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A Barrel Organ in the Arctic

No you didn’t misread the title, it really is “in the Arctic”, not the attic!


In 1819, Lieutenant William Edward Parry was in charge of an expedition which made a (literal) breakthrough in the search for a North-West passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Parry was bold enough to carry on past the point at which his predecessor, John Ross, had turned back, and after 10 months in which his two ships, Hecla and Griper, were stranded by frozen ice, they found a route out. How they passed the time in those long dark days has fascinated me, in particular the idea that he took a mechanical musical instrument, a chamber barrel organ, on board with him.

On returning from this first trip Parry was promoted to Commander and subsequently made two further voyages to the Arctic in 1821-23 and 1824-25, and also made an attempt on the North Pole in 1827 which remained the record for the next 49 years. He was knighted in 1829 and eventually attained the rank of Rear-Admiral in the Royal Navy. To find out more about his explorations and achievements, Wikipedia will give you the bare facts, any number of books can fill it out for you, and his journals are also online.

I shall concentrate on the musical aspects of these journeys.

Please note: Although this is a long post, it is just the tip of the iceberg of a massive amount of original research. Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.

Why take a mechanical musical instrument to the Arctic?

From various entries in Parry’s journals, it is clear that the barrel organ earned its place on the ship from the first voyage onwards …

In December 1819, when the Hecla and Griper were icebound in a natural harbour just off the coast of Melville Island, Parry wrote that, when the weather permitted, he sent the crew out to walk on the shore in the mornings and: “When the day was too inclement for them to take this exercise, they were ordered to run round and round the deck, keeping step to the tune of an organ, or, not unfrequently, to a song of their own singing,”

On the second voyage, in 1821, Parry noted: that the crews of the two ships came together for a religious service, when “ some psalm tunes, which had been purposely set upon an organ, were played at the proper intervals …”

Although the ships were icebound, the men were not entirely isolated, as they met some of the Inuit people (“Esquimaux” in the terminology of the time) living nearby, and it appears that the local women in particular were fond of singing, music and dancing, as several journal entries indicate.

In January 1822: “On our reaching the ships, these people expressed much less surprise and curiosity than might naturally have been expected on their first visit, which may, perhaps, in some measure, be attributed to their being in reality a less noisy kind of people than most of the Esquimaux to whom we had before been accustomed. Quiet and orderly, however, as they were disposed to be, this first visit showed them to be as fond of merriment as their countrymen are usually considered ; for, on Captain Lyon’s ordering his fiddler up on the Hecla’s deck, they danced with the men for an hour, and then returned in high glee and good-humour to their huts.”

“On the 4th a number of Esquimaux came to the ships, and […]  were then taken on board, and derived great amusement from our organ, and from anything in …the shape of music, singing, or dancing, of all which they are remarkably fond.

“On the 7th I paid another visit to the huts, where I found scarcely anybody but women and children, the whole of the men, with the exception of the two oldest, having gone on a sealing excursion to the northeastern side of the island. One of the women, named Iligliuk, a sister of the lad Toolooak, who favoured us with a song, struck us as having a remarkably soft voice, an excellent ear, and  a great fondness for singing, for there was scarcely any stopping her when she had once begun.”

“On the 8th we were visited by a musical party of females, consisting only of a few individuals expressly invited for this purpose. A number of the officers assembled in the cabin to hear this vocal concert, while Mr. Henderson and myself took down the notes of their songs, for which, indeed, they gave us every opportunity, for I thought they would never leave off. We afterward amused them with our little band of flutes and violins, and also by some songs, with the whole of which they were extremely well pleased.”

“On the morning of the 12th […] It was enough, however, with Iligliuk, just to make the motion of turning the handle of the organ, which, conveying to her mind the idea of music and merriment, was always sure to put her immediately into high spirits.”

“John Longman’s New Invented Patent Barrel Organ with bells, drum and triangle”, which produced such merriment, is now housed in the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

Other onboard entertainment

The explorers weren’t totally reliant on mechanical music, as several of the officers on the various voyages were known to be musical, including Parry himself, whose violin is on display in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Parry noted in December 1819: “the men were permitted to amuse themselves as they pleased, and games of various kinds, as well as dancing and singing occasionally, went on upon the lower deck till nine o’clock, when they went to bed […] It is scarcely necessary to add, that the evening occupations of the officers were of a more rational kind than those which engaged the attention of the men. Of these, reading and writing were the principal employments, to which were occasionally added a game of chess, or a tune on the flute or violin, till half past ten, about which time we all retired to rest.”

Parry also describes the publication of a weekly satirical magazine and a series of theatrical entertainments which: “… took place regularly once a fortnight, and continued to prove a source of infinite amusement to the men. Our stock of plays was so scanty, consisting of one or two odd volumes, which happened accidentally to be on board, that it was with difficulty we could find the means of varying the performances sufficiently ; our authors, therefore, set to work, and produced, as a Christmas piece, a musical entertainment, expressly adapted to our audience, and having such a reference to the service on which we were engaged, and the success we had so far experienced, as at once to afford a high degree of present recreation, and to stimulate, if possible, the sanguine hopes which were entertained by all on board, of the complete accomplishment of our enterprise.”

The Scott Polar Research Institute has in its catalogue: “The New Georgia Gazette & Winter Chronicle” – Playbill (1): “Theatre Royal, New Georgia. On Friday next the 5th November 1819 will be performed Garrick’s celebrated farce of “Miss in her Teens”. Cast list (all male). Playbill (2): (no heading) “The North West Passage, or Voyage Finished” (cast list all male).”

The cast list for The Rivals shown here is from the second voyage, and indicates that men took the women’s parts. Costumes were taken on board specifically for use in theatrical productions and replenished by a donation from the ladies of Bath, Parry’s home town, at one point. After the first voyage, the newspaper idea was dropped, but they then had a Magic Lantern on board for visual as well as musical entertainment – it’s amazing what they found room for on those ships!


By the third voyage Parry and his colleagues felt the need to vary the entertainments slightly, and a series of masquerade balls were held. The drawing above, by the otherwise unknown C. Staub, is dated 2nd February 1825 and shows Charles Richards playing the flute while Edward Bird (left) and Francis Crozier (right) dance. In this illustration they do not appear to be doing a conventional social dance, and are more likely to be doing some sort of step dance – yes, possibly the Sailor’s Hornpipe, but all sorts of individual stepdances existed at the time. The article Esther Gayton part 2: ‘Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe’ gives more details of this type of dance.

According to Regina Koellner’s article Edward Parry and the Birth of the Arctic Thespians, the idea was for “officers and men being able to participate on equal terms, where everything could be worn from a simple domino (which was the minimum costume to be admitted) to an elaborate fancy dress and everybody could decide freely how much he wanted to participate.” In 1821, in his record of the second voyage, Captain George Lyon noted: “Those ‘ladies’ who had cherished the growth of their beards and whiskers, as a defence against the inclemency of the climate, now generously agreed to do away with such unfeminine ornaments, and everything bode fair for a most stylish theatre.”

Some men would also have taken the ladies’ positions in the social dances of the day that went with the jigs, reels and strathspeys on the barrel organ, except when the Inuit women came on board and danced with them.

John Longman’s New Invented Patent Barrel Organ with bells, drum and triangle

The barrel organ that Parry bought was made by the well-respected firm of John Longman between 1801 and 1816. The various generations of Longmans entered into several business relationships (Broderip, Clementi etc) and was based in the centre of the music publishing business at the time, Cheapside in London. They published sheet music as well as making and selling instruments. The Horniman Museum and the Bate Collection have a number of clarinets, flutes and oboes made by the firm, and several of their barrel organs and pianos are still in existence, some in private hands and some in museums.

Developing new and improved systems of producing mechanical music was big business in this period, with several companies arguing over who had invented what. This type of chamber barrel organ was made for private entertainments, and newspaper advertisements of the time make it clear that it was the equivalent of the gramophone or the Dansette in the twentieth century – it provided dance music without the need for live music.

Newspaper adverts also indicate that Longman’s considered both their pianos and barrel organs to be able to withstand extreme heat, as mentioned in this 1802 advert:

“Longman and Co.’s new invented Patent Barrel Organs, with Bells, Drums and other Accompaniments (being the only Patent granted for ten years past), constructed on entire new principles, warranted to keep in order, and resist the hottest climates; additional barrels may be made without any pattern, and the very defective and inconvenient method of changing the Tunes by Notch pins entirely exploded.”

They were probably not the only makers looking at the colonial market, as the second advert here shows a barrel organ of unknown for private sale in the Calcutta Gazette of 25th June 1812.

Michael Kassler, in his examination of Longman’s instrument-making business in The Music Trade in Georgian England describes how, as well as taking instruments overseas for their own personal use, captains and other officers would sometimes buy pianos and barrel organs in London to sell off in foreign ports, and Longman’s offered a generous discount to those doing so.

The photographs above are of Parry’s Longman barrel organ (a) in situ in the Scott Polar Research Institute in 2016; (b) in the SPRI in the 1960s, prior to restoration; (c) interior view from the same date showing bells, tambourine (“drum”) and triangle with seven stops below the barrel. Confusingly, the 1960s photo says it has four barrels including one of sacred songs, whereas it is now known to have five.

The SPRI describes the instrument: “A hand-operated barrel organ with five cylindrical music barrels comprising eight tunes on each. The speed of play can be varied by the rate at which the handle is turned. The sound can be altered with the use of seven turned brass-handled stops on the front of the organ case, which allow the user to select which sets of bells and percussion instruments are included in the play cycle. The sound is produced through a series of 11 white metal cloche bells, a triangle and a tambourine. The instruments, barrels, and wooden and brass mechanical operating mechanism are built into a free-standing wooden cabinet with Neo-Classical carved fluting on the rectangular uprights and surrounds of the red textile-lined door cartouches. The double doors can be opened with a lock at the top of the cabinet to reveal the mechanism and to allow for replacement of the barrel. Printed instructions and handwritten song list has been pasted inside one of the doors. A painted roundel depicting the Royal coat of arms is below the stops on the cabinet exterior, and a gilded scroll with patent inscription is at the top of the cabinet frame.”

Parry’s barrel organ lay neglected and inoperative for nearly 150 years until it was donated by Parry’s great-grandson to the Scott Polar Research Institute in 1954 when an initial restoration was carried out by Canon A.O. Wintle and J.D. Budgen, followed in the early 1970s by a full restoration by Clive Holland and Fred Hill, a music teacher and watch and clock repairer who was a distinguished member of the Musical Box Society of Great Britain. The restoration was key to recordings being made and issued on an LP on the Saydisc label in 1972. This album (still available on CD) included all 8 religious items, God Save the King and 24 of the original 31 dance tunes.

Both the Musical Box Society and the Scott Polar Research Institute have been very helpful in providing obscure pieces of information, and quite recently the SPRI sent me the full playlist for this barrel organ, so I have been able to look at the entire repertoire contained on the five barrels. Typically these playlists were written by hand and pasted inside the cabinet of the organ, and the contents seem to have varied from instrument to instrument, whether at the behest of the owner or the maker isn’t known. Longman’s were also prolific music publishers so they may have tied in the barrel organ repertoire with their most popular publications.

The music on this barrel organ

Barrel 2 contains 8 hymns and psalms, and God Save the King is on Barrel 4, but all the other 31 tunes are dance tunes.

Dancing was an incredibly popular pastime in that period for people of all classes, mostly done by couples in a longways formation, and tunes for the dances proliferated with the expansion of printing, being the equivalent of buying recorded music in the twentieth century.

The tunes on the barrel organ are absolutely typical of the period, including English and Scottish reels, with just two jigs, both with distinctly Irish sounding names:  Paddy Carey, which is a staple of the English session repertoire these days, and Paddy O’Rafferty, a well-known tune in the Irish repertoire, which is the subject of Will the real Paddy O’Rafferty please stand up! Most of the tunes would have been “pop songs” of the time – popular dance tunes and a few songs, with one mystery item, which may be the subject of a future article – if I can find out a bit more!

Click here to see the Parry barrel organ complete listing. Some of the tunes were not able to be identified at the time the recording was made. As I have not been able to listen to all of the six unidentified tunes on Barrel 5 (the names are illegible due to the list from Barrel 2 having been pasted over the top) I can’t put them in the correct order. There were only five un-named tunes on the LP/CD, which are all now identified, but there is one more on the original Barrel. One of the tunes unidentified at the tme of the recording – is Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe; see Esther Gayton part 2: ‘Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe’.

On the LP, each tune is played through twice, which lasts for about one minute. The longways dances of the day would take longer than that, and although I’m not experienced in the practicalities of playing tunes on repeat, I understand this is quite possible. This barrel organ has seven stops, which can alter the instrumentation of the piece, and the speed is controlled by how fast the operator turns the handle.

In a great piece of good luck, someone contacted me last year with photos of the “twin” to this barrel organ, which is in North Carolina, and I have included a photo here as it is shows the “furniture” aspect of the instrument more clearly than those I have of Parry’s own barrel organ.

Also shown is the handwritten playlist from no. 40, which is mostly illegible, but out of 40 items on the 5 barrels that were originally with the organ (now all lost) less than half can be identified and one barrel ( 8 items) appears to be all patriotic. The others seem to be all dance tunes with only two being included on the Parry instrument (the ubiquitous Devil Amongst the Tailors and Speed the Plough). There is also, unusually, a song, the well-known folksong Barbara Allen which has quite a slow and sad melody.

The strength of the barrel organ seems to lie in upbeat dance tunes, rousing patriotic anthems and stirring hymns, which are the more typical contents of the other playlists I have studied for comparison.



There has been some real excitement recently around the idea that these mechanical instruments actually preserve musical performance styles from earlier periods, with contemporary decorations and embellishments which are not always evident from written scores. As Arthur Ord-Hume put it in a long article in The Music Box in 2013, “The programmers […] are those artistic craftsmen who could take a musical score with all its wide-open interpretational imperfections and from it create a genuinely brilliant performance via the process of translating the music into the pins and staples of the barrel or cylinder that formed the musical playlist for these instruments.”

That is a really fascinating concept, and the quality of the musical arrangement pinned on a barrel must be a result of the level of musicianship of the programmer, as well as of his/her craft skills. But Ord-Hume and subsequent researchers into this area such as Emily Baines, seem to be more interested in the classical pieces written by Handel, Haydn etc, expressly for barrel organs, whereas, I (as ever) am more interested in the popular culture represented by the dance tunes – and of course, in the people who made the instruments, bought and sold them, pricked out the music onto the barrels, carried them on board the ships, danced and marched and sang to the tunes on them.

I like to imagine the musicians on board (including Parry) getting these tunes stuck in their heads – what we call an “ear worm” these days – and getting home after a long voyage to find these tunes coming out from their fingers after having heard them so frequently in the long dark icebound days. A bit more fanciful is to imagine the Inuit women who were so attracted by this music taking the melodies back to their homes and handing them on to later generations who took up the accordion and created their own traditions using this European instrument …

See also Will the Real Paddy O’Rafferty please stand up! and Esther Gayton part 2: Miss Gayton’s Hornpipe (forthcoming).

The 1972 Saydisc LP Parry’s Barrel Organ is still available on CD by mail order, and at the time of writing the whole album is also available to listen to on this YouTube link.

Parry’s barrel organ is housed in the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. My thanks to them for their remote support during lockdowns.

Most of Parry’s journals and other contemporaneous material is digitised and may be viewed and downloaded by searching for “Captain William Edward Parry” on the Hathi Trust website.

You can read some marvellous stories about the entertainments on board Parry’s Arctic fleet on Regina Koellner’s 2016 blog about the life and times of Francis Crozier in her article Edward Parry and the Birth of the Arctic Thespians.

Much useful information about the dances and music of the period is on the Regency Dances website, where Paul Cooper’s research papers are published. Paul has been a huge support to all my research on the Parry barrel organ and its music.

Heather Clarke’s website Colonial Dance has several articles relating to dancing and music at sea. She has investigated the musical and dancing side of John Franklin, another Arctic explorer in the 1820s, who on sailing to Australia in 1836 took his treasured piano with him on board the Fairlie, where it was brought up on deck for his niece to play for country dancing and quadrilles. 

The Musical Box Society of Great Britain has been very helpful and interested in this project, and they have a great online archive of back numbers of their journal, The Music Box on their rather quirky website.  Arthur Ord-Hume’s article referred to above is entitled Learning from Interpretations by Mechanical Instruments and was originally presented on 7th July 2013 at the first Conference on Mechanical Music in London. The full article can be found online in The Music Box Volume 26, no. 5, Spring 2014.

A very brief report on the restoration of the barrel organ by Fred Hill and Clive Holland is online.

The photo of Parry’s violin is taken from Music of the Sea, by David Proctor, National Maritime Museum, 1995 and revised edition, 2005 – I recommend both editions, which can be bought at reasonable prices second-hand. I’ve also found The Music Trade in Georgian England, by Michael Kassler, Routledge, 2016 (first published by Ashgate in 2011) to be invaluable, with an impressive range of primary sources. It’s expensive but snippets can be viewed online.

The colour photo of Parry’s barrel organ is by Regina Koellner and the two mono ones come from the book Church and Chamber Barrel-Organs by Langewill & Boston. Mine is the second edition from 1970, before the major restoration of the instrument.

The newspaper advertisement for Longman’s pianofortes and barrel organs is from The London Courier and Evening Gazette, Monday 15th February 1802, and the advertisement for a private sale is from the Calcutta Gazette, 25th June 1812.

The portrait of Parry and the engraving The Crews of H.M.S. Hecla & Griper Cutting into Winter Harbour, Sept. 26th, 1819 are from Parry’s journals.

The drawing of the dancing midshipmen by C. Staub came from Regina Koellner’s blog and the original is owned by the Royal Geographical Society. The cast list for The Rivals also came from the same source.

Thanks to Ron Mack in North Carolina for the photos and information about the Longman no. 40. barrel organ.

Last but absolutely not least, thanks to dancer and researcher Simon Harmer for the inspiration on these stories!

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.

I have carried out a lot of careful research into this specific barrel organ, comparable ones in both museums and private hands, the music on them and much more – I have far too much information to publish here. Please do get in contact if this is a special area of interest or study to you, I would be happy to tell you more.

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. © Katie Howson, 2021.

A Life through Five Sovereigns: William Hurr senior

I first came across the stories of the Hurr family through a folk song collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from one Ben Hurr: the coincidence of his name being a homophone of the chariot-driving hero Ben-Hur drew my attention immediately. Ben was a fisherman in Southwold on the Suffolk coast, and three of his brothers are known to have been singers too. Years of research have gradually revealed some more family stories, including some about their father, William Hurr (1811-1908), who, in his long life, lived through the reigns of five sovereigns of the English throne. William may have sung folksongs as well, though he died before Vaughan Williams arrived, and there’s no sign of anyone collecting folksongs in the area in his lifetime, so we will probably never know. However he did have some stories to tell.

William Hurr was born in Southwold in 1811, the oldest son of Thomas Hurr and Elizabeth Bedingfield. The family were of an independent religion – not specified, but probably Methodist – and pre the 1837 requirements for registration of births deaths and marriages, the records are a bit thin on the ground. William followed in the family occupation of fisherman, and at this time, the small sailing luggers and punts launched off the beach at Southwold, where the fishermen banded into beach companies to work together.

We find out what William looked like! … from a gaol receiving book

William’s first appearance in official documents is not auspicious: in 1839 he was imprisoned for one month for assaulting Sarah Bedingfield. Although this fact appears in the Suffolk Chronicle on 18th May, no further details are given. In a period when there were often many people with the same name, there are not many options for identifying this person, and it looks as if Sarah may well have been his aunt, his mother’s sister. It also seems likely that the same Sarah Bedingfield was admitted to the County Lunatic Asylum in 1849 and again in 1856, dying there in 1861. Whatever the circumstances, this looks like a sad scenario. This wasn’t the only time William expressed his anger or frustration through physical violence, as two years later, he and two younger brothers, John Bedingfield Hurr and Thomas Hurr, were convicted and gaoled for assaulting the newly-appointed Police constable in Southwold, John Parker. Again, no details of the assault are known, but for three brothers to attack him suggests a significant revolt against some action from Parker. In this case, the gaol receiving book (from Ipswich) gives interesting biographical details about William and his brothers. The photocopy of a photocopy in my possession is now very faded, so I have written over the top of it to make it more legible.

The receiving books describe all three brothers as having a dark complexion, brown hair, hazel eyes and a round ‘visage’. William, then aged 30, was 5’5½” tall and had an anchor on the inside of his left wrist. His religion was described as Independent, he had attended school in Southwold for two years and could read and write imperfectly and no occupation is given as mariner. At the time of his arrival in gaol, William had: flannel shirt & drawers, hat, coat, jacket, waistcoat, trousers, stockings, shoes, shirt, two handkerchieves and a knife. Note: not a guernsey or smock; he must have put on his best clothes for his court appearance. The two brothers convicted with him were John, aged 28, height 5’4” and Thomas aged 24, height 5’5”. John was noted as receiving parish relief. I have not traced either of these two in the 1841 census, but John was already married with a young child and Thomas married between October 1841 and January 1842 – more than likely on his release from gaol in November. William also got married shortly after this interlude, to Maria Watson in 1842. She was listed in the Hurr household in the 1841 census as well as at home with her mother in Lowestoft, so maybe they were already courting then.

Thankfully there are no further criminal activities evident in his subsequent life, but it was a life full of hardships.

Hard times

James Maggs 19th century diaries report on 17th April 1851: “Sale of Effects of Wm Hurr mariner- Under distress for Rent. Mrs J.F. Bokenham Landlady”. In the 1851 census carried out less than three weeks previous to this, the Hurrs were ‘near East St’. The landlady was not, as might be imagined, some well-to-do member of the landed gentry, but the wife of another mariner, Joseph Forster Bokenham. Despite apparently owning more than one property, when Bokenham died (drowned at sea in a fishing boat) on Christmas Eve, 1868 and probate was eventually sorted out nearly nine years later, his estate was worth less than £20.

At this point in their lives, William and Maria had three young children, and after moving round the corner to Victoria Street, they went on to have another nine children. Despite describing himself as “retired” in the 1881 census, he went on to be listed variously as a boat owner, fishing smack owner etc in commercial directories until 1892, aged 81.

The boats were also used occasionally in competitions during regattas, and William’s family and boats had some successes: in those days, the fishing boats were at the heart of the event. In 1888 his son Sam was placed 5th in the 20ft punt class, in the Vigilant, and in 1889, the Ipswich Journal of 30th August reported the following result: “Punt race (20 feet and under): 1st prize of 25s. to Hurr’s Susannah; 3rd prize of 20s. to Hurr’s Vigilant – which nearly took second place.” That was to prove the zenith of the Hurrs competitive success – in 1893, the Vigilant came in 5th, still gaining a prize of 15 shillings and after that I cannot find any of William’s family listed: a likely reason is about to be revealed …

1893 was probably the worst year of William Hurr’s life: two sons, Sam, who had skippered the Vigilant in the 1888 regatta, and Tom, both died in a fishing accident, and just a month later his wife Maria died.

“The boat’s name was the Susannah, as fine a craft as ever was floated off the beach, and the crew, two of whom were sons of the owner, William Hurr, and Gabriel Peek, launched about six o’clock in the morning to haul their lines, and in the ordinary course would have returned between eleven and twelve. Not returning as expected, many an anxious eye scanned the deep for some trace of the boat bet saw none, and as the day were on all sorts of conjectures were made as to their whereabouts; some thinking that during the fog they had boarded some craft off the Barnard and had sailed with them; others that they bad boarded some steamer, or had put into Lowestoft. Unfortunately all surmise was futile, and the truth was briefly told in the telegram.”

The Susannah had been run down by a larger Lowestoft boat, and through a tragic set of circumstances, all hands were drowned.

After Maria’s death, William’s two unmarried daughters, Susannah and Annie, lived with him. It seems Susannah, the older, had long-term health problems (the newspaper report above said “at the present time his wife and daughter are confirmed invalids”) and it was Annie who ran the boarding houses they established at Caterer House, 39 Victoria Street and subsequently at 22 Corporation Road, where the three of them moved after Maria and Tom (who had been living home) died and Walter, the youngest son, married.

A grand old man

William outlived several of his children, and in the early 20th century found himself being feted as a grand old man of the community.

In a newspaper report in the Norwich Mercury on 23rd July, 1902, we find William being honoured as one of the oldest inhabitants at a “capital meat tea” held for the aged poor of the town. Ale and pipe tobacco was provided too, so it may indeed have been a festive occasion.

“The Chairman called on the oldest man present (William Hurr, aged 91), who has lived in the reigns of five Sovereigns, beginning with George III, to come and sit on the platform, to which he was escorted by two young ladies amidst loud applause.”

The report also mentions that two photographers were present including Frederick Jenkins (whose son A.B. Jenkins who edited several collections of his work) but so far I have not sighted any photographs taken on the occasion.

Frederick Jenkins not only took photographs, but also took an interest in writing down some of the memories from the older generation, including William at this time too, including the following tales of haunting and smuggling.

The first story is about either William’s father (Thomas Hurr 1787 to 1825) or his grandfather, who served in the Royal Navy and was held as a prisoner-of-war by the French for some time.

“A French lady fell in love with him and wanted him to marry her. He told her that he had a wife in England, but if, when he was set free he found she was dead, he would send word and then if the lady came over he would marry her. When peace was proclaimed and he returned to Southwold his wife was alive. The French lady however did not wait until she hear from him, but started for England shortly after he did. The vessel in which she sailed was lost with all hands. After this occurrence for a long time she used to “trouble” him, or rather, his wife, for the latter was constantly ill-treated, pulled out of bed and sometimes seriously hurt by unseen hands. This got to such a pitch that he was often obliged to go out of the house in the middle of the night to prevent his wife from being ill-used for, it was only when he was with her that things happened. One night after his wife had been annoyed by the “spirit” he went out of the house which was on South Green where he saw a large white cat sitting. He hit at it with a stick saying “Get out cat”. At this it suddenly reared up in the form of a beautiful white horse which Hurr followed as far as the Market Place where it vanished, and he found himself walking behind a funeral procession, coffin, mourners and all. He still followed this and it went slowly down Church Street as far as the Churchyard when it suddenly disappeared and he found himself alone.”

This was told to Fred Jenkins in 1903, as was this tale of smuggling, which William Hurr said happened when he was about 10, in 1821, when he was cabin boy on the Hope, of which Henry Sayers was the master.

“While the vessel was lying at Reydon Quay discharging a cargo, he was left on board alone to look after the ship. In the middle of the night he heard a noise on the quay, looking out of the fo-castle he saw one of the crew of a smuggling boat which had come into the harbour with 300 to 400 tubs hidden on board. The smuggler, John Spence, a Southwold man, told him to go below and he would be paid. Hurr did so and the “crop” was landed. Coming onto the deck the next morning Hurr found a stone “Betty” (bottle) of gin on deck. A similar bottle was left on another vessel ling alongside the quay. Hurr found on the quay a quantity of hoops and slings which he took home but left the bottle of gin on the vessel. The next day Mr Candler, the Custom House officer, came to Hurr’s home and asked him where he had got the slings and hoops. He told him Reydon Quay and was then asked if there were any tubs of liquor on the quay and he said he had not seen any. On the following day the smugglers’ boat was found on Blythburgh Flats. The crew had got clear away and successfully landed their cargo.”

A couple of years later William Hurr also contributed to Jenkins’ store of stories about a “Shrieking Woman”:

“Many people claimed to have heard unearthly shrieks which unfailingly portended wrecks or loss of life by drowning. W. Hurr’s father and mother [Thomas and Elizabeth, née Bedingfield] were coming home one night from the High Street to their house in East Street. When they were near the “Clinkums” (by the entrance to Church Street) his mother saw a figure and said to her husband, “Tom, what a beautiful dress that lady has on.” She had no sooner said this than the figure began shrieking and ran down the lane and vanished. The night before, Waters and two Rogers were drowned by their boat being sunk by a vessel.”

If he’d lived to be a hundred, we might know if William also sang songs, as the folksong collectors Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth paid a visit to the town in 1910 and noted down songs from three of his sons, William, Robert and Ben. George is also known to have been a singer, so it seems very likely their father was too, and they may even have learned some of their older songs, such as When Jones’ Ale was New from him.

Details about PC John Parker and the distraint of goods in 1851 were found in The Southwold Diary of James Maggs 1818-1876, edited by A.F. Bottomley, published in 1982. Maggs was a schoolmaster in the town and his diaries are a wonderful catalogue of everyday happenings. And to top it all, they are now available online in two volumes and can be downloaded as PDFs.



The ghost stories were printed in A Selection of Ghost Stories, Smuggling Stories and Poems connected with Southwold by A.B. Jenkins, published in 1986.

The advertisement for the Southwold Regatta in 1895 was in the Halesworth Times on 13th August.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.

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. © Katie Howson, 2021.

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. © Katie Howson, 2021.

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:


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:


“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:


“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. [*Edit, 28.9.21: see below for a link to the story of the London.] 

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.

* Addendum, 28.9.21

I have just come across a really interesting online talk by Toni Neobard for the Stowmarket U3A, called Don’t Eat the Cabin Boy which tells of her discovery of the facts of the sinking of the London on 11th January 1866 through examining a family story about an ancestor from Winterton in Norfolk. The talk lasts about an hour.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.



Up from the Sea: Joseph Goodall, J.W. Georges and P.H. Emerson in Southwold

In April 2021 I presented one aspect of my work on the singing traditions from Southwold, in Suffolk for an online talk entitled Up from the Sea: Sea Songs from Southwold on the Suffolk Coast.

In that talk I focused on songs about the sea, and also touched on the role of visiting artists, musicians and writers, who were often inspired by the town’s fishing community, to see if they could reveal further information about vernacular singing.

I chose as my cover image this wonderful painting by Joseph Southall from 1920 – one of two similar studies. I particularly liked this one with the young boy looking on rather wistfully as the fishermen haul their boat up the beach.

In this present article I will elaborate a bit further on some of these little known visiting artists. The singers and songs are the subject of other posts mentioned at the foot of this page, where there is also a link to the afore-mentioned talk.

Joseph Southall (1861-1944)

I first became aware of Southall’s work through Ian Collins’ wonderful book Making Waves, published in 2005. This book is a marvellous survey, beautifully produced, of many artists who have been inspired by Southwold and its inhabitants.

Joseph Southall was brought up by radical Quakers in Edgbaston, Birmingham where he trained as an architect and attended art classes in the evening. He went on to be recognised as “one of the foremost tempera painters in the country and led to his participation in the exhibitions of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and the exhibition of Modern Tempera at Leighton House, which immediately preceded the foundation of the Tempera Society, of which he became one of the leading members” according to Peyton Skipwith writing on The Victorian Web in 2005. Egg-based tempera is very durable, with a satin sheen finish and generally gives a strong opaque colour.

He fell in love with a first cousin, Anna Elizabeth Baker (known as Bessie), and because of their close kinship they delayed their marriage until they were both in their early 40s. Joe and Bessie  first came to Southwold on their honeymoon in 1903 and spent weeks in the town every summer for most of the ensuing 34 years. He evidently found much inspiration in both the fishing fraternity and the fashionable holiday-makers, but Bessie was also involved, sewing the fabric paintings on to frames and applying numerous coats of gesso and size to finish the work. The Southalls also made their own egg-based paint and carved and gilded picture frames. Colour was of the utmost importance and no varnishing was allowed, although Goodall aimed to suffuse his images with a “golden hue”.

Ian Collins writes about this self-portrait of the Southalls: “This 1911 double portrait of the finely-dressed Southalls searching on Southwold beach for semi-precious stones is called ‘The Agate’. Now on long-term loan to the National Portrait Gallery, it formerly lodged in the ladies’ lavatory of a Birmingham department store – latterly hidden behind a mirror after complaints from customers.”

It is interesting to compare Up from the Sea with a later version of the same scene, entitled Fishermen and Boat (1923). In this later reworking, the little boy has gone, replaced with a basket and wooden barrow. The man in the brown smock has gained a clay pipe and an extra man, sporting a fine moustache and sou’wester has joined in to lend a hand, whilst a couple of fishermen have appeared in the background. Most striking of the additions, perhaps, is the young man on the left of the picture really putting his back into the effort and sporting, like the man in the middle, a fine pair of the long fisherman’s boots that were to prove fatal for some of those engaged in this dangerous industry.

My last two examples of Southall’s Southwold would seem to be the same elderly fisherman: The Old Fisherman leaning on his boat was painted during the Southalls’ honeymoon in 1903 and Fisherman Carrying a Sail dates from 1907. It isn’t known whether these were actual people, or composite creations from a variety of old “characters”, but they very much feel to be based on direct observations.

Southall’s images of holiday makers in Southwold show the changing fashions and habits in sea-bathing, and it is well worth browsing the internet where many more can be viewed.

John Walter Georges (1879-1958)

This singular work by J.W. Georges really captured my attention, as it features someone known to be a singer – Billy Rogers – apparently in full flow, in the Harbour Inn in 1911. It was also published in Making Waves and when the book was published in 2005, very little was known about the artist except that in 1930, when he executed this drawing, he was at St Martin’s School of Art in London, and living in Battersea Rise. Ian Collins noted that “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 Rogers was known as a singer around the Southwold pubs and his story is told in Tales from the Harbour Inn.

But what of the artist?

Internet searches revealed no other works by John Walter Georges, so all I know is what I’ve found in a painstaking hunt through the genealogical sources. He was born in Brighton in 1879, the son of Julius Georges, a drawing master. Julius’ parents were born in France and his father was also a drawing master. John Walter moved to Lambeth to take up an apprenticeship in electrical engraving. At the age of 21 he married his boss’s daughter and in 1901 he and his wife Kathleen were living with her parents. After a couple of short-term residences, they settled into a home in Altenburg Gardens in Battersea, and by the 1911 census Georges gave his occupation as artist and art teacher. He retired from teaching in 1934, when the couple moved out to Epsom in Surrey, and he died in Weymouth, Dorset in 1958. This drawing came up for sale in 2004 and is the only known piece by Georges and his only known connection to Southwold. However there are indications of an ongoing family connection in Suffolk. His brother Julius had married a Norfolk woman and in retirement they lived in Clare, in south Suffolk. And, quite tantalisingly, a 16 year-old Dora Georges was living in Walberswick in the summer of 1930 – she is mentioned in Orwell in Southwold: His Life and Writings in a Suffolk Town, by Ronald Binns published in 2018, but I cannot find out any more about her apart from a possible marriage locally in 1937.

It rather looks as if Georges’ 1911 description of himself as “artist and art teacher” was a bit optimistic on the “artist” side. I am grateful for the survival of this one small work of art and it would be nice to think there were some more of his drawings lurking somewhere, unrecognised!

Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936)

The photographer P.H. Emerson is probably better known than the painters featured above, although he is generally associated with the Norfolk Broads, but his Southwold work from the mid 1880s is also superb.

Emerson published his ground-breaking work in the 1880s in a series of limited edition books and destroyed the plates afterwards. The books, of course, now fetch thousands of pounds, but the photographs have been digitised – details of online holdings are at the foot of the page. His writing is also very interesting, but some of it is hard to access, although a couple of relevant books are available as reproductions or digital books.

Emerson had been born in Cuba, and lived in America until the age of 9. He trained as a surgeon, married and started family whilst still at Cambridge University. He and his wife and baby son first came to Southwold in the summer of 1883, when the Halesworth Times, which listed eminent visitors to the town, tells us they stayed at Mrs Scarll’s on the High Street. They were back as holidaymakers in 1884 and shortly afterwards moved into Wellesley House, from which address he applied for copyright on a photograph called The Hoer on 1st September 1885. The following year he abandoned medicine to pursue a career as an artist-photographer, and it is in this year, 1886, that most of his Southwold photographs were taken. Emerson led a bit of a peripatetic life thereafter, moving his family back to London in late 1886 and living for extended periods on houseboats on the Norfolk Broads, but nearly ten years later he did return to the area – to Oulton Broad – for a few more years, but by that time he was more interested in wildlife writing than photography.

A future article will cover Emerson in more depth, so I shall just include here some of his Southwold photos to which I can add some insights. 

The two photographs above both show fishermen’s huts on the beach at Southwold, and both have names over the doorways. Geoffrey Munn in Southwold: An Earthly Paradise assumed that Rosebud was the name of the men’s boat, but I doubted that, as it looks like a name board off a boat itself. It turns out that no boat called the Rosebud was registered locally, but five years before Emerson took the photo in 1886, the following report appeared in the Diss Express on 25th November 1881, on the wreck of a brig registered in Hartlepool:

So after the crew had been rescued, the Southwold fishermen would have salvaged various remains – including this name board! Evidently this was not an uncommon practice as the following picture and information published in A Photographic Collection of Bygones by Barrett Jenkins indicate.

It is as well that Jenkins wrote the caption “The name board is from the wreck of the Nyl Ghau,” as it is not legible from the photo itself, but is clearly visible in Emerson’s photograph above.




I’ve left the most interesting (for me anyway!) until last – a series of three interiors showing just how staged these never-the-less photos actually were. I loved the one with the fiddle and the boy dancing a Sailor’s Hornpipe or stepdance, and was quite amazed to find these other variations on the same theme.

All of these photographs are held in the Eastman Museum and are numbered 192 (fiddle), 107 (all seated) and 1 (spinning wheel) in their online archive (see below). While these are titled A Cottage Interior and thought to have been taken in Southwold, I have my suspicions that they may have been staged in a room in Emerson’s somewhat larger abode,  where there would have been more room to fit in his large camera apparatus as well.  Whether or not the fisherman on the left did actually play the fiddle, is not known, as we don’t know who he is. Emerson’s daughter Gladys was just a toddler when these photographs were taken, but in later life she became a professional violinist, so it seems likely Emerson’s household could have been musical enough to muster a violin amongst their possessions in 1886 when this photograph was taken.

There is evidence in Emerson’s writing of an interest in folksong, which will be covered in a future post.

Other articles about Southwold include Tales from the Harbour Inn, where there is more about Billy Rogers; and The Real Ben Hurr and MacKenzie’s Lambs and the Leg of Mutton which contain more about other singers.


The book Making Waves: Artists in Southwold, by Ian Collins published by Black Dog Books in 2005, cannot be too highly recommended and is what sparked my researches into this particular aspect of traditional life in Southwold.

Southwold: An Earthly Paradise, by Geoffrey C. Munn, published by the Antique Collectors’ Club, 2006 contains beautiful reproductions of fifteen of P.H.Emerson’s Southwold photographs.

Shorelines: Voices of Southwold Fishermen, by Robert Jellicoe,  published by Black Dog Books in 2021. Bob is the curator of the Southwold Museum and the archivist for the Sailors’ Reading Room and has been very supportive and helpful with my Southwold and P.H. Emerson related researches.  

Orwell in Southwold: His Life and Writings in a Suffolk Town, by Ronald Binns published by Zoilus Press, 2018

Most of P. H. Emerson’s Southwold photographs were published in ‘Pictures From Life In Field And Fen’ (1887).

Online resources

The Victorian Web website has many gems including this biography of Joseph Southall.

The Suffolk Artists website is also good on Joseph Southall

The Eastman Museum has a wonderful collection of P.H. Emerson’s photos now archived on the Wayback Machine.

The British Library online archive also has a good selection – this link takes you to a search for “Peter Henry Emerson Southwold

And lastly, here’s that link to my talk about singing traditions in Southwold.

Please note: Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.

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.

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.


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. © Katie Howson, 2021.

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. © Katie Howson, 2021.

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. © Katie Howson, 2021.

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