The Leigh-on-Sea Folk Carol Service

The Folk Carol Service

Every year since 1978 something very unusual happens in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.

To most people of this day and age a "traditional carol service" is one with nine lessons (read from the King James version of the Bible), lots of hymns (most of them Victorian or Edwardian), angelic choirboys and organ accompaniment.

To lovers of folk music both "traditional" and "carol" mean something quite different. Something which is traditional was composed or written by the common folk of the time, not the skilled musicians; it would rarely have been written down, instead being preserved by each generation learning the tune and words by hearing them being sung - the "oral tradition" - and the name of the original author or composer has long since been forgotten. A carol was based upon dance music, and the Christmas carols would have been played by the local dance band in the church gallery.

So every year the local dance band (the Famous Potatoes) gather to play genuine traditional folk carols. A congregation of 150 and more somehow or other managed to crowd in to the fishermen's church of New Road Methodist in Leigh's old town - at least until health and safety reasons meant that we had to move! So we have moved "up the hill", from 2005-7 in Wesley Methodist Church, and since 2008 in St Clement's Church, Leigh-on-Sea.

The arranger, and the person who had the idea to hold these services, is Professor Kenneth MacKinnon, a Methodist local preacher brought up in Leigh-on-Sea. He is a former mayor of Southend-on-Sea, was Visiting Professor Emeritus Reader in Sociology of Language at the University of Hertfordshire, and is now retired and based in the Black Isle north of Inverness, Scotland.

Prof. Ken MacKinnon

Ken researched old material and regularly came up with something that no-one's ever sung before - we've had at least two world premieres of carols at the Folk Carol Service! Paul McDowell ("The Prof" of the Famous Potatoes) arranges the music and Paul and Ken have compiled a Book of Folk Carols, which came out in time for the 2004 service - see details to the right.

As well as the carols, there have been enactions by Peter Monk involving juggling and fire-eating; singing and playing by other local folk groups; and readings.

In 2009 BBC Radio 2 recorded the service, together with interviews with some of the participants, for the final part in a series of half-hour programmes on Keeping Tradition Alive at Christmas, the Leigh-on-Sea edition being broadcast on Christmas Eve. A snippet of that programme is still lurking at an out-of-the-way corner on the BBC News website at this location (navigate two thirds of the way down the page and click on the music clip "Some of the 'patchwork quilt' of carols in Leigh on Sea"). It's the Honeygales singing the first two verses of 'Ane Sang of the Birth of Christ'.

The 2014 service took place at St Clement's Church, Broadway, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, SS9 2BZ, at 6.30 pm on Sunday 14 December. The next service will probably be on Sunday 13 December 2015. Come along and experience something totally different.

On 23 December 2011 we heard the sad news of the death of John Coppins who sang Cherry Tree Carol part 1, Sunny Bank and Padstow Farewell Shanty in the service since the beginning, and was in fine voice singing them at the service only a few days before. We still miss him dreadfully. Kiti Theobald now sings the Cherry Tree Carol part 1 and Kiti and we all sing the Padstow Farewell Shanty in John's memory. A memorial CD of John's singing is available.

Here is John's obituary:

John Coppins    1940 – 2011

In the early days of Southend Folk Club, when so many of the regular singers were learning their trade, John Coppins first began to sing in the Folk Clubs of The Sixties.  His voice was a strong tenor with a fine vibrato, and as his repertoire increased, so did his following.

John’s grandfather was a railwayman, and John himself was a lifelong member of the Railway Society, with a deep and abiding love and knowledge of all railway memorabilia, and an ability to remember tales of the old railwaymen and songs of the railways for all occasions.   John never worked on the railway himself; instead he worked in the Civil Service for many years, enjoying railways through research and journeys by train.  During the last few years he acted as librarian for the Railway Society archives, a task he undertook with great pleasure.

John’s pleasure in singing took him to all the clubs in Southend as a regular singer and he was a regular visitor to Chelmsford Folk Club.  He branched out into singing at non-folk venues, bringing his songs and stories to a wide and varying audience.  He also became a regular contributor to the Folk Carol Service, held in Leigh-on-sea each year.

John will always be remembered for the sincerity which was an integral part of everything he did.  Whether he was singing “Old Brown’s Daughter”, a tongue-in-cheek song of rural romance - …’she makes me feel so galvanised!..’, or “The Bargeman’s Alphabet”, naming the parts of the old barges in rhyme – ‘…there’s none so blithe as a bargeman at sea!..’, he would always tell you a little about the song and the singer from whom he had learnt it, only rarely ‘fluffing’ the words of a song and always making a quick recovery.  He encouraged other performers, always gave sincere praise where it was due and listened carefully to all the different variations of songs.

John’s last evening was spent in the company of friends, both old and new, and all listened intently as he sang ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ to suit the festive season, and to ‘I’d like to be a Lengthman’ by Dave Goulder, as he has sung it many times before, gently and with great sincerity.

There are many who will miss this gentle man, and his singing of both traditional and modern songs.  Our condolences go to his family and friends in the different spheres of his life.

Kiti Theobald

Details of the most recent services:
2014 Folk Carol Service
2013 Folk Carol Service
2012 Folk Carol Service
2011 Folk Carol Service
2010 Folk Carol Service
2009 Folk Carol Service
2008 Folk Carol Service
2007 Folk Carol Service
2006 Folk Carol Service
2005 Folk Carol Service
2004 Folk Carol Service
2003 Folk Carol Service
2002 Folk Carol Service
2001 Folk Carol Service
2000 Folk Carol Service

1999 Folk Carol Service
1998 Folk Carol Service
(includes some links to non-copyright carols and those for which the copyright is owned by MacKinnon & McDowell).

A Book of Folk Carols

is a collection of the carols sung at the annual Folk Carol Service at Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, over more than 25 years.

It contains over 50 “traditional carols”, in the true sense of both words – composed by the common folk of the time and passed on from one generation to another by hearing, learning and changing over the years, and based upon dance music played by the local band.

Paul McDowell and Professor Kenneth MacKinnon have researched manuscripts, tunes and many other old items over a long period. You will find several carols which have probably never been sung outside Leigh-on-Sea for hundreds of years, along with some old favourites. The carols come complete with tunes and freshly written accompaniments for you to sing and play on piano, guitar or with your own dance band!

It is illustrated by Kate Baxter and was published by Writersworld in December 2004 at £7.99 via all bookshops - or direct from Paul McDowell Musical Services. A sample carol is given below, together with Kate's illustration that goes with it.

In 2009 BBC Radio 2 broadcast seven of these carols in the fourth and final part of their series Keeping Tradition Alive at Christmas, together with interviews with Ken and Paul and some striking singing from John Coppins, Jon Boden and the Honeygales (singing one of Paul's other traditional carol arrangements).

In 2011 the book was reprinted with minor corrections and an afterword giving brief details of what's been happening since the first edition was published.

Paul McDowell

A Book of Folk Carols

   King Herod and the cock

1.      There was a star in David’s land,
  so bright it did appear
into King Herod’s chamber,
  and brightly it shined there.

2.      The wise men soon espied it,
  and told the king on high
a princely babe was born that night
  no king could e’er destroy.

3.      “If this be true”, King Herod said,
  “as thou hast told to me,
this roasted cock that lies in the dish
  shall crow full fences three.”

4.      The cock soon thrustened and feathered well
  by the work of God’s own hand,
and he did crow full fences three
  in the dish where he did stand.

This is the version found in the Oxford Book of Carols, as collected from the singing of Mrs Plumb of Armscote, Worcestershire. There are much longer versions and it was reported of John Kirkpatrick that he was “familiar with all 30 verses”!  


Prof. Kenneth MacKinnon: e-mail or ring 01349 863460
The Famous Potatoes: e-mail or ring 01702 474255
Peter Monk: e-mail, ring 01702 715882
or visit his website at

[ Famous Potatoes Home Page ]

Page last updated on 22 December 2014