This article was first posted in November 2021, but has been significantly updated in the light of important new information in January 2022.
This article covers Programmes 3 and 4 in the Thirsty Work series broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme between 9th April 1940 and 7th March 1941.
It makes most sense if you read the introduction to the series (‘Thirsty Work’ Part 1) before this one.
- Programme 3 was broadcast on 13th May 1940 from recordings made at the Eel’s Foot Inn, Eastbridge, near Leiston in Suffolk on 13th May 1939
- Programme 4 was broadcast on 14th June 1940 from recordings made at the Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley, Northamptonshire on 8th & 9th May 1940
You can use these shortcuts to the different sections if you wish:
Broadcast on 13th May 1940
“An evening of local and popular songs recorded in a Suffolk inn by the BBC Mobile Recording Unit
Those taking part are Philip Lumkin, chairman; Walter Button, concertina; ‘Velvet’ Bright-well, singer; Douglas Morling, singer; Tom Goddard, singer; Fred Ginger, singer; Harry Cook, singer; and other regulars of the Eel’s Foot, Eastbridge.”
The singing nights at the Eel’s Foot Inn had already been the subject of a stand-alone radio programme broadcast on the Home Service on 29th July 1939 – Saturday Night at the Eel’s Foot, produced by Maurice Brown, as indicated in the Radio Times “blurb” for the first Thirsty Work programme. This had come about as a result of A.L. Lloyd paying a visit to his friend Leslie Morton, the Marxist historian who, in the early 1930s, had settled a couple of miles away, near the town of Leiston where he taught at the progressive Summerhill School and founded a local branch of the Communist Party. Morton also had an interest in “the people’s” songs and had become an accepted part of the company of singers in the Eel’s Foot on a Saturday night.
The 1939 programme (illustrated) – and a later one, East Anglia Sings, broadcast in November 1947 – are well known, and the original recordings can be heard on a CD called Good Order, on the Veteran label (see Links section). I could find no reference to any recordings being made in 1940 – local memories are of two visits, and there was nothing in the British Library Sound Archive for this year, although the 1939 and 1947 discs are in their archive. I began to suspect that this edition of Thirsty Work had been edited together from the 1939 recordings, and then I unearthed confirmation of this in some memos in the BBC written archives. In making arrangements for this programme, Maurice Brown wrote to his boss: “This can be followed by “Saturday Night at the Eel’s Foot”, a Suffolk pub, which was broadcast last year and is on film. I should like you to hear this if you could and let me know what you think of it, as it’s rather more folk than popular and contains one song “McCassery” [sic] which might be considered mutinous. Can I have your opinion.” Clearly the song McCaffery was not given clearance for broadcast to the troops! The comment about the Eel’s Foot being “on film” is very tantalising, but in fact refers to an early format for audio recording (See Part 1 for more on this).
We now know that this programme in the Thirsty Work series used six songs from the Saturday Night at the Eel’s Foot, which had been a longer programme:
- Poor Man’s Heaven (Tom Goddard)
- The Foggy Dew (Douglas Morling)
- Pleasant and Delightful (Velvet Brightwell)
- Duck Foot Sue (Harry ‘Crutter’ Cook)
- The Old Sow (Fred Ginger)
The songs were mostly traditional songs – apart from Poor Man’s Heaven sung by Tom Goddard, which was written in New York in 1930 – the disc on the right below is by Carson Robison. The Old Sow – sung in the Eel’s Foot by Fred Ginger – is often thought of as a 20th century song, as it became well known from commercial recordings by Albert Richardson (1928) and Leslie Sarony (1934), but it was actually composed over a hundred years earlier.
The Eel’s Foot singers were all very local, and were regulars in the pub, which held frequent sing-songs, often after a darts or quoits match. They all lived in easy walking or cycling distance, and worked in a variety of occupations including the railway, gas works and the engineering firm of Garrards in Leiston, an unexpectedly industrial little town in this coastal area of marshes and heaths.
Here again there was a chairman, on this occasion Philip Lumpkin, who famously used a cribbage board to bang on the table and keep order when things got a bit rowdy, which they apparently did on these recordings, as the BBC was footing the drinks bill! Lumpkin was not the first to take the role of Chairman at the Eel’s Foot – although the names seem a little muddled in the various reports, it seems that an older man, possibly Jack Button or a relative in his eighties, had previously acted as chairman.
We have evidence from both the 1939 and 1947 broadcasts from the Eel’s Foot of fees paid by the BBC to performers. A newspaper report from 1939 states the fee to be one guinea, and letters from the BBC Talks Booking Manager to Douglas Morling and Fred Ginger in 1947 offer them each a fee of two guineas, with the letters all being sent care of the Eel’s Foot pub. . I doubt any extra fees were involved in this reworking of the original material, although all the other programmes in the series reveal payment of 10/6d (half a guinea) to most of the singers.
The ongoing relationship between the Eel’s Foot and the left-wing intelligentsia continued through 1940, with a double-page spread of atmospheric images appearing in the photo-journal Picture Post on 14th December.
The caption to the large photograph reads: “Folk singing as our forefathers knew it. Every singer in the room has had a turn. Now it’s “Time, please!” Round the table hands are joined. “Auld Lang Syne” ends the evening.”
It is interesting to note there are nearly as many women as men, and that a young woman, Ethel Morling is pictured singing. Ethel was married to Douglas Morling – son of the landlady, Lily Morling, who was married to Philip Lumpkin, the chairman. So this is really an extended family group with a few friends and neighbours including Velvet Brightwell, Percy Denny, Syd Cook and Albert “Diddy” Cook amongst those identified.
Listeners to the Thirsty Work series might have thought women took no part at all in this pub-based singing and music-making, and of course, the tap-rooms of rural pubs were mainly the dominion of men, but apart from Ethel Morling pictured here, The Royal Oak in Ambleside (programme 1) was run by a woman, as was the “other” pub in North Littleton (programme 5), where the landlady was herself a singer. Other pubs were often run by women, even when it was the husband’s name on the licence and there is growing evidence that women – particularly those involved in the pub-keeping trade – were accepted as singers and musicians.
Singers, songs and participants
Tom Goddard (1903-1977) was a farm worker and warrener. At the time of this programme he was living on the Common, next door to the retired Eel’s Foot landlord, Fred Rouse. Apart from Poor Man’s Heaven, he was also known to sing the classic folk song Australia and light-hearted songs such as Buttercup Joe and Lavender Trousers. In an interview with folklorist Keith Summers in the 1970s, he said he learned a lot of his songs off records.
Douglas Morling (1910-1993) was not remembered as a regular singer in the pub. His mother, Lily, ran the Eel’s Foot from 1929, and after her first husband died in 1934, she married Philip Lumpkin, although she continued to use her previous surname. A year earlier, Douglas had married Ethel née Lumpkin, who was presumably a relative of his stepfather. They lived very close to the pub and his trade was plastering.
Philip Lumpkin (1888-1960) had a job in the gas works, but helped out in the pub, continuing to do so after his wife Lily Morling died and her son Stanley and daughter-in-law Eileen took it on, in 1945. He is famous as the chairman of the sing-songs, keeping everyone in order by banging a cribbage-board on the table and calling “Good Order, ladies and gentlemen please!” but he did also sing occasionally, one of his favourites being My Father Kept Two Rabbits.
Fred Ginger (1910-1984) was born into the family that had kept the Eel’s Foot since at least 1841. His grandfather Fred Rouse kept the Eel’s Foot when he was born, then his mother and father (Ethel née Rouse and James Ginger) took it on from 1922 until the Morlings came in 1929. He married Dora Brightwell, daughter of Velvet (and sister of Jumbo). Local people recalled that Fred worked for the river board, but this may be his father, who in 1939 was living in the cottages near the sluice, whilst Fred and Dora were living in Leiston, where he was working as a plate-layer. It’s not known what else he sang apart from his “star turn” The Old Sow.
William “Velvet” Brightwell (1865-1960) After trying life at sea for a year or two, Velvet took a job locally, working as a plate-layer on the railway at Garrett’s Engineering works in Leiston. He became a foreman and joined the Royal Order of the Buffaloes, where he enjoyed singing at the meetings – it’s not on record what this would have been. His nickname came from his favoured velvet waistcoat. He had two songs on the 1939 radio programme: The Indian Lass and Pleasant and Delightful. Folksong collector Peter Kennedy recorded him when he was 91, when he sang Scarboro’, the Faithful Plough, The Foggy Dew and The Loss of the Ramillies (learned from his father Robert).
His son Jumbo (also William, 1900-1980) had a large repertoire of folksongs, some of which he learned from Velvet, and at least one from his mother. He was recorded by several collectors from the 1950s through to the 1970s, resulting in tracks on a number of compilations as well as a solo LP Songs from the Eel’s Foot issued on the Topic label in 1975.
Harry “Crutter” Cook (1868-1954) Harry worked as a sluiceman on the marshes. He had been born and brought up in Eastbridge, then moved out to live near the hand-operated sluices, from where he would walk up the pub every Saturday night. By 1939 he had moved to the nearby village of Westleton with his wife Emily Maud. Apart from the comic (very un-PC) song Duck-Foot Sue, he is also remembered as singing Blow the Candle Out, Ramble Away and Newlyn Town.
Walter Button (“concertina” in the Radio Times) – this could be an error, as local knowledge has this person as Jack Button (William John Button 1873-1955) who played the melodeon, not the concertina, as can be seen in the Picture Post photospread. He was brought up next door the Eel’s Foot and later moved to Leiston where he ran a shop with his widowed mother. He married in 1904 and his early married life included a spell back in Eastbridge, but by 1939 he was again in Leiston, working as a gardener. His daughter Aline married Alfred Stollery, and both she and her son Eric were singers recorded by Keith Summers in the 1970s.
E.J. Moeran, the composer and folklorist, who instigated the 1947 recordings (East Anglia Sings) wrote about that occasion in the 1948 Journal of the EFDSS: “Two weeks after my preliminary trip I went again with a recording van. The singers seemed quite excited about it and were out to do their very best. The engineers, for the most part, arranged things in such a way that all the men had to do was sit and sing and carry on as usual.” At no point did there seem to be any acknowledgement that this was not the first time this had happened, but other comments here, about the singers being “uncontaminated by outside influences” reveal a somewhat naïve view of the social context, and ironically, in a 1946 article written for The Countrygoer in Autumn”, Moeran wrote: “Until the advent of the radio, [spontaneous singing of the old songs] held on in certain isolated districts …” so he must have been uncomfortably aware that the very medium that he was working with was (in his view) contributing to the decline of the phenomenon they were recording.
Broadcast on 14th June 1940
In some ways this fourth programme in the series is potentially the most interesting, as it is from a geographical area little covered by collectors. Wakerley is technically in Northamptonshire, but is right on the border of Rutland, about 10 miles from Stamford and 20 miles west of Peterborough.
“An evening of country singing recorded by the BBC Mobile Recording Unit. Produced by Maurice Brown; Chairman, George White; Pianist, Jim Hopkins; Singers: Bill Pridmore, Peter Wilson, Thomas Hendrie, Luke Webster, Bill Prodger, Frank Smart and other regulars of The Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley, Northamptonshire.”
Working from the original information in the Radio Times, I was only able to identify four out of the eight singers named, who were all from the small inter-linked villages of Wakerley and Barrowden. Wakerley itself is so small that in the 1939 Register, the houses are simply numbered, with no road names, e.g. “No.3, Wakerley”.
None of the singers mentioned have been “collected”, and no recordings are indicated anywhere in the archives, and to compound the problem, there was even some question over the identity of the pub, as there had been a pub called the Exeter’s Arms in Wakerley, which closed at an unspecified date, and another pub in the contiguous village of Barrowden took on the name Exeter Arms, again at an unspecified date!
To our great good fortune, the documentation held at the BBC Written Archives Centre has provided a lot of information about this hitherto mysterious issue of the series, and I have now been able to find out the songs sung there, and to correctly identify virtually all the singers.
The BBC archive material has also shed some light on how this pub came to be selected as a venue for the Thirsty Work series. I had initially supposed that the chairman George White had been the point of contact (see below) and this could still be the case, but the existing documentation suggests that the first discussions were between a Mr Ladbrook from the BBC and the pub’s landlord, George Miller, as shown in this letter from Maurice Brown dated 9th April 1940:
“Dear Mr Miller, I believe Mr Ladbrook of the BBC told you that I am producing a series of programmes recorded in pubs of local singers singing local songs. He has told me that there is a great deal of singing at the Exeter’s Arms. Would it be possible, given enough notice, for you to assemble these singers one Saturday night for me to hear? If they sing a varied enough selection and their songs are sufficiently local, could I then come down with a recording van and make records? These programmes are being broadcast to the Forces, and individual pubs should appeal to regiments enlisted from that district.”
White (described as the proprietor of the Market Hotel, Shirebrook) was mentioned to Brown by BBC Midlands producer Robin Whitworth who was one of Maurice Brown’s great allies (see Part 1) in finding suitable pubs, though he commented that the Market Hotel itself was too big to be a suitable venue for a Thirsty Work programme.
Percy George White (1887-1967) who acted as the chairman seems to have charted an interesting course through life. He appears in public documents variously as Percy White and George White, and in the 1939 register he was living in Wakerley, and his job given as a commercial traveller (travelling salesman I think), but it seems he had a performing career outside of chairing an evening sing-song in the local pub …
Two advertisements placed in the “Small Ads” in the Boston Guardian in 1945 and 1949 respectively stated:
“GEORGE WHITE. The Always Successful Comedian. Open for Engagements. Address. Wakerley. Oakham.” (24 January 1945)
GEORGE WHITE. Comedian.— expert compere, for concerts, etc. Also M.C. socials and dances. —Wakerley. Oakham.” (2 March 1949)
As a young man he left home and in 1911 was lodging in Woking, Surrey. Then it seems that his life took a rather more adventurous turn – although I can’t be 100% certain this is the same man, it seems very likely – in the receiving book for Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, on 12th February 1924, a man with the same full name was committed to gaol for tax evasion, having been tried in Co. Longford. He was at that time a theatre manager of no fixed abode, born in 1887 in Wakerley, and had a wife, Dorothy, who was travelling with the theatre. This appears to be Dorothy Grafton and they were married in Naas, Co. Kildare in 1915. I don’t know whether she was English or Irish, as I can find no further trace of her. In the 1939 Register, back in Wakerley, after his mother’s death, George White is listed as married, but is living on his own. His only other criminal conviction was for not paying for a dog licence in Wakerley in 1941 – so this remains a tantalising mystery at the moment!
Thomas Hendrie (1912-1980) was born in Yorkshire of a Scottish family. The BBC archive documentation gave his address as “Farm Shade” – this is actually the hamlet of Fineshade/ Fineshade Woods, just south of Wakerley. The information from the 1939 register shows him living in Apethorpe, which may be the same location, and he was working in forestry. It looks as if he emigrated to New South Wales in Australia sometime before 1977.
Joseph Pridmore’s address was given in the BBC documentation as “Vine Shade” – so clearly Fineshade again, but I have not found anyone in the 1939 register or other sources to match this person.
The BBC archives (giving his initials, and address in nearby Nassington) did how however enable a correct identification for Bill Prodger – as Gwilym Lloyd Prodger – (1913-1964). He worked in the iron ore industry and was the son of William Prodger, whom I had previously thought to be the Thirsty Work singer. The family were Welsh, via Yorkshire.
The documentation in the BBC archives also enabled a correct identification of Bill Pridmore (1874-1955) as a general labourer and woodman, living in the neighbouring village of Barrowden, who was pianist Jim Hopkins’ uncle.
Jim Hopkins (1911-n.d.) worked in the iron ore industry as a loco driver and lived in the neighbouring village of Barrowden.
“Luke” Webster from the Radio Times turns out to be Ernest Pickard Webster (1905-1974) who was a farm worker born and bred in Wakerley.
It’s not surprising that Frank Smart (1880-1957) was difficult to find – it was only his address given in the BBC archives that identified him as living over 50 miles from Wakerley, in Helmdon, near Brackley. I have not been able to find any family or occupational link with Wakerley, so it’s a mystery how he came to be there that night! He had grown up in Stratford-on-Avon, where his father worked on the railways, and that is the occupation Frank followed too, being the station-master at Helmdon in the 1939 register.
Peter / E. Wilson and Sam White remain unidentified, despite my best attempts.
In the BBC Written Archives Centre, the “Programme as Broadcast” documentation has survived and reveals ten songs that were broadcast in this programme:
- Aby my Boy – Chorus
- Farmer Giles – Frank Smart
- I don’t work for a living – Peter Wilson
- Farmer’s Boy – Thomas Hendrie
- One man went a-mowing – Chorus
- Bank of the Clyde – Bill Pridmore
- Apple Dumplings – George White
- Rose of Tralee – Bill Prodger
- The Ships that Never Returned – Luke Webster
- Brother Sylveste – Chorus
Maurice Brown wrote to landlord George Miller on 3rd May 1940, asking for the following three songs, which he had evidently heard during his initial “see and hear” visit the night before, but these were not included in the broadcast.
- Wire in, my Lads – George (Percy) White
- The Lincolnshire Poacher – Sam White
- When first I went a Waggoning – Joe Pridmore
In July 1940, Maurice Brown sent off the recordings made at the Exeter’s Arms for “processing”: “Here are the records made at the Exeter’s Arms, Wakerley. One can be resprayed, eight kept and re-vaselined and the remainder, detailed below, processed if possible, with introductions and applause.”
The songs he selected were: The Ship that Never Returned, The Farmer’s Boy (local version): 2nd attempt, I Don’t Work for a Living: 2nd attempt, My Brother Sylveste, Farmer Giles and Apple Dumplings plus some general sound effects. At the moment, it is not known if these recordings are still in existence anywhere.
In the BBC “programme as broadcast” document, all songs are marked “Trad” which is clearly not the case! Maurice Brown’s idea for these programmes was not strictly limited to folk songs (See Part 1 for more discussion of this) and he “knew his onions” about the various genres of song, so this comment seems a bit disingenuous and maybe hurried; but I doubt it would have thrown the BBC copyright hounds off the scent!
So now, thanks to the information discovered in the BBC written archives, we have a bit more idea of what people were singing in this area little covered by folksong collectors.
‘Thirsty Work’ Part 2: the North – singing from Ambleside, Redmire and Harome
‘Thirsty Work’ Part 4: Cotswolds – two programmes with an unexpected link with “The Archers”: singing from North Littleton and Ebrington
I originally found out about the Thirsty Work programmes on the Radio Times Genome Archive which is very easy to browse and search. Further information on the making of these programmes has been added from the BBC Written Archives Centre, which is by appointment only, in person.
The Good Order CD on the Veteran label was produced as a community project, with every household in the villages of Eastbridge and Theberton being given a free copy of the CD. Much of the research in this article was carried out for that project in 1999/2000 including interviews with people such as Eileen Morling, who had been landlady when the BBC visited in 1947, and family members of many of the singers featured. Further details on the Veteran CDs website.
In the 1970s Keith Summers interviewed, recorded and photographed many singers and musicians in Suffolk. The resulting written work, Sing Say or Pay! is now published online, and there’s a Chapter on the Eel’s Foot.
E.J. Moeran wrote about his experiences at the Eel’s Foot in 1947 in Some Folk Singing of Today (Journal of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, 1948) and also Folk-songs and some Traditional Singers in East Anglia (in The Countrygoer in Autumn, 1946).
Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source. © Katie Howson, 2021.
It is due to be published in print form in the near future, and details will be posted here when known. Should you wish to use any of the information or images here, please do contact me first.
I have far more biographical and anecdotal evidence about the singers than can be published here – if you are a relative or a researcher, please do get in touch, I would be very happy to share the information I have.