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1957: Hostility and praise at Cecil Sharp House

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

Bill Hawkes c1965 at the Rose and Crown

Bill Hawkes was the father of 'our oldest paper boy' Charlie Hawkes and was a talented musician performing into his 80s. His recorded voice is preserved in the nation’s folk song archives., along with those of other Cuckfield musicians who were recognised nationally for their contribution to folk music.

After I asked for memories of Bill on the Cuckfield Gossip Facebook Group, Ronald Knight got in touch with Cuckfield Connections, from his home in British Columbia. Former local landlord, Ted Murphy, kindly supplied the splendid photograph above ... and slowly a fascinating and amusing story came to light.

Ronald summed Bill up: ‘A dear sweet man, Bill, Mr [Peter] Gander, and Mr Stonner used to come to our door every Christmas and sing a brace of very old carols. After which they would come in for some cheer. We all looked forward to it immensely. I can still hum the tunes and know the odd chorus …’

In his book about his father's and his own life 'Do two Rons make a Knight? he recalls how Bill Hawkes became a lodger following the death of Ronald's grandfather, William Knight, in October 1933 at the age of 61.

Bill was a widower, and quite a character [Ron called him 'Uncle Bill']. He owned and operated a mobile blacksmith shop and went around the countryside with his tools and equipment in a large horse-drawn caravan. He was a real man of Sussex.

Your horse has died - unexpected response

My favourite Bill Hawkes story is that one lunch time he was in the Rose n’ Crown having his daily draught, when some chap came running up to him indicating that he should follow him out to the car park. There stone dead was his horse still in the wagon traces. Bill, it is reported, said ‘Well I’ll be blowed, that’s the first time he’s done that.’

Bill’s only son was Charlie the perennial paperboy. Charlie was a simple soul who delivered his papers late every day, from his old bicycle, served up with his own homespun brand of philosophy. I never met a child, person, or dog that did not love him. [See our story on Charlie].

In his latter years, Nellie and Ron would invite Old Bill and a couple of his elderly cronies to our Christmas feast.

The auditorium where Bill Hawkes and fellow Cuckfield musicians performed at Cecil Sharp House

London competition

Our researches show that In October 1957 and 1958, the English Folk Song and Dance Society ran folk singing competitions at Cecil Sharp House near Regents Park in London. Mervyn Plunkett, a local musician, booked a coach to take the performers from Cuckfield with 'barrels of beer on the back seat' which, in retrospect, Reg Hall (a probation officer by day and otherwise historian of traditional music for 50 years) later related was probably a mistake!

The coach started at Cuckfield, making stops at West Hoathly - and Redhill 'where there was a bit of a session'. Among the contestants on board were Jack Norris, Peter Gander, Bill Hawkes, Scan Tester, Harry Cox and Fred Jordan.

At the competition event there appears to have been a lack of empathy for some performers. Reg Hall in ‘The Life and Music of George Spicer’ reckoned that the atmosphere resembled 'a cross between a mortuary and an approved school' and George was 'hurt by the lack of interest and some downright hostile responses’.

Colourised image

Shocked and confused

Later Reg Hall said he believed that they had shocked many of the people there and confused some of the adjudicators, 'who were used to genteel settings for folk songs'. One of them, The Times music critic, criticised Pop Maynard for allegedly not knowing his words and for having a poor standing posture. 'Very few of the audience had ever heard a country singer before, and even fewer had ever heard country pub music'.

Some of the folk songs are known to have sung had bawdy lyrics and were more akin to rugby songs, with words about prostitutes and street violence and battles - but the reality was that many had been passed down through generations and are part of the fabric of England's rich musical heritage. But we don't know which songs they chose for the event. But they were aware that some of the audience were excited by their input on the night.

And despite 'some pretty tense moments' the yokels from Sussex had a great day out'. The band let its hair down in a pub outside Redhill on the way home and finally Jack Norris wise-cracked on the last leg of the coach journey: 'This must be Cuckfield; there are houses on both sides of the street.' [We will have more about Jack in a future article].

Asked back to Cecil Sharp House

But the reaction on the night was not shared by the more influential members of the Society - and they had not realised that in reality they had made a strong and favourable impression. In March the following year they were invited to return to take part in a Sussex concert again at Cecil Sharp House. The outing comprising Jim Wilson from Three Bridges and George Tompsett from Cuckfield, singing for the first time in a formal concert, with Bill Hawkes and Peter Gander providing 'rough' harmony. 

Letter of 1892 from Sam Willett to Lucy Broadwood

But more importantly the EFDSS visited the musicians at their homes to record the tunes and collect lyrics for their archives. They were already aware of the musical talent of the village from the work by Lucy Broadwood who had visited Sam Willett - Cuckfield's singing baker [See our article about Sam Willett] nearly 60 years earlier. The Farmer's Boy was published in her book, 'English County Songs' published in 1893.

Published by Lucy Broadwood in 1893

Some of the musical innovations from the Cuckfield musicians proved to be influential in the folk music scene, much as sea shanties have been recently. Reg Hall observed that there is also early evidence of the use of part singing in Sussex by Bill Hawkes and Peter Gander and the Copper Family of Rottingdean.

In Scan Tester's (bn 1887) early experience (Scan was a highly rated concertina and fiddle player from Chelwood Gate), there were some part playing and vamping [a vamp is a short sequence of chords that gets repeated for an extended period], introduced from brass band and string band music and during the Edwardian era the influence of the Brighton variety theatres and the gramophone record would have been felt. So musicians at work locally were very influential.

Rigs of London Town - the Gander and Hawkes lyrics

The voices and lyrics of Bill Hawkes and Peter Gander

A song said to be very popular in Cuckfield was 'Rigs of London Town'. This was recently popularised by the 11 piece folk group 'Bellowhead' who are hailed as 'the group who reinvented folk for the 21st century'. The track is on their 2006 CD ‘Burlesque’ - but the lyrics are significantly shortened. The song originally dates from the nineteenth century.

Here is the recording made at the Rose and Crown by Mervyn Plunkett in 1957 when Bill was 79. The file was found in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library - but here I have edited to enhance the vocals against a noisy pub. It can be found here Linked music files

Here is a recording made by Mervyn Plunkett at the Rose and Crown in 1957 of Bill Hawkes and Peter Gander, both in their 80s, singing ‘Come all you Jolly Ploughboys’. It’s now in the British

Library sound archives as part of the Reg Hall Collection.

There is more work that can be done to research our musical past and perhaps recreate some of the sounds played in the village over 60 years ago. I plan to add a couple of more articles in due course.



'Do two Rons make a Knight?: Men of Sussex' by Ronald M Knight 2013 [link to the book on Amazon] this is an excellent read with a lot of interesting and some local stories

Comments on musical style and influence by folk historian Reg Hall

Photo of Bill Hawkes supplied by Ted Murphy

Reg Hall biography on Topic Records website - the oldest independent record label in the world.

Lucy Broadwood (1858-1929) was one of the founder members of the Folk-Song Society and Editor of the Folk Song Journal. She lived and died at Rusper, near Horsham, and every year on 1 May the Broadwood Morris men, named after her, dance outside the church, and then hang a wreath on a memorial plaque in her honour. Wikipedia entry for Lucy Broadwood.

Bill Hawkes (1878-1972) was born in Luton in July 1878. His parents, who moved from Luton, were James and Lucy Hawkes who was originally from Newmarket. His dad was a coach builder’s wheelwright. They moved to Cuckfield and initially Bill was a ‘shoeing and general smith’.

William and eventually son Bill worked for John Denman - coach and carriage builder, wheelwright, shoeing and general smith. This was located next to and west of the Ship Inn. The site would become the Cuckfield Motor Company and then the petrol station. The Hawkes family lived opposite in the terraced houses near the junction of the Staplefield and Balcolmbe roads.

Bill married Edith Tidey of Cuckfield, whose father was a builder, on 14 April 1900 (he was 21 and she was 22) in Cuckfield Church. In 1911 we know they had three children Jessie, Charles (Charlie the paperboy to be) and Samuel. He later ran his own mobile farrier and smithying business. The 1901 census records him as being ‘deaf in one ear’ - which perhaps is even more surprising that he was a proficient musician. He died at the age of 95 in 1973.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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