Hark! The hardcore carollers sing
Why local singing still thrives in Sheffield
By Dan Hayes
“He had a voice like a column of sound,” wrote Ecclesfield vicar and academic Dr Alfred Gatty on the singing voice of Flint, a Sheffield bootmaker who regularly performed at his church in the mid-19th century. Gatty goes on to describe the bootmaker’s voice as “so robust you might lean against it for support”. It’s a beautiful image, but it also makes me wonder. Was Flint just a talented singer who would have thrived anywhere? Or could his unique gift have been specific to Sheffield — the natural result of the city’s strong local tradition of carol singing?
Ever since I moved here, I’ve been intrigued by Sheffield’s tradition of local carols — for the uninitiated, that there is both a carolling tradition and an extensive set of carols that are specific to the Steel City. All it takes is a quick Google to prove how popular carolling still is in Sheffield. On the Local Carols website, the page for Sheffield and North Derbyshire shows well over 100 events taking place in November and December this year. The Royal Hotel in Dungworth, the Blue Ball Inn at Worrall and the Travellers Rest in Oughtibridge are three of the best known carolling pubs. But events are also taking place at dozens of other village pubs in communities all over Sheffield. The list goes on and on and on.
Professor Ian Russell is widely acknowledged as one of the preeminent experts on traditional singing in the UK, and wrote his PhD on the singing traditions of western Sheffield in the early 1970s. Speaking to me from his home in the Derbyshire village of Winster, he tells me that far from dying out, the tradition actually seems to be growing in Sheffield. “It’s not only a vestige of a former time, it's thriving and flourishing,” he says. “There are more now than there were 10 or 20 years ago. I think you'd have to go back to a time between the First and Second World Wars to find as much singing as there is now in Sheffield pubs.”
As to why our tradition has remained so strong, Russell says there is no single answer. He cites the strong local influence of the Methodist church, and its reverence for Christmas, as one possible factor. The history and geography of Sheffield with its tight-knit valleys and communities based around single industries could be another, he says. And a third could be the influence of rambling. “The number one leisure pastime before the First World War and between the wars for working people in Sheffield was rambling,” he tells me. “And one thing ramblers loved to do was sing.”
One of the main aspects of the carols that drew him to them in the first place was their diversity, something that has continued to the present day. When he was researching his PhD, he focused on a small group of singers, all of whom lived in a six square mile area of the west of Sheffield. His thesis documented the similarities and differences of the songs sung in different pubs, discovering that singing traditions tended to move up and down river valleys rather than between them. Latterly, with the increasing ease of travel, this has now altered, a change which has had the effect of increasing the repertoire sung in many of the city’s pubs.
For Russell, one of the best examples of this diversity is the dizzying number of variations there are on While shepherds watched their flocks. As ably explained by James Merryclough on the Tradfolk website, there are actually dozens of different versions of Shepherds with the same words set to different tunes. This, he goes on, is due to the fact that in the 1700s, it was the only carol which was permitted to be sung in Anglican churches. As a result, dozens of versions were written, including, in Sheffield, variations called Sweet Bells, Liverpool, Lyngham, Old Foster and Fern Bank.
But carols, like most things in life, are better in practice than in theory. With this in mind, on seeing Stannington Brass Band are holding a carol event at a pub in Kelham Island, I turn off the World Cup and head on down.
Grafters Bar on Burton Road is very much in keeping with one of Sheffield's trendiest neighbourhoods. It’s just down the road from the Peddler Warehouse and consists of two upcycled shipping containers and a central courtyard. Normally, in the winter months, punters gather in the heated containers. But tonight, the band is in one and we’re in the courtyard. As I walk in Baby, It's Cold Outside is playing — a choice which feels a bit on the nose, given the temperature.
The courtyard has been decked out with festive lights and everywhere I look people are sipping mulled wine or hot chocolate. As we approach half seven, trumpets and tubas begin warming up and we’re soon launched into the first carol of the evening, O Come, All Ye Faithful. After that comes The First Noel, Deck the Hall, and Silent Night. Many of these I know (or at least I know the first few lines and can John Redwood my way through the rest).
We’ve been here for about 15 minutes before the existence of another set of carols is even acknowledged. Up until now, we’ve been singing from the “Red Book”, a compendium of the famous tunes we’ve all sung a millions times at church services and schools at this time of year. However, there is another “Black Book” of carols that are particular to the Sheffield area. In fact many are particular to certain villages in the city (particularly ones in the west of the city like Stannington, Worrall, Wharncliffe Side, Oughtibridge and Dungworth). And some are even particular to individual pubs within those villages.
The first of these local carols we sing is Stannington (which, as you might expect, is local to Stannington). The band also plays Jacob’s Well, Hark, Hark!, Hail Smiling Morn!, The Christmas Tree and many others I can’t remember the names of. At my age I thought I’d heard all the carols I was ever going to — but it turns out I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Even with the words in front of me, with these local carols I’m a bit lost. The tunes are all recognisably festive but they sound somehow different and strange. Some of this is novelty: I’ve never heard them before tonight. But they also have a different feel to them. The music seems to take unexpected twists and turns while the lyrics are noticeably more folky, possibly even pagan in parts. I begin to get a sense of why the churches saw some of them as dangerously subversive and insisted congregations stick to the well-trodden carol canon we all know today.
Melanie Barber has been going to the carols since she moved to Sheffield in 2000 (she’s an outsider, originally from Lancashire). She’s a regular at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth, but also visits the Blue Ball at Worrall sometimes as well. She lives in Walkley, about an hour and a half’s walk from Dungworth. “On a lovely, sunny winter’s day it’s really nice to walk over the hills, do two hours singing and then walk back,” she tells me.
Melanie vividly remembers her first experience of the carols. On that occasion she drove to the Royal, and as soon as she got out of the car was astonished at the wall of sound that was emanating from the pub. When I got in, I couldn't believe how packed it was. It was sardines,” she says. “It just had this amazing feel to it.” As well as carols in which the entire pub joined in, there were also songs for soloists. She says the feeling of being in a packed pub when everyone suddenly falls silent to hear one person sing was astonishing. “You could have heard a pin drop,” she tells me. “There was this real respect for the tradition.”
Melanie’s love of the carols led her to get involved in the Festival of Village Carols, which took place in Grenoside earlier this month. Carollers come from all over the country to the biennial event, taking part in workshops during the day and sings in the evening. This year, a group from the United States even attended, the Glen Rock Carollers from Pennsylvania. This group owes their tradition to English carollers who emigrated to America almost 200 years ago.
Back at Grafters, the evening's singing has finished and I get the chance to speak to two of those who have been performing: announcer Tim Parris and tuba player Keith Lawton. Keith has been playing in brass bands and carolling since he was just eight years old. He is now 63. “I’ve been doing it more or less ever since,” he tells me. “I just love this time of year.”
One of the biggest Stannington Brass Band concerts over the Christmas period will take place at the Rose and Crown in Stannington or, as everyone knows it, Minnies (they even have local names for their local pubs, they tell me). Another popular event will be at the Top House (real name the Crown and Glove, again in Stannington). “That one is brilliant,” Parris says. “It attracts lots of hardcore carollers.” Never having realised that there are both moderate and fundamentalist wings of the carolling community, I ask them to explain what a hardcore caroller is. “Some people take it really seriously,” confides Lawton.
Tim is acting as the carol announcer tonight, but is actually a percussionist with the band. To play small events like the one at Grafters, they don’t need the full band, so tonight he’s been redeployed as the frontman. As an incomer, he’s only been carolling for around 15 years. But when I ask where he’s originally from, he’s suddenly coy. “I’m not prepared to say on the record,” he tells me. However, after some more prodding he quietly reveals, like me, he’s actually from the Lancashire town of Bolton. I whisper that his secret is safe with me.
As two Boltonians bond in Sheffield, it strikes me that the villages of western Sheffield have gone through huge demographic change over the past few decades. Are there now fewer people who know the carols in places like Stannington and Oughtibridge, I ask. “Maybe, as the villages get bigger and more outsiders come,” says Lawton. “But everybody who has been in the village for long enough still tends to know them.”
However, Parris’ “outsider” status, as well as Melanie Barber’s conversion to the city’s carol tradition, would seem to indicate that many people who come to Sheffield are as enthused by its local singing tradition as people who can trace back their heritage here for centuries. Parris tells me he’s loved listening to and taking part in them ever since he moved to the area. “People come to Sheffield from all over the country to take part in the carols,” he says. “They’re a bit special.”