Two Singers from the Stour Valley

Some years ago we found an article called “Folk Songs from the Essex-Suffolk Border” by Dr Thomas Wood, published in the 1929 journal of the Folk Song Society (just before it became the English Folk Dance & Song Society).

In 2011, as part of the Managing a Masterpiece project, we carried out further research into the two singers, interviewing family members and local historians and using online documentary resources such as census returns, birth, marriage an death records.

Dr Wood was a composer and author who lived at at Parsonage Farm in Bures, between Sudbury and Colchester, from 1924 to 1950.

The 1929 article was interesting, because although containing only a handful of songs, it was from an area and an era where not much else was noted about folk song and the people who sang them. Wood included information about the singers and their style that were unusual to find in such articles. He collected songs from two local men, Maurice Cardy and William Sparkes, both of whom he knew well, as they worked either for him, or on the adjoining farm.
“I have spent some time during this year (1928-9) in trying to find folk-songs in the Stour Valley. The results are not large. I have so far found only two men who were able to give the tunes and texts of songs in anything like a complete form … both of them speak the beautiful north Essex dialect, with its careful sounding of the ‘h’, the softening of the ‘er’ into ‘ar’, the invariable use of ‘that’ for ‘it’ and the translation of all tenses into the present, with the plural ending …. both have some idea of singing, and were much interested in what I wanted, when I had explained carefully what I was after.”

It seems likely that his was his first, and only foray into collecting songs and his inexperience shows up when he says that he thought Cardy was puzzled by the mode of the song as he sometimes varied the tune. This is, of course, very characteristic of traditional singing, and is more about letting the story take precedence over the tune than about making mistakes and coping with these variations is a difficulty met by every collector attempting to notate from performance. Another difficulty encountered by the collector – that of the singer not remembering every line accurately – provoked the following comment: “Time, trouble, goodwill and beer failed to produce the missing lines.”

Maurice Cardy was nearly 70 when Wood noted down his songs, and worked for him occasionally, when an extra pair of hands was needed around the place. He had been born in 1859 and brought up the only son of a farmworker, Edward Eaves, in Deadman’s Lane. By 1881, he was married and still living in the same lane, and by 1911 he had progressed to be Farm Bailiff at Chapel Farm, still in the same hamlet where he was born.

Cardy had learned The Constant Farmer’s Son and The Young Squire from his mother, whom he recalled singing them around 1870.

Through some rather tortuous research amongst the census, birth and marriage records, (which eventually showed that the adult Maurice took his mother’s maiden name) we now know that his mother, from whom he learned his songs, was Caroline Eaves (nee Cardy). The official documents did not indicate her employment, but Wood had included the information that she was a straw plaiter. This would have been “outworking” – working at home – to help make braids for straw hats, the kind of women’s work was rarely recorded on the census, and just the type of activity that could provide women with a context for singing.

Dr Wood noted that Maurice Cardy “used gestures – stiff and awkward ones, but still definite and explanatory ones, which he said were used by his mother when she sang the song.

At a meeting of the Bures History Society, we came across a story about the Cardy family, relating to a fire at Little Roper’s Farm, which is a matter of yards from where Maurice Cardy grew up and lived as an adult, but this too place in 1845, so would have been some of Maurice’s older relatives.

William Sparkes was initially quite hard to identify: Wood probably did not know him as well as he knew Cardy, and stated his age as 50, which caused a problem when researching him – there was no-one of the right age in the records!. After some tenacious research and some lateral thinking, we eventually identified him as a man who would actually only have been 42 in 1929, coming from a long-established family of farm workers living at Hobb’s Well, Mount Bures. In fact, some of William Sparkes’ descendants still live within a mile or so and run a farm shop locally.

We met Mrs Irene Brown, William Sparkes’ granddaughter, who remembered him singing, together with his wife Elizabeth at Christmas time, when the whole family would gather at their house and play games, sing and entertain themselves. The women and girls all slept upstairs and the men carried on downstairs, playing cards till late and then going out shooting rabbits till early morning. Mrs Brown kindly shared some family photographs with us including the one below, and in return we gave her all the information we had about her family history.

Dr Wood commented that Donnybrook Fair was “sung by William Sparkes in the highest alto I have ever heard, with great vigour, and much emphasis was laid on the punning surnames of the old pal’s wife … the song is well known here.”

When we worked in Bures Primary School, we discovered that one of the pupils was William Sparkes’ great-grandson: he became quite a celebrity on the final day, when we were able to show him a photograph of his great grandfather for the first time, and sing Donnybrook Fair to other family members – a very moving experience for all involved.


Above: first verse of Donnybrook Fair, collected from William Sparkes.
Below: William & Elizabeth Sparkes; William and horses. Both photos courtesy of Mrs I. Brown.

William & Elizabeth SparkesWilliam Sparkes & horses

Songs collected by Thomas Wood in 1929:

From Maurice Cardy:
The Constant Farmer’s Son (The Rich Merchant’s Daughter)
The Young Squire (Broomfield Hill)
The Young Damsel
The Devil
From William Sparkes:
Donnybrook Fair
The Spanish Fight

For further information on the songs or the 1929 article in which they were published, contact the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance & Song Society (0207 485 2206). Their website include a fantastic comparative database about folksongs, where you can research the history of these songs.

Neil Lanham, a well known local entertainer, collected many songs in the area later in the 20th century.
Another Neil, Catchpole, who hails from the same area, can be heard nowadays singing songs from his family.

John Clare: traditional musician
Katie Howson has been reading about the poet John Clare’s musical life and delving into his store of songs and tunes.
With thanks to George Deacon, author of ‘John Clare and the Folk Tradition’, and Chris Partington for identifying tunes.

If the name of John Clare is familiar to you, you may know him as the ‘Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’ and wonder why we’re featuring him on the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust website. Well, Clare (1793-1864) was indeed a poet, whose style and subject matter were influenced by traditional form and dialect, and he did indeed live for a long time in Northamptonshire. But he was also a fiddler and collector of songs and folklore and lived for much of his early adult life in the village of Helpston, six miles north of Peterborough, which now lies in Cambridgeshire.

Clare collected a number of songs from his family and community, including classic ballads such as Lord Bateman, Died for Love and Bushes and Briars. He described one singer, Francis Gregory, landlord of the Blue Bell in Helpston as: ‘fond of merriment, and a singer though his notes was not more varied than those of the cuckoo, as he had but two songs … one called The Milking Pail and the other Jack with his Broom.’ The walls of the pub, like many others, were plastered in old ballad sheets, providing those who could read with a library of songs.

Clare’s correspondence and notes provide us with an insight into another musical context: ‘The Smiths gang of Gypsies came and encamped near the town and as I began to be a decent scraper, (i.e. fiddler – ed.) we had a decent round of merriment for a fortnight, sometimes going to dance or drink at the encampment and at other times at the public house.’ The Gypsy families included Boswells and Grays as well as Smiths, with a number of renowned musicians amongst them.

Clare rated himself as fairly rough fiddle player and said he only played ‘one tune in twenty by notes’. The range of tunes and dances which he jotted down or copied out is similar to that found in other contemporary collections such as the Gray publication featured in our previous newsletter (see Standard tunes of the time, including Quickstep to the Battle of Prague, Astley’s Ride and Brighton Camp are found alongside un-named hornpipes, which he may have noted down by ear from his local musical colleagues. Some of these tunes are identifiable versions of well known and widespread tunes such as Staten Island and Fisher’s Hornpipe.

Below is one tune from Clare’s collection, a very playable jig, which he probably copied out from a contemporary printed collection. A further 262 dance tunes are included in the book ‘John Clare and the Folk Tradition’ by George Deacon, 1983, republished in 2002 by Francis Boutle. The book also contains many songs and some fascinating background to Clare’s musical activities.

Bedford Races


Further tunes from Cambridgeshire were found in a manuscript written out by William Clarke from Feltwell. These have been transcribed and published by Mary Humphreys and Anahata and is available on Mary’s website.

Norfolk articles by Chris Holderness

Norfolk-based musician (Rig-a-Jig-Jig) and historian Chris Holderness has written a number of articles which have been published on the Musical Traditions website.

Here is a summary with a link through to each one.


179. Herbert Smith – fiddling blacksmith of Blakeney

182. Walter Newstead – north Norfolk melodeon player

185. Walter & Daisy Bulwer – Recollections of the Shipdham musicians by members of their community

186. Alfred Brown – the life and times of Shipdham’s other fiddler

196. Wells-next-the-Sea – traditional music making in a Norfolk coastal town

198. Billy Lown and Philip Hamond – two north Norfolk singers

208. Billy Cooper – the Hingham dulcimer player remembered by his family

211. Percy Brown – Aylsham melodeon player

219. E.J. Moeran – collecting folk songs in east Norfolk – in his own words

221. Southrepps – singing and stepdancing in a north Norfolk village

245. Dick Hewitt – a true Norfolk man

249. Briston and Melton Constable – traditional music making in two neighbouring Norfolk villages

253. Haste to the Wedding – the melodeon playing of Walter Pardon

254. Herbert Mallett – the life and times of a north Norfolk melodeon player

269. Walter Jeary – north Norfolk dulcimer player, singer and stepdancer

270. Tom Brown – Caister singer in his own words

280. Sam Larner – the Winterton fisherman and his singing community

285. Hindringham – traditional music and dancing in a north Norfolk village

291. The Dancing Davies – stepdancing fishermen of Cromer

298. Sheringham Breakdown