The story of Marina Russell

Nick Dow Reveals the story behind the traditional singer who sang.

"The Bedmaking, "Ye Mariners Al" and "One Night As I Lay On My Bed".

Marina Russell 1873

The name Marina Russell has been synonymous with Dorset folk songs and the Hammond brothers’ folk song collection since two of her songs were included in the first Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs in 1959. Some of her songs are folk club standards. They have been recorded by numerous singers, from Martin Carthy and Shirley Collins through to the younger generation of singers who have found her repertoire captivating.

The four successful books of songs taken from the Hammond and Gardiner collections, and edited by Frank Purslow (namely Marrowbones , The Wanton Seed , The Foggy Dew and The Constant Lovers) are being republished by Steve Gardham and Clive Boutle. The first two are already in print, and The Wanton Seed and The Constant Lovers are to be reprinted as an omnibus edition with details of the singers, including Marina. So much information has come my way concerning Marina Russell that it cannot be fully contained in the one or two paragraphs required for the book. My co—researchers, my wife Mally and Nigel Canter of Weymouth, have put in time and effort to reveal a story that will interest and shock those singers, like us, who have fallen in love with Dorset folksong, and Marina’s repertoire in particular.

The only existing photograph of Marina shows her in mourning for her husband and children. Photographs of mourning wives were much in fashion in late Victorian times and the serious expression reflected the images of Queen Victoria in mourning for Albert, her husband.

Marina Russell was once an inventive, skilful and unique singer, with a good ear for a tune and a lively selection of songs, some ofwhich have never been found in any other version. In 1907, when The Hammond brothers visited her, she was past her prime being 75 years old, and her memory was not all it was. It is a miracle she ever survived the tragedy, heartbreak, penury, death and disease that afflicted her life, let alone supply the Hammond brothers with over 100 songs, enriching the repertoires of so many modern day singers.

Marina (Marena) Russell, was born Mary Anne Sartin in 1834. Her parents, James and Martha Sartin, born 1796 and 1797 respectively, had six children — Levy, Marina (Mary Anne), James, Charlotte, Henry and Louisa. The Sartins were stonemasons and the family had been in the area since the middle of the 18th century. Some 30 years ago, Marina's relative, Ernie Sartin, still used to carve the tombstones in the town of Beaminster.

The young fair haired and blue eyed Marina, wandering the streets of Corsecombe, showed a lively interest in singing. This we know from the Hammond brothers’ notes. She learned Love Farewell (Johnny and Molly ) from an old man in Corsecombe who took the trouble to teach it to her. She picked up the children's song, This Way and That Way, from two men who acted it out in Corsecombe when she was a child.

Marina Sartin’s interest in singing did not go unnoticed. Parson William Nicholson of Corsecombe Church founded a choir, and Marina sang along with the other girls. In her old age she still remembered the songs, Noah Was a Man (The Twelve Apostles) and Hush My Child , that she sang in church, and repeated them to the Hammond brothers. Parson Nicholson eventually left Corsecombe for South Africa where he undertook missionary work and work within the penal system. His sister, Sarah, moved to Folkstone and became a successful water colour painter. Nicholson was a larger than life figure generally and had a beneficial influence on Marina, cultivating her ear for a good tune.

Marina was put to work as a Glover. This was the normal work for the women who wished to work from home. Yeovil was the centre of the gloving industry and the work was farmed out throughout the West Country. ”The Glovers," remarked Cecil Sharp, “were always great singers, until the invention of the sewing machine".

Marina Sartin’s choice of songs shows her excellent ear for a tune. She seemed to choose songs with tunes in the Dorian mode by preference. That is not to say she ignored the more forthright and lively songs, such as the bawdy Mark Me Once More Then John and the slightly risky (for those days) Bedmaking , which is so well known to us in the folk clubs. There is no doubt she was a tuneful and inventive singer when she was young. She added to her repertoire when the occasion allowed, and amassed a collection of songs in excess of 100. Robert and Henry Hammond only had time to take the best songs, and often did not collect the words. This does not necessarily mean Marina did not sing them, but if they were similar to those already noted from another singer, they did not bother. There is every likelihood that Marina had another batch of songs she could sing, but maybe they would be too modern for the Hammonds, and therefore ignored.

Charles Russell

The Russell family had been agricultural labourers for generations in Corscombe. Charles Russell was born in 1831, the fifth son of William and Elizabeth Russell. Amazingly, a photograph exists of Charles showing him to be a merry eyed man with a ready smile and a large black beard. Marina and Charles were married on 20 February 1855. The redoubtable Parson Nicholson married them, and the couple went on to have 11 children, the first of which were Emma (1855), Mathias (1856), Cornelius (1858), then twins Cordelia and Lavinia (1859), Charles (1863), then Charlotte (1865). Charles, her husband, was working as a brick and pipe yard labourer, until a brief move to West Lulworth, where Fred Russell was born, and then a further move to Bincombe when sons Herbert and Sam were born. It may be argued that Bincombe saw the happiest days for the Russell family.

Marina was heavily pregnant with her 11th child, Walter, when in 1873 the move to Upwey was made. Walter was a child destined never to know his father. If hell were to find its way on to earth, it presented itselfto the Russell family in Upwey. The family settled in a cottage in the Ridgeway hamlet and, almost immediately, Marina's husband Charles fell ill with a painful and terminal kidney disease - Bright's Disease or Nephritis - curable in this day and age, but a death sentence to Charles Russell. The merry eyed man with the black beard died in June 1873 and lies in an unmarked grave in Upwey church. Marina gave birth to Walter in 1874 and gathered her family around her, all except Emma, her first born, who had gone to work for Mr Bowditch, a grocer and baker.

Marina managed to find work as a charwoman in Upwey, and did her best to keep body and soul together. As she returned from her job, she found to her deep concern that her young son, Herbert, was coughing violently and finding it hard to breath. Herbert Russell died of croup (whooping cough) in 1874, and lies in Upwey church with his father. Within six months of the death of Charles and Herbert, more heartbreak came to Marina. Emma returned to her, destitute and pregnant. The father of her unborn child may well have been married, and could have possibly been the grocer and baker, Mr.Bowditch, if we are to give any credence to Marina's song, The Bed making . However there is no evidence of this. Emma was banished to Weymouth Workhouse and Marina took in the baby, Alfred Thomas, an act of kindness that would reverberate down the generations. In spite of Marina's obvious determination to survive all ills, there was yet more devastation to visit her family in Upwey. Young Charlotte Russell fell ill and began to show all the signs of Bright's Disease that had killed her father. There were two days of convulsions, then Charlotte left her family to join her father and brother. She also lies in Upwey Church.

When the Hammond Brothers visited Marina, they were a little concerned at how tired she became when singing. However, despite her painfully hard life, Mrs Russell still had her enthusiasm for giving voice. Singer, Cyril Tawney, recorded a number of her songs commercially, and told me that he met an old lady from Upwey who remembered Marina and told how she danced around the kitchen table singing to the Hammonds Mark Me Once More Then John. ”A rollicking tune with a great beat,” wrote Henry Hammond.

We can be grateful for her keen ear for a tune and for an unusual version. The military song, John White, was unique. Other rarities included The Baker of Colebrook but infuriatingly Hammond did not note the tune. Marina sang hitherto unrecorded fragments of songs like Ware Out Mother (There's A Navvy In The Cellar) and the captivating verse or two of l Told My Love I Would List As A Soldier (Her Answer Was I Do Not Care). Never before or since has this song been collected in the British tradition, however it may bear some resemblance to the French traditional song, Pierre De Grenoble , although this is more than a long shot. Understandably Marina's songs relate to her life. Her version of Shule Agra could be sung to her daughter Emma (I Wish I Were a Maid Again). The Death of Queen Jane is about the dangers of childbirth.

The end of the story is not as sad as the years in Upwey. Marina moved back along the Ridgeway towards her happiest home in Bincombe. She was still there in I911. Emma, meanwhile, was married to William Riley from London about six years after Alfred Thomas Russell was born out of wedlock. Marina outlived Henry Hammond and died in 1915 and lies in Bincombe Church.

Alfred Russell married and had several children including Violet Marena Russell, mother to Ron Boyland, who supplied the picture seen here. It seems that Alfred never forgot his grandmother's kindness. Marina's great, great niece, Pat March, lives in Upwey today and runs the Upwey Pottery at the Wishing Well. Like Marina, she sings in a choir. The Sartin family continue to be a major force in the folk music world, and there is some talk of raising a plaque to Mrs Marina Russell in Bincombe church. The songs of course will live on as long as we continue to sing them.

Nick Dow.


Orpington Folk Club
Orpington Folk Music & Song