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.
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!).
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 a few articles on some of the programmes. Starting with radio only in 1923, 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 lot 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 only British broadcasting channel that existed 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.)
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 type of 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.
I have now found that there are BBC acetate discs of songs from the first two programmes in the British Library Sound Archive – although they are not identified in the catalogue as being part of these radio programmes, they most definitely are! Programmes 5 and 6 were repeated, so they must have been recorded, but as yet there is no trace of any discs. For programmes 1 and 2, the song content totalled about 15 minutes, and each programme had a 25 minute slot. The extra airtime would probably have been filled with introductions and background by a commentator in the studio, live at the time of broadcast. I think it is safe to assume that all the programmes were produced in this way, and I look forward to visiting the BBC Written Archives Centre to find out more.
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.
Part 2 and Part 3 both refer in more detail to the recordings made for these programmes.
How this series came to be made: the producer, Maurice Brown
The producer of this series, Maurice Brown, was evidently key to the series.
Maurice Penton Brown (1909-1981) came from London, his father was a bank manager. He 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 on the musical side, in what we would now call documentaries, but were then usually referred to as “features”, for example, as reported in the Nottingham Journal, 4th August 1934: “Historic Occasions 1: Twenty Years Ago, a radio report of events preceding the outbreak of World War, 4th August, 1914 compiled from the original documents, by Harold Temperley; music arranged by Maurice Brown; produced by Lawrence Gilliam.”
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.
Brown’s other work included many Children’s Hour stories and a whole raft of programmes involving sailing craft of various kinds. 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, in an echo of the 1934 programme, he produced Five Years After, first broadcast on Sunday 5th Jun 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 – was his first foray into broadcasting traditional singing in its natural habitat, shortly followed by the Thirsty Work series.
A letter to The Listener, published on 14th August 1941, shows him to be well informed about the folksong genre, and also demonstrates how much of a pioneer he was in broadcasting traditional singing. 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 clamed “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, he 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. In his later work, he continued to work with singers such as Bob Roberts, and recorded more unusual items 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” in collaboration with writer, broadcaster and singer John Seymour.
He retired to Suffolk where he died, in Long Melford, in 1981.
How this series came to be made: contacts around the country
Brown evidently used his contacts around the country, which are likely to have included dialect societies, folksong collectors such as Francis Collinson, (who also worked for the BBC, producing the well-known Country Magazine programme which often included folksongs) and also, as evidenced in Programmes 5 and 6 from the series – writers with experience of writing regional features and dramas.
Brown worked within the BBC Radio Features and Drama department, which was relocated to Wood Norton Hall in Evesham at the outbreak of War in August 1939. On the 1939 Register taken a few weeks later we find Maurice and Dorothea Brown living in the Market Place, with his occupation given as BBC official. The department moved on to Manchester in November, but Wood Norton Hall continued to be used by the BBC for the duration of the war. So Brown probably wasn’t in the town for more than a few months, but evidently long enough to have come into contact with Charles Gardiner, who was an amateur writer of “sketches” for the BBC Regional Programme. I was alerted to the significant role Gardiner played in this series by the fact that he appeared on the listing for two of the programmes. This immediately suggested that he was not “just” one of the local singers – see Part 4: The Cotswolds for more details.
A decade after these programmes were made, the BBC actually employed people as folk song collectors and recordists, including Peter Kennedy, who when he started out in 1952, was given regional contacts by the BBC’s Dialect Advisor – one of those contacts was Charles Gardiner, although Kennedy reported that they were unable to actually meet, as Gardiner was busy at work whenever he called. This shows the connections being made between dialect and folk song, and in Redmire (and possibly Ambleside) there are certainly indications of this sort of networking with dialect enthusiasts.
There are also indications from Redmire – where the BBC’s visit was particularly well documented in the local newspapers – of the wider singing repertoires of the people featured in these programmes, and a glimpse of the editorial policies which resulted in singers and songs thought to be typical of their regions being chosen. For example, in programme 6, some of the participants in the Ebrington session had been brought in from nearby Chipping Campden, but not the most well-known community singer there, Tom Hooke, who was born in London and who had worked professionally on the music halls. The music hall song (What are You Going to do About) Selina which was clearly one of Kit Jones’ favourites in Redmire, was likewise excluded, although known to have been sung on the night of the recordings.
Little more is known about the making of this series, but I do now know that there is some documentation in the BBC Written Archives Centre, but as with so many things in 2021, there is a delay in gaining access: any additional information will be posted here in due course.
Thirsty Work: pub locations and broadcast dates
- 9 April 1940 from the Royal Oak, Ambleside, Westmorland
- 4th May 1940 from King’s Arms, Redmire, Wensleydale, Yorkshire
- 13th May 1940 from Eel’s Foot Inn, Eastbridge, Suffolk
- 14th June 1940 from The Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley, Northamptonshire
- 22nd July 1940 (repeated 17th Sept 1940) from The Ivy, North Littleton, Worcestershire
- 28th Nov 1940 (repeated 3rd January 1941) from the Ebrington Arms, Ebrington, Gloucestershire
- 7th March 1941 from the Star Inn, Harome, North Yorkshire.
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
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.
Radio Times Genome Archive – this has a good search facility, or you can browse by year.
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).
Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.