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Len Mullenger:


By the nature of their job those who worked on canals and waterways had little opportunity of listening to music, even though from the mid-19th century onwards concerts did take place in waterside settlements - and I take the Don Navigation as my example - such as Thorne (1), Stainforth, Conisbrough, which had a brass band from the 1850s and may have had one from 1839 which is very early for a purely brass ensemble (2), and Mexborough. The boatmen on inland waterways may well have sung whilst at work, as did so many labourers during the 19th century, not least the crews of sailing ships which provided for us the sub-genre of the sea shanty; and in our own day seamen contribute notably to the sum of choral singing and whole choirs - of which the Filey Fishermen's Choir is but one example - are made up of them. But crews of Humber keels and the like were much smaller than those of ocean-going vessels and there seems to be little or no record of "canal waterway specific" shanties or similar folk-type songs. Efforts made to provide religious facilities for the boatmen (3) would perhaps ensure that some of them sang hymns on Sundays.

Meanwhile there are many examples we can quote of music associated with British canals and navigable rivers. Arguably the most famous is Handel's Water Music, a corpus of nearly an hour's orchestral music designed to accompany a royal trip, or perhaps trips, up the Thames in 1717. An opera composed by Charles Dibdin entitled The Waterman, was composed late in the 18th century and remained popular, if Doncaster's theatre bills are any guide, for around a century. Over the years many songs have underlined the importance of our inland waterways. Some are specific to particular waterways. The Old River Don is a traditional ballad, but I am unable to say whether it was actually sung by boatmen on the Don Navigation. The Manchester Ship Canal's opening in 1834 was marked by a specially composed Song of the Ship Canal, words and music by one H C Miller; the much later Flanders and Swann number The Gondolier is not, as might be assumed, about Venice but is another song inspired by the Manchester Ship Canal. John Ireland's song The Towing Path arose out of knowledge of the Thames at Pangbourne. Another Ireland song is entitled The Ferry and it is one of a large number of British songs celebrating (river) ferries, others being: Twickenham Ferry, a song popular in late Victorian concerts, the partsong (or "glee") The Ferry Maiden, by Alfred Gaul, a Victorian composer of short choral pieces popular with small choirs, a round, Ferry Boat and the more recent songs The Ferryman (David Lord: unison voices), Ferryman Joe (David Richards), Ferry Ahoy! (A H Brewer, once organist of Gloucester Cathedral) and Ferry Me Across The Water (two settings. by Charles Stanford and Graham Peel). At the Ferry was apparently both a song and a waltz for dancing, actually played at a Doncaster ball in 1881; another waltz, Ferryman John, guided the steps of Doncaster ballgoers in 1892.

Other vocal pieces relevant to this paper are Alec Rowley's partsong The Bargee and W H Squire's ballad Lighterman Tom. Of orchestral music one may quote the four movements of the suite Scenes From the Humber (Petuarin Patrol, Spurn Point Elegy and more especially Lincoln Castle Intermezzo, depicting the paddle-steamer ferry of that name linking the Humber's north and south shores, complete with its embarkation siren and Humber Keel Hornpipe apparently inspired by a painting of the first, ever regatta race of the Humber keels, far back in the 19th century). The suite was composed in 1980 by Anthony Hedges for long a Lecturer in Music at the University of Hull. Hal Evans, a British light music composer active either side of 1950 wrote (inter alia) incidental music for a BBC radio production of The Water Gypsies, whose score includes celesta, glockenspiel and barge siren.

Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend centres around the river Thames; its recent (1998) evocative adaptation for BBC Television was matched by equally atmospheric music by Adrian Johnston. But many pieces of music celebrate the Thames: George Dyson's cantata Sweet Thames Run Softly, Michael Head's song The Estuary. Christopher le Fleming's orchestral Suite London River, the lively music written for the film Three Men in a Boat in 1956 by John Addison and doubtless many more.

The topics touched on here are waters largely untrawled by previous writers; do let me know of any omissions.

Philip L Scowcroft  1998

1. See my Thorne Music and Musicians (Thorne Local History Society Occasional Paper No. 16). In 1862 Thorne had a brass band, one of many, in 1863 a drum and fife band.

2. Transport to a Brass Band Contest in Rawcliffe in 1861 was partly supplied by steamer up the river Aire.

3. See e.g. Charles Hadfield, The Canal Age, (David & Charles, 1968), Chapter 9.

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