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Blyth Valley Voices
including Ralph Vaughan Williams in Southwold
Ralph Vaughan Williams, the quintessential English composer, based many of his compositions such as Lark Ascending and Norfolk Rhapsody on tunes from the English folk tradition. In 1903, aged 31, he started to go out and listen to an older generation of 'traditional' singers - mainly farm workers - and collected hundreds of folk songs by noting them down by hand.
Since 2003, the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust has been looking at the songs and singers whom Vaughan Williams met, in particular in Southwold (2003-2004), Kings' Lynn (2005 - 2014) and south Norfolk (Diss area) (2005-2016). Other pages on this website about Vaughan Williams' folk song collecting in the eastern counties can be accessed through the Vaughan Williams in the East page. Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite the EATMT website as the source.
What follows on this page is the text from the 2003 Blyth Valley Voices exhibition. All of the text relating to Vaughan Williams' trip to Southwold is here, except for the captions relating directly to photographs. A section on entertainment and leisure in Southwold in the early twentieth century is not included here, but anyone interested in this aspect is welcome to email us for further information.
The exhibition was on view at Southwold Museum from July to September 2003, and then moved to Lowestoft Library, Ipswich Record Office and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in London where it stayed for three months until March 2004.
On his visit to Southwold, Vaughan Williams was accompanied by his friend George Butterworth, a younger man whose life was tragically cut short in the First World War, and who might otherwise have ranked alongside Sharp and Vaughan Williams as a major folksong collector in his own right. Butterworth was also a composer, but unfortunately he destroyed many of his compositions before enlisting in the army.
On Monday 24th October 1910 Butterworth and Vaughan Williams went to Shadingfield to visit a ‘Mrs Keble’ before carrying on to Southwold itself, where they stayed overnight, having travelled up from London on the train with their bicycles.
It seems likely that they came to Southwold at the suggestion of John Gooding, resident of the town, who was in correspondence later in 1910 with Vaughan Williams over the words to a song. They may even have stayed with Gooding, as he and his brother Donald had quite a substantial house at 49 High Street, and they evidently knew the Hurr family, who were the focal point for the visit, as Donald had collected some ghost stories from the singers’ father, William Hurr in 1903.
In the evening of the 24th, Vaughan Williams noted down eleven songs from three of William’s sons, William Hurr, Robert Hurr and Ben Hurr.
On Tuesday 25th October they revisited William & Robert Hurr, went on to Reydon to see a Mr Newby, then moved on to Filby, near Caister in Norfolk and finished up the following day at nearby Rollesby. This was a return visit to Norfolk for George Butterworth, who had visited the same area to collect songs with Francis Jekyll in April of that year, and he and Vaughan Williams also collected a number of songs on this trip.
Singing, Audiences and Locations
Folk songs usually tell a story, and as such entertain an audience, whether in a pub, at a family party or on board a boat. In the days before recorded music, when people made their own entertainment to a large extent, and life was less crammed with information, even ballads of eight or ten verses were frequently memorised. Many singers would also feature at least one sentimental song and one comic song in their repertoire, although these lighter-hearted items were not always noted down by the early folk song collectors, particularly as some were of relatively recent origin at the time, coming from the music hall and minstrel era. One Norfolk fisherman boasted that in a six-week trawling trip, he could sing two songs every evening without repeating himself. Sam Hurr, younger brother of the singing Hurrs, worked for skipper James Spence, who was described in an obituary in the Southwold Magazine in 1924 as being distinguished ‘not least by the inexhaustible selection of songs which cheered the passage home’. The songs noted down by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth probably represent only a part of the singers’ repertoires.
Where Vaughan Williams met up with the Hurrs is not known, certainly in other places he went into pubs, and he may have done so on this occasion. Given that they met on two consecutive days, it is possible that the first occasion was in a pub, followed up by a quieter session to check out details (in the case of William’s singing of Lovely Joan, Vaughan Williams wrote it out a second time). The Southwold Arms was a big pub for singing many years before this and also after it, and the White Horse would also have been a good bet for a singsong when in Charles Newby’s hands a dozen or so years before this date, but where the men gathered for a drink and a song in 1910 is not known; from oral sources the Red Lion on South Green seems a possibility.
All three of the Hurrs were fishermen, from a large family going back generations in the town of Southwold. Their fortunes were mixed, their father William having suffered setbacks all through his life: the most traumatic perhaps being the sinking of his fishing punt the Susannah in 1893, with two of his sons on board, followed only a month later by the death of his wife.
The Hurrs intermarried with other local families such as the Palmers and the Lowseys, and it was common practice to christen children with more than one forename, frequently with their mother’s maiden name as a middle name. Forenames were also passed on from generation to generation, and to avoid confusion, men in particular were often known by nicknames.
The period preceding Vaughan Williams’ visit was one of change for the brothers; their father died in 1908, and by 1910 their financial situation was such that all three owned their own small fishing boats: William had the Vigilant, Robert the Boy Billy and Ben the Happy Thought. These were all longshore luggers, around 2 tons, which would have been used no more than a couple of miles offshore to catch herring, sprats, shrimps, sole, cod and mackerel in season, and moored on the beach (although the harbour had been rebuilt in 1907, it was mostly used by small coastal freighters and there were 120 open boats recorded as still working off the beach in that year). Happily for Vaughan Williams, bad weather prevented most small fishing boats from putting to sea during the period of his visit in 1910. According to the Halesworth Times on November 1st, ‘light fishing continued at Southwold on Saturday, and taking the week through, the results were far from satisfactory. Many boats either spoilt or lost whole fleets of nets during the earlier part of the week, and consequently several luggers had to remain in harbour over the weekend awaiting new nets.’
William Watson Hurr (1843-1925) was the eldest son of William and Maria, and like his younger brothers, born and buried in Southwold. In 1901, William, known as ‘Dubber’, lived in what is now the Southwold Museum, which was then divided into two tiny cottages later condemned as unfit for housing. By 1912 however, they were installed in a much more spacious home at Caterer House at 39 Victoria Street where his wife Matilda was the landlady of holiday apartments, a line of business 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 to refrain from night fishing. His son William Samuel Thomas (known as Sam) was one of the first not to 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 (Now the need for those nicknames becomes apparent!).
Half of the songs recorded from William Hurr relate to the sea. Vaughan Williams noted down only two verses of The Loss of the London, and some detective work has been necessary to reconstruct the song for performance and publication. The Royal George is a short but moving song about a woman grieving for her sweetheart lost at sea and The Bold Princess Royal is a popular song up and down the east coast, indeed Vaughan Williams also noted down a version from Robert on the following day. In a small community, singers usually ‘owned’ a song, and this one probably belonged to William as the older brother. Robert would undoubtedly have known it through hearing William sing, but would not have sung it in public. Of the other songs, Lovely Joan is a classic folk ballad, whilst Three Jolly Butchers tells a tale of highway robbery and double-dealing first printed in the late seventeenth century. Again, detective work has been required to identify the fragments of When I Was Bound Apprentice: you could call the process musical archaeology!
Robert Watson Hurr (1855-1934), fourth son of William and Maria, married to Elizabeth and father of six children, was also a fisherman, and in later years worked in partnership with his son William Walter Robert (known as Walter). 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’s house, which was in turn just round the corner from his eldest brother William’s and five minutes walk from younger brother Ben’s.
Robert was the only one in the family known to have played an instrument, and as such, would have been in demand at family gatherings and local parties. The only tune recorded from him is named The Liverpool Hornpipe in Vaughan William’s manuscript, although in fact it is nothing like the usual tune of that name and is actually a variant of what is perhaps the most widely-known hornpipe, Soldier’s Joy. Hornpipes were, and still are, commonly used for ‘stepping’: an informal, improvised form of tap dancing, usually danced solo and particularly popular amongst fishermen on the east coast. It is therefore extremely likely that Robert would have played for such dancing in the pubs and taprooms of Southwold. It is also likely that his repertoire included some other dance tunes, perhaps some schottisches, polkas or waltzes for couple dances, and also popular song tunes.
Robert’s song In London Town I was Bred and Born (also known as A Wild and Wicked Youth) is a ‘goodnight’ ballad: supposedly the last speech made by a prisoner before being hanged. Such songs were popular throughout the country, and if you were a Londoner, the actual hanging was an opportunity for an outing: Tyburn in London attracted huge crowds, which in turn drew numerous ballad-sellers and hawkers. Bold Princess Royal is one of the widely sung songs of coastal East Anglia, popular with all sea-faring sorts, whether sailors, fishermen or bargemen. A third song from Robert, noted as The Tiresome Wife by Vaughan Williams and On Monday Morning I Married A Wife by Butterworth has proved very difficult to identify, as no words were noted down at the time.
Benjamin Lowsey Hurr (1860-1934), the seventh of William and Maria’s eleven children who lived to adulthood, married Louisa and had one son. In the 1890s, along with brothers William and Robert, he was a member of the lifeboat crew. In the early twentieth century Ben and his family moved out of the small fishermen’s cottages in Victoria Street into one of the newer terraces in the north end of the town.
The Cobbler tells a story popular since at least Chaucerian days of a cuckolded husband, and is full of giggle-inducing phrases and motifs such as the adulterer hiding under the bed. Again Vaughan Williams noted no words to this song, perhaps thinking the humour rather low, but it would no doubt have gone down a storm in the company of other fishermen and mariners. The Isle of France (an early name for Mauritius) tells a sentimental tale of a shipwrecked convict on his way home after six years of exile being rescued by a coastguard and receiving a pardon from the Queen. Jones’s Ale, popularised in the late twentieth century folk revival, is a deceptive song, dating as it does from at least 1594.
On the first of their two day visit, Vaughan Williams and Butterworth went to the small village of Shadingfield, on the main road to Beccles. There Butterworth noted down the tune to one song from a ‘Mrs Keble aged 84’, and Vaughan Williams wrote down the words to a toast by Mr Keble. Records for Shadingfield in the early twentieth century show no-one by the name of Keble, although it is a common Suffolk name, but there was a Martha Cable living there in 1901, aged 70, widow of farm worker George Cable, and living with her was her unmarried son Frederick, then aged 33. It seems more than likely that these are the people Vaughan Williams and Butterworth visited in 1910. It was evidently a somewhat disappointing trip, as the only song noted down from Mrs Cable was The Murder of Maria Marten, which Vaughan Williams had previously noted down in Kings Lynn in 1905, and which he left to Butterworth to note down on this occasion. The lyrics were well known, having been printed on a ballad sheet soon after the real event (sometimes known as the Red Barn Murder) in the 1820s: the songsheet and murder report sold over a million copies in the nineteenth century, and the story and ambiguous nature of the evidence inspired a stage melodrama which is still presented in repertory occasionally, followed by a film in 1935 starring Todd Slaughter and in the late twentieth century a television drama. The tune is a version of that used for the old ballad Dives and Lazarus which inspired Vaughan Williams to compose a piece for the 1939 World’s Fair in the USA.
On Tuesday 25th October Vaughan Williams and Butterworth cycled over to Reydon, to the Almshouses and noted two songs from a Mr. Newby. Charles Newby, then aged 79, was born in Sotherton but lived most of his life in Southwold. He kept the White Horse Inn at the Reydon end of the High Street for many years and was later a coal merchant when he lived at 13, Station Road, in the left hand house of a pair known as Gladstone Villas.
Two songs were collected from Charles Newby, Georgey, and Forty Miles. The first is a classic ballad, reputed to date from real events in 1594, and tells of a wife pleading (unsuccessfully) for the life of her husband who is about to be hanged. Forty Miles has a happier ending, with a chance meeting ending in marriage. It has a repeated line, so that, like Jones’s Ale, it would be a popular song to sing in places where the company would be in a mood to join in, perhaps even in the White Horse when Newby was landlord there.
In the mid twentieth century, singing and music-making carried on in the Southwold Arms, the Nelson and the Harbour Inn.
In the Southwold Arms in the High Street, after a darts match on a Friday or Saturday evening, and also on away matches, Frank Palmer and others including Graham Lewis and some Hurr cousins of Frank’s would enjoy a singsong with old favourites such as The Faithful Sailor Boy, The Miner’s Dream of Home, and The Rugged Cross alongside more recent songs such as The Happy Wanderer or Red Sails in the Sunset. Comic songs such What a Wonderful Fish the Sole Is, or Albert & Sadie (a parody of Frankie and Johnny) were always popular, with the audience joining in lustily.
At weekends in the Harbour Inn, down on the banks of the River Blyth during the nineteen fifties you might have been lucky enough to catch Ernie Seaman over from Darsham playing polkas, hornpipes and some old-time songs on the melodeon. Guy Barber, a Southwoldian who worked on the fishing fleet out of Lowestoft, also played the melodeon there on occasions and sang popular songs such as The Volunteer Organist.
Another night you might hear some songs from ‘Dinks’ Cooper whose best known song was Busky, Haul the Trawl. Dinks was a celebrated character about whom many stories are told, including how he got marooned, together with Ernie Seaman and a couple of others, for several days upstairs in the Harbour Inn during the great floods of 1953 with only twenty Woodbines (cigarettes) for sustenance, and how he fell asleep at the tiller of his boat and passed under the pier unharmed. In another of Dinks’ favoured pubs, the Bell in his home village of Walberswick, a brass plaque can be seen on the wall proclaiming ‘Dinks’ leaning post’.
Other performers in the Harbour Inn from those days are recalled by John Winter, who is well known in the town for his many activities in conection with the Sailor’s Reading Room, the Town Council, and as a singer and jazz musician. His father, Jimmy ‘Dusso’ Winter used to sing Four and Nine, with ‘Tinny’ Townsend playing the piano, and in later days John recalls Willy ‘Jarvo’ Jarvis singing Lovely Nancy (Pleasant and Delightful) in there. John (also known as ‘Dusso’ since his father’s death), still sings occasionally, usually in the Lord Nelson, where he fondly remembers, “in the nineteen seventies a group of us used to get together on Sunday evenings and have a good old sing, that was when Eric Woods was the landlord.” One of John’s party pieces is The Captain Told the Mate, which he first heard from Willy Jarvis.
Other singers recalled by John Winter were two men he worked with as a young man, and they would sing all day long. One was Billy Welton, then in his seventies, 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’. The other was a retired drifter skipper called Jack Remblance, of whom John says: ‘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!’
John also recalls the old boys of his youth talking about who sung what in the Red Lion on South Green. This was evidently a popular singing pub earlier in the twentieth century, and may have been a place where the Hurrs sang.
John Barber, another well-known figure in the town, dressed in his civic regalia as the Town Bellman, is also a singer and musician. He sings The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen which he recalls his father Guy singing (and which was one of Frank Palmer’s favourites too), and also plays the melodeon, although neither skill was learned directly from his father. John played the mouth-organ as a youngster, and subsequently spent many years playing music in the company of George Jackson and John ‘Wiggy’ Goldsmith, who still entertain at pubs and parties in the area. John has been particularly keen to encourage youngsters to keep the music going locally and has taught his grandsons 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 can often be heard in the company of young Alex Goldsmith and Ruth Mitchell, playing the mouth-organ and dancing his unusual ‘jig dolls’. John made the dolls from a design he recollects 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 by adding bells underneath the board, and his trade-mark cigar in the mouth of one of the dolls!
In recent times, the Harbour Inn has been a regular haunt of local folk singers, and the Sole Bay Inn and both the Walberswick pubs, The Bell and the Anchor, host occasional music sessions. These days you are likely to find people from Norwich or Beccles or even further afield participating in these informal get-togethers, but locals such as John Barber and John Winter link the traditions of the present with those of the past.
What are the musical traditions of East Anglia?
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