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William 'Will' George Lawrence (1869-1940)

 


There has been some confusion over who the ‘Will’ Lawrence who played and made dulcimers was, as there were several Williams in the Lawrence family. The Lawrence family have lived in this area of Cambridgeshire for over three hundred years, with the forename William passed down in the family since 1717. However, the ‘Will’ referred to now seems fairly certain to have been George Willmott Lawrence’s younger brother, born in 1869.


The numerous family comments do not make it entirely clear and even the census documentation is slightly misleading. Russell Wortley thought Will and Herbert Lawrence, who frequently played together, were cousins, when in fact they were uncle and nephew, with only a ten year age difference. Despite this confusion, and whatever the actual familial relationship, Wortley’s information is invaluable in giving an insight into the social context of their playing. He recalled that Will was the first person he saw playing a dulcimer, during the war years – that must have been 1939-40, as Will died in 1940.


Will worked on farms in his early years, but apparently changed to working as a builder’s labourer in later life, and it sounds as if he was casually employed, as he was able to go off for a week at a time in the summer to tour the village Feasts, travelling by bicycle, dulcimer slung by a strap over his back. The opening tune was always ‘Birds A-Building’ which he called ‘Chaffs and Cuttins’ and he played for old dances like the Cross-Hand and the Schottische. His nephew Herbert Lawrence from Thriplow would sometimes accompany him on these outings, so there were two dulcimers playing together. He also played with a harpist, a Mr. Huntley from Bourn, and sometimes a fiddler too. Enid Porter’s 1969 book ‘Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore’ has more about the Huntley band and the village feasts. Her oral history interviews also elicited the tantalising information that a Mr Lawrence set up the ‘usual swing boats and coconut shies’ for the Haslingfield Feast.

Will’s son Stan (born 1907) had childhood memories of his father sometimes returning from a musical outing - ‘he’d fetch out of bed in the middle of the night while he picked out a new tune on the dulcimer.’


Wortley stated: ‘The Feast usually lasted a week in each village, the dates being well-known locally since this was the chief occasion in the year for family reunions and general jollification. An amusement fair was set up on the green. Will Lawrence would play to entertain the customers in the pubs and perhaps join the musicians in the dancing booth at the fair. He would continue from Feast to Feast so long as he paid his way but if things went badly he would sell his dulcimer to the first who would give a couple of quid for it and build himself another during the following winter.’


A dulcimer made by Will Lawrence was bought by Russell Wortley, who played it for a number of years, and which now belongs to Carole Pegg. Wortley interviewed several Lawrence relatives, whose memories varied a little: according to Will’s son Stan, his father was the only one to actually make dulcimers, and he made many, often using old furniture, with bridges made from ash and pegs made from the staples used for sheep hurdles. Will’s daughter, Jean Toler (born Dorothy May Lawrence, 1915), recalled that he used to make the bridges out of wooden cotton reels, used split cane for the beaters and bought the wire from a music shop called Mullars in Sidney Street in Cambridge. In a letter to Alec Anness in 1995, she stated that the instrument in the Cambridge Folk Museum (now known as the Museum of Cambridge), was made by her father Will Lawrence. On the other hand, one of George’s daughters, Mrs Sarah Wills, stated that her father had made it and it was in fact donated by her daughter to the museum after her death in 1963.


 

Will Lawrence dulcimer (c.1930?) previously owned by Russell Wortley and now Carole Pegg

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Click on a thumbnail to see a larger picture

 

Photo descriptions & sources

a. George Lawrence dulcimer belonging to Russell Wortley (David Kettlewell)

b. George Lawrence dulcimer belonging to Carole Pegg  (JH)

c. George Lawrence dulcimer belonging to Carole Pegg  (JH)

 

 

 

d. George Lawrence dulcimer belonging to Carole Pegg  (JH)

e. George Lawrence dulcimer belonging to Carole Pegg  (JH)

f. George Lawrence dulcimer belonging to Carole Pegg  (JH)

 

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