everyman and everywoman

Category: Singing Histories

Tales from the Harbour Inn

 

Other posts about Southwold on this website have mentioned The Harbour Inn at Blackshore, on the banks of the River Blyth, near Southwold as a place for singing across the twentieth century. This post draws all the information together, such as it is in early June 2021 -always pleased to hear more from any readers!


The pub itself

The pub dates from at least the early 1700s, when it was referred to in documents simply as the Blackshore Alehouse. By the end of that century it gained the name The Fishing Buss. This referred to a type of fishing boat which originated in the Dutch and Flemish herring fleet and was adopted by East Anglian boatbuilders too. During the course of the nineteenth century it was replaced by the dandy-rigged lugger, which was felt to offer more diverse opportunities for fishermen. The pub changed to The Harbour Inn when it was acquired by Adnams in 1898. In this photo, the pub, looking a bit run-down in the 1950s, is the building nearest the camera, on the right. In front of it is the foreshore of the River Blyth.

Previously, the ownership and management of the pub had been tied in with that of the Blackshore quay and wharf, used by trading vessels and fishermen, although many of these preferred to launch off the beach. The narrow entrance to the harbour, at the mouth of the river Blyth, was (and still is) notorious. This black-and-white image shows the pub on the left, looking towards the river mouth.


Early 20th century

The earliest mention I have come across of singing taking place is from 1911. This drawing, although executed in 1930, is captioned the Harbour Inn in 1911. It is by a little-known artist called J.W. Georges (more on him on the Up from the Sea post) and features someone known to be a singer – Billy Rogers – apparently in full flow.

It was published in the 2005 book Making Waves: Artists in Southwold where the author, Ian Collins, noted:

“The remembered figures, left to right, are landlord Charles James Prior, fisherman John Cannell of 3 Town Farm Cottages, North Road in Southwold (83 in 1930), ex-basketmaker W.M. Rogers (the blind son of ‘Old Dog’ Rogers), the late fisherman Henry Ladd and the artist himself.”

Billy was born Benjamin Willie Rogers in 1880, the oldest son of fisherman Benjamin Rogers and his wife Eliza, and in various censuses he is described as “blind from birth” and “totally blind”. Little is known of his life apart from these little vignettes. No occupation is given, and although he clearly couldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, he must have contributed to the family economy somehow – Ian Collins source says he was a basket-maker (but also had his initials wrong). He lived with his parents, in Hollyhock Square near the Church, into adulthood. His father died suddenly from a perforated ulcer in 1906 and his mother died in 1913. His brother Bertie married early in 1914, and I think Billy probably lived with him and his wife Florence. In 1939 they were also in Hollyhock Square, so I guess the three of them continued to live in what had been the family home since at least 1901.

Billy’s brother Bertie, was interviewed by Bob Jellicoe in the 1970s and recalled his brother singing – here he is talking specifically about the Victoria, on East Street, but the scene in the Harbour would no doubt have been similar:

“Coh! There used t’ be uproar in there! “Go on!” they’d yell. “Give us another bit on it!” My brother generally used t’ do that. Shade of the Old Apple Tree used t’ be another. The Bay of Biscay. Used t’ have a proper high night in there, Saturday nights. ‘Cos us youngsters used t’ be in there along o’ the ol’ men as well. “Go on, boy, you can sing suthin’.” They used t’ keep you up till you did try an’ do suthin’. You could hear it all over East Street. There weren’t no music, anythin’ like that, just shoutin’ an’ hollerin’ in there singin’ ol’ songs. That used t’ amuse the ol’ fishermen y’ know. There were some hectic Saturday nights in there, especially if they’d done a bit o’ fishin’. O’ course when they never got anythin’ the place ‘ud be dead, nobody there. There weren’t many local songs, not that I can remember. Only the Lifeboat, Bravo Lifeboatmen, it was called.


Mid twentieth century

During World War Two, the Rogers’ family home was hit by a German bomb which also blew out the church windows, and the Harbour Inn was forced to close for the duration of hostilities, finally re-opening in 1946.

Only a year or so later, the folksong collector E.J. Moeran was scouting for singing pubs to feature in outside broadcasts for BBC Radio, and it was very probably the Harbour Inn that he visited in late 1947, remarking:

“I visited a hostelry near Southwold and found it crowded with fishermen, one after another in full song. About one song in five was a folk song and the wretched fellow at the piano would insist on trying to accompany the singer. Being totally without any modal feeling in his bones he not only put the singers off their stroke but forced them to alter their tune to suit his abominable machinations.”

The piano-player would probably have been Stanley ‘Tinny’ Townsend, also known for his singing of The Vicar and the Curate.

It was not unusual for BBC Radio programmes to include traditional singers and musicians in magazine-type programmes in the 1940s and 50s. Evidently the Harbour Inn did not pass muster on this occasion, and another pub nearby – the Eel’s Foot near Leiston, was chosen to feature – alongside the Windmill in Sutton on the Norfolk Broads – in a 50 minute programme called “East Anglia Sings”, broadcast on 19th November 1947. The Eel’s Foot had been the subject of its own programme in 1939, which was one of the earliest outside broadcasts. More on this topic in a future post on this website!

The piano accompaniment did not seem to be so much of an issue for author and broadcaster John Seymour, who took a more relaxed view of “the tradition” and remarked in his 1956 book Sailing through England: “That harbour entrance is their trouble. Whenever the wind blows on-shore – or even along the shore – it is hazardous for them to go in or out. If they go out in the morning they are never quite sure that they will be able to get in again at night. Consequently they spend a great deal of their time sitting about in the Harbour Inn, looking extremely picturesque, giving yachtsmen and others sound advice, singing extremely good songs extremely well, and having their photographs taken by ‘art’ photographers from Waldringfield …”

Mid twentieth century singers

John ‘Dusso’ Winter (1932-2019) was born into a fishing family which had been in Southwold for at least seven generations. His memory of the pub (and plenty of others in the town!) goes back to his days as a teenager and young adult, in the 1940s and 50s. He picked up many songs in the pubs, particularly the Harbour Inn and recalled some of the singers:

John’s father, Jimmy Winter (also known as ‘Dusso’) used to sing the song Four and Nine, with ‘Tinny’ Townsend playing the piano, and John also recalled Willy ‘Jarvo’ Jarvis singing Lovely Nancy (Pleasant and Delightful) in the Harbour. William Samuel Jarvis (1908-2000) was the foreman in a bedding factory in the town and was the son of a longshore fisherman.

Other singers recalled by John Dusso Winter were two men he worked with as a young man, who would sing ‘all day long’. One was Billy Welton, then around seventy, one of whose songs went: ‘We parted on the shore / As the crowd began to roar / eeley-o, eeley-o, we’re off to Baltimore’.  William Henry Welton (1873-1947) was the son of a mariner, a house painter and decorator who at various times lived at Blackshore, a stone’s throw from the Harbour Inn, and across the river in Walberswick before retiring to Reydon. The other was a retired drifter skipper called Jack Remblance, of whom Dusso remarked: ‘Although his singing was awful, the songs he knew were, to say the least, different, such as the The Shoreham Murder, which Jack warned me never to try and sing in Shoreham!’ Herbert John Remblance (1891-1981) started his working life as a fisherman alongside his brothers, and later worked for Adnams’ Brewery in the town.

Dusso Winter himself was well known in the town for his many activities in connection with the Sailor’s Reading Room, the Town Council, and as a singer and jazz musician. One of his party pieces was The Captain Told the Mate, which he first heard from Willy Jarvis. We met Dusso in the 1980s and my husband John recorded his songs can be heard singing this on the Veteran CD “When the Wind Blows”. Dusso was an essential part of the Blyth Voices community project which I curated and created and managed during my time as Director of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust. In that project, we taught some of the folk songs collected by folklorists and composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth on their visit to Southwold in 1910 (see The Real Ben Hurr) and some of Dusso’s songs to schoolchildren and young adults in the town in 2003-4.

Another night you might hear some songs from ‘Dinks’ Cooper (on the left in this photo, with Jimmy Meekins) whose best known song was Busky, Haul the Trawl (aka Heave on the Trawl) which he learned from his father. Robert ‘Dinks’ Cooper (1914-1988) lived in Southwold for some years, but made Walberswick, over the river Blyth, his home. He went to sea aged 14, in 1930, working on the trawlers and drifters on seasonal fishing which would take him as far as the Shetlands. After the war he acquired a car and would sometimes pick up Ernie Seaman and his brother Charlie from the nearby village of Darsham and take them over to the Harbour for a musical night. Ernie (melodeon) and Charlie (dulcimer) were renowned musicians with a repertoire of polkas and hornpipes for dancing as well as old-time songs.

One of Dinks’ favourite stories was how, in the East Coast Floods of 1953, he and Ernie Seaman were marooned for several days upstairs in the Harbour Inn with only twenty Woodbines (cigarettes) for sustenance. He also liked to relate how he once fell asleep at the tiller of his boat and passed under the pier unharmed. He clearly had more than one narrow escape at sea and was involved in the Dunkirk operation in 1940.  In another of Dinks’ favoured pubs, the Bell in Walberswick, a brass plaque can be seen on the wall proclaiming ‘Dinks’ leaning post’.

Another regular was Guy Barber (above left) who worked on the fishing fleet out of Lowestoft, who played the melodeon and sang popular songs such as The Volunteer Organist. His son John Barber (b.1927) (on the right in the right-hand photo, with his grandson Alex Goldsmith playing melodeon) carried on the family tradition and has sung and played in the Harbour and other local pubs for nearly seven decades. Until his retirement (aged 90) in 2017, John was the Town Bellman and a well-known figure in the town, dressed in his civic regalia, making announcements and proclamations. He learned one of his favourite songs The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen from his father Guy. John plays the melodeon and mouth-organ, and spent many years performing in the company of George Jackson and John ‘Wiggy’ Goldsmith at pubs and parties in the area. John has been particularly keen to encourage youngsters to keep the music going locally and taught his grandson, Alex Goldsmith, to play the melodeon, as well as playing a crucial part in re-establishing the band tradition in the town with the foundation of the Southwold & Reydon Corps of Drums in 1981. John is also known for his unusual and distinctive ‘jig dolls’, which he made from a design he remembered from his youth, when an old man in Victoria Street in the 1940s used to sit in his doorway and dance similar ones on a board. Another old character in Church Street used to play the dulcimer in his doorway, whilst sporting an enamel plate on his head, to protect himself from shrapnel! John, ever inventive, has improved the design of the jig dolls by adding bells underneath the board, and his own trade-mark cigar in the mouth of one of them!


The Harbour Inn has remained a favourite pub for singing – several men who were the sons of fishermen continued to sing there throughout the twentieth century, and until the Coronavirus curtailed such things, it has had a thriving folk session there in recent years.

This has been a mixture of instrumental tunes played on folk instruments such as melodeons, concertinas and guitars and songs, both accompanied and unaccompanied, with many items having a local flavour.

The news in June 2021 from the organisers of the Harbour Inn sessions is that they hope to restart soon! From what we know about the longstanding tradition of singing and music-making in the Harbour Inn, these last couple of years must have been some of the quietest in the long history of the pub, apart from during World War II when it was closed for nearly six years.


Other pubs in Southwold which are known to have welcomed singing at various times in the twentieth century include the Nelson, the Victoria, the Southwold Arms and the Red Lion.

Information about the Southwold Arms is to be found on the post entitled MacKenzie’s Lambs and the Leg of Mutton and there are several other posts about Southwold too, including Up from the Sea, The Real Ben Hurr, A Life through Five Sovereigns and The Battle of Sole Bay: an Unsung Song.


Thanks to John Barber for the photo of his father Guy, and to Derek Simpson for the photos of John Barber and Alex Goldsmith and the session photo.

Thanks to Ian Goffin for the photo of the Harbour Inn, which came from the Southwold Life and Times group on Facebook.


The excellent website Southwold & Son has lots of interesting photographs and ephemera and a detailed history of the licensees at the Harbour Inn amongst its many gems.

Making Waves: Artists in Southwold, by Ian Collins was published by Black Dog Books in 2005.

Bob Jellicoe, curator of the Southwold Museum and archivist for the Sailors’ Reading Room, has been kind enough to share information about Billy Rogers with me in advance of his forthcoming book Shorelines: Voices of Southwold Fishermen, due to be published in October 2021 by Black Dog Books.

John Winter’s singing is featured on the CD “When the Wind Blows” on the Veteran label. John Winter died in January 2019 and there’s a great tribute to him in The East Anglian Daily Times, here.

Dinks Cooper may also be heard on the same CD, and there are interviews with him on the British Library Sound Archive website here, and here re Heave on the Trawl.

Dinks also featured in a couple of films. In 1962, Dick Joyce interviewed him as part of the now legendary Anglia TV series, “Bygones”. Although currently (5.6.21) the film itself is not online, there is a description of it here.

Dinks is also in this 1954 film, Fishing off the East Anglian Coast.


Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

MacKenzie’s Lambs and the Leg of Mutton

After investigating the singing Hurr Brothers (see The Real Ben Hurr) I also found evidence of other singing fishermen from Southwold around the turn of the twentieth century.

And one interesting story shows that in the late nineteenth century there were enough singing fishermen for a fair-sized singing contest to be held outside The Southwold Arms on the High Street.

The Southwold Arms stood at 58, High Street, the next building seawards to the present day Sutherland House, and is no longer a pub. It was known as the Green Man until 1803, then the Joiners Arms, until 1839 when it was renamed The Southwold Arms. From 1869 to 1897, it was run by Robert and Sophia MacKenzie and hosted many congenial events for locals and visitors alike.

It had several letting rooms, as indicated in this auction notice from the Ipswich Journal of 24th February 1866, shortly before MacKenzie bought it.

A.B. Jenkins wrote a colourful description of MacKenzie in his book A Photographic Collection of Bygones & Local Characters:

“Generally known as “Mac”, was for 28 years the landlord of the Southwold Arms during which time the house and himself earned a very considerable reputation.

“Mac always wore a tam-o-shanter thus providing the unmistakable hallmark of Scotland. Mackenzie served for 18 months in the Crimea in the Scots Guards later becoming Colour Sergeant; he also served in Canada with the same Regiment when the Fenian Raids were expected from the United States. He was married in St. Martin’s in the Fields, Trafalgar Square to a Dunwich lady who was as popular as he at the Southwold Arms. Mackenzie gathered together a number of well-to-do visitors who stayed at his house during the holidays, and who became known as Mackenzie’s “lambs” and sometimes as the “madcap visitors”.

“Before leaving for home at the end of the holiday the “lambs” used to arrange a sing-song outside the Southwold Arms at which residents in the town were invited to sing for a leg of mutton. The house was illuminated with Chinese lanterns, and the leg of mutton dangled from the sign above the head of the singer, who stood on a table underneath it. Many of the fishermen would compete for the prize, and some of their songs were very long and the concert usually proved a very lengthy affair. A large crowd would assemble so any traffic would have to go along Victoria Street.

“Notwithstanding this gaiety the house was very strictly conducted and Mackenzie would not serve meals until grace had first been said. He did not take female lodgers as he said if he took married couples it might turn out that they were not properly married, and he did not wish his house to be disgraced. He also strongly objected to any lady dancing with any other than her own husband. Mackenzie died in Southwold in 1915 aged 87 years and was given a military funeral by the soldiers who were then stationed in the town.”

A careful investigation of the official records reveals that MacKenzie was born in Caithness, northern Scotland, in 1828. At the time of the 1851 census he was a patient in the Scots Fusiliers Guards hospital, Lillington St, Westminster and in 1861 – after his service in the Crimea – he was in Aberdeen, a sergeant in the Scots Fusilier Guards.

His future wife, Sophia Watling was born in Westleton, a few miles inland from Southwold, and went to work as a cook in well-to-do households in London. In 1865 the pair married, as Barrett wrote, in St Martin-in-the-Fields and by 1868, when MacKenzie received his army pension, they were resident in Southwold.

With Mac’s military reputation and Sophia’s culinary one, they evidently made a good team.  Newspaper reports throughout the 1870s and 1880s show that they hosted the Suffolk Rifle Volunteers and other such groups on their annual band outings, providing a base for the day, generous meals and convivial musical evenings at the pub. Here is a typical report from the Ipswich Journal from 24th August, 1872.

After retiring from the pub in 1897, Mac and Sophia lived out their last couple of decades just a little bit further out of town from the pub they had run so successfully for nearly thirty years.

 


This pub continued to be a place for singing into the mid twentieth century, when social occasions such as darts matches (see foot of the page for info about the photo below, taken c. 1950) provided a convivial atmosphere for a sing song afterwards.

Some years ago I interviewed Hilda Palmer and Dale Peck about their memories and they told me that in the 1970s after a darts match on a Friday or Saturday evening, Frank Palmer (bottom left in this photo) and others including Graham Lewis and Henry, Jockey and Hettie Hurr (cousins of Frank’s) would sing old favourites such as The Faithful Sailor Boy, The Mermaid, The Miner’s Dream of Home and The Rugged Cross, alongside more recent songs such as The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, The Happy Wanderer or Red Sails in the Sunset. Comic songs such as Albert & Sadie (a parody of Frankie and Johnny – an old American folksong popularised in 1966 by Elvis Presley) or What a Wonderful Fish the Sole Is were always popular too, with the audience joining in lustily.

The latter song is a curiosity, one of those short pieces that starts out as something innocuous and then turns into an innuendo. Virtually all of the few online references to this song are to do with it being performed in pubs, none before the 1950s:

What a wonderful fish the sole is,
What wonderful fish are soles.
Though I’m glad to relate,
I’m partial to skate,
When served on a plate with rissoles.

What a wonderful fish the sole is,
They swim around in shoals.
But the finest of fish, ever served in a dish
Are soles, are soles, are soles.

This set of words is given on the fascinating website Sound and History together with this little story:

“Just a few days after the BBC visited the Cock and Monkey, the folk song recordist Peter Kennedy turned up to make his own recordings of Burnham and French’s songs. These eventually found their way onto the Folktrax compilation The Londoners.”

Given that Kennedy was working for the BBC in 1954, making recordings of old songs and music, it was probably he who made the first recording of Bill Burnham and Bill French, on 3rd February. The notes to The Londoners gives a recording date of 13th February, and Kennedy commented that The Two Bills were actually barred from singing the Sole song in their regular pub. Kennedy’s collecting notes whilst working from the BBC have been digitised but there are no entries for early to mid February 1954.


Several of the other pubs in the centre of Southwold are known to have hosted singing on a Saturday or Sunday night, but arguably the most significant was the Harbour Inn, which is about a mile out of town, on the Southwold bank of the River Blyth. – See Tales from the Harbour Inn (forthcoming).


The photo of the Southwold Arms darts team c.1950 is from Hilda Palmer’s family collection – Back row: Kimmer Lurkins; Speedy Chapman; Giovanni Lees. Middle row: Sammy Chapman; Pimple Thompson; Don Palmer; Ticker Watson; Jack Jerman; ? Smith; Frank Goodwin. Front row: Frank Palmer; Jerry Nicholls; Lesley Smith; Billy Blowers; Johnny Neller.

The portrait of Robert Mac MacKenzie comes from A.B. Jenkins’ book A Photographic Collection of Bygones & Local Characters.


Other Southwold stories are told elsewhere on this blog- see: Up from the Sea, The Real Ben Hurr and The Battle of Sole Bay: an unsung song.

For information about the folksong collecting trip in 1910 by Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth, as well as full details of all the songs sung by the Hurrs, and other singers found on that trip, see my other website https://katiehowson.co.uk/southwold-singers-1910 , where there is also more information about other 20th century singers 

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

The Battle of Sole Bay: an Unsung Song

This is a song which has a – literally – unsung history!

Sole Bay is the area of sea just off the coast of Suffolk near to the town of Southwold (locally pronounced something like “Sa-old” – not very different to “Sole”).

For some years I have been investigating the folksongs sung in the town, and various other aspects of that work are featured elsewhere on this blog – including The Real Ben Hurr about several brothers who sang to the folksong collector and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910.

One of those brothers, Robert Hurr sang a song called The Loss of the Royal George. Folklorist Roy Palmer speculated in Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1983) whether this song might actually relate to the Battle of Sole Bay, which took place at sea just off the coast of Southwold in 1672. Looking further into this, I found that although there was both a Royal James and a St. George in the battle, there was no Royal George, and in fact Robert Hurr’s song relates to another ship entirely, which sank in the Bay of Biscay in 1782.

However, in these investigations, I found that there had been a song about the Battle of Sole Bay, and it does even seem to have originated in Suffolk, but in the intervening centuries it has all but been forgotten.


Most sources agree that the battle took place on 28th May 1672, although the source for our song actually gives it as 20th May.

The English and French were at the time embroiled in recurring wars with the Dutch over shipping and fishing rights, and this engagement was to be the first naval battle in the Third Anglo-Dutch War.

In the small hours, a French frigate brought the news that the Dutch were again on the warpath and only two hours away. At the time, many of the English sailors were on shore leave in Southwold, but within a couple of hours the fleet had put to sea.

For some reason the French steered away from the battle, leaving the English and Dutch to it. The noise of the guns and cannon is said to have brought the inhabitants of the town to the cliffs, although as the battle was ten miles out to sea, their view was probably only of smoke. The flagship of the fleet, the Royal James, was set on fire and orders were given to the townspeople to prepare to repel the Dutch, should they attempt to land. In the late afternoon the weather conditions changed and the Dutch withdrew.

The song is usually titled A Merry Song on the Duke’s Late Glorious Success over the Dutch and was first published in The Suffolk Garland in 1818 and subsequently printed in several collections in the 1840s and occasionally in the twentieth century, including those listed here.

Early English Poetry Ballads: Popular Literature of the Middle Ages – “From a broadside in the possession of Mr Rimbault”, Percy Society (1840); Early Naval Ballads, Percy Society (1841); The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 15 (1841); Southwold and its Vicinity, Ancient and Modern, Robert Wake (1842); Metropolitan Magazine, Vol 52 (1848); Naval Songs and Ballads, C.H. Firth (1908); Ballads, Songs and Rhymes of East Anglia, A.S. Harvey (1936) and Boxing the Compass, Roy Palmer (1986).

I have found no evidence of this song in either the oral tradition, or on broadsides or other street literature.

As I can find no trace of it before its 1818 publication in The Suffolk Garland, it seems quite likely that it was written by the antiquarian Reverend James Ford (1779-1851) who compiled that book. Some poems in this collection are credited to other writers, others are not, and we may surmise that these ones were either by un-named writers from broadsides, or from the editor’s own pen. It was common practice to set new songs to old, well-known tunes, and in The Suffolk Garland, the tune Suffolk Stiles is specified for this song but this has not yet been found.

Ford was curate at St Lawrence in Ipswich for 22 years, and it was there he met and married his wife, Letitia, who was the daughter of one bookseller (George Jermyn) and the stepdaughter of another (John Raw), who printed and published The Suffolk Garland. Ford was also friends with John Mitford, who was editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine from 1834 to 1850, when Ford is known to have been a contributor, fitting in neatly with the known publication dates of A Merry Song … in that journal.

The Reverend Ford moved to Navestock in Essex in 1830, and when he died there some twenty years later, another Suffolk antiquarian, William Fitch, bought much of his collection which was eventually deposited in the Suffolk Record Office.


The Suffolk Garland in all its glorious entirety is available online, here as a Google Book, or use this next link if you’d like to go straight to the song itself.

In 1866, The New Suffolk Garland was compiled by antiquarian John Glyde junior, and whilst it is equally fascinating, it is a completely different book!

For accounts of the Battle of Sole Bay, I recommend this localised perspective from the Southwold Museum, or have a look at the Wikipedia entry if you’re interested in the detail of the ships engaged in the battle.

For information on the Reverend James Ford, look at this account from the area of Essex where he lived at the end of his life.

The image of the battle is a tapestry called The Fleets drawn up for Battle by Willem van de Velde de Oude.

For more information about the song The Royal George, see the post on this blog entitled The Real Ben Hurr.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

The Real Ben Hurr

It’s just possible that this Ben Hurr (from Southwold on the Suffolk coast) knew of the famous film character Ben-Hur, as the 1880 novel was first released as a silent movie in 1925, and Southwold had its very own Electric Picture Palace from 1912. I hope the coincidence would have amused him as much as it did me when I first came across his name as a fisherman from whom folksong collectors Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth noted down songs in 1910.

It turned out that the real Ben Hurr was from a large family, several of whom were known to be musical, and these initial findings have led me to investigate many aspects of traditional culture in Southwold – see the foot of this page for other related articles, including a link to the digitised manuscripts of the songs he and his brothers sang to Ralph Vaughan Williams.


On Monday 24th October 1910 Butterworth and Vaughan Williams called by a small village in east Suffolk called Shadingfield and visited Martha Keble and her son before carrying on to the small coastal town of Southwold, having probably travelled up from London by train with their bicycles. Here they noted down songs from three brothers, William, Robert and Ben Hurr. They stayed overnight, and the following day they revisited William and Robert and another singer, Charles Newby and then departed to hunt for more songs in the villages of the Norfolk Broads.

The Hurrs were all fishermen, from a large family which can be traced back for many generations in Southwold. Only a dozen or so songs were collected from them, which included several about the sea (although none about fishing) – mostly tales of shipwrecks. These songs would have been close to their hearts as two of their own brothers had been drowned at sea. Another brother, George, is also known to have sung although Vaughan Williams and Butterworth did not meet him.

The two oldest Hurr brothers, William and James, were masters of small fishing boats, including the Nancy Hugh and the Fanny and their father, also William, had owned the Caterer, the Susannah and the Vigilant at various times. Ben had the Happy Thought and later on the next generation had the Daisy and the Boy Billy. The smaller boats were mostly dandy-rigged luggers, under 20ft long, and would operate with a crew of three. Some of the drifters, which operated out of Lowestoft Harbour, had bigger crews of six or seven. It was common for families to work together and the fishermen formed beach companies to help launch and retrieve boats off the beach. These beach companies also worked together as piloting and salvage companies. The picture below of William “Dubber” Hurr shows him outside the Kilcock Cliff lookout, indicating that he belonged to that beach company.

The last Saturday in August was traditionally the day for Southwold Regatta, and in the late 1880s the Hurrs’ fishing punts Susannah and Vigilant were usually well placed.  We know more about the Susannah – that she was a 19ft, 3 ton, 2-masted, lug-rigged punt built in 1869 – from a newspaper report of a far more tragic nature. The Ipswich Journal of 18th November 1893 ran a long article headed:

SOUTHWOLD PUNT SUNK. ALL HANDS DROWNED.  

Two of those young men were Tom and Sam Hurr, brothers of our singers, aged just 28 and 31 respectively at the time.

They had left Southwold at 6am, fishing for cod (having put some lines down the previous night) and would normally have been back by midday. Sometime after 10am the Helois, a 29 ton sailing drifter returning to Lowestoft, through a series of mishaps and in fog, bore down “upon the unfortunate little boat, cut her completely through, and sent her three occupants struggling in the waves.”

The Helois’ crew comprised a master and seven hands. They had left Lowestoft on 13th November on a mackerel fishing voyage, and were heading back for Lowestoft on 15th, as the weather had turned. Their one lifebuoy was below decks. The Susannah, being a small open boat did not carry a lifebuoy. The news report commented “If the crew of the Susannah had oilies on or heavy boots, they could not long remain above the water …”

The enquiry found that the cause of the collision was: “the mizzen-halyard on board the Helois being used as a tiller rope, and flying off the tiller-head when the helm was put up, which caused the ship to come to, and before the ship could pay off again the collision occurred.” They also concluded that the master and crew of the Helois “made their best endeavours to save life, but, in the opinion of the Court it would have been better if the helm of the Helois had been put down immediately after the collision, as she would have been kept close to the scene of the accident.”

So the songs the brothers sang about shipwrecks would have a very real and heartbreaking meaning for them.


Ben Hurr 1860-1934

Benjamin Lowsey Hurr was the seventh child of William and Maria Hurr. Ben married Louisa Stannard in 1881 and they had one son. On the night of the 1891 census, 5th April, Ben was on board the Fanny, berthed in Lowestoft harbour. The master was his older brother William Watson Hurr and there were four other crew members.

In the 1890s, along with brothers William and Robert, Ben was a member of the lifeboat crew – perhaps their involvement came as a direct emotional response to the loss of their two younger brothers in 1893. In the early twentieth century he and his family moved out of the small fishermen’s cottages in Victoria Street into Salisbury Road, one of the newer and more well-appointed terraces in the north end of the town.

His death was reported – rather surprisingly – in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail on 13th August 1934:

PEDESTRIAN VICTIMS

“Two fatal accidents occurred on Saturday within five minutes of each other, and at places three miles apart. Southwold and Frostenden, in Suffolk. Each also concerned an elderly pedestrian who received head injuries. Benjamin Hurr, fisherman (74), of Southwold, was struck by a motor-cycle ridden by Abraham Chapman, a neighbour, and died in Southwold Hospital yesterday. Edward Ife, a farm labourer (69), was struck by a bicycle ridden by a nephew.”

These fabulous portraits are probably “our” Ben Hurr, but it’s not possible to be 100% sure as there were other people with this and similar names, and the photos are not dated.

One of Ben’s songs was called The Isle of France, (an early name for Mauritius). It’s a sentimental tale of a convict, finally making his way home after six years in exile, who is shipwrecked, then rescued, and eventually receives a pardon from the Queen. Vaughan Williams often noted just the melody, if he was already familiar with the words, as in this case.


William Hurr 1843-1925

The oldest of the Hurr brothers was William Watson Hurr, known as “Dubber”.

Like his younger brothers, he was both born and buried in Southwold. Census results from 1881 and 1891 of crews on board fishing boats in Lowestoft Harbour show us that he worked alongside his brothers: Ben in 1891 (mentioned above), and in 1881, with older brother George aboard the Nancy Hugh of which their middle brother, James, was master. He lived at home with his parents until he was 52, when in 1895, he married Matilda Adams (née Howard) who was working as a servant to a solicitor in Southwold.  Matilda was a widow with two teenaged children from her first marriage to Joseph Adams, a private in the Royal Marines. She was a local girl, but had lived in barracks at Walmer in Kent until Joseph died after just five years of marriage, when she returned to her Suffolk home.

In the year 1899, Dubber appeared in the newspapers more than once. The first occasion, in the Eastern Evening News of 21st July being a “good news” story:

STURGEON AT SOUTHWOLD

“A large sturgeon was caught by William Watson Hurr in a trawl net and landed at Southwold on Wednesday. It measured upwards of seven feet and a half in length, and weighed some fifteen stone. It was a very fine-fed fish. Hurr being alone in his boat, and it being very dark at the time, had great difficulty getting it into the boat.”

The second reports, from October that year, reveal a much sadder situation –a  family feud between William on the one side, and younger brothers Ben and Walter, supported by sisters Annie and Susannah on the other. Quite what the actual cause of the argument on 6th October was, is not clear, but in one report, William stated that he had been on bad terms with his brothers for four years. In another, Ben said he had helped to keep William for fifteen years. Blows were exchanged and William threatened to shoot Walter and Ben and the latter’s 17 year old son William Albert Benjamin. Susannah, just three years younger than William, may have tried to calm things down a bit but Annie, twenty five years William’s junior is alleged to have punched him in the face. Ben and Walter stated that they went “in bodily fear” of William. Two lady visitors staying in Southwold also gave evidence of the alleged assault, which took place by the fishermen’s sheds on the beach, a space which was shared with holidaymakers as well of course.

By 1901 Dubber and his family were living in what is now the Southwold Museum, which was then divided into two tiny cottages later condemned as unfit for housing. In the photograph here, you can just make out Matilda with two children, Susannah and Sam. They went on to have another daughter, Ellen in 1902, when Matilda was 47, whilst her two children from her first marriage were brought up by her brother and sister along the coast in Easton Bavents. Susannah is reputed to have been a professional singer, but I can find no evidence of this. Susannah’s husband Edgar Stockbridge worked in the brewery business and they moved away, eventually settling in Stevenage.

By 1912, Dubber and his family were living at Caterer House, 39 Victoria Street, where Matilda was the landlady of holiday apartments, which had been in the family previously – this line of business was shared by at least two of her sisters-in-law.

During the First World War, Dubber showed the indomitable Hurr spirit by refusing to follow war-time regulations which banned night fishing, which apparently resulted in him being shot at and sustaining an injury to his arm.

His son William Samuel Thomas (known as Sam) was one of the first who did not follow in the family tradition of fishing, and after William’s death, his boat the Vigilant passed to his nephew, Ben’s son William Albert Benjamin – the very one whom he had threatened to “wring his lugs” a quarter of a century earlier.

Vaughan Williams clearly valued William’s singing and published three of the songs he sang in the 1913 Journal of the Folk Song Society. He noted down just two verses of this song, The Loss of the London. Whether this was all that William sang, or all that Vaughan Williams was interested in, we do not know, but these words are quite different to the versions printed on broadside song sheets. The London sank off the Bay of Biscay in January 1866, so this song was written when William was a young man – it wouldn’t have been an ancient old folk song to him.


Robert Hurr 1855-1934

Robert Watson Hurr, fourth son of William and Maria, married Elizabeth Stannard in 1878 and together they had six children. In 1901 he was living in Young’s Yard, off Victoria Street and was listed in the census as “Boat owner”. There is an additional note, not easy to read – it appears to say “Nav. Shore”. There were Trinity pilots engaged to help coastal trading boats into the harbour on the River Blyth, but these are listed in the town directories of the time, and none of the Hurrs names ever appear. There’s also a blank in the column which should indicate whether the person concerned is self-employed or employed by someone else, and a big circle has been drawn there against Robert’s name, from which I infer that the census enumerator was aware of this omission and perhaps intended to go back and find out. In 1911, his occupation is given as fisherman and his status as “employed”.

In later years Robert worked in partnership with his son Walter (pictured on the left here, with Robert on the right). After the Second World War, Walter co-owned the boat Daisy with Ben’s son: these appear to be the last two of the family to be working fishermen.

After the First World War one of Robert’s five daughters, Annie, kept a pub, the Royal, in Victoria Street with her husband Arthur Brown. This was just across the road from Robert, who was also just round the corner from his eldest brother William, and a couple of minutes’ walk from younger brother Ben and older brother George.

Robert Watson Hurr’s version of The Royal George is just three verses long and focuses on a personal tale of the loss of a sailor at sea. In other, longer versions of the song, it is evident that this was part of a much greater loss of lives in a tragic disaster that took place in the English Channel in 1782.

There has been speculation as to whether this song might relate to the Battle of Sole Bay which took place in 1672, but there’s little in the text to suggest that. Interestingly, there is actually a song about the Battle of Sole Bay – the subject of another post on this blog, The Battle of Sole Bay: an Unsung Song.

As well as being a singer, Robert played the concertina. The only tune noted from him is named The Liverpool Hornpipe in Vaughan Williams’ manuscript, although in fact it is nothing like the usual tune of that name, and is actually a variant of what is probably the most widely-known hornpipe of all, Soldier’s Joy. In Suffolk, hornpipes were, and still are, commonly used for ‘stepping’: an informal, improvised form of tap dancing, so it’s very likely that Robert would have played for such dancing in the pubs of Southwold.


George Hurr 1852-1928

George came between William and Robert in age. In 1875 he married Charlotte Jane Jarvis Pack and they soon started a family and set up in business running boarding house on East Cliff to cater for holiday makers from London in the season, whilst George continued to work as a fisherman.

Proof that the brothers worked together comes from the 1881 census, where George is found on board the Nancy Hugh in Lowestoft Harbour. With him are brothers William and Samuel. William, the eldest, is listed first and has signed the census form. The Nancy Hugh is described as a “dandy” in the business of long-line fishing, and the master is given as James Hurr (the oldest of the brothers), although he wasn’t on board on census night.

By 1901 George and his wife Charlotte were running a boarding house with holiday apartments in Stradbroke Road, which is where they were in 1910 when Vaughan Williams came to town.

We know that George sang from the memoirs of one of those summer visitors from London, Martin Shaw. His father, James Shaw was the organist at Hampstead Parish Church and brought his family here for the first time in the 1870s, when Martin was just a toddler. Martin spent a whole summer in Southwold recuperating from whooping cough when he was thirteen, and maintained a regular association with the town throughout his life, eventually retiring there in the 1940s. His abiding childhood memory of Southwold was of one George Hurr:

“George taught me to swim and to smoke. […] He used to take me out trawling all night. When the nets were down he would while away the time by singing very slowly an interminable ballad with the refrain – which I thought ill-timed – ‘And the salt water was his grave’.”

Neither I nor some of the most experienced song researchers in the country have yet been able to identify this song, but we can certainly identify with Martin Shaw’s sentiments!

Martin Shaw grew up to be a very well-known and respected composer (Morning has Broken for example) and as a student he met Ralph Vaughan Williams. The two became lifelong friends and their correspondence includes some mention of folksong: Vaughan Williams encouraged Shaw to visit William Hurr but there’s no indication of whether he ever did – he certainly did not note down or describe any traditional singing apart from this one mention of George Hurr from his childhood years.

He did however dedicate a song he composed in 1924 “To the Southwold fishermen I knew when a boy”.


Details of the folksong collecting trip in 1910 by Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth, as well as full details of all the songs sung by the Hurrs, and other singers found on that trip, can be found on my other website https://katiehowson.co.uk/southwold-singers-1910

The Hurrs’ songs, complete with reconstructed sets of words, were also included in a booklet Blyth Voices published in 2003 by the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust. The research in that booklet is now superseded by my later work published online, but if you’re interested in singing the songs, that’s the book you need! https://www.eatmt.org.uk/shop/

To find out more about the song about the Battle of Sole Bay, see The Battle of Sole Bay: an Unsung Song.

William Hurr senior’s story (including some ghost stories!) is told in A Life through Five Sovereigns.

More of the history of some of the artistic visitors is traced in a talk I gave in March 2021 called Up from the Sea – Sea Songs on the Suffolk Coast, which can be watched here – it lasts about 20 minutes.


Martin Shaw’s memoir Up to Now (1929) is the source for the quote about George Hurr, and the Martin Shaw website is the source for the image of his dedication on his song The Dip. The website also has other relevant information and a whole article about his life in Southwold. 

Thanks to the late John “Wiggy” Goldsmith for the Ben Hurr portrait, Gary May for the photo of Robert and his son Walter, and the Southwold Museum for the photos of William Hurr. As with all matters Southwoldian, the Southwold Museum (and its past and present curators) has been of huge help and very much deserves our support.

Song images courtesy of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance & Song Society.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

 

 

Henry Flanders’ songbook

Some years ago I came across a mention of a handwritten book of songs from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, the personal collection of one Henry Flanders.

Having a long-term interest in the songs found in the town by composer and folk song collector Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1905, and then by oral historian Mike Herring in the 1960s, I was fascinated by the idea of this nineteenth century songbook showing us what was sung way back in the 1860s.

I contacted the owner (who was of one of Henry Flanders’ great-granddaughters, living in New Zealand) and we began a friendly correspondence, swapping information over the years. She sent me lists of the song titles, scans of some specific pages I had asked for and much biographical information, and I found her great grandfather’s second marriage and numerous newspaper articles to send her in return. We were in the process of arranging for the entire book to be scanned when she unfortunately became ill, and for the moment, things are on hold.

However, I had committed myself to including information about the songbook in a presentation for a conference entitled “The Folk Voice” in April 2021 (see Further Information, below), so I had to persevere, working mainly from the title list. The significance of the book lies not in a particularly unusual set of songs – they are all available in print elsewhere – but in the fact that it indicates the repertoire of a singing man in the late nineteenth century.

Whether or not Henry Flanders might be classified as a “folk” singer was one issue I was interested in: this is a collection of songs unmediated by the eye or ear of any folk song collector – whether or not it represents the “folk voice” is a matter for debate!

Who was the owner and compiler of this book?

Henry Flanders was born in 1842, the son of a clay pipe-maker living on St Ann’s Street in the North End of King’s Lynn. Henry’s older brother followed in the pipe-making business, and the family ran a shop and pubs in the street too. Henry himself became a mussel fisherman and shellfish dealer, trading in whelks for the London market. According to family tradition he supplied Queen Victoria with shellfish when she was in residence at nearby Sandringham.

The streets around the North End teemed with life, with many people leading cramped existences in the narrow and unsanitary yards, but Henry’s home was slightly more comfortable, facing onto one of the main streets, St Ann’s Street, with an entrance (through the gateway on the left of this photo) to Lane’s Yard which was the scene of a dispute between neighbours in 1875 – Henry was a witness.

The newspapers of the time also detail some court cases about illegal fishing. Henry licensed mussel grounds (stone banks man-made for the purpose) in the Wash, and there are reports of other fishermen trying to fish these grounds, and of accusations of fishing in the closed season. The mussel beds were about seven miles from the fishing port in Lynn, and often necessitated a very early start in the morning and occasionally sleeping overnight on the boat. Henry owned various boats between 1873 and his death in 1890, including the Queen, Charles & William, Henry, Gainsboro Lass, Dove and Wave. These were, I think, fishing smacks, sailed by a crew of two or three men, catching mussels, whelks and shrimps according to the season. We can hear Henry’s own voice in an 1883 newspaper report:

“I hire from the Norfolk Estuary Company a stone bank for the purpose of getting mussels therefrom. I hire the bank from year to year, at £3O per annum for the first three years, and then £10 a year afterwards.”

 

This evidence, together with the flowing and elegant handwriting seen here in the song book, and the Masonic or Friendly Society sash he wears in the photograph, indicates an upper-working class man rather than someone scraping along at the bottom of the pile.

So what does the selection of songs reveal? A man with middle class pretensions singing parlour songs, perhaps learned through membership of a harmonic society? A man who enjoys visiting the music hall and concert stage? Someone who enjoys a sing-song in the pub on a Saturday night and is looking for new songs? A fisherman writing down his family songs for posterity?

In total there are 150 songs and I’ve done a preliminary analysis of 90 of them, to try and shed some light on these possibilities.

What type of songs were in Henry Flanders’ book?

They are a real mixture. The initial impression was one of mainly “parlour” songs, which were in their heyday in the 1860s and 70s, when Henry was a young man. Many of these were published on sheet music and this really represented the early stages of our modern popular music industry, with some songs selling hundreds of thousands of copies and becoming huge “hits”. King’s Lynn had several music shops and stationers where these would have been available. A surprising amount of these songs were also published on song sheets and broadsides which would have been sold on street corners, at fairs and the town’s annual Mart.

  • 70 out of the 90 songs under consideration were published both in street literature and sheet music (77%)
  • 17 appeared only on street literature – i.e broadsides, chapbooks and songsters, where the music was not included (18%)
  • 3 were published only as sheet music – all of music hall origin (3%)
  • 34 are of music hall or minstrel origin (37%)
  • 14 are known to have originated in theatre or opera (15%)
  • Over half (60%) were composed after Henry Flanders was born – with many from the 1860s onwards. This was a period of huge growth in domestic music-making, coinciding with Henry’s young adulthood.

Where might Henry Flanders have come across these songs?

Flanders may have bought or borrowed them in print of course, but he would also have had the opportunity to hear live performances of some of those minstrel and theatrical songs locally.

Just five minutes’ walk from home, into the town centre, was the Music Hall at the Athenaeum, which in the 1860s and 70s provided opportunities to see top singers in a ballad concerts, such as Sims Reeves and Madame Sainton Dolby, as well as the various, highly popular, line-ups of Christy Minstrels.

These variety shows involved white people blacking up and singing largely sentimental songs, doing “eccentric” dances and some comic sketches. They became respectable family shows, popular with all classes, and a number of their very memorable melodies live on in the folk tradition today, thankfully without their lyrics or dressing up. The professional touring groups inspired amateur groups performing the same material, and a newspaper report of 1867 gives details of the Amateur Christy’s Minstrels. This group consisted of eight men from the town, the star amongst them being Cassius Boyce, a plumber who had once harboured ambitions of being an artist, and other members were Walter Dexter, a photographer; John Larwood, butcher; Joseph Batterham, corn merchant; William Plowright, cabinet maker; John Samson, licensee of the Ship Inn; Robert Offord, cutler and Edward Doyle, watchmaker. Between them they sang and played flute, violin, violoncello, banjo, tambourine, bones and piano, and Boyce performed an “eccentric dance”.

In a sweet little coincidence, the photographer who took Flanders’ portrait (above) was actually Walter Dexter – but I’ve no evidence of Flanders himself being involved in this or any other minstrel group.

There were certainly places in the North End itself where Flanders might have sung. The Dock Hotel stood on the corner of his street, and had its own “Music Hall” – the words still appear faintly on the wall in this modern photograph – and without walking more than a hundred yards, he would have had a choice of more than a dozen pubs.

He certainly built up a very large stock of songs, suggesting an active involvement in singing somewhere, and an interest in acquiring new material.

What if Henry Flanders had met Ralph Vaughan Williams?

Henry Flanders had lived another 15 or so years, he might well have got a visit from folk song collector and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who stayed in King’s Lynn for a week in January 1905 and noted down over seventy old songs, many of them from the fishermen and their families in the North End.

Flanders would have by then been in his sixties, a fisherman living in the North End, so he would have fitted the profile of a typical interviewee, although as previously noted, he did live in a rather bigger house and perhaps have a more comfortable lifestyle than some of the singers Vaughan Williams visited.

No doubt Vaughan Williams, in search of ancient melodies, would have asked if he knew any old songs.

If Flanders actually knew how old his songs were, he might have suggested some of the oldest in his repertoire such as Black Ey’d Susan, Roast Beef of Old England or Tom Bowling but these would probably have been deemed too ‘commercial’ in style (as well as originating from known writers such as Charles Dibdin), and Vaughan Williams would probably have been more interested in others such as Lash’d to the Helm or Tars of the Blanch. These two sea songs seem to have been published only on broadsides – song sheets sold on the streets, with just the words, and no music attached.

http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/static/images/sheets/05000/02965.gif

I compared his self-selected collection of songs with those noted by folksong collectors in the twentieth century and found the main differences to be that Flanders had a large number of songs with sentimental, comic and romantic themes, which were not represented in the 20th century collections. The themes of the sea and heroicism were found across the different periods, with a high percentage of such songs in the Vaughan Williams’ collections.

This came as no real surprise, but there were two things which did surprise me:

Firstly, not one of Flanders’ songs is to be found in Vaughan Williams’ collection from 1905. This could be at least partly due to the fact that Vaughan Williams was particularly looking for old folk songs, and much of Flanders’ repertoire was less than 50 years old). However, the second surprise challenges this view, as over 70% of the 90 songs have actually been found within the “tradition”.

Eleven of these songs have been recorded from two famous traditional singers from elsewhere in Norfolk, Walter Pardon and Sam Larner. They both lived over 50 miles from King’s Lynn, so I am not suggesting any direct link between them and Flanders, just noting that these “traditional” singers who perhaps epitomise our idea of the “folk voice” had some of these same sentimental and romantic songs in their repertoires too.

Conclusion

We know Henry Flanders enjoyed singing and that he was a member of the Masons, or a similar organisation, and also that he was a member of the Rifle Shooting Club, winning prizes in the 1870s and 1880s.

Ultimately, we don’t know where he sang, but I suspect it was outside the home. If the house was big enough for a parlour to house a piano, and the family possessed the sheet music, he would have had less need to copy out the words into his own songbook, whereas if he was singing with a harmonic society or in the music room of a pub, he would have been more likely to need his own copy of the words for reference.

It seems he had a taste for relatively modern songs, and I certainly don’t feel he was recording a repertoire handed down to him through his family, but had seen these songs in print somewhere in order to copy them out.


Further information

The significance of Flanders’ song book and a comparison with folk song sources in King’s Lynn in the twentieth century is discussed as part of my presentation for the Folk Voice Conference, “100 years of Singing in a Fishing Community: King’s Lynn 1870-1970″, given on 18th April 2021. The talk, which lasts twenty minutes and includes numerous slides, may be viewed on the Traditional Song Forum YouTube channel, here.

With enormous thanks to the book’s owner and her family.

Thanks are also due to the wonders of local communities on the internet, especially the King’s Lynn Forum.

The newspaper report containing the names of the amateur minstrel entertainers is from the Lynn Advertiser, 9th February 1867.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

The Herring Singers

Welcome to another in the series of posts about the traditional folk singers from King’s Lynn.

A few years ago Elizabeth James was kind enough to pass on to me a copy of a transcript she had made, whilst deputy curator at King’s Lynn Museum, of some field recordings of folk songs and interviews held by the museum. The interviews had been conducted on three separate occasions between 1965-1967, by Mike Herring, who had lodged copies of his tape recordings with the Lynn Museum. The actual recordings had, over the years, been mislaid.

At that time, the transcript was a great asset for a community arts project I created and managed in King’s Lynn, under the title North End Voices, and together with singers and tutors Chris Coe and Alan Helsdon, we were able to pass on some of the songs to new generations.

There was only one thing missing … those original voices! It was several years later that some far-flung pieces of the jigsaw eventually fell into place and I finally found someone who had safe keeping of Mike Herring’s recordings. There are now copies lodged back with the transcripts in the archive of True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum in the heart of the old North End.

However, the tapes I have heard and the transcripts do not marry up exactly!

The original recordings have been edited into a compilation of songs only, with no conversation in between. The written transcript included George Bone singing The Titanic, but this was not on the recordings I have had access to, although there were two extra tracks, neither of which was mentioned in the transcript of the original recordings.  These are recordings of “The Samphire Man”, singing his tradesman’s call as he drove a horse-drawn cart around the residential streets selling this local seaweed delicacy, and a recording of a woman singing Roll the Old Chariot Along, possibly Jean Harding, but nothing more is known about her.


George “Young Bussle” Smith (1885-1970)

The main singer, with eight songs, is “Bussle” Smith. Mike Herring recorded him on three occasions, first on an unspecified date in 1965 when he sang The Drunken Sailor, then in April 1966 he sang Yellow Handkerchief (Flash Company), Rarum Tearin’ Fisherman, Golden Slippers, The Old Grey Mare and I, and finally, in December 1967 he sang Fill up Your Glasses (Easy and Free), The Bonnets of Bonny Dundee and Mother Machree (Land of the Shamrock Shore). On that occasion, Mike Herring also recorded an interview with Bussle and his daughter, Ethel Scott.

Ethel: I mean like a few years ago they’d go up to the Tilden Smith and have a good old sing-song but there’s not many old ones left now that sort of remember the songs that you want to know, that’s the trouble.”

Bussle: “The Tilden Smith, I used that for years, ’cause I knew who the landlord was down there, been there about two year……. Then years ago I used to go round the pub on the Saturday Market Place, the Duke of Fife.”

Ethel:  “And what about when you used to go down below? You used to sing when you went down below?”

Bussle: “We used to sing one or two of the old songs, some on’ us; several years ago I won a prize at Yarmouth Hippodrome when … I won two quid and two ounces of ‘bacca – but I never smoked in my life!”

“Bussle” is George Edward Smith (1885-1970) who was the son of George William Smith. In the interview with Mike Herring, Bussle says that he learned some songs from his father who he remembered as only singing at home. His father, known as “Old Bussle” (pictured left) might well have been the “Mr Smith” who sang Bold Princess Royal for Vaughan Williams in the North End in 1905. Young Bussle followed his father into fishing, and married Harriet Benefer, daughter of another of Vaughan William’s singers, Lol Benefer. She died quite young and Bussle remarried in 1923, when he gave his occupation as fishing, but by 1939 he and his family had moved out to Smith Avenue and he was working in the sugar beet factory at the time the 1939 register was carried out. He may have carried on fishing part time, as work at the sugar beet factory was probably seasonal.

Ten years before Mike Herring carried out his first interview with Bussle, he had been featured in a radio programme made in the Tilden Smith, when he sang Golden Slippers and Drunken Sailor and also Yellow Handkerchief with his brother-in-law Tom Benefer. There is more about the 1955 radio programme here, in The self sufficient singers of the Tilden Smith.

Rarum Tearin’ Fisherman (with various spellings!) is the local name for a well known song usually called The Dogger Bank, and this has been immortalised in an art installation in Loke Road Recreation Ground, where a set of words has been engraved on a large rock. Some of Bussle’s songs are more unusual, and he must have been an active singer to have at least these eight songs in his repertoire. Younger members of his family still know the words to Golden Slippers, but I’m not sure any of them are active singers.

John “Slinger” Wood (1896-1974)

In the transcripts, this man is named as “Slinger” Woods, and he turned out to be John Harold Wood (pictured on the right here) who was a good friend of Bussle Smith. Bussle’s grandson Malcolm Smith told me that Slinger would go to the Smith’s house on Christmas Day “and sit there drinking navy rum & blackcurrant.”

Mike Herring recorded four songs from him in total. In 1965 (date unspecified), Slinger Wood sang: Sailor Cut Down in his Prime. This is an old song, and was noted down in King’s Lynn in 1905 by Ralph Vaughan Williams from fisherman Joe Anderson.

In April 1966 Slinger Wood sang When the Flagship Victoria Went Down, Bounding Over the Raging Main and It was a Four-Wheeled Craft.

 

Slinger had a slow, powerful song delivery and some interesting songs – the first two are found only rarely in folk song tradition and the third is best known from barge skipper Bob Roberts under the title The Fish and Chip Ship. John “Slinger” Wood was born and brought up in south London and enlisted in the Royal Navy in August 1914, on his 18th birthday, at Chatham Docks. He left the Navy in 1926 and settled in King’s Lynn, marrying a local girl in 1927. They lived in South Lynn, near the docks, and had two children together before his wife died in 1937. Slinger worked as lock gate keeper on the docks, retiring in 1961, by which time he had moved out to a council house in North Lynn.

The “Samphire Man”: Henry Dewson (1920-2010)

On the tapes themselves was also a recording of the “Samphire Man”, Henry Dewson (1920-2010). Henry sold samphire (a local seaweed delicacy) from his horse-drawn cart around the residential streets of King’s Lynn and surrounding villages for a couple of months every year, for a period of over seventy years. He and his family would go out to the marshes to pick it and then load up the cart and measure it out into his customer’s own receptacle, using an old saucepan as a measure. His way of letting people know he had arrived was to sing out – in what an obituary termed an “operatic” voice – the words

“Samphire long and green samphire, Any samphire you ladies, you neighbours, Saaaaamphire, long and green samphire …”

On the recording, he is clearly some way distant but the words can be made out clearly. Henry is not known to have been a singer in other contexts.

George Bone (1895-1985)

In the transcripts are the words to a song The Titanic sung by George Bone in December 1967, but unfortunately this song, which is rare in the oral tradition, is not on the recordings I have heard.

However, I have can at least tell you that it was recorded by Robert Carr (aka Ernest Gray), soon after the disaster happened in 1912, under the title Stand to Your Post, and you can listen to it here: https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/media/audio/stand-to-your-post.mp3

 

George Bone (on the right in the picture below) came from an old North End fishing family, but was brought up in the Victorian terraced streets just outside the old fishing quarter. He enrolled in the Naval Reserve in 1915 and returned to fishing after the First World War. He is said to have been quite successful in the cockle business and owned two fishing smacks.

 


Mike Herring also interviewed Turk Pratt and Bill Chase about their memories, and the names of Trunky Bunn, Tippenny Goodson, Turkey Stevens and Charlie Fysh, Tom Senter, Dave Scott, John Benefer were all mentioned in conversations about singers who had then passed on.

There is more information about Charlie Fysh on The self sufficient singers of the Tilden Smith and about Tom Senter on The fishermen that got away.

Thanks (as always, in relation to my King’s Lynn stories) to the wonderful Trues Yard Fisherfolk Museum, and also to Liz James, Mike Herring, Pete Shaw & Johnny Adams.

Images courtesy of Trues Yard Museum and Kings Lynn History Forum. I found the photo of the stone in Loke Road Recreation Ground on the Hullandhereabouts blog.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

The fishermen that got away

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/ 

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

The self sufficient singers of the Tilden Smith

John Seymour is now best known as a guru of the self-sufficiency movement, writing books such as “The Fat of the Land” (1961) and “Self Sufficiency” (1973). He also wrote a number of other books and made many radio programmes, often based around his own travels.  

In 1955, with his wife Sally and young daughter Jane, he sailed up the east coast of England and then across through rivers and canals to Liverpool in a 34-ton Dutch sailing yacht; experiences which were to form the basis of a radio series, The Voyages of Jenny the Third and a book published in 1956, Sailing Through England

John Seymour, whilst probably not considering himself to be much of a singer or musician, could play the melodeon and come up with a song when the company was right, and his writings are dotted with references to singing and merry-making in pubs wherever he found himself. In June 1955, on board the Jenny III he found himself in King’s Lynn, in north west Norfolk, on the banks of the river Great Ouse, a mile or two south of The Wash.

Writing in Sailing Through England he noted that the fishermen

“had seen our strange-looking craft when they were fishing for roka off Hunstanton, and they came, some of them, to have a closer look at us. They took us to the pub that most of them use, the Tilden Smith.”

The atmosphere in the pub, and the singing that took place there impressed Seymour enough for him to write it into his forthcoming radio programme too.

The first programme in this series, The Voyages of Jenny the Third, was broadcast on 9th December 1955 and a significant part of it had been recorded on Monday 4th July in the Tilden Smith pub, on the edge of the old North End in King’s Lynn.  Unfortunately no recordings of the radio programme appear to be in existence, but the local newspaper took a keen interest.

The Lynn News and Advertiser carried a full report in the edition of 8th July 1955 which conveys the atmosphere of the radio recording very vividly. Unfortunately the copy I have is of very poor quality and would be nearly illegible here, so I’ve provided a transcript too.

Lynn News image

Lynn News transcription

The Tilden Smith was a pub frequented by fishermen who often had a sing-song in there. You can read more about it the history of the pub and the myth of Vaughan Williams visit to it here.

The main character to come through from the article is Charlie Fysh, whilst other singers mentioned were Tom Benefer, George Smith and Bob Chase.

In Sailing through England, John Seymour wrote of Charlie Fysh:

“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 (1866-1961) was a fisherman all his life and was brought up in the old North End in a fishing family. Early married life saw him move a little further out, into Birchwood Street, in a Victorian development of terraced housing which was definitely more sanitary than the old North End yards. He sang Old Johnnie Bowker for the radio programme, and a musical gene evidently kept going through the generations, as one of his great grandsons is Roger Taylor, drummer with the rock band Queen! There is more about Charlie on The fishermen that got away post.

Bob Chase (1894-1958) was a son-in-law of Charlie Fysh, married to Charlie’s daughter Elizabeth. He sang one song, Hanky Twanky, on the night of the Seymour recordings. He was born in North End Yard into a fishing family, who moved out to the same area of Victorian streets where Charlie Fysh lived. By 1939 Bob and his family had moved still further out, into the comparative luxury of a council house on Smith Avenue and at that time he was working as a dustman.

Tom “Boots” Benefer (1884-1960) was the son of Harriet “Lol” Benefer, who sang for Vaughan Williams way back in 1905. Tom sang I’m a harum scarum fisherman hailin’ from King’s Lynn town and also Yellow Handkerchief together with George Smith. The first of these is a well-known song usually called Dogger Bank and the second is sometimes called Flash Company and is particularly well known in Suffolk. Tom was born into a fishing family in the North End and also sold fish. He took on a grocer’s shop in Pilot Street (still in the North End) from where he also delivered samphire, a local seaweed delicacy, on a small handcart.

George “Young Bussle” Smith (1885-1970) was also the son of another singer, and his father, known as “Old Bussle” might well have been the “Mr Smith” who sang Bold Princess Royal for Vaughan Williams in the North End in 1905. He followed his father into fishing, and married Harriet Benefer, Tom’s sister in 1911. She died a decade later, and at the date of his second marriage in 1923, he was still fishing, but by 1939 he and his second wife Agnes had moved out to Smith Avenue and he was working in the sugar beet factory at the time the 1939 register was carried out. “Young Bussle” sang Golden Slippers and Drunken Sailor for the 1955 radio programme, and also Yellow Handkerchief with his brother-in-law Tom Benefer, and there are actually recordings of him singing from the 1960s, including these songs plus Rarum Tearin Fisherman, Rattling Old Grey Mare, Mother Machree, Fill up Your Glasses (Be Easy and Free), Bonnets of Bonny Dundee and The Land of the Shamrock Shore, although unfortunately his voice was rather weak by then. Younger members of his family still know the words to Golden Slippers, but I’m not sure any of them are active singers.

There is more about “Bussle” Smith on The Herring Singers post.

You can hear the appreciation for these men’s singing in John Seymour’s words, again from Sailing through England:

“But at least the young men who still use the Tilden Smith who are no longer fishermen were brought up to be fishermen, and they still have some of the dignity, and independence of bearing, of inshore fishermen. The Tilden is still a fisherman’s pub. You hear some good songs there: so good that we went back later on with Francis Dillon and a recording car, and recorded an evening’s session for the wireless.”


More about Vaughan Williams’ visit to King’s Lynn in 1905 is on my other website: and The Other Mrs Benefer on this blog is about Tom Benefer’s mother, Lol, who sang to Vaughan Williams.

The Seymour family website has a potted biography of John Seymour.

Thanks to Trues Yard Fisherfolk Museum, from whose archive the original newspaper cutting was supplied.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

 

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.

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