Making a song & dance about it
Gordon Young takes us back to 1896 when a Mr. James Morrison Cooke formed The Fisherlassies’ Choir
In its heyday, Newhaven was a busy village, bustling with life in its streets and around the harbour. Women, in particular, were ever present, buying fish to sell at the Fishmarket; or going off to work, perhaps in the kippering yards or making nets at Thos. Devlin’s, or getting the children off to Victoria school, or going to the local shops for messages for the evening meal.
They worked very hard and were the mainstay of the community, which is not to detract from the role of the fishermen, who risked their lives every time they ventured out to sea in their small craft.
To quote Sir Walter Scott’s character Maggie Mucklebackit in an early work, The Antiquary: ‘Fisherwives . . . keep the man, and keep the house, and keep the siller too’. It is pause for thought that many fisherwomen, rather than the husbands, owned their houses.
With all that going on, women needed a way to unwind and one of those ways was to join one of the village choirs - the Fisherlassies or Fisherwomen.
The Fisherlassies’ Choir were formed in 1896 by a teacher at Victoria Primary School, James Morrison Cooke, who originally called it the Fisher Girls’ Choir. After he died while serving in World War I, the choir had no director until a fellow Newhavener, Mr. David Kennedy, stepped in to fill the role. The choir split in 1929, leading to its renaming as the Fisherlassies’ Choir under its new director, Miss Ritchie. When she left the choir to get married in 1938, Mr. Robert Allan took over as choir director and served in the role until the choir disbanded in 1995, by which time the few members who remained were grandmothers and great-grandmothers.
Whereas the Fisherlassies sang in harmony with soprano and alto voices, the Fisherwomen sang in unison. The Fisherwomen’s Choir was formed under the baton of Mrs Marion Ritchie (who was not related to Miss Ritchie of the Fisherlassies). Mrs Ritchie directed the choir along with her daughters Menie and Betty. Menie assisted with conducting and elocution, while Betty played the piano.
The Fisherwomen’s Choir was founded in 1927 as much by happenstance as by intention. Mrs Ritchie, a staunch liberal, was attending a rally held by the incumbent MP for Leith, Mr Ernest Brown. During the event, she led a sing-along that the crowd enjoyed. Afterwards, Mr. Brown suggested she start up a local choir to sing at more of his events. This she did and thus was the Fisherwomen’s Choir born.
Over the years, both choirs achieved fame locally and nationally. It was to our delight that Newhaven Heritage was entrusted with the diary of the Fisherwomen’s Choir from 1927 to 1977, which proved to be a treasure-trove of fascinating detail and photographs.
Within five years, the Newhaven Fisherwomen’s Choir was performing around 40 concerts per year, all for charity, as well as singing at a number of church services. For the women involved, all this was on top of their daily duties and responsibilities of working with, or in, the fishing trade as well as keeping house and home together.
In 1933, the choir was invited to London to perform at a number of venues. Not for the first time, their colourful costumes caused excitement resulting in photo-opportunities at, for example, Billingsgate Fish Market and Selfridge’s Oxford Street store. In 1935, the choir returned to London to perform on radio.
On Saturday 23 March, the ladies were in front of a BBC microphone in London to be being introduced to the world on In Town Tonight, where Mrs David Ritchie was invited to introduce the choir:
“All the women in our choir belong to Newhaven — a fishing village on the Forth, near Edinburgh. The average age of the choir is fifty years, and quite a number of them are grandmothers. Many of the women still carry the creel. Although the choir was formed eight years ago, there are hardly any new faces — we are just a big happy family. The women are taught by ear only and yet have a repertoire of over two hundred songs and ballads — every note and word of which is memorised accurately. I know that many of the husbands and sons of the women who are out at sea tonight are listening, so I won’t talk any more. Let us give them a verse of a real fisherwomen’s song, Caller Herrin.“
Two diary listings interrupt the normal schedule with noteworthy events. on 20 February, 1936, King George V died and a boxed annotation states several dates cancelled for KING GEORGE V’S DEATH R.I.P as THE NATION WENT INTO MOURNING. The other break in their busy diary came between mid-July and late October 1939, noted as: ‘2ND GREAT WORLD WAR INTERVENED’. Had it gone ahead, this would have included a trip to Liverpool..
None of this deterred the choir during the war years, they spent much of their time entertaining the troops or raising funds for the war effort throughout the years of the conflict. That however, with this gift that keeps on giving, is a story for another time. ■
Info: Gordon Young at email@example.com
Newhaven Fisherwomen’s Choir on the roof garden at Selfridge’s, London with Sir Gordon Selfridge in 1933