William Irwin

(Article by Greg Stephens, from "A Trip to the Lakes" liner notes)


The life and times of William Irwin, 1822-89

William Irwin was born in Keswick, Cumberland, on November 3, 1822, where his father was a shoe-maker and baker. His mother was an Iveson from Carlisle. William was apprenticed to a cooper (barrel maker); and more importantly, from our point of view, he was also taught to play the fiddle by Gillespie, an eminent North Cumbrian fiddler. We know very little about Gillespie, other than Irwin's opinion of him, as recalled by William's son Edwin “He always used to say that Gillespie was a master-hand with the bow, and that he could play 'Due Mungo' with a skill that he himself lacked.” 

At the age of 16 years, young William went through a very significant rite of passage: his first professional gig. He played in the Grapes Inn, Keswick, on May 18, 1839. A first gig is a great event for any musician, but this must have been stupefying to the young Irwin, because he was paid ten shillings; this was much more than a week's wages for a lad at that time, and all for playing a few fiddle tunes.

This was no flash in the pan either. He meticulously recorded his earnings (and in later life, his tunes) in notebooks; and further down the page, after the first 10/- (ten shillings) can be seen 8/9, 13/6 and 11/3 . This was the start of his long connection with professional fiddling and Cumbrian pubs. The former provided him with half of his living, the latter nearly proved his total downfall (we'll come to that later).

In 1844, at the age of 21, he moved fifteen miles south from Keswick to Langdale, and started work as a cooper for the Elterwater Gunpowder Company. They had need for plenty of barrels, as their gunpowder was exported all over the world; by 1849 they were getting through four hundred a week, in various sizes. The music work continued, with the Keswick gigs rapidly tailing off, to be replaced with long-standing connections with various pubs in the Langdale, Grasmere, Ambleside and Hawkshead regions. Irwin's patch, incidentally, covered three counties, though it is all called Cumbria now. Keswick was in Cumberland, Elterwater in Westmoreland, and Hawkshead in Lancashire, with the three-shire stone at the head of Wrynose Pass, on the way from Little Langdale to the Duddon. Those who are familiar with the terrain of these parts will be very impressed with his habit of walking to gigs. His son, who rightly revered his father as a hard man, felt the most spectacular feat was his dad's walking from Elterwater to play at the Newfield Inn at Seathwaite in the Duddon valley. Many modern drivers are quite pleased with themselves when they first take a car over Wrynose, but Irwin did it both ways on foot, and probably with a hangover on the way back. I have played a few times in the Newfield myself, but I've never arrived on foot. William settled permanently in the Elterwater region, and worked for the Gunpowder Company for the rest of his life, with the exception of a couple of years when he set up as a cooper on his own account at Hawkshead Hill. He courted a widow, Dorothy Greenup (nee Birkett) of Bayesbrown House by Chapel Stile. His courtship involved writing her a tune, called "Mrs Greenup's Reel", and it seems to have done the trick: they married shortly after in Grasmere church. From then on Dorothy must have been pretty busy, as she bore seven sons and four daughters, and at least eight of them reached adulthood.

William was occupied too. Son Edwin again: “He was a most industrious man, and when he had a steady spell he was never idle”. He had his day job as a cooper. He played in the church band, in Holy Trinity Church, Langdale, with two other fiddlers and a cellist; this was in the good old days, before organs and harmoniums put paid to all the bands in churches. The pub gigs went on regularly: at the King's Arms in Hawkshead, for example, he played about four times a year for many, many years, with earnings varying from 6/6 to 12/-. He covered about thirty pubs in all, over a period of forty years. These gigs he referred to as “lakes”, which is nothing to do with the lakes: laking is a dialect word meaning playing. The music he played on these occasions was mainly for dancing to, either for couples in sets or for solo clog and step dancers; but it was also for listening to, so he had slow sad airs as well.

He also played for tea parties, referring to these as “auld wives’ bakes”; the money here was less, generally in the 2/6 to 5/- range. But even at half a crown, this was still a day’s wages, at the works, and for less arduous work and for a much shorter time. The Westmorland Gazette, by the way, in a contemporary (1855) account of an Irwin gig at the King's Arms, refers to the affair as an "auld Wives Hake". I fancy this is probably a mishearing, or misprint, as Irwin's son definitely said "bake" in this context. The account also reckons that fiddling and dancing went on till dawn, fuelled by tea and cake. As this occurred in Irwin's early years I fancy that he, at least, would have drunk something a little stronger.

Another source of money was the Christmas custom of hunsupping. This is also spelt hansopping, and derives from the name of the tune “The Hunt is Up”. (Over the water in the Isle of Man the tune name has got even more removed from its origin, and turns up as “The Wandescope” or “Unnysup”, complete with Gaelic etymology). Anyway, in the Lake District, hunsupping involved going round the village at night on Christmas Eve, wishing the inhabitants “Merry Christmas” by name outside each house, and playing the old tune (which is called “Hunt’s Up through the Woods” in Langdale). The householder would then oblige with a contribution. Houses that couldn’t be reached on the Christmas Eve round could be visited later over the twelve days of Christmas. Intriguingly, the £3-4-5½ for the 1851 Langdale hunsupping doesn't appear in the diary till January 14, 1852. This has led some folklorists to suppose that fiddlers out hunsupping went back weeks later to collect the money. I think the explanation is simpler: I would guess that, like many a busker since, he stacked the small change in a jar on the mantelpiece, and didn't count it till the dark days in the New Year when he had real need of the halfpennies and farthings. He had other earnings paid in bigger coins to see him over Christmas. 

Wordsworth gives a good account of the Grasmere hunsupping in his introduction to his “Duddon Sonnets”. It's well worth a read in its entirety, but here is a taster:

“Keen was the air, but could not freeze
Nor check the music of their strings
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand”

Stout and hardy would be excellent words to describe Irwin, a man who walked into the Duddon valley from Langdale, but it wasn't actually him that Wordsworth was writing about, the poem was written in 1819, just before Irwin was born. It is tempting to wonder whether Irwin met Wordsworth. Highly likely, I should imagine, they were both prominent people in the same locality for many years from 1840. However the Poet, unfortunately, had a keen ear for the inner music of nature but little or none for that of his fellow men: so we don't hear much from him about fiddlers in pubs or local dances. Leech gatherers, on the other hand, found it easy to get his undivided attention. It may be that an account of an Irwin/Wordsworth meeting may exist in the pages of some contemporary diarist, and will turn up sooner or later when someone spots the reference. Until then, we can only speculate.

Later in his life, another fruitful source of income appeared. Political instability in Europe was the indirect cause, as events in France in 1870 unnerved the British. A large number of volunteer regiments were raised all over England, and money was collected at a local level to build drill halls for training, equipment storage and other Dad’s Army type of activities. I don't think any of this was ever of great military significance, but a large unplanned side-effect was that numerous villages suddenly had ideal venues for music and dance, that hadn't had them before. This worked in two ways to Irwin's benefit. Firstly, the venue was bigger, so he could charge more dancers to come and dance to his playing; the earnings were very directly affected by the numbers, enthusiasm and solvency of the dancers, as the general routine at a dance was for the male half of each couple to pay a penny to the fiddler for each dance participated in. Secondly, it widened the potential audience in social terms, as people could turn out to hear him who were too respectable to brave the rough pubs he often played in. This trend towards respectability in the second half of the nineteenth century, which affected many aspects of life, was to affect Irwin and his family personally, as we shall see. 

It is easy to think of Elterwater, and Langdale in general, as rough and primitive then, but it should not be considered as totally isolated from the outside world. Even in the Stone Age, Langdale had its celebrated stone axe factory. Very near where Irwin lived, four thousand years before, people had made axe-heads from the particularly hard rock high on the slopes of Pike O'Stickle. And these axes travelled widely. They have been found throughout Britain, and some even made it as far as Ireland and mainland Europe.

Forward to Irwin's time, the 19th century, and Langdale had worldwide connections. The Elterwater Gunpowder Company was importing sulphur from Sicily and Texas, and saltpetre from Germany and South America. These ingredients, mixed with local charcoal, made the gunpowder which was then packed into barrels (made by Irwin) and sent all over the world. It went by cart to Pull Wyke staithe on the west shore of Windermere, then by boat to Lakeside, by cart again (or train after 1869) to Greenodd or Ulverston, by boat to Liverpool, and then by other boats to Africa, South America, the West Indies or wherever. I like to think of Irwin's barrels (minus the gunpowder) ending their lives as drums in Africa or Rio de Janeiro, as was the practice at the time. Empty drink barrels, you see, could be profitably recycled to contain consumables, but powder kegs were too contaminated by sulphur. And we should not forget that gunpowder and other material goods were not the only things transported in the boats: fiddle tunes went too, and others came back. Cultural communications were remarkably good in the 19th century.

Irwin had another activity: music teaching. Among his fiddle pupils was Henry Stables, who was a cobbler and boot maker in Walthwaite (by Chapel Stile and Elterwater). He later started a successful family shoe business in Ambleside, which lasted for a century. He was another fit man, and not long after Irwin’s death Stables went up Scafell Pike for a treat: in 1891, at the grand old age of 81. A contemporary account in the Westmorland Gazette describes his route as via Rosset Ghyll, and that he reached the summit before noon, after a six hours walk from Chapel Stile. 

Two points in this story indicate a great cultural shift in the area, and tell us something about Irwin's times. Firstly, Stables did the walk for recreation, as a family outing, and secondly the reporter wrote Rosset Ghyll, and not “Gill”.By the end of the nineteenth century times were changing. A century before, around 1800, only the likes of the poet Coleridge would have climbed Scafell for pleasure (and written a letter to his would-be girl-friend from the top), and I seriously doubt if Irwin or Gillespie ever climbed a mountain as a leisure activity: Irwin went prospecting for ore in the hills, but that was different. Now, in 1891, we see a common or garden boot-maker like Henry Stables toddling up Scafell Pike for a jaunt. 

The spelling “Ghyll” in the paper is also significant. This was a new habit in England, following the romantic antiquarians’ discovery that the Lake District word “Gill” was the same as the “Ghyll” of the Norse invaders a thousand years before. So, change the spelling and the Lake District improves no end in tourist potential, because it sounds more interesting.

It is notable that there are no tunes in Irwin’s or Stables’ notebooks named after mountains. Place names galore, certainly, and lakes and tarns, and the odd beauty spot (Latrigg Side and Stybarrow Crag, for example); people too, though not the Lairds that abound in Scottish tune-names, for Lake District society was more egalitarian. But there are no Scafell Hornpipes, Skiddaw Waltzes or Black Combe Reels to be found in their tunebooks, or in any other of the many similar contemporary books I have looked at. The mountains had not been worth celebrating by the likes of country dance fiddlers in Irwin's day, but shortly after his death they entered popular consciousness. The fells have changed, they are now something to be generally enjoyed.

Fortunately, Irwin not only taught Henry Stables fiddle tunes, but also instilled in him the habit of writing his tunes down in a notebook. So we have the very valuable historical record of two fiddlers’ collections from the same village at the same time, and we can compare similarities and differences.

Except for one big problem with William Irwin’s records; his notebooks have vanished. Thanks to his diary and tunebooks, we know more about William Irwin than probably any other English folk musician of his era. But only at second-hand. What happened (according to one account) is that Frank Kidson bought the books from Irwin's family, early in the twentieth century, and then he lent them to fellow-collector Anne Gilchrist, knowing her interest in Northwest English music. She copied out a lot of the tunes, but by no means all, listed the titles of the rest, and wrote a couple of articles using facts from the diary. We have her copies, and the articles. And that, alas, is it. There were no photocopiers then, in the early twentieth century, and she didn't have time for everything. So although we know about “Mrs Greenup's Reel”; that played such a role in Irwin’s courtship of his wife, the tune itself has been lost. And much else besides.

Gilchrist reckoned she returned the books to Kidson, and that his collection ended up in the Mitchell Library at Glasgow University. Some of it subsequently went to Leeds University, but no sign of any Irwin books has been found in Glasgow, or Leeds, or among Gilchrist’s papers in Cecil Sharp House in London. And the same, incidentally, applies to the notebook kept by Joseph Kershaw, the 19th century Lancashire fiddler, which also went walkabout at the same time. Another account, however, says the books were never in Kidson's possession, and that Edwin Irwin lent them to Gilchrist, and she gave them back to him after copying some of the contents. In which case, we should perhaps be looking for the books among Edwin's descendants, who at one time lived in Liverpool. Perhaps some descendant still has his fiddle, too?

I mention all this in the hope that one day it jogs somebody's memory. I refuse to believe they've been thrown away: somewhere, sometime, someone is going to open a dusty box on a shelf and say “I wonder what this is”. I'll keep hoping, and maybe one day we'll be playing “Due Mungo” again, and “Mrs Greenup's Reel”. Luckily for us the loss of the books has been made up for by the love and admiration Edwin Irwin had for his dad, which made him write quite a lot about him. A doubly anonymous article for the Westmoreland Gazette (neither Edwin nor William are actually named), and also several letters to Anne Gilchrist, which she saved. So, all in all, we know a lot about Irwin, though not as much as we would like.

We've looked at his musical activities, and his day job. But there were other sides to him too, he was a man of parts. He was small, five foot six tall, slight of build and very active. He was notable in his time as just about the only man in Langdale who could swim. Other than that, though, Edwin said “He was no sportsman. No wrestler, runner, cricketer. Nothing in that line at all”. But “To the last he had the springy step of a young man and was as straight and supple as a willow wand”.

He was a man of wide interests, reading up on mineralogy and geology: this equipped him for his various prospecting excursions into the hills (no gold that I've heard of, unfortunately). He collected a set of musical stones, basically a rock xylophone, which is in Keswick Museum. Or so one account says, at least, though I've also heard the story that the Keswick instrument predates the fiddler. I think it is perhaps more likely that Edwin misremembered one of his father's stories, and that the Irwin musical stones are the ones that Ruskin acquired, and are currently I think at Brantwood by Coniston.

He studied astronomy, and astrology, and wasn’t averse to making a few bob by casting horoscopes. This was a bit dishonest, as he confided to his son that he didn’t really believe in planetary influences. He made walking-sticks, and studied bookbinding. This was of practical use, as he bought monthly instalments of geographical and historical publications, and bound them into volumes himself.

He was also interested in his own music. This may not seem very noteworthy, but people have often remarked that traditional musicians seem to have no knowledge at all of what they play. Not so with Irwin, an entry in his diary says “The polka came up in Bohemia in 1843”. I don't know where he picked up this snippet of information, and we don't know either when the first polka arrived in Langdale. He wrote a few down, but we can’t date individual entries in his books with any great accuracy: but we can certainly say it was after 1843!

Interestingly, one of his polkas; King’s Polka No 1, can be also found in the repertoire of box-player Johnny O'Leary, in the Sliabh Luachra (on the Cork/Kerry borders). Not so odd, really, tunes get around; and the Manx and Cumbrian mackerel fishermen worked out of Dingle harbour, Co Kerry, in the summer months in the mid-19th century. The riotous social life that existed there doubtless resulted in plenty of tune-swapping. Itinerant Donegal farm workers also worked their way up through Lancashire, Cumbria and southern Scotland through the summers. As I have said, Cumbria was remote, but not isolated. It would be a brave man, and a foolish one, who would stick his neck out and say which tunes started in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or indeed, the Isle of Man. The Irish Sea is a great facilitator of communication. Those interested will find the tune in O'Leary's repertoire as “Din Tarrant’s” (he didn't have a proper title for it, Din was a friend of his).

I’ve given this tune some attention, but not just because Irwin and O'Leary know the same polka. What I find pleasing is that, even though the tune is widely known in different forms both as a dance and a song tune, the Irish and the Cumbrian versions are virtually note for note the same; even though they are separated by a century, three hundred miles, a sea voyage and a national border.

The time has now come to approach a delicate subject, Irwin's other hobby. It may not seem all that delicate now, but Edwin Irwin told Gilchrist this in confidence. I had to think about this a bit, but Edwin presumably told her the facts because he wanted her to have the whole picture, as a person genuinely interested in the life of a folk musician; and all involved are long dead, so I'll pass it all on. Over to Edwin again: “He was a drinker. How could he help but be? He was of a most sociable turn of mind. He was good company. He was looked up to by the denizens of the Dale as a man apart. He took sprees periodically. Most of the coopers did that at the time. There was monthly pays. The first week of the month was frittered away in gobbling and drinking. The next three weeks were gruelling”.

Now, the trouble was that some of these weekend sprees in local pubs cost him more money than the fee for playing there, as he didn’t get all his drink free. With a family of eleven he was steadily losing money, and getting further and further into debt. Drastic action was called for, and in 1875 he signed the pledge, and became a total abstainer. His life almost instantly turned round, and he and his wife enjoyed a much more peaceful time, though she died two years later. His earnings were no longer flowing back into the publicans’ pockets, and, as we have seen, the rise of drill hall dances also gave a source of income a little more distanced from the licensed trade.

By his own death in 1889 he had paid off all his debts, more than £100, and actually saved £100 on top. His son was particularly proud that William had settled up with everyone, even including statute-barred obligations (i.e. debts so old they were no longer legally recoverable).

Not only were the debts paid off, and money saved, but he was also buying expensive astronomical equipment. He started building telescopes, and with his last one he managed to see the planet Mercury a few weeks before he died.

In spite of the drinking sprees and the debts, Edwin said this of his father: “Not a single member of his family has an evil word to say of him. We have none but tender recollections of his memory”. He took pains to point out that he was well aware of his father's shortcomings: “I was about nine years old when he gave up drinking, so you will see that I can well recollect his frolics in that department”. Irwin's four youngest children all became lifelong abstainers in emulation of their father's efforts. There was a lot of it about at the time: my own great-grandfather, a Cumbrian miner, also signed the pledge around 1875, and my grandfather likewise twenty years later.

There were widespread moves for people to get their lives straight, for Cumbria was indeed a wild place at times. One of the pubs where Irwin played saw a friend of the landlord shoot a drinker dead. Or, in point of fact, a non-drinker: the altercation concerned the traditional English problem of trying, and failing, to get a drink after time. This was in the Newfield Inn, but it is much quieter now: you can even take children there quite safely!

Other contemporary Cumbrian incidents included a mob chasing naked women across fields; several other fire-arm and publican related confrontations; a group of miners beating up, and then attempting to drown, a policeman; and a thirty-strong group of policemen armed with swords attacking a drunken mob. It may not have been Dodge City, but it wasn't far off.

Life, of course, had many lighter sides. In Elterwater a regular source of amusement involved betting on the results of the gunpowder trials. Each batch was tested by putting a standard charge of powder into a massive mortar kept for the purpose, adding a 68lb cannonball, lighting the blue touch paper and retiring immediately. The distance the ball went was the measure of the quality of the powder, and bets could be placed and the proceedings watched from outside the Britannia Inn. One of the test balls is still lying somewhere in Elterwater: an unusually powerful batch of powder sent the ball way beyond the normal landing area into the lake, and it hasn't been seen since.

Just above the gunpowder works lies a header reservoir for the mills which powered the machines. One day a man called Hobson filled a bath tub with a considerable amount of ballast, launched it, and started to row across. This was his preparatory trial for a grand plan to achieve fame and fortune by rowing a tub across the Irish Sea. Half way across the water, however, he sank, to the great amusement of all present, and thereafter the reservoir was called Hobson’s Tarn. The attempt on the Irish Sea was indefinitely postponed.

Hobson's Tarn, by the way, was only a small header reservoir. The main supplies for the works came from Stickle Tarn, constructed with a big dam 1500 feet up Dungeon Ghyll just below the Pikes. Nowadays we know it as a pleasant but steep walk on a summer's day, finished off with a pint at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. In Irwin's day, a worker had to go up every Friday evening and shut the sluice, and again on Sunday night to open it again. Twice a week, summer and winter, light or dark, and rain, shine or snow.

Irwin's annals were neither short nor simple, but they came to an end on June 2, 1889. The events of the day of his death are worth telling, for life then was not the same as now. Irwin was ill with typhoid, and had had a very bad night. The family were worried, and at first light son Tom was sent to get his brother Edwin as quickly as possible. Edwin was working at Honister slate quarries at the time, a journey of some ten miles as the crow flies. That doesn't sound very much, but the route he took involved walking up Mickleden to the head of Great Langdale, up and over the Stake Pass and down into Borrowdale, then up Honister Pass to the quarries. By the time he had located Edwin, a violent storm had erupted, and it was unthinkable that they returned the way Tom had come. So they searched around, found a gig for hire, and drove it back down Honister, down Borrowdale to Keswick, over Dunmail Raise to Grasmere, and over Red Bank to Elterwater. They got home at seven in the evening, two hours late: Irwin had died at five.

Edwin wrote of his father (quoting Hamlet):“He was a man, take him for all in all, we shall not look on his like again”. Speaking for himself he added:“He was my mentor, my guide, my encyclopaedia”.

Irwin lies in the churchyard at Chapel Stile, a place which is well worth a contemplative visit. Irwin had watched the church being built, and very interesting the process must have been. It is placed snugly under a crag, and looks very well there. Most unusually, scaffolding was built out from the crag above the spot chosen for the church, and the builders could work downwards. Ever after, it was pointed out that the church was built from the top down, not from the bottom up. One of the builders was George Gillibrand Clarke, originally a woodyard man from Skelwith Bridge. But after finishing the church, he decided to stay on and work for the Gunpowder Company. This was to end in tragedy; one day he was working in the Corning House, where they crushed powder cake between rollers. A batch of over 500 lbs. of powder went up. His clothes were blown off, and he died within minutes, along with two other colleagues. The handling of gunpowder has always been a hazardous business, and there are a dozen fellow victims of explosions buried near him.

Close to Irwin in the graveyard lies the eminent social historian G.M.Trevelyan, who as far as I know did not mention William Irwin in his writings. Lakeland fiddlers were going out of fashion, completely ignored by the great and good. Maybe Irwin got out at the right time; his contemporary, fiddler James Airey over in Troutbeck, on Windermere, ended his days breaking rocks to earn a loaf of bread.

Soon it wouldn't just be the more elevated classes that ignored fiddlers: it would be everybody. We see the cloud arriving, no bigger than a man’s hand, in a couple of tunes written down in Irwin's own book. American music has arrived in the dale. Indeed, he welcomes this Trojan horse into his life, and writes his own Lakeland hornpipe version of the minstrel song "Jim Along Josey". And as Irwin died, Irving Berlin and Jelly Roll Morton were being born. The first international boat was about to go up the Manchester Ship Canal, into the heart of industrial England, and that boat, prophetically, was from New Orleans. The popular music revolution on its way to England would destroy the widespread enjoyment of the old dance tunes. Local music went underground. Some of it, ironically, went to America, in the heads of fiddlers who emigrated there; to a land where fiddle-tunes flourished in the backwoods much more happily than they did at home, in recent years.

Irwin's territory is a wonderful place, rightfully the foremost tourist destination in England: Langdale, Grasmere, Borrowdale and Keswick, the Duddon Valley, Hawkshead and Coniston. Tamed and open to coach trips now (except the Duddon valley!), but it can still be a dismal and fearful place in the winter’s dark; you can still feel that you are living in the valley of the shadow of death, with the mountains meeting over your head. That is when you would be glad to meet Irwin and his fiddle in a pub, even in his latter years drinking lemonade.

Thirty years ago, I heard a good story from H.T.M. Swire (I never did learn his Christian name, he was Mr. Swire). He was a great-great-nephew (or thereabouts) of Irwin's, and he reminisced about times spent with William the younger, that is Irwin the fiddler’s son. Young William said that in the mid-19th century there were still eagles up in the lakes, and one pair (perhaps the very last?) were nesting in Langdale, on Pavey Ark, which is the great cliff above Stickle Tarn, just below the Pikes. So William (the younger, this is: William the older is not the villain here) got a friend to rope him down the cliff, pinched the eggs and sold them to a tourist.

The eagles died out in the Lake District, not surprisingly. And so, very nearly, did the fiddling, and Irwin's tunes.

But now, more than a century on, the eagles are back, not in any numbers, but they have got a precarious clawhold in the district; let's hope that's all they need. And the old fiddle music is back too: clinging on by the skin of its teeth, but it is growing and spreading, and long may that continue. Irwin’s tunes are back in the pubs and halls where they belong, while he lies quietly at Chapel Stile, a short but vigourous walk from the Neolithic stone axe factory and the old eagle's nest beside it.

Edwin’s comment on his father’s playing:
“He was a really first-rate country fiddler.”

You can’t say fairer than that.

Greg Stephens 2005

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