happy man.
“Charlie came on board Jenny, and in fact we came to see quite a lot of him. To know such a man is no longer to dread old age. He was very fond of Jane. I got him to record the story of how the Fleet was cut in half, and half of it stolen from the fishermen.”
Charlie Fysh was brought up in the old North End, his father was a fisherman, and in the early 1900s he was living in one of the yards off Chapel Street. Early married life saw him move a little further out, into Birchwood Street, again in that Victorian development of terraced housing which was definitely more sanitary than the old North End yards. One of his great grandsons is Roger Taylor, drummer with the rock band Queen!
Sam Southgate, 1864-1945
“Old Sam Southgate had in his day been a seaman, fisherman and Wash Pilot, and was a man of great seagoing experience. He was tall and heavily built and as solid as an iron anchor, with hands the size of shovels. He was also short tempered and irascible, particularly with small boys. His sons ran two grocery shops on opposite corners of North Street and St Anne’s Street and he liked to pull up an old crate to sit on next to the trays of fruits and vegetables, which were always on display. Care had to be taken when walking past as he had a nasty habit of giving out sudden whacks with his walking stick. “What’s that for?” would be the cry. “That’s for pinching that apple yesterday,” he would shout, “Didn’t think I saw you, did you?” “Kids would wait outside the pubs on Saturday nights and bet with marbles or cigarette cards as to who would fight with who. Old Sam and Tipney Goodson were always good bets.”
These memories were from Arthur Painter’s now defunct Northenders website, and he also quoted Sam Southgate’s daughter, Emily van Pelt:
“My father was not a fisherman. He had been three times round Cape Horn under sail. He was a deep sea sailor not a pilot. Went out of Lynn Docks when he was 15. No matter what the weather was he would have to go aloft to the sails in terrible weather conditions. To get the men to go they would have gold sovereigns when they came back.”
The historical documentation shows that in early life he did work as a fisherman, and at least from his thirties, he was an able seaman in the Merchant Navy. In the 1911 census he was keeping watch on a 961 ton steel sailing barque, the Kinfauns in the Alexandra dock. This was a Dundee-owned ship which in early March that year had returned from a voyage to Mejillones, in Chile, so if Sam Southgate had been part of the crew then, that might have been one of the occasions on which he sailed round the Horn. He was away from home for each census in 1891 and 1901, so may very well have been away on a long passage when Vaughan Williams visited in 1905, but also, with his eyes set on more distant horizons, perhaps Sam, at that time, was not so much a part of the fishing community anyway.
Sam’s father was a maltster, living in Lane’s Yard off St Ann’s Street. Growing up there, he was also a near neighbour to Henry Flanders, who had a hand-written book of songs – see the foot of the page for a link. In 1898 he married Eleanor Johnson and they lived on North Street, next to the Black Joke pub, which was run by her father. She was living there in 1901 with their one year old son, while Sam was away at sea, an able seaman on the Turret Chief, a trading steamer with a multicultural crew and officers of 15, which was berthed at Jarrow on census night. Sam and Eleanor remained living on North Street for the rest of their lives.
One of Sam’s favourite songs, perhaps not surprisingly given his long-distance travelling in earlier life, was:
“All hands to man the capstan, see the cable is all clear.
Then across the briny ocean for old England we will steer.
Rolling home to merry England, rolling home across the sea,
Rolling home to merry England, rolling home England to thee.”
This song recollection also came from the old Northenders website.
Vaughan Williams was introduced to singers in the North End by the curate of St Nicholas’ Chapel, the Reverend Alfred Huddle, and in fact he only visited a small number of singers in a small area of the North End. The average age of the singers he met was over sixty. I’ve written elsewhere at length about Vaughan Williams’ visit and the singers he met then (including William Harper).
Finding these other singers indicates the wider musical activities going on, sometimes in pubs with piano accompaniment, and amongst a younger generation.
Further information about singing in the mid twentieth century is on this blog, see The Herring Singers.
For information about “Wacker” Bunn’s song, Lord Bateman: https://mainlynorfolk.info/joseph.taylor/songs/lordbateman.html
For more about the songbook belonging to Sam Southgate’s neighbour, Henry Flanders, see Henry Flanders’ song book.
Portraits of Tom Senter and the 1955 news item courtesy of Trues Yard Fisherfolk Museum who have a brilliant archive as well as their static displays and exhibitions, and deserve our support. https://truesyard.co.uk/