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The Barton Broad Ballad

[ Roud 1781 ; trad.]

Barton Broad is a large lake that forms part of the River Ant north-east of Norwich in Norfolk.

Harry Cox from Catfield, Norfolk, sang The Barton Broad Ballad to E.J. Moeran on 27 October 1947 at the Windmill in Sutton. This BBC recording 16417 was included in 2002 on his Topic anthology The Bonny Labouring Boy, and in 2012 on the Snatch’d from Oblivion anthology East Anglia Sings. Paul Marsh quoted in the Topic anthology’s booklet:

E.J. Moeran: “Good on you Harry! Harry, who was Old Snuff?”
Harry Cox: “Old Snuff that was his nickname, old Henry. Old Snuffers that was his name. He hired the Broad. He tried to keep ’em off of babbing. I tell you there’s some more come in, about. He had these here chaps locked up. He had to go and let ’em out and pay all expense. He had to go and sell his cow to pay it.”

Harry told Bob Thomson in 1968: “That old Barton song, that old babbing song… My father was a little boy when they made that up. He used to tell us. They made it up about there… They made that old fella angry, old Henry, what tried to stop ’em. They done that for spite. He didn’t like them to go on the broad, so they went round there… He [Harry’s father] was 92 when he died and he’s been dead thirty year.”

And Steve Roud added:

A local song, not recorded from anyone else, which describes the efforts of a local farmer to prevent eel-babbing on a broad which he had hired for his own use.

Another Harry Cox recording, made by Peter Kennedy in 1953, was released in 1965 on his eponymous EFDSS album, Harry Cox and in 2000 on his Rounder anthology What Will Become of England?. That anthology’s booklet noted:

The hinterland of the port of Yarmouth, where Harry lived, consists of a number of freshwater lakes known as broads. Now the haunt of boating tourists, they were once full of fishes, and in Harry’s youth they were overgrown with tall rushes or reeds, which were used for the herring baskets. Harry took great pride in cutting reeds, which he considered an important part of his farmwork. The fishing sometimes involved what he called “a bit of legitimate poaching”. A farmer might rent an area of land that included a broad with its reeds and fish, and he could not easily prevent the farm labourers, who cut and maintained his reeds, from taking their share of the fish. Eels, however, were considered public property and there was a great deal of local speculation as to the best method of catching them.

This is a good example of an entirely local song, made about a local person over a local incident. Here was a landowner who tried to exert an unjust authority over the local eel catchers. Perhaps the song itself played a part in finally getting him convicted and fined and having to go to Norwich to sell his animals to pay the fine.

Babbing means catching eels, which is done “without hooks, using a long pole with worms strung on with lengths of wire”.

And the EFDSS album’s booklet noted:

‘Babbing’ for eels on the Broads is done by means of a pole without any hooks; worms are strung on a wire curled round your fingers into a bunch; they drop off as soon as you lift them off; quick work when they bite; you lift ’em up quick and they drop off onto the boat.

Tim Laycock sang The Ballad of Barton Broad on the 1989 cassette Broadside: Songs From the Land of the Broads. The album’s inlay noted:

Collected from Norfolk singer Harry Cox of Catfield, near Potter Heigham, it tells of a battle between locals and the owner of the Broad over fishing rights. ‘Babbing’ is an old Norfolk method of eel fishing, using worms wound round wire loops at the end of a pole.

The Shackleton Trio sang the Ballad of Barton Broad in 2022 on their album Mousehold.


Harry Cox sings The Barton Broad Ballad

It’s of an old man in Barton did dwell,
His nickname is Snuffers, he’s known very well.
He hired a broad, till he’s fit to go mad,
Don’t like the poor fellows to to on the bab.

Chorus (after each verse):
Right-fal-the-ral-loo, fal-the-ral-lal-lay,
Fal-the-ral-loo, right-looral-all-lay

About eight o’clock on the Broad we did go,
Our babs and our bouts, you very well know.
Old Snuffers came on and he looked rather white,
Said he, “My young fellows, I know you tonight.”

He came with his music, began for to play,
He thought about frightening those eels all away.
So he stamped all his eels, his pike and his breams,
So he might know his owners as they swam in the streams

Old Snuffers came on to the Broad on night,
We heard him long before he was in sight.
He swore we had damaged his boats and his nets
And he never stood gaol and he ran into debt.

He had two men locked up for the night,
He thought he would put all the others to fright.
The trial came on, he lost the day,
And all the expenses he had for to pay.

Then off to Norwich Old Snuffers did go
To sell his old cow, you very well know.
To sell his old cow, his duck and his hen,
And pawn all his capon, he will if he can.