Madding Crowd (read more)

As tuneful a thing as I ever heard

Thomas Hardy’s words could be about a Hampshire group that has honoured village musicians for 45 years. When Christina Pritchard won a medal for her poem “They who would valiant be ‘gainst Covid-19” it did not need a music degree to guess the hymn on which it was based. But it proved too costly to get permission to use the music, set by Vaughan Williams for the English Hymnal.

The solution was to go back to the same song that Vaughan Williams had adapted originally, Our captain cried: ‘All Hands!’, sung in Fareham by George Smith in August 1906 to the collector, George B. Gardiner. He was a contemporary of Cecil Sharp, the famous folk song revivalist and founder of the English Folk Dance Society.

It was a time when collecting folk songs was in vogue and there was considerable competition between collectors. Gardiner, a Scotsman, made a point of visiting Hampshire, especially the New Forest, as the county had not yet been tackled by anyone.

The fruits of such collectors are now well known to folk singers. In 1909, Gardiner himself published Folk Songs of Hampshire. More recently, Bob Copper, at one time a pub landlord at Cheriton, and from a celebrated folk family, collected many others, whilst John Paddy Browne wrote  Folk Songs of Old Hampshire.

George Smith’s song collected from Fareham by Gardiner inspired Mike Bailey, musical director of the ensemble The Madding Crowd, to produce a version that suited the poem.

He explained: “OUP wanted £50 just to handle the request for permission, plus probably more in royalties. So, I went back to the original and made my own version of the music for Christina’s poem. I altered the rhythm to make it easier for us to sing and provided harmonisation in four parts for our singers and band. You can hear it on our website, www.maddingcrowd.org.”

The Madding Crowd is based on the village bands that once regularly played in many a country church, as depicted in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.  The fate in the story of the west gallery musicians of the Mellstock  church choir is typical of many others in the second half of the nineteenth century, as they were progressively replaced by harmonium and organ.

Evidence of the instruments and music played by village bands is relatively rare, but there are several important relics in Hampshire. Some groups used the serpent, a well-named instrument: an example hangs in Owlesbury church. It is played in The Madding Crowd and appears in its logo.

Important traces of village music are also found in the Hampshire Record Office. These include two music manuscripts and a rare description of a band at Bramley, near Basingstoke. Both were written by members of the Clift family, who farmed the area for 350 years. Another manuscript book from Hannington, near Kingsclere, contains more than 100 tunes.

The most significant survival, however, is probably a book of songs collected by Thomas Andrews, who was born in Somerset.  For a while he was a farm bailiff at Barton Farm, Winchester, living in Hyde and worshipping at St Bartholomew’s church. Then he and his family emigrated  to Australia, where the book stayed until 1992, when his descendants donated it to Winchester Cathedral Library. The Hampshire Record Office also holds a copy.

Mike said: “The Andrews manuscript is a neatly written collection of mostly psalms and hymn tunes, begun in 1839 and containing about 126 typical west gallery tunes, mostly in four parts. Many of these tunes were known to village church bands and choirs all over England, who copied them from printed books and each other. They are eminently performable to good effect.”

Some tunes were written by church organists, including James Kent, born in Winchester and a chorister, who played for both College and Cathedral in the mid-eighteenth century. 

Mike’s interest in early church music started whilst working at IBM Hursley, with serpent player Eric Hedger and “kindred spirits”, including the Rev. Canon David Slater. The first gig by The Madding Crowd (then called the Victorian Village Band and Choir) was on July 6, 1975, in Swanmore.  Mike joined two years later, when the group required a flute player.

He now leads The Madding Crowd, which over the years has presented a wide range of musical performances. These include treading in the footsteps of Thomas Hardy’s Mellstock choir at Stinsford, a re-enactment of a village wedding of about 1820, wassailing and much else. The group recently celebrated its 45th anniversary with a Zoom session, singing some of their favourite pieces gathered from years of research and performance.

The Madding Crown was one of the earliest of the 30 or so similar groups that now perform around the country. In 1990, led by celebrated folk musician and dancer Rollo Woods, more than a hundred enthusiasts met at Ironbridge, Shropshire, to found the West Gallery Music Association. Now a registered charity, it has 450 members and is open to all.

In 2000, Mike was the first elected chair of the WGMA and at the moment is serving a second term. He has on several occasions been elected its musical director.