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Joseph Taylor from Lincolnshire, a Biographical Study

by Ruairidh Greig - A paper he gave at a Folksong Conference some years ago- 1998 possibly, at Sheffield University. It was published in "Folk Song, Tradition, Revival, and Re-Creation" edited by Ian Russell and David Atkinson, Aberdeen 2004, pp 386-392.

Joseph Taylor from Lincolnshire, a Biographical Study

By Ruairidh Greig

The sixth North Lincolnshire Music Festival was held in the Corn Exchange at Brigg in April 1905. For the first time it included a folksong section, offering a prize for “the best unpublished old Lincolnshire folk-song or plough-song”[1]. The judge, Frank Kidson, awarded the prize for the best song to Joseph Taylor of Saxby All Saints, for Creeping Jane. The subsequent contact at the festival with Percy Grainger led to the phonograph and commercial recordings that continue to delight and inform later generations of singers far beyond his native county’s borders.

My first contact with his singing was through his granddaughter Marion Hudson, who lived, as I did, in Grimsby and to whom I was related by marriage. Mrs Hudson played me her precious 78s and let me read her collection of press cuttings. She was born in 1894, daughter of Joseph Taylor’s eldest daughter, Betsy Ann. Although her family lived in Barton on Humber, some eight miles from Saxby, she was a frequent visitor to her grandfather’s house and had treasured memories of those years in her life. She was very keen to emphasise to me that her grandfather was not a “country bumpkin” as he was sometimes portrayed, but an intelligent, highly respected and responsible member of his village community. This paper is a summary of my continuing research into Joseph Taylor, his family and background and the social context in which he and Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire singers[2] should be viewed.

Joseph Taylor was born at Binbrook in the Lincolnshire Wolds, an area of rolling chalk hills, on the 10th December 1833, second son of James Taylor and Mary Ann Smith of Barnoldby-Le-Beck. James and his elder brother John moved to Binbrook in the 1820s from Fotherby near Louth. Binbrook was an unusual place, an “open” village in an area of “closed” villages where most of the land and property were owned by a single estate. It was for this reason that it was home to the seasonal labour force needed by the large local farms at certain times in the farming year.[3] Elder brother John is listed as a gardener in the 1851 Census. Joseph’s father, James, was noted to be an agricultural labourer. The National School was not opened until 1843 and so it is unlikely that Joseph would have had formal education beyond that which was offered by the local Sunday school.

One consequence of being an “open” village was that Binbrook had its own hiring fair, the “Stattis” or Statute fair at which local farmers would select their labourers. Joseph’s early working life in the area was as an agricultural labourer. In 1851[4] he was one of 12 labourers employed by John Fieldsend on his farm at Orford, a hamlet north of Binbrook. At the age of 17, he was already taking an interest in music. According to Mrs Hudson in her unpublished biography[5], Joseph Taylor would often walk to Grimsby and back, a round trip of about 20 miles, to attend a concert. He was also learning songs from gypsies who used to come and camp in the chalk pits that dotted the landscape:

“One evening when he returned from work, his mother told him that the gypsies had arrived, as they did each year at that time…He had been awaiting their arrival with impatience, since he loved their singing. So as soon as possible he dashed off to the ‘pit’ where he knew they would make camp.”[6]

That he was learning songs at this time is confirmed by an anecdote noted by Percy Grainger. When his Joseph Taylor’s mother asked what his new-born brother should be called, he replied:

“Christen him Bold William Taylor’, this being the title of the newest addition to his repertoire of ‘ballets’ (as they are called by the rural singers)…and his advice was followed.”[7]

His brother William was born in 1853, when Joseph was 19 years old. As I recently discovered, it was also a time in his life when he spent three months in prison, convicted for stealing wheat cake and powder from Binbrook farmer William Croft.[8]

The turning point in Joseph Taylor’s life may well have been his marriage in 1856 to Eliza Hill from Huttoft on the Lincolnshire coast, six years older than him. They settled in Ranters’ Row in Binbrook, where their first two children were born. It was in 1863 that the family moved to Saxby All Saints, a pretty little village on the western slope of the Wolds, between Brigg and Barton on Humber. There he worked and trained as a carpenter and joiner for Mr Dudding, an independent tradesman who worked mainly for the Hope-Barton family, owners of the village. Here the Taylors had the rest of their family of seven children. Joseph’s love of singing found an outlet in the church choir, to which he belonged for 45 years.

In 1875 he joined the Hope-Barton estate, initially as a woodman. From this job he was subsequently promoted to Under-Steward. He also became Parish Clerk in 1874. His duties in this role included winding the church clock, grave-digging, collecting Church rate from cottagers and the all-important task of responding “Amen” in Services. As his family grew up they also found good jobs and made good marriages. His son James followed his father’s trade as a woodman on the Heneage estate at Hainton; his daughter Annie married Thomas Allen who was a skilled woodcarver on the estate; son John became a farmer; youngest daughter Mary Ann[9] became a teacher at the village school. Their lives were also touched by tragedy. In 1880, at the age of 15 their son Joseph was drowned in the River Ancholme, within sight of the village. His headstone stands beside that of his parents in the village churchyard.

When Joseph Taylor sang at the North Lincolnshire Musical Festival he was:

“…Neither illiterate nor socially backward…He was the perfect type of an English yeoman: sturdy and robust, yet the soul of sweetness, gentleness, courteousness and geniality. At the age of 75 (in 1908) his looks were those of middle age and his ringing voice- one of the loveliest I ever heard- was as fresh as a young man’s.”[10]

Photographs show him wearing an enamelled pin in his cravat in the shape of a pheasant. This was his personal emblem, which featured in the topiary in the front garden of his home, Pheasant Cottage, as Marion Hudson describes:

“Had he been a Lord my Grandpa’s crest would have certainly been a pheasant, for in his stock, whether in his immaculate weekday grey freize (sic) or in his Sunday black, he always wore a beautifully coloured enamel pin in the form of a pheasant. In the centre of his front garden was a bush which he had trained, also to the shape of a pheasant.”[11]

Saxby All Saints was a musical village. In addition to the church choir in which Joseph Taylor sang, the village had a choral society, which, for many years took part in local competitions. His children, James, John, Annie and Mary Ann were all singers. So when Gervase Elwes, a nationally known tenor, his wife Winifred and her brother Everard Fielding wanted to gather support for the first North Lincolnshire Music Festival in 1900, Saxby was an obvious point of call. The organisers initially cycled round the area training village choirs and then acquired a motor-bike, behind which Lady Winifred was towed on her push-bike.[12]

In the Festivals before 1905, the Taylor family competed in a number of sections. For example, in 1904 John won the Tenor Solo section with the song “Come Ye Children”, and Annie and Mary Ann, with Miss Ashton, came second in the Female Voice Trio with “Queen of Fresh Flowers”. The Saxby choir came first in the Hymn and Chant sections that year.[13]

Winifred Elwes gives the credit for introducing the folksong section in the 1905 Festival to Percy Grainger and her brother Everard, “who had become infected by Mr Cecil Sharpe’s (sic) enthusiasm”.[14] According to Marion Hudson, her grandfather had to be persuaded to enter:

“No compliment had any affect and Grandpa was adamant- he wasn’t a public singer, he only sang because he wished to. Lady Elwes and her brother cycled from Brigg many times and at last, to please her, much against his inclination, he at long last, consented.”[15]

It was after the competition that Percy Grainger noted the tune to “Brigg Fair” from him, which was subsequently published in the Folk Song Society Journal.[16] Grainger returned to Brigg in September 1905 when he spent a week collecting songs with Lady Elwes’ sons:

“Percy used to jot down the tunes on bits of paper, while Geoffrey or Rolph caught the words.”[17]

It was shortly after this trip, during which Grainger called at Saxby, that a correspondence started between the collector and Annie Allen, Joseph’s second daughter,[18] which continued until her death in 1937.

At the 1906 Festival, Joseph Taylor was again awarded first prize, but this time he had to share it with George Gouldthorpe of Goxhill:

“The results were of such interest that the judge, Miss Lucy Broadwood, felt justified in awarding eight prizes. Mr G. Gouldthorpe sang a ballad entitled “Six Dukes”, which from internal evidence must be over 450 years old, and has not yet, as far as is known, been published. “Brigg Fair” and a beautiful tune to “William Taylor” obtained the next prize for Mr Joseph Taylor”.[19]

This continuing success led to a certain amount of local celebrity status for Joseph Taylor. Marion Hudson paints a typically rose-tinted picture:

“Famous musical people wrote to visit him and all agreed that his singing was unusually beautiful as they fell beneath his spell.”[20]

The Allen correspondence gives evidence of his being invited to perform at a local concert at South Ferriby in October 1906. Annie Allen wrote to Percy Grainger, asking for the loan of his manuscript book of words.[21] A subsequent letter thanks him for the loan of “The Kidson book” (possibly “Traditional Tunes”). She writes:

“I am taking down lots of words from it for my Father, it is surprising what a lot he knows when he has the words, the tunes come back to him.”[22]

Percy Grainger also gave another song book to Joseph Taylor in August 1909:

“My Father sends you many thanks, he looks at it and sings for hours.”[23]

It is interesting to note that the scientific approach to the musical notation of folksong pioneered by Percy Grainger in the Journal of the Folk Song Society [24] did not apparently lead him to be concerned about possible influence of other collected versions on his informant’s repertoire.

Considering the success of the folksong section in the 1905 and 1906 North Lincolnshire Music Festivals, and the local and national interest it attracted, it may seem surprising that it did not continue in subsequent years. However, there was no Festival in 1907. It was cancelled following the death of Gervase Elwes’ mother, Mrs Cary-Elwes. Gervase and Winifred then moved to Billing Hall in Northamptonshire where the family also owned an estate. The Festival restarted in 1908, now held in Brigg and Scunthorpe, with no folksong section and no Elwes family involvement.[25] Lady Winifred was at the 1909 Festival, but again there was no folksong section. Annie Allen and her brother John Taylor came second in the Tenor/Contralto section, singing “Can I not Find”.[26] Mary Ann Taylor continued to take part in the Brigg Festival for many years.[27] The Festival still exists as an annual event and it does, once more, have a folksong section. Youth Leader and former Mayor of Brigg, Tom Glossop regularly performed in it in recent times and won the section with songs from Joseph Taylor’s repertoire.

Percy Grainger’s link with the Taylor family did continue, however. Joseph Taylor went to Grainger’s home in Chelsea on more than one occasion. One of these visits was in March 1908 when he went to the first performance of Delius’ rhapsody “Brigg Fair”.

Marion Hudson was keen to deny the legend that Joseph Taylor got up and sang during the concert. Her comment to me was:

“Well he might have hummed the tune a bit, but he certainly didn’t get up and sing.”

We do know that Joseph Taylor sang during his London visits. Rose Grainger, Percy’s mother, wrote to Annie Allen from Sloane Square, Chelsea:

“Your dear father is here- safe and sound and is at present singing delightfully after our dinner (-about 8.30-now).[28]

In June and July 1908 Joseph Taylor recorded nine of his songs for the Gramophone Company, the first commercially issued recordings of an English folksinger. The Gramophone Company not only gave him a set of the records, but also a gramophone on which to play them.[29]

The fact that there were no further commercial recordings made might suggest that they were not a great financial success, despite a local advertisement which bore his photograph, subtitled “Your Friend Mr Joseph Taylor, Saxby”.[30] The following page in Jackson’s Brigg Annual advertised the “Genuine Gramophone, from £3 10s, Come and hear Mr Taylor of Saxby”.[31] During a visit to Brigg Horse Fair on the 5th August 1971, I met two elderly residents who remembered Joseph Taylor and Percy Grainger’s visit. Richard Baines played trumpet in the orchestra at the Festival and recalled how Grainger asked him for the ‘A’ for the orchestra to tune up, when he should have asked the oboe. Matt Hutchinson, retired undertaker and joiner commented:

“Taylor never sang a good song because he didn’t know one!”[32]

Perhaps their reactions reflected a degree of local scepticism about Joseph Taylor’s reputation as a singer, and a belief that his folksongs did not have the intrinsic quality of the accepted classical repertoire. There is not enough evidence to confirm this view, but it is a possible explanation for this negative response.

Joseph Taylor’s new-found status as a concert performer and recording artist did not last long, for within two years he was dead. He suffered a great personal loss when his wife, Eliza, died in November 1909. Marion Hudson, then 19 years old, recalled the funeral and her grandfather’s courage:

“I know the rest of us poor stricken people felt unable to produce a note of the hymn, which we knew was her favourite. He, however, with tears unheeded, led the singing, lifting up his voice with the same clear, melodious voice and we simply had to follow. I shall never, never forget that experience.”[33]

The following May, five years after his first appearance at the North Lincolnshire, he was involved in an accident that was to cost him his life. The Lindsey Star reported:

SAXBY- FATAL SEQUEL TO AN ACCIDENT- On Wednesday Joseph Taylor, aged 78 years, the local steward for Mr Hope-Barton, of the Hall, died somewhat suddenly. Deceased, it appears, whilst driving out on Tuesday was thrown out of the trap on to the horse, through the animal shying at something on the road. The man, though bruised on the shoulder, continued his further five-mile drive, and drove back another 10 miles. After fetching some cows from a field, he complained of severe pains in the pit of the stomach, and went to bed. Dr Morley, of Barton, was sent for, but before his arrival death had taken place.”[34]

Annie Allen wrote to Percy Grainger to inform him of her Father’s death:

“ In deepest grief I write to you. Our dear Father had a trap accident on Tuesday, but seemed little the worse until yesterday he was taken with great pain and suddenly passed away, the Dr says heart trouble and shock.”[35]

So ended the life of the first and, arguably, still the finest commercially recorded English folksinger. He was buried in Saxby churchyard next to his wife and son, Joseph, near to the family plot of the Hope-Barton family, whom he had served for so many years.

Shortly before she died, in 1937, Percy Grainger wrote to Annie Allen. He sent her the programme for the newly composed “Lincolnshire Posy” suite for military band:

“The most lovely melody of the 6 I have used is undoubtedly your dear Father’s ‘R.P. Poachers’[36] which I have long wished to arrange. I always think of that song as so very typical of his exquisitely melodious way of singing…

I feel that Lincs Posy is one of the best things I have ever done with folksongs and I hope it will (in a small way) express some of the admiration and love I feel for yr father and other English folksingers and their lovely art.

Ever affectionately your

Percy Grainger”[37]

What of Marion Hudson’s resentment of the “peasant” label sometimes given to her grandfather? Possibly as a solicitor’s widow she felt it demeaned her status to have him viewed as an illiterate yokel. Whatever the reason, I have some sympathy with her. Too often have some elements of the media and the folk revival looked on “source singers” with patronising attitudes and assumptions of quaint rurality. This I believe has done much harm to the status of folksong and traditional singing in England. I hope today to have redressed the situation in a small way for Joseph Taylor; a real person, not just a caricature, a successful self-made man, a pillar of his local community, with a fine voice and a magnificent singing style which we are lucky enough, thanks to Percy Grainger, to enjoy today, 88 years after his death.

Ruairidh Greig

July 1998

[1] Lincolnshire, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Friday 14th April 1905, 6g

[2] In particular, George Wray, George Gouldthorpe and Joseph Leaning

[3] See “Labouring Life on the Lincolnshire Wolds”, R.J.Olney (Ed.), Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 1975

[4] 1851 Census HO107/2112 153-28

[5] Original in the possession of Peter Collinson, who is Joseph Taylor’s Great Great Grandson and lives in Kent. I am indebted to Peter for my copy of his Granny’s book and copies of the press cuttings she collected.

[6] Hudson biography, chapter 18, p.19

[7] The Impress of Personality in Unwritten Music, Percy Grainger, Musical Quarterly, 1915, vol. 7, p 420. Joseph Taylor sang William Taylor and Brigg Fair at the 1906 Festival.

[8] Binbrook Lock-Up Records, Grimsby Public Library R26656, entry dated 20th March 1854

[9] Mary Ann Taylor (Aunt Polly to the family) was recorded by Peter Kennedy in 1953: “Brigg Fair” Joseph Taylor, Lincolnshire Singer, Folktracks Cassette 45-135

[10] Programme note on Lincolnshire Posy, Percy Aldridge Grainger, August 1939

[11] Hudson biography, chapter 1, p.1

[12] “Brigg”, 1973, Edward Dodd, Lincolnshire Times p.86

[13] Lincolnshire, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Friday 29th April 1904, 6g

[14] Gervase Elwes, by Lady Winifred and Richard Elwes, London 1935, p.162

[15] Hudson biography, chapter 15, p.17

[16] Journal of the Folk-Song Society, No.7, Vol. II, ii, p.80

[17] Gervase Elwes, p.164

[18] Born 1869 at Saxby All Saints. Extracts from the Annie Allen letters are here reproduced with the kind permission of the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne.

[19] Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Friday 11th May 1906, 3g

[20] Hudson biography, chapter 15, p.17

[21] Allen correspondence 20th September 1906

[22] Allen correspondence 15th October 1906

[23] Allen correspondence 23rd August 1909

[24] Op. cit. No.12, Vol. III

[25] Lindsey and Lincolnshire Star, 9th May 1908, p.8, d, e.

[26] Lindsey and Lincolnshire Star, 1st May 1909, p.8, d, e.

[27] Lincolnshire Times 11th July 1953

[28] Allen correspondence, undated

[29] Allen correspondence, 23rd August 1908

[30] Brigg and North Lincolnshire Annual 1909, Jackson and Sons, Brigg

[31] Ibid

[32] Natcect tape number A23-71

[33] Hudson biography, chapter 8, p.10

[34] Lindsey Star, 7th May 1910, p.4c

[35] Allen correspondence 5th May 1910

[36] Rufford Park Poachers

[37] Allen correspondence 18th March 1937

Owner/SourceRuairidh Greig
DateJuly 1998
Linked toJoseph TAYLOR

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