Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth
This article is based on one which first appeared on the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust website. I and my husband founded EATMT in 2000 and retired in 2017.
In this piece of original research, I trace a visit by folk song collectors and composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth to the Southwold area on the Suffolk coast, and identify the singers and locations. Links are given to the digitised song manuscripts. This research also formed the basis for a community project which I ran as Director of EATMT.
I have revised this piece in 2019 to include more information about George Butterworth, in response to the release of the film “All My Life’s Buried Here” by Hajdukino Productions https://www.georgebutterworth.co.uk/
I have also researched and written about other visits by Vaughan Williams to East Anglia. In 1910 he and George Butterworth visited the area around Diss in south Norfolk, and my latest research into that visit is now hosted on this website as South Norfolk Singers 1911. The information on the EATMT website is superceded by these revised articles. My research into Vaughan Williams’ collecting in King’s Lynn in Norfolk remains to be updated, the original may still be read on the EATMT website on the Vaughan Williams in the East pages.
Anyone wishing to cite this original research should credit it to Katie Howson and cite this website as the source.
Full links to the song manuscripts to follow soon.
In the early twentieth century, there was huge interest amongst English composers and art musicians in the traditional folk songs still being sung in the countryside. However, unlike today, when we can easily access huge online repositories of folk tunes and lyrics, the composers of Edwardian times had little material to draw on and so many went out on field trips to find and note down ancient melodies from the older generation of farmhands, fishermen, washerwomen, innkeepers and domestic servants. The most famous of these composers was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who, in 1903 collected his first folk song from Charles Potiphar at Ingrave, near Brentwood in Essex. During the following decade, he collected nearly 800 folksongs, the vast majority noted down with pencil and paper whilst listening to the singers. The influence of the melodies he heard shaped many of his compositions such as the Norfolk Rhapsodies (1906), Fantasia on English Folk Songs (1910) and Lark Ascending (1920).
Vaughan Williams’ first folksong collecting trip was at the invitation of Georgiana and Florence Heatley, daughters of the Reverend Henry Davis Heatley of Ingrave in Essex. In subsequent years he revisited this area and began to investigate, through a circle of like-minded friends and contacts, singers and songs in many areas of England. He returned to East Anglia on a number of occasions, collecting songs in north Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and south Suffolk. In 1908 he and George Butterworth teamed up for a successful song collecting trip in the Norfolk Broads and this was followed by further trips together to the Suffolk coast in 1910 and south Norfolk in 1911. Butterworth himself often worked in partnership with other song collectors including Francis Jekyll (nephew of the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll) and the two of them had made many trips to Sussex together from 1906 onwards, on the trail of old folk songs. Butterworth was also a fine dancer and collected Morris dances along with Cecil Sharp. He was killed during the Battle of the Somme at a young age, but works such as The Banks of Green Willow (1913) show what a talented composer he was.
From the standpoint of the early twenty first century, we could wish that the Edwardian song collectors had taken a more sociological, or even anthropological approach, as they rarely gave details beyond the singer’s name and location.
The trip to Southwold, October 1910
On Monday 24th October 1910 Butterworth and Vaughan Williams went to Shadingfield to visit a Mrs Keble before carrying on to Southwold itself, where they stayed overnight, having probably travelled up from London by train with their bicycles. Here they noted down eleven songs from three brothers, William, Robert and Ben Hurr.
It seems likely that they came to Southwold at the suggestion of John Gooding, resident of the town, who was in correspondence earlier in 1910 with Vaughan Williams over the words to a song. They may even have stayed with Gooding, as he and his brother Donald had quite a substantial house at 49 High Street, and they evidently knew the Hurr family, who were the focal point for the visit, as Donald had collected some smuggling tales and ghost stories from the singers’ father, William Hurr in 1903.
On Tuesday 25th October they revisited William & Robert Hurr, went on to Reydon to see a Mr Newby, then moved on to Filby, near Caister in Norfolk and finished up the following day at nearby Rollesby. This was a return visit to Norfolk for George Butterworth, who had visited the same area to collect songs with Francis Jekyll in April of that year, and he and Vaughan Williams also collected a number of songs on this trip.
Singing, Audiences and Locations
Folk songs usually tell a story, and as such entertain an audience, whether in a pub, at a family party or on board a boat. In the days before recorded music, when people made their own entertainment to a large extent, and life was less crammed with information, even ballads of eight or ten verses were frequently memorised.
Many singers would also feature at least one sentimental song and one comic song in their repertoire, although these lighter-hearted items were not always noted down by the early folk song collectors, particularly as some were of relatively recent origin at the time, coming from the music hall and minstrel era. One Norfolk fisherman boasted that in a six-week trawling trip, he could sing two songs every evening without repeating himself. Sam Hurr, younger brother of the singing Hurrs, worked for skipper James Spence, who was described in an obituary in the Southwold Magazine in 1924 as being distinguished ‘not least by the inexhaustible selection of songs which cheered the passage home’. What a shame Butterworth and Vaughan Williams didn’t get to meet him too! The songs they noted down probably represent only a part of the singers’ repertoires, and they weren’t around for long enough to investigate further.
Where Vaughan Williams and Butterworth met up with the Hurrs is not known, certainly in other places they went into pubs, and may have done so on this occasion. Given that they met on two consecutive days, it is possible that the first occasion was in a pub, followed up by a quieter session to check out details (in the case of William Hurr’s singing of Lovely Joan, Vaughan Williams wrote it out a second time). The Southwold Arms was a big pub for singing many years before this and also after it, and the White Horse would also have been a good bet for a singsong when in Charles Newby’s hands a dozen or so years before this date, but where the favourite singing pubs were in 1910 is not known. A newspaper report from 1899 indicates a serious rift in brotherly relationships, when what was evidently a long-standing feud erupted into a violent argument on the beach, offending some lady visitors and ending up in court, so unless the brothers had made up their differences, it’s unlikely they would all have met in the pub for a friendly sing-song!
The singers and their songs
All three of the Hurrs were fishermen, from a large family going back generations in the town of Southwold. Their fortunes were mixed, their father William having suffered setbacks all through his life: the most traumatic perhaps being the sinking of his fishing punt the Susannah in 1893, with two of his youngest sons on board, followed only a month later by the death of his wife.
The Hurrs intermarried with other local families such as the Palmers and the Lowseys, and it was common practice to christen children with more than one forename, frequently with their mother’s maiden name as a middle name. Forenames were also passed on from generation to generation, and to avoid confusion, men in particular were often known by nicknames.
The period preceding the song collectors’ visit was one of change for the brothers; their father died in 1908, and by 1910 their financial situation was such that all three owned their own small fishing boats: William had the Vigilant, Robert the Boy Billy and Ben the Happy Thought. These were all longshore luggers, around 2 tons, which would have been used no more than a couple of miles offshore to catch herring, sprats, shrimps, sole, cod and mackerel in season, and moored on the beach (although the harbour had been rebuilt in 1907, it was mostly used by small coastal freighters and there were 120 open boats recorded as still working off the beach in that year). Happily for Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, bad weather prevented most small fishing boats from putting to sea during the period of their visit in 1910. According to the Halesworth Times on November 1st, ‘light fishing continued at Southwold on Saturday, and taking the week through, the results were far from satisfactory. Many boats either spoilt or lost whole fleets of nets during the earlier part of the week, and consequently several luggers had to remain in harbour over the weekend awaiting new nets.’
William Hurr (1843-1925)
William Watson Hurr, known as ‘Dubber’, was the eldest son of William and Maria Hurr, and like his younger brothers, was both born and buried in Southwold. In 1895 he married Matilda (née Adams) who was working as a servant to a solicitor in Southwold, and was a widow with two teenaged children from her first marriage to Joseph Adams, a private in the Royal Marines.
By 1901 the family were living in what is now the Southwold Museum, which was then divided into two tiny cottages later condemned as unfit for housing. In the photograph here, you can just make out Matilda with their children Susannah and Sam.
By 1912 however, William’s family were installed in a more spacious home at Caterer House, 39 Victoria Street, where Matilda was the landlady of holiday apartments, a line of business shared by at least two of her sisters-in-law. During the First World War, ‘Dubber’ showed the indomitable Hurr spirit by refusing to follow war-time regulations which banned night fishing, which apparently resulted in him being shot at and sustaining an injury to his arm. His son William Samuel Thomas (known as Sam) was one of the first not to follow in the family tradition of fishing, and after William’s death, his boat the Vigilant passed to his nephew, Ben’s son William Albert Benjamin – now the need for those nicknames becomes apparent!
Half of the songs recorded from William Hurr relate to the sea. Vaughan Williams noted down only two verses of The Loss of the London, and some detective work was necessary to reconstruct the song for performance and publication. The Royal George is a short but moving song about a woman grieving for her sweetheart lost at sea and The Bold Princess Royal is a popular song up and down the east coast, indeed Vaughan Williams also noted down a version from Williams younger brother Robert the following day. In a small community, singers usually ‘owned’ a song, and this one probably belonged to William as the older brother. Robert would undoubtedly have known it through hearing William sing, but would not have sung it in public. Of the other songs, Lovely Joan is a classic folk ballad, whilst Three Jolly Butchers tells a tale of highway robbery and double-dealing first printed in the late seventeenth century. Again, detective work has been required to identify the fragments of When I Was Bound Apprentice: you could call the process musical archaeology!
Robert Hurr (1855-1934)
Robert Watson Hurr, fourth son of William and Maria, married to Elizabeth Stannard and father of six children, was also a fisherman, and in later years worked in partnership with his son William Walter Robert (known as Walter). After the Second World War, Walter co-owned the boat Daisy with Ben’s son: these appear to be the last two of the family to be working fishermen. After the First World War one of Robert’s five daughters, Annie, kept a pub, the Royal, in Victoria Street with her husband Arthur Brown. This was just across the road from Robert’s house, which was in turn just round the corner from his eldest brother William’s and five minutes’ walk from younger brother Ben’s.
Robert was the only one in the family known to have played an instrument, and as such, would have been in demand at family gatherings and local parties. The only tune recorded from him is named The Liverpool Hornpipe in Vaughan William’s manuscript, although in fact it is nothing like the usual tune of that name and is actually a variant of what is perhaps the most widely-known hornpipe, Soldier’s Joy. Hornpipes were, and still are, commonly used for ‘stepping’: an informal, improvised form of tap dancing, usually danced solo and particularly popular amongst fishermen on the east coast. It is therefore extremely likely that Robert would have played for such dancing in the pubs and taprooms of Southwold. It is also likely that his repertoire included some other dance tunes, perhaps some schottisches, polkas or waltzes for couple dances, and also popular song tunes.
Robert’s song In London Town I was Bred and Born (also known as A Wild and Wicked Youth) is a ‘goodnight’ ballad: supposedly the last speech made by a prisoner before being hanged. Such songs were popular throughout the country, and if you were a Londoner, the actual hanging was an opportunity for an outing: Tyburn in London attracted huge crowds, which in turn drew numerous ballad-sellers and hawkers. Bold Princess Royal is one of the widely sung songs of coastal East Anglia, popular with all sea-faring sorts, whether sailors, fishermen or bargemen. A third song from Robert, noted as The Tiresome Wife by Vaughan Williams and On Monday Morning I Married A Wife by Butterworth has proved very difficult to identify, as no words were noted down at the time. The Royal George tells of the loss of a sailor at sea and was one of the favourite songs in the community project we ran to revive these songs in 2003/4.
Ben Hurr (1860-1934)
Benjamin Lowsey Hurr, the seventh of William and Maria’s eleven children who lived to adulthood, married Louisa Stannard and had one son. In the 1890s, along with brothers William and Robert, he was a member of the lifeboat crew. In the early twentieth century Ben and his family moved out of the small fishermen’s cottages in Victoria Street into one of the newer terraces in the north end of the town.
The Cobbler tells a story popular since at least Chaucerian days of a cuckolded husband, and is full of giggle-inducing phrases and motifs such as the adulterer hiding under the bed. Again Vaughan Williams noted no words to this song, perhaps thinking the humour rather low, but it would no doubt have gone down a storm in the company of other fishermen and mariners. The Isle of France (an early name for Mauritius) tells a sentimental tale of a shipwrecked convict on his way home after six years of exile being rescued by a coastguard and receiving a pardon from the Queen. Jones’s Ale, popularised in the late twentieth century folk revival, is a deceptive song, dating as it does from at least 1594.
Martha Keble / Cable (1831-)
On the first of their two day visit, Vaughan Williams and Butterworth went to the small village of Shadingfield, on the main road to Beccles. There Butterworth noted down the tune to one song from a ‘Mrs Keble aged 84’, and Vaughan Williams wrote down the words to a toast by Mr Keble. Records for Shadingfield in the early twentieth century show no-one by the name of Keble, although it is a common Suffolk name, but there was a Martha Cable living there in 1901, aged 70, widow of farm worker George Cable, and living with her was her unmarried son Frederick, then aged 33. It seems more than likely that these are the people Vaughan Williams and Butterworth visited in 1910. It was evidently a somewhat disappointing trip, as the only song noted down from Mrs Keble was The Murder of Maria Marten, which Vaughan Williams had previously noted down in Kings Lynn in 1905, and which he left to Butterworth to note down on this occasion. The lyrics were well known, having been printed on a ballad sheet soon after the real event (sometimes known as the Red Barn Murder) in the 1820s: the songsheet and murder report sold over a million copies in the nineteenth century, and the story and ambiguous nature of the evidence inspired a stage melodrama which is still presented in repertory occasionally, followed by a film in 1935 starring Todd Slaughter and in the late twentieth century a television drama. The tune is a version of that used for the old ballad Dives and Lazarus which inspired Vaughan Williams to compose a piece for the 1939 World’s Fair in the USA.
Charles Newby (1830-)
On Tuesday 25th October Vaughan Williams and Butterworth cycled over to Reydon, to the Almshouses (pictured below) and noted two songs from a Mr. Newby. Charles Newby, then aged 79, was born in Sotherton but lived most of his life in Southwold. He kept the White Horse Inn at the Reydon end of the High Street for many years and was later a coal merchant when he lived at 13, Station Road, in the left hand house of a pair known as Gladstone Villas.
Two songs were collected from Charles Newby, Georgey, and Forty Miles. The first is a classic ballad, reputed to date from real events in 1594, and tells of a wife pleading (unsuccessfully) for the life of her husband who is about to be hanged. Forty Miles has a happier ending, with a chance meeting ending in marriage. It has a repeated line, so that, like Jones’s Ale, it would be a popular song to sing in places where the company would be in a mood to join in, perhaps even in the White Horse when Newby was landlord there.
Music-making did not stop after the song collectors’ visit of course, and what is known about it in the later twentieth century is published here, on the page Southwold in the later twentieth century
With thanks to: John Goldsmith, W.B. Hurr, Gary May, Southwold Museum, Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room, Andrew Jenkins, Jim Blythe, Trevor Ray, John Winter, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (English Folk Dance & Song Society), Malcolm Taylor and many others who helped along the way.