Something I consider an adjacent interest to my love of family history is my love of folk history from my ancestral counties. Like many people, I’ve wanted to find a spiritual connection to my heritage and the beliefs and traditions of that culture to find relief from modern life. Through learning about my family history and where we come from, I have found a deeper connection to the stories, traditions, and culture of historic England and Scotland. This has increased my sense of belonging, and I don’t feel the need to go looking for it from other cultures when their traditions aren’t necessarily meant for me. Through researching the songs and tales passed down through generations, I feel like it strengthens the ties to my ancestors, and gives me a deeper understanding of my origins, and the wider social history that informed my family’s lives.
What sparked this interest were a few lines from the Derby Daily Telegraph about some annual dinners of the Derby Police Cricket Club, from 29th October 1906,
“…The speeches were interspersed with songs by Messrs. C. V. Payne, H. Gledhill, and R. Wellburn, Sergeant Wild and Plant, and Police-constable Cox, Mr. Vineer presiding at the piano.”
From 2nd November 1911,
“The contributors to the musical programme included Messrs. W. R. Wright, C. V. Payne, J. Humphreys, Bert Beldridge, and A. E. Goodhead, Inspector Wild, Police-constables Smith and Hammond, and Mr. C. A. Olliverre, who favoured with a recitation.”
And another from 22nd October 1912,
“An excellent musical programme was gone through, those contributing including Messrs. Bert Clay (violin), W. R. Wright (bass), V. Payne (bass), F. Howard Booth (comedian), Bert Castle (comedian), the Musical Middies, Inspector Wilde, and others, with Mr. W. Sykes at the piano.”
Sergeant, later Inspector Walter Wild, my 3rd great grandfather, had sung to piano accompaniment at some of these dinners. Not just once, but multiple times!
What songs would he have sung? What songs did he know? Audio recording was developed during his lifetime; the gramophone was developed when he was in his 20s, between 1887 and 1893. So perhaps in his later years he would have known a wider variety of songs, but what about in his childhood? His father, Daniel, was a Derby railway worker, who’d served for six years with the 15th King’s Hussars. What songs might Daniel have whistled or sung around the home that he’d learnt from his occupations? What stories did these songs tell?
I started a journey of reading and learning about the songs and folk tales of Derbyshire that my family might have known. The first book I went to was “Derbyshire Folk Tales” by Pete Castle. Granted by the time the tales were written down in his book the details would have been warped and changed through many a retelling, but the essence of the stories, I feel, are what matters. I do recommend this series of county folk tale books from The History Press; they’re all written by different authors, so if you don’t enjoy one you may well enjoy another.
Instantly, I was familiar with the tale of the Derby Ram, a ginormous tup with feet measuring an acre and horns reaching to the moon, whose blood flooded the streets when he was butchered. Surely one many Derby folk know well. On further reading, this song had been written about in 1867 in “The Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire” by Llewellyn Jewitt, who claimed Derby folk had been fond of their ram for at least a century by that time.
With Walter’s father being from Wirksworth, less than two miles from Cromford, he may well have heard the legend of Crooker, the murderous ash tree who claimed lives along the road to Cromford on stormy nights.
As Derbyshire neighbours Nottinghamshire, there’s a chance many of my ancestors knew the tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, particularly Little John who’s said to be a Derbyshire lad too. I visited the old Yew at Doveridge many a time as a child, where Robin was said to have married Marian.
Did my ag lab ancestors sing of Ole Yaddie Hughes and his cowd stringy pie? Did the miners or their families ever sing of the six jolly miners or working for four pence a day? Learning the songs and stories that passed through my ancestral counties is an ongoing project, and I’ll never know for sure if I’ve come across the songs Walter sang at those annual cricket dinners. However, I’m quite sure that I’ve come across folk stories and songs that I at least know a version of that my ancestors would have known for generations before a version got to me.
You don’t have to enjoy reading to learn folk tales either, there are many podcasts and YouTube videos of folk tales and songs. You could use it as a talking point in your local communities – there are always stories to be told in pubs – or learn them through attending folk-oriented open mic nights or other music events. However you choose, I hope you feel a little more inspired to learn about the folk tales and music from your region.
- Celtic Myths and Legends Podcast by Siân Esther Powell – Covers the folklore of the 6 celtic nations, Brittany, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Siân’s also on Instagram and TikTok @celtic_sian.
- Duke of Avalon – YouTube channel covering folklore from the UK, Ireland, Isle of Man and Iceland.
- If you have Welsh ancestry, I wanted to recommend Mhara Starling. She’s on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok @mhara_starling and she covers Welsh history, folklore and magic.
- Shonaleigh – If you’re interested in storytelling and oral history, please read about Shonaleigh and the Jewish oral tradition of the Drut’syla. Shonaleigh’s stories are a truly magical experience to hear, and you can learn of her upcoming virtual storytelling events through her Facebook.
Do you have any folk songs or stories to share? I’d love to know your experience with folklore in the comments or on social media, @TheHiddenBranch or directly @DerbyGenes.