Archive for September, 2012

September 30, 2012

Week 58 – There Was Four-and-Twenty Strangers / The Irish hop-pole puller

Monument to the hop-pickers who died in the tragedy, Hadlow Churchyard, from

Monument to the hop-pickers who died in the tragedy, Hadlow Churchyard, from

Two contrasting songs connected with hop-picking.

I learned ‘There Was Four-and-Twenty Strangers’ from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s Travellers’ songs from England and Scotland, where it is given as ‘The Hop-Pickers’ Tragedy’. They recorded the song from the traveller Nelson Ridley, in a municipal caravan-site at Harlow New Town, Essex.

Their notes say

The event described here occurred on 20th October 1853, when a horse-drawn brake carrying a party of hop-pickers plunged over Hartlake Bridge into the River Medway. The memorial in Hadlow graveyard says that thirty people, including several Travellers, were drowned.

They also say that the singer, Nelson Ridley, was born in Wineham, Kent, and travelled mainly in Kent and Surrey. At least, I think it says “Wineham” – I can’t actually read my handwriting – but if so, that would mean he was born in West Sussex. Not having the book to hand, I can’t check.

It would seem that the story has survived in folk memory, amongst travellers at least, and the song has been recorded from a number of travellers with Kentish connections – you can hear versions by Jasper Smith and Ambrose Cooper at

(hint: these sound files are in Real Audio format – but if you don’t want Real Player taking over your computer, download the free Real Alternative which plays them just as well)

That BBC Kent site appears to have been prompted by a memorial service held at St Mary’s Church, Hadlow on the 19th October 2003 – the 150th anniversary of the accident.

There is a very full account of the tragedy at

By contrast, ‘The Irish hop-pole puller’ is a comic piece which I learned from George Spicer (born in Liitle Chart, just outside my home town of Ashford, Kent). As I recall, he had it from Pop Maynard, who had indeed worked as hop-pole puller. You can hear Pop singing it on the British Library website– although he dissolves in a coughing fit before he can get to the conclusion. Hunton, mentioned in the song, is between Maidstone and Paddock Wood, very much in a hop-growing area. I’ve never been to Hunton, however from what I can see on the web, “The Bull” was in East Street, but is no longer a pub.

I have a feeling that my friend Adrian will tell me I sing this all wrong (he has done so in the past!). But since he freely admits he never finds time to visit this blog, I might just get away with it.

There Was Four-and-Twenty Strangers

The Irish hop-pole puller

September 23, 2012

Week 57 – When Autumn Skies Were Blue

In last week’s post I neglected to mention the duo Tundra, Doug and Sue Hudson, who were a big local attraction in the late seventies / early eighties. ‘Hopping down in Kent’ was a key song in their repertoire, and this was another of theirs. In fact, as ‘The Jovial Man of Kent’, it was the opening track on their 1978 (debut?) LP A Kentish Garland.

I must have learned it at the time, although I’m not sure it’s ever been one I’ve “sung out”. Reminded of it when thinking about hopping last week, I was surprised to find that I could still remember the first two verses; and a quick look at the album sleeve (gatefold, natch) was enough to restore the missing verse to my memory.

The sleevenotes tell us that “attributed to Charles Dibdin the Elder, it first appeared in Chappell’s Old English Ditties“. Doug and Sue used a slightly different version of the tune to that printed in Chappell, and it’s all the better for it.

When Autumn Skies Were Blue

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September 16, 2012

Week 56 – Hopping down in Kent

Hop-pickers' washing day

Hop-pickers’ washing day

You can’t be a folk singer from Kent and not know at least a few verses of this song.

I first encountered it sung by Shirley Collins on the Albion Dance Band LP The Prospect Before Us. When I first heard that I was still a folk music novice, and almost every song I heard was new to me. Given how well-known the song has become, it’s funny to think that, when that album was released back in 1977 Hopping down in Kent was in fact new to most people on the folk scene.

Mike Yates recorded a couple of versions in the early seventies, from Louie (Louise) Fuller of Lingfield, Surrey, and the gipsy singer Mary Ann Haynes, who had settled in Brighton. Both versions were included in the Folk Music Journal, in an issue dedicated to travellers’ songs, in 1975.  I’d guess that the Albions’ recording was prompted by this (House in the country, which they recorded later on Rise up like the sun, was in the same issue) – although Shirley may well have known Louie and/or Mary Ann, and heard them singing the song.

Mary Ann Haynes - photo by Mike Yates (?) from Musical Traditions

Mary Ann Haynes – photo by Mike Yates (?) from Musical Traditions

Louie Fuller’s version appeared on the 1976  Topic album Green Grow the Laurels: Country Singers from the South; Mary Ann Haynes’ version only became generally available on the excellent Travellers compilation (also on Topic) in 1985.

Both recordings have since been made available on CD, although the situation is confused by an error with the tracklisting for Topic’s The Voice of the People series. Despite what it says on the CD (and almost anywhere the CD contents are listed on the Internet), it is not Mary Ann Haynes who sings this song on Volume 5 Come All my Lads that Follow the Plough – it’s Louie Fuller. You can  hear Mary Ann Haynes’ version on Here’s Luck to a Man: An Anthology of Gypsy Songs & Music from South-East England (Musical Traditions MTCD320).

In the booklet to that CD, Mike Yates wrote this about his first encounter with Mary Ann Haynes:

One of the first Gypsy singers that I met was Mary Ann Haynes.  I had been told that her son, Ted, was a singer and I drove down to Sussex one Sunday afternoon, looking for his trailer.  Eventually, I found Ted and his trailer in a field.  He was busy and directed me to his mother, who ‘knew all the old songs’.  Mary lived in High Street, Brighton, where, according to Ted, she was known to ‘everybody’.  High Street turned out to be a narrow street off the sea-front and was full of large tower blocks.  I started knocking on doors, only to be told that nobody knew a Mrs Haynes.  I found that when I mentioned that she was a Gypsy doors were closed very quickly in my face.  I began to wonder if I would ever find Mary, and was about to give up, when a lady said that there were no Gypsies in the area, only ‘an Italian looking lady’.  This was, of course, Mary.  When I arrived she was sleeping off a lunchtime session in the pub, but, once roused, she set about making a cup of tea and, having said that I knew her son (sort of), she began to sing as soon as I mentioned songs.  Mary had been born in 1905, in a Faversham waggon parked behind The Coach and Horses in Portsmouth, Hampshire.  Her father, Richard Milest, was a horse-dealer whose family would accompany him across England during the summer as he made his way from fair to fair.  “We used to go to the Vinegar & Pepper Fair at Bristol, then to Chichester, Lewes, Canterbury and Oxford, then up to Appleby and back down to Yalding.”  Mary’s husband died suddenly, leaving her with a large family, and, having settled in Brighton, she worked as a flower-seller, earning enough to support her family.  Mary died in 1977.

The way I sing the song these days is very much based on Mike’s recording of Mary Ann Haynes, although I’ve also included some verses from Louie Fuller, and a couple from lovely Ron Spicer. The second and penultimate verses are Ron’s, and I’ve never come across them anywhere else. I was also tempted to add this verse from Shropshire singer Ray Driscoll

When we use the karsey, sitting on the pole,
You have to keep your balance or you fall back in the hole

Ray Driscoll and Louie Fuller were both brought up in London, and  in the days before mechanisation the local workforce would be massively swelled at hop-picking time by families from the East End of London come down for a working holiday – and of course by a great many gipsies and travellers.

There are several British Pathé films in the archive about hop-picking. Here’s one from 1946.

Hop Pickers

Hopping down in Kent

September 9, 2012

Week 55 – A Dream of Napoleon

A Dream of Napoleon - ballad sheet printed by J. Catnach of Seven Dials, between 1813 and 1838 - from the Bodleian collection

A Dream of Napoleon – ballad sheet printed by J. Catnach of Seven Dials, between 1813 and 1838 – from the Bodleian collection

I’m sure there must have been some dull Napoleon ballads, but those I know all have a certain majesty in both the tune and the lyrics. I learned this one from Roy Palmer’s Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was noted down on a very productive collecting trip to King’s Lynn in Norfolk, in January 1905,  from a “Mr Crist” – actually, it would seem, Mr Charles Crisp, formerly able-bodied seaman in the Merchant Navy, but by then a resident of the King’s Lynn Union (i.e. the workhouse).

This information about the singer I learned from research carried out by Katie Howson, of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, as part of a project called “North End Voices”, and available at

A very similar version of the song was recorded further round the Norfolk coast from Sam Larner. First recorded in the 1950s, Larner was clearly from a different generation to Mr Crisp and the other singers from whom Vaughan Williams took down songs in Norfolk. But it’s worth remembering that he was born in 1878, so was in his late twenties when RVW came collecting; and had their paths crossed I’ve no doubt he could have provided the composer with a significant body of songs.

A Dream of Napoleon

September 1, 2012

Week 54 – The Rigs of the Time

I think I first heard this song on Shirley Collins’ 1967 LP The Sweet Primeroses, and subsequently  learned it from Peter Kennedy’s Folksongs of Britain and Ireland. The version in Kennedy’s book is as  sung by John ‘Charger’ Salmons and recorded at the Sutton Windmill, near Stalham, Norfolk  in October 1947. The recording was made for the BBC Third Programme by composer E.J. Moeran. You can hear the entire 1947 broadcast on the CD  East Anglia Sings, released by the rather wonderfully named Snatch’d from Oblivion label. A Musical Traditions article, E J Moeran: Collecting folk songs in East Norfolk – in his own words gives you all the background, and allows you to listen to the songs which he recorded; you can also buy the East Anglia Sings CD from Musical Traditions.

The song presumably dates from the Napoleonic period, judging by the rich farmers’ daughters who say

Boney alas! There’s a French war to fight and the cows have no grass.

Incidentally the three ballad sheets with the title ‘Rigs of the Time’ which can be found on the Bodleian Library Ballads site deal with a similar theme to this song, but otherwise appear unrelated.

The Rigs of the Time