It is amazing what you can find when you root around an old attic or garage. Ten years ago in 2009 I worked for a few months at Seaford Town Council. When I was filing some documents, I came across a box of old bits and pieces including battered pewter trophies and some old certificates. Amongst this old civic debris something caught my eye; it was an old wooden flute or penny whistle about 15 inches long and once held together with metal loops at each end.
On the back of the instrument is a set of scales with marks to show which finger-holes to use.
On the front are the initials R.L. and the date 1800, a drawing of a drum and the words “SEAFORD CP VOLUNTEERS – GOD SAVE THE KING”
I took the instrument to Pat White, the musical wife of Seaford’s long standing Town Crier and she identified it as a fife. A fife is a military flute usually made of rosewood or boxwood. It has seven finger-holes and was usually used to accompany a drum. The word “fife” comes from the old German word meaning simply “pipe”
I must admit I was excited to find this instrument, as the marking associated it with the Seaford Cinque Port Volunteers who were formed following a meeting on Friday 2nd May 1794. The meeting was chaired by Robert Stone, who had been Bailiff of Seaford on six occasions and who lived in the grand house that still bears his name on the Crouch in central Seaford.
Stone resolved to form a group of volunteers who would provide “such services as shall be deemed necessary on appearance of internal tumult or foreign invasion according to the particular act provided for the Cinque Ports under the command of the Lord Warden” There was a discussion about whether the sixty men required could be recruited in such a small town, but the Bailiff, Thomas Harben volunteered not only to lead the group but also (after the Town Clerk, Mr Hood had written it out) take a letter himself to Dover for the attention of the Lord Warden.
Our coast was in turmoil at this time as the threat of a French invasion was a very real fear. The military were busy establishing Blatchington Barracks where 1,500 soldiers were due to be based. But the initial concerns about men coming forward were unfounded as just ten days later Harben was able to report that enough “spirited young men” had come forward to join the Seaford company of the Cinque Ports Volunteers. On Monday 12th May 1794 the sixty recruits marched through the town, with cockades in their hats, to Corsica Hall where they were given refreshments. (beer I presume!)
In 1797 the Seaford Cinque Ports company volunteered to serve anywhere in the UK and the following year Harben was able to parade 200 local men at a rally in Alfriston; and then we come to 1800 when a Seaford volunteer with the initials R.L. ordered a wooden fife from London (my Seaford find is stamped with a makers mark “Cramer-London” – see below)
I like to think that this instrument was used on Thursday 2nd July 1801 when the men of the Seaford and Newhaven Cinque Port Volunteers paraded together for inspection, when they were found to be in the ‘highest order and in every respect, fit for purpose’. After the parade the men repaired to the New Inn (now the Wellington) for a cold collation – a cold buffet with even more beer! Perhaps our wooden fife was used again that evening to provide entertainment for the men and locals alike but despite the beer and the frivolity the Sussex Weekly Advertiser reported that the men ‘returned in a most orderly manner to their respective abodes’
On 11th April 1804 our fife would have been in action again – this time to celebrate the birthday of King George III. The Seaford Cinque Ports volunteers took part in a military exercise. There was a target practice at 10am when guns were fired at a buoy bobbing in Seaford Bay and afterwards the “fifes and drums” of the company played God Save the King followed by three cheers and (you’ve guessed it) a hearty lunch – no doubt washed down with more beer.
The fife was probably one of many which was purchased by the Cinque Ports Volunteers for its bandsmen. The fife was purchased from a company called Cramer and Son who were based at 20, Pall Mall in central London. This advert for a member of staff dates from 1808 but as the company provided military musical instruments to the Royal Family they were clearly well established at this time.
Another advertisement from 1810 confirms that the company produced fifes
Mr Cramer died in the early 1800s but his son John became the Band-Master for the 88th Regiment. John died at Edinburgh Castle on 21st October 1818. His obituary confirms the job of his father in London.
I was recently contacted by Eamonn O’Keeffe, a student at Oxford University who is fascinated by this rare survival and would be very interested to discover more information. If you can help please let me know.
Eamonn has created a fascinating blog of military music of the Napoleonic era which can be accessed here.. https://1812andallthat.wordpress.com./blog
Who knows the stories that the old wooden fife could tell? Unfortunately however it today remains mute – quite literally – despite their efforts neither Pat nor Peter White could get a note out of it!