The Copper Family Singers of Rottingdean
By Bren Hall - Sussex in History
For more than 400 years the Copper family have lived and worked in and around the village of Rottingdean, a village on the Sussex coast about five miles east of Brighton. They have worked as shepherds, carters, publicans and general farm-workers on the seaward hills of the South Downs.
For at least the last 200 years of those years the family has been renowned locally as country singers and they have been called upon to sing their songs at sheep-shearing suppers, Harvest Homes, family parties and pub sing-songs. But in 1898 their songs were made known to a wider public when Mrs Kate Lee visited Rottingdean and noted down the words and music of “about half a hundred” of them from the singing of James “Brasser” Copper, at that time a farm bailiff, and his brother Tom who was landlord of the Black Horse in the village High Street. Mrs Lee took the songs back to London where her adventures in collecting their songs were described at the first general meeting of the Folk Song Society in 1899, and subsequently published in the Society’s first Journal. James and Tom were made honorary founder members for their contribution of songs.
The family never lost their affection for the old songs, and in 1936 Jim, the son of James, wrote out the words of about seventy of them in a determined effort to keep the tradition alive.
In the 1970s, three books written by Bob Copper were published: A Song for Every Season (which won the 1971 Robert Pitman Literary Prize). Songs and Southern Breezes (1973) and Early to Rise (1976).
Sadly Bob passed away in 2004 but the tradition flourishes still – Bob’s children John and Jill inherited their father’s love for the songs, and in 1965 John made his public debut when he sang with his father at the Royal Festival Hall. The Coppers are still living on the Sussex cliff-tops and singing as enthusiastically as ever, having been joined by Jill’s husband Jon Dudley. To complete the picture, Jill’s three sons Mark, Andrew and Sean, together with John’s sons Ben and Tom, and daughter Lucy are all part of The Copper Family lineup, thus completing seven consecutive generations of singing Coppers, as well as also performing as The Young Coppers.
Songs collected by The Copper Family are credited from stages across the world.
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