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The Musicians of Rossendale

An introduction to the musicians of Rossendale, Lancashire, active from the 1740s to the 1860s.

by Jean Seymour, Conductor of the the Larks of Dean Quire.


© Jean Seymour 1994 and 2000. Reproduced and amended from an article that first appeared in West Gallery no.6, Spring 1994, pp. 14-21.

Up in the Forest of Rossendale, between Deerplay Moor and the wild hill called Swinshaw, there is a little, lone valley, a green cup in the mountains, called Dean. The inhabitants of this valley are so notable for their love of music that they are known all through the vales of Rossendale as 'Th'Deighn Layrocks', or 'The Larks of Dean'.

These are the words of Lancashire author, Edwin Waugh, on the subject of the composers, singers and instrumentalists whose activities in the Rossendale Valley spanned the period between the 1740s and the 1860s. By Waugh's time, Rossendale was no longer the royal hunting ground that 'forest' suggests. It was (and still is) made up of a large number of small communities, little more than hamlets in the old days, strung together along the bottoms of the valleys and separated by rolling hills rather than Waugh's 'mountains'. Cotton and shoe-making became its main industries in Victorian times, but in the mid-eighteenth century most people were hand-loom weavers, including the group of instrumentalists and singers who became known as the Larks of Dean.

As a native Rossendalian, I have known about this corpus of local music for most of my life, my basic awareness stemming from a talk given by the music master at my secondary school to a church youth group which I attended as a teenager. However, I have the inspirational first West Gallery Music Association Weekend at Ironbridge in April 1990 to thank for the spur I needed to undertake the extensive research which has occupied me since then.

Earlier writings

Much of what has already been written about the Larks of Dean came from the pens of the aforementioned Edwin Waugh, and Lancashire historians, Thomas Newbigging and the Reverend J. Marshall Mather, writing in the second half of the nineteenth century. These three freely quote from each other and re-work their own writings in later publications to such an extent that it is difficult to be sure who originated which anecdote. Some of the tales they relate may be somewhat apocryphal, but all three claim acquaintance with actual members of the group, and certainly Newbigging knew the music. He claimed to have in his possession a book of fifty tunes in manuscript, which he believed to be only a fraction of what existed. How right he was!

Later writings that I have come across also rely heavily on these sources, and they played a substantial part in a series of thirteen articles by local councillor Samuel Compston of Crawshawbooth, published in the Rossendale Free Press, a local weekly newspaper, between September 1904 and January 1905. [1] Compston was inspired to research and write his articles following the presentation of a book of 255 tunes to Rawtenstall library by Moses Heap, born in 1824 and essentially 'the last of the Layrocks'. It had taken him fourteen and a half years to copy out the tunes. Compston interviewed Heap and as many people with Larks of Dean connections as he could track down, to produce a work that remains definitive to this day.

The Larks' beginnings

It all began with a sober young man called John Nuttall from Bacup, who, with another of like mind, Richard Hudson of Loveclough, followed the example of John Wesley and other itinerant preachers and went about on horseback preaching, teaching and singing the new religious music that was gaining favour. Nuttall was mainly responsible for the religion and Hudson for the music. They happened to be Baptists, and it was in the Baptist Chapels of Rossendale that most of the music of the Larks of Dean was kept alive, and where some can be heard upon occasion even today.

Nuttall and Hudson both regarded music as playing an important part in religion. Everywhere they went they gathered about them players and singers to help focus the religious fervour. They married two sisters, both reputed to have been excellent singers, and Nuttall settled in the Lumb area, where he held religious meetings in houses and farms around Dean, and began to teach music, which led to the formation of a musical club in 1742. This club is generally regarded as being the beginning of the Larks of Dean, with John Nuttall the founding father, although this possibly underestimates the part played by Richard Hudson.

Certainly Hudson's interest continued and his descendants feature quite prominently on the church music scene throughout the Larks of Dean history. Various composers from the Nuttall and Hudson families constantly crop up; Ashworth and Hargreaves are the other two main names. The preserved collection has a large number of manuscripts from the Greenwood family, but they don't seem to have actually composed. There was, of course, a lot of intermarriage between these families who spent their working and leisure time in close contact with each other.

Chapels and music

As a result of John Nuttall's activities, a small Baptist chapel was built in about 1750 next to the parish church in Lumb, and John became the minister. The local worshippers soon outgrew these premises, and in 1760 a new chapel was built on top of the moors at Goodshaw. One person, Lawrence Ashworth, is said to have trudged the two miles from Lumb carrying his very pew from the old building. While this was probably a bench rather than what we today would think of as a pew, the image still shows a high degree of commitment.

The old Goodshaw Chapel
The old Goodshaw Baptist Chapel.        A drawing by Gordon Ashman, 1994.

John Nuttall became Goodshaw Chapel's first minister and remained there until his death in 1792.

Goodshaw Chapel was deemed to be more central for the district's Baptists. It was certainly central in more than one sense to the Larks of Dean and their music, because of course they transported their instruments over the rough moorland terrain every Sunday to perform in the singing pew at Goodshaw. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that here, as in many other Baptist chapels, the musicians' pew was not in a west gallery but at floor level, directly in front of the central pulpit and under the eye of the parson -- none of your Under the Greenwood Tree goings-on in Rossendale!)

Many tales are told of the splendid music that used to be a feature of the services at Goodshaw. It was said that in the chapel's heyday the music could be heard on the top of Cribden, a hill-top two miles away as the crow flies.

Coincidentally, the life of Goodshaw Chapel lasted as long as the period of the Larks of Dean proper. When it closed in 1860 in favour of the present chapel on the main Burnley road, the Larks' heyday was also passing. Today the Goodshaw Old Chapel with its box pews, high central pulpit, and, of course, the singing pew, belongs to English Heritage, and can be visited by arrangement.

The new chapel still celebrates the anniversary of the old one, currently on the first Sunday in July. In the years to 1994 a string band led the music in the graveyard of the old chapel in the afternoon, weather permitting but now the organist brings along an electronic keyboard. This afternoon service does not feature any of the old music, but in the evening an all-comers' choir joins in a set service which includes two choruses from Handel's Messiah, a tune called 'Nearer Home' by J. B. Woodbury, Moses Heap's 'Ramah', and three tunes from the Larks of Dean collection -- Joseph Nicholds' 'Courage', James Nuttall's 'Spanking Rodger', and the Rev. Joseph Harbottle's 'Farewell'. [2] Formerly, the evening service was held in the the present chapel, but in 1994 it took place in the old one, ironically for the first time in many years without the string band to lend its distinctive strains, and so it remains to the present day.

Music manuscripts

But what of the rest of the music of the 'Deighn Layrocks'? Moses Heap told Compston that 'not for 5 pounds' (at 1904 prices) would he care to repeat his marathon copying exercise, and who can blame him? But even Heap's massive tome doesn't contain all the tunes. Just as Newbigging's fifty tunes pale into insignificance against Heap's manuscript, this in turn is overshadowed by the sheer volume of the whole collection. Rather than Newbigging's mere fifty tunes, there are fifty books preserved, three-quarters in manuscript. Most are now housed in the Lancashire County Archive in Preston. Some are still in private hands, and half a dozen volumes (including Heap's) are to be found in Rawtenstall museum, together with a 'cello, fiddle, clarinet and serpent which once belonged to the players.

Spanking Roger from a manuscript book
'Spanking Rodger' as found in a manuscript book.

In my researches I have pored over some 22 manuscript books of psalm and hymn tunes; 12 huge printed volumes of complete oratorios, doubtless the single printed copy from which the players and singers would painstakingly 'prick out' the music to be performed at a given service; 8 manuscript books of oratorio choruses, one-off items and/or anthems taken from psalms, some of them local compositions; 2 volumes of wholly secular dance music, plus one with sacred choruses at the back; one volume of overtures; 2 of parlour-ballad type songs; a printed copy of James Leach's psalms and hymns (both volumes bound together); and an 1849 printed collection of hymn tunes -- fifty separate volumes, plus a collection of loose sheets. Between them, they contain nearly 1,100 different psalm and hymn tunes, many appearing seven or eight times, with three reaching ten repetitions, but others written out only once.

The Composers

The Reverend John Nuttall's two sons, James and Henry, were the chief Larks of Dean composers. Henry was the most prolific with one hundred tunes in the collection, many in the minor keys of which he was particularly fond. James has 35 sacred tunes, plus his 'Great Salvation', a setting of Isaac Watt's hymn 'Salvation! O, the joyful sound!' which reputedly lasts half an hour. [3]

John Hargreaves has about twenty tunes plus a number of anthems which it would be good to tackle one day, and there are substantial contributions from Reuben Hudson, son of Richard the co-founder, and the Ashworth brothers Abraham and Robert. James Nuttall's son, John junior, and a James Nuttall who may be either the son or the nephew of James senior, together with Robert Ashworth, are responsible for most of the secular items.

I am indebted to Moses Heap's tome for 96 sacred tunes which appear nowhere else, 60 of them local compositions which might otherwise have been lost. I hope one day to discover where he copied them from! Roughly a quarter of the music is assigned to local composers and a number of other tunes bear local place names which might also suggest a local origin.

Stories of Larks

The writings referred to earlier, together with Moses Heap's diary, a transcript of which was presented to Rawtenstall library by his relatives in 1961, relate a number of interesting tales about the Layrocks. Edwin Waugh tells of meeting a group of musicians on Swinshaw Moor, returning from 'a bit of a sing', and persuading them to take out their instruments and strike up a tune or two.

There are many references to practices going on into the early hours, or Sunday singings extending into Monday and beyond, to the neglect of the musicians' daily work, so that for the rest of the week they had to labour later than usual in order to catch up. Frequently quoted is an occasion when an unnamed young man made to leave, having a considerable distance to walk home over two sets of hills between Haslingden and Dean and an early start the following morning. He was informed that he would never make a musician as he was in too big a hurry, and told to make sure that it didn't happen again at the following night's practice!

Many stories are told of Robert Ashworth, composer and performer of both sacred and secular music. He was a local preacher, and would frequently announce the psalm from the pulpit, join the instrumentalists on his cello, then dash back to deliver the sermon. When castigated by a member of the church for playing secular music -- 'an idle tune' -- in the vestry between services, he countered with 'There's no such thing as an idle tune; it's all in the rendering!' and he is known to have quoted the well-known 'Why should the devil have all the best tunes?' from time to time.

Robert and his son James are the subjects of a story which tells of a father and son who had gone to bed, unable to master a tune. James woke his father, telling him that he had sorted it out in his head, and they got up to try again. Samuel Compston muses about the Tam O'Shanter-style effect on a passer-by seeing these nightshirted figures through the uncurtained window, hearing the ghostly fiddle and cello, and thinking the worst.

night-time music-making
Robert and James Ashworth's night-time music-making [4]

Larks and Handel

When not playing their own music, the Larks of Dean were very partial to that of Handel. Henry Whittles is said to have walked all the way to Manchester, a round trip of some two dozen miles, simply to look at, not buy, a copy of Samson.

Henry Nuttall walked to Burnley for a performance of 'Judas Maccabaeus', but misjudged the time that his journey would take and missed the splendid C minor opening chorus 'Mourn ye afflicted children', his favourite, whereupon he sat down and wept.

Another man is said to have been able to 'solfa' the whole of certain Handel works, and when he forgot the words during a solo, carried on in 'solfa' until his memory recovered.

Robust singing in the local accent caused one conductor to declare that if the choir didn't stop singing 'He thrusted in God' in the Messiah chorus they would be thrust outside!

Rossendale still quite frequently rings with Handel's music, albeit perhaps with rather more professional polish than may have been the case in the heyday of the Larks of Dean, although today's musicians can certainly be no more enthusiastic than their forebears. It would be wonderful if one day more of the local legacy of sacred and secular music was performed too.

One final, burning question. The name of the music master who first introduced me to the Larks of Dean all those years ago was Michael Nuttall. Is he a direct descendant of the Reverend John? Certainly on that occasion he showed us a manuscript book that I haven't yet come across in my researches. I can distinctly remember being intrigued at the time by the title of one of the tunes, 'The Gas Homiter March', doubtless written to celebrate the building of the gasholders or 'gasometers' at Cloughfold. There's always more research to be done, isn't there?

If this article inspires you and you live within easy reach of Bury, do get in touch and swell the numbers of our small group, the Larks of Dean Quire. With eleven hundred psalm and hymn tunes to go at, plus anthems, overtures and dance music, we're certainly not stuck for material!

Reprinted from S G Publishing Gallery Music site


[1] Extracts from these articles are included as Appendix 1 in Roger Elbourne's book Music and Tradition in Early Industrial Lancashire 1780-1840, published for the Folklore Society by D. S. Brewer, Woodbridge, Suffolk, and by Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, New Jersey [ Back to text ]

[2] Transcriptions of Spanking Rodger and Farewell, with others from the Larks of Dean collection, were included in the music provided for the WGMA weekend held at Chester in November 1993. [ Back to text ]

[3] Three extracts from 'The Great Salvation', transcribed/arranged by Dave Townsend, were included in the music led by Dave at a workshop day in Bury in November 1996. The work has since been fully transcribed by Jean Seymour and led by Paul Guppy at a full day workshop on the piece in October 2003 - and it takes about 20 minutes. [ Back to text ]

[4] This illustration is taken from Thomas Newbigging's Lancashire Humour. [ Back to text ]


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