Part 1     Article MT025

Sing, Say or Pay!

A Survey of East Suffolk Country Music

by Keith Summers


(Photo credits can be seen by putting the mouse cursor over the picture for a second or two)

Introduction

To the casual visitor, East Suffolk appears to be a quiet, picturesque part of East Anglia, a district made up of a handful of sleepy market towns such as Woodbridge, Saxmundham and Framlingham, surrounded by tiny close-knit villages and hamlets, and dominated by the cities of Norwich to the north and Ipswich to the south.  In the summer the area is a magnet for holidaymakers and businessmen visiting their weekend homes.  There is little industry outside the towns and with increasing mechanisation on the farms, most young people have to travel to Ipswich for both work and pleasure.  This and the lack of public transport have made many villages extremely remote and often populated by a high proportion of elderly people.

Yet little over twenty years ago this area was a hotbed of traditional music-making and country entertainment, where every village had its group of musicians and singers, often travelling around the many pubs where music was made.  play Sound ClipAs Arthur Hewitt says of Blaxhall Ship, perhaps the most musical of all the pubs, "They got Wicketts Richardson (sound clip) to keep order and he'd say "Sing, say, or pay for a gallon of beer" - and you could go round that pub and every one would have a go - not many paid".  However, since the War, radio, then television have made manufactured entertainment readily accessible.  With the break-up of the old village structure and the closure of an enormous number of country pubs, such music-making has declined to a mere shadow of its former abundance.  A great many of the old musicians and singers have died, never to be replaced.

My own interest in the area began in the late sixties when I heard a batch of recordings of the local singers at Blaxhall Ship made in 1953.  Photo from Fred PearceI had been an ardent collector of blues records while at school and my interest quickly developed to include American country music and then Irish music.  On buying the Topic 'Folksongs of Britain' set of records I stumbled on a track of Cyril Poacher singing The Nutting Girl.   "Great" I thought, and a bit more delving uncovered tracks by Bob Scarce, Wicketts Richardson and John French.  It has always been a big regret that while I was listening to music from the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi Delta there existed, not two hours away, a rich and interesting musical tradition, virtually unrecorded.  Had I begun recording then, we might now be able to listen to the music of such masters as Walter Clow, Stan Seaman and Walter Gyford.

After this first insight into Suffolk music, I resolved to visit Blaxhall and see whether anyone still remembered any of these old chaps or if indeed anyone still played or sang the old songs.  One Tuesday during my holidays I hitch-hiked up to Blaxhall and arrived after a four mile walk at the Ship just on opening time in the evening.  My first collecting trip was not a success.  Very conscious that I was a stranger, I did not pluck up enough courage to ask many relevent questions, and those I did ask were met either with blank stares or long diatribes on the Spinners by the handful of other drinkers in the pub, who I realise now were only visitors themselves.  So I settled down in a corner and got stuck into the local beer, which was very mild, very cheap, and very strong.  Three hours later, all thoughts of traditional music a million miles away, I left the pub, thumbed a lift to the main road and somehow got home.

It was another two years before I visited Blaxhall again.  I met Percy Webb, that fine singer, at the Loughborough Folk Festival and arranged to visit and record some songs.  On learning that he lived in Tunstall, I remembered walking through there on my previous visit to Blaxhall.  Photo by Mike YatesI spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon with Percy and asked him about the old Blaxhall singers that I had heard of.  Yes, he had known quite a few of them and thought that Cyril Poacher was still alive, but that apart from Bob Hart, Percy was really the only one left singing the old songs.  (It must be said that nearly every singer tells you this.)

On leaving Percy's I wandered down to the Ship, about three miles away, and arrived just on opening time.  Being a Saturday the place soon filled up and at about 8 o'clock the door opened and to my amazement an old man of about 90 with white hair and a long sharp nose struggled in and sat at the nearest seat.  A beer was immediately sent over to the man whom I recognised from an old photograph as Bob Scarce.  Hardly able to believe it, I sat and chatted with him for a while about his songs, which amused him greatly, and he informed that the chap I was standing next to at the bar was Fred Pearce, who was for many years the local melodeon player and had also recorded in the fifties.  I spoke at length to Fred, then a little deaf, about the old days, and he told me that Cyril Poacher and Wicketts Richardson still lived in Blaxhall and to come back tomorrow lunchtime and he would introduce them to me.

By now an accordeon player with a big new button accordeon had arrived and proceeded to play singalong pub songs.  During a break I bought him a beer and found that he lived in Framligham.  I had heard of a singer from there called Harry List, so I asked if he'd ever heard of this singer.  After nearly choking on their beer, he and his friends told me they had indeed heard of Harry List - I was talking to his son Fred!

After a cold night sleeping in a van in the car park, I returned the next lunchtime as agreed and spent two hours talking and drinking with Cyril, Wicketts, Bob Scarce, Geoff Ling and Fred Pearce about old times, music and singing, and it became obvous to me that, far from having died out, there was still an active musical tradition not only in Blaxhall, but in the whole area locally; I decided then and there to document as much of it as I could.


The account which follows derives almost entirely from conversations with musicians and singers themselves, undertaken over the last several years or so.  Most still live(d) in or near the village which they describe, but a few such as George Ling, Jock Hardwick and Alex Bloomfield have now to be sought further afield.  During my first few visits I didn't own a tape recorder and so what appears here is based on detailed notes made at the time.  I also received several very informative letters which are reproduced as written.  Otherwise I have transcribed taped conversations and then edited and arranged the material to form a coherent narrative.  Most chapters begin with a brief introductory paragraph by me.  Elsewhere in the text editorial comments are in brackets.  A detailed list of those whose words appear is given at the end of each chapter together with the place with which they are associated, followed by the place where they are now living if this is different.  Also listed at the end of each chapter are items recorded by performers from the area featured in the chapter.  Except in the case of material recorded by me for Topic Records, but as yet unissued ('KS/Topic unissued'), virtually all these recordings are publicly available in one form or another.  The full titles of the commercial recordings appear in Chapter 11.

I am very grateful to all those who have helped in the production of this survey.  In addition to those mentioned in the text, the sincere interest and co-operation of Jack Saunders (Blaxhall Ship) and Bernie Parry (Worlingworth Swan) has been of inestimable help.  Mike Yates, Tony Engle, Ginette Dunn, Royston Wood, Iris Williams, Taffy Thomas and Jeannie Harris have given me much help, encouragement and hospitality.  I am of course responsible for any errors which appear and I would be grateful for any comments, additions or corrections which readers may have.

All the performers included here seem to me to belong to the same musical area both geographically and socially, but two other great singers associated with the area, Bob Roberts (for many years of Pin Mill, now living in the Isle of Wight) and Phoebe Smith (of Kentish gypsy stock, now living near Woodbridge) have been deliberately excluded as belonging to separate musical traditions.  I have also not concentrated on the well-known singers Percy Webb and Bob Hart because they have already received excellent coverage elsewhere by other writers. (See Bob Hart double CD booklet notes)


Chapter 1

Down at the Old Blaxhall Ship


On the surface Blaxhall is little different from hundreds of small villages in East Anglia - a church, a shop and pub being the focal points for the 200 or so inhabitants.  Photo by Tony EngleHowever this small farming community commands a vital and possibly unique position in our knowledge of English traditional music.

When Peter Kennedy made his famous recordings in the Blaxhall Ship in 1953 he uncovered, albeit only superficially, a living tradition of music making, the roots of which stretch way back beyond living memory.  The singers and musicians he encountered were not reviving half-forgotten songs from their youth for the "man with the microphone", but taking part in the recording of their normal Saturday night entertainment at the pub.  This does not make Blaxhall special - had Kennedy gone to Brundish Crown, Dennington Bell or Darsham Fox he would probably been able to record a similar event.  What places Blaxhall above these others is the sheer volume and quality of performance found.  Why Blaxhall?  I don't really know - possibly the strong influence of the Smith family of gypsies who often stayed and settled there; possibly the predominance of the small number of large families - the Lings, Woolnoughs and Leeks amongst them - who frequently intermarried and often passed down their songs within their families; possibly the fact that the pub has always been kept by conservative men with a genuine love for the music.  All I do know is that people who come from Blaxhall are very proud of the fact and are fully aware that their village is something just a little extraordinary.

Arthur Hewitt:

I was 38 years at the Ship.  I took it when I was 27 from my father John.  He'd been there 43 years and before him Samuel Meadows, my mother's father, kept it.  Now my niece has it so it's still in the family.  When I started a lot of those old chaps couldn't read or write so I did all that for them - a publican was like a village lawyer.  During the War I was like Chairman of the Invasion Committee, Chairman of the Parish Council, President of the British Legion, Billeting Officer, I did the Concensus, Mortuary Officer - play Sound Clipwe had the garage there all scrubbed out ready, did fire-watching every other night, run that pub and still had a half-acre of garden to keep. (sound clip- Landlord's Special Ditty)

I've always remembered there being singing in that old pub.  When I was just a boy I could hear those old Ling brothers sitting there singing one against the other and getting riled over it too.  "You don't know that one proper" they'd say, or "Blast, I can beat that Billy".  Just after I took it they got Wicketts (Alf Richardson) to keep order and he'd say "Sing, say or pay for a gallon of beer" - and you could go all round that pub and every one would have a go - not many paid.  People would come from all over to see us - we used to have cockneys down every year and they loved it.

Percy Richardson:

They used to have a bowling alley out the back there and steel quoits.  If you were a boy you'd get half-a-pint for standing the skittles up.  Then after the match we'd get in the pub and the home side would sing a song, then the visitors, and maybe someone would give a step, and on Saturday nights at 8 o'clock the dartboard would have to come down and that was your lot - a musical evening then.  But on Sundays no darts, gambling or singing - not when Arthur kept it.


Step-Dancing

Step-dancing was a fairly common pastime in the pubs in Suffolk until recently - most older people used to "bring them in" and a lot still can have a quick burst after a bit of encouragement.  There appears to have been no fixed pattern of stepping (which is contrary to what I have observed in other counties) and no two dancers are identical.  Photo from Fred PearceThe popularity of it in Blaxhall would seem to stem from the large gypsy families - the Smiths, Taylors and Diapers - who lived locally, and the abundance of good musicians.  In addition, there was a more formal dance, the Candlestick Dance, performed over a lighted candle.  This was last performed about 20 years ago by Bob Scarce's sister Rose.

George Ling:

All those Smiths and Picketts and Taylors originated from Blaxhall.  They used to make pegs and work as tinsmiths down at Camels Pit.  We used to play there as boys and I'd help them make those pegs out of reeds.  One old boy from Tunstall, Obediah Taylor, he played the fiddle and he taught me to step when I was nine.  I used to spend more time in that caravan with him than at home.  He'd say "Come on, my son, I'll play Pigeon on the Gate" and off I'd go.  Me and brother Geoff used to dance together down the Ship "in reels", we called 'em.  I could dance very well at one time of day but I could never beat those Smiths nor Bensy Hewitt - they were the masters.

Arthur Hewitt:

Old Obediah was a travelling man all his life - a scissor grinder - and all his family were good steppers.  Well once he said to me "Arthur, I've been all over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales but I've never seen your brother Ben's equal".  Bensy (Benson) was an apprentice at Leiston Works before the War (1914-18) and he wan't no age when he died.  We went to Woodbridge Horse Fair one Easter Monday and they had two Lancashire clog dancers come down to entertain.  Well, we met them at the King's Head and someone called on Ben to have a go.  Now Bensy - he could do 20 different changes and he showed them steps they couldn't even try - there was a bit of a rumpus over that.  Those Smiths taught him that but sometimes even they'd have to sit back and watch him.

Spanker Austin:

I used to take my fiddle down Blaxhall Ship every Monday and Saturday.  That'd be around 1930.  Me and Eely Whent used to go.  As soon as I walked in those Smiths would shout like buggery "Here he is - now we'll dance", and sing too I could - Will the Angels Play their Harps for Me? - I don't reckon they will y'know.

Fred Whent:

The first time I went to the Ship, I went with Spanker - he introduced me but we only had one fiddle between us.  We went in and they knew him, but I'd heard a lot about people going through windows without opening them, so I squeezed right up the corner against the door.  Well, Spanker played and they stepped and then one of them said "Is that a new fiddle, Spanks?"  "No" he says "it belongs to this gentleman here".  play Sound Clip"Oh well, let's have a tune" said Fred Smith.  After I'd played I couldn't put a foot wrong with those boys - "our fiddler" they called me. (sound clip - Sailor's Hornpipe)  From there they introduced me to Snape Plough, Aldringham Parrot, and all round.  I used to go round with Fred Smith a lot in his pony and cart.  We had some smashing times.  They could all step - Fred, Bob, Jack Smith.  They called Jack 'Lightnin' - he was an old sailor and would dance in great big boots with hobnails.  He'd make the sparks fly - he dropped dead outside the Ship.

Christmas time was lovely there.  We'd never get home much before New Year - we'd sleep in Fred's caravan - they wouldn't let us go.  They were real rough diamonds - the most hospitable people I've ever met.  They had hearts as big as dartboards.  I used to play all those hornpipes - Sailor's Hornpipe, that one on the record (Yarmouth Breakdown), Turkey in the Straw - I learnt that off a Yank in Woodbridge.  I like to couple tunes together - it's easy 'cos the rhythm sticks.  When those Smiths danced they'd go one against the other for 40 or 45 minutes so you couldn't keep going on one tune - it'd be too monotonous.  And if you went wrong, blast, you'd get swore at.

(Although Eely and Spanker are well remembered at the Ship, the fiddle was not the normal music for dancing.  The most popular instrument was undoubtedly the melodeon.)

George Ling:

My grandfather (Aaron Ling) used to play the accordeon and the concertina - a little German one.  Photo from Geoff LingAnd he made dancing dolls - he'd stick a meat-skewer in the fire, cut the wood out to make the legs and body, and put wire through them and put the skewer through its little tummy.  Then he'd sit it on a board and tap it.  It'd dance like anything and he'd sing "Gawd bless your heart when your legs fly up!"  Mum and Dad would go down the Ship at night and me and sister Glad, they'd leave us with him and we'd say "Come on, Grand-dad, get your accordeon out", and he'd play all night.  He was a clever old man.

There used to be an accordeon in every house those days.  I used to play one a lot.  When I moved to Croydon (in 1926) we went to Hastings and I took it on the coach.  Well, we got in a pub and I played all day - everyone was polka-ing and doing Knees up Mother Brown.  Well, I got fed up and as we left I kicked it under the table and left it there.  I've never played one since.

Wicketts Richardson:

I first used the Ship when I was thirteen, with my father William.  He played the accordeon - he could fairly do that job too.  He'd play and Fred Smith would step, then they'd swap over and Dad would step.  There were some good players at that time of day - George Leek was the best then - he was Spencer's son and Eli Durrant's father.  He's still alive - in Blythburgh - over 90 now, but he was a lovely player.

Jock Hardwick:

When I was at Blaxhall the two men that stand out in my mind were (George) 'Nature' Reeve and Dick Woolnough - they were in a class of their own.  Nature was an artist on the old-fashioned accordeon - he could play all evening, blind drunk, and his timing was perfect.  We were great pals and he promised to play at my wedding.  Well, in the afternoon he'd been asked to take his music to a quoits match at Glemham, so when he came to our reception it was obvious that he had imbibed somewhat.  But he sat down on the settee with a pint at his side and played the whole evening through - he didn't open his eyes once.  At the end we put him on his bike and his mother and me pushed him all the way home.  Now a lot of the blokes there could step, but like Nature, Dick Woolnough was a master.  We used to go duck-shooting and fishing together.  They sent away and bought him a pair of clogs to dance in and he would put in all his own variations and keep going all night if he wanted.

George Ling:

Esau Ling was good too - he never used to use his left hand - he was so quick he'd bust the bellows.  He put a bicycle bell on the top and go bloody spare.  I used to knock about with a chap from Iken called Denny Kersey.  He could play the melodeon and he worked on the council with Wicketts.  When we met up they'd turn their wheelbarrow upside down and I'd step on it.  Photo from Fred PearceThey always had a regular accordeon player there - George Leek when I first went, then Fred Pearce, Bob Melton (from Campsea Ashe), Fred List, then Oscar Woods.

Fred Pearce:

I didn't move to Blaxhall till 1938 (Fred was born in Eyke in 1912) from Rendlesham.  play Sound ClipI didn't start on the accordeon till I was 24, though I played mouthorgan when I was six.  I wish I'd started on the squeezebox then - I might had made a good job of it.  No-one taught me - I just picked it up.

(As mentioned, there were several good accordeon players at Blaxhall then, but as time went on Fred established himself as the regular musician playing for singing (his repertoire included many traditional songs), stepping and polkas, known locally as "froggin' rounds".)

Wicketts Richardson:

We always used to have singing first off on a Saturday then I'd say "We shall now just take a break and in the second half Mr Pearce will entertain you with Irish jigs and reels and I hope you will all be entertained".

(Fred married into the large Smith family, his wife Violet being the sister of the late Arthur Smith, a very highly rated local singer.  Fred did a bit of stepping himself, but preferred playing, and is generally considered to have been the best player around.  "He always kept the old rhythm" they say - apparently no matter what, for several people remember an occasion, one Christmas, when a terrific brawl broke loose in the Ship and all the windows were smashed out while Fred continued to play, holding his accordeon on the top of his head to avoid the flying chairs and tables!)

Fred Pearce:

I've played in about forty pubs in my time, from Ilford in Essex - I played there for 12 hours non-stop on Coronation Day (1937) - to the Waveney Hotel, Oulton Broad.   Photo by Keith SummersI used to go by bike or bus mainly.  I've played in Darsham Fox with Ernie Seaman and Woodbridge a lot.  There was an old chap there called John Fevyer and he was a champion step-dancer.  He was about 80 then (c. 1930) and he had a long overcoat and a big walking stick and in the evening he'd listen outside the pubs to hear if there was any music going on.  If there was, he'd go in and step straight away - it was his whole life.  He told me that when he was young, some pubs had cellars and they'd hold step-dancing competitions there.  The judges would sit in the cellars, so they couldn't see who was dancing, and they'd pick the best just by hearing them dance up above.  I've seen a man in the Boat (in Woodbridge) stand on his head - no hands - and play a concertina and step-dance on the ceiling - that's the truth!

(Fred stopped playing regularly about 1960 but despite going slightly deaf, would occasionally relieve either Fred List or Oscar Woods and play extremely well right up to his sad and sudden death in 1975.  Fred was the first person I really got to know in Blaxhall and both he and his wife have helped no end - my thanks.

Step-dancing in the Ship is still continued - mainly by Geoff Ling and Kenser Diaper (Obediah Taylor's grandson) and some of his relatives, especially when Oscar brings his box.)


Singing

George Ling:

Our family were always singers.  When I was a boy, the pubs were open all day and my grandfather Aaron would go down to the Ship with his brothers and sit there all day singing, one against the other, and they'd very near have a scrap over who was the best.  There was Aaron, Cronie (William), James and Rook Ling.  I learnt a lot of my songs off Aaron - Bold General Wolfe - I sang that years ago.

Jumbo Brightwell:

Aaron Ling used to sing some good old songs - he opened his mouth too - my God, he had a strong voice and he was no bigger than George.  He went down the mines in Durham and put his leg out so he walked with a limp.  He'd come down the Eel's Foot a lot and when he sang he had this long beard and it used to bob up and down.  It was worth a lot of money to see that.

George Ling:

We were a happy-go-lucky lot those days - sing a few songs, have a dance, and wherever we went someone would bring an accordeon with a red spotted handkerchief around the stops.  There was me, Freddy Ling, Johnny Richardson, Mike and Geoff Keble, and we all had mouthorgans and if we all walked out somewhere to a pub, you'd hear us for miles in those quiet old villages and they'd say "Here come the Blaxhall boys" - used to sound all right too.  One year we went to Fram. Gala and George Leek played his accordeon in the Big Room and they all crazed me to sing.  Well, my uncle Jumbo Poacher, an old sailor, said "Spider, you sing Nancy of Yarmouth - never mind the others".  Well, we went round with his old peaked cap and got about 50/- in coppers and I took it home to me mum.

I used to go bellringing too, when I was a youngster, with three Smith brothers - Bill, George and Arthur - Hub Smith as we called him.  He was a churchwarden and he used to sing Kitty Wells and The Larks they Sang Melodious - he had a lovely mellow voice that man.  Fred Ling - Fish we called him - he was my half-cousin.  He was old fisherman from Snape.  He sang Nancy of Yarmouth and The Dark Eyed Sailor.  He learnt that from his father, Jimmy Ling.  George Messenger was good too - he used to sing Barbara Allen and Jack is Come Home from the Sea.  Photo by John HowsonMy father, Oscar, could sing too - not as much as Aaron though.  I've heard father sing that one Australia - that's where I got it.  One night he went to Farnham George and on the way home he fell in a ditch and when he woke he'd lost all the rims off his ears through frostbite.

Geoff Ling:

Dad worked at Stone Farm as a horseman - I worked with him for a time.  I first went with him to the Ship when I was 18.  Brother George had moved away by then but he came back often enough.  When me and Cyril and Eli Durrant used to get there - you see we were all about the same age - well, we knew a lot of those old songs from our relations, but we didn't like to sing them too much because they belonged to someone else - they knew.  So the songs we did were the more recent songs off the wireless and the gramophone.  But if the chap who normally sang it wasn't there, well maybe we'd have a go.  Photo from Keith SummersWe knew them because we'd heard them so many times.  play Sound ClipIt was like if Wicketts called on Elty Bob (Bob Scarce) to sing you knew it would be A Broadside or General Wolfe (sound clip).  Bob was in the militia at one time.  He was what's called a waterman - ditching and hedging he did.  He never got married but he had three brothers - Will ("Carver"), Ben - "Ferret" they called him, and "China" - we called him that because someone put a china egg in his lunch-box once and when he bit it he lost two front teeth"

(Bob Scarce's real name was Alex.  He was born on 8 June 1885 in Blaxhall but lived for 25 years in Snape between the War years.  Until his death in 1974 he was the oldest man living in Blaxhall who had been born there.

Although I had met and spoken to Bob on my first night in The Ship, it was to be several months and three or four more visits before I heard him sing.  Friday nights had now become favoured for singing and music sessions, and one beautiful July evening the atmosphere in the pub was quite special.  Nearly all those present were locals and Geoff Ling's brother George was on a visit from Croydon, which prompted the exchange of pleasant memories from the past, and the creation of the right circumstances for 'a good sing'.  George, Geoff and Cyril had already sung, and sung well to good order, when George asked Bob Scarce to sing. Now Bob was nearly 90 and extremely frail, and I must confess I was a bit doubtful as to whether this was a good move by George.  But as Bob struggled to his feet, his hands firmly gripping his walking stick, the pub fell silent and Bob sang, almost in a whisper:

As we were a'sailing, all on the Spanish shore

... and gently coaxed and prompted by the company, his singing grew in confidence.  The sight and presence of this old man, standing by the pub door as the last of the evening sunlight streamed into the bar, singing:

And the blood from our quarterdecks like water did run

... has stayed with me to this day.

I consider Bob Scarce to have been one of England's greatest traditional singers.  His style was hugely idiosyncratic, immediately recognisable, and yet firmly within the declamatory Blaxhall tradition.  A glance at his discography (below) reveals a repertoire of magnificent songs and striking ballads, and yet his most popular song was Paddy and the Rope, about two hapless would-be church robbers.  I would guess I heard Bob sing this on three occasions, and each time, Fred List's brother Billy, who accompanied the Framlingham crowd, was there.  A few months later I heard Billy List sing Paddy and the Rope in Dennington Bell - after which he turned to me, winked, and said "Got it in the end".  Today, the fine singer Tony Harvey from Tannington sings Paddy and the Rope, learned in precisely the same way - from Billy List.  A lively tradition!)

Jumbo Brightwell:

My grandmother was a Scarce from Blaxhall way, so I reckon if you go back far enough me and Bob would be related somehow.  I learnt that one Newlyn Town off of him.  But he could be a bit awkward sometimes - he always said his songs would die with him.  If Wicketts used to say "Now I'll call on Mr Elty Bob to sing A Broadside, often as not he'd sing With her Hair Pinned to the Ground or something else.  He had a good song about poaching Going a-Hare and a-Pheasant Shooting - I should have liked that.

Alec Bloomfield:

Some of the old boys in Blaxhall used to sing those hare poaching songs and that one, Australia.  Johnny French was one of the best singers there though.  He sang a very good ballad, The Frigate called Quebec.  He had a lot of songs like that - play Sound ClipThe Charge of the Light Brigade, The Battle of Inkerman and Fighting with the 7th Fusiliers.  I know another one you've got, What Few Nuts she had Poor Girl - Cyril makes a nice job of that (sound clip).

Cyril Poacher:

I should have said Johnny French - Jack they called him - he was about the best singer in his day.  Photo by Mike YatesHe'd do The Barley Mow - I can sing that too.  I first started singing when I was eight.  My grandfather Cronie Ling would put me on his knee and sing The Nutting Girl - that was the first song I heard, and he used to let me smoke his pipe too.  Young Man from the Country - he did that too.  I got A Wager from my mother Susan Ling - she sang that down the Ship.  Spencer Leek was another good singer - his name was George, the same as his son.  He was engineer down the Maltings when I knew him but he'd been in the merchant navy.  He used to wear a peaked cap and stand at the door of the pub until he heard Wicketts call on him to sing.  "Good Old 71" they'd shout.  He'd sing I've a Brace of Dogs and an Airgun Too and Captain Ward play Sound Clip- I knew bits of them.  Joe Moggins and Plenty of Thyme - I got them from him (sound clip - Captain Ward.  He'd sit by the fire and sing with his eyes shut and once Walter Friend shouted to Wicketts "Wake that man up, Alf, he's singing in his sleep!"  Walter was a damn good singer and he played the tin whistle too.  He was the first one to sing Green Bushes and Australia.

Now when Walter or Aldie Ling got up to sing, and someone started talking, they'd stop and sit straight down again - they wouldn't sing, and I won't either.  But if Wicketts called for order, you got it.

Wicketts Richardson

When I tapped on that table, you could hear a gnat fart!

Arthur Hewitt:

'Yinka' Friend was one of the best agricultural men you could find.  He was a great big man and could do anything on the farm, and he used to make boots for 1 - they'd last for ever.  And sing?  My God, yes - he had a lovely voice.  Lass of Camperdown - I liked to hear that.  Aldeman Ling was another - there were a lot of Lings there - Chinamen we'd call them.  Old Aldie used to sing The Maid and the Magpie and one called Rendlesham Races - that had 32 verses to it!  At Christmas I'd always come in the pub with a big log and put it on the fire and old Joe Rowe would sing The Old Homestead - that was a sort of tradition with us.  When Joe died I took that song over.

Geoff Ling

You see, singing and dancing, well that was all there was for entertainment when I was a young man, but when the radio and TV came in, well people seemed to lose interest in the old songs.  They ridiculed them, some people.  Like me and Cyril, we grew up at the same time and were about the last ones to take it up.  Don't get me wrong - I don't mind some of the more modern stuff - that one by Rod Stewart: I like I'm Sailing Home Again.  But youngsters nowadays, all they want is the juke-box - well, there's nothing in that, is there?  That doesn't make for good company.

(Perversely, Cyril Poacher had a fine declamatory version of Crystal Chandeliers learned from the Ship's juke-box)

Those old boys, well their songs meant something to them - meant a lot.  play Sound ClipWhen I first sang in the Ship it meant a lot to me too (sound clip - Died for Love).  I was part of the company.  I was a 'grown-up' among all those rough old boys.  They expected it from you too.  Those that didn't sing - well they took a dim view of it.

(In 1953 a film was made in Blaxhall Ship including songs and music by Fred Pearce, Wicketts, Cyril, and Bob Scarce.  Many of the locals put a lot of hard work into it (especially Wicketts).  Unfortunately, despite promises by Alan Lomax, the film was never seen in Blaxhall, which caused a lot of ill-feeling locally, and was one of the main reasons why no local singer recorded or appeared at a festival for over 20 years.  It is nice to report, however, that in November 1977, thanks to a lot of work by Taffy Thomas and other members of Magic Lantern, the film was at last leased and shown locally to an enthusiastic audience.)


Fighting and Drinking

As you may guess Blaxhall was at times a rough place.  Some of the stories I have been told about the old days make today's football hooligans sound like the Red Cross, and I will not go into them now in any great detail.  Fortunately, this aspect of village life has now changed.

Cyril Poacher:

There was a time when Blaxhall and Tunstall couldn't agree nor us and Snape very sharply - and they hated the sight of Blaxhall chaps at Little Glemham.  It was mainly over wages - someone would be getting a shilling a week more than the other and if they met up at a pub there'd be a row.  So you didn't used to go round different pubs much, except during the war years when the beer was rationed and they'd run out at the Ship!  Still, that's all changed now - blooming good job!

Arthur Hewitt:

My father's brother was a carpenter at Campsea Ashe and they both went up to Marlesford once to see a sick relative, and on the way back they stopped at Tunstall Green Man, and all the keepers from Ashe and Tunstall estates were there.  Well, they started and my dad said "The sight of one Blaxhall man would terrify any man here".  Just then the agent for the estate drew up and they all scarpered.

George Ling:

There were more fights than halfpennies that time of day.  The pubs weren't supposed to open all day, but there was only one copper for miles and if he stopped by he'd come in for a drink.  One night a bloke said to Wicketts "I can't, dance or recite but just to keep the company amused I'll fight the best man here".  Cor, there was some blood flying, I'll tell you.  If ever a stranger came in the pub - oh dear, all eyes would be on him.

Percy Richardson:

We had one old boy, Puddler Woolnough - he once fought a chimney sweep from Woodbridge, outside the Green Man.  They fought bare-fisted for six hours.  That was when I was a boy.  One of them Smiths, Charlie - Lull we called him - I saw him get trimmed up by a chap at Woodbridge Horse Fair.  We used to go to the King's Head and all of a sudden you'd see someone get slugged down the stairs.  The best fighter in one parish would fight another.  Well old Lull was a bloody great bloke - he worked at Burton Maltings, and this little chap duffed Smithy up.  Well, after it was over this chap went round with the hat and shared it with Lull and it was Joe Wiggins, the boxer from Ipswich.  He even offered Lull the chance to go professional.

The Ship could be rough too, at times.  The old boys would have a half gallon of beer in a big mug and if you were a youngster and walked in they'd say "Have a drink with us, boy" and if you did, course you'd have to fill it for them.  A pint of beer and a smack in the ear for tuppence - that was Blaxhall Ship.

Jock Hardwick:

Blokes enjoyed fighting then.  They'd maybe say a few words each other in the pub and next minute you'd see them squaring up outside - you know, not vicious, no kicking - good clean fisticuffs.  Now my wife's father, John Knights, well he was an oldish man when I knew him but he was a holy terror.  If anyone rowed with him he'd throw the lot out of the pub.  I've known old John Hewitt say to me "I'd sooner see the Devil walk in my pub than John Knights looking for an argument."  Then John showed me outside the door of the pub with these marks on it where the mugs had hit it during a disagreement.

Actually that's how I got in with those old boys.  You see, it's like in a lot of those old villages, they were very suspicious of outsiders and I didn't move to Blaxhall till I was about 20.  Well I'd been in the pub with my wife-to-be and as we were leaving there were some young chaps outside throwing snowballs.  Well, I wasn't too bothered till one hit my wife.  So I went over to see this chap - a big strong lad he was - and within a minute we were into a ding-dong.  I finally came out on top and after that we were the best of mates and I was also accepted by the locals as well.


The Blaxhall Rovers

Jock Hardwick:

Now I was only in Blaxhall about six years.  I was born in Ipswich and we lived there when I was young.  My grandparents were remarkable people - my grandmother lived till she was 105 and my grandfather till he was 95.  He loved walking and one night went out and it was snowing heavily and he was walking down by the river which was frozen hard.  Well, he must have lost his footing, because the next morning they found his trilby hat floating in the river and he'd fallen in and I suppose the shock killed him; but the coroner said that he had the body of a man of about 50 and was so fit that he could have lived another 20 years easy.  I used to love walking too.  I've got medals for it.  I once went on a training walk for the London to Brighton race.  I walked from London to Taunton to Worcester then Bristol.  It took about a fortnight and then when I entered the race, they wouldn't let me in because I was too young!

Anyway when we lived at Ipswich my father used to go to the Music Hall a lot and he'd come back and sing the songs he'd heard - that's what interested me.  But he was killed in the First War and Mother didn't live long after that.  So being the eldest boy I had to look after the family, and I had to do three jobs a day as well to do it.  I'd start at four in the morning till eight at night.  Now when I went to Blaxhall (in 1925) times were very hard.  The farmers had gone into sugar beet around Iken and Sudbourne in a big way, and one winter it was very very bad - the ground was frozen for weeks and no one could work.

Now farm workers then couldn't pay into the National Health, there was no dole and the average wage had been reduce to 28/- a week.  The only help was parish relief.  If things got really bad you'd go to Wickham Market and they'd maybe give you two days in the stone pit (now a motor cycle scramble pit) for 5/- a day - if you were a single man you'd be lucky to get a day now and then.  Blaxhall RoversWell, our social club had accumulated a few bob - I don't know, maybe 50 - and to help out we arranged to give those families in a bad way tickets at the local grocery store, and it saved the day.  So then we decided to raise a concert party from some of the chaps who could sing and so on - not to make money for ourselves but to try and get the money back we'd spent in case it ever happened again.  And the local people backed us up to the hilt.

Now my father had Scottish blood in him and I've got a great affinity with anything Scottish - I've only got to hear the bagpipes and I'm off.  Well, I used to do impersonations of Harry Lauder and Will Fyffe and sing comic songs like The Waggle of the Kilt and sentimental ones that my dad sang.  One was an old Irish ballad Come back to Erin M'Bawn - now I sang that the other week at our club in Billericay (Essex), the first time since 1931 when I left Suffolk.  I'd seen a concert party in Yarmouth and that gave us the idea for the costumes.  Now Wicketts was the comedian - if they'd had TV then that man would have made a fortune.  He was our leader.

Wicketts Richardson:

There were about eight or nine of us at any one time.  I used to be the comedian of the group - me and brother Percy - Jock was the sentimental singer.  Photo by Mike YatesWe normally started about October; the first one was always at Blaxhall and then we'd visit all the villages - sometimes three or four nights a week.  Fred Taylor was our pianist - he was only a schoolboy then.  The concert would always start with a full chorus, at least one song from each of us and encores if called for.  Then after the interval another song each.   Sometimes I had to round them up for the second half if they'd gone down the pub.  Once my mother came to see us and she couldn't understand where I was in the second half - I'd gone down the Ship with Will Ling and we had our own concert there - forgot all about the Rovers.  A chap called David Hudson from Glemham was our chauffeur.  He had an old Model T Ford lorry which was normally used to cart sand and gravel from Blaxhall Pits, so we had to sweep it out and put in forms for us and a big blanket was hung over the back to keep the wind out.

We only charged 5/- wherever we went and that went to the pianist, and the villages provided refreshments.  Normally it was beer but we went to one church hall and the vicar's wife brought round coffee - well, we went back a year later and my cup of coffee was still there!  Me and Percy used to black up with burnt cork, and our grease paint was a red stick marker the shepherds used to use during the breeding season to mark sheep.  My mother used to swear at me if it hadn't all come off and went over the pillows!

Jock Hardwick:

Francis, Day and Hunter, the big publishers, heard about us and sent us down some complimentary copies of sheet music - we were singing songs long before they got popular in London.  We had some laughs - once I was in the middle of a very sad heartbreaking song and David knocked a switch and the screen fell on top of me head.  Just before I left we changed our name from the Blaxhall Rovers to the Blaxhall Jazz Boys - we bought drums and an accordion and a trumpet so that at the end of the concert you could have a dance.  If we'd been to, say, Ipswich, we might not get home till about three - I only had time to change and have a cup of tea before starting work at 4.30.

Percy Richardson:

I was 17 when I started and I did it till 1932 when I married.  We used to buy the News of the World for tuppence and they had songs in them.  My poor old mother used to stitch them to pieces of brown paper for us.  Me and Percy Webb once had a bet that he knew all the concert party songs - so we went to Tunstall Green Man about seven o'clock.  He sang, I sang, until the landlord chucked us out at eleven, so we never finished the contract.  We used to go all round: Tunstall, Iken, Sudbourne, Badlingham, Bruisyard - the old girls came out along the road with hurricane lamps to guide us there - Snape, Hasketon.  Yes, we had good times all round here.

Quotations in this chapter were from the following people:


Recordings of Blaxhall performers

Full titles and other details of records and tapes listed are given below.  BBC recordings may be heard only in the sound library at Cecil Sharp House, London and the National Sound Archive.  Performances listed are songs unless otherwise indicated.

Key: BS = Blaxhall Ship, Ftx = Folktracks, Trans = Transatlantic, Vet = Veteran Tapes, X = unissued

Performer Recorded Title Record
Eli Durrant BS 1953 Flash Company Ftx FSB036
John (Jack)
French
BS 1953
The Barley Mow
Liverpool Play (The Dolphin)
 
 
BBC19882
BBC19883/
Ftx FSB036/
EMI 7EG8288
Arthur Hewitt BS 1953 L.S.D. - (Landlord's Special Ditty) Ftx FSB036
Aldeman Ling BS 1953 The Maid and the Magpie Ftx FSB036
Fred Ling BS 1953 Nancy of Yarmouth Ftx FSB036/
Topic 12T194
Geoff Ling
BS 1953
 
BS 16.11.73
BS 17.12.74
 
 
 
 
 
 
Blaxhall
1980's
Maggie May
Green Bushes
Among My Souvenirs
Green Bushes
 
Died for Love
 
Little Ball of Yarn/A Group of Young Squaddies/
On the Banks of the Clyde
Among My Souvenirs/Man All Tattered and Torn
Australia
The Big Wheel
Change the Old Love for the New
 
You'll Want Me Back One Day
Flash Company/Larks they Sang Melodious
Ftx FSB036
Trans 1141
Trans 1141
Topic 12TS292/
Topic TSCD 651
Topic 12TS292/
Topic TSCD 660
Topic 12TS292
 
Vet VT 106
Vet VT 103
Vet VT 101
Vet VT 104/
VTC1CD
Vet VT 104
Vet VT 102
George Ling Croydon
28.4.75
On Board the Leicester Castle
 
Jolly Jack the Sailor
 
The Lakes of Coolfin/The Deserter/
The Bonny Bunch of Roses/Nancy of Yarmouth
Topic 12TS292/
Topic TSCD 652
Topic 12TS292/
Topic TSCD 662
Topic 12TS292
Fred Pearce
(melodeon)
BS 1953
 
BS 1968
Blaxhall
1.12.74
Step dance tune (Pigeon on the Gate,
with Peter Jay and Geoff Ling step-dancing)
The Dolphin/Polka/Yarmouth Hornpipe
Pigeon on the Gate/Yarmouth Hornpipe/
Barn Dance/Golden Slippers/
Cock of the North
BBC19884
 
Vet VTVS 05/06
Topic 12TS375
Cyril Poacher BS 1953
 
 
 
 
 
BS 16.11.73
Blaxhall
Sept 1974
 
 
 
 
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Blaxhall
1978?
Nutting Time
 
 
The Nutting Girl (different version)
The Broomfield Wager
 
The Nutting Girl/Slap Dab
Nancy of Yarmouth/Plenty of Thyme
 
Maid and the Magpie
 
Australia
 
Bonny Bunch of Roses
 
A Sailor and his True Love/A Broadside
 
The Nutting Girl
 
Broomfield Wager/Green Bushes/Bog Down
in the Valley/Joe Moggins/Black Velvet Band/
Flash Company/I'm a Young Man from the
Country/Your Faithful Sailor Boy
Captain Ward
BBC19881/
EMI 7EG8288/
Ftx FSB036
Topic 12T158
Topic 12T160/
Ftx FSB036
Trans 1141
Topic 12TS252/
Topic TSCD 662
Topic 12TS252/
Topic TSCD 656
Topic 12TS252/
Topic TSCD 654
Topic 12TS252/
Topic TSCD 658
Topic 12TS252/
Topic TSCD 652
Topic 12TS252/
Topic TSCD 600
Topic 12TS252
 
 
 
Vet VT 108
Wicketts
Richardson
BS 1953 Fagan the Cobbler Topic 12T159
Joe Rowe BS 1953 The Blackbird Ftx FSB 036
Bob Scarce BS 1953
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
BS 16.11.73
 
BS 1973/4
When Paddy Stole the Rope
 
Newlyn Town
 
Local Poaching Song
General Wolfe
 
The Bonny Bunch of Roses
Three Jolly Sportsmen
 
The Larks they Sang Melodious/
A Boy's Best Friend is his Mother
A Broadside/Ratcliffe Highway/
The Burden of the Spray
BBC19881/
Ftx FSB036
Topic 12T195/
Ftx FSB036
Ftx FSB036
Topic 12T196/
Ftx FSB036
BBC19883
BBC19884/
Topic 12T195
Trans 1141
 
KS/Topic X
Arthur Smith BS 1953 A Sailor and his True Love/The Barley Mow Ftx FSB036

List of published recordings

Full titles of commercially available recordings the numbers of which are given in the above 'Recordings of ... Performers' sections.

EMI
(EP)
7EG8288 The Barley Mow Various (deleted)
Folktracks
(Cassette)
FSB 036 Down at Old Blaxhall Ship Various
Topic
(LP) - all now deleted
12T 158 Folk Songs of Britain Vol 2 Songs of Seduction
12T 159 Folk Songs of Britain Vol 3 Jack of all Trades
12T 160 Folk Songs of Britain Vol 4 The Child Ballads Vol 2
12T 194 Folk Songs of Britain Vol 6 Sailormen and Servingmaids
12T 195 Folk Songs of Britain Vol 7 Fair Game and Foul
12TS 252 Cyril Poacher The Broomfield Wager
12TS 292 The Ling Family Various
12TS 375 Sing Say and Play Various
Topic
(CD)
TSCD 600 Hidden English Various
TSCD 651 Voice of the People Vol 1 Come Let us Buy the Licence
TSCD 652 Voice of the People Vol 2 My Ship Shall Sail the Ocean
TSCD 654 Voice of the People Vol 4 Farewell my Own Dear Native Land
TSCD 656 Voice of the People Vol 6 Tonight I'll Make You my Bride
TSCD 658 Voice of the People Vol 8 A Story I'm Just About to Tell
TSCD 660 Voice of the People Vol 10 Who's That at my Bed Window
TSCD 662 Voice of the People Vol 12 We've Received Orders to Sail
Transatlantic
(LP)
1141 The Larks they Sang Melodious Various (deleted)
Veteran
(Cassette)
VT 101 Songs Sung in Suffolk Vol 1 Comic Songs
VT 102 Songs Sung in Suffolk Vol 2 Popular Folk Songs
VT 103 Songs Sung in Suffolk Vol 3 Old Songs and Ballads
VT 104 Songs Sung in Suffolk Vol 4 Those Sentimental Songs
VT 106 Songs Sung in Suffolk Vol 6 More Comic Songs and Parodies
VT 108 The Horkey Load Vol 1 Various
VTVS 05/06 Melodeon Players from E Anglia The Pigeon on the Gate
Veteran
(CD)
VTC1CD Stepping it Out! Various

Postscript - 1998

From my first visit to Blaxhall in 1971 to 1978 I travelled to Suffolk every free weekend I could find, and most of those trips began with a Friday night in the Ship.  During this time I made a great number of good friends there and although several of the old singers such as Bob Scarce and Wicketts passed on, the singing tradition in the village stubbornly persisted.  Indeed, when Oscar Woods became the resident musician and the enthusiastic and charismatic Taffy Thomas moved to nearby Chillesford, the local music scene fairly blossomed.

In 1978 the company I worked for acquired a factory in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and I was sent there on a very regular basis to do their accounts for the next four years.  On my return in 1982 I found that Suffolk had changed dramatically.  Many of the old characters were gone and a great number of my friends and acquaintances had died.  Indeed, Jumbo Brightwell, Fred Pearce and George Ling had all died within a week of each other.  The pubs did not seem the same either - music was hard to find and I found the experience rather depressing.

In hindsight, the changes that I saw were probably not that great and my perceptions possibly exaggerated, having just returned from a musical paradise in rural Ireland.  Clearly Suffolk's musical heritage was still intact during this period and well beyond, as witnessed by the remarkable research and enthusiasm of John Howson.  However, when I visited the Ship to meet John earlier this year (1998), I commented that it was the first time I had been for sixteen years!  I was very pleased that I did, for despite a few alterations the pub had lost little of its character, was being run by a sound man Jim Grubbs, an American, and the music, provided by John & Katie Howson, Reg Reeder and friends, was warmly received.  Also Geoff Ling still sings there occasionally.  He doesn't get out much in the evening - but if I were to come back the following lunchtime ...

Keith Summers - 3.11.98

Article MT025

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