(The CD In Yonder Green Oak by the Millen Family was launched at the Tenterden Folk Festival last month. The following article has been used as a basis for the booklet notes. Copies of the CD can be obtained from Neil Ridley, Hamden Grange Farm, Bethersden, Ashford, Kent, or from Veteran Music - price £12.99.)
Newspapers of 150 years ago speak of Catch Clubs at Canterbury, Rochester, Maidstone and, I dare say, many places elsewhere in Kent and the United Kingdom generally. Their repertoires comprised various choral pieces and, in particular, short secular songs penned by the like of Henry Purcell and John Blow - well-known and popular composers from the Stuart and Georgian periods of history. Glees were typically four part harmony songs for male voices, and clubs devoted to singing them had previously been popular since the mid-eighteenth century. By 1900, the Catch Clubs had evolved into Choral Unions and such like in the towns. This is a story of how one choral tradition evolved into a polyphonic singing style by two intertwined farming families in the Weald of Kent: the Batts and the Millens. First we'll learn how the Batts became recording artistes; not once, but at least twice in their singing career.
'.. In the evening, a diverting entertainment was presented, with contributions by Miss Creaton, Miss Inge, Miss Skinner and Miss Parker, the Vicar (the Rev. D.H. Creaton), and Messrs. W. Parker, James Batt, Martin, and the men's part-song class. In addition, instrumental selections were played by the Bethersden brass band under the leadership of Charles Heathfield.'The same newspaper revealed nothing of this 'part-song' class during the remainder of that year, but in the following week's edition, this note was appended:
'We are asked to state (concerning the) ... vegetable show last week ... to draw special attention to the musical celebration in the evening of the Batt brothers, who rendered the anthem 'Awake' and 'Dame Durden' in excellent style.'The style of glee-singing alluded to was widely popular at that time, although it is hard to deduce whether this resulted from the old town Catch clubs of mid-nineteenth century Kent, or was just a general description given to any formal or informal collaboration of male voices. The Batts only ever contributed to the 1907 Autumn show, although many of their contemporaries gave renditions in later years. Other opportunities noted for community singing included the local slate clubs' 'share out' nights just before Christmas. In Bethersden, the George, the Bull and the Standard of England each had one. The singers named in the 1913 newspaper report, as having contributed to the evening's entertainment at the George after the Christmas Club dividends had been distributed, included Jim Batt who 'contributed a glee' in a trio with Horace Buckman and Fred Ring, the latter of whom was recorded by Francis Collinson, of which more later. During that week, the same group then went on to perform at the annual dinner of the Royal Standard Share Out club on the south-western fringe of the village on the road to Tenterden. Another occasion for such entertainment was the Mid Kent Hunt, which in December 1913 found Messrs. Ring and Buckman rendering their glee, but without Jim Batt. The song Dame Durden was also known to be in the repertoire of a separate group of glee singers based at nearby Woodchurch who performed before the Great War:
'Every year during the dark nights around Christmas time, we were visited by the Glee singers and the Nigger minstrels - all local fellows. The Glee singers always sang among others, one particular song which ended with 'For Kit she was a charming girl to carry the milking pail', all of which they sang unaccompanied.'The singing style of the Batts was underscored by their attendance of the Tilden Strict and Particular Baptist chapel, on the south-western perimeter of Smarden, which was attended by much of the farming community. The singing style was unaccompanied throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, and was certainly robust and loud. The opening note was given using a pitch pipe, and the music used was noted down by a succession of pastors, before giving over to printed copies of Thomas Clark and A.I Cobbins' Union Tune Book. Dan Batt, in particular, was recalled as having "a beautiful voice, but it would always end up with the word 'hoss' - either at the end of the sentence, or at the end of a hymn."
Francis Collinson (1897-1986) was the musical director of the BBC rural affairs Country Magazine programme, with Francis 'Jack' Dillon as its overall editor. He lived in Old Surrenden Manor near Bethersden, and from 1942 Francis and Tanya Dillon lived nearby in Smarden. The story goes that, one day, Dillon heard his gardener, who was outside at work, singing The Blackbird. Collinson was summoned, and the idea of using a singer on Country Magazine was quickly established. Collinson travelled the whole of south-east England during the war to seek out singers, jotting down the songs, then arranging the music for later performance by the baritone Robert Irwin with the Wynford Reynolds Sextet. Few tape recordings actually remain.
Collinson also collected from the Batt brothers, who contributed Dame Durden and Come, Come, my Pretty Maid. (These can be seen in the six spiral-bound notebooks held at the Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library). A separate version of the latter was given to him by Tom Batt, although it is said that he did not actually sing with his half-brothers. The singers concerned were the sons of James and Jane Batt of Hodgham Farm, Bethersden, who were farmers in the area around Ashford throughout their singing career. The eldest was Dan (1870-1956) who also played trombone at various times in both the Bethersden and Biddenden brass bands. He farmed at Vine Hall, Bethersden before starting a spell at Langley Farm which spanned 30 years. The next eldest was Jim (1872-1941) who could also play the euphonium and fiddle, likewise in the local bands. His obituary describes him as a skilled farmer in all branches of agriculture including hop-growing, fruit cultivation, sheep-rearing and dairy farming. He was born at Odiam Farm, Bethersden and lived in the village for 40 years acting as farmer and butcher, before moving on to Court Lodge Farm, Sevington where he lived and worked for the last twenty years of his life. The other two were the twins Harry (1876-1964) and Ebenezer (1876-1954). Harry farmed at Sunnyside Farm, Bethersden. In his later days, Eb was a dairy farmer and hop grower at Wissenden, Sellindge, but previously he had worked with his father at Wissenden Farm, Smarden until 1934, when he went to Kench Hill Farm, Tenterden. Occasionally, their brother Mark (1879-1950) would join them. Like the others, he was a full-time farmer, having the keeping of Buckman Green Farm, Smarden for the last thirty years of his life, specialising in hop growing.
The Smarden Local History scrapbooks compiled by the local Women's Institute, which are on microfilm at Ashford Public Library, list two more items in their repertoire: The Mistletoe Bough; and the local version of Nahum Tate's hymn While Shepherds Watched, to the tune known elsewhere as 'Lyngham' or 'Nativity'. In both cases, only the tune of each is given, on the assumption that no local variant on the words existed for those generally known. There are also numerous references present to their singing at various village functions. The Batt brothers' singing was evident in the 1920s, when the New Year Old Folks' Tea was revived. The 'Old Friends' Tea' as it was renamed had been abandoned with the First World War, but was started up again by the sisters Doris Julia and Kate Batt of Romden Farm, Smarden (a photograph of whom appared in English dance and Song in 1969) – who were distant relatives of the brothers. After the repast, there was entertainment supplied from the guests themselves - including Bill Crampton (Dillon's gardener in 1942) playing his accordion and singing his songs, also from professional performers from Maidstone and elsewhere. The Batts were often joined for this by their brothers-in-law Victor and Basil Millen from Wagstaff Farm at nearby Biddenden. The local paper reported that in 1928, the Batt and Millen brothers 'rendered old glees unaccompanied.' In 1931, they were referred to as the 'Messrs. Batt Glee Party.' Both Batts and Millens were involved in 1932, but after that, no mention was made of this coupling. In 1937, 'the four well-known Batt brothers (rendered) their ever popular glee-singing, and their favourite song Just Kitty.'
It seems curious that Francis Collinson only noted down two songs from the Batt brothers - he must have been aware of their larger repertoire. Dan, Harry, Eb and Mark were featured in the fifth edition of Country Magazine broadcast in July 1942, wherein "... a fifty years old song was sung ..." - without specifically stating who did the singing. One can only deduce that he was looking specifically for one type of song - i.e. the 'folk' song, rather than anything book-learnt, even though the item concerned may have been handed down orally from generation to generation, from friend to neighbour. Or perhaps it was that in the 1940s, when Collinson was active, glees were still perceived as modern songs or art songs from literary sources and therefore not worthy of transcription.
In 1935, the Batt brothers decided to do a recording of their singing. They rehearsed at Jim's farm at Sevington, standing in a circle trying to get the harmonies right, then it was off to London and the studio. Only a few discs seem to have been cut, and these copies of the record have gone to ground - even among the surviving members of the family, although it is recalled that the tracks concerned were Dame Durden and Stephen Foster's Uncle Ned. The record itself did not find universal praise. As it was, when each of the Batts died, with no direct descendant keen to continue the family singing tradition, the inheritance of their songs remained solely with the Millens.
Christmas was a special occasion for song. All twelve families would congregate under one roof when 'a prize pig was taken from the sty and cooked in a brick oven.' Neil Ridley (born 1948), one of the grandsons of Victor Millen, recalled one of his earliest Christmases there when "over fifty people attended in the fifties and they sang the old carols. One year, Vicky was away in London, so we sang the carols down the phone to him." One of their avourite carols being While Shepherds Watched sang to 'Lyngham' or the 'tune of Oh for a Thousand Tongues'. The same carol was likely to be sung to 'Crimond'. Mark Batt's son Dennis (now 77), studied music and religion and taught them the various ways to sing While Shepherds Watched. Howard added that two more different tunes were used for the same set of words, although he couldn't quite recall which, and that Hail, Smiling Morn and The Mistletoe Bough were also likely to be sung. Each of the songs rendered was part-sung, complete with counterpoint where applicable. "My dad, Victor (was) a most beautiful tenor singer, and his brother, Basil, the finest bass singer." Among the Batts, Harry sang the tenor line, with Eb singing baritone. Mark sang bass whenever he was available. Jim Batt's daughter also commented that the quartet had "never had a singing lesson in their lives."
Thanks to Dame Durden and The Mistletoe Bough, their singing style will inevitably be compared with that of the Copper Family of Rottingdean in East Sussex. The Millens also had Sportsmen, Arouse in their repertoire, even though the local hunt had no singing tradition to compare with (say) Holme Valley in Yorkshire. Dame Durden as a song is found in many parts of the country, not just in Sussex or Kent. Its longevity is evident, being found as a three-part song in The London Minstrel - a book of songs, glees and duets published by Dean and Munday in London in 1825, although we are no nearer to deducing the route by which the song itself arrived in vicinity of an East Kent farming family! The songs sung, at least by the Millens, comprised Plantation songs, especially Good Old Jeff and Poor Old Joe, and the parody Babies on the Shore. There would be parlour ballads, such as See the Lads with their Lasses Trip the Meadows Along, You're the Kind of Girl that Men Forget, The Wreath, and When You and I Were Young, Maggie. The Millens would also do a three verse version of Thomas Ravenscroft's The Owl (which they call The Old Owl).
During the 1980s, the sons and grandsons of Victor Millen formed themselves into a comic singing group 'the Cider Sippers', who performed at charity functions in South-east England over the next fifteen years, seldom overlapping with the world of the folk club or festival. They were led by Howard Millen on piano accordion, his son Hilary, his nephews Don Levett and Neil Ridley, and his neighbour John Tees. When Neil was to be featured on a Country Ways broadcast for TVS (the predecessor to Meridian Television) describing growing reed for thatching, Howard suggested his uncle Gerald join them to perform some of the old glee songs. The all male block harmony Glee songs often being sung in celebration of the harvest. Many of the plantation song 'glees' were written by Stephen Foster in the mid-nineteenth century - but these were treated in the same way as the catches, parlour ballads and other traditional songs that fell into their repertoire. Foster's songs and their like were very popular during a craze for Christy minstrelsy that took place before the Second World War - certainly Smarden had a troupe of these. Neil was first introduced to Bob Copper in 1989 at a local ploughing match whilst demonstrating his threshing machine. Bob was filming for the TV programme A Song All Seasons. The following evening at a pub in Robertsbridge, Neil and Hilary met Bob and John and compared their singing styles. Not that, as Bob Copper wrote to me later, either his own father, grandfather or uncles ever called theirs 'glee singing'.
Whilst researching musical tradition in Kent and the role played by Frank Collinson, I heard about the group after discussing the project with the secretary of the local history society. She suggested that Howard Millen might be an interesting person to speak to. Calamity! After fifteen years 'on the road', the Cider Sippers had packed it in. I asked Howard to seriously think about getting their songs recorded. I left Old Chequer Tree Farm with two tapes of memories, and later encountered Neil at Wagstaff Farm, Biddenden, eliciting further recollections of times past. I received a phone call from Neil in September 1999. It went something like: "Hello, George. We've been practising. The Copper Family are performing at Tenterden Folk Day. Will you be there? Could you arrange for us to meet them and, perhaps, do a few songs together?" Such things weren't my gift but, during a magical half hour at the Vine, the two families did meet and a common bond established. After haranguing Howard all those years ago, this doubtlessly fostered their wish to record these old songs: sacred, secular, and in the best of harmony! Enjoy!
Marden, January 2001
Hail, Smiling Morn! - both this and 'Mistletoe Bough' are featured in the repertoires of carollers from the Peak District area around Sheffield, much-recorded by Dr. Ian Russell. Written in 1810, a copy of Reginald Spofforth's famous glee appears in a book he wrote which belonged to Bonnington farmer Charles Boulding - not that Howard was ever aware of this. Newspapers from many parts of Kent mention this song at village concerts before the Great War, and there is a note that choristers used to sing in on top of Goudhurst church tower at around the same time!
The Old Owl - this is more typical of the 'glee' singing which would have been part and parcel of the old Catch Club repertoire. The first verse was written by Thomas Ravenscoft in his 'Deuteromelia' published in 1609 under the name 'Of All the Birds'. The extra verses were conjured up from collective memory.
Poor Old Joe – also known as 'Old Black Joe' was one of Stephen Foster's plantation songs written in 1860. Both this and 'Old Uncle Ned' were in Charlie Bridger's repertoire. It makes one wonder which local celebrity first learnt it and where.
Dame Durden - the Copper Family do this one, of course - but not quite in the manner rendered here! Its longevity has already been mentioned, and was well-known throughout the country, being included in the Thomas Hardy manuscripts. As mentioned earlier, the song was also in the repertoire of a rival group of glee-singers from neighbouring Woodchurch at about the time the Batts were doing their rounds.
Sweet By-and-By - this popular chapel hymn is Number 964 in Ira D. Sankey's 'Sacred Songs and Solos', which tells us that the words by S.F. Bennett were put to music by J.P. Webster.
Farmer's Boy - if you mention the 'old songs' to our senior citizenry, the chances are you'll get 'Buttercup Joe' and/or 'Farmer's Boy' thrown back at you. Charlie Bridger certainly had both songs in his repertoire. This version was introduced into the family by Dave Wickens, Hilary's grandfather.
Good Old Jeff - written by G.W.H. Griffin in 1853 and included in 'Christy's Plantation Melodies'. The song was also in the repertoire of Kenardington singer Charlie Bridger, who learnt many of his songs as a boy after practising with the Woodchurch Band whilst his father was inside the 'Bonny Cravat' public house having a pint!
Sportsmen Arise - another song which also appears in the Copper Family repertoire, which just goes to show there is a parallel universe. But the treatment meted out here is quite different. Whilst, at the time of writing, there are local hunts taking place - notably the Ashford Valley Hunt - Howard told me there is nothing in the way of any inherent singing tradition involved. However, Aldington singer Charlie Sloman told me that he was often booked to sing at table for the dinner after the Shorncliffe Drag Hunt in the 1950's.
Mistletoe Bough - written by Thomas Haynes Bayly to music by Henry R. Bishop around 1840. Another Copper Family song, of course, but well-known across the country. One example is this is the annual 'Christmas in the Olden Time' review performed by the Choral Union at Dover before and after the Great War. I was also told by the late Sid Sergeant of Woodchurch, that this tune also featured in the repertoire of the Woodchurch Band. One affectionate legend of this august group of musicians was that they were playing this in front of a haystack whilst in a pea-souper of a fog, thinking they were performing in front of the local farmhouse!
Buttercup Joe - a music hall song once sung by Harry Garratt, which entered the family repertoire via Brian Levett (Howard's brother-in-law and Don's father); also via Dave Wickens (Howard's father-in-law). Howard heard one singer of it described as the 'singing Saxon (sexton) of Burwash': Albert Richardson from Sussex, who recorded it for Zonophone in 1928. Other Kentish singers who had it in their repertoire include Charlie Bridger, who had a fourth verse, Len Pierce from Goudhurst, and Charlie Sloman from Aldington. Frank Collinson also noted down the song from Tim Fidler, one time landlord of 'the George' in Bethersden.
Old Uncle Ned - another of Stephen Collins Foster's plantation songs published in 1848, complete with its politically incorrect chorus 'No more hard work, for poor old Ned has gone where de good niggas go.' It was mutually felt that the words had to stay for historical accuracy rather than change them to something less disagreeable, recognising that the song was in praise of Ned rather than the reverse. Foster was the first writer of 'minstrel' songs to expres affectiontowards black Americans, a radical departure from the riduicule that the blacked-up white minstel show perfrmers had hitherto depended on.
The Old Oaken Bucket – written by Samuel Woodworth (1784-1842) to a tune written by George Kiallmark. All the songs on this recording were recalled from collective memory, except this one. Howard told me his father used to sing it, so I found him the original version upon request, laying down the condition that they perform it in their own way. Howard then found a friend of his who could play the piano and, apart from some of the tune and most of the words, is exactly how he and Gerald remembered it, so this is definitely a Millens' version! Hilary adds that their version is slower than the way in which it is written. Vive la tradition!
Babies on the Shore - a parody of the plantation songs that the Millens generally sing. This one was written by George Grossmith in 1894 for his famous musical sketch 'How I Discovered America'.
While Shepherds Watched - the words of poet laureate Nahum Tate to Thomas Jarman's tune 'Lyngham' or 'Nativity' which was popular in the Ashford area well into the twentieth century. Howard and Gerald each told me that they also sang the words to 'Winchester Old' (Este's Psalmody, 1592) and 'Crimond' (written by Jessie Irvine in 1872). Howard also sang me a snatch of a fourth tune which I have since identified as John Wainwright's 'Old Christians' - more often found to accompany Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn. When we last met, Gerald and Howard sang it to yet another contrapuntal tune which I have heard nowhere else in the country.
The singers on this recording are:
|Top of page