Bob Askew's Southampton Gardiner Talk


George Gardiner came to visit Southampton in the summer of 1906. From the sequence in the notebook it seems that he would visit a locality, collect some songs, and often return again later to see if the singer had remembered any more songs or more verses of those he had heard already. He seems to have moved back and forth between the Southampton and Lyndhurst areas before he moved on Fareham etc. I think that he would have made use of the railway to travel to Southampton and he probably stayed at one of the better Hotels, but probably not the most expensive.

Southampton unfortunately does not have a wonderful long write-up by Gardiner like Portsmouth did in the Hampshire Chronicle. So I have had to summarise the material myself.

The Workhouse seems to have been Gardiner's main source in Southampton, but unlike Portsmouth, Gardiner did find some singers still in the community. This compensates for the fact that the Workhouse yielded around 40 songs whereas he collected over 100 in Portsmouth. Southampton was also the home of John Fisher Guyer, a violin teacher, who was a very effective collaborator with Gardiner. He notated the tunes to the songs of the southern half of the county. He was a Berkshire man who came to live in the Freemantle area after a dozen years in Edinburgh as a concert performer and music tutor. If anyone knows about John Guyer or any of the singers that I mention, I would love to know of any background information. And anyone willing to do a little family tree research would be great to know!).

I will break the Southampton singers into four groups:

I will deal with the Workhouse first. I would like to point out that Gardiner collected a fair proportion of songs from workhouses, and more than any other collector. So his collection is different from theirs, in that it shows what was being sung in towns as well as the countryside. I would like to ask Anne Barratt to read a brief extract from Gardiner's comments on his visit to Portsmouth Workhouse, to set the scene.

'The most strenuous piece of work I performed this year was the exploration of Portsmouth Workhouse and Infirmary, to which I was admitted by the courtesy of the Board of Guardians. The officials did everything in their power to smooth my way, and in the course of fifteen days 100 songs were recorded. It was in the garden of the house that my musical colleague and I noted most of the men's songs. There we spent many a pleasant hour with our songsters and the hearers they attracted, and if I may judge by the hearty response made to my appeal, we did for a brief space contribute to their happiness. Gardiner collected about 40 songs in Southampton Workhouse, which is a good number, and there are many interesting ones among them. The Workhouse buildings still stand in the St Mary's area. I am glad that they have not been demolished. They are sound architecture and part of our history. Workhouse buildings are usually more interesting and superior to most places built today. Workhouses may have had a bad press, and deservedly so in some instances, but they also did a good job in giving people food and shelter when there was no one else to do it. (I would like to point out that Lloyd George and the Liberals only brought in National Insurance and Old Age Pensions during the latter years of Gardiner's collecting. In fact Gardiner collected an interesting song that mentions pensions, collected from Charles Mills of Cheriton. This is probably a self-penned song and it celebrates the coronation of Edward VII. It mentions the desire for pensions years before the government brought them in.) I will go through the singers from the workhouse and some of the songs collected. I will do this in some detail in case anyone may recognise a possible relative or acquaintance.

First the men in the workhouse: From John NORMAN, aged 65, who originally came from East Meon Gardiner got 7 songs, including an interesting version of 'Geordie'. A Mr E SHERGOLD, aged 75, who came from Amesbury in Wiltshire gave 2 songs: a version of 'Through the Groves' often now called the 'Holmfirth Anthem', and a version of the 'Unfortunate Lass'. He got 5 songs from George Cooper, aged 79, sadly only one with a tune: 'In Scarborough Town'. He got one song without a tune from Thomas Hampton: 'Bill Jones'. He got 13 songs from Frederick White, aged 67, who was an ex seaman, as you would expect from a port like Southampton. He gave a variety of songs including many about the sea, such as 'The Greenland Whale Fishery' and 'The Banks of Newfoundland'. But we are especially lucky in that there is a surviving cylinder recording of him at Cecil Sharp House, and it is available on this CD. Here we have him singing 'Claudy Banks' to a different tune than normal and with a wonderful added chorus, which you hear at the start of the recording.

(SONG: Claudy Banks. Frederick WHITE.)

This is not the usual tune. People would use the same tune for different songs, there were many variations. Tunes could be subtly varied, or as in this case, a completely different tune could be used. Now that we get virtually all our information from CDs and songbooks, we tend to think that there is only one tune for any song. But if you go in to Gardiner's collection, you can find the variety that was always there in traditional song. (And I personally would be glad if people sang their own regional versions of the songs, rather than cloned versions of the most well-known folk singers.)

Then Gardiner recorded songs from four women in the Workhouse. (It is a bit of a myth that people never moved around in the old days. I have just mentioned men from East Meon and Wiltshire who lived in Southampton. Two of his female singers were lacemakers. Maria ETHERIDGE came from Honiton in Devon and Betsy Rimlett came from Worcester. Lacemakers often worked in groups for company, so an exchange of songs often became a natural part of their routines. Maria Etheridge was 67 and gave 7 songs including 'Farewell He', 'A Maid in Bedlam' and 'Who's there under my window'. Betsy RIMLETT was 81 years old and gave 'Good Morning Sir'. There were two other women, presumably born in Southampton: Mrs Florence COX, aged 63 gave 'The Squire and the Chambermaid' and Mrs CURLING, aged 63 gave 'Erin's Lovely Home'.

So there was a really good range of singers and songs in the workhouse.

I now want to go to the third group: the Southampton singers who lived in the community: Job READ was 75. He was born in Woodlands, Dorset, he lived in St Andrew's road. He gave 7 songs including versions of 'The Female Highwayman', 'The Rambling Sailor' and 'The Rout of the Blues'.

There were two women who each contributed one song 3 years later in May and June,1909. Mrs Billet was 81 and lived in Avenue road. She gave 'The Lavender Girl'. Mrs Dawes of Greville road gave 'The Gipsy Laddie'.

I will now deal with the forth and last group: the singers who were recorded around Southampton: At Shirley lived a man called Liberty James. He was probably a gipsy and he gave the song 'John Gumlie' in February 1909. I think that there is still a gypsy community at Shirley, so it has been a well-established settlement.

The star of Southampton, I have kept until last. His name was George Blake aged 78 in 1906. He is really a New Forest singer from near Lyndhurst, but when George Gardiner met him, he was in Bitterne, probably living with relatives in his old age. He gave a massive 48 songs, more than all the singers in the workhouse together. George Gardiner mentions him by name as one of the three singers who gave the greatest and most interesting contributions, and he revisited him a number of times in 1906 and 1907. (Frank Purslow put 10 of George Blakes songs in his Marrowbones books, probably more than any other singer). These include 'The Gaol Song', 'Oh Dear how I long to get married', 'My Bonny Bonny Boy', 'Turpin Hero', 'Drink Old Engaland Dry' and 'Scilly Rocks'. So Southampton can claim in George Blake, the greatest singer from the southern half of Hampshire.

So all in all, the Southampton area gave a wonderful harvest of songs to George Gardiner 100 years ago. The Workhouse did not yield as many as Portsmouth, but gave a very good account. The surrounding community more than made up for the numbers and, all in all, Southampton has a huge heritage of traditional folk songs to be proud of.

I would like to conclude, as always, by saying that today things are much the same as in George Gardiner's time. These are England's songs and England's heritage. They are excellent songs on all manner of subjects and excellent tunes as well. Ralph Vaughan Williams stated that these tunes, in their minor way were as good as the works of the greatest composers. And he should know, being a composer himself. Yet most English people and most Hampshire people do not know of them. Learn them if you will. But at least tell people about them. Perhaps buy a CD and play the songs. And sing the songs when you get the chance. There are some good things in the past that have been lost to us today. If we sing the songs, they will live on forever. That will be the greatest monument to George Gardiner and the singers who gave such a great contribution to our Hampshire heritage

© Bob Askew 2006

Thanks to Malcolm Taylor and the staff of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library for their advice and assistance in accessing the George Gardiner Archive.

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