Article MT061

Musicians in 19th Century Southern England

Keith Chandler's series of short articles

General Introduction:

During the nineteenth century there must have been few communities in England, however small, which did not number at least one musician.  Performance contexts would have varied from county to county, and from region to region, but were, in any case, numerous.  Perhaps chief among these was playing for social dancing in various guises - as solo musician, in informal aggregations, in formal brass, string or reed bands - at a time when few celebrations failed to feature dancing on the programme.  Before being generally dispossessed by installed organs, musicians often provided music for church services, and it is rare to find handwritten music manuscript books dating from the nineteenth century which do not feature at least a few hymn tunes, generally starting at the opposite end from the secular dance tunes.  Many communities in Oxfordshire and adjacent portions of the surrounding counties of Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire fielded one or more morris dance sides, during the first half of the century, at least.  There were informal occasions such as step dancing in the public house, or simply sitting in a corner and playing.  Customary community practises such as Christmas mumming or that form of localised censure most commonly known as 'rough music' might also provide opportunities for musicians.

Each of these performance contexts demanded a distinct playing technique and tune repertory.  The wildly rhythmic melodies used to accompany step dancing were ill-suited for, say, the musicians' gallery in church.  Complex multi-part quadrille melodies were not suitable for morris dance performance.  Hymn tunes were an inappropriate accompaniment to country dancing.

As with the acquisition of any skill, performance of music demanded access to a suitable instrument, some degree of talent and aptitude, and varying amounts of practise.  Musicians were often paid for their services, and, for men generally in low paid and seasonally uncertain occupations, such remuneration was often essential in order to maintain even a basic standard of living.  Standards of musicianship varied, but certain performers became so adept at their craft that they were known and respected far beyond their home community and immediate peer group.

More often than not, regularly occurring plebeian practises as common as music or dancing are un- or under documented in the historical sources.  Even where such things are noted the actual people involved generally remain anonymous.  And where a performer's name is recorded, the source generally reveals very little in the way of social or biographical details.  In this proposed series of essays I intend to flesh out the bare bones of existence for a number of musicians active in the area and timespan outlined above.

We begin with an example which indicates the type of research which may be brought to bear on a single sentence discovered in an unpublished manuscript dating from 1925.

No 1: James Longshaw of Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire

In 1925 the Travelling Morrice, a revivalist dance team based in Cambridge, were touring in the Cotswolds when they encountered one 'Mr.  Langshaw' at Chipping Norton.  He revealed that he had formerly played the fiddle to accompany morris dance sides at both Shipton-under-Wychwood and Milton-under-Wychwood. 1  This tantalising lead was never followed up at the time, and this musician may well have passed into obscurity unchecked.

Of the known prior history of the Milton and Shipton morris dance teams, the former dates back to around the 1780s, while the latter is confirmed only from about the 1830s onwards.

In an unpublished manuscript compiled in 1885 or earlier, John Horne gives a long account of the annual 'Jubilee' [i.e. Whitsun Ale] held at Milton-under-Wychwood about 1780, 'where Morris Dancing was one of the chief attractions, as many as three sets would attend there and prizes were given to the best dancers.' 2  Given that morris dance sides were apparently an inevitable feature of Whitsun Ale celebrations at this date, we may reasonably assume that one of the attendant dance sides would have been indigenous.  Morris dancing was a feature of the festivities held to celebrate the marriage of the Prince of Wales in March 1863 3 and, again, this seems likely to have been the village-based set.

It was probably the first half of the nineteenth century to which Horne referred when he noted, 'Shipton in Oxfordshire was formerly a very noted place for Morris-dancing, as many as four sets have been seen to attend the Club there, and some come from long distances.' 2  Henry Franklin, a dancer at Leafield who left the village in 1858, remembered that there had been sets of dancers at Milton-under-Wychwood, Shipton and Finstock, and is perhaps recalling sides which were contemporaneously active with his own.  He claimed 'Shipton [was] a lad's morris, one man whistled to 'em', 4 suggesting perhaps a younger side which remained in performance after the set of older men had given up. 5

It may have been this latter incarnation for which 'Mr.  Langshaw' had played.  Given the complete absence of biographical details in the Travelling Morrice log, clearly the first task was to identify this informant.  The 1925 Register of Electors for Chipping Norton recorded the following inhabitants bearing the surname Longshaw (there were no Langshaws, and, not for the first time when encountering unfamiliar accents, this was evidently a mishearing):

James2 Goddard's Lane
Francis, Julia & Ethel Annie       31 New Street
Henry & Amelia15 Middle Row
Arthur & Grace 62 West Street
This offered four possibilities, and the next task was to narrow the list to a single name.  If, as claimed, he had played for the dance sets at both Shipton and Milton there was a good chance that he had been resident in one of those two adjacent villages.  At the date of my original research the latest available census was that of 1881.  Only one household featured any of the 1925 names.  The enumeration entry (schedule 75 - given in its original layout) was as follows:
name age     occupationplace of birth
James Longshaw     head62Chelsea Pensioner     Leafield
Elizabethwife56 Sunderland, Durham
Jane Adaughter     25 Durham, Sunderland
So,James the younger was the most likely candidate for the fiddle player (his father, also James, would have been over a hundred in1925), but this was by no means confirmed.  I then took details from all other relevant official sources, banking on eventually making a positive identification.

Parish registers revealed that James Longshaw was baptised in Shipton-under-Wychwood on 25 July 1858, the son of James and Elizabeth Longshaw.  The father's occupation was described as 'Soldier (retired)'.

At the date of the 1861 census (schedule 21) the household consisted of:

name age     occupationplace of birth
James Longshaw     head42Chelsea Pensioner     Witney
Elizabethwife36 Sunderland, Durham
Jane Anndaughter     5 Sunderland, Durham
Jamesson3 Shipton
Ten years later (schedule 16):
name age     occupationplace of birth
James Longshaw     head52Chelsea Pensioner     Leafield
Elizabethwife46 Durham, Sunderland
Jane Anndaughter     15ScholarSunderland, Durham
And in 1891 (schedule 61 - details from this year were noted after its release by the Public Record Office in 1991):
name age     occupationplace of birth
James Longshaw     head72Army Pensioner    
1st 3rd Foot
Elizabethwife66 Durham, Sunderland
Jane Adaughter35 Sunderland, Durham
Elizabeth Wallisdaughter26 Shipton
Beatrice Wallisgranddaughter     5 Shipton
James Wallisgrandson2 Shipton
And finally, the Shipton-under-Wychwood marriage register contains the following entry for 1 May 1898:
James Longshaw 40 bachelor, carpenter, son of James, army pensioner [married] Sarah Longshaw, daughter of Joseph Lanfear
So, the official sources reveal a bare outline of a life, with little specific detail of day-to-day existence.  Even so, it is possible to tease out some contextualising aspects.  Already by the date of James' birth in 1858, for instance, his father had retired as a professional soldier on a pension, and continued to receive payment until the age of 72, at least.  His unit, given as '1st 3rd Foot', may probably be identified as the First Battalion of the the Third Regiment of Foot, otherwise the East Kent Regiment, known since 1782 as 'The Buffs'.  As a soldier in this unit he may well have seen action in India during the Gwalior Campaign of 1843, 6 a far cry indeed from his native Oxfordshire.  His wife and first child were born in Sunderland, in county Durham, the latter in either 1855 or 1856.

At some point between the birth of daughter Jane Ann and son James, two years later, the family had relocated to Shipton-under-Wychwood.  As the name conveys, this village fell within the ambit of Wychwood Forest, in earlier times a somewhat wild and often inaccessible area.  By 1858, however, the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway line had made the forest more accessible, with Shipton gaining its own station.  Men throughout the Wychwood area had long enjoyed a widespread reputation for toughness and a love of fighting, but this is the first example I have discovered of one becoming a career soldier.  Coincident with the Longshaw family's move to the area, the forest itself was being cleared extensively under an 1857 Act of disafforestation.  In fact, if the elder James Longshaw had, as the sources suggest, been away for some time, he would scarcely have recognised the region of his birth. 7  In 1895, at the date of death of another Longshaw - one John, of nearby Langley, aged about eighty - Leafield farmer John Simpson Calvertt wrote in his diary on 18 December, 'the changes that have occurred around here, during his lifetime, are wonderful to relate!!!' 8

So, we may observe that James Longshaw, the fiddle player, was brought up in what was, for the place and period, a relatively cosmopolitan household.  Not only had his father travelled well beyond the bounds of his home area, but his mother, born two hundred miles distant, in the north-east of the country, would have spoken with an accent uncommon in the Wychwood region.

In 1871, in the wake of the national Education Act of 1870, James was enumerated as 'Scholar.' It was rare at this date for a boy to remain at school much beyond the age of twelve, and at some point during the next decade he adopted carpentry as a profession.  The exact learning process is not known, although a formal or informal apprenticeship with a local craftsman might well have been arranged.  He continued in this trade through 1891 and, as we shall see, on until retirement.  He lived in the home of his parents until at least the age of 32, and probably until the date of his marriage in 1898.  The census for 1901 will reveal the circumstances of himself and his wife, but is not due for release (under the one hundred year privacy rule) until next year.  From the entry in the marriage register, quoted above, in which his partner's surname differs from that of her father, we may infer that she had been married before.

We know that he was still living in 1925, when the Cambridge dancers chanced to encounter him at Chipping Norton, but, as the burial register for the town which covers the twentieth century remains in the church, it has not yet been possible to establish a date of death.  Already by that date, however, he was aged seventy-seven, and probably died shortly thereafter.

Over the past two decades there has been an explosion of interest in family history research, and I have often found this avenue particularly fruitful in tracing descendants of morris dancers and musicians active before 1900.  More often than not, at this great remove, there are no surviving stories in current family oral tradition regarding the old custom or of ancestors' involvement.  But there have been cases where certain relevant material has been transmitted and retained, and this was one such.

Having discovered his interest in the Longshaw family, on 30 April 1990 I telephoned Mr W F Martin, in Iffley, Oxford, and asked if he knew anything about the man of that surname who was living in Chipping Norton in 1925, and who claimed to have played for the Shipton-under-Wychwood Morris dance side.  He replied, "The fiddler? ...  We've come across him on my wife's side ...  [She] knows of a fiddler at Shipton-under-Wychwood ... 'Jimmy' she remembers him as ...  She seems to have a childish, vague memory of an old gentleman who would fill that gap."

Here, at last, was confirmation that my tentative identification of 'Mr Langshaw' as James Longshaw had been correct.  He would have been of an age to have played during the 1870s, perhaps from around mid-decade, but probably not much before this.

During a prearranged return call the following evening he explained that both he and his wife were aged 79 (hence born 1911), and that she had a "vague recollection of 'Jimmy' - they used to call him - sitting by a relative's fireside somewhere."  There was also a "hazy memory" among other family members of James Longshaw having been "known locally as a fiddler" who apparently "played for dancing," although not specifically morris dancing.  Since our previous conversation he had spoken to his wife's sister, Mrs G B Farrar in Kirtlington, and she recalled seeing a "volume of music written by James Longshaw" which at one time was in the possession of Mrs Truman, a daughter of Sarah Longshaw, who lived in Hurst Road, Oxford, for many years.  Using the parish registers the Martins had drawn up a family tree.  One George Longshaw (1856-1897) had married Sarah Landfeare, who died in April 1916, and this couple were his wife's grandparents.  They had three children, two girls and one boy.  This latter, George Henry William Longshaw (1888-1954) was his wife's father, and her mother a Stroud, who were a "big family" in the Wychwood area.  After George Longshaw's death Sarah remarried, to James Longshaw.  My informant thought that, given Sarah's death in 1916, his wife's memory of James Longshaw would have been when she was "very small", aged about four or five.

The official data I had already noted confirmed the fact that Sarah Longshaw, daughter of Joseph Lanfear, had remarried to James Longshaw a year after the death of her first husband.  At this stage the most exciting aspect of the research was the possibility that the manuscript tune book belonging to James Longshaw might still be extant.  Mr Martin promised to make further enquiries and contact me again if anything further came up.

I heard nothing for some weeks, so on 24 May 1990 I telephoned Mrs Farrar in Kirtlington.  She thought that James Longshaw probably did play for the morris dancers, "but I didn't know that."  He did have a music book, but she was only aged about five at the time she remembers seeing it, so circa 1915.  He also had an old violin hanging on the wall of "granny's kitchen."  My informant was remembering a cottage on the Bruern Estate, where James was employed as a carpenter.  "We called him 'Grampy Jim' ... because we knew he wasn't our real grandfather" (this being her grandmother's second marriage).  Longshaw was considered to be fairly well up in the servants' hierarchy.  The estate carpenter and the stud groom had facing cottages.  'Grampy Jim' had a very nice workshop, away from the house.  He was the only carpenter on the estate, and did all the carpentry there, as well as making "sort-of bits of furniture" for the kitchen, if they needed another bench for example.  She thought that he had a beard: the two sisters used to try and curl it while sitting on either side of him after supper.  At the time she had never encountered beards before, her own father being clean-shaven, as was then the fashion.  James was very good to the two sisters: they used to play in the workshop amongst the shavings and thought it great fun.  Mrs Farrar's mother had gone to Bruern to nurse granny when she was dying of cancer, and she and her sister went along.  They were there several weeks.  While her grandmother was dying the two sisters used to sit on the landing and listen to the conversation below, trying to find out what was happening.  They heard something about 'Grampy Jim' going into the workhouse.  "We weren't supposed to know."  She did not know whether this story was true or not.  "I don't know any more about him."

At the time she remembers it, the music manuscript was covered with sheepskin, was very smelly and dirty, and was "going sticky", which made her loath to touch it.  It was quite a thick book, with the pages a bit like vellum.  It was definitely a hand-written manuscript, as she recalled having taken a look at a page or two.  Mrs Farrar did not know know what had happened to either the violin or the manuscript book, although she was sure that the latter would not have been kept.

In the broader context, it is implicit in Mr Martin's evidence that Longshaw had additionally played for dancing other than morris.  Given such an obviously substantial tune collection this makes sense.  Certainly the village benefit societies continued to celebrate their particular feast days until the end of the nineteenth century and beyond, and dancing remained a common, if not ubiquitous feature.  We are unlikely, however, to discover many (if any) further specific details at this late date.  Similarly, we may never know what prompted him to take up the fiddle or at what age, whether or not he had a formal teacher, how he acquired the tunes which he committed to paper and what prompted him to choose those in particular, how much he earned from music making, and a score of other questions.

On a more positive note, despite failing to locate the music manuscript, which would certainly have been a find of the greatest importance, stories and memories in the family oral tradition had illuminated at least some aspects of the life of yet another working man otherwise destined for obscurity.

Keith Chandler 18.8.00


  1. The log of the Travelling Morrice, 1925 [unpublished manuscript], interview with Mr Langshaw [sic], Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire; cited in 'Twenty-fifth Anniversary' booklet (Cambridge: Cambridge Morris Men, 1949), 19.
  2. John Horne MSS., Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, complied 1885 or earlier.  There is a typescript copy in the possession of David Hart, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, and a copy of the Hart copy in the author's collection.  For details of the chief recurrent features of the Whitsun Ales see my Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles. The Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900 (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik Press, for the Folklore Society, 1993), Chapter 4.
  3. Jackson's Oxford Journal, 14 March 1863, 8, and Oxford Chronicle, 21 March 1863, 2.
  4. Cecil Sharp MSS., Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, Camden Town, London.  'Field notebook (words)' 4 (17 December-[blank] 1910), interview with Henry Franklin of Leafield, in Oxford, 1910.  Fair copy in 'Folk Dances' 1, ff.258-261.
  5. For biographical details of the known performers in these named sides see my Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900.  A Chronological Gazetteer (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik Press, for the Folklore Society, 1993).
  6. I am indebted to Dave Parry, melodeon player extraordinaire and military historian employed at the Imperial War Museum, for this information.
  7. For further exposition see, for example, my article Wychwood Forest: A study of the effects of enclosure on the occupational structure of a group of Leafield workers, Oxfordshire Local History 3, number 5 (Autumn 1990), 209-220; and Kate Tiller (ed), Milton and Shipton in the 19th Century, a special issue of Wychwoods History 3 (1987).
  8. Celia Miller (ed), Rain and Ruin. The Diary of an Oxfordshire Farmer. John Simpson Calvertt. 1875-1900 (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1983), 223.
Transcripts of Crown-copyright records in the Public Record Office appear by permission of the Controller of H M Stationary Office.

Article MT061

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