(By Chris Holderness with photos from various sources).
In addition to reading Chris’s narrative below, how about clicking on the following Link to see some of the boys ‘stepping out’
Now take a breather by sitting back and reading the following:
‘Nearly thirty years ago a friend and I, in a small boat with the two Suffolk fishermen who owned it, pulled ashore on Cromer beach, below the tall tower of the church. We were going round the coast recording material for a radio programme. Later that evening, hugging the green box which was that marvellous new thing, a portable tape recorder, we found ourselves in The Albion pub with a bunch of big smart men in reefer jackets and blue jerseys – the Cromer lifeboat crew. After a pint or two all round someone put a small board on the floor and, to my amazement, one by one these stalwart modern fishermen stood up and step-danced like people from another planet. Indeed, if they had put on silver suits and flown out of the window I could have not have been more surprised and delighted. We recorded like mad.
I had no idea then that people still did this in England – it just shows how ignorant radio producers can be!’ Thus the BBC radio producer Philip Donnellan, who was instrumental in bringing Winterton singer (and step dancer) Sam Larner to wider notice, wrote in 1982.
The north Norfolk town of Cromer has long been associated with crab and lobster fishing. Even once the Victorian railway arrived and brought countless waves of holidaymakers, turning the town into a fashionable spa watering hole, the crab fishing industry continued to flourish and was the main source of employment in the town. It was a hard way of life, as Katherine ‘Kitty’ Lee – daughter of ‘Shrimp’ Davies, erstwhile fisherman, lifeboat coxswain and step dancer – recalled: ‘A typical day in May would start for me when the alarm goes. Johno (her husband) gets
up, calls our son. Phone will give two rings and then stop, which means John Balls, our crewman, is up. The time could be anything; say it’s 3 am, 3:30 on the beach. Maybe he’ll want a different order for bait. He’ll set the clock for me to get up about 7 am. I light the gas coppers. They take an hour to get hot. If everything is working OK the men should be ashore about 7:30 am. Home around 8 am. Put 2 or 3 hundred crabs into the bath of warm water – 8.30 they’ll be drowsy enough to scrub clean. Two of the men will scrub – we can boil 200 crabs at a time. The third will cook their breakfast – they take turns – all good cooks! In June when they go off around 2:30 am, they are home by 6:30 am…’ It was also a hazardous existence, dependent on the tides and the vagaries of the sea, in a notoriously unpredictable area of the coast, as Donnellan made note of in the same article as before: ‘Three months after our recording session in The Albion two of those big dancing fishermen, coming into Cromer beach on a summer day with their catch of crabs, were swamped by a freak wave and never seen again.’
Side by side with this traditional industry of crab fishing were the two activities of being crew members of the Cromer lifeboat and step dancing in the pubs of the town and surrounding area. In both of these activities, the Davies family has been prominent. Probably one of the most renowned of the family was Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies (1914-2002), a long-serving and decorated coxswain of the lifeboat. He was also a wonderful step dancer. Philip Donnellan was not the only BBC broadcaster to visit Cromer step dancers, intentional or otherwise. John Seymour, in conjunction with fiddle player Alan Waller, did so sometime in the early 1960s: ‘Going up into the town, we looked up Shrimp Davies, as the coxswain of Cromer’s No 1 lifeboat is generally called by people who know him. I’ve known him for some years. Like the other lifeboatmen, he’s also a crabber and crabbing is how he makes his living. He’s a smallish man, but wiry and tough, as anyone following his calling must be. He likes his beer when he’s ashore, he plays the melodeon and he step dances……The earliest extant recording of Shrimp step dancing seems to have been made by Peter Kennedy in 1952, in the town, when he danced to Percy Brown and Bob Thompson playing The Sheringham Breakdown on melodeons.
‘Shrimp’ Davies’ cousins Jack (John James) and Dick were also step dancers, whilst another cousin Bob also played the melodeon. When Peter Clifton and Ann-Marie Hulme visited the area in the mid-1970s to research the step dancing tradition, they found the Davies family members still very active in this respect. They identified three distinct styles of step dancing still in evidence in north Norfolk, albeit mainly practised by a few members of an older generation: ‘
1) An intrinsic and deep rooted style of dancing which we call Norfolk stepping.
2) The stepping characteristic of the travelling people – as old or possibly older than Norfolk stepping, which we call Travellers’ Stepping.
3) A degenerate form of what is commonly called modern Lancashire stepping performed by the Davies family of fishermen in Cromer.’
‘The Davies are an established Cromer fishing family whose association with the lifeboat dates from its earliest days. The present cox is young Richard Davies who succeeded his uncle, Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies. Shrimp’s predecessor was the famous coxswain Henry Blogg, brought up with the Davies. There has been a tradition of dancing in the Davies family for at least seventy years. This dancing is performed in ordinary leather-soled shoes and is considered by the fishermen and others to be Lancashire dancing.’
‘Unlike the Lancashire stepping of the travellers and the Jearys, the older members of the Davies family danced in eight-bar phrases, comprising a six-bar step followed by a two-bar finish. The story of how modern Lancashire step dancing came to be found amongst the fishermen of Sheringham and Cromer is well known. The Morning Advertiser of 1964 relates the tale as told to them by Mr Archie Wright in an article entitled Christmas is a time for Step Dancing. It reads: At The Horseshoes, in the Norfolk village of Alby, the entertainment speciality of this cheerful roadside inn is a particularly vigorous form of step dancing. The story of step dancing at The Horseshoes is linked with the career of licensee Mr Archie Wright.
His first connection with the local fishermen was in 1924 when he went to The Belle Vue at Cromer, a house he managed for nine years.’
‘In any conversation about step dancing the most frequently recurring name is that of Jack Davies (Sn). Mr Wright’s sister Rosie is Mrs Jack Davies (Jr). Her son Richard is an expert step dancer and his grandfather Mr Jack Davies Sn., now over eighty, was until a few years ago one of the finest exponents in the district.’
‘At this point it has to be acknowledged that Norfolk cannot claim this form ofstep dancing for its very own. It was brought to Cromer by a coastguard from Lancashire over sixty years ago and he showed local fishermen Mr Jack Davies (born 1884) and his brother Billy (born 1887) how it should be done. When Jack and Billy Davies danced together they did so in perfect unison. An exponent whose expertise is still remembered and discussed with admiration was the late Mr Charlie Harrison (born 1874). ”Billy Davies passed his talent on to his son Mr Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies. Jack’s brother Dick is a good step dancer, as is Jack himself and his son Richard. The Sheringham lifeboat bowman Mr Eric Wink is another step dancer.’
It goes on to say, ‘For a feature of this dance, which over the years has become the Norfolk fishermen’s own speciality, is that it must be performed within a very small space. It is all done on the toes and ball of the feet and heels must never touch the ground.’
Archie Wright’s daughter Marian Daniels commented, of another public house held by the family, that ‘My parents Archie and Ivy Wright were tenants at The King’s Head, Erpingham. We moved there in 1948. All the twelve years we were there Sat and Sunday evenings George Craske would bike over from Sustead and bring his accordion. Also a chap called Albert would play the piano. He was a coal man and my mother had to clean the white keys as they were black when he finished playing.’
“My uncle Jack Davies, a Cromer fisherman, and his son, my cousin Richard, would step dance, also myself, my father and Jimmy Crane. Everybody used to get up and dance. My mother would be up and down the cellar steps, serving. There was no counter. She would be singing all the old songs. Titch and Charlie Lambert, uncle and nephew, loved to dance. If they couldn’t get a partner they would dance together. It is such a shame these wonderful evenings are no more.’
To return to the article by Peter Clifton and Ann-Marie Hulme: ‘The Davies’s dancing is of great interest as it demonstrates the absorption of an extrinsic style of dance into the local tradition and how in two generations the dance has degenerated. We know that the deep-rooted Norfolk stepping existed in Cromer before the arrival of the Lancashire coastguard. Indeed, old Jack Davies’ father was a Norfolk stepper. Old Jack Davies, his brother Billy and ship’s carpenter Charlie ‘Casey’ Harrison from Sheringham learnt Lancashire steps from a coastguard stationed at Cromer in about 1905. The Davies called these steps by such names as the 1st Lancashire Step, the 2nd Lancashire step, etc. The steps the coastguard brought with him are generally termed Lancashire clog steps. That is the modern style of Lancashire dancing dating from the 1870s, danced on the music halls and at competitions. The Davies fitted their Lancashire steps to the even rhythmic hornpipes and breakdowns of the local Norfolk musicians, often dancing alongside the dancers of the deep-rooted Norfolk style of stepping such as the Wards and the Turners from Roughton whom Archie Wright calls ‘farmyard shufflers’ or ‘tailboard steppers’.
He used these terms in a slightly derogatory sense, considering their style of stepping inferior to that of the fishermen. The names apparently derive from the farm labourers’ practice of removing the tail boards of farm carts to step in order to keep warm on cold mornings whilst awaiting their orders.’
As to the Davies’ style, the article comments: ‘We believe old Jack learnt eight steps. He was undoubtedly the best dancer, and we are told was the only Davies to be able to dance the steps off each foot. The next generation of Davies, Jack, Dick, Shrimp and Bob dance about half that number. The best dancer and the only one to still use a two-bar finish is Dick Davies. He learnt his steps from Charlie Harrison. He insists his 1st Lancashire step must be danced with plenty of spring and on the toes. Another step involved shuffles followed by a toe and heel – a type of roll. We note that for a dance which is supposed to be ‘all done on the toes and ball of the foot, and heels never touch the ground’, it certainly employs a number of down heel beats.’
In an area where step dancing was once very commonplace, and to a more limited extent still is, the Davies family – or at least the males of the family – have ensured that this tradition continued in Cromer perhaps long after it died out elsewhere. The fishing community in the town was notably conservative, in outlook, dress and customs, as Kitty Lee relates: ‘Johno averages a new suit every other year. Doeskin is out, but he does have the best serge available. So he generally can rely on having three suits at any one time – working, second best and best. He has at least seven jackets in the house at present. He takes a pride in wearing the old style and I doubt he will ever change.’ It is this pride in the traditional way of doing things which may have ensured the survival of the step dancing in the town, particularly although not exclusively in the hands of the Davies family.
Kitty Lee once again comments on the men’s habits which fostered this: ‘Bringing up a family in the olden times they didn’t have a lot of room – 2 up, 2 down – with 7 or 8 children. It wasn’t so bad when they were all small and sent to bed but as they grew, where did they all sit? So I guess going to the local hostelry was really a necessity. It would be more like a wealthy person going to his ‘club’. What better way to end a day’s work than by sinking a few pints of good ale, replacing the liquid sweated out rowing and hauling, chatting about the day’s events, discussing catches, swopping ‘yarns’, telling tales. Bit of music from an accordionist, sing an old ‘shanty’, dance a step or two. Wonderful days. It was the best way to relax, take the tension out of any worrying situations that might have occurred, discuss prices and decide what time is best to get the tide tomorrow.’
Unfortunately this tradition of self-made pub entertainment was not to last as people’s recreation changed; of the aforementioned step dancing Davies, Richard (1944-2010) was the only one of his generation to continue the practice, as his daughter Fiona relates: ‘There weren’t really many people. I can’t think of anyone like Billy Davies, or anyone like that stepping. I can’t remember them doing that … Dad used to get annoyed (in The Albion) when someone would come in and start playing, and then someone in the pub would turn the music up; and he could get really annoyed.’
Singing in the pubs was also commonplace in the town, part and parcel of the evening’s entertainment with the step dancing, as a local newspaper article relates: ‘Shrimp’ learned his many step dances from his father, and from his famous uncle, Coxswain Henry Blogg. He tells many a tale of the fierce competition which existed in the early days of this century between local step-dancers, tales which involved both ‘Shrimp’ himself and his father. ‘He recalls a man named Gipsy Gray, renowned around Cromer for his prowess both with his feet and his fists. Shrimp’s father was dancing in a local pub one night when Gipsy Grey walked in and started to deride the Davies’ dancing. ‘Davies determined then to prove his superiority and a fight ensued from which he emerged victorious, uncrowned king of step dance and fisticuffs. Having heard of these tales I wondered how ‘Shrimp’, who certainly looks a worthy successor to his father, had earned his diminutive nickname. He laughed when I inquired about it, and told me that being a rather small baby, his Uncle Henry had walked in, taken one look and said, not very tactfully, ‘What a bloomin’ shrimp.’ The nickname has survived some fifty years.
‘The usual venue of the lifeboatmen of Cromer is either The Albion pub or The Bath Hotel. In The Albion, on a black, storm-swept night in January, I met ‘Shrimp’s’ brother Bob Davies, a giant of a man. Like the rest of the Davies family he has the sea etched into his face, and also like them he has a warm, outgoing personality. He is judged to be one of the best accordion players in the county, when he can be persuaded to give a tune on that instrument.’
‘When one adds ‘Shrimp’s’ dancing to Richard’s singing and Bob’s accompaniment, one wonders why they did not choose the stage for their career, for they would have been instantly successful. Richard, who strikes one as the obvious leader of the younger generation of Cromer seamen, does most of his singing in The Bath Hotel on the seafront. The proprietors, Tom Evans and his wife Stella are both keen folk music followers and have encouraged the fishermen to use this pub as their song and dance centre. Richard has a wealth of traditional song at his fingertips, songs which have been passed on by generations of seamen. One of his favourite songs is The Bold Princess Royal…’
Clearly there was on occasion a robust spirit of competition as regards the step dancing, although Richard himself did not favour any sort of formal dancing competitions, as Fiona relates: ‘He used to get quite annoyed about the stepping competitions as well…It was just that you shouldn’t have a competition. I totally agree with him on that one. That don’t matter who’s better … But it’s not about how well you do it; it’s being part of it and adding a beat to the music. It’s not how fancy your steps are.’
In recent years Richard Davies could always be prevailed upon to sing his own idiosyncratic versions of The Foggy Dew and The Worst Old Ship (Waiting for the Day), both, in their rather blunt bawdiness, exhibiting his vivacious and convivial personality which always came to the fore in numerous musical occasions across the county.
One local regular singer and step dancer who was greatly involved in the nights of music but who was not of the Davies family was Frank ‘Friday’ Balls. An occasional fisherman, he tended to earn his living in the building trade, as Jimmy Jeary recalled: ‘He hardly went to sea; very, very rare. He was a builder more than anything. He used to sing down The White Horse on Saturday, Friday nights. Cause he knew all the old fishing songs,’ and Fiona Davies remembered that ‘He was quite a lovely old man’ who sang and step danced.
Aside from Bob Davies or George Craske, a regular musician to play for the step dancing was Percy Brown, who lived in and around the town of Aylsham. Philip Donnellan again: ‘Two of the men that night in The Albion (and what better name for a culture-carrying pub than that?) were not fishermen but countrymen: Percy Brown, who played melodeon and concertina (sic) like an angel, and Dick Hewitt, a slim, straight younger man, who danced like a demon.’ As well as in Cromer itself, the step dancing would take place a few miles inland as, before the advent of synthetic materials, the fishermen would head to Antingham to gather hazelnut sticks for their crab pots, as recalled by Ray Bird, formerly landlord of The Barge in that village: ‘Them down Cromer, the fishermen, they used to come. They used to come to that little old plantation; that’s where they used to cut hazelnut out for crab pots. They’d just call up the road for Percy: ‘Come on, we’re going down for a drink.’
On 6th October, 1962, Reg Hall, Bill Leader and Russell Wortley recorded an evening’s entertainment in The Bath House on the sea front of the town. Reg Hall
remembers that they picked up Dick Hewitt and Percy Brown on the way and that ‘Shrimp’ Davies lived more or less next door. The lively recordings showcase Percy Brown’s playing of a variety of popular song tunes, his occasional singing, and quite a few medleys of hornpipes to which Richard, Jack, and ‘Shrimp’ Davies step danced, as did Dick Hewitt and ‘Friday’ Balls, the latter also contributing the occasional song. As well as Percy, Reg also accompanied the step dancers on several occasions, recalling that he played that evening to get things going, something he wouldn’t always do. As a consequence of this night, Reg remembers that the Cromer lifeboat crew were invited down to Islington Fox in about 1965 and that about four came and there was a night of singing, step dancing and storytelling.
In the 1970s a short film was made for Anglia Television of various Davies family members and ‘Friday’ Balls step dancing to Percy Brown’s playing, showing their individual styles within that ‘degenerate form of what is commonly called modern Lancashire stepping.’ The five dancers get up one after the other to perform their steps, whilst Percy Brown continues to play Yarmouth Hornpipe throughout, very much as is the custom. The dancers in order are Richard, Dick, Jack, ‘Friday’ Balls and ‘Shrimp’ Davies.
Richard Davies, the life and soul of so many musical nights across the county with his ebullient personality, sadly succumbed to a brain tumour on 5th May, 2010, at the age of sixty five. Local broadcaster and newspaper columnist Keith Skipper wrote: ‘He looked and sounded like a refugee from Treasure Island. Gingery beard, muscular frame, booming voice, piercing eyes darting from menace to mirth in no time and a throaty chortle … With great uncles like Henry Blogg and Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies, the boy Richard had to get used to feeling at home with proud traditions … We found happy common ground on stage as his extrovert nature and delicious lightness of foot kept traditional step-dancing to the fore. He answered calls to give special displays at Mundesley Festival and on my Press Gang farewell entertainment rounds. Our final flourish together came at Waxham Barn on an uncommonly cold May evening a couple of years ago to raise money for the Sea Palling inshore lifeboat. Richard’s turn culminated in his own distinctive version of Foggy Dew.’ Richard Davies was a highly respected member of his local community, long standing coxswain of the lifeboat until his retirement in 1999, and the town quite rightly came to a standstill for his funeral on 19th May, 2010.
Times have changed in Cromer as everywhere else but the crab fishing is still thriving in the hands of Richard’s son John, continuing the family business although, in the words of Fiona, ‘My brother can step. But he always says he has a bone in his leg, so he can’t! But he can step; he was taught to step. He knows how to do it, but he won’t.’ Fiona however has continued the family tradition, despite the fact that it has been almost exclusively a male preserve in the town: ‘It was male-dominated … But I can’t remember any of my aunts stepping … I broke that tradition!’ She recalls earlier years and being in Aldborough Black Boys in the mid 1970s: ‘I can’t remember whether we were upstairs or downstairs, but I can remember my dad saying, ‘Come on, step!’ And I had to, whether I was shy or not. I was only about five or six. That was one of my earliest memories, I think. And it was great, because there was lovely people and a whole big community of people doing music, and it was interesting, I think, at that age.’ The tradition is in good family hands as Fiona’s children Ben and Emily both step dance too, even if age has temporarily reduced the interest: ‘And when I got to a teenager: I got ‘I’m not doing that anymore!’ Like my children, they’re teenagers; they don’t want to do that. But they will come back to it. It took me a few years to do it; to come back to it. But it’s a nice thing to keep going; tradition. I’ve even got my own little protégées now and my friend’s daughter; she’s six.’