November 10, 2017

Northumberland traditions: My old Northumbrian fiddle.

By Clive Dalton

Oh if he'd only had lessons!
 Ladies and Gentlemen - Let’s have a few waltzes and reels
Some time in the 1950s through old family friends, Jack and Eva Wanlass from Wark,  I met Walter Hymers of West Woodburn.  Jack and Eva must have told Walter that I was interested in fiddles and Northumbrian music.

Being a ‘daft laddie’ on farms up the North Tyne in those days, it was inevitable that you knew old folk who played the fiddle, especially in their younger days for their own entertainment and for the local dances.  Examples of old country fiddlers I knew were Dan Wood from the Steele, Matt Wood from the Reenes, Mick Hall from Woodburn and John Armstrong of Elsdon.  They would never have had music lessons – they all just played by ear and learned tunes from other fiddlers.

In those days, folk didn’t need much of an excuse to sweep the granary floor or open up the church or village hall on a Saturday night – and get the local fiddler to play a few waltzes and reels.  There would be an old piano in most halls (mostly out of tune) and somebody locally would have a melodeon or accordion, or just a mouth organ.  The place would soon be rocking. The resident rats and mice would be driven deep inside the two-foot-thick stone walls of these old buildings.

After returning from the WW1, my father regularly played his mouth organ for Saturday night dances in the granary for the staff at Chesters, Humshaugh where mother was head housemaid.  Dad was the band!

The shepherd’s fiddle
In a typical shepherd’s cottage you’d find a range of walking sticks in a rack between the beams in the kitchen, and an old fiddle in its battered case on top of the ‘press’.  You may even find one hung with the bow on a hook on the wall.

The press was a traditional big cupboard with two large doors in the top half that opened out to reveal the crockery, and drawers in the bottom half.  There were two drawers in the top layer for the cutlery, and two more full-length drawers below that for tablecloths and linen.  These large drawers were also handy for when the bairn was born as one (kept open!) made a safe refuge for a few weeks till the cot was sorted.

Howay Jack man
So a common cry on a many a winter’s night was - 'Howay Jack man - git the fiddle doon off the top o' the press an give us a bit tune'.  This was usually met by –‘No, No man – Aa hevn’t played for years – me fingors is not supple any mare’ – and other excuses. 

A few wee drams seemed to loosen up the fingers, as before long the fiddle was ‘browt doon’ and the old case opened up to reveal usually a filthy old fiddle with the top covered in rosin from the bow, and what appeared to be accumulated ‘baccy juice’ from a pipe being smoked or tobacco being chewed while playing.  The old strings were mainly gut and not steele. Once started, it was often a hard job to get the player stopped for supper or to go to bed!

Another fiddle resting place in a farm house was on top of the ‘des bed’, usually parked in the kitchen in the recess beside the fire. This was a large cupboard with two doors, which held a full sized double bed which opened up on to the kitchen floor when needed.  All the bedding was stored in there too.

Jimmy Shand and his band
In my day, Jimmy Shand and other Scottish dance bands like Angus Fitchett were the ‘gold standard’ and they paid fairly regular visits south across the Border to villages in the Coquet, Rede and Tyne valleys.  Our Bellingham dances in the Town Hall were looked forward to for weeks. 

It was a serious affair with the men in suites the lassies in fancy ball dresses.  The Town Hall soon heated up as it seemed impossible to turn off the boilers, which blew a warm gale up through the grill in the floor below the balcony.  So it didn’t take many reels or rants to bring out the sweat, and swamp the fancy perfume the lassies started off with which we farm lads couldn’t smell in any case!

The tickets were expensive for us village lads – a few pounds, but it was worth every saved-up penny to see and hear these masters of music and metronomic rhythm.  The highlight of highlights for me was when the fiddler in Shand’s band agreed to play a solo.  His playing took your breath away, and I’d go home swearing that I’d never touch the fiddle again. His fingers hit places on the fiddle that I never knew existed.

Unfortunately fancy fiddles were too expensive, and in any case there was nobody in Bellingham to give lessons, There would have been somebody in Hexham but expecting my parents to pay out more money on top of school fees was not on.  

 Collecting records
78 rpm record - easily broken and scratched
Jimmy Shand’s music was readily available on the large 78 rpm gramophone records, and then on the 48rpm vinyl records.  When a new one came out, it was a must-purchase for me from Windows in the Arcade in Newcastle which I passed every day coming from school to the Central Station, at the same time, looking at the violins in the display window with great envy and frustration as I couldn't really play properly.

The 45 rpm vinyl records

The family Minster gramophone (c 1920s)
The gramophone
My parents had a Minster gramophone which they must have bought in the early days of their marriage in the 1920s, and it was always a revered bit of furniture kept in the front room after we moved to a Council House in Bellingham that had one.

The major sin was to wind it up to tight and break the spring and not to change the needle after 4-5 records.  And of course - not to drop the brittle record and return them to their paper sleeves to stop scratching the surface.

You could only play one record at a time. The records were stored on the shelf below the loudspeaker.

Lid open showing container for used needles and velvet pad to clean record before playing

A revered bit of furniture.  Note the windup handle at the side.

In the 1950s a combined radio and gramophone became the high fashion bit of furniture and were very expensive.  The technology had advanced so you could stack about 10 records above the turntable and each would be played in turn.

Record player
In the 1950s a record player came on  the market made by PYE.  One had a black decorated case and was called the 'PYE black box'.  Before we were married in 1959 we purchased one with a mahogany case for about twenty pounds sterling - expensive but it was a treasured possession to play our many old and recent records - 10 at a time.  It now resides in the Hamilton City Museum of Art and History.

I used to put a Shand's record on and try to accompany him on my fiddle.  He would not have been impressed!

PYE record player 1959

Meeting Walter Hymers
I remember cycling across to see Walter and is wife at West Woodburn and coming away with a fiddle that had come apart at the back – the top had parted from the sides and in the process, the sound post had fallen out and I can’t remember how I managed to get it back into place as you needed a special tool to stick into it and fit it under the bridge to take the maximum strain of the E string.

Those were the days before fancy modern glues and all you could get was ‘animal glue’ with its distinctive smell.  It came in small tins, which was an advance from the slabs of it you could buy and heated the tin in a small pan on the stove or fire until it was soft.  I cramped the top on the old fiddle and proudly took it back to Walter.

 I can’t remember now whether it was then or some time later that Walter made the generous offer of giving me that fiddle in it’s fiddle-shaped case vinyl-covered case. He provided no information on the history of his fiddle.

I brought it to New Zealand and played it for many years before giving it to my son in Melbourne where he took it to a violin specialist to find out that it was much more valuable that I had ever imagined.  It got an expert clean and a new aluminium bomb-proof case to protect it from damage.

Walter Hymers
Information from Clive Hymers (Walter’s son)

Walter Armstrong Hymers was born on 11 September 1903 at Blutcher on the western fringes of Newcastle upon Tyne in County Durham.  He started school at Blutcher and then his family moved to Plashetts when Walter was 7 which required him to get an ‘educational transfer’ to satisfy the bureaucracy of the day.

Walter left school at age 14 and went to work for the Forestry Commission which in 1917 was still war time and the North Tyne hills were in the early stages of being developed into one of the largest man-made forests in Britain.

Walter was a keen sportsman and played in local football teams – sometimes in more than one!  After his playing days, he was a very keen supporter of Woodburn AFC which competed with teams in the North Tyne and Rede valleys.

He then got a job just over the border in Scotland at the Hawick Brick Works driving a steam Foden.  From there he came back to Northumberland to work  at Swinburne quarry and then at Blaxter quarry as a shot firer, and in the process of his travels he also lived at Falstone and finally at West Woodburn.

In 1935 Walter married Eleanor Scott from West Woodburn and they had four children – Maureen (born 1942), Shirley (born 1944), Clive (born 1947) and Robin (born 1954).

During the WW11 Walter got a job looking after German POWs at Otterburn camp where they were they were happy to admit that it was much safer in confinement that fighting.  Walter had a motorbike and sidecar and it wasn’t unknown for him to land home with a German young lad for Sunday lunch. Many of the prisoners were skilled craftsmen and made many items in wood as presents for the Hymers family.

Like many other young folk in those days, Walter picked up playing the fiddle by ear and played in some local groups – none of them big enough to be names as a band.  It was a case of gathering whoever was available at the time to play at a function, so numbers varied a lot.

Walter like many other local men was a keen gardener and exhibited at local Leek and Horticultural Shows.  Walter retired in 1963 after a heart attack and died in October 1968 aged 65.

The fiddle's current home
I gave the fiddle to my son in Melbourne for safe keeping and he took it a renowned violin expert to restring it and give it a spring clean.  The expert considered it to be a very good quality instrument.
There was no label on the inside and Walter never told me anything of it's history.  Walter would  have had it for 50 years at least and I have had it for a similar period.

My son Nigel and the Melbourne violin expert - and the old Hymers fiddle

The fiddle safe in its current  home in Melbourne Australia - a long way from West Woodburn.


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