It’s The Only Bit Of English That We’ve Got (Poor Old England)


 

Listen to a
clip of a 1909
Zonophone recording
by Billy Williams;
the reference to the
Lusitania adds a
note of poignancy.

Poor Old England, Edison cylinder
Letter dated 8 March 1906 from Fred Godfrey and Harry Castling assigning the performing rights of It’s The Only Bit Of English That We’ve Got to Billy Williams for 3 guineas.
 

Fred Godfrey & Harry Castling [EMI also credits Billy Williams], composed 1906; published London: Francis, Day & Hunter, 1907.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

This nationalistic, anti–free trade effort was the first of scores of songs that Fred Godfrey provided Billy Williams, whose recording for Edison cylinders was among the earliest he ever made. Ironically, among Billy’s recordings of the song was one for Homophon, a label of German manufacture.

Here’s the chorus:

Poor old England isn’t in the picture
Everything is foreign, you’ll agree.
The table and the chairs,
Tthe carpet on the stairs,
Are made in Germany.
But when I go out in the garden,
Growing in a tiny plot,
Is a pretty little rose
That in the garden grows.
It’s the only bit of English that we’ve got!

The Stage (25 July 1907), rounding up the acts at the Holborn Empire, noted that “Mr. Billy Williams is in high favour with his catchy number ‘Poor Old England,’ and the house on Monday clamoured for a second song.” The song’s political message, moreover, was not ignored, as a report on a political meeting in Chard, Somerset, in October 1909 attests:

A Conservative Van, in charge of Mr. Mowbray, a prominent Trades Unionist, visited Chard on Monday, and a meeting was held outside the Town Hall. The presence of the van was early an attraction to a large section of the juvenile population of the town, who, probably acting under the inspiration of an older but deplorably equally ignorant and more cowardly section, disported themselves by the free discharge of fireworks both prior to and during the meeting. While the early-comers in what otherwise proved to be a very orderly assembly, were waiting for the commencement a gramophone was brought into play as an “extra turn,” and one of the most popular items reproduced was the politically significant song “It’s the only bit of English that we’ve got.”1

The song even seems to have been given the motion picture treatment, as a February 1910 advertisement for the Electric Theatre, Constitutional Hall, Harlesden, northwest London (showing “The World’s First Animated Pictures”) included in its program a Vivaphone (The Picture That Sings To You) production called “Tis the only bit of English that we’ve got” (Willesden Chronicle, 11 February 1910, p. 6).

 

Gramophone Concert GC-3-2920Recordings

Billy Williams recorded three versions of this song: ca. October 1906 for Edison Standard, 26 June 1907 for Homophon, and 3 October 1909 for Zonophone. Reissues appeared on several other labels.2

Arthur Gilbert (Gramophone Concert GC-3-2920, 1907)

Will Terry (Columbia D-126, 1908)

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Note

1  “Conservative van at Chard: Fireworks at an al fresco meeting,” Chard & Ilminster News, 16 October 1909, p. 2.
2  For comprehensive discographies of recordings by Billy Williams, see Brian Rust, British Music Hall on Record (Harrow, UK:
    Gramophone, 1979); and Frank Andrews and Ernie Bayly, Billy Williams’ Records: A Study in Discography (Bournemouth, UK:
    Talking Machine Review, 1982).