Vaughan Williams, Kings Lynn – and rulers who falter

On a visit to King’s Lynn in 1905, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams met with locals who sang him traditional songs. This is the story of one of them.

Ralph Vaughan Williams - Kings Lynn Hymn
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Kings Lynn Hymn. Photo by James Bacon and Sons, Leeds on Wikimedia Commons

Many of the tunes sung to hymns in Christian churches are named after places.  The reason for the naming sometimes yields an interesting story — as here, with the tune ‘King’s Lynn’.

A hymn for socialists 

O God of earth and altar, 
Bow down and hear our cry, 
Our earthly rulers falter, 
Our people drift and die; 
The walls of gold entomb us, 
The swords of scorn divide, 
Take not thy thunder from us, 
But take away our pride.   

The words are by poet and journalist  G.K.Chesterton (1874-1936). They appear as number 562 in the English hymnal of 1906. The English hymnal was a hymnbook edited by the left-leaning Percy Dearmer (1867-1936) and a number of other clergy dissatisfied with the 1904 revision of the widely used Hymns ancient and modern.

‘O God of earth and altar’ did service early in political protest, for instance at a meeting of the Church Socialist League in support of the 1912 miners’ strike. Chesterton told that meeting that the trouble with England was that it had not had a civil war for so long. Looking at his audience he thought one might be possible that night. The meeting’s fervour extended to delivering a message to the Archbishop of Canterbury, singing the hymn in procession as they did so.

I don’t know what the audience made of the rest of the hymn’s words, shaped less by socialism than by Chesterton’s fantasy of the Middle Ages.  Not everyone would like to live in the society he envisages, of “prince and priest and thrall”.  

Katie Palmer Heathman‘s 2017 paper describes in sympathetic detail how the hymnal’s editors navigated different perceptions of people and society and nation. She concludes, “Despite some level of idealisation, The English Hymnal and the folk revival with which it was linked were culturally progressive in that they actively championed the cultural forms of the common people, celebrating both their aesthetic and social importance.”

A folk song about a poacher

The tune given in the English hymnal has the title ‘King’s Lynn’ and is described there as an English traditional melody.  The hymnbook’s musical preface states that this and other “versions of traditional melodies are the copyright of the musical editor”, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The statement applies to twelve tunes out of the 700-odd in the book as a whole.

Van Diemens Land (Tasmania)
Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Photo by Earle Augustus on Wikimedia Commons

He first heard this tune in North Street, King’s Lynn, from an elderly fisherman, Joe Anderson. It was a version slightly different from the hymn tune, and it carried the folk song ‘Young Henry the poacher‘ – the lament of a Warwickshire man transported to Tasmania.  Or, as it was called then, Van Diemen’s Land.  

The folklorist Roy Palmer traced the song to the 1830s, conjecturing that it might be a sequel to the earlier song ‘Van Dieman’s Land’.  Both seem to have been a response to 1828 legislation that led to stiffer sentences for poachers.

The songs aren’t a protest against the system. ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ urges its hearers never to poach again.  In ‘Young Henry the poacher’, Henry berates the bad company that beguiled him from his parents’ good learning.  He praises the Sydney gentleman who has taken him on as an indentured book-keeper, and his fellow-servant Rosanna, a convict from Wolverhampton.  The song ends by describing a situation that could power an entire novel.

The songs aren’t happy.  Katie Palmer Heathman suggests that the poachers’ transportation far from their loved ones, and their chaining together for their work, add a layer of meaning to the hymn’s “bind all our lives together”, for those who know both hymn and song.

A composer among fisherfolk

Joe Anderson sang ‘Young Henry the poacher’ to Vaughan Williams on 9 January 1905.  The composer paid him three home visits, during a week in the town.  Details of the itinerary are in Alan Helsdon’s Vaughan Williams in Norfolk, together with this description of his method:

“Vaughan Williams had a good system in operation.  He noted the tune on the left-hand page, using the first and fourth staves, which left staves two, three, five and six empty for variants which could thus be written immediately under their originals.  The words, if any, went on the right hand page, which meant he could always come back to a song and add the words later and there would be space for them next to the melody.”

The week seems to have been electrifying.  Using the manuscript method Alan Helsdon describes, with no recording machinery, Vaughan Williams gathered 86 songs, or 77 songs with 9 variants.  So he heard both ‘Young Henry the poacher’ from Joe Anderson and ‘Van Dieman’s Land’ from Thomas Donger.  According to Alan Helsdon, he paid his informants in shillings.  I’m not sure if this was a shilling per singer, or per session, or per song.

Joe Anderson’s three sessions yielded twelve songs – the most for any single contributor. Alan Helsdon’s view is that they were also the strongest set of tunes from the Norfolk visits.

I haven’t heard of the singers signing any agreements with Vaughan Williams regarding the use to be made of the songs.  Katie Palmer Heathman tells how another song collector’s informant reported changing feelings on this point – ambivalent at first, more positive in later years as this use was bound up with memories of a departed friend.

True's Yard Fishfolkd Museum, Kings Lynn.
True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum, Kings Lynn. Photo by LeMonde1 on Flickr

What’s happened since

The tiny North Street house where Joe Anderson sang disappeared long ago.  Some idea of it can be gained from the fishermen’s houses now incorporated into the True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum on that street.  Vaughan Williams incorporated the tune of ‘Young Henry the poacher’ into his Norfolk rhapsody number 2, but that is another story.

He returned to King’s Lynn in 1952, to lecture on East Anglian folk song to the second King’s Lynn Festival.  Local historian Dr Paul Richards told me that the town is extremely proud of its association with Vaughan Williams, and plans to devote its Festival in 2022 to him, on account of the 150th anniversary of his birth.

The song acquired a further layer of meaning when the band Iron Maiden incorporated that first verse into their 1983 track ‘Revelations‘.  Lead singer Bruce Dickinson’s story of his fondness for hymns is quoted in Chesterton’s Wikipedia biography.

My personal testimony is this.  I rediscovered the hymn in March 2020.  Immediately it became, for me, the Lockdown 1 signature tune. 

I sought information about it online.  I downloaded Alan Helsdon’s information, devoured the information — feeling almost the excitement that Vaughan Williams felt during that week in King’s Lynn in 1905

We might not want prince and thrall.  But in these days of government incompetence and corruption, Chesterton’s hymn is one that continues to sing remarkably well.

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