Saturday, 2 August 2008

Vaughan Williams and Essex

Fifty years ago, on 26th August 1958, the famous British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams died. Whilst he never lived in Essex we can claim that this locality had a major influence on his musical output.

Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. He studied at the Royal College of Music at a time when English music was popular in “the organ loft and the festival platform rather than the stage” [Day, p8]. His tutor Charles Stanford had failed at opera whilst Arthur Sullivan was succeeding at operetta, but then this was not considered serious music.

Looking for a musical style, Vaughan Williams became interested in folk song. The Folk Song Society had been formed in 1898 but was struggling despite Stanford being its Vice President. Cecil Sharp declared in 1904 that it was necessary to “get out into the field and listen to what the country folk had to sing” [Day, p18] rather than endlessly discuss the merits on folk song in London.

Vaughan Williams heartily agreed with Sharp’s views and had already been working separately from the Society, giving lectures on folk music across England and at the Montpelier House School for Girls (later renamed Brentwood County High School) in Brentwood (Essex). He described folk music in 1902 as “real music”. “What we need in England, is real music, even if it be only a music-hall song. Provided it possess real feeling and real life, it will be worth all the off scourings of the classics in the world” [Heffer, p22].

Vaughan Williams’ lectures at Brentwood had inspired one of the pupils, Georgina Heatley. After the final lecture she handed him a piece of paper with songs sung by one of the housemaids at her home, which was the Rectory at Ingrave. Georgina suggested that much folk song was rendered, but was unrecorded. With it came an invitation from her father to attend a Parish Tea, which he accepted. At the tea was a 75 year old labourer (a shepherd) by the name of Charles Potipher, dressed in his Sunday best, and probably not comfortable with attending such functions above his station in life at the Rectory. In any case “the old songs he knew were about young love and sex, taboo subjects in the oppressive Victorian atmosphere of the rectory” [Kent, p161]. He was reluctant to sing to Vaughan Williams at tea but promised that if the composer visited his cottage the following day he would sing for him.

So it was that on 4th December 1903 that VW collected – that is noting down the words and tunes – his first folk song, ‘Bushes and Briars’, from the voice of Charles Potipher. This visit to a humble labourer’s cottage ignited the composer’s passion for folk song. In 1904, Vaughan Williams came on a 10-day cycling tour of Ingrave, Willingale, Little Burstead, East Horndon and Billericay collecting further examples. In January 1905 he collected songs from around the Kings Lynn district of Norfolk and whilst on holiday in Sussex and Yorkshire later that year. In 1906 he visited Samuel Childs at the Bell, Willingale, noting down ‘Sweet Primroses’. Vaughan Williams earnestly believed that if these songs were not noted down they might be lost forever. Vaughan Williams became one of the greatest folk song collectors of the early twentieth century. It inspired the writing of his three ‘Norfolk Rhapsodies’ and ‘In the Fen Country’.

Ralph Vaughan Williams jotted the folk songs using pencil and paper. He later made some wax cylinder recordings. One singer was Mrs Humphries, also of Ingrave, who recorded ‘Bushes and Briars’. She had heard her father and grand-father sing this while a youngster living at Blackmore (Essex).

While this mammoth project was in its early stages, Percy Dreamer approached Vaughan Williams to edit a new hymn book. His name had been recommended by Cecil Sharp and Canon Scott Holland. Intended to be a short task it absorbed VW who spent £250 out of his own pocket and took two years. The result was the ‘English Hymnal’ published in 1906. Folk song tunes were included as musical accompaniment to sacred words: ‘Monks Gate’ was a tune Vaughan Williams had collected from a place near Horsham. He used it in the setting of the famous ‘To Be A Pilgrim’.

The English Hymnal draws on a wide range of musical styles but as he wrote in the Preface, “where there is congregational singing it is important that familiar melodies should be employed”. Tunes were written based on folk songs collected: ‘I think when I read the story of old’ was set to a tune named ‘East Horndon’; ‘There’s a friend for little children’ to the tune ‘Ingrave’ and, the most familiar of the three still sung today, ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ set to a tune ‘Herongate’.

“On 4th August 1914 war was declared on Germany, and Vaughan Williams, like the heroes in many of the folk songs he loved so much, felt his duty to enlist as a soldier” [Day, p29].

Charles Potipher died in 1909 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Ingrave churchyard. In early 2001, Brentwood Borough Council decided to commemorate him in the naming of a road on the then new Clements Park estate – Potipher Way. Other roads were named in remembrance of the Vaughan Williams connection, for example, Vaughan Williams Way, Pastoral Way (after his third symphony).

Three years before his death, in 1955, Vaughan Williams revisited Brentwood and recalled his first visit to the town which had had such a profound effect on his music.

In 2003, to mark the centenary of Vaughan Williams’ visit to Ingrave, the Essex Record Office mounted an excellent exhibition entitled ‘That precious legacy’ commemorating the composer and folk singing. The exhibition led to the publication of a book by Sue Cubbins, sound archivist, and is highly recommended for further reading.


The English Hymnal (1906)
Cubbins, Sue. That Precious Legacy. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Essex Folksong (Essex Record Office, 2006)
Day, James. Vaughan Williams (Dent & Sons, London, 1972)
Heffer, Simon. Vaughan Williams (Phoenix, 2000)
Kent, Sylvia. Folklore In Essex (Tempus, 2005)
Brentwood Gazette. 4 January 2001. 8 August 2003.

Other sources

BBC Radio 3 broadcast Twenty Minutes, a Proms Interval programme, entitled ‘Fantasia on a Theme: Bushes and Briars’ on 24 July 2008. The Promenade Concerts featured a whole day devoted to Folk Music, reflecting the musical legacy begun by Vaughan Williams, culminating in sets by Bella Hardy, Martin Simpson and 11-piece band, Bellowhead. Bella Hardy sang a Christmas carol – ‘Down In Yon Forest’ - collected in her native Derbyshire (Castleton) by RVW.

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