Billy Harrison, the Wolds fiddler
In his memoire, `Bill`s Book`, Billy Harrison describes himself as having a "charmed life". As a baby he was "laid out for dead twice" and his mother was told, after a looking glass had been put to Billy`s lips to see if he was breathing, "he isnt dead, he`s living yet".
Billy left school at 14 and began work at Water Priory gardens, working there in the summer months and working for his father`s threshing business during winter. When the war broke out in 1914 Billy was told he wasn`t fit for service because of an impediment in his speech. But in 1917 he was called to the army and, later - at the end of that year, was sent to France. Against all the odds he survived the trenches at Cambrai with the 2/6th battalion of the West Yorkshire regiment. On taking the front line trench, Billy said "there were one hundred and twenty in our company, at the end of the day there were only ten of us left." Then at 19 years of age after surviving desperate sleeping conditions and getting nephritis, he was "marked for Blighty" - and was stretchered onto the ship for home in the New Year of 1918.
Later that year Billy was sent to France again, where following Armistice Day he marched along with his regiment to Germany, and took on the job of an officer`s batman along the way which he said was an "honour". He returned home to the East Yorkshire village of Nunburnholme for the second time in March 1919, to help with the threshing business.
Billy`s luck continued. He was struck by lightening twice and survived to tell the tale. Once whilst hoeing out in the fields. And for a second time riding his bicycle up Featherbed Lane between Kilnwick and Nunburnholme.
Billy learnt music in the church choir and school in Nunburnholme. He learnt to play the fiddle before he joined the army and used to play with his Dad and brother Bob. His father said that you weren`t a Harrison unless you could play. So Billy borrowed a fiddle from a friend, bought a 1/6d tutor book and 1/6d music stand and learnt to play. After the war, Billy used to go `Christmas singing` - with father and brother on fiddle, a chap called Jim Brigham on concertina, and Billy on an old cello which was the first instrument he`d learnt. They would play in the Church and on the street in Nunburnholme, carol`s that he`d "learnt from his father". They also had a friend from York who would join them sometimes, and would go by trap to Burnby and Hayton to play: "It was a well thought of thing in those days, farmers waiting for you". They would go to Kilnwick Percy Hall at the time that a Captain Whittle was there, uninvited but expected, for if nobody musicians turned up they would grumble "We`ve had no singers nor nowt".
Billy played his old cello for the Peace Ball in 1919 at the Victoria Hall in Pocklington, with the Harry Hotham dance band. His brother also played violin for R D Gray`s band and Billy was asked to go along. He played second fiddle to Bob in Gray`s band and also played his cello as he improved. The foxtrot, Lancers, old fashioned and modern waltz, ... they played at dances in village halls which in those days were army huts. Billy took the lead when his brother left to play in the Harry Hotham Orchestra. Their round was York, Pocklington, Millington, Driffield and villages, they were busy! Billy said "I often wonder how I did it, as many a time I got home at four in the morning, gone to bed and got up half an hour later for the day`s threshing." Later on the band was renamed the Modern Dance Band and were together for quite a long time. Billy was also in a male voice choir and Billy describes how singing "Messiah" at the Methodist church in Chapmangate was a "great achievement".
During these post war years, Billy married Edna, lived in Union Street, Pocklington, worked at Water Priory Gardens, and then at Lyndhurst as head gardener for the English family. In 1942, with Edna and baby daughter Bridget, he was asked by Mr English to move to Millington to be gardener at the Manor House which Mr English had bought along with the old chapel. Billy, Edna and Bridget moved into the Old Chapel Millington where they stayed.
Billy regularly visited the Gate Inn where he "enjoyed the occasional half a mild", shared stories with the locals, and played his fiddle - at the time Mr Alan Moore was the landlord.
It was at the Gate that he first met Peter Halkon, who encouraged Billy to write his book, and also introduced him to Jim Eldon, the Hull based folk singer and fiddler. Jim collected East Yorkshire folk songs and tunes and Billy was featured on several of Jim`s radio Humberside programmes. He was also featured in an article in the "Musical Tradition" magazine as the "Yorkshire Wolds Fiddler". At the Gate Inn Billy also met Ebor Morris at their New Year and summer dance-outs, and would join in their music sessions.
Billy`s large repertoire of tunes included those learnt from his father and some he composed himself. He played at dances until he was seventy five and enjoyed sharing his music well into his eighties. He even made his own musical instruments, one stringed fiddles, made out of "an empty cigar box, piece of cable and half a broom stick"
Memories of a Yorkshire Wolds Character
Written by Bill, and edited by Peter Halkon, Bill`s Book is mainly about the time between 1898 when Bill was born and 1942 when he moved to Millington.
The information and quotes on this website are taken from Bill`s Book.
Billy and Peter first met at the Gate Inn where Billy was talking to Sefton Cottom, the then head of music at Pocklington School, about his life at Nunburnholme and the first World War. At the time, Bill used to visit Bransholme High School and give talks about his early life. Peter recorded some of these reminisces and Billy was "finally persuaded" to write down his story. As Peter explains this was "painstakingly written in a small, neat hand" and "originally filled eight exercise books". Billy modestly opens the first chapter `Beginnings` .... "I have been asked to write something about my life by two or three people. I hope it will be worth reading."
"A favourite haunt". Billy at the Gate Inn with his fiddle, sharing music with Ebor Morris
Billy and the Gate Inn
A "charmed life"
Billy with Peter Halkon