everyman and everywoman

Month: March 2021

The Other Mrs Benefer

Ask people interested in local history in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, if they’ve heard of Lol Benefer and they might quite likely answer “Oh yes!” and raise their eyebrows knowingly. Ask people interested in folk songs if they’ve heard of her, and they will probably shake their heads and raise their eyebrows quizzically.

I came across her through investigating the people who sang songs to the folksong collector and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He visited the area for a week or so in January 1905 and collected over seventy songs, some of which were highly influential on him as a composer.


In Kings Lynn Vaughan Williams headed for the area around St Nicholas Chapel, just north of the large Tuesday Market Place, known as the North End, home to the fishing community based around the old Fisher Fleet. He visited people living in some of the yards, such as Whitening Yard (left, in the 1930s), off North Street. This area has since changed beyond recognition; most of the houses, shops and pubs that formed a poor but vibrant, self-contained, even isolated, community having been demolished in the slum clearances of the mid twentieth century.

In Whitening Yard lived ‘Mrs Benefer’. Vaughan Williams rarely gave any more information than just the singer’s name, and in this case he had pencilled something else uncertainly next to the surname, which, for many years, I took to be ‘Lesley’. I then realised it was ‘Larley’ and underneath it was ‘Lolly?’ which enabled me to finally identify this woman and find out more about her.

This photograph at the top of this page of Mrs Lol Benefer comes from the collection held by the wonderful True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum, which is housed in some of the few remaining old buildings in the North End. Lol (born Harriet Ann Bailey in 1864) looks an impressive character, her figure giving testament to a life of hard physical work and regular child-bearing.

I’ve taken the liberty of colourising this photo, which perhaps helps to bring out the warmth of her character – here Mrs Benefer looks more kindly, with a slight smile playing around her eyes and mouth. Someone who would offer a polite welcome to the rather upper-class gentleman who came to her door on Wednesday 11th January asking if she knew any old folksongs. If it had been a Monday, she might have been in the middle of a lot of washing, but whatever day of the week, she would certainly have her hands full. At that date she was thirty-nine and had three children under four –Nelly aged three, Lottie aged two, and David, scarcely one year old. Six year old Penelope (bizarrely noted as ‘Pelmofer’ in the 1901 census!) would be the only child likely to be in school; twelve year old Henry was probably working by then, whilst older sons Tom and Burke were definitely working -as a carter and fisherman respectively, the latter probably with her husband Henry. Fourteen year old Harriet was probably around at home helping with the younger children and household tasks whilst sixteen year old Jessie may have been out at work. It must have been quite a challenge to find a quiet few minutes for Vaughan Williams to write down the melody she sang!

Vaughan Williams noted down just two songs from her, the first of which is probably the best known folk song across the English speaking world, and one which is particularly popular with women singers – Barbary Allen – and the second he noted as  The Farmer’s Daughter, without writing down any of the words. This was very probably The Banks of the Sweet Dundee, again an extremely well-known song, in which a young woman Mary, is in love with a ploughboy and from her farming parents, inherits a lot of money, but all does not go according to plan. Her uncle and the “wealthy squire” are not happy with her potential marriage partner and put an end to the young man, but the woman in turn shoots the uncle and squire. The squire, for reasons unacknowledged in the song, leaves Mary a further fortune and all ends happily as she appears to be untroubled by accusations of murder and “lives so happy on the banks of Sweet Dundee.” This song may have had particular resonance for Lol Benefer, as we shall see.

Life in the enclosed yards of old cottages in the North End was rough and ready at times, as testified by the numerous newspaper reports from the petty sessions of neighbourly disputes over use of the communal water pump, cleaning out the yards etc. Before her marriage, Lol had herself been involved in a more than usually serious case.

Lol (Harriet Ann) Bailey, then aged eighteen, and her parents William and Mary Ann Bailey, and two sisters, Elizabeth Maule and Naomi Bailey were accused of manslaughter of a young neighbour, James Stannard in May 1882. They had beaten him about the head with their fists in an initially trivial dispute over the younger children playing together in the yard, and a fortnight later Stannard had died. The Baileys were found guilty by a jury, but Naomi, being only thirteen, was not indicted. One of their other neighbours had warned Stannard: “Don’t fight with such a lot, Jimmy,” suggesting that the Baileys had a bit of a reputation for pugnacious behaviour. Their defence lawyer stated: “Whether any of the jury were acquainted with Lynn he did not know, but if they were, they knew what the North end of the town was. Everything was not done with rose-water there. Its inhabitants were a sea-faring population; who were rough in their manners and habits. They must not expect to find the Baileys or Stannards behaving with all the gentleness that they would find in a gentleman’s drawing-room.”

The judge, in summing up, stated: “The Baileys, of course, did not intend to cause his death. They only intended to give him a severe beating, why I cannot tell; but if you think these blows caused death, you have only to say they were guilty of manslaughter, for although they did not intend to kill him, they were doing an unlawful act which has resulted in his death.”

The reports in the newspapers of the time do not give us Lol’s point-of-view: the only time we really hear from the Baileys is when they return to court for sentencing: “On Wednesday the prisoners were brought up to receive sentence, and they said that they were sorry for what they had done. The man asked for the mercy of the Court, for the sake of his wife and family.” William was sentenced to a year hard labour and imprisonment in Norwich Gaol (then in the Castle), and all three women were sentenced to eight months imprisonment, during which time Lol gave birth to her first son. It must have been a devastating scenario for all the families concerned.

This chapter in Lol Bennefer’s life sounds like one of the stories told in the songs published on broadsides –  the kind of song Vaughan Williams was interested in finding. Whether he ever realised that he met a woman whose life experience closely paralleled those stories, we shall never know, and whether Lol Benefer’s choice of songs was influenced by her early life we shall never know either.

Her contributions to the canon of folk song were not significant, but in Vaughan Williams’ folk song collecting in King’s Lynn, women were far outweighed by men, so it’s good to remember those women who were known singers at the time, and also perhaps to counteract some of the more sensational and negative memories of this particular woman by remembering a different aspect of her character.

Lol was not the only one in her family to sing. Her eldest daughter Jessie’s son, Eric, is said to know some of the old songs.  Her second daughter, another Harriet, married George Smith, who was known as ‘Bussle’, as was his father and subsequently his son, and Harriet’s husband and father-in-law were both singers, the latter recorded by folk song collector Mike Herring in the 1960s. Meanwhile, Lol’s younger sister Naomi had a daughter called Lottie who was adopted at an early age by fisherman James ‘Duggie’ Carter, one of Vaughan Williams’ main informants in 1905. Her second son, Tom ‘Boots’ Benefer, another of the North End’s well-known inhabitants, also sang. He was one of the men who sang on a radio programme made by writer John Seymour, recorded in the Tilden Smith pub in the North End on 4th July 1955 and broadcast in a series about a journey Seymour and his young family made around England in a Dutch sailing barge: The Voyages of Jenny III.

But that, as they say, is another story!

Newspaper quotes above are from various reports in the Bury & Norwich Post, Lynn News and Ipswich Journal in August 1882.

The wonderful independent True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum is housed in some of the very few remaining buildings of the old North End. You can get a sense of Lol Benefer’s day to day life by standing in one of the cottages there. https://truesyard.co.uk/


The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (part of the English Folk Dance and Song Society) has digitised all of Vaughan Williams’ song collecting manuscripts. Amongst many other fascinating items, you can find his notation of Lol Benefer’s rendition of Barbary Allen here:  https://www.vwml.org/record/RVW2/3/108

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.

The Well-Travelled Dulcimer

In my riffling around in amongst the musical traditions in my part of the world (East Anglia) I have been fascinated by one instrument above all others, the beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding dulcimer.

It is sometimes referred to by modern-day folk musicians as a hammered dulcimer, but this distinction is only really needed in the USA where a completely unrelated instrument also exists, which is known as the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer. In England it was always just dulcimer, and in the eastern counties sometimes dulcimore.


This particularly beautiful dulcimer, made by the very best of makers, Mark Widdows of Norwich, between 1845 and 1889, has proved to have a very interesting passage in its history. I first came across it in 2005, when I met Frank Read, who had owned it since 1983 when his daughter bought it for him from an antique shop in Wymondham, Norfolk, to replace one he had owned earlier in life.


But what of the earlier life of the dulcimer itself?  Well! … the instrument case revealed some surprising information. Written in pencil on the outside of the case – just visible – was the name Henry Edwards and inside the case were various items of ephemera which indicated that, in the early twentieth century, the same Henry Edwards had taken this dulcimer all the way across the Atlantic to New York!

Inspired by the idea of this instrument’s journey, I set off to uncover as much of the story as I could. After a more than usually difficult genealogical investigation spanning nearly a decade, I eventually became confident in my identification of the dulcimer’s owner as one Henry Edwards, born in Norwich in 1863, a bootmaker from a city with a busy footwear industry.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War One, Edwards travelled by train to Liverpool, where he boarded the Caronia on 2nd June 1914, bound for Boston; this was the Caronia’s last voyage before she was requisitioned for war service. He was even luckier with his return journey, made on the Lusitania in April 1915: the Lusitania was sunk just two weeks later, on 7th May 2015, with the loss of over a thousand lives.

So why did Henry Edwards travel to the United States and where was he heading for?

The Caronia’s outgoing passenger list and incoming passenger manifest from Boston give plenty of detail, not all of which is accurate. Henry’s destination was Canton, a town in St Lawrence County, near the Canadian border in New York State. The shipping manifest states that he was single (he was not) but it also says he would be staying with his son. This inconsistency could possibly be explained if he had separated from his wife – in such cases, the documentation of the time might have classified his position as single, or, he may simply have lied to the emigration officials.  Another incorrect detail is that he is described as living with his father at 5 Trafalgar Street in Norwich. His father, James, had died 20 years previously, but his brother Alfred was living at this address! The documentation from the Liverpool end also gives his trade as printer, and – oh dear – there was another Henry Edwards in Norwich who was a printer, also had a brother called Alfred and a father called James: you can now begin to see why it proved difficult to pin down ‘our’ Henry Edwards! It was a combination of the Trafalgar Street address, and more recently, access to the 1939 census and the United States census records that has allowed me, at last, to make a really positive identification despite these red herrings. The Boston manifest describes his appearance: 5’8” tall with fair hair and grey eyes, and we have no other proof of his appearance.

So Edwards was not the first of his family to make this journey: he went there to visit his son Henry James Edwards, who had emigrated four years earlier.

I did wonder if it was the latter that was the dulcimer player, and his father was delivering it to him, but the fact that Henry Edwards senior brought it back to Norwich suggests it was indeed he who was the owner and player of this instrument.

On his return to Norfolk in 1915, Edwards continued to work in the boot-trade in Norwich, retiring some time before the Second World War. He died in late 1955 at the age of 92, followed within just six months by both his wife and his only daughter.

I can only speculate as to the reason for Henry Edwards’ long sojourn in the United States and why he took the dulcimer with him. He stayed for ten months during which time, back in Norwich, his only daughter got married and his wife would have had to survive without any income from him. He had enough money to sail to the USA and to return (third class tickets in either direction) and had the minimum of $25 with him. Had he intended to make a new life out there alongside his son? Maybe he returned to Norwich only because transatlantic travel was about to close down due to World War One, or maybe because he was needed at home. He wasn’t of a class or a period to take a ‘gap year’ so he must have been working out there. Whatever the truth of the matter, his dulcimer was clearly important to him, and quite possibly playing it was also a way to make some money.

Nothing further is known about the dulcimer until Frank Read acquired it twenty-eight years after Edwards’ death, but I do hope that, after Henry Edwards came back from New York, he continued to play to entertain himself and maybe also his family and community. This beautiful instrument has clearly been treasured over the years, and exists complete with all its bridges and what is probably the original tuning key. It’s also interesting to reflect on the fact that Edwards chose his instrument case as the place to keep the reminders of his once-in-a-lifetime trip to America.

If by chance, any members of Henry Edwards’ family should come across this, do please leave a message here – it would be great to be in touch!

For more about the maker of this instrument, see my article on Mark Widdows on the East Anglian Dulcimers website

I wonder if Henry Edwards might have come across any other dulcimer players whilst in New York State? There were certainly plenty about: Paul M. Gifford has identified many players in the Great Lakes region in a slightly earlier period, but none in the Canton district itself.  http://www.giffordmusic.net/dulcimer.html

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.

The Perfect Cure

The Perfect Cure is one of  several country dance tunes collected in Norfolk which were played for the traditional ‘Long Dance’, and it is often thought of as a quintessentially Norfolk tune. But it turns out that this tune already had a bit of history before that, as suggested by this music cover (left).

A little bit of musical archaeology reveals not only other regions that see the tune as being distinctively theirs, but also a glimpse of the way melodies moved between different performing contexts before tunes were pigeon-holed into different genres.

The Norfolk connection comes from the fact that it was published by the English Folk Dance and Song Society: firstly in ‘The Coronation Country Dance Book’ in 1937, a year or so after it had been noted down from melodeon player Herbert Mallett (right) of Aldborough by folklorist Joan Roe, and subsequently, and probably with a longer lasting influence, in ‘The Fiddler’s Tune Book’ Volume 2 in 1954. In July 1950, Herbert Mallett visited the BBC studios in Norwich and recorded several items including The Perfect Cure. 

Dulcimer player Billy Cooper from Hingham also played it, with a slightly different B music, which is given below, however it is Mallett’s version which has become the standard English version of the tune in modern times.

It’s also known – usually as She Hadn’t The Thing She Thought She Had – within the musical tradition of Sliabh Luachra from the Cork/Kerry borders in south west Ireland.  Some years ago, Con O’Drisceoil from County Cork was performing at a concert in Suffolk and introduced what he considered to be one of the more unusual items in his local repertoire – a 12/8 jig (known as a slide) – which turned out to be The Perfect Cure. I don’t know who was the more surprised, the audience or Con!

A set of words was noted down from the Oxfordshire fiddler Sam Bennett in 1950:

‘The cure, the cure, the perfect cure, you are a perfect cure,
And all at once the maid she cried, You are a perfect cure!
Some got trampled underfoot, some crushed beneath the wheel,
Lord how the parson he did curse and how the pigs did squeal!’

The phrase ‘perfect cure’ was a slang phrase, current from the mid nineteenth century, for an eccentric and amusing person. The original song dates from that period, and consisted of ten verses written in 1861 by F. C. Perry. The song was a roaring success in the Music Halls, made popular by James Hurst Stead, who, after the final verse, went straight into an early version of the punk pogo dance, where he is said to have jumped up and down 400 times during the song, and sometimes performed it in four different venues in the course of one night!

The actual melody, composed by John Blewett, predates this set of words, as it was originally written for a song called The Monkey and the Nuts. The original tune was written as a schottische although it is now commonly played as a jig.

There’s a lot more about James Stead on the Studied Monuments blog about the St Pancras and Islington cemetery by Bob Davenport, and for more about the tune itself, visit the excellent Traditional Tune Archive.


If you’d like to know more about Billy Cooper and East Anglian dulcimers, visit my other website East Anglian Dulcimers



The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library holds the original acetate recordings of Herbert Mallett, and this tune and others can be heard on the Musical Traditions website, in The Life and Times of a Norfolk Melodeon Player by Chris Holderness.

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


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