John Clare and the Folk Tradition

Helpston Voices

Recorded in Helpston in 1982 by George Deacon

In the very early 1980s, as part of my research into Clare’s collection of songs, tunes, dances, customs and folklore I was fortunate to spend some time with several of the older residents of Helpston: Phyllis Crowson, Margaret Crowson, and Frederick Wootten. The, then, owner of Clare’s, Cottage Dorothy Ward, kindly showed me around and explained the changes that her family had made to the house (now completely transformed).

The recordings start with Mrs Ward who explains that when they had bought the cottage 30 years before it had no staircase but still had the hole through the ceiling for the ladder to give access to the upper floor. It is worth remembering that John Clare and his wife and children occupied only a small fraction to the cottage that we have come to associate with him. The next interviewee is Mr Frederick Wootten the eldest member of a longstanding Helpston family. Mr Wootten recalled his memories of attending church and the way that discipline was imposed by a man with a long stick. He also recalled his mother’s own experience of seeing John Clare’s body just before he was laid to rest.

Having interviewed Mrs Ward it was fascinating to experience the contrast when The Countess Fitzwilliam not only agreed to be interviewed but allowed me the privilege of exploring Milton Hall. Clare knew Milton Hall and had access to the library there. It is a very imposing house that has never been opened to the public. The Countess remembered the dances held in the house kitchens at which she recalled that a fiddle player was always present. She wasn't recalling John Clare of course but one of his successors as a local player at feasts and festivities.

I was particularly interested in hearing my interviewees memories of life and customs in and around Helpston at the beginning of the 20 th Century, just about 40 years after Clare died. Mrs Phyllis Crowson talked about preparing food and other aspects of Christmas celebrations whilst her sister Margaret remembered the rather puritanical nature of church and Christmas at the beginning of the 20 th century.

I also wanted to hear the natural voice of people whose accent would have been close to Clare’s own natural voice. Accent provides a major influence not only on the sound of words but also on the cadence of speech. If we want to hear Clare as he would have heard himself it is surely to these voices that we need to turn. Clare would not have spoken, or even heard, our modern “Received Pronunciation” nor would he have recognised the version of English we hear today in everyday speech. Replicating the accent of East Northants/Cambridgeshire isn't easy. I lived in a small village in East Northants for 20 years and never could reproduce it. I never pulled it off but when I wrote “Helpston Cracked Pippins”for BBC Radio 4 (broadcast Christmas Day 1983) we used an actor who could come close to the Helpston accent and to Clare’s voice. I hope that as you listen to these excerpts from these recordings they will provide and further insight into John Clare and the community he lived in.


To listen to these recordings click here: HelpstonVoices

In Helpston, there was a rhyme about the sounds of the bells in the four local churches. Whilst we were there recording in the 1980s we had the Helpston church bells rung for us. The bellringer was remarkable he rang all the bells himself attaching bell ropes to what seemed like every limb. You can hear his bellringing here   with me reading a short local poem about the sounds of the bells in the local churches:


Helpston cracked pippins

And Northborough cracked pans

Glinton fine organs

And Peakirk tin pans



In making these recordings available to lovers of Clare and his poetry can I ask you not reproduce or distribute them.


George Deacon