Part 1: A Boyhood in Kent
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George Spicer was a noted singer who first came to the attention of collectors in the 1950s when he was working as a herdsman at Old House Farm at Selsfield Common in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex. There were several commercial recordings made of him during his life, most notably the album Blackberry Fold recorded by Mike Yates for Topic Records and published in 1974. Much of his repertoire comprised songs from the Music Hall/Variety era, and others which intrigued the 'folk revival' of the day. George never differentiated between the types of his songs, which caused him to make the comment that is the title of this article. George was married to Dorothy Spicer (née Appleton) and had two children, Ronald (Ron or Ronnie) and Kenneth (Ken). He lived the first 34 years of his life in Kent before 'crossing the border' just after the start of the Second World War, having gained experience with cattle during his early working life. As we shall see, many of his songs were learnt from family sources as well as the people he met during his career. In Sussex, he was sometimes accompanied in sing-songs around the locality by eldest son Ron (died November 1996), who played a piano accordion. During George's lifetime, Ron never sought to emulate George as a singer and, only after his father's death, was he persuaded to continue the family tradition.1 George's youngest son Ken, is retired and today lives in Burgess Hill. This series of articles aims to put George's life and songs into context with the people he met along life's path and from whom he amassed his repertoire.
In the sleeve notes of Blackberry Fold released in 1974, Mike Yates gives a little history of George and some of the sources for his songs. It reads:
George Edward Spicer was born at Little Chart, near Ashford in Kent on 9th April 1906. He was the son of Richard Ninn Spicer and Elizabeth Matilda Spicer (née Chambers) with whom we shall start to explore the songs concerned. Richard Spicer was born in the fourth quarter of 1879, the illegitimate son of Frances Spicer (1857-1928) at Westwell, possibly at West Ashford Union (workhouse), and at the time of the 1881 census lived at Street Leacon, Westwell. Ten years later, Frances had married Arthur Furnell (1842-1910) and now lived with her son at Little Chart Fostal, about three kilometers away from the workhouse. In 1901, the family lived at Little Chart Street, Westwell: Richard, now aged 21 years, is described in the census as a 'rag boiler at paper mill', as too is his step-father. Ford paper mill was located in the centre of Little Chart, located close to the Greyhound public house, and next to the Great Stour river. His employer was Messrs Bachelor & Sons, described in Kelly's Directory of the day as a 'hand-made writing and account books: paper manufacturer'. Elizabeth Chambers was born in the third quarter of 1881, the daughter of James and Olive Chambers of Eggerton Farm Cottages, Godmersham. Ten years later, the family had moved to Rooting Road in Little Chart where James is described as an agricultural labourer. At the 1901 census, Elizabeth was working as a servant to Esau Foskett at Clapham.
Richard and Elizabeth married in the fourth quarter of 1902, and had three children, of which George was the second eldest, superseded by his sister Emily who was born in 1903, with sister Olive following in 1909. Electoral registers from 1904 to 1907 day indicate the family lived at Westwell Leacon on the eastern fringe of Little Chart village itself. Richard Spicer's name is absent from those of 1908 and 1909, seemingly still in the area as Olive was born in the second quarter of the latter date in the West Ashford district. Baptismal registers too are curious, as Emily's was at Westwell parish church, George's at Little Chart, but no local entry is found for Olive's. Between 1910 and the Great War, the family lived at Yew Tree Cottage in the middle of Pluckley, about three kilometers west of Little Chart, the 1911 census recording him as a domestic gardener. One assumes that only Richard's comparatively high age prevented a more active service during the 1914-18 War (he was 34 years old at the time), or that he had acquired mechanical skills somewhere as well as worked the land. Either way, his deployment in the Royal Flying Corps was secured, but not in the officer elite, despite a family photograph with him in uniform posed in front of an aeroplane at an unknown aerodrome. We are unsure as to his exact mode of service.
After the War, the family moved to Sandyhurst Cottages in Sandyhurst Lane on the southern outskirts of Westwell. Today, the road comprises an Ashford overspill of mainly post-Second World War buildings and 'executive homes', with only two farms along its length. George went to school at nearby Kennington, which he left in 1920 aged 14, to become an under-herdsman at Eastwell Park, which kept 'Highland cattle'3, although his nephew John Young described them as an English longhorn breed. One of the jobs was to deliver milk on a handcart with a churn on top. Ron relates that George was "always talking about his mother", but his father "used to drink." Richard couldn't read either: Ken Spicer recalls him 'reading' the Daily Sketch but "only for the pictures." Tragedy struck the family, when George's mother died on 2nd December 1921. George claimed that this was partly due to her "working too hard." Just one year later, Richard married Florence May Smith, and George found himself with a step-brother of whom he said was "not really a Spicer"; and later, a half-sister who he "adored". There was something of a family split at this juncture, as Ken told me that George "never got on with his step-mother". Although the timing is uncertain, George went to lived with an 'Aunt Fan or Fran' at Hothfield, and the assumption is that he then worked for Lord Hothfield who kept a herd of pedigree Guernseys at Hothfield Place about three kilometers away - a commission which would have placed him well for work as a herdsman later in life. His father and step-mother moved to 22 Shaftesbury Avenue, Cheriton just outside Folkestone, Richard working as a stoker for John Egerton Quested at the latter's brickworks. George's sisters married: Emily to an Albert Burridge at Dartford, and Olive to Leonard Morley at Croydon, and all contact with them seems to have been lost.
Richard and Florence's move was in 1925, but it is unknown when George moved to Folkestone. The story becomes confused. It is known that the Eastwell Estate was between landlords in the period 1923-26, and that Highland cattle or longhorns were still kept there. Lord Hothfield died in 1926, and his heir took little interest in the herd which was sold three years later. However, Ken Spicer tells me that his father never lived at Cheriton and, accepting that, George's arrival in the area was obviously deferred. When he came, it was to Coolinge Farm, a large dairy farm to the west of Folkestone, owned by John Austen Heritage. The site is now occupied by a 1950's housing estate to the south of Folkestone West railway station. It was here that he met his future brothers-in-law Alex Young who himself had just left his father's farm at Chart Sutton to seek out an independent living as a herdsman, and Walter John Appleton (known as John), the son of herdsman Arthur Sidney Appleton of St Radigund's Farm, West Hougham near Dover. The story goes that the threesome frequented one of the milk bars in the town's Tontine Street, where John's sisters Dorothy and Rosa also went. Another visitor there was Eliza Mercy 'Molly' Hammond. Romances ensued, and George married Dorothy, John was to marry Molly, and Alex to Rosa. Dorothy was working 'in service' to an unknown 'Jewish couple' in Folkestone when George first met her (according to Ken), or working at a golf club in the area (according to Ron). After marrying, they continued at Coolinge Farm before moving to a farm at Newington "next to the church" where "Dorothy used to take in washing and ironing."
Both Ron and Ken Spicer went to stay with their paternal grandfather for holidays. Ron recalls getting off at the end of Shaftesbury Avenue "round the corner from the East Kent bus stop." Ken confirmed this adding, the family had to take their holidays in March because of farm work, although he said George and Dorothy drove them down but had to return back to Sussex. Richard Spicer's work as a stoker at the Cheriton brickworks comprised loading "a continuous kiln, He (Richard) used to go upon the top as there were these round holes, and it was never allowed to go out. They took some bricks out and put some in front, and it went round and round. He used to lift up the lid and stick lumps of coal down the hole to keep it going." Richard Spicer finished his working life in the maintenance department of the local laundry, also owned by Quested. Although Quested lived locally at The Firs, he had a number of business interests in the area, one of which was Abbey Farm at West Langdon. Although registered in the local trades directory there, his duties as farmer seem to have dispensed by his bailiff who lived on site. The Dover business directories note that this role changed regularly during the 1930s, but it was the period 1928-34 which was key to George's development as a singer. Perhaps he had heard about his progress as an under-herdsman at Coolinge Farm that prompted him to approach the newly-wed George and Dorothy Spicer.
George told Mike Yates of the songs: "I learnt Bold Dragoon from my mother, who learnt it from her mother, so it came from my grandmother really Coming Home Late was from my own father. It was he who put in the last spoken bit: 'I stayed home Sunday' Searching for Lambs I certainly learnt from my mother as (I did) Blackberry Fold as well. Faithful Sailor Boy I learnt from a chap who married my cousin whose name was Rickson - he was a cowman, the same as me. He knew a lot of these old songs, and I learnt that from him Down by the Riverside was from my mother again Drunkard's Only Child I learnt partly from my mother; she knew part (of it) from her aunt Barley Mow I learnt from my father."4
George's grandmother was Olive Chambers (née Skinner) who was born at Godmersham some twelve kilometers away between Ashford and Canterbury. Albert Rickson who married George's cousin Edith was born in a workhouse in Lewes, and worked as a cowman at nearby Egerton. How George and Rickson met is unknown, but their paths must have crossed working at Eastwell or Hothfield, or perhaps even at market. Rickson died at his Egerton home in June 1970.
One unknown, but possible source for songs for a young George may have been village concerts. However, the two local newspapers The Kentish Express and Kent Messenger & Ashford Examiner rarely reported smoking concerts in the district around that time. A rare example is a concert held at Kennington's Grosvenor Sanatorium in November 1921 when we are told:
George Spicer in Mike Yates's interview added that "The Folkestone Murder was learnt from my wife's father. He used to live at Lydden near Dover (interruption by Dorothy) When I first knew him, he lived at Lydden Cut Away Mike came from my wife's father." On the sleeve notes of Blackberry Fold, the song Faithful Sailor Boy is noted as having coming from 'George's wife's family' - although , as noted earlier, this relative was Albert Rickson from Egerton, who was related to the Chambers, not the Appletons. However, the Appleton family into which he married clearly needs to be examined in more detail.
Dorothy Spicer née Appleton was born on 1st March 1907 in Alkham where her father worked as a cowman at St Radigunds Farm, West Hougham near Dover. She was the third eldest of three sisters and three brothers. Their father was Arthur Sidney 'Sid' Appleton who was baptised on 1st November 1874 at Alkham, and married to Rosa Hickmott from Barham. Sid took on a job working for Tom Broadley at Lydden in 1922, and lived there until 1935, after which he lived with other members of the Appleton family at Newingreen north-west of Hythe, before moving in with George and Dorothy during the Second World War upon their first tenure of Old House Farm, Selsfield Common.
Opinion on both sides of family infers that Sid Appleton wasn't noted as a singer. However, George's cousin Margaret Young recalled he was "always singing The Folkestone Murder" which, although macabre, seems remarkable in itself, being sung by someone born seventeen years after the grisly deed. (This was the killing of Maria and Caroline Back by the Serbian soldier Dedea Redanies from Shorncliffe Barracks in a fit of jealousy). She added that Sid played a piano accordion; her brother John adds that he "liked to get his accordion out and have a bit of a sing-song"; or in Ron's words "Grandad used to play a bit". Other stories have it that he also had a melodeon since one was found when clearing out his widow Rosa's cottage after her death. It was certainly Sid who bought Ron his first accordion just before Christmas 1934, with which he and his grandfather used to go out carol singing.
One unexpected find as to the nature of singing tradition in the Appleton comes from the Folkestone Herald in November 1932, when Sid's brother Charley who had the tenure of Pay Street Farm at nearby Hawkinge was witnessed by journalist Felix who wrote a weekly column for the newspaper. He related:
Dorothy's brother Tom was fond of singing, but in his daughter Joan's words, "preferred Country and Western especially Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman". She recalled him singing You are my Sunshine when he came back injured after the second World War, and also sang Cy Cohen's song Lonely Little Robin. She also found a tape with him singing along to songs of the day: Don't Dilly Dally on the Way, California, Here I Come, Any Old Iron, Singing in the Rain, Let's All Go Down the Strand, Bye Bye Blackbird, and Shine On Harvest Moon. The family would visit George and Dorothy on their holidays at Selsfield Common, and Tom would join George and Ron at The Punchbowl for an evening of singing and music.
George's nephew John Young relates that "George was always asking his (John's) mother Rosa for words of songs." George's sister-in-law Rosa Young (née Appleton) was 'always singing' on the farm at Harrietsham, but John could only recall one item: The Bells of Canterbury (Keys of Canterbury), adding "most of these songs were popular in the thirties and forties." John's sister Margaret recalled that Sid Appleton was always singing The Folkestone Murder and that singing in the family was "always popular at Christmas". John and Margaret Young are the son and daughter respectively of Alex Young who shared duties with George Spicer at Coolinge Farm mentioned earlier.
Although Walter John Appleton (usually known as John) worked with George Spicer in later life as a cowman at Old House Farm, and must have accompanied him to some of the pubs where George sang, no one in Sussex folk circles knew him as a singer. Nor is he recalled as such by those in Lincolnshire, when he retired in 1971 and moved to Gainsborough to be nearer his daughter.
The other songs cited:
To put into context the songs that George Spicer learnt relative to the local repertoire, let us survey other archival records. Two of the remaining songs whose origins George Spicer recalled to Mike Yates, are also noted in the repertoires of other Kentish singers. The Oyster Girl which he learnt from his mother, finds a similar version to that sung by Henry Baker from Maidstone, as noted by Frank Collinson albeit with a slightly different melody in the last line of each stanza; and Faithful Sailor Boy was also sung by Charlie Bridger from Kenardington, and later recorded by Andy Turner. The remaining songs, find no (as yet) identified matches elsewhere in the locality.
In the actual interview, George added that, of the other songs Mike Yates recorded at that day's session, Bold Dragoon was learnt from "[My] mother, who learnt it from her mother"; Down by the Riverside (presumably Lily White Hand) from his mother; and Barley Mow7 (not included on Blackberry Fold) from his father. Barley Mow was collected by Cecil Sharp from George Bensted at Warehorne in 1908.
Whilst The Kentish Express reported programmes of smoking concerts during the period 1900-14, citing both singers and songs in many cases, most of these were from the villages south of Ashford rather than north, so one is left with an incomplete picture. George's love of cricket produces no evidence of membership of any local cricket club from scorecards before his departure to Folkestone, with possible references to off-season concerts, let alone after the completion of matches. Evidence from smoking concert programmes elsewhere in nearby Romney Marsh, suggest the music hall and songs of the day were preferred rather than the song types actively pursued by collectors before the Great War and during and after the 1950s. We shall address these points more rigorously in Part Two: The West Langdon Years, 1927-35.
George Frampton - 12.7.12