The north Norfolk village of Briston is perhaps best known as regards traditional music as the home for many years of step dancer Dick Hewitt, who was landlord of The Horseshoes between 1965 and 1975. When he kept the pub, it was a lively place for music and song.1 However, together with adjacent Melton Constable, the village had a great deal of musical activity before this time, centred around the public houses of the two places.
Briston is a large village and in the mid Twentieth Century had four pubs - The Chequers, The Half Moon and The Green Man in the centre and The Three Horseshoes on the outskirts. In addition there was The Plough in the neighbouring hamlet of Craymere. Melton Constable, considerably smaller, had The Hastings Arms. Before the Second World War Briston had a large fair annually, with a substantial cattle auction, held originally on the village green and later on a piece of land a little further out of the centre, still known as the 'Auction Ground'. Pigs were sold in the yard of The Chequers, as recalled by resident David Lakey. This fair brought many people into the village and was the occasion of much music and merrymaking in the pubs.
Ken Jackson remembers that regular music was provided by brothers Tom and Arthur Willimott, who played mouth organ and piano accordion respectively, mainly as part of a local dance band. Another local musician was fiddle player Teddy Eke, about whom Fred Dent recalls, “He was quite short, little in stature and he used to ride a great big bicycle, which was always amusin'! I have heard him play the violin, but I can't recall how he played it. My main recollection is him coming into that bakery over there, when I first left school, and playing the ocarina. He was a good artist too.” Reggie Bunkle and Shamrock Jeary would step dance, Shamrock also accompanying local character David Hazelwood, known as 'Ka-Kar', on the tin tray for the latter's 'spider dance'. Ken Jackson describes this: “He used to get down on all fours and fling his legs in the air alternately, and Shammy Jeary used to beat on the tray in the pub, the rhythm of it.” Yet another musician was melodeon player Artie Wright from the West End of Briston, who is now mainly remembered for playing outside on the village green in retirement.
Ken Jackson recalls a singing competition in the early 1960s in which the result seems to have been rigged:
During the 1960s most pubs had a resident singer or singers and it was decided to hold a singing contest to find the best singer from the local pubs. Heats were held in local pubs, and Thornage Black Boys, I believe, entered 'Flemmy' Cooper for the final sing-off, to sing The Farmer's Boy. The singers had their special song, which they sang on a regular basis. For Example, 'Dooshey' Eke had his version of McNamara's Band. This was performed with much gyrating and waving of arms. I'm not sure, but I believe he performed for Briston Plough. I recall him performing in The Three Horseshoes, Briston, on many occasions. Teddy Williamson's special was I'm Shy, Mary-Ellen, I'm Shy. During the heats of the contest he sang The Bulldog Tied Up Loose; Morris Whittred sang The Bridle on the Wall. With the local pubs having voted their champion, a final sing-off was held at Briston Horseshoes. I regret to say that the final was fixed. To quote one of the judges, “We were got at.” Today we hear of match fixing in cricket, but in the 1960s it was a pub-singing contest. It was arranged that the winner of the final would be George Grief of Briningham White Horse, who sang Where does the little moth go to in the winter?”2Probably the most accomplished and versatile musician in Briston in the first half of the Twentieth Century was Herbert Remmington. Born in about 1875 in Hainford, Norfolk, he was a photographer and was listed in the 1901 census as living in Wymondham. He seems to have moved to Briston in about 1910. Several people still recall his photography business; Rene Perry remembers that “He used to take photos. When I was a child he lived opposite me. The photos of my young days, which I've got one or two at home, are all taken by him”, and Charles Brown recalls that “He had a studio. All the background of his photographs were the same; sort of a window; like a church window; in the background. He was well known. He carried his camera and that on the bike. Trade bike. Distinctive sepia photographs.”
As a musician, playing fiddle, dulcimer and piano, he is remembered for his playing and for teaching others. Charles Brown again: “Herbert Remmington was a piano tutor, a piano tuner, a violinist, a dulcimore player; you name it, he was it! Photographer, brilliant artist, and he used to teach several in the village of my age.” One pupil, Vic Barber, remembers that he used to play fiddle in the pubs, accompanying popular songs, and that he used to make fiddles out of chocolate boxes. Vic Barber was a piano pupil and recalls accompanying four local fiddlers on the piano at Herbert Remmington's house, shortly after the Second World War. Frank Morgan remembers that he taught his mother-in-law Kate Simmonds to play the dulcimer and that he used to play the fiddle for step dancing in Briston Chequers. Rene Perry also recalls hearing him play as a child: “He used to play the dulcimer. I can remember him playing the dulcimer. Course, he used to have one in his house. Kids used to go and listen. You could hear him from the road. His little house where he was; you'd hear when he used to play.”
Herbert Remmington often played in the pubs around the area together with other musicians, as remembered by Charles Brown, whose father Jesse Brown was one of them:
For years my father, he used to go with Remmington. My father played a piano by ear and he strummed a guitar. He was a good singer. And him and Herbert Remmington used to go in particular to Hempstead Hare and Hounds. I think my father and Remmington claimed it was lucrative at Hempstead Hare and Hounds at the time. That was a nice little bike ride from Briston to Hempstead Hare and Hounds. I don't think my father went with Remmington after about 1930. My father, he worked on the railway. He died in '38.A local newspaper, The Journal, included an article on Herbert Remmington in its feature on Briston on 8 September, 1950, under the title 'Music and Art':
There was a chap by the name of Wilkinson, he was a Briston man. This chap Wilkinson played the violin, Remmington the piano, and vice versa. Eddie Wilkinson. Wilkinson and Remmington were still in good gear at the beginning of the Second World War. They both had trade bikes, and used to carry the instruments in the front of the trade bikes. I remember they used to have singers and god-knows-what in the pubs at one time. Wilkinson was a bit younger than Remmington. As far as Remmington was concerned, he was a versatile musician. He got his pin money from pubs. He used to play in The Horseshoes.” Charles Brown also has a recollection of another Briston dulcimer player: “There used to be another one live in The Street, Briston. Dulcimore player. Herbert Burgess. He was blind. He lived near the fish shop."
Not all the 'characters' belong in the past. It would be hard to find anyone with more originality than Mr Herbert Remmington, of 8 The Lane. Mr Remmington's 74 years include more than 50 as a professional photographer, but it is chiefly as a self taught musician and artist that he had made himself known.Peter Clifton and Anne-Marie Hulme visited north Norfolk on various occasions in the mid 1970s for research on traditional music, step dancing and social dance, and noted that quoits matches were popular between village teams, with music following the matches. Referring to the village of Hindringham, they make the point that 'it was customary for dancing to follow the matches and this drew local musicians from further afield. Mr Herbert Remmington accompanied the Briston team, bringing his one-string fiddle or dulcimer; another dulcimer player - Mr Rutland - accompanied the Wells team.'4 Although he is remembered by many people, sadly no recordings of Herbert Remmington's playing have come to light.
Mr Remmington came to Briston in a rather romantic way. As a lad, he set himself up as a 'tramping photographer', with a box camera and a portable darkroom. He would go from door to door, and did very well, mainly, he now believes, because people took pity on his youth. The first place he visited after leaving his native Norwich was Briston. He got off the train at Melton Constable, saw only a few cottages, and made for the more-important village. Years later, when ill-health forced him to leave the city he remembered Briston and returned. He has been here 40 years.
It has not always been the quiet life it sounds. Once he was photographing a prize bull belonging to Lord Hastings. The bull did not like having its photograph taken. It broke the keeper's staff and charged the camera. Mr Remmington, preferring discretion to valour, came out from under his cloth and fled. The bull smashed the camera to pieces.
A visit to Mr Remmington's home will prove that he has a tremendous inborn gift for painting. With a proper artistic education he might have done great things. His works betray little of the amateur, and the many he has sold must, as he says, “be all over the world by now. I am painting a picture now which could be my masterpiece,” said Mr Remmington this week. It is a picture of moonlight in a wood in Stody.
There are almost as many musical instruments as pictures in Mr Remmington's house. He learned the violin, then taught himself the rest. One of his favourites is a dulcimer which he made many years ago, when Norwich was 'the home of the dulcimer'. The visitor will see two violas made from chocolate boxes. Mr Remmington is still 'snowed under' with requests to play at dinners and concerts, but says that his concert days are over. He says his dulcimer has been played in nearly every village hall and gentleman's house in North Norfolk since he made it just after the 1914-18 war.”3
In Melton Constable the music tended to take place in The Hastings Arms. The most prominent musician was melodeon player Billy Smith. He was born in 1923 and spent many years in Gresham, where he played regularly in The Chequers. He then moved to West Beckham in the 1950s and again to Bodham in the early 1960s, where he played in The Red Hart. He moved to Melton Constable in the mid 1960s and played regularly in The Hastings Arms, together with other musicians from surrounding villages.
Fred Dent, who played mouth organ and bones on these occasions, remembers that Billy Smith was often joined by Pat Chesney of Bale, who played melodeon, Sonny Barber of Briningham, who also played melodeon, and Billy Cole of Guestwick, who played mouth organ:
Old Sonny and Billy, at that time used to take them up there fairly regularly. At the weekend, you see. Pop up there on a Saturday night, or something like that. And Billy Cole of course used to come and play the old mouth organ. He came from Guestwick originally. And Sonny used to come up from Briningham.5Private recordings of Billy Smith, made sometime in the 1960s, and provided by Fred Dent, include popular song tunes, a fragment of Scotland the Brave and an unusual version of The Veleta waltz.6
Billy originated in Gresham. He used to play, as far as I know; he told me they used to play in Gresham Chequers. I think Billy was a carpet fitter actually. I think that was his job. Barney McMahon, he could sing well. Charlie Pitten, but Charlie's dead now, I'm afraid. Jerry Taverham; he'd always give you a song. And Philip Ives. Philip Ives used to sing a song called Hang me please from the Gooseberry Tree. He would often sing that after a pint or two.
By the end of the 1960s, these nights of music making in The Hastings Arms had ceased. Eventually the pub closed down in 1996. Billy Smith died in 1993. In Briston, The Green Man was the only pub in the village centre still open after 1965, and regular nights of music had ceased to happen there. Dick Hewitt kept The Three Horseshoes on the outskirts of the village until his retirement in 1975, and the place remained a lively one for music, song and step dancing until he ceased to be landlord of the pub, the last survival of a once vibrant musical tradition in the two villages.
2. From Working Together parish magazine, January 2001.
3. The Journal, 08.09.1950. Thanks to Katie Howson for locating the article and passing it on to me.
4. Social Dancing in a Norfolk Village, 1900-1945; Peter Clifton and Anne-Marie Hulme, in Folk Music Journal Vol 3, No 4; 1978. See article MT196: Wells-next-the-Sea: Traditional Music Making in a Norfolk Coastal Town for information about Mr Rutland's daughter Molly Whittaker, also a dulcimer player.
5. See article MT073: The Barber Family of Wingfield, Suffolk by John Howson, for more information about Sonny Barber and his family, together with a photograph of Sonny Barber and Pat Chesney.
6. Digitised by Paul Marsh, August 2006.
Chris Holderness - 29.05.10
Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project