This letter from Ian Anderson adds considerably to the very little that we knew about this singer who has songs notated by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1905: –
She was my great grandmother, “collected” in Horsham in 1905 by Vaughan Williams.
All I really know is that she was born Emily Agnes Ragless in 1872, so she’d have been 32 when RVW came calling. Somewhere (I think in a long-ago conversation with Malcolm Taylor when he was at the VWML) I understood that her brother Alf Ragless might have been there too. Her husband Alfred Thomas Stears was born on the Isle of Wight, and her father-in-law Thomas Stears remained there, becoming a school master in Bonchurch. He later remarried and there are photos of his daughters from his second marriage in Morris dancing kit in the late 1890s. So there was obviously some family interest in traditional things.
I believe she lived to be 99. Family legend has it that as a staunch republican she passed away then as ”she didn’t want one of those damn telegrams from the Queen” I vaguely remember meeting her as a child.
I had no idea of any of this until Shirley Collins’ boxed set “Within Sound” came out with the song Lord Allenwater on it, and Shirley mentioned in the notes from who and where the song had been collected. Stears was my late mother’s maiden name, lots of them from Sussex & Hampshire, and her hobby was genealogy so I rang her up and said “E.A. Stears, Horsham, 1905 – do we have one of those”
She rang me back and said “It was your great grandmother – I just spoke to your uncle who used to hang out with the old ladies and he knew she’d been called on by that Mr Vaughan Williams”. And then the killer line “Yes, she did used to sing those old songs you’re interested in!”… “Mother, I’m 58, how come you never told me before!”
Apparently another relative actually recorded her on reel-to-reel in the late 1950s, but nobody knew what had happened to the tapes. Aargh!
Naturally I learned the song myself after that – the new folk process, from great grandma, via RVW, via Shirley Collins, via CD, back to great grandson without harming the generations in between!
I was able to show Ian the article – THE “WEST SUSSEX GAZETTE” SONG COMPETITION OF 1904 – by Stanley Godman in the Journal of the English Folk Dance & Song Society (Vol. IX No. 5 December 1964) which tells us that ‘E.A.Spears’ submitted songs for this competition which was overseen by Lucy Broadwood and this led RVW to his great-grandmother’s door in 1905.
Morn was fair the sky was clear, The
Time passes over more cheerful and gay, The
Shepherd of the Downs being weary of his port, A
'Twas on one summer's evening all in the month of May
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