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Whitchurch, Hampshire and the songs of Henry Lee

Last updated on July 13, 2021

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One of my preoccupations in recent months has been the relaunch of the Whitchurch Folk Club (which you can find out more about here). I say ‘relaunch’ even though there never has been (to my knowledge) a club of that name. The local folk club that ran regularly throughout the folk revival of the 70s and closed 30 years ago was named after the pub in which it met – The Red House – and while we’re very keen to acknowledge the traditions that the organisers established (not least the amazing-sounding Whitchurch Folk Festival), it’s going to be very hard to do that without more volunteers. So, for now, the Whitchurch Folk Club will run as a series of folk performers (of some renown, I might add). If that goes well we’ll look into running sessions, singers’ nights, and – who knows? – maybe one day get the festival back on its feet. Fingers crossed. 

Speaking with my co-organiser, Paul Sartin, I think there’s more to it for both of us than simply wanting to breathe new life into the old club (although we’re delighted that some of the original members are supportive of the idea). We’re both passionate about traditional music (it’s his profession and my obsession), and our location is a big part of the story. Paul and I met, very briefly, at a town event at Whitchurch Silk Mill about five years ago. I had been asked to play with The Grizzly Folk (band), and we were specifically tasked with learning local folk songs. At that point, my experiences of folk music were limited to what my parents had played me when I was growing up – artists like Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake who I now know are probably better defined as singer-songwriters than folk in the traditional sense. Immediately, I was fascinated to learn that folk music could be local to a specific area – that you could be singing relatively unique songs that people had been singing in this spot for hundreds of years.

So, I did some research and came across a song called ‘If I Was a Blackbird’. The recording I heard was performed by The Askew Sisters, a Hampshire-based duo, but I’ve since heard versions by various people, including Belshazzar’s Feast, featuring none other than Paul Sartin. So off I went to band practice, song in hand, and we ended up playing it at the Silk Mill event… right alongside The Andover Museum Loft Singers (lead by that damned Paul Sartin again), who were also performing the song. There’s nothing quite like being the support act playing the main act’s hits to get you into everyone’s good books…

By this point, however, the seeds of obsession had been sown. I went off and – sporadically over the years – did some more quiet research into these local songs and the people involved in singing and collecting them. Paul and I didn’t meet again until late 2016, when, by chance, we ended up on the same, slow London train and began talking rather rabidly about two particular gentlemen: George Gardiner and Henry Lee.

Folk song collecting

Newcomers to folk music are often surprised to find that ‘collecting’ was once, and to a certain extent still is, a large part of the tradition. While the idea of approaching someone in a pub in England and asking them to sing old local songs might seem peculiar to anyone who frequents the modern British boozer, it’s apparently still acceptable in other places. Indeed, when I interviewed Ian Lynch (Lankum) on this blog, he told me he regularly records old timers singing in Irish pubs on his phone, and will regularly head off the beaten track to find places with that purpose in mind.

Back in late Victorian times, there was something of a fevered passion among the middle classes for the collecting of rural, traditional songs. Notable collectors include Cecil Sharp (after whom Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, is named) and the classical composer, Vaughan Williams. Along with a growing cadre of similarly-minded people, they would wander out into the sticks and approach the local folk in the hope of noting down regional songs. While it certainly conjures up images of confused exchanges between smartly-dressed toffs and somewhat bemused farmhands, in many ways it saved a dying tradition. The songs of the people, so to speak, were not being recorded in any way, so documentation of this nature helped to keep what we now recognise as ‘traditional folk songs’ alive.

George Gardiner

Folk song collector, George GardinerGeorge Gardiner, a Scottish classical scholar, began indulging his interest in folk song collecting in Bath in 1903. He called his work a “systematic study of the folk songs of Europe”, although – certainly as far as I’m aware – his legacy can be seen most vividly in the collections he made in and around Hampshire. The Full English website (which digitally archives traditional English folk songs based at Cecil Sharp House) suggests that he collected approximately 1,100 songs by 1907, and in a letter that he wrote to the Hampshire Field Club and Archeological Society in 1906, he reported that at least 350 of these had been collected in this county.

Gardiner visited Whitchurch, Hampshire, in May 1906, most likely attracted to the area by the existence of a local workhouse (prime folk-song-collecting terrain) and possibly the Silk Mill (although this is entirely conjecture on my part)*. His visit to the town was nothing out of the ordinary – the letter mentioned above describes the visit as part of a trek through, “Old Alresford, Bishops’s Sutton, Micheldever, Whitchurch [and] Lyndhurst”. Most interestingly, it also reveals his working methods…

“People sometimes ask me how I discover my singers. Well I simply ask anybody. If I am driving to Micheldever or Lyndhurst, I tell the driver what I am doing, and ask him to name anyone who can sing an old-world song. If he cannot tell, I go to the blacksmith or the innkeeper, who know the neighbourhood as well as most men, and I am invariably received with the utmost civility. When I make my first visit I explain what I am doing and the kind of song I want, and when people really understand my object I find them not only willing but eager to help me. Besides, a singer is always a jolly good fellow.”

…and some of the frustrations that went with his occupation:

“One day I walked for miles near Lyndhurst and Minstead without making any headway. Everyone was working till sunset, and came home rather in a sleeping than a singing mood. I politely said to some of the people, ‘This is really too bad. My song-harvest is at a standstill. To oblige me, could you not put off that haymaking for a year?’ They would not consent.”

On other occasions he seems to have been entirely misunderstood:

“Once I called on an old lady who was prepared for my visit. Unfortunately, someone else answered the door, and when I spoke of old songs the answer was, ‘We don’t want old songs. We have no money to give for old songs. We really don’t require any today.'”

We know, also, that he usually worked alone to locate performers and note down the lyrics of their songs, before sending learned colleagues in to take down the tunes. Often, these colleagues were unable to locate the performers, so Gardiner’s collected songs are occasionally without melodies, however it seems that they were relatively lucky on this occasion, quite possibly because they had (and we still have) an address for the performer.

Henry Lee and Whitchurch

In 1906, when Gardiner visited, Henry Lee lived at number 2 Weir Cottages, just off the Winchester Road as you enter Whitchurch from the South. A gardener and labourer, he was located on the quaint country lane with his daughters, and the collector managed to note down 11 songs. Some of these are well-known in the canon, although it seems to be the case that even the better-known songs have quirks that are unique to Whitchurch.

So, what do we know about Henry Lee? More than you might imagine, as it happens. Consulting local historian, Martin Smith, we found that Lee was born in Barehill Street (now Newbury St), Whitchurch on 3rd September, 1837, to Charles and Harriet Lee. While the family seem to have disappeared for a spell when Henry was about 13 or 14, he turns up again in the 1861 census, 25 years old and employed as a farm labourer.

Whichurch inhabitants should look away now, as what follows is a little difficult to stomach. At some point following the 1861 census, it would seem that he relocated up the road to Overton (I know, I know… I warned you), where he married Ann, an Overton girl. However, by the time of the 1881 census he was back, now living at ‘Fishing Cottage’, which would have been located on modern-day Test Road.

10 years pass again before he makes another appearance, this time married to a woman called Maria, having fathered three children, Henrietta, Harriet and Marian (we can only assume that Ann passed away, childless). By this point he had relocated to The Weir, where he was employed as a miller’s labourer.

The Whitchurch songs of Henry Lee

By the time George Gardiner arrived in North Hampshire, Henry Lee would have been 67 years old, still living at The Weir (although Martin Smith thinks he may have been living further up the lane in a cottage near Fulling Mill). It seems that he’d also fathered a new daughter, 17 years old at this point, who didn’t make it into any of the earlier records. He’d changed his occupation once again, too, possibly due to his advancing years. He was now a gardener.

Gardiner collected a surprisingly large clutch of songs given the relatively small size of the town, and I can’t help wonder whether he might have collected more than have been accounted for. In the letter quoted above he actually makes mention of collecting at the local workhouse (now The Gables), explaining again that the rural workers were far too busy to help him out at that time of the year, and that he’d collected 50 songs at Basingstoke workhouse, 45 at Southampton, 25 at Fareham and 20 at Winchester – clearly they made for unquestionably fertile ground.

It’s hard to say whether he actually had any success at Whitchurch workhouse; the records show that he got all he came for from Henry Lee and his daughter, “Miss Lee” (who we can only suppose was the aforementioned Rosa).

Of the 11 pieces that reside in the archive at Cecil Sharp House, 10 are attributed to Henry and one to Miss Lee. It’s slightly peculiar that Miss Lee’s song is a replica of one of Henry’s, and given that they appear to be identical, it’s possible that one of these was re-recorded in error (the handwritten version of ‘If I Was a Blackbird’, pictured above, is attributed to Henry, while the typed record is attributed to his daughter).

The full collection consists of the following songs (the links will take you to the relevant entry in the digital archive at The Full English):

Blackbird (attributed to Henry Lee)
Haymaking Song
The Crocodile
The Collier’s Son
The Gallant Poachers
The Wild Rover
In Reading Town
If I Was a Blackbird (attributed to Miss Lee)
Just as the Tide was Flowing
Pretty Susan the Pride of Kildare
The Unfortunate Lad/Lass

Fans of traditional folk music will, of course, recognise a good number of those titles and promptly question the claim that they belong to Whitchurch in any way. And it’s true that a song about the ‘Pretty Susan the Pride of Kildare’ is unlikely to have originated just up the A34 from Winchester. However, that’s one of the wonderful things about folk music – these songs travelled and took on a life of their own. While it might be hard to place their exact origin, the quirks, whether lyrical or melodic, that Henry Lee and his daughter offered up to George Gardiner appear to have found their way into the piece via a life led largely in this part of Hampshire. More to the point, had these versions not been taken down in Whitchurch at that moment in time – on The Weir in June, 1906 – it’s unlikely we’d have any record of their existence at all.

Personally, I find all of this incredibly inspiring. I love the fact that we’re able to trace a handful of songs back to a very specific time, if not within living memory then certainly to a point at which some form of written snapshot still exists. And it’s wonderful, too, that we know exactly where these songs were being sung, not to mention a little about the singers and something of the collector, too.

I regularly walk past The Weir cottages and up to Fulling Mill when walking our dog, and I always imagine Henry Lee and his daughter, possibly sat on a fence that edges the neighbouring field, singing their songs to a gentleman of some standing, possibly wondering what his interest in them might be, not imagining for a second that we’d be writing about them and singing their songs over a century later. These bridges through time are, to me, what makes folk music such an endlessly fulfilling genre, and it’s for this reason that I look forward to helping the local folk club back onto its feet.


*NB – Following the publication of this blog post, I was contacted by the ever-vigilant and wonderful folk scholar, Reinhard Zierke, of the Mainly Norfolk website. Reinhard points out that the Askew Sisters’ liner notes (unavailable to me on Spotify, of course) contain the following notes:

“This lovely waltzy version was collected by George Gardiner from Mrs Etheridge in Southampton in June 1906. However, the text was incomplete, so Gardiner placed an ad in the Hampshire Chronicle appealing for other verses. He received a reply from Mrs Lee of Whitchurch containing a full set of verses (which we sing here) and her letter can still be found in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House.”

This is fascinating as it suggests a definite reason for Gardiner’s visit to Whitchurch, and underlines the claim (however minor) that the version in current circulation owes a considerable amount to the town. Many thanks to Reinhard for his kind attention. 

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  1. The Askew Sisters’ liner notes to If I Was a Blackbird tell how Gardiner heard, or better read, of the Lee family:

    “This lovely waltzy version was collected by George Gardiner from Mrs Etheridge in Southampton in June 1906. However, the text was incomplete, so Gardiner placed an ad in the Hampshire Chronicle appealing for other verses. He received a reply from Mrs Lee of Whitchurch containing a full set of verses (which we sing here) and her letter can still be found in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House.”

    • Jon Wilks Jon Wilks

      Now that IS interesting! Thanks Reinhard. The things you find out from the online community.

  2. Carole Anne Watson Carole Anne Watson

    Brilliant article. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck going up as I read some of this. My mum used to sing ‘If I were a Blackbird’ when me and my siblings were very small, and it stayed with me always. I never heard anyone else sing it until recently..but I see the likes of Joseph Locke must have made it popular again in his day. Don’t know where my mum learnt it. Feels funny reading about the Whitchurch connection.
    I know around the early part of the 1900.s we had a famous Irish tenor living in the area.(Harry Plunkett Greene) and he sang lots of Irish songs from those days…as well as writing his best selling book on fishing. ‘Where the Bright Waters meet.’ Apparently the meeting of those waters was where the Test and The river Bourne join up, just outside Whitchurch near Hurstbourne Priors.
    Thank you for writing such a brilliant piece of history…so informative and exciting.
    From Carole Anne. x

    • Jon Wilks Jon Wilks

      Hi Carole Anne. Thanks so much for your kind comment, and for giving me even more information to go and pursue. I wonder who else we can unearth. There are songs from Overton as well, and Andover. In fact, elsewhere on this blog there are notes about “The Unquiet Grave”, the Andover version of which is also quite unusual. Anyway, many thanks for reading!

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