Do fishermen sing nowadays? They used to be great singers when they got together years ago in their favourite pubs or at the annual jollifications of the beachmen’s societies.’ So wrote King Herring in an unidentified news article about northern singers. Perhaps he should have paid a visit to the Norfolk fishing village of Winterton where the old songs connected with the fishing community, those with plenty of salt in them, were sung until relatively recently. It used to be said that “They were all singers at Winterton”, but foremost among them was Sam Larner, who knew dozens of such songs and whose extrovert performance style proved very influential to more recent singers. His impact was immediate and electrifying … and some thought that it was a privilege to be in the presence of such genuine greatness, a dominant figure due to his personality and extensive repertoire, in an area where singing was still commonplace in much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Samuel James Larner, (1878–1965) and known as Sam, was a fisherman because fishing was an almost inevitable occupation for one of nine children of a fisherman father and growing up in a village where, out of a population of 800 people, 300 were fishermen. Larner was once quoted as saying
“Why, for me and my brothers that was either sea or gaol, and that for my sisters that was service or gaol.”
Many Winterton families had been involved with the fishing industry for generations, most notably the Greens, Georges, Goffins, Hayletts and the Larners. All were inter-related, as was common in close-knit communities, and all had singers amongst them.
Sam was born into this community in 1878, into a family of bricklayers and fishermen. He first went to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing lugger at the age of 13 and in 1894 signed as a deckhand on The Snowflake, another sailing boat. It was a very tough existence as he later recalled, describing the dread when going to sea for the first time and that you’d be “on the knucklebones of your arse when leaving for sea.” Some of the older fishermen “didn’t care for nothing … cruel old men. You weren’t allowed to speak” and if you were sleepy they would “chuck a bucket of water on you to wake you up.” From 1899 he worked on steam trawlers and in 1923 married Dorcas Eastick who had hailed from Great Cressingham, near Watton. Sam met her when she was in service at the rectory in Winterton. Sam was to leave fishing due to ill health in 1933 and spent some time unemployed as well as doing whatever jobs he could find, including road mending and forestry.
Sam Larner started singing from an early age, learning the songs his grandfather and others sang in the pubs at Winterton, and earning pennies by singing them to the coach parties that visited the village. As a fisherman he learned the songs fellow crew members sang when pulling in the nets, as well as in singing sessions in pubs in fishing ports the length of Britain. He won a singing competition in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands in 1907.
Although some trips were ‘home fishing,’ meaning that the fishermen would return the same day, more often than not the trips would take them away for weeks at a time, sailing around the British Isles in search of the herring. This of course meant stopping for periods in various ports when there was opportunity for musical diversion whilst ashore, as well as the possibility of adding new songs to his repertoire. Indeed, Sam Larner recalled that he won a singing competition in Lerwick in 1907 with his rendition of Old Bob Ridley-O. As he recalled:
“There was a singing competition in the town hall at Lerwick – all among the fishermen though. And the Lerwick ladies, they had to judge; and the gentlemen had to judge the singin’. And I got the most encore of the whole lot for that song. They won’t let me sit down; I had to sing them another song. That was in 1907. These people all know it about here; I aren’t tellin’ stories. And I got the first prize.”
Unfortunately no Winterton singers, other than Sam Larner, were recorded extensively, but his detailed and lively accounts of both fishing and singing do give us a good indication that many of his songs were learned from fellow fishermen, many of whom were close relatives. One example was Butter and Cheese and All, a popular song in the village; Sam said:
“That’s my old dad’s song. I heard him sing it when I was a little boy. Used to sing all them songs, my old father did. Yeah, old ‘Bredler’ they used to call him; Bredler Larner; Bredler used to call him. Big man, about fifteen or sixteen stone. Big man, he was. Oh, and he could do the step dance.”
If there was opportunity at times to add to a repertoire of songs whilst on these fishing voyages, the real outlet for performance seems to have been, unsurprisingly, when back home after a long voyage – such as “The Dogger Bank”:
• Now we are the boys to make a noise, when we come home from sea,
• We get right drunk, we roll on the floor, and cause a jubilee;
• We get right drunk and full of beer, and roll all over the floor,
• And when our rent it is all spent, we’ll go to sea for more.
An exaggeration maybe, but certainly the fishermen did adjourn to the village’s two pubs, The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners, for lengthy bouts of singing and step dancing during which time, complete respect was given to the singers so as to avoid the possibility of violence. Certainly the old songs and the performances were taken very seriously. Ronnie Haylett also remembers:
“Now, Boxing Day, the pubs closed at half past two legally, you know, but they’d open here until four or five o’clock. Policeman’d come in and have a look…….”Boys all right?” Well, they’re all fishermen, you know…… Yes mister, Boys all right. Do you want a pint, mister? No, I’ll leave you. He’d just go away and leave them.”
Sam Larner related more than once that “we used to have a rare old, good old time. We used to get in the old pub, and we used to have a song, a drink and a four-handed reel … That was all there was for our enjoyment.”
Other singers at the time was Dick Green (b1909), another Winterton singer and fisherman; he was Sam Larner’s nephew but eventually turned his back on both the sea and singing to become a policeman, ending his days in Harleston. In later years, he declined to be recorded singing the old songs as he felt his voice was not good enough to do so, but he was still able to recall such songs as Maid of Australia which he had sung in the village years earlier. Dick’s older brother Bob (1908-99) was another singer and fisherman, known locally by his nickname ‘The Devil’. He went to sea at fourteen as cook, working his way up to become a trawler skipper. He also served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War. He sang such songs as were popular locally such as The Maid of Australia, Cruising Round Yarmouth, and Henry Martin as well as comic songs such as The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore and Paddy McGinty’s Goat. The father of Bob and Dick Green, also Bob Green, (born 1882), was recalled as having regularly sung The Wild Rover which, apparantly, was his party piece.
Then there was Jack ‘Starchy’ George (1888-1975), another Winterton singer, fisherman and trawler skipper. Caister singer Tom Brown, who was on drifters with Jack George, described him as “a great singer” who would sometimes “lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he’d sing while he’d be on watch.” All of the male Georges seem to have been known as ‘Starchy,’ apparently from one former family member who favoured starched shirt collars. As well as the songs popular locally, many connected with the sea, such as Herring on the Griddle-O, to which men would dance as if flames were rearing up, and Jack Johnson which he also sang at weddings
In this fertile environment for song acquisition and performance, Sam Larner certainly stood out as an outstanding singer. With an extensive repertoire of traditional ballads, sentimental and comic pieces and, most of all, songs connected with the sea and fishing, all performed in a vigorous, exuberant style; it is easy to imagine him being the centre of any singing session in the village or whilst away fishing. As a natural entertainer, Sam would also recite Christmas Day in the Workhouse in the pub, with much histrionics.
As well as the singing, another part of the evening’s entertainment in The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners was step dancing. Sam was a good exponent of this, just like his father, George. As someone recalled, “The tables in there years ago, they had a bead round like this; a raised bead like that. They all had pints of two. Cause, comin’ out the old barrels, they’d all be wet, wouldn’t they? So they’d stand them there and somebody’d shift the pints and Sam’d come up and do a tap dance on the table. Beer’d all spilt!”
Often, there was no musician to play for the step dancing, so it was performed to singing and diddling. Sam Larner remarked, “I could do the Old Bob Ridley-O; that was a song and a dance. I hadn’t got the wind to do it now.” Whilst singing the song, he would pause half way through to comment “then they all step” which suggests something of a communal performance. Sam generally seems to have accompanied himself step dancing by diddling tunes such as The Sailor’s Hornpipe.
In the early 1960s, writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners, in company with fiddler Alan Waller: ‘The Larners live in a little semi-detached cottage not far from the sea, and we all sat round the small kitchen while Alan played the fiddle and Sam sang, and Mrs Larner looked on and beamed. And Sam could hardly restrain himself from jumping up and step dancing. In fact he failed to restrain himself once or twice, and he is over eighty. He kept challenging Alan as to whether he knew this jig or that step tune, and was absolutely delighted when he found that Alan knew them all.’
Sam Larner first came to wider public notice when Philip Donnellan, a radio producer for BBC Birmingham, happened to meet him in a pub in 1956. Donnellan was making radio documentaries about working people in Britain and Sam was exactly the sort of person he was looking for to provide him with information. He recorded about twenty five songs and some speech from him in 1957 and 1958. Sam appeared in two of Donnellan’s radio productions: Coast and Country: The Wash on Sunday 15th September, 1957, for which he was paid £1.1.0. Then there was Down to the Sea which was recorded on Sunday 15th February, 1959 with a rehearsal at a house in Happisburgh known as ‘Thatchers’. It was broadcast on Friday, 27th February, 1959 and Sam was paid £8.8.0. These were live performances and the sound recordings made by Donnellan have been deposited in the BBC archives.
Donellan also brought Sam Larner to the attention of Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker who were engaged in producing the first of the innovatory “Radio Ballads”, which used songs, sound effects and music combined with the voices of people involved in an industry or common experience. Sam took part in the third program in the series “Singing the Fishing” which was broadcast on 16th August, 1960, to great acclaim. The series was about the East Coast fishing industry. Ewan McColl’s song The Shoals of Herring, which describes a fisherman’s progress from cabin boy to deckhand, was largely based on Sam’s life and written for the program. Over a period of time, after editing Sam’s songs and anecdotes about his life, they were left, in MacColl’s words, with “almost thirty hours of magnificent talk and three hours of songs, ballads, stories and miscellaneous rhymes” from this ‘octogenarian’, ex-herring fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk. What a wonderful person he was! Short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life. His one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl.’
McColl and Seeger were to record even more material from Sam who went on to perform in their Ballads and Blues Club in London where, having been introduced by Ewan MacColl, Sam ‘sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word and gesture as through he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca. He never forgot it.’ “They liked them old songs, they did.” Also, in 1960, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl published a book of English and Scottish folk songs called The Singing Island. They included thirteen of Sam’s songs: Maid of Australia, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Maids When You’re Young, The Wild Rover, Henry Martin, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Bold Princess Royal, The Dolphin, The Dogger Bank, The London Steamer, The Ghost Ship, Jack Tar and Butter and Cheese and All. The copy they presented to Sam was inscribed: ‘Sam: a book in which your songs are not ‘written wrong.’ Many thanks for your songs and your friendship. Peggy and Ewan. 1960.’ Certainly the songs that Sam had picked up from his community and fishing expeditions and sang so exuberantly were now reaching a much wider audience.
This exposure to the world at large, or at least that portion of it interested in traditional song, reached a peak with the release of the LP Now is the Time for Fishing on Folkways Records in 1961. This featured nineteen tracks of Sam Larner singing and talking about his life and the fishing industry, taken from the recordings made by MacColl and Seeger. The interspersing of anecdotes amongst the singing put the songs in vivid context, with Sam’s rich dialect and turn of phrase, on what must surely be the first full-length LP issued of an English traditional singer. A radical approach, perhaps, in 1961, which still stands as a seminal recording today.
In 1962 Charles Parker filmed both Sam Larner and Catfield singer Harry Cox for BBC Birmingham, singing and talking about their lives for a programme entitled The Singer and the Song. As well as snatches of several old popular and comic songs Sam sang Now is the Time for Fishing, Clear Away the Morning Dew and The Wild Rover. It was broadcast on BBC Midlands in 1964.
By this time, Sam was a very old man of eighty six. He had lived in Winterton all his life, aside from the often lengthy fishing voyages away after the herring, of course. He had met his wife Dorcas there and had spent all of his working life at sea until ill health caused by the rigours of the fisherman’s life forced him to abandon this at the age of fifty six. This grand old man of traditional song died on September 11th, 1965. He left £857.
About a year after Sam Larner’s death, Suffolk agricultural auctioneer and song collector Neil Lanham happened to be in Winterton, trying to find out in the churchyard about a relative who had been lost at sea in the area. There he met retired fisherman Walter ‘Tuddy’ Rudd (1905-82) and asked him if he knew any of the old songs sung in the village. Rudd certainly did and arranged for several retired fishermen to get together at his house so that Neil could record them. This happened on 17th December, 1966 when Tuddy Rudd and Johnny Goffin (1909-77) sang a variety of songs. These, unfortunately, are the only recordings made of Winterton singers other than Sam Larner, but they do give a good indication, together with the wealth collected from Sam, of this once-vibrant tradition. Tuddy also told Neil Lanham that he got An Old Man Came Courting Me (Maids When You’re Young) from a fish-hawker in the village known as ‘Lame Jimma.’ Murray Noyes, once resident in the village, remembered Johnny Goffin’s father Roger, the gamekeeper on Lord Leicester’s Holkham estate, as a singer and learned Cruising Round Yarmouth from him.
In 1974, Topic Records released a selection of fifteen of Philip Donnellan’s recordings as LP A Garland for Sam. About the same time, collector Peter Kennedy issued his own selection of the Donnellan material as a Folktrax cassette (later CD) Sailing Over the Dogger Bank: Sam’s Saucy Salty Sailor Songs. Clearly, interest in Sam Larner’s singing and his songs continued strongly a decade after his death, and has certainly carried on doing so to this day.
Peter Kennedy was to claim that the rights to the Philip Donnellan recordings were signed by Sam Larner over to him in 1958. There’s no evidence that Kennedy ever went to Winterton but he may well have met Sam in London. Generally speaking, various relatives and others in the village felt that Sam signed away rights to the songs he sang far too easily, to others who may have wished to make financial gain out of them.
By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the fishing industry in the Winterton area of Norfolk was in serious decline and the formerly close-knit community was becoming increasingly less so. The song sessions also declined as a consequence, as the way of life which fostered them all but disappeared. Ronnie Haylett certainly had very vivid memories of the nights in the pub and could recall parts of songs, but never became a singer himself: ‘Sam, he said to me one day – my father’s name is Jack – “Boy Jack”, he said, – (it was commonplace in the area for somebody to be referred to by their father’s name, together with the word ‘boy.’) “why don’t you go up and sing like your grandfather? Your grandfather Larpin. Your grandfather larnt me a lot of these songs what I sing.” I say, “I can’t sing, old chap.” “You can. You’ve just gotta stand up and get goin’. Why don’t you come up and sing, boy?” Of the two village pubs where the fishermen would congregate for such entertainment, The Three Mariners closed in 1955; it reopened for a short while as The Wishing Well but then became a private residence. The Fisherman’s Return does continue as a public house but sadly is no longer host to such nights of song and step dance of which Ronnie Haylett said, “They were lovely times down the pub when I was a youngster.”
Based on contributions from Chris Holderness and various other sources(See also Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project)