IN THE NORTH DEVON SCENERY BOOK (1863), THE REV. GEORGE TUGWELL DESCRIBED SINGING IN THE TAP-ROOM OF THE PACK O' CARDS IN THE 1850s.
 

During my sojourn I put up at an Inn which is popularly known as the Pack of Cards, from its extreme likeness to the house which any child knows how to construct of such materials.

 

One does not usually meet with much amusement at such rural resting-places, chiefly because the natives are not inclined to be communicative, and also because one is usually worn out with one's day's work and is glad of an after-dinner nap and an early bed. But it so happened that I did extract a little amusement and information from the frequenters of the Pack of Cards, after my second day's supper at that establishment.

 

The little sitting-room in which I was " located " was not a too cheerful apartment, and was, moreover, somewhat chilly, and the Inn literature was soon exhausted, and Sharp [his dog] was fast asleep, and I consequently felt inclined to be dull and to wish for any society than my own.

 

So I strolled out, and finally wandered into the kitchen of the Inn, which was apparently used as the village tap-room, and which was then inhabited by about a dozen men, labourers and miners apparently, who were smoking long pipes and drinking rather muddy-looking beer out of pint-cups of white crockery ware.

 

They took but little notice of my appearance, and when I sat down in a corner of the tall settle and lit my pipe, they seemed to consider me in the light of one of the company and went on talking, I may say—shouting, to one another as before.

 

But the conversation being conducted in the broadest of Devonshire dialect was not over comprehensible to a stranger, so, having broken the ice by offering to “stand " some­thing all round, I ventured to suggest that a little music would be an agreeable change. This proposition, which was unanimously ap­proved of, elicited more amusement than I had anticipated—and less melody.

 

There appears to be a prescribed course of operations on such occasions, with which no singer is allowed to dispense. The programme — as far as my experience goes — is invariably the following. The performer being called on by name, takes no notice whatever of the request, but gapes into vacancy with a stolid and blank expression of countenance; at the same time the company take no further notice of the performer, but converse loudly and appear to have totally forgotten the petition which they have preferred.  

 

In a few minutes however the intended singer becomes violently and even alarmingly agitated: he pushes his mug of  beer far from  him,  dashes his fingers through his hair, plants his knuckles on the table, thrusts his forehead forward and tucks his chin into his waistcoat, and in this dis­advantageous position commences his song — quite suddenly and without any preface.  As suddenly the company become silent and attentive, and so continue, except during chorus-time, till the last note is well over. Then the performer convulsively drags his mug towards him, raps thrice on the table, and in an ordinary conversational tone of voice mildly mentions the title of his song. Finally he takes a deep drink, and composes his face into an expression of the blankest ignorance of the loud applause which ensues.

 

The songs were many and various. A smart looking young farmer, who had evidently seen something of the world outside Comb-martin, gave us "Mary of Argyle" and "Red, White, and Blue." This was followed by a song of some forty verses in length, quite in the style of the sensation novels of the day, with the subjoined plot. One Paul Johnson, who appears to have been "a jolly pirate," comes in the course of his rovings upon a young lady who, in a state of extreme dishabille, is being tied by her hair to the ground by a gang of eight robbers. P. J. immediately advances to the rescue like a valourous soldier of fortune as he is, and promptly slays six of the band. In the next verse he is slain him­self, in an obviously incoherent manner, by the young lady whom he has released.

 

After this, one is not surprised to hear that the afflicted parents of the damsel come and " see the sad sight," nor that they incontinently take a ship to Portsmouth "and cross the raging main" : which, with the addition of "Paul Johnson"—conversationally spoken, concludes the story.

 

Then there was another narrative of a young person who was greatly troubled

 

" Concerning of her own true love That ploughed the raging main."

 

She sets out upon her travels, and is of course utterly unsuccessful

 

" In searching of a young man Which Johnny is his name."

 

At length, having returned home, she is one evening accosted by a stranger who is not as civil to her as he ought to be: she indignantly replies

 

" If Johnny was here this night

He'd keep me from all harm,

But he's on the field of battle

All in his uniform,"

 

The stranger promptly answers in a barbarous and unfeeling manner that he was personally acquainted with the aforesaid Johnny, whom he left in a moribund condition a short while ago in foreign parts :

 

" And when she heard him say so

She fell in deep despair,

In wringing of her tender hands

And tearing of her hair."

 

Of course the story ends happily by the stranger throwing off his disguise: and then he takes the distressed maiden in his arms, and

 

" Says he, I am that young man

Which you thought was slain,

But here we meet in Combmartin

All free from grief and pain."

 

Many other performances of a like nature ensued and were all vigorously applauded.