My Mum and I have been promising each other we will do the family history for most of the last decade. Apps have been purchased, magazines subscribed to, even a few interviews undertaken, but the roots of the Watts/Collins family tree stubbornly refuse to extend further than the mid-nineteenth century. Thus, in an effort to stimulate greater endeavour, the markontour Matriach and I have agreed to write occasional blogs that are in some way stimulated by our geneological pursuits. Episode One starts with my Granddad singing from his armchair about a man who got a black eye from being hit with a tomato.
Until my Watts grandparents moved to join my parents in Burton upon Trent in the 1990s, Christmas always happened in Newport, Wales. At first we stayed at my Grandma Collins’ house on Hawarden Road, which lacked central heating but boasted a coal fire and air raid shelter. But after she moved to live with us in Burton, basecamp shifted to Watts HQ in Gaer Vale.
Part of a 1970s council estate alongside a coal-shifting railway line, Gaer Vale was where my Nan and Granddad, plus my Great Aunts Edie and Elsie, moved along with pretty much all of their neighbours after the family terraced home in Raglan Street was demolished as part of a docklands slum clearance.
Gaer Vale was a noisy place in general, full of the sounds of horse racing commentary, shouted Countdown guesses, the constant bustle of my Nan in the kitchen, and a chorus of “Phone, Gwyneth!” whenever the big green telephone trilled. But the focus of this blog is the sonic harmony that ensued when someone (usually my Granddad or Aunt Edie) started us off singing the greatest hits of British musical-hall.
This was Wales, so everyone liked to sing. My Grandma Collins had a beautiful voice, trained in church choirs, and the Desert Island Discs in my dreams always ends with either my Mum singing Elvis Presley’s ‘Wooden Heart’, or the whole family raucously reproducing John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ (a song which my little nieces now also know off heart). But the Watts family elders had a particularly tendency to launch into songs as part of conversation, a trait passed down to my Dad (and markontour too, if I am honest), usually utilising a snippet from what I now understand to be the Edwardian musical hall songbook.
British Music Hall grew out of the demise of the Pleasure Garden in the early Victorian era, a product of London’s rampant expansion. Entertainment thus moved indoors, first in pub back rooms, and later into huge, faux-glitzy variety theatres.
Music halls served a largely working class audience, paying pennies to be entertained by artists singing mostly comic songs that chronicled the ups and downs of the fast growing proletariat. By the 1950s they had been pushed aside by cinema, radio and then television, but while they were flourishing, music hall songs were far more widely known and sung by anything produced by the best-selling artists today. Which is why I had high hopes of discovering the full lyric sheet of the song I most associate with my Granddad – ‘A Nasty Black Eye Had My Poor Uncle Jim’.
As it turns out, the words and music of many of the great music hall songs have survived and, thanks in particular to Cerys Matthews’ wonderful ‘Hook Line and Singer’ and ‘Songs of the British Music Hall’ by Graham Vickers, I have uncovered most of the tunes I remember my grandparents singing, including:
I’m Henery the Eighth I Am – about a man who marries the woman next door and becomes her eighth husband named Henry. Along the way I found out it was recorded by Herman and the Hermits in 1965.
My Old Man (Said Follow The Van)
Doing the Lambeth Walk
She Was One of the Early Birds – a lament about a grasping lover: “She was one of hte early birds / and I was one of the worms”
Burlington Bertie from Bow
and Lily Of Laguna – the lilting chorus of which I recall, but not the casual Empire-days racism of the verses
The only reference that I can find to ‘A Nasty Black Eye’, however, is a song called ‘Hold Your Row’, which was apparently a staple of the folk singer Walter Jeary, and which contains many of the same lyrics. But thus far that is all I can uncover. So for now, here’s my Granddad’s version, or at least the first two verses and hopefully someone will help me out with the rest:
A nasty black eye had my poor Uncle Jim
He said someone threw a tomato at him
Tomatoes don’t hurt you, said I with a grin
But these did said he for they were in a tin
Ooh la la, ooh la la
I called on my sweetheart, her name was Miss Brown
She was having a bath and she coudn’t come down
I said “Slip on something – be down in a tick”
She slipped on the soap and she did come down quick!
Ooh la la, ooh la la
Thus ends Family History #1. Let’s see what Mum comes up with for the next installment..