Article MT073 - from Musical Traditions No 2, Early 1984

The Barber Family

... of Wingfield, Suffolk

I first came across a member of the Barber family during a visit to North Norfolk in 1981.  Anne-Marie Hulme had told me about an old melodeon player in Brinningham, a small village near Melton Constable and it was there that I first met Sonny Barber.  Over the past two years I have discovered that he comes from a large family of musicians and singers.  His mother and father sang and they and his three brothers and two sisters all at some time played melodeon.

Sonny is now 75 and he is still a fine melodeon player with a wide repertoire, including hornpipes, polkas, waltzes and song tunes.  He moved from Wingfield over thirty years ago.  The youngest brother Cyril who is 60, now lives in Felsham, west Suffolk and he is also still a strong player and has a similar repertoire to Sonny.  The second youngest is Royal, now at Hoxne, North Suffolk.  He is 63 and plays mouthorgan on which he has a strong vamping style, although ill health has meant he no longer has the wind to play as often as he'd like to.  The fourth brother is known as 'Rip' although his real name is Oriel.  He is 71 now and lives in Ixworth, North Suffolk.  He doesn't own a melodeon any more but he can still get a tune out of one.  The two sisters are Olive, who does not play now, and Ethel, who died some years ago.

The following are some of the brothers' memories, of their early live in Wingfield and of their father, Elisha.

Sonny: My poor old father he could sing.  I remember him singing The Faithful Sailor Boy.  That was when I went to school and I never did forget it and I never did hear anyone else sing it but him.  He used to get two of us brothers, one on one knee, one on the other, in front of the fire on a Sunday night and the poor old fellow he'd sing that.  I was about 10 then.  Don't Go Down the Mine Dad, do you know that? That was another he sang.  Proper old one, you don't hear songs like that now.  Then there was one about, 'I can drive a plough and milk a cow'.  Buttercup Joe that was called.

Rip: My father used to play and sing and he'd look at the ceiling.  wherever he was playing, anywhere on his own my mother used to say, 'I always wondered, Father, was that writ up there for you?'  He used to sing all sorts of things, songs and hymns.  All old songs.

Royal: The old man he used to stepdance and sing.  Yes he'd get up and stepdance as fast as you could play for him, that was in Wingfield in the Kings Head.  I remember my father singing and getting drunk and all.  He didn't drink that much but once a fortnight on Saturday night.  He used to sing all sorts.  One was Two Little Girls in Blue.

Cyril: I was the last of the family and my father was getting on when I was a boy, so I cant tell you very much about him and he never talked about his young days, very much.  He did tell me that he used to go to the Kings Head and they'd say, 'give us a song Elisha and we'll buy you a half', and he'd sing and get his half of stout.  Well he never had a lot of money.  I can remember him playing accordeon, there was always one tune he would start with, Shall we Gather at the River.

Royal Barber - Hoxne

There used to he nearly all Barbers in Wingfield, Sonny started playing the accordeon first.  He got one and when he wasn't there we used to get it out and have a squeak.  I remember we had the accordeon there and we used to play, play, play and mother she liked it but it was every night.  Well she sat one night near the fire and she said, 'If you don't shut that row up, I'll stick a poker through it', and that's what she did.  So we got some old newspaper and bunged the bellow up, and carried on.  But Sonny was the one who used to buy them.  We never all had one.  In those times we couldn't afford it.  He used to get them on tick, so much a month.  We picked the tune up from different ones in the pubs.  There was always someone letting into it.

I think the first place I played was Wingfield Kings Head.  We all went in, but it was mostly Sonny's pub.  We hardly ever played together.  He'd go one way and we'd go the other.  There were several old pubs we went to, Syleham White Horse and Black Horse, Weybread Horseshoes.  My old mate I used to knock about with, when he'd come home from say the Kings at quarter past twelve or so, he'd play his old mouthorgan all the way home.  When we came out of the put we used to come out to the corner of the green and we'd sit there to one o'clock in the morning with an old Jews harp or anything we could get hold of, a comb with a piece of paper on.

We were all born in Wingfield.  I was the last one to leave there.  I left just before my mother died.  We called Sonny, 'Baggy' but his proper name was Elisha like our father.  Oriel we called 'Rip'.  Cyril is Cyril Clifton.  I'm Royal David, because I was born just before Christmas.

There used to be an old boy around here who stepdanced.  He was a lodger in an old pub but that's been closed donkeys years, Denham Green Man, and he went around in an old pony and cart.  I hadn't been out that way for years and I walked in the door.  Now some of them called me 'Baggy' as well and they said, 'Come on Baggy make the dust blow out of these boards'.  They used to keep an old accordeon on the shelf there so I got it down.  His name was Stalks Abbott and he could step.  He said, 'They've never had the dust blown out of them for years.  Come on Baggy!'.

Years ago I went to a wedding in Ixworth and I got on the table stepdancing and the tarts were jumping off the plates because it was a wooden floor.  I had a beard then it came right down to my waist.  I could nearly sit on it.  I could step a bit, but I never really got into it.

Oriel 'Rip' Barber - Ixworth

I never had an accordeon in my younger days, I used to grab hold of Sonny's.  It was him who had one first.  Then when my brother-in law was getting married and he was living out in the wilds then and years ago there wasn't the entertainment like there is today.  So he says, 'I don't know what we're going to do for music'.  I said to my wife 'What about if I send for an accordeon?'  So I sent the deposit four or five weeks before, so I'd make sure I'd got it in time.  You know I never got that accordeon until a week after he got married.  So that's how I came about an accordeon.  I bought it but I never did play it at his wedding.

I didn't go down to the pub and play, not like Sonny and Cyril did.  I didn't because I had a wife and three children.  I played more at home or out on the road.  Where we lived in Wingfield there was some palings round the bend and we used to sit on there Saturdays and Sunday nights, if there wasn't anywhere to go.  There wasn't much money then.  I was only getting 25 bob a week.

I worked in Wingfield 12 years and I worked in Ixworth 40, so I've only had two bosses in my time.  Not many chaps can say that.  I'm 71 now.  I've worked hard, I was a cowman.  I've been milking 7 o'clock on a Sunday nights, but I enjoyed my work.

My sister Ethel used to play the accordeon as well as the brothers.  She died of angina and she was 3 years younger than me.  She was 58 when she died.  I also think I had an uncle or two who could play the accordeon, but I never was a crack player - not as good as Cyril or Baggy, that's what we used to call Sonny.  They used to play the most of us.  They played in the pubs and kept the practice in.

Sonny Barber - Brinningham

I don't play as well as I used to - I'm 75 now so I suppose I don't do bad.  I've been in this village (Brinningham) since 1950 and I moved from Suffolk then.  I used to play a lot round here.  I used to go up to the pub and play lot up there, but this Juke box thing came and cut all that out.  Nobody will sit and listen to it now.

I used to play for stepdancing and I'd play a hornpipe - I used to have a gramophone and I had all those old jigs and hornpipes on there and that's how I picked some of them up, but I've forgot a lot.  A lot of people don't play like me-they only play single button, but I play them together.  An old boy when I was at home he could play accordeon and he always liked to hear me play better than he did himself and I say 'why's that?' and he said 'well you make it sound like an organ'.  It's only because I play two notes together.  I sort of play chords.

I used to sing quite a bit years ago.  I still do for my own amusement.  One is A Bunch of Green Holly and Ivy.  I learned the songs in the pubs years ago.  Some old boys sang every Saturday.  Well you soon pick them up don't you? then there's Jimmy Johnson.  a chap called George Langley, used to work along with me, he sang that one about the old crab I learned that from him.  Yes I like a good song.  Singing and playing, that's my hobby.

Cyril Barber - Felsham

I play an old type accordeon and I always keep it at hand.  I've had this one possibly 19 years now, but I've been playing ever since I could toddle.  We all learned it from Sonny, my brother.  He used to go down to the village, Wingfield and there were several chaps down there by the name of Pipe and he got in with them and with the Filbys and they got together and I think Mr Filby he'd got an accordeon up in the attic and through that they all got to play a tune.  Then when Sonny left school he bought one, but he was particular with his music, but we used to steal a tune when he was away.  'Let my music alone', he'd say.  All us brothers used to play - Royal, he's a master chap on the mouthorgan.

There was an old man who could tap dance and he taught my brother how to play a hornpipe so that he could dance.  When we were going to school we'd see him and shout out, 'come on Mr Rumsey teach US the hornpipe'.  That was because we were so interested in it.  Anyway when I grew up I followed in my brother's footsteps and took the accordeon to the pub, I got in with some Whitings from Rishangles way, and they could dance.  Charlie is still alive I think.  We used to go down to the Ivy House in Stradbroke.  Then we went to a wedding and I played for dances in a marquee, you know polkas and things.

I'm 60 now and I was in the Home Guard during the war and now and again they'd have a little sing song and a supper at Hoxne Swan and we had a major over us, Major Brisk, and he says, 'Anybody give us a song?  How about you Cyril?'  So I said, 'All right I'll sing The Old Sow'.  Well I sung that and he was tickled pink.  I've never seen a man so amused in all my life.  Well he asked me to sing it and I think I sang it there five times.  Each time the chorus came he'd say, 'Come on everybody join in', but of course they couldn't because of the grunts and whistles.  I learned that when I was a teen ager.  There was a bloke who lived next door and he used to live in London and when he came down there I heard him sing that.  there was another song I liked to sing it was The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train, that's the guards van.  I used to work on a very small farm and the farmer's brother-in-law lived just up the road and he had two daughters and they said dld I know that song and I said that I didn't so they wrote it out for me.  You know I was singing it within a week.  Whatever I was doing, I was singing.

Another song I used to sing was The Old Rustic Bridge.  I think I learned that from my mother or father.  My mother was a lovely singer.  She used to take us to Church Sundays.  It was my delight to get there and try and sing above everyone else.  And my grandmother you could hear her above all the other singers in the church.

John Howson


1.  It wlll be noticed that throughout this article the word accordeon is used when talking about a melodeon.  This is usual in East Anglia.

2.  I would like to thank Olive Barber (now Mrs Olive Richards) for allowing me to copy her family photographs.

Article MT073

Top of page Articles Home Page Reviews News Editorial Map