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.