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1950s-70s: Jack Norris Snr - with skills admired by pro musicians

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

The Cuckoo

Oh the cuckoo she is a merry bird she sings as she flies

And she brings us good tidings and she tells us no lies

And she sucks the little birds eggs just to keep ’er voice clear

And she only sings cuckoo when the summer draws near

From Jack Norris's song repertoire.

Hohner C/C# Vienna Black and Gold 21 button accordion - similar to the one played by Jack Norris

In the 1950s a number of enthusiastic musicians lived and performed in Cuckfield. But their talents were recognised in a much wider area and even became nationally recognised. Their recordings can be found in the British Library sound archives and those of the The English Folk Dance and Song Society. One of the most accomplished of these musicians was Jack Norris who lived in the village for over 30 years.

Norman Wisdom

'Laker's House', Norman Wisdom's former home

William George 'Jack' Norris was born in November 1898 in West Chiltington, near Storrington. His father, George, was a steamroller driver. He was brought up in a big farmhouse called ‘Laker's House’ adjacent to where Norman Wisdom later built his Spanish villa style home in the 70s, before the actor subsequently moved to the Isle of Man.

Jack moved to Cuckfield c1938 which became his home until he died in 1971. He picked up his musical abilities from his dad whose hobby was playing a melodeon. Much later he tried to pass it onto his own son - but with less success.

During the First World War at the age of 18, Jack became an aircraft mechanic in the fledgling RAF, then known as the Royal Flying Corps.

Foreman joiner and undertaker

Stephen Knights premises left of centre, with yard behind c1900 (colourised)

On leaving the services he joined Stephen Knight, builders and undertakers, in Whiteman's Green where he worked for the next 33 years. Knight was a member of the Cuckfield District Council, and ran the largest building contracting business in the district which started in 1849 and the business continued until 1984.

W Patrick & Son's provision store c1920 (colourised image)

Knights employed dozens of local men and had its yard ‘behind Patrick’s grocery shop’ at Whiteman’s Green where Brock End is today. The boss lived in 'Brockett's' which is still there today.

‘Stevey Knight’, as he was known by his workers built most of the new properties at the time and maintained many of the big houses. They built the Queen’s Hall, the Clergy House and Church Hall and kept the school in good repair. He even built houses for his workforce at 'Halleighs' near the top of Brook Street c1910..

From bishops to beggars

'Brocketts' home of Steven Knight

Jack was a highly skilled woodworking craftsman and foreman joiner and coffin maker. He looked after the undertaking side of the business. As his son, Jack (Jr) recalled: ‘A lot of the builders did that - they did their building work but made use of their joinery skills and did undertaking on the side. My Dad once said: “Gor Blimey me boy I have buried them all - from bishops to beggars!”’

His deceased ‘clients’ included Colonel Leonard Messel the owner of Nymans at Handcross who died in 1953 and his wife Maud - both in Staplefield Churchyard.

But his zest for life was inspired by his love of music and his remarkable performing ability.

He would return to the family home in Brainsmead and then be off out in the evenings and weekends and entertain and join in with other musicians. He travelled around Sussex and would be invited to take part in weddings and local events.

Could play any song-tune that came to mind

See who's who below (colourised image)

Reg Hall, a folk music historian but best known as a dance musician had played with the finest traditional musicians. Reg is quoted in the biography of folk musician Scan Tester (from Danehill), ‘I Never Played to Many Posh Dances’ that he was an admirer of Jack’s musical talents:

‘He was a remarkable musician, he was friendly and humorous and loved the old songs, and new ones as well. and appeals to me more than any other melodeon player that I have heard. He could play any song-tune that came into his mind on his double-row C/C sharp Hohner, and sing at the same time.

‘It was as if the fingering came automatically as he opened his mouth. He was essentially a singer and his repertoire of old fashioned dance tunes was very small. He could sing the commonly known "Cock O' The North" and "Keel Row", and a schottische [a round dance] “Another Cup of Coffee and a Little More Tea”, but his best number was another schottische, which became known as the “Brook Street Polka” [Jack and family lived for a while in Brook Street]. He was usually reluctant to play this - his one and only - step dance tune.’

Accomplished musician

Jack Norris entertains

His son Jack Jr recalls: ‘My Dad didn't read music - once he’d listened to a tune he had got it. While his main instrument was a melodeon (a type of accordion) He played the fiddle at home, the banjo and the old Joanna [piano]. And he could pick up any musical instrument and get a tune out of it.’

When he was 59, at the peak of this folk renaissance in the village Jack was 20 or so years younger than his musician mates.

Live music was popular in the 1950s and part of this is due being brought up in performing families who would play together for amusement at home. Sometimes the musical skills were acquired or honed in later life in the army. As Reg Hall explained in ‘I Never Played…’:

‘Musicianship was dependent on limited literacy, rote learning and some ear-playing. Even relatively late photographs of such bands show instruments without music clips and musicians with no pouches for carrying music cards, and that seems to indicate an aural approach to musicianship. A defence of ear-playing came from a mid-C19th London street musician:

‘The class of men in the street bands is, very generally, those who can't read music, but play by ear; and their being unable to read music prevents their obtaining employment in theatres, or places where a musical education is necessary; and yet numbers of street musicians (playing by ear) are better instrumentalists than many educated musicians in the theatres.”

Preserving the musical tradition

In the late 1950's Mervyn Plunkett (1920-86) of West Hoathly who did much to preserve the musical tradition of the Sussex area recorded the tunes that Jack and others played so that they could be catalogued and preserved in our national records.

Mervyn ran the anarchic West Hoathly Country Band of Music whose members included Jack Norris and Scan Tester. Jack’s mates from Cuckfield including Peter Gander (triangle) and Horace Gladman (mouth-organ and silent jew’s harp) also took part, with Paul Gross of “The Rakes’ joining them on the fiddle.

The Coronation May 1937 celebration on the recreation ground at Cuckfield. Jack Norris, centre playing his melodeon (colourised)

Reg Hall paints the picture of a typical session in “I never played …’:

“In several pubs other people - remained strangers to us - but would occasionally join in on the mouth-organ or take a turn on the melodeon, and any number of make-shift percussion instruments, such as the tea-chest bass and the penny and beer glass, appeared.’ [Ed: and spoons, triangle, tambourine, silent jew's harp]

In another article I refer to some of the local musicians (including Jack) taking part in folk festival at Cecil Sharp House, headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

The band somewhat unhappy by the mixed reception decided to let its hair down on the way back in a pub outside Redhill. And on the last leg of the coach journey Jacks wise-cracked: 'This must be Cuckfield; there are houses on both sides of the street!.'

Later that month there was a lively session in the Cat , in West Hoathly; Alan Lomax (an American folk musician) was impressed by Mervyn's tape of the occasion and broadcast the band's rendering of Bill Agate's favourite, "I wish they'd do it now" in his BBC programme, BaIIad Hunter.

Multiple local venues

Jack Norris playing at an old people's do at Cuckfield, late 1960s.

Jack Jr recalled that the Stone Quarry at Danehill, which was where Scan Tester used to play, was one of his father’s favourites and 'I think that was how Dad and Scan got together’.

Other local musical haunts for local musicians included the Crown at Horsted Keynes, the Stone Quarry Inn in Chelwood Gate - the Cherry Tree at Copthorne was very popular lively venue - the Half Moon Inn at Balcombe, Cuckfield and the Plough at Three Bridges.

In a 2001 publication by Musical Traditions Records 'Just Another Saturday Night: Sussex 1960' we learn that:

‘Jack Norris and his mates had regular sing songs in Cuckfield, and they made a wonderful job of “Come All You Jolly Ploughmen” … and “The Trees Are All Bare at the New Year”, but their standard repertory was hits from Tin Pan Alley. Cyril Phillips did his “Farmer Giles” act at village socials and George Spicer did quite a bit of singing.’

Jack Norris was always a favourite performer locally - he was musically brilliant and entertained and sang with great enthusiasm, he died in January 1972 at the age of 74 and buried in the churchyard f the Holy Trinity Church.

Gown of green

One of the popular songs that Jack sang was 'Gown of green'. The phrase "to wear the gown of green" will be readily understood by anyone who has had to deal with embarrassing grassy stains on dresses! But it does make it difficult to sing the song with a straight face afterwards. The original broadside ballad 'The Gown Of Green' can also be viewed at the Bodleian's catalogue, and refers to events in the American Revolution. However the 'historical' verses fit rather uneasily with the rest of the song.

Click to hear Jack Norris sing Gown of Green, with Jack playing the melodeon and singing. It was recorded at Jack's home in Whiteman's Green, when he was 59, by Mervyn Plunkett 22 June 1957. it also can be found here on British Library archive. Jack was particularly associate with Jack, although he had a large repertoire to draw upon.

Jack at home in Brook Street late 50s (colourised)

The lyrics to 'Gown of Green'

As a soldier was walking all on the highway,

Being weary of travelling for many a long day,

Oh, he met a lovely woman with a baby in her arms

Who that she kissed and said, "I wish your father would return".

"Oh, good morning, my fair creature, I'm proud to meet you here

With that sweet baby in your arms that you love so dear.

Oh, I think I know the father, and you before I've seen.

Don't you remember the day, my dear, you wore the gown of green?"

"Oh, it's many battles have I fought all on the raging main,

And many battles have I fought in Portugal and Spain,

But it's now that I've returned again with plenty of gold in store,

I mean to make you my lawful bride and roam abroad no more."

"So come let us buy the licence all on this very day,

And then we will get married, love, without any more delay.

With our pretty little prattling babies some pleasures may be seen,

That you will never regret the day you wore the gown of green.

With our pretty little prattling babies some pleasures may be seen,

That you may never regret the day you wore the gown of green."

British Library also have Jack's 'Poor little soldier' recorded at the same time.

More recordings of Jack

The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library has:

and several others of Jack's songs can be found at this source.


Two extended photo captions

Group at table photo caption: Left to right: Jim Wilson, Michael Plunkett, George Spicer, Paul Gross and Reg HalI, at the Princess Louise, Holborn, London; 7 March 1958.

The Coronation celebrations on the recreation ground at Cuckfield in May 1937. Jack Norris, melodeon unidentified, bass drum; unidentified(on the cart), piano accordion. Could the man on lack's right be Peter Gander, playing the triangle?


With many thanks to Jack Norris (Jr) for his considerable help and input on this article about his Dad.

'I Never Played to Many Posh Dances: Scan Tester, Sussex musician 1887-1972' by Reg Hall published by Musical Traditions 1990. This is a 150 page book in 10 PDF files.

Music Traditions website

Sussex Traditions database and website

The Mudcat Café for Gown of Green

Photos are mostly Norris family photographs, with thanks to Jack for allowing us to use them.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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