Article MT186

Alfred Brown

the life and times of Shipdham's other fiddler

The mention of traditional music in the Norfolk village of Shipdham to anyone interested will almost certainly bring to mind Walter and Daisy Bulwer.  This couple were certainly very active indeed, playing for dances with their Time and Rhythm band for several decades across the middle of the Twentieth Century, but they were by no means the only musicians in the village at that time.  As well as in the dance halls, there was much music making - step dancing and singing - in the pubs.  Alfred 'Fiddler' Brown, who lived for much of his life in a cottage about midway between the villages of Shipdham and Scarning, was a very active musician for this for much of the Twentieth Century and a familiar figure in Shipdham and the surrounding area.

Alfred Brown was born around 1882 in Woodrising, in the post office of this small west Norfolk village, a few miles south of Shipdham.  The 1901 census lists him and an older brother Charles as 'yardman on farm', whilst younger brother Ernest was 'carter on farm', but agricultural work does not seem to have suited Fiddler too well and, whereas his brothers continued in farm work, Ernie as a farm labourer and Charles as a thatcher, Alfred took to the life of itinerant musician, travelling from pub to pub around the area, playing to accompany step dancing and singing, and busking in market towns on market days.

Herbert Brown, a nephew of Fiddler, recalled in 1999: "Alfred was known as 'The Black Sheep' of the family.  Better known as "Fiddler Brown" for his prowess on the fiddle, not his dishonest nature, Alfred never did a day's work in his life; he would spend all his time travelling from pub to pub, entertaining the drinkers with his fiddle.  He would play for a few pence, a sup of beer and a bite to eat.  It was not unusual for him to go out on a Saturday night, fiddle in hand, and not return until the following Friday.  He would return home, put a pile of silver and pennies on the kitchen table, and tell his mother to take out of it what she needed and leave the rest.  In fact she never took a penny.  She would collect all the money together, stack it into neat piles and put them on top of the bureau, in the drawing room."

"Alfred once bought a bicycle from John Whites, at Fakenham, on hire purchase but, true to form, he stopped the payments after two instalments.  Alfred joined up in the 1914-18 war and became a batman.  He returned, triumphant, with £150 in his pocket and vowed he was a reformed character.  The money was deposited, with high ceremony, in the local bank.  This phase lasted about six months; he them withdrew the money from the bank and spent it on drink.  Alfred eventually married a retired school teacher; it can only be assumed he hoped she would keep him in the state to which he had become accustomed, i.e. no work and copious supplies of drink.  Apparently this she did until her death, and then he spent the rest of her money."

Travelling about the countryside on his bicycle with his dog in tow, Fiddler was a regular visitor to the local towns on their market days, which for Dereham is Friday, where he played weekly in The Royal Standard, as remembered by Robert Sutton: "He used to play his fiddle in The Royal Standard at Dereham every Friday after he had been to the market but was always somewhat inebriated.  I think he had a whippet-type dog with him.  When he had finished performing, he put his fiddle in the box and slung it over his shoulder on a piece of rope and then set off for home." The Royal Standard was a lively place for music, as remembered by Margaret Pettitt, whose parents ran the pub in the 1920s, she taking it over later.  She recalls that, as well as Fiddler, dulcimer player Billy Cooper played there every Thursday, often with a banjo player1 accompanying him, as well as Bogey Guymer from Dereham who used to play the spoons and knock his elbows on the table to create a rhythm, a traveller known as Yorkie, who played military tunes and marches on the piano, another pianist, Mr Brundall, who could only play the black notes, as well as Bert Perkins playing the accordion and Claire Robinson the piano.  She remembers that "There was a lot of playing of popular songs for singing along with, as well as the occasional bit of step dancing.  During the war, the pub was particularly busy, with air force personnel using it."  Fiddler also played in The Cherry Tree in the town, as remembered by Mrs Buckingham: "He used to come to Dereham on Saturday nights.  I must have been in my late teens then.  I am now eighty nine years old (2004), so that was quite a long time ago.  Us girls used to listen to him playing in The Cherry Tree."

Although playing on separate nights inThe Royal Standard, Fiddler seems to have been closely associated with Billy Cooper, to the extent that several people mistakenly thought he came from Billy's village of Hingham.  Shipdham musician Lily Codling, who also played in the Bulwers' Time and Rhythm band and with Billy Cooper in The Eight Ringers at Hingham, remembers playing with him in Shipdham King's Head - known locally as The King Billy: "I used to play the piano in The King Billy and he played on the fiddle, and they used to do all this (step dancing).  You never heard such a row, cause they used to have big old boots on and there weren't no carpets on the floors.  And everyone in the pub knew a song.  I used to walk down with my mother and father because I wasn't very old.  They put the piano behind the corner because I wasn't supposed to be in.  And I played the piano and this man, Fiddler Brown, he was there and he was very good."  She recalls that they used to play "All the old stuff.  All the old songs.  And they used to jig about and do the tappin' of the feet and that.  He'd always bring his old dog in …  He used to bring it in the pub.  And the little old dog used to run beside him."

Both The King Billy and The Standard2 in Shipdham had much singing and step dancing.  Stephen Chenery, whose father kept The Standard recalls that one good step dancer was a traveller named Elijah Gray, who travelled the area with a horse and cart selling linoleum and carpets and that Fiddler Brown left his fiddle in the pub when he went off to join the army in the First World War.  Jack Baker, writing in the Eastern Daily Press3 about The King Billy mentions, "I can also remember many of the old songs sung to the musical accompaniment of a well known local character, Fiddler Brown.  For some reason, the best loved songs all seem to have had an Irish flavour."  Regarding Fiddler's musical ability, Tony Chilvers recalls that "Mother used to say he could hear absolutely anything, he didn't need any music whatsoever, and play it."

Another musician who used to play in The King Billy, as remembered by Stephen Chenery, was local molecatcher Charlie Bolder, known as Salter, who was apparently illiterate and had no idea how old he was.  He played ocarina and concertina and seems to have been something of a local character: on one occasion, having been arrested for either poaching or being drunk and disorderly, he was handcuffed to railings whilst the local policeman went to get help.  When he returned, Salter had disappeared, having broken the handcuffs.  He ended his days in the workhouse.

The King Billy was destroyed by fire in March, 1928, an event which seems to have occasioned a carnival atmosphere in the village, as Lily Codling recalls: "Well, I weren't very old …4  I've never seen nothing like it.  You'd think there was a fair on.  Th'old pub was a-blazin' away, they were pumping it from a ditch.  The old fire engine …  Mr Billy Body (chief fireman), he used to stutter, "Pump away boys, pump away boys!" And they was havin' all the beer free from the pub.  Instead of it being a fire, that was a real celebration!" Tony Chilvers remembers his grandmother Emma Baker, who was landlady at the time, telling him of the confusion: "And they had a pianola a-playin' in the yard … when that burnt down, that was a Sunday afternoon and they were strict on music then, on a Sunday afternoon, but they still kept playing it …  Y'see, we were lucky, we had a fire engine at Shipdham, that was a horse-drawn one; but, you see, the horses were kept at Billy Larrington's …  Well, they had to go and catch the horses …  Then he had to put his brass fire helmet on, and that used to be at Mrs Young's, the ex-schoolmistress, she had that; well, he used to put that on, and his uniform.  By the time he'd done that, I should think everything was getting away, wouldn't you?"  The fact that the beer was saved and then doled out free to helpers and onlookers prompted the remark "Did they put the fire out with water, Mrs Baker, or beer?" from the brewery representative.

The rebuilt King Billy continued to be a lively place for song and step dancing, even into the 1970s, with many travellers in particular carrying this on, as remembered by Tony Chilvers: "Oh yes, ours was a travellers pub.  Oh yes, they used to do a lot of that in the latter part of the time, when they used to come; I mean, Mum used to get them on a Tuesday, that used to be medieval market day in Shipdham, and they all used to say they'd come to market day, so she'd be open more or less all hours …  If you didn't sing or dance, you'd got to pay a forfeit."  By this time there seems to have been no local musician to play for the step dancing so "they sort of used to do it to the juke box.  Not in the old fashioned way … if that wasn't on, they'd make up whatever they want to theirselves."  The area has long been frequented by travellers and nearby Beeston Ploughshare was another place that was often descended upon for a lively night of singing and step dancing.  Likewise, a little further to the north, Mr Greenacre recalls that in about 1948 a large group of travellers who were camped on Syderstone and Creake commons congregated in a pub in Fakenham during Race Week for a lively time of singing and stepping, accompanied by several accordions, and that the appreciative landlady stood them all drinks.

To return to Fiddler, aside from his time in the Army, he seems to have done no work apart from music playing and was often to be seen busking, as Lily Codling recalls: " He used to play in the streets for money.  As a child, I can remember him playing through the Shipdham street.  He'd stand in places and put an old sack down and the dog would stand there, and I can remember giving him only a penny.  My mother used to say, "Oh, there's Fiddler, want some more money!"  I think that's where he got his money.  I suppose if he picked up a quid, that was good money."

Fiddler's nephew, Jimmy Brown, remembers that once, when walking back from Norwich at night, Fiddler was caught in a rainstorm and sheltered in a church porch.  Presently another man came in to do the same thing, but was unaware of Fiddler's presence, due to the dark.  Eventually the rain eased off and the man called out aloud that it was time for him to go, whereupon Fiddler promptly announced from the dark that he would go also, with the result that the man fled in panic!  Another story from Jimmy, probably apocrephal, since a similar one is told of many a poacher, was that Fiddler was in the habit of stealing the parson's apples.  When the parson tired of this, he lay in wait and was able to catch Fiddler halfway through the hedge.  On being asked what he was doing there, he promptly replied, "I'm going back!"

Walter Bulwer commented to Reg Hall in conversation in the 1960s5 that he sometimes played with Fiddler, whom he described as a "much rougher" musician, in pubs in Shipdham and recounted the story of him putting soap on Fiddler's bow when he had popped out of the pub, but this would seem to have been only when he was a young man, rather than for any great length of time.  In fact, nobody today can recall Walter playing in any of the pubs, despite vivid and fond memories of the village dances, and Jimmy Brown makes the comment that "'Crutchy' (Walter)6 wouldn't've had anything to do with old Fiddler."  Also, Fiddler seems to have confined his music making to pubs and streets, rather than playing for country dances in village halls, playing mostly solo or with Billy Cooper.

As well as being active playing music around the Shipdham area, Fiddler seems to have travelled regularly to the far north western corner of the county, to the fenland country around Emneth, as Arthur Randall7 recalls: "Most of the big farmers gave a harvest supper for their workers and after the meal there would be singing and dancing, again to the music of accordion and fiddle; I remember one old man, Fiddler Brown, who always turned up on these occasions, going from one village to another to play for dancing.  Often the revellers would follow the fiddler round and round the outside of the barn, clapping their hands and chanting: "Hay Man, Straw Man, Raggedy Arse, Maliser Man"8 and there was nearly always a broomstick dance performed.  Both the Horkey Supper and the annual supper of the local Foresters' Friendly Society were occasions for the village men to entertain the company with their favourite songs."

Sadly, Fiddler's last days are shrouded in mystery.  The Brown family have a tradition of unmarked headstones and Fiddler was shunned by many because of the way he chose to live his life.  Jimmy Brown thinks he ended his days around the Emneth area but Ann English also has a dim memory from childhood of the old man in Shipdham, known also as 'Old Soldier Brown': "I remember him as, to childish eyes, being very old and dirty, always wearing an ancient army greatcoat.  He used to sit by the fire in The King's Head with other old chaps, chewing tobacco (the spittoons were still there) and having a mardle.9  My grandmother, Emma Baker, was very soft hearted and used to provide free food to go with the beer.  I don't remember Soldier Brown playing a fiddle but I do remember him singing, and muttering to himself, when we met him on the road.  The last time I recall seeing him was in the early 1950s.  We lived opposite the Church Hall in Chapel Street and our neighbour's daughter had her wedding reception there.  During the evening Soldier Brown was mingling with the guests.  Later that night I was woken up by a weird noise, a mixture of singing, coughing and spitting which changed to a very loud snorting and snoring.  Thinking someone was suffering a violent attack, I woke my parents only to be told by my father that it was just Old Soldier Brown sleeping off the beer that he had cadged at the wedding.  He had wandered up the lane and fallen asleep under a hedge.  Next morning he was gone and I don't recall seeing him again.  Maybe it was one of his last entertainments."

Chris Holderness - 7.9.06
Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project


Article MT186   All photos supplied by Chris Holderness

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