Collinson, John


Collection date: May 1905

Area: Cumbria

John Collinson (1861-1935) of Casterton won first prize at the Kendal Folksong Competition on 4 May 1905, for which Sharp was the adjudicator. Sharp took down the winning entry ‘Wa’ney (Walney) cock fightin’ song’ (FT517). Walney Island (nr Barrow-in-Furness on west coast of Cumbria) was known for cockfighting even after it was made illegal in 1835. The song is sometimes called ‘The Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey’ (Roud 211) – it was the bonny grey cock that won the fight, backed by the boys of Biggar (a village on the island).

John Collinson had a very uncertain start in life. He was born in July qr 1861 (Kendal 10b 593) and was baptised on 22/11/1861 at Milnthorpe, second son of single woman Sarah Collinson. Milnthorpe is 8 miles S of Kendal. John and his older brother George were listed in the Kendal workhouse in the 1871 census, aged 12 and 9, while mother Sarah and third child Nancy were in a different part of the workhouse. Sarah, 32, was described as a ‘dairy maid’. Sarah could not get help from her own parents Moses and Nancy Collinson, because Nancy had died in 1870, aged 75 and Moses, a shoemaker then moved 10 miles south for work elsewhere.

While his mother would continue to be listed in the Kendal workhouse (1891, 1901 and 1911 censuses), John Collinson went off to learn the blacksmith’s trade, first at Preston Patrick (1881) and then at Lupton (1891). By that time he had married Agnes Askew (April qr 1885 ref 8e 1149) from Colton, nr Newby Bridge in west Cumbria. The couple moved to Casterton, nr Kirkby Lonsdale in 1892 and raised 11 children at ‘Town End’ (1901 census ref RG13/4910 f14 p1). In 1911 he was listed as a 'farmer and blacksmith'.

Sharp published Collinson’s cockfighting song in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society 2 (1905) p84. Percy Grainger then visited Collinson in October and November 1905 and collected a dozen songs from him (unfortunately without his Edison phonograph in hand). Grainger’s transcription of the ‘Wa’ney cockfighting’ song is file PG/1/33 at vwml website. Anne Gilchrist also visited Collinson later in June 1909, when she noted 7 songs, 2 of which she shared with Lucy Broadwood - ‘The Thresherman’ and ‘Pace Egging song’, which found their way into the Journal of the Folk-Song Society 5 (1915).

Gilchrist was impressed by John Collinson, who had a ‘fine ear for a song’ and had received ‘some education’. He told her that he had got the cockfighting song from his father-in-law. This was Christopher Askew, a woodcutter by trade, who lived nearly all his life at Colton (40 miles away from Casterton). When Christopher’s wife Margaret Agnes died in 1900, he went to live initially with his daughter Sarah, son-in-law James Woodburn and their 4 grandchildren at nearby Bouth village (1901 census). But the story is that in 1905 Christopher Askew was at Hutton Roof village (only 5 miles from Casterton) and that John Collinson walked over to that village to get the cockfighting song in readiness for the Kendal song competition. But (Gilchrist wrote) ‘the old cocker had forgotten the song’ and it was three days before he remembered it. The value of the prize was less than John's loss of earnings over those three days. Incidentally Christopher Askew died the following year aged 69 (October qr 1906 Ulverston 8e 565), so time had been of the essence.

John Collinson himself died on 2/7/1935, leaving £1,114.

Note 1: Gilchrist also collected 3 songs from John’s wife Agnes (‘The Green Bed’, ‘Father, build me a boat’ and ‘Apron Strings’), so she obviously inherited a voice from ‘the old cocker’. Gilchrist’s reminiscences are in ‘Some Old Westmorland Folk-Singers’, Journal of the Lakeland Dialect Society (1942) p8, as quoted by Dr Sue Allan in her thesis

Note 2: Collinson’s cockfighting song was selected for the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (ed AL Lloyd and R Vaughan Williams 1959). It was in the revised ‘Classic English Folk Songs’ book (Malcolm Douglas EFDSS 2003 p13 and pp126-127).


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