Article MT298

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Sheringham Breakdown

traditional music making in this north Norfolk
coastal town and surrounding area

The north Norfolk coastal towns of Cromer and Sheringham have long been associated with the traditional activity of crab and lobster fishing, as well as in both places a deep-seated tradition amongst the fishermen of service in the lifeboats.  The former town also has a long-standing tradition of step dancing, particularly amongst the prominent Davies family1, who continue the practice to this day.  Sheringham, however, does not obviously have the same musical tradition as its near neighbour.  A clue to this may be in local historian Peter Stibbons' comment: 'A brief mention needs to be made of some general points concerning the fishing community.  One is the tradition of step-dancing that exists in Cromer.  This has been handed down over some four to five generations, but appears to have been introduced to the area by a coastguard, probably from the north-west of England.  It has been adapted to a simple shuffling step, but it is performed with considerable dexterity at the appropriate time in evenings of relaxation at local hostelries.  A tradition of a quite different nature exists at Sheringham, where some members of the fishing community became missioners at the end of the last century and a strong and continuous link with the Salvation Army began.'2  This involvement with the Salvation Army and also with a strong Methodist tradition in the town - with the resultant spurning of public houses where such activities as step dancing tended to take place - may well account for the apparent lack of secular music in the town.  Such Sheringham fishermen's nicknames as 'Teapot' West would perhaps bear this out.

However, Sheringham was not without its traditional music-making, and some of the local fishermen took part in it.  An old newspaper article attests to it happening in at least one of the town's pubs years ago: 'This hotel near the front at Sheringham which has been known for nearly 40 years as The Bijou Hotel was renamed The Two Lifeboats Hotel on Tuesday … There is a considerable history attached to The Two Lifeboats Hotel.  Once upon a time - some say as long ago as 1720 - there stood near the edge of the cliffs at Lower Sheringham a small tavern known as The New Inn , a tavern which was the focal point of the village life of that era.  The fishermen used to meet there each week and after the serious business of the evening was over, a jolly time was had by one and all, with the fiddler and accordionist playing a lively step dance or jig or accompanying anyone who wanted to sing a song."3

Peter Clifton and Ann-Marie Hulme, in writing up their researches in the late 1970s into step dancing styles in north Norfolk,4 make reference to the fact that 'The Sheringham lifeboat bowman Mr Eric Wink is another step dancer' and also that 'An exponent whose expertise is still remembered and discussed with admiration was the late Mr Charlie Harrison (born 1874) … ship's carpenter Charlie 'Casey' Harrison from Sheringham learnt Lancashire steps from a coastguard stationed at Cromer in about 1905.'  It would seem that the town did have its share of step dancers, particularly amongst the fishermen, and that there was much social fraternity between the performers of both towns, despite the traditional rivalry between the Crabs and the Shannocks.5  Also that step dancers from both towns learned Lancashire steps, as mentioned by the Davies family.

Certainly in relatively recent years Sheringham itself has not been renowned for step dancing.  John Wright of Erpingham remembered of the dancing locally that "There was a hell of a lot.  I mean, especially Cromer area, which we used to go a lot … And we never did go to Sheringham a lot.  That was always Cromer."6  Despite the documented prowess of Eric Wink and Charlie Harrison, it would seem that the lack of impetus in Sheringham of a family such as the Davies of Cromer, with their long-standing family tradition, prevented the practice from thriving in the same way.

If the town has not been very well known for step dancing, it has at least given its name to one of the most widely used tunes to accompany it.  Sheringham Breakdown is a version of the ubiquitous Four Hand Reel and, at least in the version played in the area, is just the A music of the tune, played in a simplified, highly rhythmic way, to accompany the dance.  Melodeon players in the vicinity of Sheringham who have been recorded playing the tune in this way include Percy Brown (Aylsham), George Craske (Sustead), Albert Hewitt (Southrepps) and Walter Newstead (Binham).

Step dancing does seem to have been common enough in the surrounding area though.  Mrs R Burton-Pye recalled that 'Mr George Craske played at my wedding in 1936.  He was a friend of my dad's, who also played accordion; they used to play together in a place called the Reading Room at Felbrigg until early hours of the morning, dancing and step dancing.  My dad's name was Bertie Turner.  Yes, I did dance; still like to have a go now, but getting a bit old.  Also, when young, my dad, brother, myself did the step dance together.  The music was played by a Mr Bob Massingham from Felbrigg, a friend of my dad.'7  Philip Almey of Antingham remembered that one of his workers, George Keeler, used to relate that when they were working on the farm of John Wright of Metton, the threshing machine and crew would arrive annually.  One of the team would play the melodeon at lunchtime whilst another would step dance on the shutters of the drum of the machine.8

Melodeon player George Craske of Sustead, known locally as 'Gidjee', was a regular musician for accompanying step dancing.  He played regularly in pubs such as Erpingham King's Head and Alby Horseshoes, both a few miles inland from Sheringham, as recalled by his uncle Eric,9 who also remembered him playing for dances in village halls with his friend and neighbour Frank Ward, for step dancing in Cromer Albion and at home at Christmas.  He was obviously a local character who John Wright described as a "big old raw-boned boy" who, a bachelor, worked on the land and lived in Sustead all his life, as well as cycling round all of the local pubs with his 'out-and-homer', as one-row melodeons were generally called in this area of Norfolk.  John Wright recalled that Craske "often played with a Mr Cooper from Gresham and that people would say, "Old Cooper play 'out-and-homer'; get him down here" and that sort of thing.  Well, they would (the two play together); occasionally they'd be in the same pub; one'd have a go and then the other'd have a go.  That'd be The King's Head or The Black Boys or The Lion; (Aylsham pubs) or Tuttington Ship or Gresham Chequers.  You'd got that many pubs to pick from; you could go to a different pub every night of the year…they all had music then.  I mean, the old Dog (Aylsham again), plenty of time on a Monday, when father was up there; the sale; get in there and that'd be full: there'd be some old boy up the corner havin' a squeeze, or an old dulcimore, or something like that.  They'd always have a little bit of music.  They had to have a little bit of music, sort of to keep the momentum, if you like."  Of Mr Cooper, John Wright couldn't recall his first name but remembered that he "Always wore a cap, didn't he?  Never hardly took it off.  He was on the coal cart for years…He never washed.  He'd come off the coal cart and go straight out."  He may have been the same person mentioned by Marion Daniels, talking of music in Erpingham King's Head , which her family had from 1948 to 1960: 'Also a chap called Albert would play the piano.  He was a coalman and my mother had to clean the white keys as they were black when he finished playing.'10

George Craske and Frank Ward were visited by Peter Clifton and Ann-Marie Hulme in Sustead in 1977.  Both men talked about playing for dancing and George Craske played many tunes.  It is evident from the conversation that the location was neither of the men's homes and this may well have been because George remarked that, 'My people are gettin' old; they don't care for a lot of noise' and at this point he was living with his sister.  The tunes reflect the repertoire of country musicians across the early and mid-twentieth century locally: a large selection of hornpipes, many without names, for step dancing.  The tunes are often just the A music repeated, stripped-down solidly rhythmic versions ideal to give the necessary accompaniment to the dancing.  George remarked that 'all these step dancers all had different tunes, y'see' and included are Jack Davies' Stepdance Tune and Jimmy Crane's Stepdance Tune. There were also tunes for the Boston Two-Step and for the ubiquitous Long Dance: one an unusual version of King of the Cannibal Isles, the other Tommy Make Room for your UncleThe Keel Row was given for a dance referred to by George as the Poker Dance - a dance in which participants would dance over a poker or similar item placed on the floor - and Cock O'the North which both men said was for the Gay Gordons and referred to as Chase Me Charlie.  Of the other tune in jig time, George remarked to Frank: "What about my little gallops; little gallops what I play?" and played Garyowen.  Their waltzes they referred to as, 'old-fashioned ones, mostly' and the tunes given were Merry Widow Waltz and Over the Waves.  There were also several tunes for the polka, including the ubiquitous Heel and Toe Polka and a schottische tune.  In all, very representative of the repertoire of local rural musicians when these men were younger.11

Of another regular pub musician in the villages inland from Sheringham, accompanying singing rather than dancing, John Wright recalled that, "There was an old lady, Mary Allen; she was the best pub piano player I ever did know.  The King's Head, wouldn't she?  Or The Eagle.  Or TuttingtonShip.  I had to take her home hundreds a'times … Supportin' her back; she said, >"Cause, Boy Jack," she said, "Cause, that in't the beer I've had," she said.  "That in't the beer I've had."  "You've had a few!"  But she never did miss a tune!'

To return to players of the melodeon, easily the most common instrument in the area, another exponent Charlie Buller of Erpingham related that, "There was no end about here; I tell you what, all these old villages had an accordion player in.  There's another one, Wickmere, chap named Scarfe, he was another one.  Now, Percy Brown you knew.  There was another old boy lived at Antingham, he was another one; he was a good 'un.  Ernie Barsted; there was another one, Percy Davison.'12  Charlie Buller, known locally as 'Chicky', had a repertoire of a mixture of tunes for the dances common early in the Twentieth Century, as well as quite a few song tunes: he seems to have accompanied both dancing and singing and he often played with a G melodeon otherwise it was too high.  Playing Castle Gardens, (Roud 9744) he remarked that, "You'd hear that played if you go to them old fishermen!  Old fisherman from Overstrand used to sing that" and of remembering tunes he remarked, "When I used to go in the pub, I used to have it writ on the back of Bob's old accordion.  Used to write 'em on there … so you could remember them.  You'd have no end writ on.  Somebody'd say, "Do you know so-and-so?  Can you play so-and-so?"  That'd come to you straight away."  As well as in the pubs, Charlie would play regularly during the working day as well, as his son Tony remembered: "He used to have his accordion in the motor all the while with him.  When we're bin thrashin' I've seen him play dinner time: "Come on Charlie, are you gonna give us a tune?" they'd say."

Like other musicians, Charlie Buller played for many dances in village halls around the area.  There was often a band for such dances, but otherwise it could be, "Sometimes an old squeezebox.  I've sat and played in the bugger all night.  You got just as much enjoyment! … There was the old Veleta and the Boston Two-Step," and of a schottische, "Two on them doin' the dancin' round.  They slump their feet down and then go up.  I can't think to explain it to you now.  That's a long while ago; that's years and years since I see it done … I han't seen it done since the war time.  No.  You see, all these old dances went out directly after the war.  Once people started to get about, all these old pub dances and that, they finished."  He also played for the Long Dance: "Used to start in fours; up the sides and down the middle, or up the middle and down the sides.  Used to start with four at the bottom; they used to keep going, used to go right up to the top and back again.  First, you'd get hold of hands and go round, and then two go inside and two outside, then you grab your partner and waltz round, and two come up the outside and take the next two; another two go that way.  A very good old dance that is.  I haven't seen it done for years."13

If melodeon players were very common in the area around Sheringham, being the most common single instrument to accompany singing and dancing, there is a single reference to a dulcimer player in the town.  Vera Johnson played a dulcimer made by her father John Basham in about 1920.  He seems to have played in a band in local pubs and clubs, as a banjo player, and sometimes dressed up as an old lady.  His daughter Vera seems to have played to accompany popular songs, as a song list contains Let's All Sing like the Birdies, Oh! Oh! Antonio, When Irish Eyes are Smiling, My Bonny Lies over the Ocean, Scotland the Brave, Bye Bye Blackbird and Now is the Hour.14  Another reference, at least to an instrument, is one in the small village of Kelling, just outside Sheringham.  Billy Cooper, the renowned dulcimer player of Hingham15 was a regular visitor to the north Norfolk coast, often for extended periods of playing, particularly in Wells-next-the-Sea16 where he had struck up a friendship with fellow dulcimer player John Youngman and his family.  When John Youngman's original dulcimer had been sold to an American, Billy Cooper found another in Kelling, as John's wife Kath recalled: "Billy knew about this one at Kelling; well, that was in a terrible state when he brought it home, but Billy … I forget where he got the wire from.  Somewhere in Norwich, I expect.  He took it home and he re-wired it all up and he brought it here.  I don't know who he bought that dulcimer off; it was in a terrible state.  Billy said, "I'll get it for you"; Billy done a lot to it.  He painted it up and everything."

Sheringham was also visited by collectors of traditional song and music.  The first was Ralph Vaughan Williams, as part of his excursions in the county which yielded such rich results, particularly in King's Lynn.  He visited Sheringham on 12 January 1905 and noted down the tunes - but not the words - of two songs: Come Nancy Will You Marry Me? (Roud 527) from railway worker Robert "Bob" Jackson, noted at the level crossing, and Near Scarborough Town (Roud 185) from Mr Emery, the latter in The Crown Inn.17

A later collector - and resident - was Tom Copeman, whose interest in country dancing came largely from travelling in Russia with Cecil Sharp's sister Evelyn after the First World War.  He wrote, 'When in 1931 we moved to North Norfolk we were in a fortunate area, for here the old dancing had never quite died out …  The most exciting discovery was a country dance which soon became nationally famous as The Norfolk Long Dance, having been first found a few years before in Swaffham, where it was still danced after harvest and called The Country Dance.  It was, however, incomplete, and the tune had been forgotten.  In 1929 the dance was collected with the tune from Sidestrand.  And the year when we arrived in Lower Sheringham Mary Tillett was watching old people dancing it in Upper Sheringham.  She told me that there they were still dancing Norfolk versions of well-known dances, as well as another dance which they called The Trip to the Cottage, which she believed had hitherto gone unrecorded …'18

Mrs Tillett gave me further information about the Norfolk Long Dance, which had also been found at Gresham and Wickmere, adding, "It varies slightly in each place, but has two distinct characteristics which, so far as we know are only to be found in Norfolk and therefore prove that there is a Norfolk tradition."  She did not mention these characteristics, but I imagine they may have been the fact that in this dance the couples swing with arms outstretched from shoulder to shoulder and at ever accelerating speed.  I remember a notable party at Aldborough which started with fiddle and piano in a garden and ended with our Long Dance in the village hall, where the local accordion player kept increasing his speed until, from sheer exhaustion, we stopped whirling."19

"In these brief days of dying peace we danced Norfolk Longways, as it was sometimes known, to a jaunty and catching tune called The Starry Ramble, (Roud 972) originally written for a mid-Victorian ballad bearing that title.'  He then concludes by giving the chorus of the song, mentioning that 'some readers recalled that they sang the chorus as they danced and that it ran:

Whilst not having the step dancing tradition of its neighbour Cromer, which indeed has continued to an extent until recently, and in a single but significant way today, through the Davies family, Sheringham, and certainly the villages inland from it, can at least lay claim to a worthy part of the area's history of traditional music, song and dance, once so commonplace throughout the region.

Sheringham Breakdown Sheringham Breakdown Boston Two-Step Sailor's Hornpipe
Cock o'the North Over the Waves Garyowen Hornpipe medley

Chris Holderness - 21.05.15
Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project