Radio actuality recordings

A unique collection of original BBC and other radio actuality recordings brings to life the London of the 1920s to the 1950s. These sounds were captured at street markets, fairgrounds, skittle alleys, auction houses, hopfields and elsewhere.

Bermondsey pub songs 1954

BBC TRANSCRIPTION disc number 884525 bears two of a very small number of surviving recordings made of pub music. They both date to the 3rd of February 1954 and come from the Cock and Monkey pub in Neptune Street, Bermondsey, which was demolished in 2003. The Pubs History website has a photograph of it here.

The record features the local singers Bill Burnham and Bill French delivering two songs, ‘Cock-a-Doodle’ and ‘The Tramp’. The BBC catalogue entry provides an above-average amount of background detail:

“The Two Bills” as they are often called were entertaining in the ‘Cock and Monkey’ when these recordings were made. Their songs represent three distinct types of Cockney music-hall humour with which they have been brought up. They learnt the songs from public-house singers in their youth; later the two formed a “party” and entertained in pubs themselves. They have appeared on Television and recorded for Parlophone (1954) ‘What a Mouth’ and ‘Cockney Capers’ (a selection of Cockney choruses). Bill Burnham drives a motor van for an evening newspaper (“The Star”) and his father, until his death last year, also sold papers for the same firm.

His father kept a fish-barrow in Tabbard [sic] Street, Bermondsey, and was known as Art Burnham. He gave lessons to children on the piano when he was 12 and all his life was well-known locally as an entertainer and as a maker of Cockney songs. His son Bill picked up songs from him and other local entertainers. Bill French, known as “Busty”, is a stoker in a brewery. He picked up songs at an early age and then when he met the other Bill suggested they form a “party”. He generally sings seconds while Bill Burnham sings the lead and plays the piano. His mother sang and he has a niece in Glyndebourne Opera Co. During the last war he entertained troops in many parts of the world.

The entry goes on to state that ‘The Tramp’ involves a play on the double meaning of the word “saw” [providing] a typical kind of Cockney “humorous pathos”. There’s a bit more going on in the song than that. The tramp not only chooses to interpret ‘saw’ as the past tense of ‘see’, but also lectures the lady of the song on her grammar. In a small way the world is turned upside down.

‘Cock-a-Doodle’ has fun with the word ‘cock’, which Burnham sings with particular relish. Double entendres were long a staple of music hall and pub songs, from Marie Lloyd’s ‘She sits among the cabbages and peas’ through to the tongue-twister of ‘Susie in the shoeshine shop’ and ‘What a wonderful fish the sole is’, which was popular with London pub comedians until at least the early 1980s. I remember Jimmy Fagg singing it during his regular Sunday slot at the Carved Red Lion in Exmouth Market. The words went:

What a wonderful fish the sole is,
What wonderful fish are soles.
Though I’m glad to relate,
I’m partial to skate,
When served on a plate with rissoles.

What a wonderful fish the sole is,
They swim around in shoals.
But the finest of fish, ever served in a dish
Are soles, are soles, are soles.

Just a few days after the BBC visited the Cock and Monkey, the folk song recordist Peter Kennedy turned up to make his own recordings of Burnham and French’s songs. These eventually found their way onto the Folktrax compilation The Londoners.

Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.

Bermondsey pub songs 1 2:36
Bermondsey pub songs 2 2:17