logo Enthusiasms No 34
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The Singing Miller
Who were the song carriers?

A gloss on the following piece, by Roly Brown, appears as Enthusiam No 35 in these pages.

Perhaps the most underused resource for contemporary historical details of traditional music, dance and song, prior to Cecil Sharp and his cohort's recording activity of a century ago, is the regional local newspaper.  During the course of recent research a good number of items detailing singers, songs and ballad sellers have surfaced.  Jackson's Oxford Journal for 30 August 1856 (page 8), for instance, contains the following piece relating to a small village in Gloucestershire:

- Aug. 21, at Sherborne Mill, near this town, Mrs. Elizabeth Cross, aged 94 years.  This venerable lady, up to a very short time before her decease, was in the possession of all her faculties, and would sometimes, to please her friends, sing them an old English song in excellent style.  Two sons and four daughters, all single, have been residing with her, and their united ages, including that of the mother, amount to upwards of four hundred years.
From the parish registers we learn that Elizabeth Hale was baptised in the next village over, Farmington, on 3 September 1762, and married George Cross in Sherborne on Christmas Day 1784.  The following children were products of this union, all baptised in Sherborne George (baptised on 25 January 1793), Hannah (18 January 1795), Margaret (4 January 1797), Alice (29 November 1801) and Miriam (19 October 1803).  The second son, mentioned in the newspaper account, has not yet been traced.

Of course, we must be wary of misinterpretation (Dibden and Chappell leap immediately to mind), but 'old English song' sounds suspiciously like what we would consider, both as defined in print by Sharp and others during the first folk song revival, and also during these more enlightened days, to be traditional.

And yet, as revealed by the 1851 census for Sherborne (schedule 15), she was no 'peasant' or wife of a landless labourer:

In fact she was one of the minor village gentry, with two servants in her employ, and her son was a farm manager.  Just the type of person who might be expected to contribute to the money boxes of the morris dancers and the mummers.  And, probably coincidentally, in 1851 the morris dancer John Kench, then aged 26, was living next door.

In a recently-published article *, C J Bearman has analysed the social status of Sharp's Somerset song informants and concluded that a great many of them do not conform to Sharp's narrow and rather rigid definition of 'peasant'.  It appears that here, at a much earlier date, we have another singer who stands outside that stereotype, giving us further cause for consideration as to who the song carriers actually were.

Keith Chandler - 6.1.03

* C J Bearman, 'Who were the folk? The demography of Cecil Sharp's Somerset folk singers', The Historical Journal 43, no.3 (2000), 751-775.

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