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!
- Radio broadcasting in wartime
- How this series came to be made: the producer, Maurice Brown
- How this series came to be made: contacts, locations and criteria
- What happened next and the legacy of the Thirsty Work series
- A note concerning recordings
- Thirsty Work pubs and dates
- References and links
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- From the Royal Oak, Ambleside, Westmorland, recorded on 15th & 16th March 1940, and broadcast on 9th April 1940.
- From the King’s Arms, Redmire, Wensleydale, Yorkshire, recorded on 13th & 14th April 1940 and broadcast on 4th May 1940.
- From the Eel’s Foot Inn, Eastbridge, Suffolk, recorded on 13th May 1939 and broadcast on 13th May 1940.
- From the Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley, Northamptonshire, recorded on 8th & 9th May 1940 and broadcast on 14th June 1940.
- From the Ivy Inn, North Littleton, Worcestershire, recorded on 6th & 7th June and broadcast on 22nd July 1940 (repeated 17th Sept 1940).
- From the Ebrington Arms, Ebrington, Gloucestershire, recorded on 27th & 28th September 1940 and broadcast on 28th Nov 1940 (repeated 3rd January 1941).
- 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.
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.