The Step Dancing Fishermen of Cromer

(By Chris Holderness with photos from various).

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:

Cromer Beach 1

‘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.

Cromer (Albion Pub)

 

Sam Larner (Philip Donellan)1
Peter Donnellan

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

Cromer (Crabs)
Cromer Crabs

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.’

Step Dancing:

Cromer (Henry Shrimp Davies)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.’

Cromer (Late Richard Davies)
Richard Davies

‘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.’

Cromer (Davies on Horseback))
The Step Dancing Davies

“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.’

Cromer (Shrimp Dancing)
Shrimp Davies Dancing

‘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.

Cromer (Percy Brown & Dick Hewitt)
Percy Brow & Dick Hewitt

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

Cromer (Dick Hewitt)
Dick Hewitt

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.

Cromer (Richard Davies)2
Richard 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.

Cromer (Late Richard Davies)
Richard Davies circa 2002

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.’

Sam Larner and his Singing Community

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.

Sam Larner 1
Sam Larner

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 Larner (Fleet)1
A Norfolk Fishing Fleet from the past

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.

Sam Larner Winterton Fishermen 1940)
Winterton Fishermen in 1940

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.” 

Sam Larner (The Dogger Bank)1

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.

Sam Larner (Village)1

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:

Sam Larner (The Three Mariners)1

“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.”

Sam Larner (Dick Green)1
Dick Green

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 AustraliaCruising 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.

Sam Larner (Tome Brown)1
Tom Brown

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.

Step Dancing:

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.

Cromer (Richard Davies)2
An example of Step Dancing from Richard Davies.

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 (His Cottage)
Sam Larner’s Cottage at Winterton, Norfolk
Sam Larner (Philip Donellan)1
Philip Donnellan

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.’

Sam Larner (MacColl & Seeger)
Ewan McCall & Peggy Seeger

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.

Sam Larner (Record)1This 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.

Sam Larner and Villagers
Sam Larner with two other Villagers at Winterton.

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.

Sam Larner (Neil Lanham)1
Neil Lanham

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.

Sam Larner (Record)2In 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)