William Barnes Society Fund-Raising Event to celebrate the life of William Barnes the Dorset dialect poet.
Saturday 24th February 2018
The Hammond brothers, when they arrived in Dorset to collect folk songs in 1905, had no qualms about collecting suggestive or rebellious songs despite the fact they were vicars sons. They came from Clevedon in Somerset and had been persuaded to collect in Dorset by Cecil Sharp and his friends. Henry Hammond was a brilliant scholar and at the age of 33 he’d been sent off to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) by the British Government to run the education system. After a year he came home with his health ruined but hanging around doing nothing was not in his nature. Money was not a problem so he and his brother Robert set off on bicycles to see what songs they could glean from Dorset folk.
Cycling around the lanes of Dorset must have been very tough going but they were stoic and dedicated. Henry wrote down the music and Robert the words. For these two well educated toffs to get the working people of Dorset to sing their favourite ballads must have taken quite a lot of diplomacy. Breaking down barriers between the social classes was not easy and the poor people had many reasons for not trusting those they considered above them. Cecil Sharp was not above buying booze in pubs and George Gardiner, who collected in Hampshire, would take little gifts, particularly if he was visiting the workhouses. The Hammonds, unfortunately, don’t mention whether they used these guiles, they were very business-like and made few notes about their travels and they certainly don’t say where they were just told to get lost.
Henry and Robert didn’t just pop down to Dorset for a week or two at a time, they toured for months going back to Clevedon occasionally for a rest and once because their mother had passed away. One of the first places they visited was Sherborne where they went to the Work House and collected a very cheeky song from Mr. T. Hunt called I Touched Her on the Toe. On another occasion they went to The Almshouses where they met Mr. Hunts’ brother Mathew who also knew it as did Mr. Burrows who lived at The Gravel Pits. All three places are within 100 yards of The Digby Tap, our favourite watering hole, where we first heard the song. One of the regulars was an old chap called Walt Watts. He was well over 70 at the time (we’re talking mid-nineteen sixties here) and he lived in a house next to the Almhouses so it’s just about feasible that he picked up the song from the same source as the Hammonds.
From Sherborne they zig-zagged down through the county like detectives looking for a lead. They found singers in Lydlynch, Sturminster Newton, Piddlehinton, Hazelbury Bryan, Blandford, Wimborne, Bere Regis, White Lackington, Todber and Puddletown and on the way, to their great satisfaction I’m sure, encountered folk with very good repertoires. George Dowden of Lackington contributed 19 fine songs and Joseph Elliott of Todber sang 21 which he had learnt while fishing off Newfoundland. William Bartlett of Wimborne Union House sang them 40 and Robert Barratt of Puddletown (or Piddletown as they called it) 53, including one of my favourites, I Live Not Where I Love. At this point they were on Thomas Hardy’s doorstep but I can find no reference to them meeting the great man, which is bit remiss of them because his knowledge of folk song was extensive and he could have aided them in their quest.
In the spring of 1906 they came back for another tour, this time starting in and around Beaminster and then going to some of the most beautiful nooks and crannies of Dorset. They visited Watton, West Milton, Morcombelake, Whitchurch Canonicorum, Powerstock, Uploders, Stoke Abbott (where they spent some time in the village school), Nettlecombe, Netherbury and then moved further north to South Perrott, Mosterton, Halstock and Corscombe. It was in Corscombe that they first bumped into my family in the form of Edith Sartin. Edith sang them 11 songs most of which are of a very doomy nature. In a way they reflect the terrible times the labouring folk lived through when she was growing up. Think Tolpuddle Martyrs, The Swing Riots and the reasons they took place. Her most positive song was The Sheepstealer. Henry Hammond did note that Edith’s version of The Lowlands of Holland was a particularly fine one. Paul Sartin whose ancestors, like mine, came from Corscombe did his Master’s Degree on Edith’s songs.
In August they had a break but in September they were back again for another winter tour. Henry was still suffering for his hobby. At one point he wrote to Lucy Broadwood, another avid collector, saying, ‘I regret that I have had to keep your copies of the Dorset songs so long. I have had influenza followed by rheumatic sinevitus, which has made me terribly weak.’
Edith Sartin and Marina Sartin sang together when they were growing up in Corscombe and I would imagine that Edith passed on Marina’s address. She had married Charles Russell in 1855 and moved away from the village when Charles went looking for work. Eventually, with a large family in tow, they arrived in Upwey. Charles died in 1873 leaving Marina to bring up the children and her eldest daughters illegitimate offspring as well. It was a tough life but she kept singing and when the Hammonds arrived on her doorstep she was obviously very happy to display her art. She had a huge repertoire and on their first visit she performed 82 songs or snippets of songs. It’s a pity they hadn’t arrived five years earlier because she was 74 and her memory was going. They must have spent ages with her because in January and February they only managed to visit two other villages, Byer and Broadway. I suspect they found her somewhat frustrating but they kept coming back for more as she scratched away at her memory. Her tunes were lovely which pleased Henry no end. There was one old song, Sweet Primroses, that up until now they had refused to write down because it was so common but Marina’s had such a fine tune that they noted it.
Marina was one singer they do make some comments about and they were not always complimentary or sympathetic. Henry quite often just refers to her as R and here’s a sample of his jottings. When Marina sang the song When I lived in Service he said, ‘I think R, when younger, and in possession of her faculties and teeth would have sung C sharp in bars, 6, 14 and 24.’ After Merry Bloomfield he says, ‘It’s almost impossible to reproduce the time affect here. After hearing the song twice I think the best solution is under.’ For Marina’s rendition of Flow he writes, ‘This E was E flat to start with but later on in the song became E. Mrs. R. sometimes sharpens intervals when her throat gets tired. She has a very weak throat.’ They also had problems with her broad Dorset accent at times. Ye Mariners All, which is a ditty enticing passing sailors in for a tipple, was originally noted as Ye Mourners All.
Henry and Robert took a break after their marathon inquisition of Marina Russell but in the autumn they were back again visiting Corscombe, Sydling St. Nicholas and Cerne Abbas. In December they plucked up the courage to go to Upwey once more and listen to Marina. She sang them another 18 songs and Henry notes that, ’Mrs. R. tires in her singing more quickly than a year back.’ She died soon after their visit and she was the last person they collected from. Whether she was just delighted to have an audience or was pleased that someone was taking notice of the old songs we will never know but I always have in mind Thomas Hardy’s poem The Last Performance.
Henry seems to have had a strange and dismissive attitude to his brother’s hard work writing out the words of the songs. In a letter to Cecil Sharp in March 1909 he says, ‘I feel sure that the future of these tunes lies in the influence they will have on composers. I decided to offer them to Vaughan Williams who accepted them. I am afraid that the folk will never come to sing the old songs again, the words of them appeal so little to the rising generation except in childhood. All the same I should not have stopped collecting if my health had allowed me to go on.’
The Hammonds collected in about 55 towns and villages in Dorset out of approximately 350. In doing so they probably found a good cross section of the melodies that were in circulation at the time. Their total haul was 648 quality songs and for their perseverance we should be eternally grateful. In 1910 Henry had another attack of influenza which then developed into pneumonia and he died on the 16th of June, just 42 years old. Robert remained a member of the Folk Song Society until 1921 but doesn’t appear to have tried any collecting after 1907.
Henry should have the last word though. In the 1907 Folk Song Journal he says, ‘And here, in conclusion, I wish to offer our most sincere thanks to all country singers who have spent hours in telling us about their most interesting old songs and selves (most are over 70 though their ages range from 13 to 93). Secondly, to many members of other classes, who I would say have gone out of their way in helping us in our work, but then kindness and hospitality are never out of the way of Dorsetshire people.’
William Barnes and Winslow Homer