Two Writers’ Encounter with Norfolk.

In May 1933 Sylvia Townsend Warner and her female partner, Valentine Ackland, were driving around Norfolk when they discovered what used to be called Frankfort Manor, but now known as Sloley Old Hall; it lay up a quiet lane in the northwest of the county of Norfolk  and about 5 miles south of the town of North Walsham. According to Warner:

Sylvia Warner (Sloley Village Sign)
The village sign. Photo: Cameron Self.

“It was a beautifully proportioned house, with a Dutch Gable and a reed-thatch roof – filled with the noise of trees. Valentine found it, exploring inland, but only because her quick eye caught sight of it behind its rampart of trees: backing to have another look, she saw it was to let. It stood in that stretch of Norfolk where the soil is deep and fertile; a soil for oak and chestnuts to plunge their roots into.”

 

Sylvia Warner (Old Sloley Hall)
Sloley Old Hall: Formerly Frankfort Manor, the temporary home of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland in 1933/4. Photo: William H Brown Archive.

The Manor, as then, was for rent and the two somewhat strange literary ladies leased it until November 1934. They believed that the house and its gardens would provide them with the perfect rural location in which to potter about and write – particularly about a family of cats that lived in the Hall’s outbuildings. These feline creatures inspired Warner’s ‘The Cat’s Cradle Book’ (1940), which is a collection of short stories seen from a cat’s point of view.

Sylvia Warner (Valentine at Sloley Manor_Norfolk)
Ackland and the Frankfort Manor cats.

In her autobiography, Valentine Ackland described the attraction of Frankfort Manor thus:

“At Frankfort Manor, then, we lived in a kind of solemn, fairy story splendour. The first spring and summer brought nothing but miraculous days. Every day a fresh discovery; one day I found white currents….another day we met a hedgehog walking up the drive, another day I was picking green peas into a colander and saw the earth near my feet heaving and a mole emerged and I caught it instantly in the colander and carried it in to Sylvia and set it down beside her typewriter on her table.”

Clearly, Frankfort Manor was where they enjoyed one of the happiest times of their lives together. But they were not to know, when they took out the lease on the property that within twelve months they would be forced to leave because their money was being drained by heavy legal costs resulting from a libel case involving them and the Chaldon Vicarage back in Dorset. In short, they successfully sued after standing up for the rights of a badly treated servant girl there; it was huge financial blow. Nevertheless, whilst they were at the Manor Warner herself described their days there as follows:

“Throughout the autumn, we worked hard and honestly in the kitchen garden. There was about an acre of it, four square plots with flower-borders smothered in bindweed, two asparagus beds and a fruit wall. When we arrived, the ground was under potatoes. These we sold to a fish and chip shop on the Wroxham Road. ……… We made jam and conserves and pickles and sold them. We needed every penny we could raise if we were to stay on in this kind paradise where we were so happy, so hard-working, so good. Goodness is like a flower of the locality. We were never again so unimpededly good as we were at Frankfort Manor.”

It was also during this time at Frankfort Manor that their first and only collaborative work, a book of poetry titled ‘Whether a Dove or a Seagull’, was published. It was truly a time of happiness and productivity, a time that was to be deeply cherished by Warner.

“There was a Victorian wire arch over a path in the kitchen garden, and I remember hanging grey kittens among its lolloping pink roses to get them out of my way as I thinned carrots, and thinking as I heard Valentine whistling nearby…..It would not be possible to know greater happiness……It did not occur to me that such happiness might be too good to last.”

For the Record:
Sylvia Nora Townsend Warner was born on 6 December 1893 at Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, the only child of George Townsend Warner and his wife Eleanor “Nora” Mary (née Hudleston). Her father was a house-master at Harrow School and was, for many years, associated with the prestigious Harrow History Prize which was renamed the Townsend Warner History Prize following his death in 1916. As a child, Warner was home-schooled by her father after being kicked out of kindergarten for mimicking the teachers. She was musically inclined, and, before World War I, planned to study in Vienna under Schoenberg. She enjoyed a seemingly idyllic childhood in rural Devonshire, but was strongly affected by her father’s death.

Sylvia Warner (Portrait_National Portrait Gallery_© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby's London)
Sylvia Townsend Warner. Photo: National Portrait Gallery. (c) Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotherby’s, London.

On the other hand, Valentine Ackland’s upbringing was quite different. She was born Mary Kathleen Macrory Ackland on 20 May 1906 in London, to Robert Craig Ackland and Ruth Kathleen (née Macrory). Nicknamed “Molly” by her family, she was the younger of two sisters. With no sons born to the family, her father, a West End London dentist, worked at making a symbolic son of Molly, teaching her to shoot rifles and to box. This attention to Molly made her sister Joan Alice Elizabeth immensely jealous. Older by eight years, Joan psychologically tormented and physically abused Molly.

Sylvia Warner (Valentine Ackland at Winterton 1928_© The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society 2020)
Valentine ‘Molly’ Ackland. Photo: (c) The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

Molly began wearing men’s clothing, and cut her hair in a short style called the Eton crop, and was at times mistaken for a handsome young boy. This was the time, in the late 1920’s, when she changed her name to the androgynous Valentine Ackland; it was when she decided to become a serious poet. Her poetry appeared in British and American literary journals during the 1920s to the 1940s, but Ackland deeply regretted that she never became a more widely read poet. Indeed, much of her poetry was published posthumously, and she received little attention from critics until a revival of interest in her work in the 1970s.

But it was back in 1927 when Sylvia Townsend Warner first met the aspiring writer named Valentine Ackland. In 1930, they became life partners, eventually settling permanently in the village of Frome Vauchurch, Dorset in 1937. In the same year, American heiress, Elizabeth Wade White (1908–1994), moved to Dorset, England, ostensibly to conduct her research on Anne Bradstreet, an early American poet and the first American writer to be published in the Thirteen Colonies. This was actually an excuse; her real intent was to meet Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Valentine Ackland with whom White was to have an affair sometime later.

Sylvia Warner (Elizabeth Wade White at age 18 in 1924 at Westover School_Wikipedia)
Elizabeth Wade White at age 18 in 1924. Photo: Wikipedia.

As an aside: White was coincidentally, a supporter of Sheringham’s John Craske who, in turn, was a painter friend of Ackland. It would appear that for this reason, White became in contact with another East Anglian, Peter Pears, who was collecting Craske’s works; White was to donate her papers about Craske to the Aldeburgh Festival Archive.

Matters were to become difficult for Warner around this time, for she was marked by her mother’s increasing senility. This situation was not helped when Valentine had her ongoing affair with White. Warner was tolerant of her younger lover’s dalliances, but the seriousness and length of Ackland’s relationship with White was distressing and pushed Warner’s relationship with Ackland to the edge. Eventually, in 1949 to be exact (see ‘Warren Farm’ below), Valentine returned to Warner and the next fifteen years were relatively tranquil for them both. This does not hide the fact that Valentine struggled with alcohol addiction for many years of their life together.  Valentine’s lack of success  as a poet and her financial  reliance on Sylvia Warner  meant that  her self-esteem took a battering and she was often wracked by self-loathing.

Winterton:
After eventually leaving the blissful days of Frankfort Manor behind, Warner and Valentine resumed living back at their cottage in West Chaldon, Dorset. It would be seventeen years before the couple again stayed any appreciable length of time in Norfolk, although there were those moments when Warner, one of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, frequently stayed with Ackland at her childhood family home of Hill House in Winterton. Its grounds have long since been a holiday centre with those bizarre African inspired thatched holiday chalets. Before then, the house was more recognisable, without the present-day huge bay windows, and from where the two frequented the Fisherman’s Return in Winterton, one of the two pubs in the village; the second was the Mariners, which has since become a private house.

Sylvia Warner (Fishermans Return)

It was also at Hill House that the two wrote poetry inspired by the Winterton beach and dunes; with Warner writing, after one visit in 1930:

“It was the severe presence of the sea which made the rather ugly house romantic. Below the plateau the dunes stretched far as the eye could travel, harshly mossed to the landward (it was impossible to think of them as land), prickled with marram grass as they rose into sandhills and subsided into the beach: a grey pebble beach till the tide went out and left a belt of sand streaked with watery light where the sea lay caught in pits and furrows.”

Sylvia Warner (The Hill House_Winterton)
The present Hill House, Winterton, Norfolk. Photo: Cameron Self

As a postscript to Hill House; it became an upmarket hotel when it was acquired by ex-RAF pilot Ken Temple. He had spent time living in Africa and it was he who had the roundhouses built as bedrooms for guests. Thatched cottages were also built as holiday lets during the 1950s and 60s in The Lane, which is opposite the Fisherman’s Return public house; at one point the lighthouse itself was part of the holiday centre. The hotel was rather exclusive and among its high-profile guests were film stars. Apparently, Honor Blackman and Richard Burton were at one glittering event there and the young actor, who went on to play Antony to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, happily chatted up a local girl – nothing new there then!

Warren Farm, Horsey: 

In October 1949, Sylvia and Valentine returned again briefly to Norfolk and stayed at Warren Farm, Horsey; it happened to be during the crisis of Valentine’s affair with Elizabeth Wade White. Today, the Farm is somewhat different, situated at the south eastern edge of Waxham Sands Holiday Park and forming part of it. It also adjoins a Nature Reserve and Bird Sanctuary.

Sylvia Warner (Warren Farm_Evelyn Simak)
An impression of Warren Farm; try and imagine it without all those caravans. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

Salthouse:
Salthouse lies on the North Norfolk coast between Weybourne and Cley-next-the-Sea. At one time, salt was manufactured in the village and exported to Europe. In fact, its name derives directly from ‘house for storing salt’ – a term recorded in the Domesday Book. Above Salthouse is the village church, which provides a spectacular view across the marshes to the North Sea. Mary Mings, the daughter of the famous admiral Sir Christopher Mings, is buried beneath the nave.

It was one year on from their stay at Warren Farm when, in 1950, Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover, Valentine Ackland, came once more to Norfolk and rented the Great Eye Folly in Salthouse, that was until 1951 whilst Warner worked on her last novel ‘The Flint Anchor’ (1954). The Folly – a former coastguard building – was originally built by Onesiphorus Randall in the 19th Century and for a long time was called Randall’s Folly. It stood on the beach in an exposed and windswept location and would always be vulnerable to the sea. In 1950, when the two writers first set eyes on the Folly, it made a profound impression, particularly with Warner who, in a letter to Alyse Gregory in 1950, described her own impressions of the building:

 “…. I think Valentine will have told you about the Great Eye Folly. I have the oddest impressions of it, since we were only there for about fifteen minutes, and conversing all the time with its owners. But the first five of those minutes were enough to enchant me. It is the sort of house one tells oneself to sleep with, and sometimes I almost suppose that it is really one of my dream-houses, and no such solid little assertion of the rectangle breaks the long sky-line of salt-marsh and sea.”

Sylvia Warner (Randall's Folly)
The once ‘Great Eye Folly’ in Salthouse where Warner and Ackland stayed in 1950/51. Photo: Courtesy of the Salthouse History Group.

So, the two women stayed, and again potted about and wrote until the moment arrived when it was time to depart and return finally to Dorset. Two years later, the great storm of 1953 broke the Folly’s back and its complete demise was nigh. Nothing remains of it today.

Randall's Folly_Salthouse (Birkin Haward)3
Birkin Haward’s painting of  the former Great Eye Folly (Randall’s Folly). Image: Courtesy of Birkin Haward Jnr.
Sylvia Warner (Great Eye Folly)2
Immediately prior to the 1953 flood this was known as the ‘Great Eye Folly’s. Its whole seaward front was torn off by the great storm in January of that year. The ruin remained like this for a couple of years, but had to be demolished finally in June 1956. Photo: Birkin Haward (Courtesy of Birkin Haward Jnr).

In 1967, Valentine Ackland was told that she had breast cancer that had metastasised to her lungs; after a long struggle with the disease, she died in 1969 at her home in Maiden Newton, Dorset. Warner, then in her mid-70s, continued to mourn her for the remainder of her life, though she found some solace in her garden and her much-loved cats. In her last years, she also enjoyed a resurgence of interest in her work, especially among feminist scholars. Increasingly troubled by arthritis and deafness, Warner became bedridden early in 1978. She died on May 1 of that year, aged 84 years and her ashes were buried with Ackland’s at St Nicholas, Chaldon Herring, Dorset with the inscription from Horace Non omnis moriar (Ode III.30, “I shall not wholly die”) on their gravestone.

Sylvia Warner (Headstone)
Photo:(c) The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

THE END

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Townsend_Warner
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentine_Ackland
https://myancestors.wordpress.com/2007/12/23/sylvia-townsend-warner-1893-1978/
https://www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/sloley.htm#:~:text=In%20May%201933%20Sylvia%20Townsend,leased%20it%20until%20November%201934.
https://www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/salthouse.htm
https://www.townsendwarner.com/data/201406_stws_we.php
https://inkyfoot.wordpress.com/tag/valentine-ackland/

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

 

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. (Photo: copyright owner unknown)

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)
(Photo: copyright owner unknown)

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
(Photo: copyright owner unknown )

“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. (Photo: copyright owner unknown.)

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. (Photo: copyright owner unknown)
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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