The tykes who sang for their supper

5th December 2003 at 00:00
If you think carol singers appear earlier every year, remember that in the 17th and 18th centuries the winter house-calls started on St Clement's Day, November 23.

St Clement is the patron saint of blacksmiths and the smiths went from house to house on his day asking for gifts of drink for a party. By the 19th century, rhymes such as "Clementsing" had been taken up by children.

It's among the historical carols, from the rousing "Gloucestershire Wassail" to the haunting "Down in Yon Forest", collected on CD by folk singers under the No Masters record label. Georgina Boyes, one of the group who has just released Fire and Sleet and Candlelight, explains how the Industrial Revolution and child labour laws played a part: "These were children who were too small to work in factories but whose earnings were still important to their families. With people increasingly concentrated in cities, they could earn a lot in a short time."

These forerunners of the Christmas-card groups of child singers made no secret of the poverty behind the custom in the final verse from "Clementsing": "The roads are so dirty, our boots are so thin Our pockets are empty and (shouted) GOT NOTHING IN."

The No Masters singers have been collecting carols for three years, drawing on local memory (mainly in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire) and archives at the University of Sheffield and the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

They found "King Pharim", a narrative carol about a miraculous harvest brought about by the infant Christ ("Come husbandman, cried Jesus, throw all the seed away, And carry home your ripened corn that you've been sowing this day"), in the 1894 records of folk-song collector Lucy Broadwood and discovered that she had been given the tune by a four-year-old boy who had heard travellers singing it at his family's door.

Fire and Sleet and Candlelight: regional and historical carols by Barry Coope, Jim Boyes, Lester Simpson, Fi Fraser, Jo Freya and Georgina Boyes from No Masters Co-operative Email: National Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language, University of SheffieldTel: 0114 226 6296

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and Sound Archive, English Folk Dance and Song Society, London NW1www.efdss.orglibrary.htm

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