Sam Larner: They Were All Singers at Winterton!

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 (Portrait)2
Sam Larner. Photo: Mustad

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 (Fishing Fleet)
A Norfolk Fishing Fleet from the past. Photo: Mustad

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 (Fishermans Return Pub)

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. Photo Mustrad

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. Photo: Mustrad

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. Photo: The Guardian

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 (Sitting Trio)
Sam Larner with two other Villagers at Winterton. Photo: Winterton on Sea.

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. Photo Mustrad

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.”

THE END

Reference Sources :
http://www.samfest.co.uk/why.html
https://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/s_larner.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Larner
https://eatmt.wordpress.com/sam-larner/
http://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/news/folk-fans-gather-to-remember-sam-larner-1-4257514
http://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/news/winterton-s-famous-folk-singing-fisherman-to-be-honoured-with-festival-1-4074003
https://wintertononsea.co.uk/village/sam-larner.html
See also Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project)

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John Craske: An Artist Saved By The Sea.

John Craske was a fisherman from a family who had been fishermen for as long as anyone could remember. The sea was in his blood, he felt at home there, both when it was calm and breathing like a great beast resting, and also when it was wild and holding his life by a thread. But Craske was never a well man, and so he had to learn how to go to sea in his mind so he could paint and stitch pictures of maritime elements that mattered to him and that he understood.

Craske (Portrait)
Portrait of John Craske as a young man by Trevor Craske. Photograph: Trevor Craske.

John Craske was born in the town of Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast on 6th July 1881 where he joined a North Norfolk family with a long tradition of being associated with sea. John was the Grandson of Nathaniel and Elizabeth ‘Granny’ Craske, a staunch salvationist who lived to be 100 years of age and during her time she produced 12 children. Her eleventh child, Edward married Hannah Sare Dennis from North Walsham, Norfolk, in 1875. It was these two who were to be John Craske’s parents.

But times were indeed hard for fishing in and around Norfolk towards the latter part of the 19th century and presumably prospects were better further north; that was the direction taken by Edward and Hannah in 1876 when they moved to Grimsby. Their first son, Edward was born there soon after their arrival, followed by Robert Nathaniel in 1879. A further two years then passed before the family decided to return to Norfolk to live at Lower Sheringham. It was here where John Craske made his entrance, followed by a sister in 1883. Later the family moved yet again to Grimsby. where two more sons were born, between 1889 and 1896.

Craske (Fishing out of Grimsby)
Fishing out of Grimsby.

John Craske eventually put his schooling behind him when left his Board School in Grimsby to follow family tradition; he went to sea to become a deep sea fisherman. So commenced a period in his life which was to make a lasting impression on him; it was, in fact, to become almost a passion which was to dominate his artistic talent and output of paintings and embroideries in later years. But for the moment he fished alonside his two older brothers until their parents decided, in 1900, to return, with most of their children, to Sheringham. But times were still tough; tough enough to eventually convince John’s family to distance themselves from the sea altogether and move inland to East Dereham where, in 1905, his father opened a fishmonger’s shop. Father Edward ran the shop with his two sons, John and Edward, buying a daily supply of fresh fish from Lowestoft.

The Craske family tolled with its fishmongering business whilst the local fishing industry continued in its decline. Inperceptably, tourists began to take over, gradually moving in to enjoy the air, the newly built promenades and the more frequent train connections within Norfolk and to and from London. Tourists, by definition, did not have to work, instead they delighted in taking photographs of the fishermen who, to most outsiders, looked like becalmed wild tribesmen as they lolled against their boats, dressed with their high Cossack hats, tight Guernsey sweaters, heavy thigh boots with metal cleats and each with a distant gaze in their eyes that hoped for a better catch next time. None, it would seem, had enough money in their pockets to live on.

Then there was the Craske family’s strict Christian upbringing which saw them attending services at Dereham’s Salvation Army Citadel where in summer months John, in particular, took part in outdoor services held in the Market Place. On one particular occasion, a certain Miss Laura Augusta Eke came along and her attention was drawn to a tall young man standing on a soap box in the centre of the ring of Bandsmen and worshipers. He was dressed in a fisherman’s blue jersey, his black hair ruffled by a stiff summer breeze. Laura watched and listened as a noticeably nervous John Craske began to sing ‘Since Christ my soul from sin set free…………….’

Craske (Dereham Primitive)
Dereham Primitive Methodist Church as it has appeared in recent years. Photo: Keith Guyler 1987 

John and Laura married on 22 July 1908, at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Dereham, after which they went to live at Swanton Morley where John started a fish hawking round, serving the surrounding villages. He obtained two ponies which carried pannier baskets full of fish which were slung over their backs. It was a precarious existence which forced John to lead a very vigorius life, often working sixteen or seventeen hours a day. It was extremely rare for him to even take a half day off. On top of this, Swanton Morley lacked a railway station so, in order to make things easier for him to obtain daily supplies of fish from Lowestoft, he and Laura moved to North Elmham in 1909. From there, John continued to collect fish for his father’s shop and carried out all their fish curing and smoking. Then, in 1914, John and Laura moved back to Dereham and continued to carry out fish hawking business. Shortly afterwards, the First World War broke out.

John Craske was never strong and it is not certain whether, in 1916, he volunteered or was called up when conscription began. There was certainly doubts about his health for on two occasions when he attended medicals, he was classified as being C2 during his first visit then C3 subsequently. John gained exemption, however, some local people was said to have appealed to the authorities against exemptions and John received his call-up papers. It was also said at the time that the authorities were so desperate for men that they were taking on practically anyone. John formally joined the Army on 9 March 1917. That was fine as far as it went but the training process was to become John’s nemesis, from the point when reference was made to his “relapse”.

Craske (In Hospital)
John Craske (fifth from left) sitting next to the uniformed officer in Ward 22 of Davidson Road War Hospital, Croydon, on 20th April 1917. Photo: Bishop Bonner’s Cottage Museum Dereham Antiquarian Society.

On the 7 April, Laura received news from Davidson Road War Hospital in Croydon that John has relapsed whilst recoving from influenza; three days later she received the news that he had an ‘abscess on the brain’ which left him prone to attacks of nervous collapse from which he would not recover. He no longer knew his own name or who he was, just that he missed his family, his brothers and he just wanted to go home. He could not even remember his age. Initially, John was diagnosed as being an imbecile and admitted to seven different hospitals before finally being transferred, in August, to Thorpe Mental Asylum near Norwich. Laura visited him on alternate days; then on 31 October 1918  he was discharged into her care; his health verdict being that he was ‘subject to harmless mental stupours’Laura: a shy, strong-bodied woman with a devout belief that God would provide small miracles when needed. It was Laura, who came to collect him, having signed a declaration form saying that she would care for him – and care for him is what she did ever after.

Craske (Fishing Boat 'Gannet')
Fishing Boat ‘Gannet’ Photo: Sheringham Museum

It was Laura who first suggested that her restless and unhappy husband try to soothe himself by making a picture. It was said that she took the calico her mother was saving for the Christmas pudding, tacked it onto a frame and he sketched a boat. “We found some wools,” she wrote, “and I showed John the way to fill it in.” He fell into stupors for months, or even years at a time, awaking to ask: “Have I been away again?” Then he “got back to stitches”. Craske would regularly slip in and out of “a stuporous state” but still managed to eat and drink. Theories were inevitably expounded as to what was wrong with him, from diabetes to pituitary trouble; however, the most popular opinion was that he had depression with a “psychic neurotic basis”.

Then in 1920, John’s father died. This affected John so badly that he relapsed through shock and became confined to a wheelchair for a while; certainly until his GP, Dr Duigan, suggested a spell of recuperation by the sea, because “only the sea can save him”. Apparently, this was endorsed by an endocrinologist who, on hearing about this recommendation, said “Wise man, – the movement of the sea acts as a very good calmative for mental instability.” John and Laura rented a cottage, ‘The Pightle’ near the Blakeney estuary and were lent a boat, for which Craske, duely motivated, soon cut the sails for Laura to stitch them. Whenever the weather was kind the two would set off on the tide’s ebb and return with its flow. It would be three hours each way, drifting within the safe confines of an estuary rich with terns diving for sand eels, abundant dab being caught on hooks and where mud banks surrounded marsh wort, sea poppy and sea campion. Everything and everyone enjoying big skies and quiet days.

Craske (A Detail from Embroidery NUA)
A detail from an embroidery of John Craske’s ‘Rescue from Breeches Buoy’. Photo: Andi Sapey

Craske gradually improved and more aware of his surroundings; he had become aware that the cottage was unsuitable as the living room floor was below street level and all he could see were the legs of people walking by. They returned to Dereham after 5 months but it was the moment when John said to Laura that he would like to paint a picture on the lid of an old bait box. It turned out to be a red-sailed lugger leaning precipitously to one side in a storm where the wind appeared to be scudding through the crests of the waves and creating an imaginary roar. From the bait box he went on to paint on anything he could find: cardboard, brown wrapping paper, mantelpieces and doors, jugs and teacups. Even when he and Laura had another spell by the sea, this time in the village of Hemsby further down the east coast, he still went on painting.

Craske (Norfolk Coast with Boats)
Embroidery by John Craske depicting the Norfolk coast Photo: Sylvia Townsend Warner Collection

It was whilst the two were in Hemsby that Craske began to also make toy boats to sell to passersby, and that was how the poet Valentine Ackland first came across him and persuaded him to sell her one of his works which she showed to her lover, Dorothy Warren, who had a new gallery in Maddox Street in London. Valentine was keen to add Craske to her list of artists; so much so that she returned to Norfolk to find him. By then, Craske had left Hemsby and returned to Dereham. She eventually tracked him down there and found him in bed in a coma and close to death. Laura thought this tall lady in trousers had come to ask for her money back, but when she was told that more of the same was wanted, Laura brought out all of her husband’s paintings and, in return for £20 in £5 notes, gave them to Ackland who took a good few away with her. A few months later she and Warren returned to Dereham to find Craske much improved. He had produced his first embroideries and was more business-like than his wife, selling pieces according to the time he had spent on them.

Craske (All at Sea Painting-Sylvia-Townsend)
‘All at sea’ … A John Craske painting from the Sylvia Townsend Warner Collection

He had taken up embroidery because he could stitch while lying down. He used deck chair frames as stretchers for the cloth and old gramophone needles to hammer it in place. Craske was very meticulous about getting the precise tilt of a boat according to the pull of a current or the direction of the wind. It was said that when a photocopy of an embroidery, called Rescue from Breeches Buoy, was shown to a Cromer fisherman, he looked at it and said: “See, she’s foundered and she’s going to get smashed. That main line there is to get the people off …….. they’ll be alright soon enough.”

The first exhibition of John Craske’s work opened at the Warren Gallery in August 1929 where it was a success: “the ship pictures by Mr. John Craske are definitely – if crudely – works of art,” said the Times. The Daily Mail declared: “the work, though childishly naive, has extraordinary charm and decorative effectiveness”, adding, “The hero of the hour himself, a humble and God-fearing man, was not present as he is seriously ill.”

Craske (Dereham Times 1934)
John Craske, as pictured in the Dereham Times of July 1934. Photo: EDP

A second exhibition followed but this did not go so well. The principal reason was that Ackland had fallen out with Warren having started a love affair with the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. In a strange and curious way, Craske became part of their romance when Townsend Warner was taken to meet him. She was immediately impressed by his speechlessness, his simple poverty and by what she saw as the integrity of his vision. Both Ackland and Warner became his patrons and bought his work whenever they could, persuading their friends to do the same; with the Norfolk preservationist Billa Harrod acquiring a number of pieces. For the two women, together with Ackland’s wealthy American lover Elizabeth Wade White who appeared on the scene a few years later, Craske encapsulated not only the beauty of the north Norfolk coast and the North Sea, but also of happier times. The three had numerous examples of Craske’s work on the walls of their houses, although the embroideries yellowed by cigarette smoke and bleached by the sun. But it is mostly thanks to Ackland and Warner that Craske’s work has survived, especially when in the early 1970s, Townsend Warner presented her collection, along with whatever biographical material she had, to Peter Pears and the Snape Maltings, believing that:

“Craske is an artist whose work should be on view in east Anglia ……. enhanced in the sharpened light of a seaboard sky”.

Craske (Water Colour-Sylvia-Townsend)
John Craske’s Watercolour of the tiny boat with big sea from the Sylvia Townsend Warner Collection.

Craske continued being mostly silent and often ill, making pictures whenever he could. He must have produced hundreds of images, but most have been casually mislaid, and although his work did receive a certain amount of praise when it was shown in the US in the early 1940s, his reputation was never established beyond a small circle of admirers. When the Norwich Castle Museum was approached in 1947, with a request to borrow a large embroidery which they had in storage, the curator agreed on condition that her name was not mentioned, “because, quite frankly, I do not think work of this type comes under the heading of art”.

Craske explained that some of his ideas came from memory and some from imagination, which was often inspired when friends told him of shipwrecks or lucky escapes at sea. He spent an increasing amount of time listening to the wireless and in 1940, he heard how the English soldiers had been pushed back to the Normandy coast. The unfolding account of the evacuation of Dunkirk inspired his most ambitious embroidery: a sort of modern-day Bayeux tapestry, 13 feet long, which told the story of men in boats being saved by the sea. He worked on it until his death, leaving a raggedy patch of unstitched sky that still needed to be filled in.

In his lifetime Craske, a self-taught artist, was briefly welcomed by the arts world, championed by writers such as Sylvia Townsend Warner and her friends who bought and sold his works, and exhibited in London and in the US. Craske died on 26 August 1943 but within a few years of his death he was almost completely forgotten. Many of his works were destroyed, thrown away, burned, faded in sunlight on parlour walls, or left decaying in damp museum stores. Craske’s widow, Laura, gave the Dunkirk embroidery, which she regarded as his masterpiece, despite the poignant patch of bare unfinished canvas in the sky, to the Norwich Castle Museum. Craske would have been proud to know his work was in the museum, she once said – but it has never been exhibited there!

Arguably, the largest exhibition ever of John Craske’s works, rescued from museum stores or borrowed from private collectors, was as recent as 2015 in Norwich; it was displayed at the Norwich University of the Arts Gallery, where he is regarded not as a forgotten eccentric but as a neglected genius. It was Prof Neil Powell, curator of the exhibition along with Craske’s biographer Julia Blackburn (see below), who quoted at the time:

“I don’t believe Craske should be viewed either as an outsider artist, or as naïve. In any other country he would be properly viewed as a serious artist. He had a highly sophisticated sense of colour and form, and a truly extraordinary ability to convey the three-dimensional world in the medium of needlework.” Julia Blackburn added: “He was poor, he was sick, and he was a man who did embroidery – of course he was forgotten.”

Craske (Dunkirk Embroidery)
Detail from John Craske’s Dunkirk embroidery shown at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) Gallery in 2015. Photograph: NUA. 

It was purely by chance when Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn learned that they had been separately on the trail of Craske; Powell had been hunting for surviving works, including some given by Townsend Warner to the Aldeburgh Music centre, whilst Julia Blackburn had been gathering scraps of biographical information including a hand-coloured studio photograph of him as a young fisherman, self-consciously holding what she thought was a photographer’s prop, a length of fake paper rope. “You get more old photographs of fishermen than any other workers – they had them done to leave some record in case they drowned,” she once said.

It was the hope that the NUA Gallery exhibition would revive Craske’s reputation and uncover more of his work. Previously unknown postcard-sized paintings still cherished by his doctor’s family turned up weeks before that exhibition. Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn also found that many of the owners expressed surprised when the experts thought them worth exhibiting.

Craske (Julia Blackburn - biographer)
Julia Blackburn, photo by her partner, the sculptor Herman Makkink (2013)

Julia Blackburn also recalled that during the preparation for her biography on Craske, she visited Sheringham and looked up old people who might have remembered John Craske. In her own words:

“Eliza, who had had 12 children and at the age of 92 could still dance, thought John was her uncle “Ninny” Craske, but she wasn’t sure. She told me of “Little Dick” Craske, her grandfather, who learned to tap dance on a wooden chest when he was sent to Icelandic waters at the age of nine, and who would dance for the ladies and their clients in the ‘Two Lifeboats’ whorehouse. “Where’s my little Dick?” asked his mother when she came looking for him, and that was how he got his name. The only Craske that Old Bennet knew was Jack, drowned in 1931; they saved his friend Sparrow by grabbing hold of his hair. Old Bennet had lobster pots instead of flowers in his front garden and he giggled like a schoolboy when I asked him how to catch whelks: “They’ll eat anything, whelks … they travel about the sea looking for dead meat …… a boat turned over and three men drowned, they was full o’ whelks.”

Julia Blackburn’s book Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske was published by Jonathan Cape and is still available.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/13/life-on-rocks-john-craske-saved-by-sea
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/11/stitch-in-time-john-craske-exhibition-revives-work-of-artist-fisherman
http://www.derehamhistory.com/news.html
https://artuk.org/discover/artists/craske-john-18811943
http://www.edp24.co.uk/features/the-amazing-norfolk-artwork-inspired-by-the-miracle-of-dunkirk-1-5103495
Featured (Banner) Image: John Craske’s embroidery of The Evacuation of Dunkirk shown at the NUA gallery, Norwich.

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A Ghostly Tale: Sea Maiden!

Sea Maiden (Smack)

At nearly midnight in November 1898 a Lowestoft Smack lay close-hauled under a double reef weathering a North Sea gale. The third-hand, clad in yellow oil-skins, sou’wester and long sea boots had the watch. His left arm was hooked around the mizzen rigging as a safety precaution against the pitching and rolling deck. The wind was howling and shrieking through the rigging and stays; all around was a black, tumbling, crashing sea. The dark waves, like huge mountains with crests covered in snow, went snarling by. Occasionally one hit the vessel and masses of water came swirling along her decks.

Instinctively the third-hand hooked his other arm through the rigging. Over his shoulder he could see the red glow from the port light – somehow that glow reminded him of the open fire side in the cosy little cottage sitting room in Pakefield. It seemed a long way off tonight. He reckoned that the fire would be out by now fot it was getting late and the missus would have gone to bed. His gaze wandered to the lee side when stark fear and panic took possession of him. With a yell he tumbled down the companion way that led to the Skipper’s cabin below. The skipper sat beside the table as the third-hand burst in.

Sea Maiden3

“Skipper” he gasped “there’s a young woman walking on the sea”. The skipper noticed the terror-stricken face and shaking limbs of the third-hand; in an endeavour to calm him down he said, “All right old man, let’s go up and help that lady aboard. “Don’t joke skip” wailed the third-hand, “I saw her, she’d got her arms outstretched. “There’s somebody she’s come after on this ship”. “You’re nuts” snapped the Skipper. “See, “there’s nothing here. Your gal friend’s cleared off”.

Later that night, as the sea continued to behave as if it had a particular grudge against the Smack and the crew were hauling down the reef, a huge wave rose high and hurled  itself across the open deck. All the crew managed to hold on, except the third-hand who was swept cleanly away, along with his worries, fear, panic and life – to rest peacefully in the arms of the Sea Maiden.

THE END

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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 (Portrait)2
Sam Larner. Photo: Mustad

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 (Fishing Fleet)
A Norfolk Fishing Fleet from the past. Photo: Mustad

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 (Fishermans Return Pub)

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. Photo Mustrad

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. Photo: Mustrad

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. Photo: The Guardian

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 (Sitting Trio)
Sam Larner with two other Villagers at Winterton. Photo: Winterton on Sea.

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. Photo Mustrad

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.”

THE END

Reference Sources :
http://www.samfest.co.uk/why.html
https://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/s_larner.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Larner
https://eatmt.wordpress.com/sam-larner/
http://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/news/folk-fans-gather-to-remember-sam-larner-1-4257514
http://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/news/winterton-s-famous-folk-singing-fisherman-to-be-honoured-with-festival-1-4074003
https://wintertononsea.co.uk/village/sam-larner.html
See also Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project)

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