There have always been fishermen's choirs - as there have been miners' choirs. Massed miners, well organised, powerful and mob-handed are world famous, while Britain's singing fishermen tend to sing on a far more personal level to fewer people, but the devotion and fervour of both groups are equally absolute and undeniable. I would not have the gall to openly suggest that fishermen, like miners, sing in praise of their Maker, loudly, sweetly and fervently, because they like to ensure that they will spend the night safely in their own beds; nonetheless the thought arises unbidden.
Ironically, today, the singers are no more fishermen than they are miners, because Thatcher closed the last of the mines, and ... we are not a fishermen's choir because there's no bloody fish. However, the Staithes Men's Choir comes in a very direct line from the fishermen's choirs that have existed in almost every village along this north-east coast of Yorkshire.
I have not been able to find any evidence of this being a tradition of any antiquity; the choirs are bound very directly to the firm hold the Chapel has had in so many singing communities - it's very much a hotbed and stronghold of Methodism, where of course like Cornwall and suchlike, they like to sing. All of the people I spoke to in Staithes had clear memories of the tyranny of relentless Chapel Sunday School - I know he carried me to Sunday School when I was 10 months old, I've gone every Sunday since to chapel. We had to go to Sunday School in morning and afternoon, then they wanted to see your star card to see if you'd been. - and the massive strength and comfort of chapel - That was their life. There was nothing else was there? Morning, noon and night. And after services at night sometimes. There was Sunday School anniversay in February, then there was Easter, chapel anniversary in June, Harvest Festival - went by the church calendar, didn't they?
The Methodist movement started in the nineteenth century, when there were three chapels in Staithes: the Primitives, the Wesleyan and the Congregational - what we called the high chapel; they were full to overflowing every night ... of course when you tell people about it they can hardly picture it. The fishermen all foregathered on the staith on a Sunday evening, in front of the Cod and Lobster, and they marched up the street singing at the tops of their voices ... and then as they come to the various chapels, which of course they all had their own ones, they peeled off still singing, and went into it. And it was then that if you come down at this village on a Sunday evening you'd practically hear them lifting the roofs off.
Today only the Wesley remains - our chapel was opened in 1866 and my great grandfather was a founder trustee. The three chapels had strong choirs and a major part of all their repertoires would have been hymns, particularly those relevant to the sea, from the American evangelist, Ira Sankey. Anyway the choirs, as such with each chapel to my knowledge, Sankey hymns were always a great favourite. The Sankey and Moody Hymn Book was published in 1873, with many subsequent editions - these hymns are still a staple of methodist choirs - but it seems that prior to this time, there were probably neither the chapels nor the hymns to galvanise the working communities of England to the 'roof lifting' enthusiasm of Tom Hall's youth.
The fishermen's hymns and sacred songs of north Yorkshire are the bedrock of the Staithes Men's Choir, and most of these are hymns familiar to them since childhood, which in Tom Hall's case is since the 1920s. Previous Staithes' choirs undoubtedly sang almost exclusively sacred songs, but today the Choir, which performs between 20 and 25 concerts a year, finds it has to spread its net wider to appeal to the enthusiastic audiences who give so much to charity. Rousing hymns like Hold the Fort continue to be popular, as well as folk songs, such as The Mingulay Boat Song, and the lovely local hymns nurtured by choir 'historian', Willie Wright. But the Staithes Men have a particularly effective secret weapon in the brilliant, stirring songs of Joe Skilbeck - the excitement of which are reinforced by his eccentric accompaniments and the lovely voice of soloist, local butcher Richard Lyth. (sound clip - Heading for the Harbour Lights)
I mean Joe Skilbeck has given us a lot of variety to it by writing and stuff specially for the choir, like you heard last night - Men of Steers, Song of the Islands, Heading for the Harbour Lights - really good stuff. I mean Joe in my opinion, if he'd had the opportunity he should have been a millionaire now.
There has been some resistance to the Choir's more secular material, and audiences, particularly organisers, are not always in agreement with the Choir's diverse repertoire - "Oh no, we sing the old hymns, Sankey, Redemption, Songs of Triumph, whatever, wherever we choose to take them from, but," I said, "we have a brilliant pianist in the choir, and he writes and composes the music." "Oh", he said "I have been misinformed." But the most traditionally disposed listeners will usually be swayed, and unknowingly won over by Joe's music, often despite their predisposition to the old hymns.
Wherever we are we choose a programme to suit that particular place. You know, if it's a village hall, it's half and half; if it is a church or chapel we tend to lean more to the hymns. But people will still come up and say "Oh, I like so and so" - which is one of Joe's. We went to one place, obviously we put more of Joe's stuff in and people loved it, didn't they? At the end we sang Heading for the Harbour Lights, which is a good finisher 'cos you're heading home for the harbour lights, and at the end it has a real good finish and everbody turned round and said "Yeah", right at the end. It made it, didn't it?
There has been some soul searching regarding the change in repertoire, but generally, with a professional eye to audience satisfaction, they do whatever they feel will most fit in. It seems that even the staunchest performer of the old school can see the enjoyment to be had out of John Pearson's new attitude. Robert Laverick, Jennifer's father, was the Wesleyan Chapel Sunday School supervisor, and a member of the 'old choir' which gave its last performance in Sleights in 1980. I never asked her dad, and he was a bit upset about it, but I didn't think he would want ... 'cos when we revived the choir we sort of became secular, rather than sacred. The old choir was a sacred choir. Before they had the congregations; you've got to get other people involved, to come to these concerts. That's why we like to do the secular stuff.
The 'Old Choir' seems to cover a huge, inextricable mass of memories. No one can remember a time when there wasn't at least one choir in Staithes; there was a Staithes choir which was invited to sing at Crystal Palace in the 1900s. There was a quintet led by Willie Verrill, started in the 1940s and recorded by the BBC. This group also included Ted Theaker, Jacob Unthank and Dickie Hick, with Lily Verrill as pianist. The quintet seems to have been the nucleus of the 'old choir' under Willie Verrill, which performed in Manchester in the 50s, and included Robert Laverick and the young James Wright. We went to Manchester, the old choir - at the Free Trade Hall. It was in the early fifties, wasn't it? What an experience. I wasn't playing, I just went with my dad.
However, Jennifer did get to play; Lily Verrill, wife of the conductor, went stone deaf on the eve of her retirement, and Jennifer took her place. She has been the pianist ever since, and now that her husband is the conductor of the choir, there is yet another formidable team at the helm; John is the leader, the conductor, and Jennifer is the main accompanist, as well as the administrative organiser and secretary. The old choir gave its last performance at Sleights in the early 80s, and the Men of Staithes gave its first public performance in October 1985, under their conductor, John Pearson. There is a story attached to this: John was going out of the door on a Saturday night and he looked round and said "Well, are you going to come and play for us then?" and I picked me Billy Graham up and we started off with When the Roll is Called up Yonder I'll be There. (sound clip)
I missed the old choir. When we went to Scarboro to hear the Filey Fishermen sing and they're linked up with this Dutch choir, that was Queen St Methodist. After the concert we tend to go for a drink with some of the Filey men, they aren't all staunch Methodists, and Jim Haxby, we've known him for years, and he said "We've sang with you, and we've sung with Marske, but we've never all got together" - that's how it sort of started. So I just went round people in the ... lads in pubs I knew liked to sing, asking if they fancied having a go. It were just going to be a one off, the triple concert, and we did it at Whitby, didn't we? At Friendship Rowing Club. As Jen said.
The Men of Staithes included John, and James and Willie Wright, from the old choir, and soon enough Robert Laverick, despite the new repertoire, was a keen member. Me dad had a hip operation and he had two sticks. He used to come up here ready about half an hour before time. And wherever we went there was somebody he knew, from way back. He kept going 'til he died at 79.
He used to do solos as well, in his younger days.
Kept his voice. Oh he loved it, proud of it, you know.
He'd been involved all his life. I remember him saying to me ... as a 16 yr old, wasn't he?
The new style of the choir might have caused something of a stir, but, surprisingly to outsiders, there never seems to have been much of a split between the staunch Staithes methodists and those who sang so lustily in the pubs. This is truly a religion that fits the society - whilst not abandoning its own rigour - like the Catholic church in Italy, where parties are held in the crypt after a solemn Easter mass.
[hymn singing in the pubs] is traditional, that. It doesn't happen so much nowadays, but it used to when I was young. The old choir ... Willie Verrill, was staunch Methodist.
He wouldn't buy a raffle ticket, would he? Me dad wasn't a drinker. A whole host of them, they weren't.
... they didn't always sing hymns but they always sang something connected with the sea, like shanteys and suchlike, nothing lewd, nothing rude, it all had to be ... and I think this is where, I mean you don't get it now because there's only the likes of Willie ... Willie's a treasure, he can lead a singsong anytime, can Willie Wright. He can be in a pub and if needs be, and you want to start a sing, and once Willie gets started, Willie takes an awful lot of stopping, believe you me.
We used to have a singsong every Saturday night, Cod & Lobster, Royal George, but it's gone. Everybody goes up to t'club. [where there is no singing] They have turns on a Saturday night, groups and whatever. Even me dad, he used to like singing and he used to expect a singsong everyday when he went out - "Are we going have a bit of a sing?" and there used to be plenty what would do it. We went on Cod & Lobster outing, two busloads went from Cod & Lobster, you paid so much every week, we had a real good day out at Windermere. Went into a pub and the pianist said "Take ma cap, get on piano will you. How about a singsong?" Windows were all open, even shoppers were stopping to listen. We had a nice few singers then. Not just choirs and people, everybody liked a good sing. We went somewhere, we stood up and sang grace, they said "By gum, we've had this treatment before". Everywhere we go now, like chapels or women's institutes, they say "we'd better have grace, Be present at our table Lord".
Staithes is a small village, set deep into the shores of the North Sea and reeking of the romantic imagery epitomised by those Sutcliffe photographs of an earnest fisherman in his 'coded' guernsey, and women in bonnets, that you see on the walls of any seaside pub from St Ives to St Annes. The women did wear those 'Staithes bonnets' until very recently - they certainly wore them when I visited Staithes in the late sixties. Eva Hampson died two years ago and she was the last person to wear a bonnet. Y'know she was in her 80s and she was photographed over and over, every magazine and newspaper all over the world. We've all got bonnets.
As well as her own bonnet, Jen also has a complete local costume. I've a set of clothes that were me grandma's, like fishing, the skirts, the wraparound petticoat, the skirt, and when they did the Capt Cook museum at Marton they were real pressed for time, I don't know - it was Royalty or somebody opened it. And they said to the WI had anybody any clothes, 'cos they hadn't anything for the Staithes lady. So whoever it was, they sent down to me, and they had my clothes for over six months, so I contacted them, they might lose them. Anyway I did get them back. They had me lilac bonnet, which was the half mourning colour, and apron, I got them back. These clothes were working clothes with a specific purpose, and the men also had their distinctive jerseys, though the fine detail of the distinction may vary slightly in the telling - the different fishing villages like Runswick and Whitby and Scarborough and Filey, they all had a different pattern and that was the reason for it mainly, was that if they were drowned at sea and were washed up they could identify them where they come from by the pattern on their jersey. - The men, you know the jerseys, guernseys, each family at one time had its own pattern, in case they got lost at sea.
The old ways of Staithes have almost completely gone; the Sutcliffe romanticism which looks so pictureque, and yet comes of much hard work and danger. The women, and young girls, no longer have to carry fresh water from the beck, down cobbled streets, on their heads in a 'skeel' - not just any old bucket but a 4 gallon iron-hooped oak bucket, wider at the bottom than at the top, which was painted and cared for with great reverence. There are only rare sightings now of men sitting on the staith (the harbour front) mending nets, yet these romantic images, personified by Tange Verrill - a man who would sing, but was too much of a maverick to join the choir - rather mask the reality of the work that kept the village alive and viable.
This is the background of what Staithes is all about. In 1888 there was a lifeboat disaster here, the fishing fleet which was quite big then, were caught as sea, I mean the lifeboat turned over, some were thrown out, some were picked up. There was one drowned, and when they found him his nails were encrusted with seaweed where he'd been clawing, so he was obviously ... when he washed up he was still alive.
The domestic customs which must adhere to any old community are also now almost gone; only Willie Wright's wife, Lucy, helps the old custom of 'waiting' at funerals, when the village women (waiters), dressed in shawls, would set out tea for the mourners while the service was going on. Nowadays only two women, Lucy and one other, no longer wearing shawls, do this job. Possibly even sadder is the passing of the singing at the grave side. In these days of Monday to Friday jobs at the Skinningrove iron works, the singers are only available on Sundays, when the cost of a funeral doubles - so singing has practically died out. Occasionally individual choir members will still sing at local funerals:
Aye. I carried it on. Striking up, and I used to just use me own judgement for ... I thought "They'll like it if I do". A young woman on there, her dad died and she hadn't a clue what to do and I told her what hymns to sing and I'd forgetten to say we would sing at graveside and me and John Pearson, the bearers, and James, while we were walking I said "I'll tell you what, we'll give them a good send off at graveside. It wasn't Sleep on Beloved, but it was Sweet Bye and Bye, the Land that is Fairer than Day and she shed tears in bucketfuls. I had to go down there as soon as I come back. She said "Do you know, it was remarkable, I got clear of everything. I really couldn't cry when I was in chapel." I said "As long we didn't upset you properly", and ever since then I've been wary ... you know if anybody wants. The undertaker will come down ... they won't have us at graveside. But they allus had it, whether they wanted it or not, they allus had that there singing at graveside. They had funerals on a Saturday and Sunday so that everybody could get there, because they were so busy with fishing and everything. If there's any of t'old ones what's left, we'll go to his funeral and we'll go up and sing. I said to undertaker, he said it's like coming home, "What's thou want?" - "Watch what tha sing tomorrow. Oh yes I've just come down to have a word with you about it. Can you manage to get them there?" I do sometimes try if I can, if it's anybody down in village or owt like that.
In earlier times village funerals were attended by everybody and the choir was an essential part of the proceedings.
That's Tange Verrill ... Frank Verrill. He had a tale for every day. He was a proper character. His funeral, when he was going he said to me "Thou knows what I want, what hymns I want" and I thought - "Aye! When the day comes there'll be such a going on for to get music and everything". Anyway, me and Jennifer, there was somebody else going to play the organ and she was quite strange to it, she would likely have had a job to pick them hymns up which he wanted. They were choir hymns. So I said to Jennifer "What we gonna do?" She said "I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll ring Francis Appleby" - what plays the organ for the Filey Fishermen's choir and he was supposed to be a bearer. She rung him up and he says "I'd rather play t'organ than be a bearer". Jennifer come down. I says "You can get a bearer where you can't get an organist." It went beautiful, we got all leaflets all typed out, and by gum we couldn't have had a bigger funeral. We were bearers and we sung over grave side and everything. He was well known, he was a character.
As the song has it, 'the old ways are changing', and the adult members of the community look back with varying degrees of sentiment and regret, and some forward with less hope than they might:
In the past the sons of the choirs would have followed on, but it's the decline of the chapels, isn't it? ... there's no Sunday School now. When our children were small there was a real good Sunday School, about 20 or 30. But that's all gone. Plus the fact that say about 30 year ago, when we first got married, the young ones were getting married and moving out of the village. They had to because they couldn't afford the prices. Doctors, lawyers and business people were buying these cottages.
Because all that is now long gone and history but it was all part and parcel of the history and heritage of the village. I mean it's ... if you have had the opportunity to read some of the yarns and the stories, you'd see what I mean. Robin Hood's Bay's quite a famous village but it hasn't got the heritage that this village has. I mean we allus provided, as I say, at one time Staithes was a bigger fishing port than Hull, believe it or not. Not in my time, but in days gone by, Staithes had a bigger fishing fleet than Hull or, for that matter, Grimsby had ...
The singing? Well, if you noticed last night, I mean, we aren't getting youngsters in. And you find that wherever go, if you listen to the Welsh choirs, and see them on the telly, you don't see many young ones in. The youngsters of this village have no sense of heritage at all. I mean when I say to some of them sometimes "Do you know where so-and-so is?" "Oh I've never heard of that". I mean things in the village, commonplace. They've lost ... with none of them following the sea. I mean really and truly we all started to get into this singing business through going to Sunday School. Now there isn't a Sunday School in Steers now. When I was a kid, and a long time after I was a kid every chapel had a full Sunday school. As I say, the big 'uns got their turn at night, but those kids'd let it go, give it some welly during the day. They were brought up on the system ...
... to refurbish our War Memorial, because it was getting neglected. And typical of this village, within 6 weeks we raised £1600 to put railing round it. The choir donated £200 towards it. You see what gets me, you get the kids now that's in there with their cans, 'cos there's a couple of seats in, and they've no respect at all, they just chuck the cans down, chuck the fag ends down, and maybe some of them are smoking summat they shouldn't be smoking. I went in one night when we were going down for choir practice and they were in there and I tried to talk to them about what it meant, and I might as well be talking to that bunch of flowers. They've no sense of heritage, respect for history, even though some of them had names on there who were akin to them. I suppose you find that all over the place now.
Oh yes! This is the blooming trouble! They sometimes wonder what you're on about half the time. If I go out for a drink I get talking to anybody I still use me dialect. Sometimes they're frightened to talk to you, 'cos they can't understand you. But as I say, everything is gone.
Jen got a ladies' choir together, didn't you?
Yeah, to do with Sunday School, til they got older and then the mothers, y'know, we did a bit.
[It's always been a men's thing hasn't it?]
Yeah, but like you were saying before, about the lads not following on, the girls did, didn't they? To a certain extent.
Yes, well it's part of the chapel, they stick more to the services and things, don't they? The women. I liked Sunday School work. I wouldn't attempt it now, it's a different kettle of fish, children now, to what it was then. But Natalie ... they got older, I mean she's 29, so when they were getting Sunday School, I said "Well how about getting together towards doing concerts?" So like Easter and Christmas we used to do concerts. Jean Beadle that plays the organ, her husband and John used to do scenery and Irene was interested in costumes and they used to do some lovely things, didn't they? 40 pence including supper.
All that was I was told indicates a very strong and tenacious community identity; if the choir were any yardstick, one could almost believe that the lack of traditional industries and customs had in no way hastened the decline in this identity. And yet John Pearson says that there are no young men showing an interest, and of course, with the rise in house prices and the decline in local employment, there are fewer young men in the village today.
Tom Hall's worries about the future, and the lack of interest shown by the young, were sadly underlined for me on a visit to the museum where, buried in a detailed contemporary school project on Churches in Staithes, a local schoolgirl had written off the choir thus:
c) Sundays were very strict, sombre days. Children always wore their best clothes. There was no playing. They visited relations instead and went to chapel three times on Sundays. The Bible was well read and feared. When it was time for the evening service the people gathered on the staith. They sang hymns and then walked in procession along the High Street singing hymns. When they reached their chapel they turned off, still singing.
d) The Staithes men's choir has continued the tradition of singing these hymns.
e) The meaning of the word church .................
Captain Tom Hall - now in his mid seventies, Capt. Tom is the last remaining man in the village to have been a ship's commander: In my childhood there was probably twenty to thirty full-time fishing boats going out of here. We had three occupations: you either went fishing, you went into the mines, or we went to sea, that was going in the Merchant Navy, not the Royal Navy. He went to sea as a cabin boy at 16. He sailed with many other 'Steers' men, and apparently they often sang lustily whilst they were at sea, but he was never a member of the choir, because he was so rarely home. When the 'new' choir started in 1985, Jennifer asked the recently retired Tom to act as chairman, the MC: "Well, I haven't done owt like this", but because her father and mother were part and parcel of my childhood I said "Well, if you think I can do the job". He is inordinately proud of his village and its history, as well as the choir and the work it does for charity.
Jennifer Pearson - daughter of Robert Laverick, founder member of the earlier choir and superintendent of Wesley Chapel Sunday School. Jennifer, in her fifties, no longer has children living at home, and has long since retired from Sunday School teaching. She keeps in touch with community life through her job as the doctor's receptionist, her lifelong friendships with older village residents, her membership of the chapel, and her work with the choir. She does all the admin. for the choir, which includes keeping a record of the programme performed at each booking, so that she has an idea of what the audience likes when they are re-booked. She is also the choir's principal, and very vigorous, accompanist; the other being Joe Skilbeck, who accompanies his own compositions on piano or accordion.
John Pearson - Turner/shiftworker at Skinningrove Ironworks. In his fifties, born and raised in Carlin How (where the ironworks is based). I was born in that row of houses, and the works are just behind that. That's where I work, that's where me dad worked, all me brothers. I've four brothers and three sisters. And they've all worked there at some time or another. He has lived in Staithes since he married Jennifer some 30 years ago. Having been in choirs all his life, he started the Staithes Men in 1985 because he 'missed the old choir', but being conductor is hard work, and not a job for the fainthearted. Jennifer says - If he wasn't what he is, you know a conductor, it wouldn't have stayed the course, he's held it together - the peacemaker, it's like treading on eggshells ... I think there's a measure of strength in it as well, isn't there? To keep people together.
Willie Wright - very recently retired, was born in Staithes and has always been very interested and involved in its history and its music. He first went to work, as a school-leaver, for the builder, Robert Laverick. He has worked in all the local industries including fishing and potash mining, and the job that took him up to retirement was 16 years as the Staithes roadsweeper, so his involvement with his home has been absolute. His house is a shrine to the village, absolutely full of the postcards he collects, beautiful models of cobles (the local fishing boats) which he rescues and renovates, photographs, and fittings and ephemera from cottages, which might otherwise go to antique shops, and out of the village. His brother James sang in the 'old choir' whilst still at school, and Willie was a very long term member before the birth of the Staithes Men. Apart from formal choir singing, he is always the man for a song. Tom Hall told me You don't get it now because there's only the likes of Willie. Willie's a treasure, he can lead a singsong anytime, can Willie Wright. He can be in a pub and if needs be, and you want to start a sing, and once Willie gets started, Willie takes an awful lot of stopping, believe you me.
Danny Stradling - 10.11.97
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