In 1898 in the small town of Rottingdean in Sussex in South England, the landlord of the Black Horse Inn, a man by the name of Thomas Copper, and his brother James, were summoned to Northgate House, one of the grandest houses in the area, and one which was owned by Edward Carson QC, MP.
Carson was a brilliant Irish lawyer who had known Oscar Wilde when they were both students at Trinity College Dublin. Several years before the events of the evening that I am about to describe, Carson and Wilde met again when the former was engaged by the Marquess of Queensbury to fight the libel action that Wilde had brought against him. On hearing that Carson was to oppose him in the courts, Wilde remarked “No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend”. This rueful joke proved to be prescient. Carson’s defence activity not only destroyed Wilde’s case, but led to the criminal prosecution that was to see Wilde imprisoned for two years and then exiled.
In subsequent years, Carson was to become the leading light of the Unionist cause in Northern Ireland and to hold a number of offices of state. He would become Sir Edward and then Lord Carson. In 1935 he was one of the very few non-royal personages ever to be given a state funeral.
Notwithstanding Carson’s significant influence on the cultural and political events of his time, he is merely a tangential figure in the story that I want to tell. The Copper brothers had been invited to Northgate House not by Carson himself, but by one of his house guests, a lady by the name of Mrs Kate Lee.
Mrs Lee, at the time aged 40, was from a respectable middle class Nottinghamshire family. She however became fascinated by music and even began to train to be a singer at the Royal College of Music. A stage career, however, eluded her. She married and had two children. But music would not let her go, and it was her interest in traditional music that prompted her to invite the Copper brothers up to Edward Carson’s house. James and Thomas Copper were known locally as fine singers with a repertoire of songs that they learned from their father, and grandfather. When they arrived at Northgate House, Mrs Lee invited them to sit at a table, on which was set a bottle of whisky, a jug of water and two glasses. Mrs Lee sat opposite, with pencil and paper and bade them drink and sing. She later described the experience:
They were so proud of their Sussex songs and sang them with an enthusiasm grand to hear, and when I questioned them as to how many they thought they could sing, they said they thought about “half a hundred.” You had only to start either of them on the subject of the song and they commenced at once.
“Oh, Mr Copper, can you sing me a love song, a sea song, or a plough song?” It did not matter what it was they looked at each other significantly, and with perfectly grave faces off they would go. Mr Thomas Copper’s voice was as flexible as a bird’s. He always sang the under part of the song like a sort of obbligato, impossible at first hearing to put down…
It’s hardly surprising that Kate Lee was unable to set down words and music with her busy pencil on first hearing. Indeed the Copper brothers were invited back to the house on a few more occasions so that she could get the songs down properly. The Copper brothers’ songs were often metrically irregular, and were sung in harmony. So fascinated was Mrs Lee with the “Copper-full of old Sussex songs” that she’d taken down that she annotated them and published them in volume 1, no 1 of the journal of the Folk Song Society that she was setting up with some friends. These friends included the likes of Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood (who was a member of the famous piano-manufacturing family). In recognition of their contribution the Copper brothers were invited to join this illustrious group as honorary members.
We can readily imagine how impressed, even awestruck, the Copper family would have been by their association with these rich and influential personages. How proud they must have been that the quality of their musicianship was being recognised in this way.
Not a bit of it. In fact the incident was hardly spoken of in Rottingdean and was soon forgotten. The Coppers continued, however, to value their songs and the tradition they represented. James Copper wrote down some of the family songs in later life, and his sons John and James continued the family singing tradition, and noted down even more of the canon. With the rapid social changes taking place at the turn of the 20th century and then the trauma of the Great War, they recognised that they were custodians of something precious and increasingly rare (though I doubt they themselves would have put it in those terms!)
After the Second World War, there was another wave of interest in traditional music and the Copper family were discovered anew. By this time, the next generation of singers included not only John and James but a further generation – John’s son Ron and, most significantly, James’s son Bob.
Bob Copper, who died just ten years ago, was a singer, poet, painter and historian. He collated and recorded much of the detail that we now know about the remarkable Copper family. By the 1950s the Copper family were seen as a kind of living Rosetta Stone by the folk song revivalists, and they were to feature in broadcasts and concerts all over the world, even appearing at the Royal Albert Hall.
At first, though, Bob, despite having become the family historian was completely unaware of the role played by Kate Lee. It was his father, James – or Jim – who made the connection. Bob recounted:
I didn’t know anything about this until after we done our first broadcast in 1950. Then Frank Collinson [a song collector, who became musical director of the BBC’s Country Magazine programme] came down and noted down all the other songs Dad knew […W]e’re sitting in the cottage and [Frank] said “By the way, Jim,” he said, “Do you think you are any relation of the two Mr Coppers … who were noted down – gave songs to a Mrs Lee?” And the old man says, “Yeh, well, that’ll be my old dad and my uncle Tom” […] But what I like to point out is that Dad, Uncle John, Ron and I kept the songs alive ‘cause we loved them, not because our grandfather had been noted down for the Folk Song Society – we didn’t know it existed until 1951.
To a music lover and closet romantic like me, this story is poignant, even magical. I’d love to know more about the friendship between the obviously sensitive and artistic Kate Lee and the august and forbidding Edward Carson. Was Carson interested in her folk song researches, or was he merely indulging her, out of a sense of the duties of hospitality? And what did the Copper brothers make of the whole thing? That they were largely unimpressed by their brush with the great and the good is perhaps not all that surprising when we consider the kind of men they were, and the nature of the society in Rottingdean at the time. Bob Copper has remarked that there is something in the Copper family make-up which drives its members to “better themselves”. In the case of James and Tom, they both found time to attend classes in the village, despite having to go to work even before they were teenagers, and having to pay a penny for each class they attended. So they both learned to read and write at a time when literacy among farming people was still fairly unusual. They clearly had a sense of self-worth. And this might well have been redoubled by the knowledge they had of their place in their rural community. In 1898, Rottingdean and the surrounding areas had become popular as a place for “second homes”, particularly for artistic and literary types. Rudyard Kipling moved in, as did Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Alfred Noyes. In 1906 Hilaire Belloc grumbled about how fine Rottingdean had been “before the aesthetes turned it pure Cockney twenty years ago”. Leaving aside Belloc’s snooty (if amusing) remark, it seems worth pointing out that, while the likes of Edward Carson were “blow ins”, the Copper family had been a respected presence in the area since at least the 16th century. Forelock tugging was clearly not deemed necessary.
I was fortunate in being able to see, and hear, the great Bob Copper a year or so before he died in 2004. At Cecil Sharp House in London (the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which has now subsumed Kate Lee’s Folk Song Society) I listened to him on stage with Peggy Seeger. The two old stagers swapped reminiscences and, for every song that Bob remembered from his Sussex youth, Peggy had an Appalachian variant that she remembered. I couldn’t believe my luck in being in their presence. And the Copper Family sang. With his children and grandchildren joining in, Bob told us proudly that his family had now been singing the same songs for at least seven generations. Little wonder that these Coppers are un-cowed in the presence of the likes of Sir Edward Carson.
Kate Lee did not make audio recordings of the Coppers that she met, but this, from 1955, with Bob and his brother Ron singing could well approximate the sounds that Mrs Lee heard. The ninth verse, with its reference to a “boy with a tractor” was written and added by Bob’s father, Jim.
You can hear in this the kind of idiosyncrasies of rhythm that must have been difficult for an academic musician like Mrs Lee to note down.
I wonder whether Kate Lee knew about the Copper family before heading down to Rottingdean. Perhaps she got herself invited down to stay with Edward Carson in order to meet them. Or maybe it was pure coincidence that she was staying with her friend and then heard about these remarkable local singers. Either way, those whisky-lubricated meetings at the end of the 19th century are the stuff of legend.
As for Kate Lee, she died far too young, alas, in 1904. Her maiden name, by the way, was Spooner. It seems that she was the first cousin of the Reverend Spooner who gave his name to the spoonerism. I love these odd connections. The oddest connections, though, are with Carson, Kate and the Coppers. Fate throws up these moments. As the musicologist Vic Gammon points out, their meeting was unlikely to happen: “There is a myth … that late Victorian and Edwardian England was swarming with folk song collectors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The significant collectors were very few in number and they made contact with a tiny percentage of the rural population, and an even tinier number of the urban population … When Kate Lee ‘discovered’ the Coppers she knew she found something special”.
I leave the last word to the special Bob Copper, who sums up perfectly why we love music so much:
I love poetry, but I think music is the most violent reaction. It physically buggers me up, or lifts me up and gets a light frothy mood … But I can still be sent by Beethoven’s Piano Concertos and things. I can turn myself inside out. Silly old bugger really.