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Article MT270

Tom Brown

Caister singer: in his own words

The Norfolk town of Great Yarmouth has had a long association with herring fishing and a great many men in the town and surrounding area were employed in this industry.  At its peak, at about the turn of the Twentieth Century, there were about a thousand herring drifters in Yarmouth harbour.  In the course of last century the industry declined sharply; by the Second World War the drifter fleet was only a quarter of what it had been before the First World War, and by the early 1960s the whole industry had ceased to exist.  In its heyday, the area had its own customs and traditions relating to the herring fishing as well as a lively musical tradition, with some songs dealing with this way of life.  Indeed, there are several traditional songs which mention the town in their title: Yarmouth Fishermen's Song, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Yarmouth Town and Father Went to Yarmouth, as well as the local name for a ubiquitous step dance tune, the Yarmouth Hornpipe.1

Tom Brown, from neighbouring Caister-on-Sea, went to sea at an early age and had many years working on herring drifters.  He was also a fine singer of songs learned from his family and community, many of which were connected with the area and the herring fishing.  Starting as a teenager, he spent many years in this employment until, having lost his father at sea and at the urging of his mother, he gave up the occupation and worked on the railways.  This job eventually took him to live in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, where he also found a new audience for his singing in the folk clubs of the area.  In 1979 he was recorded by Peter Kennedy, singing and recounting aspects of his life, from which recordings the following extracts are taken.2

Thomas Harold William Brown was born in Caister on 11th March, 1919, into a fishing family: his father and grandfathers were also fishing skippers.  Not surprisingly he followed in the family tradition, going to sea in a steam drifter at the age of fourteen: "Well, I first went to sea when I was fourteen, in the old Yarmouth herring drifters.  The crew of a herring drifter was the skipper, the mate, driver, fireman, hoarsman, waleman, net stower, younker and cook…3  I remember goin' after my first berth; old skipper, my father was with him.  My father was mate, and he said, "Come on, boy," he said, "if you're goin' to sea, you'd better go and see old Cripp."  Everybody had nicknames around our way.  I had to go and see old Cripp Green, the skipper.  And I went to him, "Skipper, I want a berth.  Can you give me a berth?"  He sort of looked at me, "Ah," he said, "your father bin a good chap with me," he said.  "You can come."  I was a big boy.  I was a big brawny boy, so I went younker.  Not as cook…  And the younker, he was cast off; he had to take off the fastenings that held the nets to the warp.  Well, I took them off.  I went [as] that."

Life on the drifters was hard and certainly contained its fair share of characters.  Tom described some fellow crew members: "There was old "Yorkie" Jillings.  He never got beyond sixty five, Yorkie didn't.  He could neither read nor write, and his wife used to write him out postcards.  You know: "Dear wife…"  His wife used to write to herself.  "Dear wife, we've had a ------ week" so could put in "good" or "bad," and then she used to put one, "We are comin' home next week."  And Yorkie got these out, and a favourite trick nearly every year was that somebody out of the others would say, "Where's your cards, Yorkie?"  He'd get the cards out and pick the one out, "Dear wife, we're comin' home next week," and send it three weeks before he was due…  Old fella, old George Eke, old "Hard Times" we used to call him.  He could neither read nor write.  He was a real big fat old fella and he used to wear what you call a scuddin hat; that was a trilby bashed down like a billycock.

"Some of the skippers were mad.  He used to sit waitin' for the weather forecast, and they wouldn't untie before the weather forecast, and all of a sudden that'd come on the BBC, "This is a gale warning.  A gale warning is operational throughout the east coast."  And he used to turn round and say, "Let's go!"  And they used to go out, and they'd had a gale warning.  They'd waited on the quayside for this gale warning to come through, and out they used to go."

Whilst embarking on this hard life, Tom Brown also learned songs from fellow fishermen: "They used to sing songs of the sea.  But they weren't all songs of the sea.  They sort of had their own pop at the same time.  I suppose that was the equivalent of pop now; they'd go and listen to the music hall and they'd bring some back."  (Bob Hart, also working the Yarmouth trawlers, did exactly the same! - Ed.)  "They were sort of inclined to bring them back that were a little bit on the blue side, on the risky side, like The Man Who Played the Trombone."

"When I first started singin', I was a little boy.  I had a good grounding.  I had a good tutor; I had Fred Cox, Harry Cox's brother.  I used to listen to him when he was workin' on the farm and I was on holiday on the farm as a youngster.  Used to listen to him and summer evenings used to go up and listen to Harry.  I learnt The Barley Straw; that was one of the first ones I ever heard."4

There was also much music in the family: "As I say, they used to sing in the pub, but I learnt most of my songs from my mother.  She came from a singing family.  The Cranes.  Old Bob Crane, he could sing.  My grandfather, he could sing.  Lovely old singer he was.  And he passed advice onto me: he always said to me, "You never sing from the mouth, boy.  You sing from the heart."  And I believe in that."

"Well, grandfather was a big concertina player and he'd have the old concertina.  And I don't see 'em today; in the folk clubs I don't see many who throw the concertina like the old concertinas used to be thrown.  Throwing the arms, I've seen the sweat run off his nose after The Bells of St Mary's, after a good session of The Bells of St Mary's.  Throwing it around, through his legs, up and down and around, and really making the concertina talk.  He always wanted to be performin' with this concertina.  He'd sit in the old armchair; y'know, the old spindle-backed armchairs; he'd sit in that.  I think I've got one of his habits.  He get up and shut his eyes; I think I shut my eyes sometimes.  I don't know whether that's force of habit or shyness, or don't want to look at the audience, or what it is.  He played the concertina and he used to accompany hisself sometimes on the concertina."

"And my mother, she used to sing all sorts.  Hers were lots of sentimental songs, like The Faithful Sailor Boy and all those.  And my mother would sit and sing; she'd sing while she was sittin', maybe knitting; and she'd sit and sing, and my grandfather said to her, "Give us a song, Nellie."  There was only the three of us.  You see, I was the youngest.  My brother had gone out.  And this would be sittin' around the fire, sittin' in the chair.  And she'd also sing when she was at work.  Later on in life she sang to my two children.  Comic songs; you know, happy, comical songs.  I always say the best folk singer I knew was my mother.  She knew quite a lot and when dad was at sea there was just her and my grandfather.  My grandfather Bob Crane.  That was those two.  And I learnt a lot from them.  A lot of songs.  Mother used to sing The Female Drummer.  My mother was still singin' this song after I got married and my wife Bertha, she picked the song up from my mother as well - Bertha sings along with Tom on the above sound clip - when my mother used to sing it to my children."

Tom's time on the herring drifters was interrupted with a short time in the merchant service, as deck boy, on the Australian run: "The voyage took nine months.  My wages were then three pound a month.  I was wealthy.  And I went nine months on that but, I don't know, I didn't seem to take to that.  Went on the Australian run; I went to Australia when I was fifteen."  After this he returned to the drifters, this time as net stower, working again for Cripp Green and alongside his father, who made the comment, "Well boy, you know what you gotta do, you'll have to pull your weight.  You aren't very old, he say, "but you'll be workin' with me and you'll have to pull your weight."  And you had to; that was no use.  If you took the job you had to do it.  If you took a man's job, you had to do a man's job."  Before long, "I left Cripp Green and my father and got a berth with a young skipper out of Winterton, young Jack "Starchy" George.  And he was a great singer.  Well, they were all singers at Winterton.  Everybody used to sing at Winterton.  One of the songs they used to sing was Butter and Cheese and All. That was a popular song around Winterton."

The nearby village of Winterton was a lively place for song, particularly when the fishermen had returned ashore after a voyage.  This frequently took place in the aptly-named Fisherman's Return pub, and one singer Tom Brown got to know was the renowned Sam Larner of the village.5  One song in Tom's repertoire was The Smacksman: "That was a favourite of Sam Larner; that was another one from Winterton.  Got quite a lot of songs what old Starchy, Jack Starchy; in goin' over to Winterton and listening."  Another local song that Tom learned was Cruising Round Yarmouth: "I mean, I're been singin' it and I've been singin' into her fo'c'scle he slipped his jib boom.  I know what it meant and one or two of the others meant.  There was a lot of hidden meaning to the songs."

The singing generally speaking took place in pubs ashore rather than whilst at sea: "In the pubs.  When you used to go to sign on, you know, and in the winter after; if you had any money, that is, enough for a pint or two.  Used to go and used to have sing-rounds, sing round the pub.  And they'd all take a turn at singing; what they call a "sing, say and pay."  And you'd all either sing or say something, or put something in the hat.  But everybody sang at Winterton.  All seemed to know a different song."  However they didn't regularly sing on the boats: "Well, you were too tired.  As I said, Jack Starchy used to; if we weren't gettin' a lot, he'd lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he'd sing while he'd be on watch.  He'd have a song or two.  But not much.  The work was too long.  The hours were too long that you spent to do much singin'.  You'd sing in the pubs when you're paid off."

Unsurprisingly given these surroundings, Tom's repertoire contained many local songs connected with the sea and the area, that he learned from others in this community, and he had an unusual version of a very well-known fishermen's song Windy Old Weather which includes all the crew members of a herring drifter: "the skipper, the mate, driver, fireman, hoarsman, waleman, net stower, younker and cook.  (It) brings in all the members of the crew.  The fish want to be members of the crew for a change."6

Then up jumped the herring, the king of the sea,
Saying, "Come on, old skipper, you'll never catch me."
In this windy old weather, stormy old weather,
When the wind blow, we'll all pull together.

Then up jumped the plaice, as big as the plate,
Saying, "I'll sign as skipper if you'll sign as mate."
In this windy old weather…

Then up jumped the whiting, easy and free,
Saying, "I'll sign as driver if you'll fire for me."
In this windy old weather…

Then up jumped the skate, with his long slimy tail,
Saying, "I'll sign to the hoars boys, if you'll sign to the wale."
In this windy old weather…

Then up jumped the whale, that we call the blower,
Saying, "Come on old skipper, I'll sign as net stower."
In this windy old weather…

Then up jumped the coolie, as black as a rook,
Saying, "I'll sign as younker, if you'll sign as cook."
In this windy old weather…

And I think what the fishes are sayin' is right,
We'll heave in the gear and we'll steer for the Light.
In this windy old weather…

Tom Brown described his interest in singing to Peter Kennedy: "It's just that I like songs.  Even during the war I would listen to people and go and see; and besides, when we were a bit short, if we found there was a pub that wanted a few songs, and we didn't have any money in the pocket, I'd take two or three of my mates in and sing.  I'd sing all night for 'em, as long as the beer was comin' in.  Especially, I was stationed at Hartlepool and used to go round all the working men's clubs there, and give them a visit when we didn't have any money.  Said, "Come on, Brownie, let's go and sing for a pint or two," and we used to sing for a pint or two.  I've always had it up because I was brought up with them and I like the songs.  I think they're great."

It was whilst in the navy in the Second World War that Tom met his wife Bertha:7  "I met her in Belfast when I was drunk one day.  It's the truth!  I was stationed in Belfast in the navy during the war and I had a real good friend, and this might sound strange: he was a Welshman called Harry O'Leary.  And we'd had one or two and we see these two girls.  We were havin' an argument and we was tryin' to say "truly rural" to see who was sober, and we saw these two girls, young girls; only really youngsters, only sixteen.  So we said, "Come here and tell us.  Can you say "truly rural?"  Who can say "truly rural?"  They sort of took one look and cleared off!  Ran away.  But any rate, we met them.  We met her later; she was sixteen and I was in the navy.  Had to get her strict Irish father's permission to take her out, you know.  Run me eye over and, "Look after my daughter."  And I've been doin' it now for nearly forty years."  Bertha Brown was herself a good singer, singing The Doffing Mistress to Peter Kennedy, as well as Magherafelt Hiring Fair and The Female Drummer as duets with Tom, the first two from her own Irish community and the last from Tom's mother Nellie Crane.

The life on the herring drifters was hard and the industry in decline, but Tom Brown may well have continued living in such a close-knit community had not one wartime event intervened: "Caister, the village; my village where I come from, was a great one for nicknames.  All the families had nicknames.  All the skippers and everybody had nicknames.  My grandfather was "Whampoo;" well then, my father wasn't Jack Brown, he was "Jack Whampoo," my brother was "Young Jack Whampoo" and I was "Jack Whampoo's Boy Tom."  And that's the way it get.  You could ask (for) people by their proper names, and they wouldn't know who you were talking about.

"I went on that voyage and that was hard work for a boy of sixteen.  After you'd hauled the nets, when you got into harbour, you'd have to pull 'em up again and clean 'em, and then go down and fill the baskets.  There was roughly a thousand herring to a cran.  All depends what they were.  And you used to have to fill 'em up.  That was four baskets, used to have to fill four baskets up.  That was the net stower and waleman down the hole, fillin' the herring into these baskets, and the younker was on to pull the empty ones, and the mate and the hoarsman were ashore, and the fireman used to be on the capstan to take them up.  And we had to fill four baskets to the cran, so that was two baskets each.  It was hard work."

"Durin' the war, naturally I joined the navy.  Six years durin' the war.  And my father was blown up at sea.  He was still fishin' during the war in a drifter called the Helpmate and it was blown up and lost with all hands.  I was the only single one; it left me and my mother at home.  And I came out of the navy and she said, "What are you goin' to do, boy?"  I was going away to Aden with the salvage firm.  She said, "Don't go to sea, boy.  I've lost enough."  I got a job on the railway."

After the Second World War Tom Brown worked on the railways in Stalham before redundancy forced him to move to Nottinghamshire to similar work.  He had a rather different story about his move to Worksop: "They all pull my leg about bein' Norfolk.  So they say, "Well, why did you move up here?"  I said, "Well, down in Norfolk there's always a village idiot," I said, "Well, I was the village idiot and there was another one born, so they said, "Tom, we can't have two village idiots in one village down here."  So, "What shall I do?"  So somebody said, "Well, I'll tell you what.  Why don't you move to Worksop.  Nobody'll notice you there!"

Away from the sea and these songs in their local environment, Tom does not seem to have sung for quite a while after moving to Worksop, until illness put him into chance contact with the folk clubs of the area: "I found out I had angina and blood pressure and it worried me, and I suffered depression.  I became almost a hermit.  I withdrew into myself.  I wouldn't speak to anybody; went for weeks without speaking to any of my family or anybody.  And one Sunday I said to the wife, "Let's go to this folk club at Worksop.  Let's see what they're like."  And I went to the folk club at Worksop, and people were singin' all the songs.  "That's the songs we sing, girl.  We're bin singin' them songs.  These kids're singin' these songs."  And we went and I sat up a corner, too withdrawn to make myself known.  And I just sat up the corner and we joined in the choruses.  And one day I was talkin' to a fella in the Railway Club and he said, "Oh, I'm goin' down to Worksop club," and I was talkin' to him about folk singin' and I mentioned that I knew Harry Cox and Sam Larner.  And when he was there he said, "You know you've got somebody in your club who knew Harry Cox and Sam Larner."  In the interval a fella came across, a fella called John Wells, and he said to me, "Why don't you come to Kiveton Club."  Bob Davenport was on at the time; he was singin' and I was sittin' talkin' to him, and sat, and all of a sudden I heard somebody say, "We've got a new singer."  And I looked round.  Tom Brown – there's another Tom Brown in the room?  I looked all around for this other Tom Brown.  I discovered it was John Wells in his broad Yorkshire voice, "It's thee, tha silly bugger!" he said, "Get up."  Before I knew what was happenin' I was up on the stages singin' The Barley Straw.

"Next week I was singin' at Worksop.  And the young people in the folk club, and generally in the folk world, they made a fuss of me.  They asked me to sing, and different people asked me to go to different places.  And suddenly I found I had no more depression.  "Will soon be next Tuesday, we'll be able to go to Kiveton," or Sunday, "There's some clubs at Sheffield."  And off I went round the Sheffield clubs.  And I forgot all about my depression."

Tom Brown found a ready audience and a new lease of life for his singing in the folk clubs and coincidentally ended up learning a song about his native Caister which he first heard in a Sheffield club: "In 1901 there was a lifeboat disaster in the village, where the ship went to sea and, on returning, when it came back to the shore the lifeboat capsized and they lost nine lives out of twelve, and a big memorial (was erected) up in the village.  And the old coxswain of the lifeboat, old Haylett, "Spratt" Haylett; they heard this call for help and saw the boat opposite and they pulled two people out in the dark, out of the boat.  One was his son and one was his son-in-law.  And he went to get a medal and they said why didn't they turn back?  And he said, "Caister men never turn back."  A song was written about the event by Ken Saul, who recalls:8 "I wrote the song about the Caister lifeboat disaster because my family were kind of involved.  Great, great, grandfather was old Jimmy Haylett, who uttered the alleged "Caister men never turn back" bit.  So, I'd written this song.  The then rector of Caister, Richard Demett; one of his daughters, Mary, used to come to the folk club in Yarmouth, and she learnt the song from me.  Her and her boyfriend went to some club somewhere in the Sheffield / Worksop area.  Tom was in the audience and she gets up as a floor spot and sings this song about Caister; well, of course, Tom's there, tears in his eyes.  From his own village!  So then he learnt it, sort of a version, 'cause he changed the tune slightly."

Tom Brown was a fine singer with a considerable repertoire of songs learned from other Norfolk fishermen and others in his community: The Smacksman, Cruising Round Yarmouth, The Barley Straw, Windy Old Weather, The Maid Of Australia,, Butter and Cheese and All, Widdlecombe Fair and fragments / ditties such as Bell Bottom Trousers and The Parson and the Curate as well as songs from his mother such as The Female Drummer, The Faithful Sailor Boy, Give Me a Ticket to Heaven and The Old House, and from his grandfather, such as The Great Meat Pie.  In addition, he learned further songs from his time singing in the folk clubs, most notably The Caister Lifeboat Disaster.  Being a generation younger than the east Norfolk singers whose songs were widely collected, in particular Harry Cox and Sam Larner, from whom he learned a great deal, he does stand as a rare example of a singer who continued this tradition after the more renowned singers of the area had long passed away.  In this respect he is rather similar to Knapton singer Walter Pardon;9 particularly in that his singing found a new appreciation in folk clubs later in life, quite some time after he had originally learned the songs.  For Tom Brown it was simply, "It's just that I like the songs," and he was in all respects a worthy exponent of the east Norfolk singing tradition. 

Chris Holderness - 1.3.12
Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project


The photograph of Tom Brown was taken by Peter Kennedy and that of the herring drifters is from the collection of Kenneth Lawton, courtesy of John Lawton.


Article MT270

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