William Andrew’s fiddle to play again at Wren Dartmoor Fiddle Day

Nick Wyke plays William Andrew's fiddle
Nick Wyke plays William Andrew’s fiddle

The violin used by a 19th century musician who became known as The Dartmoor Fiddler is playing his tunes again – and it’s all set for a star turn at the Wren Dartmoor Fiddle Day.

William Andrew’s fiddle was recently restored after his great granddaughter realised its significance and took it into an Exeter violin shop to be dated and repaired. It will be making a ‘guest appearance’ at the Dartmoor Fiddle Day, which fittingly this year, is entirely in William Andrew’s honour. Organised by Devon-based music and education charity Wren Music, it’s a day of workshops exploring the tunes of William Andrew, with tutors Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll.

In the morning, there are sessions for improvers and more experienced players, while the afternoon includes a “Dartmoor Folk Orchestra” for players of all abilities as well as other acoustic instruments. The day is being held at Fairplace United Church in Okehampton on Saturday 23 June and ties in with the Dartmoor Resonance Festival taking place at the same time.

William Andrew would be amazed if he came back today and discovered his musical legacy.  He was a humble farmer from Hellingtown at Sheepstor, yet, unbeknown to him, he was to play a prominent role in the preservation of centuries-old folk music.

He would play old dance tunes at local inns and special occasions – and in 1892, the famous song collector Sabine Baring-Gould visited him as part of his quest to collect traditional songs of the South West. William played to the visitor for two hours and loaned him one of his manuscript tune books to copy.

Becki said: “There aren’t that many collections of tunes from the South West, so it’s nice to give the ones we do have a platform. In fact, it was unusual for Baring-Gould to collect tunes because he usually collected songs. If he hadn’t visited William Andrew that day, we probably wouldn’t know about a lot of these tunes.”

Nick recorded several of them with William’s violin at Devon Strings Workshop in Exeter, after shop owners Jon and Becky Springall rang to tell him about the discovery. Also at the shop to listen to the live recording session was William Andrew’s great granddaughter Jillian Elford and her husband Roger: “It’s wonderful to hear the violin being played again and to hear those tunes that my great grandfather played on it,” said Jillian, from South Brent in South Devon.

Up to a few years ago, Jillian and her family had been unaware of their ancestor’s reputation as The Dartmoor Fiddler. They’d often seen William Andrew’s grave in Sheepstor Churchyard, with its stone stating that he’d died in 1895 aged 82 years, but nothing about him being a musician.

They only realised when their daughter Lucy, who lives in America, started on a family history project and discovered The William Andrew Tune Book which was published by Wren in 1999.  They were in no doubt it was ‘their’ William Andrew because Hellingtown Farm had belonged to the family for generations.

They were also unaware of the period and significance of the violin until last year.  It had always been in Jillian’s house, but it wasn’t until they brought it down from the attic and spotted the inscription inside, that they realised it was a Maggini-style violin made in the 19th century.

Suspecting it could be William Andrew’s fiddle, they sought expert advice. Jon’s verdict?

“Having studied it, I think it is quite likely to be the violin that William Andrew played. The fiddle is inspired by Giovanni Paolo Maggini, an Italian violin maker who lived between about 1580 and 1630. It’s not an original Maggini. If it was, it would be worth a lot of money!

“But it’s a decent quality instrument, the sort of quality that a good amateur fiddle player would use and it was a very popular model in the mid to late 1800s. It probably hit the peak of its popularity in about 1860. So the dates certainly tie in.”

Once Jon and Becky had given the fiddle a new end pin and strings and had re-haired the bow, it was ready to be played once again – and Nick was more than happy to do the honours:

“It’s got a really nice sound to it”, said Nick. “But the most interesting thing is the bow. It’s light and fizzy, which would have been great for all the dances he played”.

Nick recorded a selection of hornpipe and dance tunes from William’s repertoire, including Old Adam the Poacher, The Imperial Quickstep, Moll in the Wad and Trip to the Cottage.

“We know ‘Trip To The Cottage is one of the tunes also collected by the novelist Thomas Hardy”, said Nick. “Hardy collected loads of traditional tunes, and he lived not very far away in Dorset so the tunes would have been learned and moved on, perhaps by farm workers or travelling musicians”.

Prices for participating at the Wren Dartmoor Fiddle Day are £30 (£20 for under-18s) for the full day, or £15 (£10 for under-18s) for the morning (10am-1pm) or afternoon (2pm-5pm) workshops. For more information, email Becki at becki@wrenmusic.co.uk or telephone 01837 53754. Advance booking is essential and can be done online at www.wrenmusic.co.uk

Wren now hope to update and re-issue The William Andrew Tune Book, which has the sheet music of 30 of the collected tunes.

Nick Wyke plays ‘Lord Nelsons Hornpipe’: