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Article MT279

"I don't know if this is actually a folk song"

The Life and Music of George Spicer (1906-1981)

Part 4: The Old House Years, 1948-1981

Go to Part 1     Go to Part 2     Go to Part 3

In Part Three of this series, we heard how the noted Sussex-based singer George Spicer, had moved back to Old House Farm, Selsfield Common in the Ashdown Forest (8 kilometers south-west of East Grinstead) after two years in the proverbial wilderness.  This followed when farmer William Furse felt obliged to return the jobs already given to George, his son Ron, and his father-in-law Sid Appleton, to the homecoming war veterans who had previously worked there.  As the yields and welfare of the pedigree Guernsey herd had suffered during his absence, word arrived via his Old House contacts at Haywards Heath market, and he was offered his job back.  George accepted on condition that jobs would similarly be found for Ron and Sid.  This was agreed, although Sid died at Cranleigh in January 1948 during negotiations.

The period from 1948 until George's death gave him the peace and space needed to re-establish and likewise indulge himself in his hobbies in cricket and gardening.  George was now in his mid-forties, but found his enthusiasm for cricket rewarded as umpire for the Turners Hill team.  It is assumed that Furse gave George every opportunity to garden both for himself and the farm on an ample plot.  However, it was the arrival of a new resident to Bow Cottage in West Hoathly (2 kilometers east of Old House Farm) in the guise of Mervyn Plunkett that was to open up an unexpected music front on George's behalf.  After work, George would visit The Punchbowl Inn for a drink whose landlord was Fred Nurse.  In fact, The White Hart was nearer Old House Farm but, the story goes he was refused a drink because he was still dressed in his work clothes!  George was a keen darts player, although there is no mention of him taking part in the pub team.  After the dartboard had been taken down following matches, the assembly would indulge itself in song with George to the fore.  Although George's wife Dorothy never sang outside the house, inside was a different affair.  One song was The Little Shirt my Mother Gave to Me which she taught her grandson Geoffrey (born 1955).  On one occasion, George visited The Punchbowl with Geoffrey in the 1960s, the latter singing the song to all assembled!

Before moving to Sussex in 1953, Mervyn Plunkett lived in Clapham in the same building as Ewan MacColl, Isla Cameron and Alan Lomax.  He was a member of the Communist Party, and interested in folk music, performing himself with what he thought as a 'country' accent.  He moved to Bow Cottage about 1954.  He founded the East Grinstead folksong group, and it became his policy to 'encourage people wishing to learn folksongs to do this by the traditional method by listening to traditional singers'.1  He'd heard of George 'Pop' Maynard from Copthorne (8 kilometers north-west from Old House) through a local reporter or another singer from The Cherry Tree - as an aside to his exploits as a marbles champion (being featured on a BBC broadcast in 1948 and feted as the 'grand old man of marbles.')  Having access to a tape recorder, the process of recording began in 1955.  Reg Hall says that George Spicer was even then 'known' as a singer in the area by word of mouth, although unsure of the conduit by which he came to Plunkett's attention.  However, he was present on some of these early recordings having struck up a friendship with singer Harry Holman who was also a Cherry Tree regular.

Plunkett encouraged fellow-Communist Ken Stubbs of the group to take in interest in collecting from and recording some of these singers.  Originally from Beckenham, after retraining as a teacher following the War, he'd bought a house in East Grinstead but taught at a primary school in Gravesend.  It was there Stubbs regularly went to a folk song club and dances run by Fred and Reg Hall.  He introduced Reg to Mervyn who was then acting as a technical advisor for hospitals who, in turn invited Reg to come to his club in East Grinstead and play there.  Against his better judgement, Reg arrived there by train in Summer 1955.  His role was to play his melodeon in the doorway whilst the customers arrived.  Bob Copper was the guest on that occasion, and Pop Maynard was in attendance.

Reg accepted a second invitation to East Grinstead on 30th November 1955.  The function was in a wedding suite in a room above the town cinema.  Among those present were Jean Hopkins (the niece of Harry Burgess, the singer from Firle) who was a school teacher from West Hoathly, Doe Plunkett (Mervyn's wife), Hamish Henderson and Pop Maynard.  Reg wasn't sure if George Spicer was there on this occasion but he was 'spoken of'.  He also attended a New Year's Eve party, although Reg wasn't sure if this was 1955 or later.

Reg told EFDSS field worker Peter Kennedy at Cecil Sharp House about Mervyn's activities.  Kennedy had continued Francis Collinson and Frank Dillon's BBC Home Service broadcasts Country Magazine under the title As I Roved Out and arranged to visit The Cherry Tree at Copthorne to record these singers.  First of all, he interviewed and recorded Maynard at his home in 1955.  On 4th February and 23rd March the following year, he returned, making recordings which were to be used for his Cherry Tree broadcast.  George Spicer was there on the February occasion, and the songs he sang were The Folkestone Murder, The Cunning Cobbler, The Barley Mow, German Clockmaker, Searching for Young Lambs and I Wish There Were No Prisons.  Also present then were Peter King, Harry Holman, Tom Smart and Jean Hopkins, as well as Mervyn Plunkett and Ken Stubbs .

Reg Hall relates: 'Many of the people from whom he (Ken) collected songs and tunes attended his own 'Folk Music Parties', as he liked to call them, which he organized in pubs on the Sussex, Surrey, and Kent borders: The Cherry Tree at Copthorne, The Plough at Three Bridges, The Half Moon at Balcombe, and The Crown at Edenbridge.  These evenings attracted local performers such as Scan Tester, Ernie Baxter, George 'Pop' Maynard, George Spicer, Louise Fuller, Toby Hayward, Jim Wilson, and Brick Harber.  Ken would send out postcards, handwritten in his fine calligraphic style, to announce the dates and venues.  In addition, Mervyn would run his own pub sessions.  Reg Hall describes these as 'outrageous' - a landlord would be approached, and if made welcome, (he) Mervyn would bring select people in by car to populate them.  George Spicer was one of these, but Reg couldn't recall how many times he came.

In October 1957 and 1958, the EFDSS ran folk song competitions at Cecil Sharp House.  There was a committee led by Peter Kennedy who advocated the competition.  Reg insists that Peter was familiar with 'the Tradition' as he saw it, but was also catering to the 'Revival' - this was just as the craze for skiffle was peaking.  The competition was for all manner of song and music, and wasn't restricted by category, and could comprise solos or group efforts.  Each contestant was adjudicated, and their merits reported.  Mervyn booked a coach to take the performers up to the competition in 1957 with 'barrels of beer on the back seat' which, in retrospect, Reg said was probably a mistake!  The coach started at Cuckfield, making stops at West Hoathly, and Redhill 'where there was a bit of a session'.  Pop Maynard also had a booking at the Festival Hall after the festival to honour.  Among the contestants were Jack Norris, Peter Gander, Bill Hawkes, Scan Tester, Harry Cox and Fred Jordan.  Reg couldn't recall whether George Spicer was one of these.  The public 'assessments' of some of these singers were perceived as lacking in empathy.  Reg Hall commented that the atmosphere at the competition resembled 'a cross between a mortuary and an approved school' whilst Fred and Betty Dallas and Mervyn Plunkett thought it 'sheer impertinence to comment at all on a traditional singer's performance.'2  In his obituary, Mervyn is said to have been 'hurt by the lack of interest and some downright hostile responses' given on the occasion.3

In March 1958, there was a Sussex concert at Cecil Sharp House, and there was another outing comprising Jim Wilson from Three Bridges and George Tompsett from Cuckfield singing for the first time in a formal concert, with Bill Hawkes and Peter Gander providing 'rough' harmony.  Mervyn and Reg also presented their 'West Hoathly country band of music'.  Bob and Ron Copper were also featured in the concert.  Although not listed by Reg, George Spicer is present in a photograph taken before the concert at The Princess Louise in High Holborn, so is assumed to have been present.4

In July 1959, Mervyn Plunkett recorded seven songs from George, then he and Reg Hall went to the studio with Paul Carter and edited these into what was to become the EP Four Sussex Singers (Collector LEB 7) comprising Pop Maynard, George Spicer, Jim Wilson and Jean Hopkins, which was eventually released in 1961.  On it, George sings I Wish There Were No Prisons.

In 1960, Brian Matthews, then in his mid-20s, found himself drawn away from skiffle and the Brighton jazz scene towards English traditional material.  He started visiting country pubs: The Punchbowl at Turners Hill; The Oak Tree, Ardingly; and The Cherry Tree, Copthorne, where he collected songs from source singers including George Spicer, George 'Pop' Maynard, Jim Wilson and Harry Holman.  These recordings now appear as the Musical Traditions CD Just Another Saturday Night, Sussex 1960 which included four of the five songs recorded at The Oak Tree at Ardingly on 12th November 1959.

For the next twelve years, there is a apparent lull in George's public singing activity, although it has to be borne in mind that this was long before the boom in folk clubs and festivals.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, George would be accompanied on half of his outings by Ron on his piano accordion.  Ken Stubbs maintained that George was never 'discovered' by song collectors, and insisted George was so well known as a singer that anyone visiting the area in search of traditional material could not help but find him.  Brian Matthews remembers him as 'a fine powerful singer who would dominate most pub sing-songs ... much to the annoyance of other singers'.  The suggestion here is that George was still very active, singing when he could, but the conditions for him reaching a wider audience were not yet in place.

In 1963, George's employer William Furse died, and his son Ronnie who inherited Old House was living with his wife in New York, although intending to move back to England.  That in itself was not to alter the Spicers' roles at Selsfield.  In fact, it was around this time he was joined on the estate by his brother-in-law John Appleton and his wife Molly, before they moved to Gainsborough upon his retirement a decade later to be nearer his daughter and son-in-law.  However, despite recognising that George had learnt some of his songs from the Appleton family, enquiries yield no evidence that John was heard singing publicly in either Sussex or Lincolnshire.

It is as well here to remember that George Spicer, now in his fifties, was still working as herdsman at Old House Farm, and singing was just one of his hobbies.  Both George and Wilf Walder from nearby Horsted Keynes took exams at the same time, qualifying each to umpire cricket at test match level.  In part 2 of this series, we heard how George was already winning accolades for his gardening during his seven years at West Langdon near Dover in the 1930s.  Vic Smith was told by George that he had 'thousands' of certificates for his gardening.  Whilst this sounds like an exaggeration, it must be assumed his awards were substantial.  At the Ardingly Show in September 1970, the Mid-Sussex Times photographed George with two trophies he had just won: the Musgrave Challenge Cup for scoring the most points in the cottager classes, and the Coates Challenge Cup for most points in specified flower classes.  He was also awarded a Royal Horticultural Society Banksian Medal for exhibiting the greatest number of money prizes in horticultural classes.  These consisted of eight first prizes, ten second prizes, and five third prizes in all classes for displaying flowers and vegetables.  This was no blip, as in 1983, he won four cups.  Ardingly is 4 kilometers south of Old House Farm, and one assumes that Mrs Furse helped transporting George's produce as she too was a competitor.  Distance and the time of year were (and are) factors in selecting where to exhibit produce, so one assumes George was selective which shows to compete at, his name being absent from Mid-Sussex reports at Cuckfield, Chailey and further afield.

In 1970, Ken Stubbs had published his The Life of a Man book on behalf of the EFDSS.  It included six songs by George, with a synopsis on each of the singers from whom songs were collected; George's reading 'In preference to folk songs, he sings music hall songs'.  Stubbs later commented to Jim Ward that 'how silly he had been to not have recorded the Victorian and Music Hall songs these singers knew'.  For himself, Jim Ward first 'ran into' George at Copthorne around 1958, but could only recall one music hall he himself had sang at the time.  He then met him again at The Half Moon at Balcombe, then in 1963-64 at The Punchbowl finding him 'often there'.  However, it was when Jim went to one of Ken's monthly 'parties' held at The Wheatsheaf just over the Kent border in Marsh Green, that he made enquiries after George, somehow expecting him to be present.  This was fortunately overheard by local melodeon player John Glaiser who lived near George, who agreed to 'give him a knock the following month', and offer him a lift.  George and Dorothy would then come regularly and, when John was unavailable, Jim stepped into the breach.  George told Jim that 'since the sing-songs at Copthorne and Balcombe had finished in the early-sixties, he 'hadn't been to any folk-type sing-songs at all except for a trip to the Islington folk club'.5

Mike Yates as a boy listened to the As I Roved Out broadcast and was fascinated by Pop Maynard's singing, so much so that he came down by train from his home in Lancashire to Copthorne armed with his tape recorder to record more of his songs.  After leaving school, and working for the VSO in the Solomon Islands, he contacted Peter Kennedy asking for a job working for the EFDSS, thus beginning his own collecting career for which he is celebrated.  In the late 1960s, he moved to Biggin Hill.  In Summer 1972, Ken Stubbs asked him if he would join him on a trip to George's home, and revisited on at least five more occasions before the end of 1973 with about half of the recordings made appearing on the Topic record Blackberry Fold.  The first 'session' was one of meeting and greeting - it was only after then that Mike brought along the tape recorder.  Mike's first impression upon parking the car was viewing 'one of the best kept gardens that I have ever seen'.  Stories followed, including how he had tried to out-sing Pop Maynard and failed.  Another was how to transform a tempestuous bull into a docile creature that would follow him anywhere much to the astonishment of other farmhands - the secret being the aniseed-soaked rag held in his hand!  During the first actual recording session in August 1972, George was 'allowed' to sing what he liked interspersed with stories about his early life.  In later sessions, he was asked for specific songs.  In all, 38 songs were recorded, many of which Ken Stubbs had 'never heard him sing before', fourteen of which appeared on Blackberry Fold.6  Two more sessions were noted in 1977 and 1978 in the National Sound Archives.

Blackberry Fold was released in April 1974 shortly before George's 68th birthday.  The occasion was marked by a special party, complete with birthday cake, held at Marsh Green.7  The record seemed to have opened doors to many who had never previously had heard George's singing.  Bob Copper revels in his appraisal for Folk Review: 'I never, yet, had of pleasure of meeting George Spicer and this is a serious gap-in-the-hedge in my experience in the field of southern traditional song.  A gap, I may add, which I intend to make good as soon as the opportunity presents itself'.8

The opportunity for Bob came sooner than he might have expected.  Vic Smith had been organising events at The Lewes Arms in the 1960s and '70s.  In a response to a thread on Henry Burstow's songs and sound recordings of one by Bob Blake, he relates: 'The date was May 11th 1974.  The folk club was located at the Lewes Arms in Mount Place in Lewes.  At the time we held an annual Sussex Singers' Night and would invite about a half-a-dozen of the surviving traditional singers of the county to each of these and give the whole evening over to them.  On this occasion, as well as Bob Blake, there was The Copper Family, Cyril Phillips, George Belton, George Spicer and Bob Lewis.  As well as the evening being recorded by Keith Summers, it was also recorded by Karl Dallas on rather superior equipment and some of the recordings that Karl made were edited and made into a an LP The Brisk Ploughboy: Songs and Stories in a Sussex Pub on XTRA records (XTRS1150) in 1975.  All the singers who had sung on that evening were later assembled to have their photograph taken for the album cover.  However, instead of photographing them outside the pub where the recordings were made, the photograph was taken outside a much posher pub, The George in the centre of Crawley.  The choice of photographic venue annoyed Cyril Phillips who later told me, 'What did they want to take us to that place for?  They'd no more let you shit on their carpets than let you sing in that bloody place!'9  Of George's performance on the record, Vic comments 'you can hear him enjoying himself live in front of an audience' when he sang Down in the Fields Where the Buttercups Grow, Barley Mow and recited his Triplets story.10

Between 1974 and his death seven years later, George found himself more in demand for his services as a singer, but still had to turn down offers if required on the farm.  He had now retired as a herdsman, but was still retained part-time as a gamekeeper, although Doris Spicer says that 'it was one of the jobs they were expected to do on the farm'.  George's son Ron was now in charge of the herd, and with the foundation of the South of England Agricultural Society in 1967 began exhibiting the stock at the annual show at nearby Ardingly, realising his life's ambition when he won 'best of breed' in 1991.

The Sussex singers' nights were continued with George Belton, John Copper, Bob Lewis, Cyril Phillips and George making appearances at various pubs around the county.  Formal folk club appearances were few - noted dates being May 1976 at the Coppers' club at Peacehaven; July 1976 at Lewes Folk Day which featured Sussex-only singers; September 1976 at the Haywards Heath folk club when Bob Fry and Jim Ward made recordings of him; February 1977 at the Springfield Hotel, Brighton; and September 1977 at Dingle's folk club in London.  Three festivals stand out as having George as a guest: the first at Cecil Sharp House in October 1974 along with many other singers from Sussex; the Brighton International festival held at the Brighton Centre in September 1977; and Crawley on a blazing hot afternoon in June 1980 when the author saw him perform for the first and only time.  By this time, George had already been diagnosed with angina and looked ill at ease, but his singing was as robust as the recordings I knew, albeit in front of a family audience.  Even four months before his death, Vic Smith described his singing as 'full of power and a pleasing tone with a sharp edge to it … retained with age … never becoming a broken-down singer past his prime, and (sounding as) fine when I last heard him at Lewes folk club in March as he does on the … recordings of 1956'.11

In this and the three preceding essays, the one factor not apparent but worth repeating, is that George was not a driver.  The question is how did he get around?  The simple answer is that the bulk of his singing was conducted locally.  Ken Stubbs likewise didn't drive, so one assumes that public transport was one answer (as we of an age recall, bus services were superior even forty years ago, and The Bluebell Line ran from East Grinstead southwards through Horsted Keynes to Sheffield Park before its closure in 1958.)  One assumes that Mervyn Plunkett was an early driver, Harry Mousdell from Horsham was dragooned in at times, John Glaiser and Jim Ward each took him and Dorothy to the Marsh Green sessions, and after that to The Queen's Arms at Cowden Pound (better known as 'Elsie's' after landlady Elsie Maynard) when it moved there.  Cyril Phillips, who for a time lived at Cuckfield was another chauffeur.  Stories of Cyril's driving are legendary - 'he would drive along in the middle of the road pointing out fields of turnips en route' is one comment made.  Suffice to say that George would make any excuse to avoid being given a lift by him!

In conversations had with people who knew George, many were quick to explain how nice a person his son Ron was by contrast!  George's curmudgeonly demeanour may easily be explained by the hardships he had to undergo in his early life when he lost his mother whilst in his teenage years, the manner in which he had repeatedly been ousted from home during the 1930s, together with his treatment at Old House immediately after the War, noted earlier.  In conversation, he might change the subject away from questions about his life, to how the weather might be affecting his garden - or the state of the cricket.  Bob Lewis sums him up, describing him as 'proud, driven, but misunderstood … he could be single-minded, autocratic and abrasive.  He was never afraid of whoever he worked for, was strong-willed, and could rub people up the wrong way'.  He was competitive whether it would be cattle-rearing, gardening or singing.  'You always knew when George was in the room'.  Vic Gammon recalled him judging one folk club audience, starting fairly 'low key with songs like The Volunteer Organist getting juicier as the evening progressed, finishing with songs like Keyhole on the Door ... or reciting The Triplets, which he acted very nicely!'  George also found the behaviour of singers at folk clubs peculiar, asking questions like 'Why do they all sing with their eyes shut?  'Why do these folk singers sing in funny voices?' and 'I don't sing any what they call folk songs, y' know'.  One story told by John Copper's relates how Cyril Phillips announced that he would no longer give George a lift every month from Old House to The Fountain at Ashurst as he never received any 'financial contribution' from him' - the last straw coming when George let slip he always retained £10,000 in his current account!

The title of these essays deserves analysis.  A list of songs known to have been sung by George at some time totals ninety-three.12  When Ken Stubbs published his book The Life of a Man in 1970, he appended that George 'in preference to folk songs, he sings music hall songs'.  Ken Stubbs took care to select items he perceived of interest to his audience.  Mike Yates interviewed George to identify his song sources.  In Enthusiasms No.  40 in Musical Traditions, he postulates gramophone record sources for some of the music hall songs in his repertoire, commenting: 'it comes as no surprise to find George singing songs by Harry Champion and Ernie Mayne.  Like George, they were both extrovert performers and I can easily see why George would have been attracted to their recordings'.13  Bob Lewis too is convinced that many more of his songs came from folios and books published by Francis & Day, Lawrence Wright and other music publishers of the day.  However, it has to be commented that George must have heard and recalled the song melody from whatever source, as his competence as a music reader is uncertain.  Topic Records too seemed selective in what went on Blackberry Fold in 1974 using 14 of the 38 items recorded by Mike Yates during 1972 and 1973.  Little wonder George may have been wary of folk club audiences if they expected more than he thought he could deliver!  In mitigation, one could cite the age-old question about what is and what is not a folk or traditional song - and it is not intended to answer it here!  It is true that many of George's items included music hall songs, parlour ballads, Victorian tear-jerkers, comic songs as well as traditional ballads.  However, the public taste of the 1970s still saw the BBC television serving up all manner of 'Variety' on Saturday night programmes (including the Black and White Minstrel Show) and Music Hall in the guise of The Good Old Days which deserve essays themselves in their roles in popular culture - perhaps these were too identifiable then with what George was performing on a 'micro' scale, so not deserving their own platform!

Although the subject is covered admirably in his own biography, George's singing was continued after his death by Ron upon being persuaded by Jim Ward.  He was very keen to hear from anyone who could recall his father's singing - including myself.  I recall being shown a cardboard box of sheet music at his home which I never had a chance to browse through, and a handwritten list of songs in George's repertoire which I hastily jotted down and added to the above list thinking they'd be useful on some future occasion!

I would like to thank many of you readers for help given in constructing George Spicer's life story, and apologise if anything I've written has been misinterpreted, over- or understated.  Special thanks go to Reg Hall, Doris Spicer, Ken Spicer, Vic Smith and Jim Ward for answering my queries so eloquently and promptly.


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George Frampton - 15.3.13

Article MT279

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