LEGEND: Gypsy folk singer Priscilla Cooper
Effort under way to revive memory of Colyton’s singing sensation. She was so famous the legendary Cecil Sharp recorded her voice in 1907.
The legend that was Priscilla Cooper is being revived in Colyton by a parish councillor.
Ken Clifford, like all those before him who have heard the folk singer’s voice, is enchanted by the gypsy’s talent and fame, as well as her simple life in a Romany caravan on the former Colyton Common.
She was a great star of her day, but that celebrity status faded with the passing of time following her death.
Today, she is all but forgotten in the parish she called ‘home’.
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Priscilla Cooper’s talent, however, lives on - in the British Library.
Legendary song collector Cecil Sharp travelled to Colyton Common twice, in 1907 and 1908, to record her singing using ethnographic wax cylinders.
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Those recordings have survived and, more than 75 years after her death, Ken has heard Priscilla belting out her top hits, including American Stranger, The Basket of Eggs and The Merry Broomfield.
“When I heard her voice, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up,” said Ken.
“She had a good, strong voice and, without a doubt, would be on Top of the Pops if she was alive today.
“She performed like that with no backing music.”
Ironically, Ken, a keen historian, was first intrigued by Priscilla’s husband, Tommy.
“When I was a young lad, drinking in The Bear Inn, there was ever such a little picture on the wall and I often wondered who was in it,” he said.
Years later, he discovered the character was Tommy Cooper who had lived on Colyton Common.
“He was well-known and always carried money on him - in case he came across a bargain,” said Ken.
“He rented several fields - one, at Colyton Common, from the parish council. The common was enclosed in 1904, but Tommy was allowed to stay because he paid rent and was there legally.”
Tommy had another field, by the gas works, which was known as Fair Field or Tommy Cooper’s Field.
“When I found out his wife, Priscilla, was a well-known, in fact famous, Westcountry singer I was intrigued,” said Ken.
“She was said to be a true Romany gypsy and I want to find out more about her roots.
“Curiously, her middle name was James and she was seven years older than her husband - so Tommy was a toy boy.
“When Tommy went to The Bear Inn for his pint of cider, Priscilla would sit outside with her pony and trap and people would go out to talk to her.
“She always wore a wide-brimmed hat and was nearly always dressed in black.”
Two local farmers, one of whom can remember being taken to see Tommy on the common as a young boy, helped Ken to find the exact spot the Coopers’ caravan once occupied. In fact, the remains of a concrete base are still there.
Cecil Sharp recorded Priscilla singing on September 2 in 1907, but had to leave when Tommy came home and wondered what he was up to. Tommy had to be appeased.
Mr Sharp returned on New Year’s Day in 1908 - accompanied by a vicar!
Research conducted by Ken has revealed that Priscilla died on April 2 in 1934 aged 72. Tommy died in 1949, on August 27. He was 80.
Their remains are buried in Colyton, in a prime spot overlooking the River Coly and Chantry Fields.
“I want to know if they ever had children,” said Ken.
“Her talent deserves not to be forgotten. She was a leading folk singer of her day and she was from Colyton.
“She is of interest to the history of the parish and it is such a shame that the name Priscilla Cooper has been forgotten.”
Ken knows the bewitching sound of Colyton’s gypsy queen has not diminished, just been preserved, before enchanting a new generation of fans.
If you can help Ken find out more about Priscilla Cooper contact the Midweek Herald on 01392 888488.