“What a Happy Young Man”
The Folk Songs of Henry Hills
The information that follows is largely taken from the EFDSS Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol 1 No 3 (1901) entitled “Folk Songs from Sussex collected by W P Merrick.” Personal information gathered by Stuart and Denise Savage in preparation for a presentation on Henry Hills has been added.
Henry Hills – a biography
Henry Hills was a farmer from Lodsworth, West Sussex whose songs were collected by W Percy Merrick at the end of the 19th century. Henry’s songs were considered significant enough to be printed in this early journal of the EFDS which is entirely devoted to his material. Since then, credit has been given to many folk singers and songs collected in Sussex, while Henry was almost ignored.
Not much is known about Henry’s early life, and, despite our efforts we were unable to find any photographs of him. As far as we can ascertain, Henry was born around 1831 at Easebourne, near Lodsworth in West Sussex. His family had been farmers in the Lodsworth area for more than 200 years. His father was a tenant farmer on Moorlands Farm when Henry was born. The farm is still there today, and owned by the Cowdray estate.
Lodsworth, although tiny, was and still is quite a wealthy village. It is situated between two major estates: the Cowdray estate in Midhurst and the Leconfield estate in Petworth.
For many centuries the Lodsworth parish belonged to the bishops of London, comprising an estate 6 miles long and one mile wide. It raised its own juries, had its own constables, and had its own gallows and prison beneath the Manor House (where the bishop’s steward lived).
According to the 1841 census, when Henry was aged 9 he was one of 7 children living on Moorlands Farm. He was the 5th child. At that time, there were 4 farm labourers also living on the farm. His parents were Charles and Priscilla Hills. Charles Hills farmed at Moorlands for most of his life and died aged 70 in 1865. He is buried with his wife in St Peter’s churchyard in Lodsworth and their gravestones can still be seen as you leave the church.
Henry remained on Moorlands Farm for some years and in 1861 his occupation was named as “labourer”. After his father’s death, Henry farmed in his own right in Sussex and Surrey. By 1871 when Henry was about 40, he was married to Harriet and by then farming 97 acres in Lurgashall, a village nearby. The 1881 census shows that aged 50 Henry was farming in Elstead in Surrey. By 1891, Henry was a widower and farming in Headley in East Hampshire and finally in 1901, aged 69 he was living with his son Henry on Manor Farm in Shepperton.
Henry and Merrick met in 1899 on Merrick’s farm where both Henry and his son were farmers. Until Henry’s death at the age of 70 in 1901 he worked with Merrick to note down part of his repertoire – approximately 60 songs.
W Percy Merrick
The folk song collector W Percy Merrick (1869-1955) was best known for his work on the International Phonetic Alphabet and its adaptation to the English Language Braille. He was one of a number of 19th century folk song collectors who worked with Lucy Broadwood and other members of the Folk Song Society. In addition to material collected from Henry Hills, he also provided a collection of French dance music and some West Country English songs, several from blind singers with whom he had possibly made contact through his other work.
No recording equipment was used and Henry apparently sang the tunes and words with consistency when asked to repeat them
The musical notation for Henry’s songs was written down by the famed folk song collctor from Yorkshire Frank Kidson who wrote the music as Henry sang.
It can be seen from this contents list that the songs represent a strong family tradition, and most of them have become well known and iconic in the 20th century folk revival.
The journal devoted to the songs of Henry Hills contains lots of notes, and is recognised as a really complete history of the singing. It is written with real affection. For instance, Percy Merrick’s notes have Henry saying:
“People used to say to me ‘What a happy young man you must be Henry, for you are always singing!“
Many songs in the collection are very like those from others in the South and South East of England, with perhaps slight variations in words and melody. What often characterises Henry’s versions are the opportunities for audience participation through a refrain or chorus. Many of the songs, such as “Farmer’s Glory” or “Poor Tom” would be sung at harvest homes, tithe feasts, rent dinners, rabbit hunts, fairs, public houses and family gatherings.
The interesting thing about this collection is that it is entirely oral, and the repertoire is a living example of a pre-radio tradition of shared songs used for family and community entertainment. Many of the songs are fragmentary. Some too were “not quite proper” as Henry himself admitted, while others were not folk songs at all. For example, the song, “Come Come Pretty Maids” is a traditional survival of a dialogue in Thomas Arne’s opera “Thomas and Sally”, produced in Covent Garden in 1760.
Thomas Arne is, of course, more famous for having written the song “Rule Britannia”, a favourite at the last night of the Proms!
Henry would have learned his songs from family and friends, from other farmers and villagers, carters, travellers, and canal boat workers who passed by very close to Moorlands. Look again at the map of Moorlands in 1898 and note the canal cut to the south of the farm.
Apparently Henry sang whilst ploughing, clicking, tapping and singing to the rhythms. Carters and other working people at that time all knew scores of songs. Henry is recorded as having said:
“Sometimes of an evening we would sit up and sing for ever so long.”
Sadly, mass communication has driven those songs away from our shared experience.
Just before Henry died, Merrick wrote to Lucy Broadwood.
This is a copy of one of Merrick’s envelopes to Lucy Broadwood. The original can be found in the library at Cecil Sharp House.
It is a poignant moment in the correspondence when Merrick refers to “the death of my old singer.” It also illustrates what a close relationship there was between the collector, the person writing down the musical notation and the singer. What is absolutely delightful is what Henry thought of the printed version of the Folk Song Journal No 3 which Merrick showed him only a few days before he died. Henry expressed great pride in it exclaiming:
“They’ve put all my old songs in a book, just exactly as I sang them. That’s proper, dang me if it ain’t”.
Henry Hills songs from other publications
The first song of Henry’s that we learned to sing was “A Sailor’s Life”. This was printed in the wonderful Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
There was a second journal of folk songs produced by Merrick in 1904.
Although there is no mention of Henry Hills by name on the cover, it does say in the introduction to the book: “The whole collection was obtained from one singer, a farmer who was born in Sussex and had learned all his songs there.” This collection comprises 15 songs.
Some of Henry Hills songs found their way into other folk song books. His version of “Reynardine” can be found in the English Folk Song & Dance Society publication “The Seeds of Love”.
The words are originally from a Such & Pitts broadside and the tune collected by Merrick from Henry Hills. It is a warning to young girls to beware of strange men – the metaphor used here is of a fox man, and uses some very obvious sexual imagery!
Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp’s link with Henry Hills
Ralph Vaughan Williams worked with Merrick on “The Folk Songs of Sussex” – the 2nd book and the one containing a further 15 of Henry’s songs. The book was produced after Henry’s death and the songs have been arranged by Vaughan Williams. Although the songs were collected from the oral tradition, these arrangements illustrate the movement to “sanitise” folk songs. The preface to this collection was written by Cecil Sharp – the founder of the English Folk Song Society.
A few quotes from Cecil Sharp’s preface to this collection show so clearly how English folk songs were sanitised:
“If however, English folk song is to be made popular, the words must be published in a singable form. Our guiding principle has been, therefore, to alter those phrases to which objection might reasonably be made…
“No vocalist would sing words that are pointless or ungrammatical. Nor could he, even if he would, sing accurately in dialect. Happily, however, dialect is not an essential of the folk song.
“The words of many of the songs in this collection have been altered. Gaps have been filled up, verses omitted or softened, rhymes reconciled, redundant syllables pruned, bad grammar and dialect translated into King’s English. On the other hand, archaic words and expressions have, of course, been retained.”
Of course Cecil Sharp did an enormous amount to popularise folk song and to ensure that songs were not lost or forgotten. His words may sound pompous and middle class today, but we must remember that his style of speech was characteristic of the era. Times and styles have moved on and we must not forget his huge contribution to folk music.
Other Hills Family information
Henry’s older brother James, a wheelwright and blacksmith as well as a farmer.
Edwin, Henry’s nephew, supposedly the oldest known working farmer when this picture was taken.
Hills boy 1944 – it is possible that this young man is still alive today (George Garland archive reference, West Sussex County Records Office)
Dating back to 1733, John Hills made this rather beautiful bier which can be seen at the Singleton Weald and Downland Museum. It was kindly loaned to the Lodsworth Festival when we did our presentation there.
Despite considerable efforts, we have been unable to find a verifiable picture of Henry himself.
Songs on our CD “What a Happy Young Man” – the songs of Henry Hills
All songs performed and arranged by Denise and Stuart Savage. Concertina and octave mandola played by Denise. Guitar played by Stuart
A pleasant surprise for us is that we were invited by one of Henry Hills’ descendants to perform at a family party at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in January 2018. In researching his family history, Tim Walters discovered our CD and asked if we would sing for his mother’s 80th birthday. What an honour! And a fitting tribute to a significant collection of material from a West Sussex farmer and singer.
Denise and Stuart Savage
Pictures for the multi-media show designed and researched by Tina Smith
Modern photographs by Vic Smith