Article MT011

Scan Tester - 1887-1972

Sussex musician, stepdancer and singer

Lewis (Scan) Tester - 1887 to 1972 - of Horsted Keynes 1, Sussex, was the best known traditional anglo-german concertina player around the folk scene in the '6Os and early '70s 2.  He also played bandoneon, melodeon, tambourine and fiddle - a favourite instrument for many years until rheumatism took its toll - and was an extremely fine, if infrequent, singer.   He provided the music at The Stone Quarry pub at Chelwood Gate almost every weekend for over forty years, but his life in music spanned an incredible 75 years or more.

There was music in his family and locality and he was early drawn into adult company through his ability at tambourine and stepdancing (see below) at his father's pub, the Green Man at Horsted Keynes.  By the age of eight he was out pubbing with elder brother and multi-instrumentalist, Trayton.  He worked with numerous different partners at virtually every sort of social function where music was required - harvest suppers, weddings, servants' parties, club days and, inevitably, the pubs.

After the Great War he organised what he called his jazz band 3, Tester's Imperial, consisting of himself on fiddle, his wife Sarah on drums, his daughter Daisy on piano and younger brother Will on bandoneon or clarinet.  He hired rooms in neighbouring pubs and taught all the dances - the Lancers, Gallop, Alberts, Quadrilles, schottisches, polkas, Waltz Vienna etc. - before the dance proper started.  People came for miles, even from Brighton, just for the round dancing.  They picked up the likes of the one-step, fox-trot and Charleston from the local 'posh' dances and the latest tunes from records and radio, though their musical style was little removed from what he had heard in his youth.

In the late summer of 1968, Danny and I were asked by Vic Gammon to take along a tape recorder when next we went to visit Scan, as Vic was hoping to put out a record of his music and songs on his own Nebulous Records label.  He felt that we probably knew Scan well enough to do the recording in his own home without being unduly obtrusive.  Sad to say, none of those involved in the project, ourselves included, were sufficiently au fait with the technology involved in producing decent quality field recordings, and a microphone/recorder impedance mismatch led to a recording of a quality too low ever to be released commercially.  However, rather than waste the tape, we left it running for the rest of the evening as Scan played, sang and chatted.  What follows is a transcript of some of the more interesting parts of his talk.

During the evening, Scan played anglo concertina 4 on his own, and bandoneon accompanied by his daughter Daisy Sherlock on piano.  He also sang The Old Rustic Bridge and Barbery Allen.

The first tune I ever played with Reg (Hall) 5 was Oh, I Wish They'd Do It Now.  I didn't know Reg or any of them, but Mervyn Plunkett used to live about three miles from here at West Hoathly and my niece used to go to their place - they was greengrocers and they used to call on Plunkett.  It appears they got talking one day and old Plunkett says to her "Really, I'm looking for musicians round here.  You don't know any?"   Well, she say "My uncle plays and my dad plays, they both play together."  He said "Two brothers?"  "Yes, they're both concertina players."  So with that he come down and found us, and that's how we first come to know all of them.

We lived up there where the chicken hatchery is now, it used to be the jam factory, and Arch 6 was maintenance man up there.  We lived up in one of the cottages at the factory, and after Mervyn Plunkett found out where we lived, I remember the first time he come, I tell you who he: brought with him, he brought Peter Kennedy 7 and I can see him now.  Of course I'd never been to Cecil Sharp House 8, I didn't know nothing about the BBC men or anything.  Plunkett hadn't never heard me play, neither of 'em had y'see, but they come down there, old Plunkett got two quart bottles of ale in his arms when they knocked at the door.  Arch went and opened the door and they asked if I lived here, and he says "Yes, and I think you'd better come on in - l see you've got the ammunition!"   So we sat down there, we had a drink, got talking and then they wanted me to play for 'em, so Daisy went upstairs and got the concertina.  I played a tune or two (sound clip - schottische) and then old Plunkett said "Mrs Sherlock, l understand that you and your Dad and your uncle, you all three play together".  So then Daisy had to have a go on the old joanna - God knows what time they all went away, but they didn't go away very soon!

That was 11, no 12 years ago.  l shall be 80 next month 9, 7th of September and I was about 68, I believe, when they first went up there.  That was when I first went up to Cecil Sharp House and Peter Kennedy was there then, and his father.  'Course, I done a rare lot of playing for them.  l played in the Royal Festival Hall and two or three big hotels - they set the concerts up and l played for 'em y'see.

D'you know, Peter went to Germany, to get one of these (a bandoneon).  Well, he wanted to buy this off of me, but you know how it is, I didn't like the idea of getting rid of it.  He wanted one of them, and he was in Germany and when he come back he said to me ''You know, Scan, they've left off making them bandoneons.  I've just come back from Germany and l tried to buy one.  This old chap, he'd got one of these bandoneons, it was an older one than this, it wasn't so good looking, but it was there alright, and I wanted to buy it off him.  But do you think I could get him into the right mind to sell it.  No, he wouldn't - 'cause they'd left off making 'em, see.  And do you know," he said "I tried and tried!"   And I kept expecting him to say "Why don't you let me have that one?".  Well, if he comes along now, he can have it! (laughs) because it's too heavy for me now.

Scan played Down On the Farm / Soldiers of the King on bandoneon with Daisy on piano, and then commented (about the bandoneon):

I haven't played it for so long, you forget.  After you get used to playing this you're all right.  You get three times the tone out of it as what we were getting tonight.  It's been still - it hasn't been played for a long time.  'Course, it wants playing.  This is a German instrument, my brother (Trayton) brought it home in the first war.

My wrists are getting weak and, you know, I can't play my concertina up here (standing, at chest height) now, not like I could.  I can play, perhaps for about one tune, but after that my wrists ache so, I have to play it on me knee, sitting down.  And I've regretted that more than anything, because I used to go out a lot, with coach loads, trippers, and you know, I was always standing in the coach, because the coach was always full up - and that gives it to me now, when I stand up to play for long.

A week Saturday I've got to go to Southend with a coachload, they've got an outing up there in the pub where I play every weekend (The Stone Quarry, Chelwood Gate). They kept on, they said "Well, we shan't be able to go unless you come".  I said "Well, I shall come, if you treat me well enough!" (laughs).  I go up there every weekend, see, and I shall go with 'em.  It'll take 'em half a day to get there - well, they've got two miles and a half to come and get me for a start.  But I've played in that pub up there for years and it's only natural.  I always go there every Saturday night, unless I've got something on, special like.  I do stay away sometimes, when I've got a job on that I can earn a few bob at like, because I don't earn much up there, but they treat me good and the old landlord's a good bloke and I like it, that's why I go up there.  I've got pals come up there, I've got two accordion players - sometimes one'll come along, him and his wife, and of course, they know where to find me!

I shall never forget the first time ever I went to Keele 10.  Reg and me, we got there Friday night.  We were supposed to get there to play for the dancing that night.  Well, it was about ten o'clock in the morning when we started from here and we stopped and had a drink or two, going along and then we stopped again and had some bread and cheese, midday, for our meal at a pub and, you know, you get talking, oh you know - I don't know what time we got there, but all the dancers was there and they'd been sitting because there was nobody there to play the dance music for 'em.  Old Reg and me, we got out of the car and a bloke stood outside, he said "Are you Reg Hall, either of you.  Come on in, we've been waiting for you for an hour."   So we both got out our musics 11 and went straight in there and we played them a dance or two, never had a drink or anything, and Reg said to one of the chaps "Is there a bar here anywhere?"  "Yes, down the bottom there."  "Well, I'm going to find it then, we haven't had a drink."   Because we hadn't had a drink for some time and we was dry, what with going in there and playing directly.  We went down and got ourselves a drink, but we never had to go down there no more, we had no more bother - they went and got them for us then.  In about half an hour we had plenty!

I've had the name of Scan ever since I was about five years of age.  How I come to get it is this.  They used to get me out in front of the Green Man there - we lived in the pub then, y'see.  There's a piece of green out in front and they used to get me out there with a little kiddy's cricket bat, teaching me to play cricket.  I suppose somebody says "Come on, Ranji" and so they started calling me Ranji Sinji, y'see 12, and this old farm labourer worked around here on the farms, he said "I think what we'd better do is call him Scandalopia" - or something like that he said, and d'you know, they always called me Scan ever since 13.  My mother and father, brothers and sisters - I was brought up with that name.  Yeah, funny wasn't it.  Of course, lots of people think it is my name but it isn't my name at all - my name is just plain Lewis Tester.  But I always go in that name, everybody knows me in that name and I've thought to myself several times, I'll always go in it because most people know me in that name, and wherever I go they don't know that what they're calling me isn't my proper name.  I don't mind what they call me, but I always go to that, it's as good as any other name.  Wherever I'm playing, I'm always advertised as Scan. My mother and father, brothers and sisters always called me by that name.  I had four brothers and three sisters, they're all gone, bar me.  My youngest brother was the last one who went, and he went about six or seven years ago now.  He was a concertina player 14.  And me eldest brother was a concertina player, but then he was a man grown when I was a boy.

At this point, Scan played a couple of his famous stepdance hornpipes, and then commented:

It makes my hands ache a bit when I play fast now, I've only noticed it tonight, but I've had rheumatism in the shoulder a bit today, it's the change in the weather, it makes you go a bit slow (not that he had).  Those were the old country step tunes (sound clip) and all the pubs were brick floored then and the blokes used to come in with their corduroys on and their yorks and their big nail-pelted shoes.  Cor lumme! they did used to make them bricks rattle.  Some of them couldn't half step, y'know.  In my young days I used to step a lot in pubs.  I used to step against anybody who come along and when we used go in the hop country 15, these gypsies all knew me well because they was camping about the forest here.  If I went in the pub of a night and there was any music - anybody else playing except me in there - one of them would get up and back me against anybody in the house, to step for a gallon of beer.  Cor, I won ever so many gallons.  I could move that time of day, when I was younger, and I used to do a lot of tap dancing.  My eldest brother used to, too.  One used to play while the other stepped and then one stepped while the other one played - 'cos we both played concertina, see.

On the forest there used to be several elderly men and they'd call out "Come on, let's have a step" and there'd be four of them get out and then they'd cross over and make a figure eight, they'd got several ways of doing it.  It was worth watching, it was better than some what you'd pay to go and see, to see these old blokes.  'Cos, you know, if you get a man between 60 and 70, it makes you think when you're young yourself.  It used to make me think when I was quite a young chap, I thought to myself, well I don't know, when people like that get out, it's interesting.  If the old ones do it, well it's interesting to the young ones, I think.  It used to be to me.  They was jolly good, some of them old people, but you never see it now.

The last time I seen any, I'll tell you where I was. There's a gypsies' camp at Edenbridge and I don't go there very often because I don't like the place much.  Ken Stubbs 16 has a night at The Crown and that's the house the gypsies use.  What set me against the place was, I've never said nothing to nobody before, but I hadn't been there long before there was a scrap-up with the gypsies and I was sitting in rather an awkward place.  I couldn't get out for a blasted table in front of me, and they'd come right over this table, so of course, I let 'em go down on the seat.  When one got down on the seat, I'd roll him off and he'd crawl out underneath the table.  By that time the landlord was out there and he'd got the door up and they had to clear out.  But that set my mind against that place.  I've been there once or twice since; there've been gypsies there, but then there's good gypsies as well as bad.  The real gypsies are the best.  It's these half bred gypsies that are the bother.  If you get a real bred and born gypsy, he's one of the finest men there is in the country, but these others, they're a nuisance.

Once I was staying with my nephew, who lives down that way, and they kept on at me all the week.  My niece, she said "You'll have to come out with us Saturday night, Uncle - bring your music, give us a tune."   I said "Yes, I'll come, but not down The Crown."   So we went down this other place, it's a biggish place called The Old House at Home, and I'd never been in there before, but we went in and we had a jolly good night there.  I'm going to tell you something now; well, the first bloke I saw when we got in there - I looked at him, and he says to me "It isn't no good you looking like that Scan - you can't get out nowhere where people don't know you now, you know!"   And I says "No more can you!"   And he came from The Fox 17 - one of the people there, I know his face well, but I don't know his name.  I know a lot of the people round about The Fox, see, 'cos I been to the old Fox a lot of times.  I wish I had those times now - I used to enjoy them!

The Fox had closed a few months before our visit, but we were lucky enough to be involved in the almost immediate opening of its replacement at the King's Head a couple of hundred yards up the road - with a very similar policy, but one which also included social dancing as a regular part of each evening's proceedings.  In the ensuing two years Scan often came to the King's Head, sometimes with Reg, and sometimes with other traditional musicians.  We always had a great night when he came and his good company, as much as his music, secured him a special place in the hearts of club members.

In 1990 Topic Records and MT jointly published 'I Never Payed to Many Posh Dances - Scan Tester 1887-1972' - an ambitious project comprising a double LP set (Topic 2 12T455/6) and a 148 page A4 book, written by Reg Hall, who also compiled the recordings.

The records contain 48 tracks and 51 tunes, most of which were recorded in the fifties and sixties, and none in studio conditions.  Remembering the sort of sound quality available on portable equipment in those days, I must say that the reproduction generally to be heard here is truly remarkable, as is the quality of the playing.  Encompassing the best of Scan's repertoire from the latter third of his musical life, the whole thing is a joy to listen to and manages perfectly to capture the spirit of his music, as we remember it.

Reg Hall's companion book of the same name is absolutely essential reading for a deeper understanding of the man and his life in music.  (Much of the factual information in this article is either drawn from, or checked with, Reg's text.)   Essentially Scan's biography, it also builds a detailed picture of the society and culture in which he fitted so well, propounds numerous interesting theories relating to southern English music and dance repertoire, and even introduces the reader to several of Scan's musical contemporaries, lest he should be seen as an isolated phenomenon.  It contains an exhaustive discography, bibliography and dozens of excellent photos.

The above has recently been re-released as a double cassette + the original book, by Veteran Tapes for 16.50 (incl. P+P) - get to their Web pages via our Links Page.

A last word from Scan:

"If I go in anywhere, don't matter where it is, and there's a chap playing an instrument, I've got
ten times more interest in him than I have in any of these here juke boxes or anything of that.
I wouldn't have one in my place!"

Rod and Danny Stradling


  1. He was born at Chelwood Gate, about four miles away, and lived in this area, about fifteen miles north of Brighton, at various locations, throughout his long life.

  2. After his 'discovery' by Mervyn Plunkett, Scan performed very widely outside his home patch, at concerts, festivals and folk clubs, during the last decade and a half of his life.  To quote Reg Hall: "Many budding musicians captured his attention for advice, but few seemed able to grasp the most obvious lessons he had to teach them".

  3. The jazz tag was really because Sarah Tester played a drum kit - which was quite an innovation for a country area in those days.

  4. He had several concertinas at various times - mainly in C/G. He had a fine 40 key Bb/F Lachenal for many years, for playing with brother Will (note 10 ), who had a similar instrument and the clarinet.  At the end of his life he played a gorgeous C/G 40 key J. Crabb with metal ends and sides and a C/G 30 key metal ended C. Jeffries, c. 1900.

  5. Reg Hall (along with Mervyn Plunkett) was very active from the '50s onwards - collecting, and particularly playing with, traditional musicians throughout the south of England.  He has played for the Padstow Blue Ribbon 'Obby 'Oss party since 1957, and for Bampton Morris since 1960.  He first met Scan, via Mervyn's introduction, in 1957.

    Although he was never particularly in favour of it, it can fairly be said that without his work, the English Country Music revival of the '70s would never have taken place - or at least, not in the way in which it did.

  6. Daisy's husband.  Scan lived with the Sherlocks after his wife died.

  7. Son of Douglas Kennedy, one of the leading lights of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.  Actually, it was not Peter who accompanied Mervyn on this occasion - they did not meet until a couple of years later.

  8. The central London headquarters of the E.F.D.S.S

  9. Scan always held that he was a year older than parish records show.  Whether this was a mistake or a deception, the effect was that he was able to leave school and contribute to the family income a year earlier than he should have done.

  10. The National Folk Music Festival, initially organised by an arm of the EFDSS at Keele University campus.  It has now been 'privatised', and runs annually at Sutton Bonnington School of Agriculture campus, Leicestershire.

  11. General term in this area for any sort of musical instrument - like 'box' today.

  12. K.S. Ranjitsinhji, first class cricketer 1893 -1920, the first Indian to play for England.

  13. Reg Hall also has another completely different story of how Scan got his name, and he believes there are several more!

  14. Will Tester, one (or two!) years Scan's junior, who some would have said was the better of the two on tambourine and concertina.

  15. As a boy, Scan accompanied Trayton on annual trips to the hop fields of Kent, where concertina playing and stepdancing brought in more money than pulling hops.

  16. Another collector and writer, active in the same area from the '60s onwards.  Stubbs' work is more in the field of songs, particularly those of Gypsies.

  17. Reg Hall, in concert with Bob Davenport, ran a folk club at The Fox in Islington, north London, for about five years until 1968. Musicians from all over the world (mainly traditional) were booked as guests, and Scan was always a firm favourite.

Article MT011

This article first appeared in a very similar form in the Americal magazine Concertina and Squeezebox.

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