Tragic story behind Norfolk song which captivated classical composer

Statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams - Credit: Leo Leibovici/

A King's Lynn fisherman inspired one of England's greatest classical composers - but the 'wild' tune he adored accompanied a terrible story of torture and death at sea 

One of England’s greatest composers was so inspired by the songs of King’s Lynn fishermen that some of his best-known music is based on their tunes. 

Keen to preserve the folk songs, passed from singer to singer without ever being written down, Ralph Vaughan Williams noted down the words and music he heard in Lynn, publishing them in journals of folk songs and weaving their harmonies into his own music 

Vaughan Williams had become fascinated with folk music in the early 20th century, and worried the ancient songs might be lost, he began collecting words and tunes across the country. In 1905 he arrived in King’s Lynn. 

When he heard fisherman, James ‘Duggie’ Carter sing The Captain’s Apprentice Vaughan Williams thought it the most beautiful tune he had ever heard – despite its terrible story of a ship’s captain torturing and killing his child apprentice. 

Musician, historian and writer Caroline Davison said: “The wild melody of The Captain’s Apprentice, as sung by Carter, became the main theme in Vaughan William’s Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 and deeply influenced his later work. In old age the composer claimed that the cadences of the tune ‘finally opened the door to an entirely new world of melody, harmony and feeling.’” 

Caroline, of Norwich, fell in love with the tune first, and was shocked when she discovered the words to the original folk song and its story of the murder of a child sailor. 

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She was a conservation officer, assessing the historic value of a row of Victorian terraced houses in King’s Lynn, when she was told that Vaughan Williams had collected folk songs in a nearby pub, The Tilden Smith. 

It was the start of a quest to discover how the Lynn fisherman’s song had a profound impact on the rest of Vaughan Williams' career. 

His week-long stay in King’s Lynn yielded around 70 folk songs. Not yet famous when he first heard The Captain’s Apprentice, he went on to change the course of English classical music, nudging it away from Germanic influence and tying it into folk traditions. 

The first of his three Norfolk rhapsodies opens with the tune of The Captain’s Apprentice and features two more songs Vaughan Williams heard during his week in Lynn - The Bold Young Sailor and On Board a Ninety-Eight - a type of sailing ship. Lynn folk tunes also feature in Vaughan William’s A Sea Symphony

The composer called the slums of the North End of King’s Lynn, where fishing families lived, the worst he had ever seen. Large families lived in just a couple of rooms; there was no running water and waste from fish preparation and toilets or chamber pots ran into the street. Most were swept away in the 1930s with just one remaining – now True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum. 

True's Yard, King's Lynn.

True's Yard, King's Lynn - Credit: IAN BURT

The Captain's Apprentice by Caroline Davison

The Captain's Apprentice by Caroline Davison - Credit: Penguin Random House

Caroline Davison

Caroline Davison - Credit: Supplied by Penguin Random House

Caroline researched the sad life and violent death of the child apprentice at the heart of the song, King's Lynn lad Robert Eastick, as well as tracing similar stories of sadistic ship captains and terrorised children from around the country. 

She was a conservation officer with Norfolk County Council and then director of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust and has previously written a novel and the children’s book The By-Mistake Guide to Norfolk. She has also sung with Norwich bands and choirs including the Norwich Women's Soul Choir and The Ougadougous. 

From the Ralph Vaughan Williams exhibition at True's Yard Museum in 2008. A Bold Young Sailor collected by Vaughan Williams

From the Ralph Vaughan Williams exhibition at True's Yard Museum, King's Lynn in 2008. Pictured: A Bold Young Sailor sung by Mr Anderson, and collected by Vaughan Williams in 1905 - Credit: IAN BURT

St Nicholas Chapel on St Ann's Street, King's Lynn

St Nicholas Chapel, King's Lynn - Credit: Chris Bishop

At the age of 80 Vaughan Williams returned to King’s Lynn to give a talk about the songs he had collected in the town half a century before. And in 1956 his arrangement of Paddy Hadley’s Fen and Flood, in response to the devastating floods of 1953, which killed 100 around the coast of Norfolk alone, was first performed in St Nicholas Chapel, King’s Lynn. It was here that singing fisherman Duggie Carter wed in 1865 and the parents of the tragic apprentice he sang about were married in 1827. 

The Captain’s Apprentice, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the story of a folk song, by Caroline Davison, is published on August 25 by Chatto and Windus, in the 150th anniversary year of the composer's birth.