Henry Burstow

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Henry Burstow: frontispiece, Reminiscences of Horsham, cropped image
Henry Burstow: frontispiece, Reminiscences of Horsham, cropped image

Henry Burstow, 1826-1916, Sussex singer and bellringer. Collected by Lucy Broadwood and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

He was born on 11th December 1826 at 34 The Bishopric, Horsham, West Sussex, the second youngest of nine children. His father William Burstow (born 1781) worked as a clay tobacco-pipe maker, assisted by his wife Ellen (died 1857). The Bishopric, commonly known as “The Rookery”, was the poorest and roughest part of Horsham, and the Burstow home served, in Henry’s own words, as “‘factory’, dwelling house and shop” (Reminiscences p9 [1]). A shoemaker for all of his working life, Burstow’s fame rests principally upon his singing: the size of his repertoire, and his importance to the late nineteenth / early twentieth century English folksong revival. We know more about his life than that of the average nineteenth century artisan through the writings of folksong collector Lucy Broadwood, and his own “Reminiscences of Horsham”, put together and brought into print by Horsham local historian William Albery.

Burstow began to attend the infant school run by a Miss Sayers in the Bishopric “almost as soon as I could toddle” (Reminiscences p22 [2]), with his first year’s fees paid for by a generous Quaker, Mr Pollard. He subsequently attended the Horsham British Schools, the Church School (from 1834) and Collyer’s Free School (1838-1840).

In 1840 he was apprenticed to Jim Vaughan to learn the boot and shoemaking trade. This was an important local industry which employed forty to fifty men, “good hard-workers and sound beer-drinkers to a man” (Reminiscences p23 [3]). For the first year Burstow worked for no pay. In the second he earned two shillings a week, and this rose by one shilling a week at the end of each year that he spent in apprenticeship. After spending around ten years with Vaughan, he went to work for Mr Gilburd, with whom he stayed until 1880, making mainly women’s boots at one shilling and sixpence a pair. Burstow records that on average he earned fifteen shillings a week, for a week’s work of sixty to seventy hours. He never earned more than nineteen shillings and sixpence - and this in a week when he made thirteen pairs of boots, working every available hour.

Henry Burstow married Elizabeth Pratt (1833 - 1909), the daughter of a Horsham gardener, in 1855. On his wedding day Burstow rang peals “all day long” (Remiscences p102 [4]) in company with seven other shoemakers, including the Warnham musician and parish clerk Michael Turner.

Burstow took up bellringing soon after he was apprenticed, at the instigation of John Vaughan, his master’s father, who was Sexton and head bellringer (and who paid his three shilling entrance fee). Bell-ringing became one of his chief pursuits, which he pursued until very late in life. Burstow regretted that when he joined the belfry the Horsham ringers had neither the skill nor the inclination to recreate the change-ringing feats of their late eighteenth century predecessors. However Burstow made the acquaintance of ringers at other parishes - principally Warnham and Newdigate - and was able to develop his own skills. He became well-known locally as a ringer, and in the 1860’s Horsham again became a place where change-ringing records were set.

Burstow rang in 55 Sussex, Surrey and Kent churches, and taught in 15 of these. Both ringing and teaching brought in welcome supplementary income, but they fulfilled primarily a social function. He recalls that at one time he would walk the eight miles to Newdigate every Saturday evening, ring for around three hours, then “adjourn to the ‘Six Bells’ Public House for a jollification, drinking and smoking and song singing in turn” (Reminiscences p99 [5]) - although it is worth noting that Burstow himself neither smoked nor drank. Leaving home after midnight he would then walk back to Horsham, returning home between two and three o’clock.

In an age when singing and music-making were very much a part of everyday life, Burstow was recognised within his community as a singer of note. He kept a list (reprinted in “Reminiscences” [6]) of 420 songs which he knew by heart. Of these he had learned 84 from his father, who himself knew some 200 songs, and some from his mother. Burstow records the names and occupations of other men from whom he learned songs: some were learned from fellow workers or bellringers, some at “Country Wills” in the taprooms of local public houses - the words often exchanged for a pint of beer - while others came from ballad sheets bought at fairs.

In 1892-93 he lent his list of songs to Lucy Broadwood. In common with other collectors of the period she had strong preconceptions as to what was worth preserving, and she selected the 50 or 60 songs from the list which she considered to be “of the traditional ballad type” (English Traditional Songs and Carols p xi). Burstow visited Broadwood’s home at Lyne near Rusper and she collected 46 songs from him in all (in practice Broadwood, or the Horsham organist Herbert Buttifant, noted down the tune, while Burstow would write out the words and send them on to her). Subsequently more of Burstow’s songs were noted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who lived at Leith Hill Place in Surrey (31 songs collected between 1903 and 1907) and W.H.Gill (a small number in 1911). Many of these were published in books such as Broadwood’s “English Traditional Songs and Carols” and in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society. Singers from Sussex provided a disproportionately large number of items in the early Journals, and of these 118 titles Burstow was the source of 31. It is ironic, however, that the collectors’ romantic vision of illiterate singers living in rural isolation simply did not fit the facts of Burstow’s life.

In 1907 Vaughan Williams phonographed two songs from Burstow. Unfortunately these recordings are now lost, but Lucy Broadwood published a full transcription of one, “Bristol Town” (English Traditional Songs and Carols p114-115), which illustrates the traditional singer’s ability to adapt a song’s tune and phrasing verse by verse.

While Burstow was feted by the pioneers of the folksong revival, he and his wife faced severe financial hardship. In 1907 they were in danger of being sent to the Workhouse: with no children to support them, their sole income came from Parish Relief, a small sum from sub-letting part of their cottage, and gifts from old friends and bellringers (even though Burstow was now too old to ring regularly). A jeweller, Jury Cramp, opened a subscription to provide the Burstows with a lump sum, while saddler William Albery organised a fund from which they could receive a pension of ten shillings a week. Albery had first met Burstow when they were choirboy and head bellringer respectively. Albery’s interest in local history had later led him to befriend the old man, and he now hit upon the idea of a history of Horsham - based upon Burstow’s personal and family memories, but expanded by reference to other sources - as a way of helping him financially. It became apparent that Burstow might not live to see the publication of a major work, so Albery scaled down his plans and arranged for the publication of “Reminiscences” in 1911. Two impressions - of five hundred and four hundred - were printed, and after the deduction of costs all income went to Burstow.

The book’s title is apt: it is neither a formal history of the town nor an autobiography (written throughout in Burstow’s own words, Albery’s name appears nowhere in the work). Its importance is in the picture it presents of small town life through the eyes of a working man. Burstow tells us of the hardships of everyday life, of political events (notably the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill, and the corruption and disorder surrounding elections), and of features of the traditional calendar - May Day, November 5th, and St Crispin Day when Horsham performed its own version of “Rough Music”. The book is also an extremely rare example of a traditional singer’s words and thoughts being preserved in print, providing important details on how songs were transmitted, and the social context of music-making.

Saved from the Workhouse, Burstow seems to have become something of a local celebrity. He was invited to sing in front of a large audience at a silver band concert in the Kings Head Assembly Room in 1908, while articles on Burstow began to appear in local newspapers and national magazines. These focussed on his singing, his bellringing, his prodigious memory and fascination with figures, and even his atheism. A religious and political freethinker, convinced of the truth of Darwinism and not inclined to conceal his beliefs, Burstow encountered some prejudice - indeed some gave his beliefs as a reason for not contributing to the funds set up to relieve his financial distress. However the Horsham clergy generally accepted his candidly-expressed views - “I fetch ‘em in, and I leaves you to drive ‘em away” the enthusiastic bellringer is reported to have told one vicar (quoted in Reminiscences p xv) - and the Unitarian Albery was able to persuade the Free Church Society to sponsor the publication of “Reminiscences”.

Burstow died on 30th January 1916 at his home in Spencer’s Road, Horsham and was buried on 4th February at Hill’s Cemetery; several Sussex newspapers carried fairly substantial obituaries. He had lived all his life in the town - the first 42 years in the Bishopric - spending only six nights away from home. The memorial card circulated to his friends bore an epitaph that he had written himself:

'In ringing and singing I took great delight,
And keeping good company by day and by night;
Many an hour the bell I have tolled,
And now I am dead may the Lord receive my soul.'

Burstow was undoubtedly an exceptional character, and an important figure within his community. However it is largely through good fortune that we know as much as we do about the man - factors such as his literacy, his passion for maintaining lists and records of events in his notebooks, the fact that he came to the attention of two important locally-resident folksong collectors, the interest and commitment of Albery, his longevity.

Henry Burstow's repertoire

  1. Boney's Farewell to Paris
  2. *Boney in St. Helena
  3. *Boney's Lamentation
  4. Deeds of Napoleon
  5. Dream of Napoleon
  6. *The Grand Conversation of Napoleon
  7. The Soldier's Dream
  8. The Soldier's Tear
  9. The tired Soldier
  10. The poor worn out Soldier
  11. The Old Soldier's Daughter
  12. *The Old Deserter
  13. The New Deserter
  14. *Stinson, the Deserter
  15. The Sailor's Dream
  16. *Mary's Dream
  17. The Wife's Dream
  18. The Husband's Dream
  19. I had a Dream
  20. *The Battle of Waterloo
  21. *The Battle of Barrosa
  22. *The Battle of America
  23. The Standard Bearer
  24. Up with the standard of England
  25. Mother, is the battle o'er?
  26. The answer to it
  27. *The Wounded Hussar
  28. *Allen's Return from the Wars
  29. The Rose of Allendale
  30. The Rose of Britain's Isle
  31. She wore a Wreath of Roses
  32. Ben Bolt
  33. Ben Bolt's Reply
  34. Tom Bowling
  35. *Tom Hillyard
  36. *Tom Tough
  37. *Will Watch
  38. Harry Hawser
  39. *Paul Jones
  40. John William Marchant
  41. Gibson, Wilson, and Johnson
  42. Gilderoy
  43. *Auld Robin Gray
  44. Answer to ditto
  45. Barney A vouring
  46. Joe the Marine
  47. John Lawrence
  48. Ditto second part
  49. *Larry O' Gaff
  50. Beautiful Kitty
  51. Kathleen Mavourneen
  52. Sarah had a little Lamb
  53. Helen Lorraine
  54. My Helen is the Fairest Flower
  55. Dear Charlotte when the Sun is Set
  56. *Alice Gray
  57. Fanny Gray
  58. Nelly Gray
  59. Mrs. Myrtle
  60. Grace Darling
  61. Birth of Crazy Jane
  62. Crazy Jane
  63. Death of Crazy Jane
  64. Jeannette and Jeannot
  65. The Answer
  66. Pretty Phœbe
  67. Pretty Susan, the Pride of Kildare
  68. Annie Laurie
  69. Bristol Town
  70. Gentle Annie
  71. *I am leaving Thee in sorrow, Annie
  72. Lost Rosabel
  73. Minnie
  74. Little Nell
  75. Mary of Argyle
  76. Mary Blane
  77. *Mary was a Beauty
  78. *Sally, Sally one Day
  79. Poor Uncle Tom
  80. Uncle Ned
  81. Green Mossy Banks of the Lee
  82. *Ye Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon
  83. Ye Banks of Bonny Winding Tyne
  84. *Banks of the Dee
  85. Woodman Spare that Tree
  86. Butcher Spare that Lamb
  87. My good old Father's Mill
  88. My good Old Father's Farm
  89. The Old House at Home
  90. Home, Sweet Home
  91. The Rover
  92. *Banks of Sweet Dundee
  93. The Star of Glengarry
  94. The Maid of Llangollen
  95. We have Lived and Loved Together
  96. My Skiff is by the Shore
  97. *Adieu, my Native Land, Adieu
  98. *Old England, what are you Coming to?
  99. Britain's Revenge on the Death of Nelson
  100. Madam, do you know my Trade is War?
  101. How Sweet in the Woodland
  102. Oh no, I never mention Her
  103. The answer to it
  104. *In Essex there lived a rich Farmer
  105. Oh cease, awhile, ye Winds to blow
  106. The Answer to it
  107. *When I was Young and in my Prime
  108. Yarmouth is a Pretty Town
  109. It's of a Sailor now I write
  110. The Lass of Brighton Town
  111. Polly's Love, or the Cruel Ship's Carpenter
  112. Rosetta and the Plough Boy
  113. *The Old Man and his three Daughters
  114. *Flora, the Unkind Shepherdess
  115. Our Captain calls all Hands
  116. Isle of Beauty, fare Thee well
  117. Wealthy Farmer's Son
  118. The Constant Farmer's Son
  119. I will be a Gipsy
  120. The Gipsy's Tent
  121. Fitzgerald's Tent
  122. Jervis' Tent
  123. The Irish Emigrant
  124. The Answer to it
  125. *Lango Lee
  126. *Exile of Erin
  127. Leather Breeches
  128. Miser Grimes
  129. One Night I went to meet Her
  130. Old Gray Mare
  131. *Mark and John Peteroe
  132. Old Dog Tray
  133. Poor Black Bess
  134. Bonny Black Bess
  135. *Bonny Moon
  136. *The Storm
  137. The Minute Gun at Sea
  138. The Female Smuggler
  139. Highland Mary
  140. My Highland Home
  141. *'Ere around the Huge Oak
  142. The Oak Table
  143. A Song to the Oak
  144. The Effects of Love
  145. *The Green Hills of Tyrol
  146. Cabbage Green
  147. *Belfast Mountains
  148. A Week's Matrimony
  149. Umbrella Courtship
  150. *The Croppy Boy
  151. The Sailor's Return
  152. The Lovers' Parting
  153. New York Street
  154. *Plato's Advice
  155. Dulce Domum
  156. *Through Moorfields
  157. *On Gosport Beach
  158. *The Gallant Poachers
  159. The Gallant Sailor
  160. Creeping Jane
  161. Death and the Lady
  162. The Scarlet Flower
  163. *The Post Captain
  164. *The Cabin Boy
  165. Gooseberry Wine
  166. *Travel the Country Round
  167. *The Age of Man
  168. The Sailor Boy's Good-bye
  169. Angel's Whisper
  170. *Spare a Halfpenny
  171. Some love to Roam
  172. The Blackbird
  173. The Woodpecker
  174. Our Bessie was a Sailor's Bride
  175. As I was Walking one Morning by Chance
  176. The Salt Sea
  177. The Pitcher
  178. The Haymakers
  179. The Marble Halls
  180. *The Sheffield Apprentice
  181. *The London Apprentice
  182. The Fairy Tempter
  183. After Roving Many Years
  184. All's Well
  185. Annie Lisle
  186. The Plough Boy
  187. Night and Morn
  188. O Lovely Night
  189. The Little Town Boy
  190. *Robin Hood and the Pedlar
  191. *Past Ten o'clock
  192. *The Cobbler
  193. The Kiss dear Maid
  194. The Irish Girl's Lament
  195. The Boyhood Days
  196. *The Galley Slave
  197. Rosemary Lane
  198. In a Cottage near a Wood
  199. You Combers All
  200. The Young Jockey
  201. Little Cupid
  202. The last Rose of Summer
  203. Four and Nine
  204. The Tarry Sailor
  205. The Bridal Ring
  206. *Banstead Down
  207. *The Pilot
  208. The Mariner's Grave
  209. I have journeyed over many Lands
  210. *Our Trade and Commerce
  211. The Miller's three Sons
  212. The Cavalier
  213. Salisbury Plain
  214. To all you Ladies now on Land
  215. Nature's gay Days
  216. The Demon of the Seas
  217. He is gone to the Roaring Waves
  218. *The Wild Rover
  219. Vilikins and his Dinah
  220. The Troubadour
  221. Shells of the Ocean
  222. Oh, come to the Ingleside
  223. Give me but a Cot in the Valley I love
  224. Cherry Cheek Polly for Me
  225. *When the Morn stands on Tiptoe
  226. The Cot where I was born
  227. The Orphan Beggar Boy
  228. Red, White, and Blue
  229. *The Cottager's Daughter
  230. Old Folks at Home
  231. The Convict's Lamentation
  232. Butter, Cheese, and all
  233. With all Thy Faults I love Thee still
  234. Wait for the Waggon
  235. Oh Willie, we have missed you
  236. Rouse! Brother, Rouse!
  237. *Partant Pour la Syrie
  238. I'll hang my Harp on a Willow Tree
  239. The Heart and Head
  240. The Basket of Eggs
  241. Will you love Me then as now?
  242. Dearest, then, I'll love Thee now
  243. Old Towler
  244. When other Lips
  245. Pretty Wench
  246. No Mistake in that
  247. The Beggar Girl
  248. My gentle Mother dear
  249. Isle of France
  250. The Little Bird
  251. *The American Stranger
  252. Quite Politely
  253. Tally Ho
  254. The Light of other Days
  255. The Bay of Biscay
  256. The Lass O'Gowry
  257. Good News from Home
  258. Beautiful Star
  259. The Queen's Letter
  260. Nothing More
  261. Tempest of the Heart
  262. The Rent Days
  263. Abroad as I was Walking
  264. Down in those Meadows
  265. A Voice from the West
  266. To the West
  267. Ploughman turned Sailor
  268. *Old Carrion Crow
  269. The Sailor's Tear
  270. Why did She leave Him
  271. Prairie Child
  272. Goodbye, Sweetheart
  273. *Peggy Ban
  274. *Duke of Marlborough
  275. The Young Recruit
  276. The Mistletoe Bough
  277. The Song of the Brave
  278. All among the Barley
  279. The sons of Fingal
  280. *The Blue Bells of Scotland
  281. The Happy Land
  282. The poor Fisherman's Boy
  283. So early in the Morning
  284. Hard Times come again no more
  285. Farewell to the Mountains
  286. Thou art gone from my Gaze
  287. The Banks of the Blue Moselle
  288. *The Months of the Year
  289. The Blighted Flower
  290. The Officer's Funeral
  291. The Sailor's Grave
  292. Cheer, Boys, Cheer
  293. Ever of Thee
  294. Kitty Terrall
  295. Popping the Question
  296. Aunt Sally
  297. Jemima Brown
  298. Maid of Judah
  299. The Gipsy Girl
  300. *Not a Drum was heard
  301. *My old friend John
  302. *Benbow
  303. Down in the Cornfields
  304. Meet Me by Moonlight alone
  305. The Cottage by the Sea
  306. You(r) lot is far above Me
  307. *A Rose Tree in full Bearing
  308. The Merry Mountain Horn
  309. Fair Lily of the Vale
  310. Kathleen O'Moore
  311. Where there's a Will there's a Way
  312. Oh Bitter and Cold was Night
  313. Sweet Spirit, Hear mymy Prayer
  314. Oh would I were a Bird
  315. The Hazel Dell
  316. Happy as a King
  317. Father, dear Father, come Home with Me now
  318. Beautiful Isle of the Sea
  319. Maid of Erin's Isle
  320. The Gleaner
  321. The Bride's Farewell
  322. *Harry Bluff
  323. The Sicilian Maid
  324. The Village-born Beauty
  325. *Jenny Jones
  326. Fifty years ago
  327. Nothing shall she Draw, but Water from the Well
  328. The Glasses sparkled on the Board
  329. Norah, sweet Norah
  330. My Friend and Pitcher
  331. The Minstrel Boy
  332. The Thorn
  333. You Lads and Lasses gay
  334. The Ivy Cottage
  335. Water Cresses
  336. Jimmy and Jenny
  337. Banks of Sweet Primroses
  338. Canadian Boat Song
  339. False One, I love Thee still
  340. William and Phyllis
  341. The Grecian Bend
  342. *Billy and Sally
  343. After tasting many Beers
  344. I'll meet Thee at the Lane
  345. Wait for the Turn of the Tide
  346. *The Heart that can feel for Another
  347. The Captain and His Whiskers
  348. Just before the Battle, Mother
  349. Just after the Battle, Mother
  350. I am come across the Seas
  351. The Female Sailor
  352. *Goddess Diana
  353. Green Bushes
  354. Bold Collins
  355. Sir Roger Tichbourne
  356. O leave not your Kathleen
  357. Come back to Erin
  358. The Gipsy's Warning
  359. The Answer to Ditto
  360. The Maiden's Reply
  361. The Merry Bells of England
  362. Far, Far Away
  363. Broker, spare that Bed
  364. Kitty Wells
  365. Sunshine follows Rain
  366. Write Me a Letter from Home
  367. Dublin Bay
  368. Belle Mahone
  369. Molly Darling
  370. Annie dear, I am called away
  371. *In the Downhill of Life
  372. When first in this Country a Stranger I came
  373. As I was going to Birmingham Fair
  374. Nancy Lee
  375. Silver Threads Among the Gold
  376. The Rat-catcher's Daughter
  377. Ring the Bell, Watchman
  378. Barrel of Beer
  379. Go and leave Me if you wish
  380. Put me in my Little Bed
  381. *Auld Lang Syne
  382. *As I wandered by the Brookside
  383. *Make Little Mary his Bride
  384. It was just against the Gate
  385. Away with Melancholy
  386. *Black Eyed Susan
  387. Good Old Jeff
  388. The Negro Boy
  389. *With my Pot in one Hand
  390. Nature's Holiday
  391. Won't you buy my pretty Flowers
  392. That dear old Stile
  393. The Crocodile
  394. *The American has Stole my true Love away
  395. Begone Dull Care
  396. The Harp that once through Tara's Hall
  397. An Old Man came Courting Me
  398. *The Holy Friar
  399. Bread and Cheese and Kisses
  400. There came to Enslave us a Landlord of Erin
  401. The Garden Gate
  402. Joan and the Miller
  403. The Primrose Lass
  404. Roger and Flora
  405. The Devil He came to an Old Man at the Plough
  406. The Brighton Chain Pier
  407. The Second part ditto
  408. Bonny Bunch of Roses
  409. The North Fleet Weighed Anchor
  410. The 18th June
  411. Duke William
  412. We wassailing Lads are Come
  413. As I was walking one morning in May
  414. Jerry Brown and the Black Jug
  415. The Tavern
  416. The Donkey
  417. John Cladpole's Trip to London
  418. Tom Cladpole's Trip to America
  419. St. Nicholas' Church
  420. Turnips are Round

* Titles marked with an asterisk are those Henry learned from his father, of which 'Travel the Country Round' was the first.


Henry Burstow. Reminiscences of Horsham, ed. A. E. Green and T. Wales (1975)

Henry Burstow. Reminiscences of Horsham: being Recollections of Henry Burstow The Celebrated Bellringer & Songsinger (1911) [7]

Andrew R. Turner, ‘Burstow, Henry (1826–1916)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [8]