James "Brasser" Copper, 1845 -1924
Born in Rottingdean village 1845, son of John a farmworker and his wife Charlotte, James was their second child; the first had died in infancy as did four of his siblings. Although clearly from a humble background, James was to distinguish himself amongst his peers by a combination of hard work, determination and a powerful personality.
John had been born on a farmstead outside the village in Saltdean valley in 1817. Newlands was tenanted "copyhold" by his father, George Copper (b.1784). This now defunct form of lease meant that as long as the tenant kept the ground tilled and in good heart the demesne was held rent free, with the landlord retaining timber and mineral rights. Unfortunately this agreement usually expired on the tenant's death, which explains James's lowly birthplace in the little farmworker's cottage in the village.
After a rather scanty education at the village dame-school, James entered full time employment at the age of only eight years. Mr Steyning Beard was the village Squire and owner of the three thousand acre Rottingdean Farm. This had been gradually acquired and enlarged by a long line of his forebears, all Quakers, going back to the sixteenth century.
Employed on Mr Beard's farm at first as a shepherd boy, James was expected to attend to the sheep in all weathers in the role of a sort of human sheepdog, keeping the animals contained and away from nearby growing crops, as well as assisting the Head Shepherd with his daily tasks. It was hard and tedious work for a youngster, but at least James was able to contribute a few shillings each week to the family income.
At eighteen he voluntarily attended evening-classes with his brother Thomas (at their own expense) to learn how to read, write and reckon. Literacy in the1860s was by no means available to all. It tended to be the preserve of the sons and daughters of the better-off tradespeople and the privileged classes. The efforts that the two brothers made towards their further education clearly paid off. Thomas, having first been elevated to Head Carter on the farm went on to become landlord of the principal village pub "The Black Horse", whilst the older brother James worked his way up through the hierarchy of the farm achieving the rôle of Bailiff, or general manager.
Now known by all and sundry as "Brasser" Copper (and, as grandson Bob once pointed out to an interested American fan, "You don't need a degree in metallurgy to work out why he got that nickname!") he soon proved himself to be a worthy governor. There was a lot of responsibility that went with the job; sixty-five full time employees, 36 draught horses, two teams of oxen, 8 in each, 16 ploughs, two thousand acres of turf, mostly sheep-run, and a thousand acres arable.
It was said that his deep resonant voice could be heard all over the village by their respective spouses when the men were sent to the various work sites each morning, and lunchbags could be despatched accordingly!
Having been brought up in a close knit family where harmony singing came naturally, both at home and down in the taproom of "The Black-un", Brasser and Tom built up something of a local reputation as singers. So it is with no surprise that we hear of them being called up to one of the big houses of Rottingdean's landed gentry, Sir Edward Carson Q.C.
They were to demonstrate their musical skills to a visiting folklorist and musician Kate Lee. This was November 1898.
It is said that largely as a result of this rich vein of rural music that was discovered in Rottingdean, Kate Lee and her acquaintances in London decided to form The Folk Song Society, now The English Folk Dance and Song Society, the next year, making James and Thomas Copper honorary founder members. This event remained unremarked in the village until brought to light by a visitor from the B.B.C. over fifty years later. So much for fame and glory!
Brasser's influence on the lives of the farmworking families of Rottingdean was unique. He encouraged and nurtured not only the singing of a great many old songs but such rituals as Tater Beer Night, Black-Ram, Hollering Pot (Last Load) and the Village Mummers. Any or all of these customs could very well have been lost to time without his enthusiasm. His favoured maxim "Every song a drink, and let no one go without!" expresses the emphasis that he placed on maintaining good cheer in the community. "Work hard and play hard," he told his son Jim. "You can drink as much beer as you like, as long as it's Singing Beer!"
Brasser continued to run the farm up until the Great War, when he handed over to Jim. Father and son lived in No. 1 and No. 2 Challoners Cottages, conveniently just across the road from the farm office. Already somewhat fragmented by Mr Beard's gambling and equine excesses, and now in the charge of Mr William Brown, the business was further decimated by the war. Most of the best men and horses were sacrificed on the Flanders front.
It was the old man's firm belief that the best manure was the farmer's boots. He used to ride a stocky cob horse all over the farm to make his rounds, but after having handed over to his son he was to be seen riding round in a horse and tip-cart (being badly affected with the rheumatics), still assisting with the day-to-day decision making.
When Brasser was in his mid seventies, Mr William Brown's daughter prevailed on him to write down the words of some of his lovely old songs. It must have proved quite a challenge.
Copies of these survive in the family archives and they are a joy to behold. Although phonetically correct, the spelling is touchingly inventive - "Hears a dew sweet lovelie Nancy...." One can imagine the old chap biting the end of his pen in deep concentration sitting at the scullery table.
Brasser's legacy of songs and customs is quite literally priceless. I would venture to say that without his contribution the English Tradition would be much the poorer. The close family bonding exemplified in our singing is our direct heritage from this remarkable Victorian, and it is a vivid reminder of former values, nowadays almost completely obliterated by mass entertainment.
John Copper October 2004
This page last updated on 3 January, 2006