Hertfordshire folk singer
By Nicholas Blatchley
Of the various Hertfordshire people who sang folk songs to collectors, saving age-old tradition from the ravages of twentieth-century change, perhaps the most important was Mrs Emily Joiner of Chiswell Green, just south of St Albans.
She was born Emily East in 1855, in the Hemel Hempstead registration district. Early records have proved very elusive – possibly because her father’s identity appears to have been unknown – and she seems to be missing from the 1861 and 1871 censuses. Information recorded by the EFDSS says that she “learned songs at plaiting school from mother, grandmother and great grandmother”, which suggests a strongly matriarchal family background.
In the summer of 1874, Emily married a man named James Joiner, who was born about 1853 in St Stephen, a parish that included Chiswell Green. Witnesses at the wedding were a George and Mary Ann East, who may be a couple recorded as living at different times in Kings Langley and Abbots Langley. George was born in Hemel Hempstead in 1831 and may possibly be Emily’s uncle.
Emily would have been 19 at the time of her wedding; in the 1881 census, the couple have an 8-year-old son, William, whose birth would therefore have predated the wedding. William appears to have been their only child, although of course this doesn’t mean they didn’t have children who were born and died between censuses.
In 1881, the couple was living in Hendon, Middlesex, but in both 1891 and 1901, they’re listed in St Stephen, and may have been living in Chiswell Green by then. In 1901, by which time William would have been 28, they had two boarders, both described as labourers. James died in 1905, and in 1911, Emily was living at Chiswell Green with the same boarders. She was described as “working as a casual gardener” in 1914. Emily died in 1938, at the fine age of 83.
It was in 1914, when Emily was a widow in her late 50s, that the great folk-song collector Lucy Broadwood collected 13 songs from her:
The Trees They Do Grow High
Led Her to Roam
The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime
The Bramble Briar
The Bold Fisherman
Lord Burling’s Sister
Lord Thomas’s Wedding
Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor
A Farmer’s Son So Sweet
The Brisk Young Country Lady
In addition, another collector name Anne G. Gilchrist, in the same year, collected two different versions of Died For Love from Emily.
In most cases, Emily’s versions of the songs were merely one among many, but they’re no less important for that. In the case of The Bramble Briar (a song often known as Bruton Town in other versions) it was Emily’s version that was included in the seminal 1959 collection The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd, the only Hertfordshire song in the book.
Emily Joiner’s legacy may not be as important as some of the great source singers, but she inherited a significant tradition from those plaiting lessons and passed it on to the modern folk revival. She may have been considered a very ordinary woman in her time, but her legacy still lives on, nearly a century after Lucy Broadwood paid her a visit.