Article MT180

Musicians in 19th Century Southern England

Keith Chandler's series of short essays

[No 8: James Simpson, of Sherborne] [No 9: Joseph Hitchman, of Blockley] [No 10: Francis and John Watts, of Buckingham]

General Introduction, part 5:

Musicians who earned at least a portion of their living from travelling the countryside playing at local festivities were legion; and during the course of extensive recent research far more have surfaced than was once supposed, especially among the Romany clans.  Hundreds of players, important men within their own time and social milieu, have passed from history without leaving even the legacy of their own names.  Numerous others flit through the sources leaving little mark beyond a hint of what must often have concealed a lifetime of music-making.  One such is John Corbet, who was baptised at Spernall (Warks) on 28 July 1718, buried in Studley (Warks) on Christmas Day 1767, and noted in the latter register as 'Fidler.'  Another example is William Harris of Brill (Bucks), baptised 28 August 1825, who when tried for poaching in 1861 was, it was claimed, 'better known as "Fiddler Harris".'1 - Jackson's Oxford Journal, 19 January 1861, 8.1  Both he and his father were given as agricultural labourers in the 1851 census, but by the time he is next spotted, thirty years later, William is enumerated as 'Job master', the exact meaning of which is unclear.1 - A job master is a man who runs a varied fleet of horse- or pony-drawn vehicles for hire. Thanks to Reg Hall for this information.1  Another decade farther on he is living with a married daughter, but no occupation is listed, suggesting that he had retired from active employment.

Those two men, at least, may be conclusively identified, located in specific geographical timeframes, and the barest biographical outline established.  Others may never be, unless further confirmatory evidence surfaces at some future date.  Who, for instance, might the 'Fiddler' Wells present at the Michaelmas Fair at Abingdon (Berks) in 1845, and subsequently committed for seven days' hard labour for obstructing the police in their duty, have been?2 - Oxford Chronicle, 11 October 1845, 3.2  Or 'Messers. Hollis and Akers,' who 'afforded the musical portion' of the harvest home feast at Brize Norton (Oxon) in September 1855?3 - Jackson's Oxford Journal, 29 September 1855, 8.3  And what of Henry Smith, 'a travelling musician, of Gloucester,' who was arrested for stealing a watch at a village feast in 1862, but later acquitted when the true culprit was identified?4 - Gloucester Journal, 4 October 1862, 8, and 18 October 1862, 6.4  He at least, we may speculate, was almost certainly a Gypsy, and bore one of the most common of traveller surnames.  On geographical grounds alone - the family travelled extensively in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire - he may well have been Henry, the son of fiddle player Arkless (aka Hercules) Smith (1779 - 1871).

Not all peripatetic musicians in the Midland counties, however, originated from England.  One Philip Clarke, for instance, 'a Scotch itinerant bagpipe player,' was at Buckingham in October 1854 when robbed by a local hairdresser.5 - Banbury Guardian, 7 September 1854, 3. The piper is unnamed in this source, but identified in Oxford Chronicle, 4 November 1854, 8.5  And a case heard at a petty session in Hungerford (Berks) during October 1870 involved John O'Donnel, a surname with a distinct Irish cast to it, who was described as 'a tramping fidler [sic]'.6 - Newbury Weekly News, 13 October 1870, 5.6

Fortunately for the present series of biographical vignettes, a good number of musicians have, for whatever reasons, been immortalised by virtue of gaining the attention of diarists, newspaper correspondents, chroniclers of local life, and even coroners.

No 8: James Simpson, alias McDonald, aka 'Jim the Laddie', of Sherborne, Gloucestershire

The mother of James Simpson was born in Quebec, Canada, in about 1774.  Her son was baptised as James McDonald in Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland, on 22 March 1811, with the parents given as Alexander McDonald and Jane McKillop, the latter presumably her married name.  The date at which mother and son migrated southwards to Sherborne (Glos) is unrecorded, although on marriage grounds this would need to be no later than the mid-eighteen thirties.  In fact, it may well have been much earlier, as he is likely to have been the James Simpson who, with Thomas Taylor, was tried at the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions on 27 September 1827, on the charge of breaking part of a stone wall belonging to Lord Sherborne twelve days earlier.  Both were fined ten shillings with 2s. 6d. damages.7 - Gloucestershire Record Office, Q/PC/2/46/D/3, Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions, Memoranda of convictions (general), July-December 1827; a summary of the case is posted at\A2A_com.xsl&keyword=james%20simpson&properties=0601 (accessed 27 June 2006).7  There is no obvious evidence of another James Simpson in any sources pertaining to that locality, and, given that Taylor is likely to have been the man born 1808, the scenario looks like two teenagers - possibly under the influence of alcohol - on a spree.  A convincing reason for the relocation from Scotland, whatever that actual date, may be suggested.  At the date of the 1841 census Jane was in Sherborne, living in the household of Thomas Simpson, aged eighty-eight, who was probably her father (details of relationship to the head of the household did not become standard practise until 1851).  In the same dwelling was her son James, his wife Priscilla - born at Eastleach (Glos) in about 1811 - and their two children Sarah Anne, baptised 25 March 1838, and Thomas, Christmas Day 1839.  No marriage details have been discovered, but there were certainly further children: Elizabeth, baptised 15 May 1842, William, 2 June 1844, Mary, 18 July 1847, and Rebecca, 12 October 1851.  Entries in the baptism register in 1839 and 1844 and the marriage register in 1855 (documenting the wedding of a daughter) give his occupation as 'labourer,' while the more specific 'Agricultural labourer' features in both the 1841 and 1851 census returns.

James Simpson was widely known by the nickname 'Jim the Laddie,' which is easily explained once his Scottish origin is considered.  At what age he learned to play the three-holed pipe and tabor drum is unrecorded, but his reputation as a player was widespread across an extensive area of east Gloucestershire and west Oxfordshire.  He accompanied the Sherborne Morris set, but in addition probably also went out with the side from Northleach (Glos), and possibly that based at Great Rissington (Glos).  On 15 November 1855, his daughter Sarah Anne married William Search, baptised at this latter place on 17 March 1833.  Search was perceived locally as, 'a great [morris] dancer; it was said that he used to caper on to a chair and over the back of it and bring in his steps as nice as could be.'8 - Cambridge, Clare College, Cecil James Sharp MSS., 'Folk Dance Notes' 4, f.128, interviews with Joseph [sic - Richard Edward] Bond, Idbury (Oxon), 10 and 11 September 1923.8  Simpson's activity with further dance teams is implied but no specific locations may be identified.  Of the pipe belonging to him; post mortem it was noted that, 'He used to play it at most of the Morrises for Miles Round.'9 - Oxford, Bodleian Library, Percy Manning MSS., Ms.Top.Oxon.d.200, ff.79-79v, letter from Thomas J Carter, 1901, relating information from Mr Groves [?].9

Dancers in the morris set at Sherborne were renowned locally for their skill in performance.  The fiddle player William Hathaway, born at Lower Swell (Glos) on 3 May 1841, described Sherborne as 'a desperate Morris place,'10 - London, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil James Sharp MSS., field notebook (words) 2 (31 January-15 April 1908), interview with William Hathaway, Cheltenham (Glos), Easter 1908; with fair copy in 'Folk Dance Notes' 1, f.40.10 while the collector Cecil James Sharp claimed to have 'repeatedly heard other Morris men speak in similar terms, [and] I gather that the Sherborne men must at one time have held a leading position among the Morris dancers in that part of the country.'11 - Cecil J Sharp, The Morris Book. Part IV (London: Novello, 1911), 8-9.11

James Simpson implicitly played for social dancing, 'at the Hunt Feasts About these parts,'12 - Manning MSS., Ms.Top.Oxon.d.200, ff.79-79v.12 and no doubt in other contexts also.  Further details are lacking, but clearly he possessed a repertory of tunes beyond those used to accompany morris dancing.  Possibly he brought specifically Scottish melodies with him upon relocation.  His immortality in the popular local imagination, if only under the sobriquet 'Jim the Laddie,' was assured owing to his mode of death.  Writing in 1884 of the then-defunct morris side at Northleach, 'E.M.C.' claimed of him that, 'Thirty years ago come the Whitsun week he had been round the country to the club feasts with his boys, as he called the dancers, and in a stable at Bourton-on-the-Water, with his tabor and pipe in his hand, poor Jim the Laddie lay down and died.'13 - Birmingham Weekly Post, 3 May 1884, 1.13  In 1901 it was noted that, 'The last time he Played was at the Hunt Feast at Bourton some 40 years ago and He got so Drunk that He Died from the Efects of it [sic].'14 - Manning MSS., Ms.Top.Oxon.d.200, ff.79-79v.14  Both facts and dating in these sources are slightly awry, the actual date of death being 6 June 1856.  As reported in a Bourton column in one of the local newspapers:

On Thursday, June 12th, an inquest was held at the New Inn, on the body of James Simson [sic], of Sherborne; it appears the deceased left home on the Monday previous, as one of a party of morrice dancers proceeding to Stow club, stayed there until the Tuesday night, and when on his way home (alone) he called at the New Inn, in this village, where a party had that day dined, and were spending the evening together.  The deceased insisted on joining them, and as drink was to be had without stint, he drank in a short space of time so much that he was obliged to be removed to an apartment, in which he was comfortably laid and covered for the night; every care was taken of him, and the landlady, the last thing, saw him asleep, and left him safe.  The following morning, about 9 o'clock, he was found in an uneasy state.  Medical assistance was sent for, but before the doctor arrived he had ceased to breath [sic].  Verdict - Died from excess of drink.15 - Oxford Chronicle, 14 June 1856, 8.15
Within the span of three decades, then, the story had become embellished and romanticised, but the contemporary inquest report may itself be biased.  Simpson might, of course, as reported, have 'insisted on joining them,' but a more likely scenario is that unexpectedly appearing at the door of the inn was a man probably already known to at least some persons present, who in return for an amount of alcohol might provide some good entertainment, including, perhaps, playing for dancing.

James Simpson was buried in his adopted village of Sherborne, aged forty-five, with the cause of death listed in the appropriate register as 'Death from Drink.'  The death certificate listed him as 'Agricultural Labourer' with the cause given similarly as 'Excessive Drinking,' an ignominious end for a musician of such widespread renown.

No 9: Joseph Hitchman, of Blockley, Worcestershire

As reported in the Warwick Advertiser during May 1886:
On Saturday a noted local character died at Shipston Union, aged fifty-seven.  - "Blind Joe," the fiddler.  He was an extraordinary man.  His right name was Joseph Hitchman.  He was a native of Blockley situated about eight miles from Shipston.  His life had been of a rambling character, and he had been to London, Leicester, Worcester, Evesham, Stratford, Derby, Coventry, and many other towns in England.  How he managed to travel was a mystery.  His sense of smell was very keen indeed.  He could recognise people he knew.  He has been known to do this in a very astonishing manner.  His memory too was very good.  He immediately knew a person's voice, even if he had not heard it for years and years.  Joe generally played his "Stradivarius" annually at Moreton races, and at the Shipston fairs and bullroasts.  "Blind Joe" generally played up.  He exchanged "music for money".  He was buried at Blockley on Monday week; only one person followed him to his grave, viz. John Keen.  "Blind Joe," it may be remarked, has actually been found wandering along railroads, tramroads, &c.  He seldom ran against anything.  When he used to come down into the town for a few hours, the Crown Inn was generally his head-quarters, whereat to give a scrape on his violin.  There used to live some twelve or twenty years ago an old blind man of the name of Jack Cook.  He knew his way all over Shipston, and could walk to Stratford.  He was an extraordinary man for finding his way about.  Some think Blind Joe must have had a slight glimmer of light in his eye.16 - Warwick Advertiser, 22 May 1886, 6.16
Clearly an important musician within his sphere of activity, Hitchman's peripatetic lifestyle has served to obscure many details of his life.  No baptism was registered in Blockley, nor has one been discovered in any other community, although his age as given places his birth as circa 1829.  He is similarly not evident in the 1841 census, but ten years later was enumerated in his home town, aged sixteen and living in the household of his parents.  His father, Henry Hitchman, earned his living as a stone mason, but no occupation is given for Joseph.  Following governmental directives, the enumerator noted that Joseph was blind.  His career as a peripatetic musician may not have commenced by this date, but was perhaps not too far in the future.  He was certainly in the home of his parents once again on the night of the census taking in 1861, given as 'Do [i.e. ditto - Stone Mason] Son', and described as 'Blind from birth'.  The newspaper report confirms regular appearances at Shipston fairs, in addition to playing in The Crown Inn, and we may be certain that he was often to be found in the town of his birth, where he had an extensive kin network.  When the census was taken ten years later he was in the town of Warwick, staying in a lodging house at 25 West Street, his occupation given as 'Labourer', of what type and form, though, is not stated.  He seems to have eluded the census taker in 1881; and never to have married and fathered children.  If not for an astute reporter recognising good local copy five years later, Hitchman's evidently geographically extensive musical activities would, in common with numerous others, have passed into oblivion unrecorded.

No 10: Francis and John Watts, of Buckingham 17 - This is a more elaborate version of text first published as part of the introduction to MT066.17

Francis Watts was born about 1834 (no baptism has been discovered), and on the day of the census taking in 1841, was one of four children living with their parents in Radclive-cum-Chackmore (Bucks).  His father, John, was enumerated as agricultural labourer, and ten years later, still at the same location, both he and Francis were given as 'Labourer'.  During the middle years of that decade Francis married and started a family of his own, his eldest son John being born about 1858.

By what means is unknown, but Francis Watts became an accomplished musician, sufficiently adept at providing accompaniment for social dancing.  His absence from the 1861 census obscures the timing, but on Whit Monday, 5 June, 1865, the day of the Club Feast at Maids Moreton (Bucks), it was reported how, 'About 7 o'clock however it grew finer, and the field was well filled with a company of dancers, etc.  The large barn in the centre of the village was opened for dancing and Mr. Francis Watts and his son supplied music to the dancers.'18 - Buckingham Express, 30 May 1865, 5.18

Given the age of the son (presumably seven year-old John), this is likely to have been in a melody instrument (probably fiddle)/percussion combination, one which was common throughout the century.  In 1871 Francis gave his occupation to the census enumerator as 'Musician', suggesting that a significant portion of his income at that date was earned in that manner.  It seems likely that father taught son the rudiments of playing, and by his mid-teens John himself had mastered a melody instrument.  In June 1874 both he his father were playing for dancing at separate venues in Tingewick (Bucks) on the Tuesday in Whitsun week: 'After the band had ceased to parade the streets, dancing was entered into with great spirit in the various dancing rooms, conspicuous among those being one at the "Crown Inn," and other [sic] at the "White Hart," music at the latter being supplied by Mr. F. Watts, and at the former by his son, John Watts.'19 - Buckingham Express, 6 June 1874, 4.19  On Whit Monday three years later, John Watts was again booked to attend on the day of the Club Feast at Maids Moreton, where he 'discoursed sweet music to a large number of dancers in a barn kindly lent by Mr. Robert Rogers.'20 - Buckingham Express, 26 May 1877, 4.20

By 1875, at least, Francis Watts had completed his elevation from the labouring class and had become the publican at The Crown Inn, Nelson Street, in the market town of Buckingham,21 - Harrod & Co's Directory of Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Huntingdonshire, and Northamptonshire (Norwich: Royal County Directory Offices, 1876), 192.21 remaining there until 1891, at least.  He nevertheless continued to service dances in the vicinity.  At Maids Moreton in Whitsun week 1881, for example, 'In a large barn very kindly lent for the purpose, a large number of young persons entered into the mazey dance, to the excellent music of Mr. F. Watt's [sic] large piano, into which he has recently had a larger variety of dance music introduced.'22 - Buckingham Express, 11 June 1881, 5.22  The implication is, that this was not the first year the player piano had been used to accompany social dancing.  At the same venue the following year, 'In the large barn kindly lent for the purpose by Mr. A.C. Rogers, Mr. Francis Watts, of the "Crown Inn," Buckingham, had a large company of merry dancers to his monster piano, and dancing to smaller instruments was carried on in the several inns.'23 - Buckingham Express, 3 June 1882, 4.23  John may well have been playing, live, in the latter context.

This is the first and only musician discovered during the course of extensive research known to have eschewed live performance and take advantage of cutting-edge technology.  In his capacity as public house landlord he would undoubtedly have had access to a horse and wagon in which to transport his 'monster' player piano and the stack of (presumably) music rolls required to maintain an extended and varied repertory of dances.  But a radical shift in the patterns of social dancing is reflected in this case.  The music supplied by the piano would certainly not have been suitable for longways dance sets: man facing woman in two lines, for as many as might fit into the space available.  Such performances could last an hour or more, depending upon the number of participants, and a continuous musical accompaniment was essential.  It would, however, have been possible to perform quadrilles to a mechanical device, assuming the music source was changed between each figure.  Indeed, once the commercial recording industry had become established, 78 rpm discs were sometimes used in much the same manner.  Sets of tunes designed for live performance of the six figures which typically made up a quadrille were recorded and issued, occupying five sides of three double-sided discs, with the shorter first and second figures fitting onto a single side.  One of the earliest examples was Lion Quadrilles, recorded in March 1910 by the Scottish melodeon player Peter Wyper,24 - For details on the life and musical activities of Peter Wyper see MT005.24 and issued on Columbia-Rena 1436-1438, the sixth side featuring La Varsoviana, which might similarly be used for the popular dance in 3/4 time.

This well documented shift in dance preference, especially among increasingly sophisticated younger urbanites, is reflected both here and in Watts' decision to form a quadrille band, indicating that live performance remained a feature of his activities where appropriate.  One occasion on which the band performed was during the Club Feast at Buckingham on Whit Tuesday, 25 May, 1885, supplying 'dance music till 3 o'clock in the morning.'25 - Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press For Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, and Bedfordshire, 30 May 1885, 4.25  Personnel details are unknown, but we might expect the line-up to have included both himself, his son John, and perhaps other of his sons also.  By 1889 Francis Watts had added 'musical instrument dealer' to his list of services,26 - Kelly's Oxford Directory with Abingdon, Woodstock and Neighbourhood for 1890-1 (London: Kelly & Co., 1890).26 and further sidelines were revealed in 1891, when, still at The Crown, he was enumerated as 'Innkeeper, Coal/Butcher/Musician'.

Biographical details relating to John Watts once he had left home are a little confusing, but the best scenario looks like this.  In 1881 he is still living in Buckingham, married with one child, and now earning a living as a blacksmith.  A similar situation pertained ten years later, with the addition of four further children.  From the birthplaces given, it appears that the family may have spent some time in his wife's home village of Steeple Claydon (Bucks).  So far this is straight forward, but the facts now become murky.  A man named John Watts married Martha Inns during the spring of 1892, subsequently fathering three children before his death.  The birth of the youngest recorded child was registered during the first quarter of 1897, and at the date of the 1901 census Martha is designated a widow.  There is no obvious civil registration of his death, but this is likely to have occurred between the summer of 1896 and March 1901.  If this was the same John Watts, his first wife must have died within a year of the 1891 census taking.  However, no obvious registration of her death has been discovered either.

Francis Watts died during the summer of 1894, aged fifty nine.  Assuming my identification of John Watts to be correct, the death of two such significant musicians in close proximity must have left quite a void in the local dance scene.

Keith Chandler - 29.6.06


A Note on Primary Sources:

Historical research in general has been enhanced immeasurably in recent years by extensive access to information posted on the World Wide Web.  Every census entry for England, Wales and the Isle of Man during the period 1841 to 1901 is now available, by subscription, at

Each census is indexed thoroughly and searchable, and although there are inevitably some errors in transcription and guesses at words written in some of the more illegible enumerators' hands, a little lateral thinking regarding search parameters will often yield the required entry.  The great advantage of this site is the ability to access images of the actual pages of the original enumeration volumes.  The entire 1881 census, in transcribed form only, is freely available on the website of The Church of Latter Day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, at , and is again comprehensively indexed and searchable.  Many census returns for numerous communities in the Cotswold region (including those from Blockley for 1851 to 1891 inclusive) are freely available, in transcribed form only, at  The 1901 census is searchable at , where many personal details are freely given in transcription, but the image of the original page requires payment of a small fee.

Baptism and marriage registers for many, though not all, communities in England have been transcribed and indexed by The Church of Latter Day Saints.  These are also freely searchable at

There was a legal obligation from 1837 onwards to register all births, marriages and deaths with the civil authorities.  In practise, however, many such, especially among the travelling community, escaped this directive.  Full details are available, by subscription, at  An ongoing transcription, still incomplete, is freely searchable at

All websites given in this section were accessed 28.6.06.

Article MT180

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