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Larner, Samuel James [Sam]free

  • Roy Palmer

Larner, Samuel James [Sam] (1878–1965), fisherman and folk-singer, was born at Winterton, Norfolk, on 18 October 1878, one of the nine children of George Ezra Larner (fl. 1855?–1920?), fisherman, and his wife, Jane Amelia Powles. From the age of eight he went on occasional trips to sea, and at thirteen he signed as ‘peggy’ (cabin boy) on the Young John, a 40-ton sailing lugger. In 1894 he joined the Snowflake as a deckhand, and in 1899, after eight years in sail, he moved to the Lottie, the first of a series of steam drifters. In December 1923 Larner married Dorcas Eastick, who worked at Hill House, Winterton, in the church of her own parish, Watton, some 20 miles west of Norwich. The marriage lasted over forty years. Among the wedding celebrations was a long session of singing in the Winterton public house then kept by Larner's father. In 1933, in poor health and worn out by unremitting hard work, Larner left the sea, and he thereafter eked out a living until his retirement eight years later with periods on unemployment benefit and jobs such as tree planting and breaking stones on the road—in his own words, 'just like a convict' (MacColl and Seeger, 1).

In his own locality Larner was well known as an entertainer. By the age of eight he was picking up the songs he heard his grandfather sing at the Fisherman's Return public house at Winterton, and in the following year he was singing them himself to earn pennies from the coach parties which stopped in the village. When he joined the fishing fleet:

We used to sing when we pulled in the nets, and I soon picked up the old songs. The ruder they were, the quicker I picked 'em up. Then we used to sing these songs to each other in the pub. There was no amusement in those days, and we had to make our own entertainment. There was one landlady who always gave me a cigar when I sang a rude un.


Over the years, as the fleet followed the herring, Larner sang in fishermen's concerts 'all the way from Lerwick in Scotland down to Newlyn in Cornwall' (MacColl and Seeger, 2). His repertory ran to well over sixty items—classic ballads, sea songs, broadside lyrics, music-hall pieces.

Larner was an extrovert performer, something of a showman who 'vividly savoured every line he sang' (Lloyd), lapsing from time to time into parlando, pausing, uttering gruff asides; 'songs excited him, and made him laugh outright, or snort with indignation, or murmur with sympathy'. As well as zest for singing, he had a high degree of musical skill and sensitivity which ensured that when he came to the attention of the wider world, at the age of seventy-eight, he made a lasting mark. 'A man from the BBC who was doing a tour went into the local pub and asked if there was anybody in the village who could sing folk songs. Someone told him about me, and he asked me to go over' (Anderson). After the fortuitous meeting, the 'BBC man', Philip Donnellan, a distinguished producer, not only recorded Larner but brought him to the notice of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. They in turn made extensive recordings of both his speech and his singing, and also took him to London to meet the new audience of the folk revival then taking place. At the Princess Louise public house in Holborn, Larner 'sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word as though he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca' (MacColl, 318). Larner hugely relished the occasion, not least because of 'All them pretty young girls sitting down there on the front row with their short skirts'.

Larner soon reached a still wider audience through his part in the Italia prize-winning BBC radio ballad Singing the Fishing (1960), by MacColl and Seeger (produced by Charles Parker). One of the songs written for the programme by MacColl, 'The Shoals of Herring', which subsequently enjoyed a great vogue in its own right, was closely based on Larner's accounts of his experiences at sea, in sail and steam, over half a century. Now is the Time for Fishing, an epoch-making LP of Larner's talk and singing, edited by MacColl and Seeger, came out in 1961, and in 1964 Larner featured with Harry Cox in a television film directed by Charles Parker, The Singer and the Song.

Sam Larner died at the St Nicholas Hospital, Great Yarmouth, on 11 September 1965 and was buried, possibly at Winterton, five days later. Interest in him continued: transcriptions of his songs appeared in anthologies, selections from Donnellan's recordings came out on LP and cassette (1974–5), and Singing the Fishing was issued on LP (1966), then on CD (1999). Now is the Time for Fishing also reappeared on CD (1999), and in the previous year Larner's singing was represented on two of the twenty-CD series The Voice of the People. Several decades after his death Larner was still not only admired but held in great affection. A. L. Lloyd called him an 'exemplary singer' (Lloyd). For A. E. Green he was 'a poet of the everyday, crystallising in a few laconic and concrete phrases a lifetime of hard experience and its attendant emotions' (Green, 19). Ewan MacColl remembered the octogenarian, 'short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life', whose 'one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl' (MacColl, 318). Asked in November 2000 whether Winterton people remembered Sam Larner, a resident said: 'Remembered in the parish—will they ever forget him?' (private information).


  • E. MacColl, P. Seeger, and S. Larner, Now is the time for fishing (1961) [booklet with LP record, Folkways Records, New York, FG 3507]
  • J. Anderson, ‘Sam Larner, still a singing star at 85’, Eastern Evening News (10 Jan 1964)
  • A. L. Lloyd, A garland for Sam, Topic records 12T244 (1974) [sleeve notes to LP record]
  • E. MacColl, Journeyman: an autobiography (1990)
  • A. Green, ‘Sam Larner on record: a review with some comments on the singer's art’, Traditional Music, 1 (1975), 19–21
  • P. Seeger and E. MacColl, eds., The singing island: a collection of English and Scottish folksongs (1960)
  • R. Palmer, ed., The Oxford book of sea songs (1986)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.


  • Norwich Central Library, newspaper cuttings [copies]


  • Library of Birmingham, local studies department, Charles Parker archive, performance footage
  • BL NSA, performance recordings
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • Ruskin College, Oxford, performance footage


  • photograph, repro. in Eastern Daily Press (14 Oct 1959)
  • photograph, repro. in Lloyd, Garland for Sam
  • photograph, repro. in Now is the time for fishing

Wealth at Death

£857: probate, 19 Oct 1965, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]