Article MT280

Sam Larner

the Winterton fisherman and his singing community

'Do fishermen sing nowadays?  They used to be great singers when they got together years ago in their favourite pubs or at the annual jollifications of the beachmen's societies.'  So wrote King Herring in an unidentified news article which, judging by the typeface, was written quite a few decades ago.1  The author continues, 'One man I know, a popular vocalist at Lerwick gatherings of East Coast fishermen in bygone summers, still treats me to a stanza or two occasionally …   But his songs are mostly the music-hall ditties of his young manhood.  He came a generation too late for the old sea songs that used to be so popular.  Whenever I have heard fishermen singing in the last 20 or 30 years there has been no salt in their songs …' and goes on to give examples of the old ones, such as The Princess Royal, Your Faithful Sailor Boy, The Dark-Eyed Sailor and, 'It must be forty years since I heard a fisherman - and he was an old man - roar out that fine old song Spanish Ladies.'

Perhaps King Herring should have paid a visit to the Norfolk village of Winterton where the old songs connected with the fishing community, those with plenty of salt in them, were sung until relatively recently, local singer Tom Brown commenting that, "They were all singers at Winterton.  Everybody used to sing at Winterton."2  Foremost among these singers was Sam Larner, who knew dozens of such songs and whose extrovert performance style proved very influential to more recent singers such as Martin Carthy: 'His impact was immediate and electrifying … I knew that I had been privileged to have been in the presence of genuine greatness.'3  Sam Larner was certainly a great bearer of the tradition of local song, but he was far from the only singer in Winterton; rather a dominant figure due to personality and extensive repertoire, in an area where singing was still commonplace in much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

In Winterton fishing predominated as the main means of male employment, as Sam Larner stated when recorded by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger: "Why, for me and my brothers that was either sea or gaol, and that for my sisters that was service or gaol."4  Many families had been in the village, and involved with the fishing industry, for generations, most notably Greens, Georges, Goffins, Hayletts and Larners.  All were inter-related, as was common in close-knit communities, and all had singers amongst them.  Sam was born into this community in 1878, into a family of bricklayers and fishermen.  He first went to sea in 1892 as cabin boy and cook, into a very tough existence as he later recalled, describing the dread when going to sea for the first time and that you'd be "on the knucklebones of your arse when leaving for sea."  Some of the older fishermen "didn't care for nothing … cruel old men.  You weren't allowed to speak" and if you were sleepy they would "chuck a bucket of water on you to wake you up."5  Although some trips were 'home fishing,' meaning that the fishermen would return the same day, more often than not the trips would take them away for weeks at a time, sailing around the British Isles in search of the herring.  This of course meant stopping periods in various ports and the opportunity for musical diversion whilst ashore, as well as the possibility of a singer adding to his repertoire at the occasions where this happened.  Indeed, Sam Larner recalled that he won a singing competition in Lerwick in 1907 with his rendition of Old Bob Ridley-O, for which "I got the most encore of the whole lot."

Unfortunately no Winterton singers other than Sam Larner were recorded extensively, but his detailed and lively accounts of both fishing and singing do give us a good indication that many songs were learned from fellow fishermen, many of whom were close relatives.  Talking of Butter and Cheese and All, a popular song in the village, he mentioned that "That's my old dad's song.  My father; I knew it.  I heard him sing it when I was a little boy.  Used to sing all them songs, my old father did.  Yeah, old 'Bredler' they used to call him; Bredler Larner; Bredler used to call him.  Big man, about fifteen or sixteen stone.  Big man, he was.  Oh, and he could do the step dance."  Sam's father was George Larner, born in 1847, and another fisherman.  From this song obviously heard as a young child at home, there were others learned at sea, again from a close relative.  Of The Robber or The Rambling Young Blade, Sam recalled that "My Uncle Jimmy used to sing that when I was cook along of him at sea.  That's about nigh seventy year ago, and he used to sing that on deck."6  Uncle Jimmy was James Sutton, (born 1858), a renowned singer in the village who seems to have passed many songs onto Sam Larner.  His nickname was 'Old Larpin' and his grandson Ronnie Haylett remembers that this was a shortened version of 'Loping Lugs' as he had rather prominent ears.  As can be seen, nicknames were very common indeed in the community, perhaps rather vital as surnames were relatively few and many families favoured the same first name for many family members.  Sam Larner's nickname was 'Funky' on account of his sometimes unpredictable moods.  As regards learning songs from community or family members, Sam remarked when talking of King William and the Keeper, "I can recollect them a-singin' on it.  Oh, we all picked them songs up."

If there was opportunity at times to add to a repertoire of songs whilst on these fishing voyages, the real outlet for performance seems to have been, unsurprisingly, when back home after a long voyage.  Sam Larner sang in The Dogger Bank:

An exaggeration maybe, but certainly the fishermen did adjourn to the village's two pubs, The Fisherman's Return and The Three Mariners, for what Dick Green remembered were lengthy bouts of singing and step dancing.  He recalled that complete respect was always given to the singers, otherwise it could result in violence.  Certainly the old songs and their performance seem to have been taken very seriously.  Ronnie Haylett remembers "a session down at The Fisherman's and then The Three Mariners … And they used to have a session down there.  Now, Boxing Day, the pubs closed at half past two legally, you know, but they'd open here until four or five o'clock.  Policeman'd come in and have a look; village policeman, he'd come in and have a look: "Boys all right?"  Well, they're all fishermen, you know.  "Boys all right?"  "Yes, all right.  Do you want a pint, mister?"  "No, I'll leave you."  He'd just go away and leave them."7  Sam Larner related to Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger that "we used to have a rare old, good old time.  We used to get in the old pub, and we used to have a song, a drink and a four-handed reel … That was all there was for our enjoyment."

Dick Green (b 1909) was another Winterton singer and fisherman.  After a while he turned his back on the sea and became a policeman, ending his days in Harleston.  In later years, he was still able to recall such songs as Maid of Australia which he had sung in the village years earlier.  He also had three hand-written songs, which seem to have been in the family for many years: The Chesapeake and Shannon, Cape Horn and The White Squall, the latter a rather sentimental song about a wrecked ship.  Dick Green was Sam Larner's nephew and was part of the singing sessions in Winterton until his change of career took him elsewhere but, in later life, he unfortunately declined to be recorded singing the old songs as he felt his voice was not good enough to do so.8

Dick's older brother Bob (1908-99) was another singer and fisherman, known locally by his nickname 'The Devil'.  His daughter Brenda Taylor recalled that he went to sea at fourteen as cook, working his way up through the crew hierarchy to become a trawler skipper.  He also served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War.  He sang such songs as were popular locally such as The Maid of Australia, The Barley Straw, Cruising Round Yarmouth, and Henry Martin as well as comic songs such as The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore and Paddy McGinty's Goat.  The father of Bob and Dick Green, also Bob Green, (born 1882), was recalled by Edna Haylett, his daughter, as having regularly sung The Wild Rover, Ronnie Haylett adding that it was "her father's sort of party piece."

Another Winterton singer - and fisherman and trawler skipper - was Jack 'Starchy' George (1888-1975).  Caister singer Tom Brown, who was on drifters with Jack George, described him as "a great singer" who would sometimes "lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he'd sing while he'd be on watch."  All of the male Georges seem to have been known as 'Starchy,' apparently from one former family member who favoured starched shirt collars.  As well as the songs popular locally, many connected with the sea, Ronnie Haylett recalled that Jack used to sing Herring on the Griddle-O, to which men would dance as if flames were rearing up, and Jack Johnson, and that he sang at weddings as well as in the pub.

In this fertile environment for song acquisition and performance, Sam Larner does certainly stand out as an outstanding singer indeed.  With an extensive repertoire of traditional ballads, sentimental and comic pieces and, most of all, songs connected with the sea and fishing, all performed in a vigorous, exuberant style, it is easy to imagine him being the centre of any singing session in the village or elsewhere whilst away fishing.  To return to the fishing competition mentioned earlier, Sam commented that, "Now, I got the first prize for that (Old Bob Ridley-O) down at Lerwick.  There was a singing competition; in 1907.There was a singing competition in the town hall at Lerwick; all among the fishermen though.  And the Lerwick ladies, they had to judge; and the gentlemen, to judge the singin'.  And I got the most encore of the whole lot for that song.  They won't let me sit down; I had to sing them another song.  That was in 1907.  These people all know it about here; I aren't tellin' stories.  And I got the first prize."9  A natural entertainer, Sam would also recite Christmas Day in the Workhouse in the pub, with much histrionics.

As well as the singing, another part of the evening's entertainment in The Fisherman's Return and The Three Mariners was step dancing.  Sam was a good exponent of this like his father George.  Of the former pub, Ronnie Haylett recalled, "The tables in there years ago, they had a bead round like this; a raised bead like that.  They all had pints of two.  Cause, comin' out the old barrels, they'd all be wet, wouldn't they?  So they'd stand them there and somebody'd shift the pints and Sam'd come up and do a tap dance on the table.  Beer'd all spilt!"  Unusually, there seems to have been no musician to play for the step dancing; it was performed to singing and diddling.  Sam Larner remarked, "I could do the Old Bob Ridley-O; that was a song and a dance.  I han't got the wind to do it now."  Whilst singing the song, he pauses half way through to comment "then they all step".  This suggests something of a communal performance, in a similar way to Jack George's Herring on the Griddle-O.  Sam generally seems to have accompanied himself step dancing by diddling tunes such as The Sailor's Hornpipe.  In the early 1960s, writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners, in company with fiddler Alan Waller: 'The Larners live in a little semi-detached cottage not far from the sea, and we all sat round the small kitchen while Alan played the fiddle and Sam sang, and Mrs Larner looked on and beamed.  And Sam could hardly restrain himself from jumping up and step dancing.  In fact he failed to restrain himself once or twice, and he is over eighty.  He kept challenging Alan as to whether he knew this jig or that step tune, and was absolutely delighted when he found that Alan knew them all.'10

Sam Larner first came to wider public notice when Philip Donnellan, a radio producer for BBC Birmingham, happened to meet him in a pub in 1956.  Donnellan was making radio documentaries about working people in Britain and Sam was exactly the sort of person he was looking for to provide him with information.  He recorded about twenty five songs and some speech from him in 1957 and 1958.  Sam appeared in two of Donnellan's radio productions: Coast and Country: The Wash on Sunday 15th September, 1957 (the letter to Sam requesting his involvement is actually dated 4th October, 1957, so the previous date may have been for the first in a series), broadcast between 1:10 and 1:40pm, for which he was paid £1.1.0, and Down to the Sea.  The latter was recorded on Sunday 15th February, 1959, between 8:00 and 9:00pm, with a rehearsal at 3:00, at a house in Happisburgh known as 'Thatchers'.  It was broadcast on Friday, 27th February, 1959, between 7:30 and 8:00pm and Sam was paid £8.8.0.  Unfortunately no further information has come to light as to what Sam Larner's contribution was to each, but it does appear that one, if not both, was a live appearance.  The sound recordings made by Donnellan were deposited in the BBC archives.

Philip Donnellan's interest in Sam Larner was quickly passed onto Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, who were then busily engaged in the first of their Radio Ballads.  They first visited him in 1959, recording his songs and anecdotes about his life and, over a period of time, after editing the material, were left in MacColl's words with 'almost thirty hours of magnificent talk and three hours of songs, ballads, stories and miscellaneous rhymes' from this 'octogenarian, ex-herring fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk.  What a wonderful person he was!  Short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life.  His one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl.'11  Much material from Sam was included in the resultant award-winning Radio Ballad Singing the Fishing, which was broadcast on 16th August, 1960, to great acclaim.

This undoubtedly brought Sam Larner's songs and performances to much wider appreciation, as did an appearance at the Ballads and Blues Club in London in 1959 where, having been introduced by Ewan MacColl, Sam 'sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word and gesture as through he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca.  He never forgot it.'  "They liked them old songs, they did."  Also, in 1960, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl published a book of English and Scottish folk songs called The Singing IslandThey included thirteen of Sam's songs: Maid of Australia, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Maids When You're Young, The Wild Rover, Henry Martin, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Bold Princess Royal, The Dolphin, The Dogger Bank, The London Steamer, The Ghost Ship, Jack Tar and Butter and Cheese and All.  The copy they presented to Sam was inscribed: 'Sam: a book in which your songs are not 'written wrong.' Many thanks for your songs and your friendship.  Peggy and Ewan.  1960.'12  Certainly the songs that Sam had picked up from his community and fishing expeditions and sang so exuberantly were now reaching a much wider audience.

This exposure to the world at large, or at least that portion of it interested in traditional song, reached a peak with the release of the LP Now is the Time for Fishing on Folkways Records in 1961.  This featured nineteen tracks of Sam Larner singing and talking about his life and the fishing industry, taken from the recordings made by MacColl and Seeger.  The interspersing of anecdotes amongst the singing put the songs in vivid context, with Sam's rich dialect and turn of phrase, on what must surely be the first full-length LP issued of an English traditional singer.  A radical approach, perhaps, in 1961, which still stands as a seminal recording today.

In 1962 Charles Parker filmed both Sam Larner and Catfield singer Harry Cox for BBC Birmingham, singing and talking about their lives for a programme entitled The Singer and the Song.  As well as snatches of several old popular and comic songs Sam sang Now is the Time for Fishing, Clear Away the Morning Dew and The Wild Rover.  It was broadcast on BBC Midlands in 1964.

By this time, Sam was a very old man of eighty six.  He had lived in Winterton all his life, aside from the often lengthy fishing voyages away after the herring, of course.  He had met his wife Dorcas, (née Eastick), who hailed from Great Cressingham, near Watton, when she was in service at the rectory in Winterton, and had spent all of his working life at sea until ill health caused by the rigours of the fisherman's life forced him to abandon this at the age of fifty six.  This grand old man of traditional song died on September 11th, 1965.

About a year after Sam Larner's death, Suffolk agricultural auctioneer and song collector Neil Lanham happened to be in Winterton, trying to find out in the churchyard about a relative who had been lost at sea in the area.  He happened to meet retired fisherman Walter 'Tuddy' Rudd (1905-82) and asked him if he knew any of the old songs sung in the village.  Tuddy Rudd certainly did and arranged for several retired fishermen to get together at his house so that Neil could record them.  This happened on 17th December, 1966: Tuddy Rudd sang Clear Away the Morning Dew, The Dolphin, An Old Man Came Courting Me and Butter and Cheese and All, Bob Green contributed The Maid of Australia, The Barley Straw, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Henry Martin and The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore, and Johnny Goffin (1909-77) sang A Ship Called Comrade and The Bold Princess Royal.  These unfortunately are the only recordings made of Winterton singers other than Sam Larner, but do give a good indication, together with the wealth collected from Sam, of this once-vibrant tradition.  Tuddy told Neil Lanham that he got An Old Man Came Courting Me (Maids When You're Young) from a fish-hawker in the village known as 'Lame Jimma.'13  Murray Noyes, once resident in the village, remembered Johnny Goffin's father Roger, the gamekeeper on Lord Leicester's Holkham estate, as a singer and learned Cruising Round Yarmouth from him.

In 1974, Topic Records released a selection of fifteen of Philip Donnellan's recordings as LP A Garland for Sam.  About the same time, collector Peter Kennedy issued his own selection of the Donnellan material as a Folktrax cassette (later CD) Sailing Over the Dogger Bank: Sam's Saucy Salty Sailor Songs. Clearly, interest in Sam Larner's singing and his songs continued strongly a decade after his death, and has certainly carried on doing so to this day.14

By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the fishing industry in this area of Norfolk was in serious decline and the formerly close-knit community was becoming increasingly less so.  The song sessions also declined as a consequence, as the way of life which fostered them all but disappeared.  Ronnie Haylett certainly had very vivid memories of the nights in the pub, and could recall parts of songs, but never became a singer himself: 'Sam, he said to me one day - my father's name is Jack - "Boy Jack", he said,15 "why don't you go up and sing like your grandfather?  Your grandfather Larpin.  Your grandfather larnt me a lot of these songs what I sing."  I say, "I can't sing, old chap."  "You can.  You've just gotta stand up and get goin'.  Why don't you come up and sing, boy?"  Of the two village pubs where the fishermen would congregate for such entertainment, The Three Mariners closed in 1955; it reopened for a short while as The Wishing Well but then became a private residence.  The Fisherman's Return does continue as a public house but sadly is no longer host to such nights of song and step dance of which Ronnie Haylett said, "They were lovely times down the pub when I was a youngster."

Chris Holderness - 19.03.13
Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project



Article MT280

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