Article MT167 Ruby Cracknell - cartoon by Div Hill.

"We All Just Knew Her as Ruby"

Ruby Cracknell, Sussex Pub Pianist



This is the story of a lady whom I never met, and only got round to making enquiries about following a 25 year fascination with a particular song of hers which I have only heard once from any other source.  The story starts for me around 1980 when I was 'between morris sides' due to musical commitments elsewhere.  The venue was most likely at the Chequers at Well in Hampshire where the Pilgrim Morris Men of Guildford were performing.  After the pub stand, musician Chrissie Buckley launched into a rollicking chorus song Down by the Old Millstream accompanying the singing of her husband Brendan who, at that time, acted as their fool.  Upon asking, he told me that he learnt the song from “Ruby, who played piano at the Fox at Buck's Green” on the Surrey-Sussex border about seven miles west of Horsham on Sunday nights.

Brendan added that Ruby had many other songs in her repertoire, and “most of them dirty”, but this failed to whet my own appetite to find out more.  'Ruby night' was Sunday.  This very often that clashed with practice night with my own dance band, or going to the session at the Waverley Arms in Farnham.  As it was, I moved to Kent in 1986, and Brendan and Chrissie moved to Northumbria at around the same time, and the opportunity to find more was shelved. 

What I didn't appreciate until much later was that 'Ruby nights' at the Fox had acquired a reputation - even my wife, Flirby, went on two occasions before we met!  Upon bring introduced to her circle of friends - who also went to the Fox - they admitted they all knew Ruby, but nobody seemed to know her surname.  The comment prevailed that “we all just knew her as Ruby.”

Ruby and Percy Cracknell

It wasn't until I found the pub landlord of the day, John Wakefield, who today lives at nearby Rudgwick that I learnt more.  She was Ruby Cracknell, and he drove her every Sunday night from her home in Slinfold near Horsham, the five miles or so to Bucks Green (1).

Ruby Ormond Clark was born on 1 April 1907 at Islington.  She played piano or organ at Alexandra Palace in the 1930s (2), and in the Summer of 1937 married Percy William Cracknell.  Percy was born on 7 February 1891 at Camberwell and, whilst evidently a bit of a character, was unmusical - or, at least, not to the same extent as Ruby.  It is said that she gave up her professional career upon marrying, although she was active working for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) during the Second World War (3).  The couple had no family, possibly due to their age difference.  It is also known that Percy was a member of the Royal British Legion at Slinfold (4).  Although too old to be engaged upon active service during the Second World War, whether or not he was incapacitated during the Great War is unknown.  The King's Head (now the Red Lyon), SlinfoldAfter 1945, Percy and Ruby moved to Sutton where they had the running of the Gander Inn (5).  In 1949 they moved to Slinfold, taking residence in the King's Head (now the Red Lyon) serving behind the bar where Arthur and Lily Childs were proprietors, although Percy also worked as a long-distance lorry driver.  “You always knew when Percy served behind the bar at the King's Head, because there would be scratch marks all round your beer glass” (customers had their own glass in those days) caused by marks from Percy's 'massive' diamond ring.  Dick Kilner had his 18th birthday in 1955 and recalled the ill treatment of his first glass!  This domestic arrangement continued when Childs' nephew Ted Thorpe took over the running of the pub.  The Cracknells lived at the King's Head until later in life when they moved to a cottage opposite the church.  Lily moved out to the old peoples' bungalows at Lyons Close when Percy died.

Mr Kilner added that Ruby was a concert pianist before she met Percy, performing at “the big London theatres.”  She never played from sheet music, and always played by ear, anything from Land of Hope and Glory to classical pieces by e.g. Tchaikowsky.  She had been known to play the piano accordion publicly on one or two occasions.  “She was as good as Winifred Atwell".  She played at the King's Head at Slinfold on a few occasions, taking the front off the piano to expose the keys in 'honky tonk' fashion.

Percy's role at the Fox sessions was unforgettable.  He "stood five feet nothing and four feet around him".  He would mount the table in the Fox, with a full brandy glass in one hand and a cigar in the other.  He had a few songs in his repertoire: The Old Sow, Come Inside, You Silly Buggers, I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am, Outside the Lunatic Asylum, Thirty Bob a Week, and Flanagan and Allen songs.

Mr Kilner also drove the Cracknells from Slinfold to the Fox at Bucks Green on Sundays (6).  This sounds more plausible than John Wakefield's claim to that effect, and the explanation would seem to lie in that the duty was shared if one or the other was absent for any reason.

John Wakefield took over the running of the Fox in 1971 from former licencees Hugh and Alice Pike who had held it since 1956, commenting that the Cracknells were already resident there: “it was as though they came with the pub along with all the fixtures and fittings.”  The Fox sessions in the 1950s were every Saturday and Sunday night.  (7)

It was thought that Percy died from a disease related to the heart or lungs at the age of 87 at Cuckfield Hospital on 13th June 1978.  Ruby outlived him by a further three years dying on 15th August 1981, performing to the last despite being overwhelmed by oesophageal cancer.  It was recalled by Dick Kilner that she always finished the session with Land of Hope and Glory, but on the Sunday before she died concluded with the National Anthem (8).  No photographs survive, nor had anyone thought to make any taped recordings of the sessions.

Ruby Nights

So what marked out a 'Ruby night' from any other?  As mentioned earlier, the tradition had started in the 1950s at the Fox, at a time when television as a source of entertainment was still in its infancy.

The Fox Inn, Buck's Green, on the Surrey-Sussex border.Dick Kilner commented that a typical evening would start with Ruby playing 'teatime music' or parlour songs, then as the evening wore on and the customers more amenable, she would 'open up' with the chorus songs and play requests.  She could play Moon River with “all the fiddly bits”, My Old Man's a Dustman, I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside.  “If she knew it, she could play it.”  She always finished with Land of Hope and Glory.

Recalled from the 1960s, Peter Verrall noted that: “Percy would indeed stand on the chair and conduct what would probably now be described as rugby songs.  I was a regular at the Fox from my 18th birthday in 1965 until roughly 1970 and they were certainly performing from the beginning of my drinking life! …  The landlord at the time was Hugh Pike and there are other regulars who names I know.  Indeed, one Ron Davey, still drinks at the Fox.  ... Saturday night was 'singsong' night.” (9)

Simon Cakebread recalled that “Percy would be dressed in spats, and would stand on a chair and conduct everybody in the chorus and harmonies.” (10)

Since Percy died in 1978, we can further define the period in which further comments are made from then up until Ruby's death in 1981.

David Hill from Cranleigh started going to the Fox 'by accident' after 1978 with a group of friends, which included Simon Cakebread, Phil Gorton, his future wife Sally (then Voke) and my own (then Valerie Kirby).  He commented that “singing round the piano with Ruby was a real privilege …  Most of the Ruby evenings featured the same songs, and, of course, since many of them were medleys, they were often only fragments of the songs stitched together.  I noticed at the time that because Ruby was playing from memory (which some folk mistakenly call 'by ear'), she often tended to stick to the keys of C, G and F, but I do remember her modulating too, with progressions of 2 or 3 chords as a 'shift', presumably because she had learnt the next song of the medley or whatever in that particular key, and if she felt she had to go to somewhere like E flat, then off she went!  I don't remember Ruby ever using any sheet music.” (11)

The incidence of discovering the Fox sessions 'by accident' is a recurring theme.  Brendan Buckley reiterated the same.  He and Chrissie had stopped off with Matthew and Mary Alexander (also of Pilgrim Morris) on their way back to Guildford, possibly from a booking.  Ruby evidently sang Millstream because Brendan became hooked, revisiting the pub on many occasions thereafter.  He found out that Ruby's favourite tipple was sweet Martini, and bought her several in return for the words of the song.  In doing this, she sung the words over and over again - whilst the pub was crowded with its Sunday night regulars - until Brendan learnt the song.  Ruby was famous for her 'pungent remarks' about some of the 'hoorays' who came to the sessions.  Although there was a cluster of people around the piano who joined in with the choruses, there were many more that treated it as musical wallpaper.  (12)

Sessions were held every Sunday, but Brendan couldn't bring to mind when they first went or when they last visited.  They stopped going some time before they moved to Northumbria, but revisited the Fox on their return south on a Sunday in 1986 or 1987 only to find the piano locked.

It is evident that the Ruby sessions attracted people from a wide area.  When she died, four other pianists were tried who “played the same songs every night”, but who never attracted the same level of interest.  In 1990, John Wakefield surrendered the licence. (13)  Today, the concern is run by Simon Godsland.  The piano is gone, and the room where the Ruby sessions had been so popular for over thirty years given over to a restaurant area specialising in fish dishes, and the public bar area a shrine for real ale drinkers!

The Repertoire

Some time after Ruby died, Phil Gorton and David Hill sat down together, and for want of something better to do, wrote down what they could recall of Ruby's singing repertoire on two sheets of paper.  My enquiries prompted its recall, or as David remarked to Phil twenty years after its compilation: “What conscientious archivists we were!  I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of us sitting down and making this list, but I notice that most of the longer page is in my handwriting, so I must have been there, if only in the capacity of scribe.”  It also brought to mind one more song rendered after Ruby had finished whose authorship remains unknown, with the key line Old John Wakefield, he puts water in his beer sung over and over again to the tune of John Brown's Body.(14)

As mentioned before, many of the songs were fragments welded together as a medley.  Most will be well-known to readers, with a few obscurities which my informants have collaborated in a search for lyrics (see under 'The Songs').  Medleys on the list are bracketed together.  There is also the suggestion that single items were medley components.

Known Medleys:
Pennies from Heaven / Just the Way You Look Tonight
Sussex by the Sea / Maybe it's Because I'm a Londoner / Barrow Boy / Knees Up, Mother Brown
Daisybelle / She Was a Sweet Little Dickie Bird / Don't Dilly Dally on the Way
Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea / Puppet on a String
I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts / Old Mrs Rafferty
Who Were You With Last Night? / Hello, Who's Your Lady Friend? / Hold Your Hand Out, You Naughty Boy
(Lambeth Walk) / Any Old Iron / Hold It! Flash, Bang, Wallop!
Land of Hope and Glory / Rule Britannia


Single Items:
Part of Phil Gorton and David Hill's repertoire list.If You Ever Go Across the Sea to Ireland
I Belong to Glasgow
If You're Irish, Come Into the Parlour
Do-Re-Mi
Londonderry Air
Sally
Wormwood Scrubs
Tattooed Lady ('Twas Down in gay Paree)
Heart of my Heart
Side by Side
If I Had my Way
She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain
Down by the Old Millstream
The Road to Mandalay
Ol' Man River
Pack Up Your Troubles
Mammy
Underneath the Arches
Toot-Toot-Tootsie
Where the Arches Used to be
You are my Sunshine
Down on the Street Where You Live
Down at the Old Bull and Bush
Get Me to the Church on Time
Strolling
Quartermaster's Stores
Run, Rabbit, Run
Lily Marlene
I'm Leaning on a Lamppost
Lily of Laguna
You Made Me Love You
Goodbye-ee
Old Johnny Wakefield
If You Were the Only Girl in the World
Bill Bailey
Roll a Silver Dollar
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
(The Bells are Ringing) For Me and my Girl
Any Old Iron

Dick Kilner added that Ruby also played Moon River, My Old Man's a Dustman, I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside, always finishing with Land of Hope and Glory.  Simon Cakebread added that she performed Old King Cole, although we don't know the piquancy of the lyrics involved.  John Wakefield could only specifically recall Down by the Old Millstream', I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am, and The Music Man, vaguely recalling “London songs and songs popular in the Music Halls from the 1900s” being sung.

Judging by the text, there seemed to be a cache of songs originally sung by Percy that passed into Ruby's repertoire after his death.  Dick Kilner recalled that he sang The Old Sow, Come Inside, You Silly Buggers, I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am, Outside the Lunatic Asylum, Thirty Bob a Week, and Flanagan and Allen songs.  Allowing for imperfect memories and the passage of time, we have already established that Come Inside, Lunatic Asylum and Thirty Bob a Week is one and the same song referred to in Phil Gorton's list as Wormwood Scrubs.  The Flanagan and Allen songs on Phil Gorton's list include Underneath the Arches, Strolling and Where the Arches Used to Be.  Ruby is never spoken of as having performed The Old Sow, which is hardly surprising as it relies solely on its unaccompanied chorus of grunts, whistles and raspberries as immortalised by Albert Richardson's recording of 1928.

It is even possible to further break down the song list to define those containing 'lewd' lyrics, possibly derived from Ruby's ENSA experience: Old King Cole, Tattooed Lady, Down by the Old Millstream, Wormwood Scrubs, etc., which is almost where I came in with the narrative.

The Songs

Down by the Old Millstream (Nuts in May)

This song, above all others, is the one recalled by everyone contacted in this project.  Similar versions are known to exist and can be found on internet sites; I heard something similar shortly after learning the same in the Anchor at Sidmouth in around 1981.  The verses are spoken, with the exception of the lines leading 'down by the old millstream' which is sung, with the second line acting like an interrogation from the audience (e.g. roses??) to which the singer replies in confirmation (e.g. roses!)

[Chorus]
Let's go out tonight, tonight,
The moon is shining bright tonight.
I see a twinkle in your eye - aye aye aye
Everybody's watching us, they're watching you and I
Let's go round the corner and have a bit on the sly
Aye aye, tiddly aye aye aye .  .  .

He took her gathering nuts in May,
Nuts in May? Nuts in May!
Down by the old mill stream, aye aye aye
But instead of gathering nuts in May
He put her in the family way
Down by the old mill stream.

[Chorus]

He took her gathering roses,
Roses? Roses!
Down by the old mill stream, aye aye aye
But instead of gathering roses
He took off all her clotheses
Down by the old mill stream.

[Chorus]

He took her gathering watercress,
Watercress? Watercress!
Down by the old mill stream, aye aye aye
But instead of gathering watercress
He got her in one hell of a mess.
Down by the old mill stream.

[Chorus]

He took her to see his mother,
His mother? His mother!
Down by the old mill stream, aye aye aye
But instead of seeing his mother
They had a bit of the other
Down by the old mill stream.

[Chorus]

John Wakefield

Both Phil Gorton and David Hill recalled this song to the tune 'John Brown's Body' in honour of the landlord at that time.  David wondered if it concluded with the line 'Time, gentlemen, please!'

Old Johnny Wakefield he puts water in his beer, water in his beer, water in his beer.
Old Johnny Wakefield he puts water in his beer and we all go sober home.
We're the silly sods who drink it, We're the silly sods who drink it,
We're the silly sods who drink it, and we all go sober home.

The Tattooed Lady

John Howson has this as a World War Two parody of 'My Home in Tennessee' and remarks that the original song was written by William Jerome and Walter Donaldson in 1915,.  David Hill adds: “There always seemed to me to be a line or two missing from this song, after the 'Rising Sun' line - it doesn't quite seem to balance, somehow, but that is exactly what Ruby sang.  Internal evidence suggests (to me, at any rate) that this parody may be military in origin, considering the setting (exotic dancer/foreign travel/naval (navel?) imagery etc.  My old dad told me that the tune was 'My Home in Tennessee' after he heard me singing it in the bath one day, but I cannot trace a song by that title.  I think he recalled a similar song from his RAF days.”

'Twas down in gay Paree
I paid five francs to see
A great big French lady
Tattooed from head to knee
And on her jaaaaaaaaw
There was a great big man of war
And on her back was a Union Jack
So I paid five franc more

And on her threepenny bits
There was a row of battleships
And on her hot cross bun
There was a view of the rising sun
And to the left side of her kidney
Was a bird's eye view of Sydney
And round the corner,
The jolly 'orner,
I can't tell you what I saw!!

Oh! Mrs Rafferty!

Phil Gorton remembered that Mrs Rafferty as sung by Ruby was just one verse slipped into 'I've Got a Luvverly Bunch of Coconuts' as part of a medley.

Oh Mrs Rafferty I want yer to be me wife.
I haven't had a [knock knock knock] in all me bleeding life.
Oh away you dirty rascal you know where you can go.
You only had a [knock knock knock] a half an hour ago.

Oh I've got a luverly bunch of coconuts etc.

David Hill commented that 'Old Mrs Rafferty' went:

'Now Old Mrs Rafferty, I want you to be me wife
I haven't had a (rub-a-dub-dub) in all me bleedin' life!
Get away, you dirty rascal, you know where you can go
You only had a (rub-a-dub-dub) not half an hour ago!'

Rub-a-dub-dub' is my way of indicating a triplet of three semiquavers followed by a dotted quaver which Ruby would rap loudly on the piano lid!) On further reflection, I'm sure that 'Old Mrs R' was inserted as a 'sandwich filler' in the middle of 'I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts', which may have followed 'Barrow Boy'.

Barrow Boy

“Barrow Boy was part of a medley that followed on from 'Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner' which itself followed on from "Sussex by the Sea".  Barrow is, of course, pronounced 'barrer' throughout!”

Now all me life I wanted to be a barrow boy
A barrow boy I've always wanted to be. 
I own the title, I sticks to it with pride. 
Me and my old barrow
By the old roadside. 
I turned me back on all the 'ole society. 
I mingle where the big bananas grow. 
I buys 'em twenty a shilling
That's how I makes me living. 
I ought to have been a barrow boy long ago. 
Get off me barrow!
I ought to have been a barrow boy years ago.

Wormwood Scrubs

Simon Cakebread told me that one song was called 'Wormwood Scrubs' which led to the retrieval of all manner of red herrings! If validated, the song is known elsewhere as 'the Lunatic Asylum' or 'Come Inside'.  After jogging Phil Gorton's and David Hill's collective memories after twenty years, the following set of words was arrived at.  The proposal that 'Wormwood Scrubs' was the song 'Curly Williams' struck no signs of recognition from my informants.

Come inside you silly buggers come inside
You ought to have a bit more sense.
Working for a living,
Take my tip,
Act a bit peculiar and become a lunatic.
Ruby Night - cartoon by Div Hill. Oh, you get your meals quite regular
And two new suits besides.
Thirty bob a week.
No wife and kids to keep.
Come inside, you silly buggers, come inside.

Sussex by the Sea

Not the more well-known version written by W Ward Higgs, but modified in the chorus for effect, as recalled by Phil Gorton.  In fact, the verse quoted is the second of five in the original, and probably intended as a parody.  This was part of a medley which led into 'Maybe it's Because I'm a Londoner' then into 'Barrow Boy.'

Up in the morning early,
Up at the break of day,
Here's to the merry bugler,
Sounding us on our way. 
So let your voices ring, my boys
And take the time from me;
And we'll sing a song as we roll along,
To Sussex by the sea. 

Oh, Good old Sussex by the sea. 
Good old Sussex by the sea.
You may tell them all that they know bugger all
In Sussex by the sea.

Notes on the Contributors

Phil Gorton is an old boy of Godalming Grammar School.  Today he plays melodeon for the Pilgrim Morris Men and the Hogs Back Band, and is a past organiser with his wife Sally of the Guildford Summerpole celebrations over May Bank Holiday weekend.  Both live in Godalming.

David 'Div' Hill is also a Godalming old boy, and formerly from Cranleigh.  He has sung countertenor with the Academy and Chorus of St Martins in the Fields.  Today, he is a self-employed craftsman and partner at Roman Glassmakers at Quarley, near Andover.

Simon Cakebread was and is a member of the Godalming Operatic Society, and lives in Cranleigh.

Brendan and Chrissie Buckley were fool and melodeon-player respectively for the Pilgrim Morris Men, and were also both members of the Hogs Back Band, Brendan playing drums.  Today, both work as teachers in Alnwick.

Dick Kilner, Peter Verrall, Vic Hawkins and Karol Jackson are correspondents from the Horsham area who answered an appeal for information advertised in the West Sussex County Times.

References

  1. John Wakefield, phone conversation, 26 May 2005
  2. Simon Cakebread, phone conversation, 12 May 2005
  3. Phil Gorton, email, 16 May 2005.  Upon meeting him later, Phil said that Ruby had told him this.  The same detail about Ruby working for ENSA was related to me by Karol Jackson of Slinfold in a letter dated 26 June 2005.
  4. West Sussex County Times, 16 June 1978
  5. John Wakefield, ibid.
  6. Dick Kilner, phone conversation, 11 July 2005
  7. John Wakefield, ibid; Vic Hawkins, email 24 June 2005
  8. Dick Kilner, ibid.
  9. Peter Verrall, email, 18 June 2005
  10. Simon Cakebread, phone conversation, 12 May 2005
  11. David Hill, email to Phil Gorton, 30 May 2005
  12. Brendan Buckley, phone conversation, 23 May 2005
  13. John Wakefield, ibid.
  14. David Hill, ibid.

George Frampton - 26.9.05

Article MT167

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