Bob Copper, born in 1915 was the last of a generation of Coppers who were directly involved in farming the land around the Sussex village of Rottingdean. Leaving school at thirteen years of age he was nonetheless involved with all the jobs on the farm that a boy could manage. Soon the Great Depression made itself felt even in this rural backwater and the large farms were sold. With no further agricultural employment, he took to working variously as lather boy in a barber’s shop, beach lifeguard, Lifeguard in the Household Cavalry, Coroner’s Officer in Worthing during WW2 and finally, publican until his retirement. His real claim to fame was in none of these things, varied as they were, it was in the role of parish historian and bearer of a unique family folk song tradition. Generations of Coppers had been renowned locally as harmony singers of repute, but it may be argued that three, the last being Bob, had the most influence in the continuing survival of the tradition into the modern age â€“ James (Brasser) Copper b.1845, Jim Copper b.1882, and finally Bob Copper b.1915.
Bob Copper’s genius was in recognising that he was witnessing the dying embers of a way of life barely unchanged for a thousand years. The introduction, post WW1, of mechanisation to the farm spelt the end of horses and oxen as means of power and pace which meant the decline of the scythe, the sickle, the flail and the manifold skills necessary to maintain an essentially medieval system of agriculture â€“ as he himself put it “every ploughman was expected to ‘plow his acre’, which was exactly the same as he had done in Saxon Times according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle”. By interviewing his father and others of that generation, Bob was able to record in precise detail their working lives, and methods and memories of a rapidly disappearing society. Inextricably entwined in this were the old songs carried down the centuries largely in mens’ minds, for many lacked the facility to read and write, these too were precious and fragile links which had clung on tenaciously largely by the determination of people like Jim Copper and his father. Bob realised that here lay a precious tradition, a collection of rural songs once held dear by many villagers but now extant only within his own family. Together with his cousin Ron, the two vowed that they should not be forgotten. Post WW2, the BBC became interested in this rural music and indeed instituted a nationwide collecting scheme in an attempt to preserve what was thought to have been an extinct tradition in England; Bob was recruited as a collector in Sussex and Hampshire and the magnificent results of his labours are now lodged with The National Sound Archive and at The BBC. It was largely as a result of Bob being a countryman himself and being able to talk exactly the same language to country people that made him so successful at rooting out these gems.
The 1950s and 60s were largely taken up with running a social club at his home in nearby Peacehaven, but Bob, a polymath to his fingertips, took to painting, drawing, writing poetry, and gardening in what spare time he had as a counterpoint to the pressures of running a licenced establishment. Whilst serving as a police officer during the war Bob had met writer Nancy Price and had shown her with some reluctance some of his early verse â€“ she encouraged him and to his surprise, his work was published in America. He vowed that he should make good the promise he made to himself that his father’s memories of village life should be properly recorded. The result of this was to become Heinemann’s best selling book of 1971 and The Robert Pitman Award-winning, ‘A Song for Every Season’. What made the book so different and so appealing were the inclusion of the words and music of some sixty Copper Family songs. There followed a documentary film about the family from Humphrey Burton’s ‘Aquarius’ series and a definitive four-album LP record set from Leader Records. Soon Heinemann were wanting more from their prodigious new talent and he followed his initial success with ‘Songs and Southern Breezes’ largely an account of his BBC collecting experiences. Following that came ‘Early to Rise’ which was a book about his childhood life in and around rural Rottingdean. Although by now he was retired, Bob had little chance to indulge overmuch in the craft of writing as his wife Joan’s health was declining. He nonetheless managed to teach himself to read music and bought an English Concertina upon which to practice.
Following Joan’s death in 1983, Bob eventually re-joined a now less restricted world and was in huge demand as guest performer at festivals, folk clubs and as a lecturer to U3A and historical societies. He was determined to champion his lifelong hero Hilaire Belloc and researched, wrote and published a book chronicling Belloc’s rather mysterious and symbolic 1902 walk across Sussex, ‘The Four Men’ which Bob had himself had enacted in 1950 and again with his son John, son-in-law Jon and an old friend as the real-life four men in 1984. A book of his poetry was published and also a collection of essays upon his beloved county entitled ‘Bob Copper’s Sussex’. Published posthumously, this time by his family, was what was to be the final instalment of his autobiography ‘A Man of No Consequence’.
At the age of nearly eighty Bob was invited with the family to tour in the USA â€“ he continued to do this at least once a year and sometimes more, for the next ten years, eventually visiting over twenty US states and making friends everywhere he went. He passed away in 2004 following a final trip to the ‘States but was well enough to receive the MBE from Prince Charles just four days prior to his passing. His memorial service was attended by hundreds and there can’t have been many families who received messages of condolence from both The Prince of Wales and Billy Bragg!
So what of Bob Copper the man? “Family first and family always” as he said in the 1950s to the BBC who wanted to recruit him as a full time broadcaster. That would have meant long periods away from Sussex and home life â€“ the answer was a resounding ‘No’. He was a complete natural and was indeed a fine communicator, but that life wasn’t for him. He was contented with home and hearth, yet still sought to master everything to which he applied his prodigious intelligence. He was constantly challenging himself, not with a view to showcasing, but for the sheer joy of being able to achieve. He loved his family, his daughter Jill and son John and their respective families, his grandchildren. Everyone who came into contact with Bob left the encounter as a friend â€“ he had that effect on people. A faithful and diligent correspondent, he answered the many letters he received from all over the world immediately and at length.
Someone once wrote of The Copper Family in a music publication â€“
“They are not affected by fame” â€“ that could be more rightly applied to Bob Copper alone. Completely unaware of the effect that his writings and performance had on his audience he just described himself as a ‘link in a very long chain’. A typically modest understatement but a wholly accurate one.
His contribution to the traditional music, literature and understanding of the people of Sussex remains immeasurable.
Morn was fair the sky was clear, The
Time passes over more cheerful and gay, The
'Twas on one summer's evening all in the month of May
Shepherd of the Downs being weary of his port, A
Here's adieu sweet lovely Nancy, ten thousand times adieu
As I walked out one May morning down by a river side
Jolly young soldier a letter did write, A