I like the idea of a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, but in practice I just can’t get on with a lot of the music – neither the arrangements, nor the way it’s sung. So while I prepare my stuffing, and giblet stock, and cranberry sauce, I’m far more likely to be listening to carolling from Sheffield or Padstow, or The Messiah, or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. So here’s nine carols as an alternative. All have appeared on this blog over the last five years – except, bizarrely, ‘Foster’, which I always think I’ve posted before, but somehow never have. I hope they get you into whatever mood you’d like to be in as Christmas approaches. Now – is it time to put the sprouts on yet?
1. While Shepherds watched their flocks by night (Foster)
After last week’s shipwreck, I thought the blog could do with a bit of Christmas cheer. And this is very jolly indeed. Like ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’ I learned it from the Oysterband’s John Jones, and it’s a carol sung in Meltham, the South Yorkshire village where John was brought up.
It was written by Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915), an American hymn-writer who seems to have had more than her fair share of pseudonyms, and was published in Song Worship for Sunday Schools (1884). There it is credited solely to L.O.Emerson – not another of Crosby’s noms-de-plume, but joint editor of the collection. I assume it was he who set Miss Crosby’s text to music.
Ring Merry Bells, from Song Worship for Sunday Schools (1884), via hymnary.org
John Jones used to sing just the first and last verses, but having discovered a couple more online, I thought I’d include them all here – I rather like the rose of Sharon verse.
The song was very nearly featured on the Magpie Lane album Wassail. We recorded it, but it was cut from the final mix – there was a rather fancy a cappella section which, the lead and harmony vocals having been recorded at separate recording sessions, didn’t quite hang together. Having recently listened back to that outtake, however, there’s a possibility we might revive it next year.
Although I’ve usually referred to the song as ‘Ring, Merry Bells’ I believe it’s known as ‘Morning Star’ in Meltham, and that title prompted the inclusion of the Bledington morris tune ‘Morning Star’ in this arrangement.
A telegram received at Folkestone from Cromer leaves little doubt as to the fate of the brig Woodside, of Folkestone, one of her boats having been picked up. The Woodside left Sunderland on Dec. 20, and has not been heard of. She carried a crew of eight, and was bringing home a Dover sailor who had been discharged from Sunderland Hospital after illness.
Dover Express – Friday 18 January 1895
It’s coming up to Christmas, and the blog returns – but not with “a song for the time when the sweet bells chime”, as the piece popular at Yorkshire carolling sessions has it; more a song for the time when the bell shall toll…
Traditional singers, especially gypsies, would often end a song by saying “and that’s a true story”, but this one really is. It tells in five simple verses of the shipwreck of the brig the Woodside, returning home from Sunderland to Folkestone, which, like a number of other ships, foundered in the terrible storm of 22nd December 1894.
Between December 21st and 22nd, 1894, a whole fleet of British and German trawlers and cargoes were lost during the great storm over the North Sea. All were reported as missing and for some of them, floating wreckage was found
Just before Christmas 1894 the whole of the North of England was battered by a very severe gale. Commentators stated that nothing had been seen like it for over 40 years and it left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
It started around midnight on the morning of Saturday 22nd December 1894 and gradually increased in strength. The speed of the winds became so strong that they started to cause structural damage. In Leeds the chimney of Messrs. Richard Bailes & Co, Chemical Works at Woodhouse Carr was blown down onto the adjoining house on Speedwell Street. At the time a mother and her six children occupied the house, one of whom was sadly killed. Reports from Liverpool to Whitby reported similar tragedies with many people crushed or hit by falling buildings.
Two trams were blown clean off the rails in Leeds and many shop windows were blown in. In Pudsey a workman narrowly escaped death when the chimney of the factory he was working in came down. Chaos was caused to communications when, starting at midnight, one by one, the 20 telegraph wires linking Leeds with London started to fail. By 1:30 am they were all gone, there was also no communications between Leeds and Derby, Birmingham, Bristol and whole of the west of England, most other places in the north of England were also affected. The telegraph office issued a notice that all messages would only be taken at the sender’s risk.
Grave fears are entertained at Sunderland for the safety of the vessels – George, of Southampton; Woodside, of Folkestone; and Ketch Elizabeth, of Sunderland, which left the Wear on the 21st of December, and have not since been heard of. The crews number 20. Anxiety is also felt concerning the steamer Prescott, which left the Wear on the 29th ult. For Marseiiles. [and which was indeed lost with all hands]
The Globe, Tuesday 08 January 1895
Details of the Woodside and its crew were related in the Folkestone Express, January 1895:
THE LOSS OF THE WOODSIDE COLLIER.
There is now unhappily no doubt that this vessel foundered in the recent disastrous gale in the North Sea on Saturday, December the 22nd, and that the crew were drowned. No particulars of the disaster will ever be known. Her crew consisted of six men and a boy. Their names were Henry Milton, of Fenchurch street, master, who leaves behind a widow and family, the youngest child being about 12; Jesse Wooderson, mate, widow and three young children; Benjamin Cotterell, ordinary seaman, recently married; John McKay, able seaman, single; William Baker, able seaman, single; and Charles Woollett, boy. There was also on board a man named James Batchelor, supposed to belong to Whitstable, who had broken his leg, and the captain was giving a passage to Folkestone.
The young man, Benjamin Cotterell, was a son of Mr. Cotterell, of the Ham and Beef Warehouse, High Street. He has another son who during the heavy gale was in great peril in another ship, not far away from the spot where the Woodside is supposed to have foundered. Writing on board the schooner Via, from Gateshead-on-Tyne, on Boxing Day, to his father, he says: “We arrived here safely on Monday evening, after having a fearful time of it. We left London on Wednesday, blowing a gale, and got out clear of the river, when the forepeak halyards came down, and we had to put back to Sheerness with the head of the sail split. Left again on Thursday morning, and went into Harwich in the evening. Left Friday morning, and got down off Flamborough Head on Saturday morning at four o’clock, when that terrible gale struck us, It had been blowing a moderate gale all night. We were blown right off the land – blew all our head sails to ribbons and two of the head stays with them. At last we got her hove to, with only a close-reefed mainsail on her, and oil bags over the side. I very nearly lost the run of my mess, owing to the lower topsail. We lay hove to for about 10 hours, seas breaking aboard all the time. I think it was a lot worse than last year. I was over to Sunderland yesterday, and was told the Woodside left on Thursday. I hope she came all right out of it.”
We understand arrangements are being made to raise a fund for the benefit of the widows.
It seems likely that this song was locally composed as part of, or to draw attention to, those fund-raising efforts. It has been collected only once, from the brothers John and Ernest ‘Ted’ Lancefield, of Aldington in Kent. They were employed as gardeners at Goldenhurst, Noel Coward’s country home. Francis Collinson, who noted the song down in June 1942, would have moved in the same circles as Coward – both were involved in musical theatre – so it is no surprise that he should have visited Goldenhurst; he might even have been invited over specifically to meet the musical Lancefield brothers.
In Collinson’s MS the song is headed ‘The Woodside Woodison’. The second word in this title always puzzled me but, looking at the list of victims above, I see that Jesse Wooderson was mate of the Woodside. Aldington is not far from Folkestone where the Woodside was based, so the Lancefields may well have known members of the Wooderson family. I’m not sure how old Ted Lancefield was when he died in 1954, but it’s not inconceivable that he knew Jesse Wooderson himself.
‘The Woodside Woodison’ as collected from John & Ted Lancefield, June 1942. From the Francis Collinson MSS via the Full English.